Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The PCT and Me - Part Two (The Beginning and Gear)

The Beginning

As I said in the previous post I had conceived the idea of hiking the PCT some 33 years earlier but failed to do anything other than buy some gear and guidebooks.  After failing to launch all those years ago, in the interim I had become somewhat of a hiking fanatic, which indirectly prepared me for the challenge as I now had direct experience and insight with lots of equipment and the practicalities of what worked best for me.

It was late in the summer of 2017 when I "rediscovered" the idea of doing the hike, and the very thought was just what I needed to lift me out of a period in my life where inspiration was sorely needed. I immediately began searching the internet for updated information which led me to the Pacific Crest Trail Association website.

There I discovered a wealth of resources, including blogs and journal of others who had done the trip, as well as planning tools, suggestions and many very helpful tips - pretty much anything you'd need to know in fact.  One thing that had changed since I initially learned of the trail was the need to have a long distance permit to traverse the entire route.

The process to obtain a permit is time sensitive, with applications for the following year being accepted beginning on a specific dates in November and January.  The permit is free but only a total of 50 permits for any particular day are issued, and competition for certain dates can make getting your chosen departure date difficult.

To show you how unfocused I was about actually doing the trip, when the moment arrived to submit my application I was on top of one of the local peaks doing a day hike.  In the middle of the trail I suddenly realized what time it was and silently cursed myself for poor planning. Despite a terrible cell phone signal I was able to complete the process after several failed attempts, and afterwards I waited uncertainly for the 3 week review process to be completed.  Fortunately my application was approved for my chosen date, and I was one step closer to making the trail a reality. 

I've alluded to the idea that planning for such an adventure can take different forms, from extensive months long preparation to a sort of "let's just do it and see what happens" approach.  In my case I knew for much of 2017 that I wanted to do the thing but wasn't completely committed to it until January when I finally went online and bought my plane ticket to San Diego.

That "purchase now" click really was the precipice, and once I finally made the leap a lot of what needed to be done had to occur in the two and half months that followed.  It was odd in many ways because until that moment even though I had a permit I knew I could always change my mind and just keep thinking about it.  Once that flight was booked I was galvanized into action.  As a person who already spends much of his free time hiking the local backcountry, I had most of the gear but I needed to consider if it was up to the challenge I was about to embark on.

Shoes, shoes, shoes

I have challenged feet.  My love of walking is absolute, but my resolve is constantly tested by less than ideal physical fitness in my pedal extremities.  Many years of working in the snow have cumulatively damaged the nerves in my feet to the point of neuropathy, which essentially means I have to constantly monitor, treat, and be aware of what's going on down there.  Consequently I need sturdy shoes with a roomy toebox,  and I always replace the crappy insole that comes with new shoes with a particular type that helps alleviate some of my condition.

Knowing that the trail is 2600 miles in length I figured I would probably go through at least 5 pairs.  Again as an avid hiker I already use up a lot of shoe leather in the course of a year, so having extra shoes on hand is second nature to me.  I prefer a low cut "approach" shoe vs. an above the ankle hiking boot for various reasons, and have identified certain characteristics shared by this class of shoe to select what I need.

So I truly began my preparations in earnest by stocking up on shoes.  I am mentioning all this because I will learn a very important lesson early on in the hike that will make my all my initial shoe choices pointless..  One last note about shoes: in addition to hiking shoes I carried a pair of relatively "lightweight" water shoes for crossing creeks and use around camp.

Packs, Tents, Sleeping Kits

What we choose to carry on our backs is important for many different reasons, and the selection of what essentially will be your house for the next six months is a decision of critical importance.  I am not going to devolve into a debate over "traditional" backpacking equipment vs. "ultralight" gear, but pages and pages of internet resources exist and are devoted to this very topic.  There are cogent and meaningful reasons that reinforce the arguments on each side, and the adherents for both are passionate and well informed, but what it really comes down to is personal choice.

