24 Hours on the Batona Trail: A Misadventure
Camping and hiking expert Hannah Kaufman tells the story of her first thru-hike. Spoiler alert: It didn't go exactly as planned.
First, I want to start out by letting you all know that this trip was not my idea—that is very important to keep in mind.
I was a senior in university, living with my boyfriend, Micah, and his best friend, Lucas, and his girlfriend, Elaina. It was a fun time. We would hike every weekend and spend the afternoons cooking extravagant meals when not in class or studying. The three of them were all on the board of the university’s outdoors club and I was an active member. We had done some amazing day hikes and spent weekends backpacking, but this would be our first ever thru-hike.
It did not go exactly as planned.
The Prep—Or Lack Thereof
It was in March when Lucas suggested we hike the Batona Trail—which stands for Back To Nature (not super original but I’m not complaining). The Batona Trail is a 53.5mi hike through the Pine Barrens in New Jersey. Since the trail is mostly flat, Lucas suggested we try to hike it in two days—basically a marathon a day. (Lucas also suggested we do it barefoot and mostly nude—just an FYI, Lucas is a risk taker but it’s part of his charm.) We were all intrigued by the idea (although not the nude or barefoot part). Lucas, Micah, and Elaina were all far more experienced with backpacking than I was, but I knew that if anything happened I could depend on them.
At this point in my hiking experience, the longest day I had was a 14mi day with about 1,000ft of elevation. And I had done some overnight trips and short backpacking trips, but this was my first thru-hike pulling some really long days. I also at this time had been dealing with some injuries that concerned me and my ability to finish this trip. But, wanting to hike it all together and being young, dumb, and broke, I decided to ignore my worries and get hype.
And we were hype. But a week or two passed and we still hadn’t had time to plan and get ourselves ready. School was taking over. In fact, it wouldn’t be until a few months later in May that we actually went. But of course Lucas, who presented us with this idea of hiking a marathon a day, didn’t end up joining due to finals week. What a shame. But myself, my boyfriend, and my friend decided to carry on.
And of course we didn’t decide we were going to do it until the very night before at around 7:30 pm. So that night we rushed to get our gear and figure out the campsite and water situation, so we didn’t end up going to bed until super later. Without the handy dandy checklist that I normally make before any trip, our night prepping was chaotic. We grabbed a tent without double checking if everything was inside the bag, grabbed—for some reason—five sporks for three people, and put half a roll of toilet paper in someone's pack. Elaina was nice enough to handle all of the research about campsites and where could refill water, so I dealt with the majority of the gear while Micah did...what did Micah do? Is it bad that I can’t answer that? I’m sure he did something. But the spontaneity was exciting and the adrenaline pushed us forward.
Hitting the Trail
After four hours of sleep, we woke up at the ass crack of dawn, and in the wee hours of the morn, packed the car, made some oats, and set off on the hour and a half drive to the south of New Jersey. We took two cars, one each for the south and north trailheads. I opted to drive with Elaina because Micah had mentioned he wanted to “pump up the heavy metal” for extra motivation. I didn’t feel the need to participate in that.
Finally at the trailhead, we signed our names and made our way. We decided that in order to finish the day on time, we would hike three miles per hour, which is a good, if not slightly fast, pace. But again, our excitement and adrenaline kept us going.
At the three-mile marker, we saw a sign about the New Jersey Devil that apparently lives in the forest. We never did see the Devil, but we did see the largest snake I had ever seen just sitting in the trail. Elaina and I opted to walk through some bushes around the trail but my boyfriend complained that he didn’t want to get any ticks. I replied, “Would you rather maybe get Lyme disease or die?” He didn’t appreciate that question.
He idiotically started throwing some small twigs in the snake’s direction (NOTE: never do this please ever ever ever). The snake did not flinch thankfully, and after a few moments, Micah made his way through the bushes and we kept on trudging on. It wasn’t until mile 8 when I started feeling some minor pain. I told my fellow hikers about it and they offered to take some of my weight if needed, but it was only minor so I politely refused the offer.
Flashback to the night before we left. I had packed up the majority of my things and shipped them home because my lease was almost up and I would be leaving the state. This included the majority of my gear, including my pack and my sleeping bag. So I had on a poorly-fitting pack that was way too heavy for me and a sleeping bag that was so much heavier than my own, especially since it was so hot and humid that weekend that I honestly did not need one. But again the young and dumb and excited-to-get-out-of-the-city in me did not worry too much about gear….until I was on the trail.
Flashforward to mile 12, when we stopped for a lunch break and I finally let my boyfriend take a few pounds for me off my pack. What a mensch. Lunch and a 10-minute yoga flow did the trick; the pain had floated to the back of my mind and I continued to enjoy the scenery.
That only lasted for three miles.
Things Get...Less Fun
We had gotten into a habit of stopping every three miles, or once per hour, to take a five-minute water and stretch break. By mile 15, Elaina was down in the dumps. She was in pain, tired, pretty grumpy, and not motivated to go on. Honestly, though, I was too. I was exhausted and in a lot of pain again, but I wanted to keep the energy up so I didn’t bring it up. We took a long break at mile 15, maybe an hour, deciding if Elaina could keep going or not.
