The Ice Age Trail is a thousand mile trail that runs along the extent of glaciation in Wisconsin from Potawatomi State Park in Sturgeon Bay to Interstate State Park on the Mississippi River. I live near Milwaukee and am fortunate enough to be within a 45 minute drive of the trail, but primitive camping is only allowed in the northern counties. Primitive camping is setting up your camp for free in an undeveloped area near the trail or in a small clearing that may or may not have a fire pit. This is my favorite type of camping because it allows you to really feel immersed in the woods.

About 6 months ago, my friend Sam and I took a few days off to go on a backpacking trip along the Ice Age Trail in the Chequamegon National Forest in northern Wisconsin. It was a new experience for me because I had never been camping (without a car nearby) for more than one night. We had planned multiple.

In preparation for our trip we each acquired the following:

  • backpack with hip support
  • tent with rain fly
  • sleeping bag
  • a water pouch and 2 water bottles – one for clean water and one for dirty
  • food that is lightweight but calorie dense
  • moisture wicking long sleeved shirt and one extra short sleeved shirt
  • quick dry convertible pants
  • lightweight quick dry shoes (I prefer to hike barefoot so I carry the lightest shoes I can find just in case my feet become too sore or the trail is too rough)
  • quick dry socks
  • floss, toothpaste/brush
  • hat with bug screen
  • plastic bag
  • cell phone for emergencies
  • a map of the area and a compass
  • walking sticks (I like to use actual sticks that I find)
  • water filter (I use a Life Straw)
  • pot for water/food
  • matches and newspaper strips for easy fire starting

The drive up to the parking area took about three and a half hours, and we started our hike at mid-morning. The Chequamegon National Forest in Taylor County is filled with dense deciduous forest coupled with very hilly terrain which makes for a varied and interesting hike. Before long we were surrounded by mosquitoes. I never use bug spray so I wrapped my extra shirt around my head and covered most of my face with a bandanna. This way my only exposed skin is my eyes, hands, and feet.

After a while we arrived at a county highway crossing and we decided to take a short break and toss pebbles across the street to each other. It was also a great way to get away from the bugs.

Towards mid-afternoon and 9 miles after we started we made it to our first overnight spot. It is a small clearing in the woods alongside the tiny Lake Eleven. After setting up our tents, we prepared to boil water and make dinner. This was the first time either of us had taken water from a lake and held it over a campfire. We had a good system going. One of us would tend to the fire while the other would gather water and hold it over the fire. After a minute of rolling boil, we set some aside to cool off and I used the rest for a dehydrated meal and oatmeal. Since this was our first time doing this, we failed to keep any ashes from falling into the pot. So our water tasted terrible but it was clean. The water filter I carried with me was a back up in case we couldn’t obtain clean water. We each spent the night in our tents listening to the sounds of birds and squirrels or to the sound of nothing at all.

The next morning we awoke to the sun shining through the trees. We got our backpacks ready to go and consulted the map for the day’s plan. Since 9 miles was a pretty long hike, we figured the 5 mile hike to the next primitive camping area at Jerry Lake would be doable before the afternoon rain that was forecast to set in. Every other time I had ever camped out in the woods, the morning of day two was always time to turn around and head back. But not today. There is something truly invigorating about picking up your gear and continuing your journey into the woods and away from where you came.

The hike to Jerry Lake was half the distance of the day before and felt like a walk in the park. This campsite was much flatter and included a small picnic table and a fire pit. We set our camp up right away and quickly worked to boil water and make dinner even though it was not even 3 in the afternoon. I even had time to take a swim in the lake before the rain started. And boy did it pour. I used my plastic bag to create a makeshift reservoir for catching rain water. I dug a small hold next to my tent and used sticks to wrap around the edges of the large bag to create a place for water to drip down into from the side of my tent. You would be surprised how much good water you can collect from one storm. I managed to collect almost 2 liters.

After the rain subsided, it was still light out so we walked down the short path to the water where we sat on a fallen tree and reflected on everything from mosquitoes to God to funny memories we had from years ago. You can really pick someone’s brain and get to know a whole other side of them while being out in the wilderness with them. Eventually it was time for bed because another round of storms was coming. This one lasted well past midnight.

Unfortunately for my friend Sam, the roof of his tent started to pond and eventually began to drip throughout the cold night. After sunrise it became clear how soaked his sleeping bag and tent were. We looped my rope around some trees and hung it to dry. There was more rain forecast for the next night so we decided to head back on the roads so we could get to the car before dark. Road walking is a pretty tough thing to do mentally. It’s usually in a flat, straight line and everyone in their cars are getting where they need to go so much faster. I put my shoes on for the first time this trip and we spent the next several hours making our way just putting one foot in front of the other.

There is no feeling like finally seeing your car after walking for the past three days. We really didn’t want to cut our trip short so we drove for a while, stayed the night at a rest stop and hiked at Devil’s Lake State Park, a must see if you’re visiting Wisconsin.

I guess the moral to take from this story is that bringing a friend along on something that you already enjoy makes it so much better. A lot of times I would rather just be alone but it was nice to share this experience.