Having been a backpacker for over 30 years I recall the "bad old days" when packs were external frame, sleeping bags were bulky, and tents were heavy.  Much has changed, and materials and construction have revolutionized the gear.  When I first began it was normal and expected that a pack would nominally be 50 - 60 lbs. in weight, and that was O.K. - maybe not fun, but it's what we had.  Today the minimalist can have a pack, tent, and sleeping outfit that weighs as little as 8 lbs. (before food, clothing, water, etc.)

My choices were easy - I wanted a sturdy pack with a volume of at least 65 - 70 liters.  My sleeping bag had to be down (for maximum compression and and a decent warmth-to-weight ratio), and my tent had to be big enough for me and my gear, with enough height to be able to sit upright in the event I was stuck in my tent for an extended period due to bad weather.  Because of these personal requirements my base weight would be heavier than most other hikers on the PCT, something that I would hear about again and again.
Osprey Zenith 75

The pack I selected initially was smaller, but eventually I settled on an Osprey Zenith 75.  As a manufacturer Osprey has the best warranty in the business, and I have used another pack of theirs for several years that I really like.  In terms of capacity I carry a lot of stuff - probably way more than needed, but quite frankly I would feel unprepared if I left some of it behind.  Again, personal choice.

One important consideration for me in a pack is the capacity for a hydration bladder and a drinking tube.  The Zenith has a unique design in that the bladder can be removed/filled without having to access the main compartment, and this also factored into my choice.

For water capacity I used an MSR 2 Liter Dromedary hydration system along with a 32 oz. Nalgene water bottle, and also carried a 4 liter Dromedary bag for camp use and water storage on long waterless sections.

REI Magma 10
The sleeping bag I chose is the REI 10 degree Magma.  Winner of the 2017 Backpacker Magazine award, the Magma offers a warm, comfortable bag that weighs in at a modest 2.0 lbs.  Although the hike was planned for the relatively temperate spring through fall season I knew that the higher elevations and early/late months were likely to see temperatures below freezing  - and in retrospect I was very glad I chose a warmer bag.

One of the most essential things to have been improved in the last 30 years is the sleeping pad.  I well remember the days of egg crate foam and ensolite pads, and I don't miss their demise one little bit.  When Thermarest introduced the first "self-inflating" sleeping pad I was an instant fan, and I don't know how I ever slept without one.  For the hike I used my current pad, a Thermarest Neo-Air full length pad.  I also brought my inflatable Sea-to-Summit pillow, another small backpacking miracle.

Marmot Tungsten 1P
I found a Marmot Tungsten 1 person tent that met my basic criteria: free standing for use where tent stakes could not be used, with a no-see-um upper body for a no-fly pitch on fair weather nights, and enough interior height to sit upright in the event of extended use. At 3.8 lbs it was somewhat heavier than the lightest tents most people were using, but again it was what I wanted, and it proved it's usefulness on more than one occasion.


Finding the right combination of clothing to meet the ever changing conditions of trail life was more difficult than choosing gear.  Do I bring convertible pants (with zip off leggings) or do I pick conventional pants and a pair of shorts?  Do I need 2 pair of underwear or 3?  Base layer?  Down jacket and rain jacket? Gloves?  How many socks?  Eventually I came up with an ensemble that worked for me, but there was indecision right up until the day I left.

Of paramount importance was that no article of clothing could be cotton (except for the 2 bandannas I carried).  Cotton is one of the worst outdoor clothing choices possible unless you are 100% certain there will be no rain or snow, and only perpetual sunshine.

Conventional wisdom also dictates that you carry at least 3 pairs of socks, so you can alternate when one pair gets dirty, and also have a clean dry pair to sleep in.

OR Cathode Jacket
I ended up with 3 jackets.  The first choice was the jacket I lived in for much of the hike - an Outdoor Research Cathode jacket with Primaloft insulation.  Warm enough to be worn on cool mornings and most evenings but not too heavy when climbing steep rocky trails.  The synthetic insulation kept me warm even when wet, and it was really was my go-to choice for all but the warmest days.