Now keep in mind, while it was only mile 15, it was the first hot weekend of the year. It was super humid, and the ticks were everywhere. Every break we had was spent checking for ticks. Ticks, by the way, are some of the rudest bugs, second only to mosquitoes, in my opinion. But after I took a really nice and cathartic wilder-poop and Elaina had her rest, we kept going.
By mile 18, I was a mess. I was grumpy. I was hot. Thirsty. So thirsty. I still had water but for those unfamiliar, the Pine Barrens has undrinkable water. The pH level is not safe no matter what you do (according to Elaina’s research anyways). The only chance we had to refill was at mile 33. We thought that we would bring enough for the first day and night and by early the second morning we would make it to mile 33. Of course none of that happened but you aren’t supposed to know that yet—and neither did we.
Around this time, Elaina asked me if I was okay. She asked me because I was walking super slow. Not the three miles per hour pace—more like half a mile per hour pace, pretty far behind her and my boyfriend. Instead of giving her the real answer, I said, “Don’t talk to me right now.” (I apologized later, and thankfully she was not insulted.)
I said that because I was trying to focus on moving my body forward, I really just kept thinking “right foot, left food” on repeat. When I’m stressed or upset, my mind goes blank. The only thing I see in my mind—and I kid you not—is Popeye being blown up by a cannon made of spinach. So that’s what was in my mind while I repeated “right foot, left foot.” I really didn’t have mental space to verbalize how I really was doing—Popeye took over.
By mile 19, I was crying. My pain level was high but more than that I knew that I couldn’t go another seven miles that day. I had five blisters on my foot, one the entire size of my heel, and yes, I still have the scar. My injury was bothering me, but most of all, I was upset that I would be the one not to finish or potentially stop others from finishing.
I put my pack down, asked my boyfriend to come over, swallowed three Advil (okay, fine, it was four) and said “I can’t finish this.” I didn’t want him to see me as weak; I wanted to impress him! But my body was saying no. Neither he or Elaina were upset of course, but they asked if I was sure. I told them to keep going, and I would stay behind and hike back to a meet up point where our other friend Alex could pick me up. But after a few minutes, I was somehow convinced to keep going. The Advil kicked in and helped for a bit.
At mile 22—not 26—we were setting up camp. I could not make my feet move anymore. I sat down and took off my shoes while Micah and Elaina set up camp. When we went to make dinner, we realized a necessary component to that process—our lighter—was missing. Without naming names (I promise it wasn’t me), the individual who was meant to grab it did not. So we cold soaked our pasta, ate some cold beans, and threw some spicy harissa paste over it. It was the best meal I ever had.
After dinner, we did a tick check and thought about our plans for the next day. There was no way I was going to keep hiking. I tried to convince my friends to go without me but they were seriously low on water and to make it more than ten miles in this heat without water was dangerous. So, we called Alex with the surprising amount of service we had, and he agreed to meet us three miles from where we were the next morning.
I felt awful that night, for many reasons. It was so humid and hot that I did not want to move my body, and I think I got three hours of sleep that night. My body hurt, a lot. But mostly, I felt like I had failed my friends—I was the reason that we were not going to finish. Of course, there were other reasons like the low water and food supply. And they reminded me, this trip was not about finishing the hike, but being together.
Making Our Escape
The next morning, waking up was a dream. There was a mosaic of birds all around us and the orchestra they created was the best alarm I could have asked for. Skipping breakfast, we packed up camp and hiked three miles back to the meeting point. Alex was an hour late to pick us up (classic Alex), but he brought very cold water and some hummus and pita chips. Hummus and pita is my favorite snack, so I was very happy to see him.
We hopped in the car, Alex carrying my pack for me, and we drove to the beach. That night back at our house, we got Thai food. It was great. And best of all, I was the first to shower that night. And that is when I saw it, the tick in my back. I screamed—I don’t know why but I did. Micah ran into the bathroom and I showed him. He got the tweezers and slowly twisted it out. I then happily crushed and flushed it! Thankfully it was still small and must have been on me less than twelve hours, but thinking about that always reminds me to do very thorough checks every night and every morning (or every five minutes).
Although I only described all the bad things and the lack of proper gear or planning, I look back at my first thru-hiking experience as one of my funniest and happiest memories, and I can’t help but smile. We were ambitious and spontaneous and wanted to do something so we tried. But, we also could have planned a few days earlier and gotten proper gear. We didn’t bring bug spray or a lighter or even a stove (oh yeah, someone forgot that too). But for 24 hours, we got to be in a beautiful place, just the three of us.
Since then, I did take some Lyme medication (just in case), Elaina is still my best friend, and Micah and I broke up (really, it was because he threw twigs at a snake—seriously, never do that). I’m so thankful that they introduced me to the world of thru-hiking. Since then, I’ve done a couple more backpacking trips or section hikes with a lot more preparation. Soon, I hope to do my first ever solo backpacking trip. Before I do that, though, I plan on making a checklist, double checking that list (just like Santa does), and whatever you do—don’t forget your lighter.