My main cold weather jacket was also an OR model - the down Trancendant Hoody.  If temperatures really dropped in the high elevations of the Sierras (especially when camped on a large snowfield prior to crossing a mountain pass) this low weight jacket was a welcome addition to my wardrobe.  When not in use it packed up snugly into it's own pocket, taking up minimal space in my pack.
OR Transcendant Down Jacket

Last was a rain jacket - a Marmot Precip model.  Like the OR down jacket, this unit packed into a pocket making it easy to store.  I used it infrequently but it was comforting to know it was there if needed.

I ended up choosing a pair of long pants from North Face.  The synthetic fabric was woven with spandex so that the pants were stretchy and unconfining, which was useful in the Sierra where trails were built with LARGE steps that required long extensions of the leg.  They were also water-resistant and for that reason I decided against rain pants.

To complement the pants I carried shorts for warmer weather and desert environments.  Like the longer version they were polyester blends that shed light rain and provided great flexibility in dressing for the day's weather.  To round out the insulation for my lower extremities I also had a pair of lightweight thermal base layer pants I could wear under my long pants giving me additional warmth on cold nights.

I carried three shirts - one short sleeve and two long sleeve.  One of the long sleeve shirts was lightweight and the other was midweight for colder weather.  In the coldest weather I could wear both long sleeve shirts for a layering effect - with the down jacket I was comfortable even in sub-freezing temperatures.

Rounding out the clothing I used were 2 hats - one a knitted hat for cold wet days and the other a broad-brimmed model to keep the sun off my head - very important.  I also carried a pair of light gloves, and 3 pair of underwear.  Add two bandannas and the list is complete.  As I write this I find myself wondering if I could have done it with less (one jacket vs. 3 for instance) but I can't recall anytime along the way where I thought to myself "why do I have this?"

Other Gear

I suppose it could be argued that most of what I have detailed so far is considered "essential" and anything else you might bring is elective, but as I've said before each person has to be comfortable with what they have.  In my case the selection met my needs.

Snow Peak GigaPower Stove
Some hikers elect not to bring a stove and consume all of their food cold or uncooked.  For me this would never be an option, as the thought of not having something hot to eat or a morning cup of coffee takes away some of the pleasure I derive from being out there.  For cooking I carried a Snow Peak Giga Power that I have used for many years.  It is very compact and lightweight, although it uses a propane cartridge which is not.

In order to prepare food one needs a pot, and I have two aluminum nesting pots from MSR.  They have a shared lid and pot grabber (handle), and these make it possible to boil water, which is really the extent of cooking practical in the backcountry.

Additionally I possess a full set of Lexan cutlery; knife, spoon, and fork.  I also have a small scrubber pad, a tiny bit of dishsoap for greasy pots, and a small packtowel.  My kitchen ensemble was rounded out by my old favorite insulated coffee mug, used of course for coffee in the morning and hot chocolate at night.

I always have and always will carry a full size first aid kit, with lots of stuff beyond mere bandages.  This is an outgrowth of my years as Wilderness First Responder, where I am trained to handle medical situations in a backcountry setting.  This also incidentally includes lots of tape and other supplies to keep my feet from falling apart.

I have a mesh bag of miscellaneous things, like a magnifying glass, firestarters, lighter, spare parachute cord, a signal mirror, whistle, earplugs, extra lip balm, a headlamp, extra batteries, and a tent/sleeping pad repair kit.  Add multiple packs of chewing gum, a Gerber multi-tool, my cell phone and charger, and you have most of the contents of the top lid.

I am not a fan of trekking poles which had me solidly in the minority on the trail, but I recognize the utility of having at least one pole for sections of the hike which feature either large steps going downhill or assisting with stream crossings over logs and stepping stones.  To that end I used an adjustable (can be extended or shortened) pole which was strapped to the pack when not in use.

Contingent Gear

When assembling my clothing I made sure to purchase back-up articles for things like pants, shirts, socks and of course shoes.  These items were available to be sent to me if needed wherever I came to towns with postal service.

I also knew that when I entered the high Sierras I would encounter large snowfields where some form of on-snow traction would be needed, and had Kahtoola Microspikes and a pair of OR snow gaiters ready for delivery.
Kahtoola Microspikes

Just in case I also put aside a pair of heavier winter gloves in the event I needed more protection than the minimalist gloves I was using.  Other things I had but would not need initially were an over the hat bug net and Picaridin based insect repellent - mosquitoes are a well known hazard in the northern Sierras and beyond.

Non-necessities (aka luxuries)

Everyone has their little pleasures that to others may seem like unnecessary weight, but as someone who knows what makes or breaks the experience, I definitely had my luxuries.  I am an avid reader, and take great pleasure in reading a few pages before slipping off into well deserved slumber.  I have carried actual books on previous adventures, but finding a compact novel worth reading is not easy.

Enter the magic of technology in the form of the Amazon Kindle, and you have not only a compact reading platform that is backlit at night (no headlamp needed!) but that is also capable of holding entire libraries of reading material.

In addition to being a bibliophile, I also love to listen to music and podcasts.  Thanks again to innovation and electronic miniaturization  another gift has been bestowed upon humanity - the MP3 player (or DAP as it is sometimes called).  I have a Cowon M2, a splendidly small but powerful and efficient model which has a long battery run time of around 90 hours.  With a pair of Koss PortaPro headphones I can rock out for hours at a time with my favorite music, or listen to stimulating podcasts from a variety of sources.

With inclusion of a smart phone I have a bevy of electronics in my portfolio, hence the necessity of a power source to keep them energized.  Folks in similar situations often elect to carry a rechargeable battery pack that can be renewed when electrical power is available, like on zero days in towns along the trail.  I thought about it but discarded the idea in favor of a more elegant solution - a portable solar panel.

RAV4 Portable Solar Panel
Advances in solar technology have continued to shrink both the size and cost of such units, and I found a suitable panel to mount on my pack, which enabled me to alternately keep my phone, Kindle, and MP3 player fully charged.  Having one less thing to be concerned with on infrequent visits to town was a real plus.

My final concession to comfort was my chair.  Yes, I said chair.  Not a conventional chair of course, but a chair nonetheless.  This particular item is an extended back Crazy Creek "sling chair".

Crazy Creek Hex 2.0 Chair
This innovative little marvel weighs just over a pound and folds up compactly when not in use.  Almost no one else on the trail had a chair or thought to bring one, but I definitely got more than a few jealous looks from others perched on rocks, logs, or the ground.


Personal hygiene is pretty limited on the trail.  In fact it is impossible to avoid becoming quite funky while hiking 20+ miles a day, day after day.  Access to water is limited in many places to finding enough to drink, and bathing is uncommon.  Basically using a toothbrush and toothpaste is the extent of most people's daily routine.

Besides the previously aforementioned items, I carried a lens cleaning cloth for my glasses and an ample supply of Kleenex Travellers tissue packs.  For a little more thorough cleansing of the nether regions after pooping I used Wet Ones pre-moistened wipes, but that's about it.

I used ziploc baggies to store used toilet paper and other trash (even in the backcountry I generated a lot of trash).  The last item of consequence in the toiletries department was a bottle of SPF 30 sunscreen.

In total it sounds like a lot of stuff, and in reality as well as description it is.  But living on the trail means everything you need must be carried in order to manage a wide variety of environmental conditions.  You could do it with less and I certainly saw people doing just that.  But I am not particularly fond of enduring discomfort just for the sake of carrying a few less pounds.  In my calculation everything I had was necessary, and not once did I think of sending anything home.

That's it for gear - in the next installment I'll discuss food, resupply, zero days, and some other things that are a consideration.  Until then keep on keeping on!