Reinvented Journey – The Pacific Crest Trail

The end of our Appalachian Trail hike is not the end of the story, but the beginning of a new one.  Karen has returned to work, but I have not.  This is such a life changing period in my life, that I just cannot bring myself to go back to work again.  Karen and I have discussed this over the last week and although it is going to be hard on both of us to be apart for so long, we have both settled on the idea of me taking the rest of the summer to go out west and hike the Pacific Crest Trail alone.  I will set out for San Diego tomorrow and see how close to Canada I can get by the end of August, when I will have to return for the trip to Pennsylvania for a wedding.

The trip on the AT was for Karen to experience a very social trail a bit closer to home.  I really have no desire to do it a second time without her, so I might as well experience a new trail.  The main reason for us doing the AT instead of PCT are because there are shelters on the AT, towns are more numerous and easy to access (beds, showers, and laundry), there are more people (feel less remote), more support structure (friends or family close to the trail in case we get into trouble), and some familiarity with several of the locations.  The PCT is far more remote (1/4 of the towns), the resupply options are fewer and much farther off trail, it goes through significant deserts (Karen loves having gobs of water), there are only a few shelters on the entire trail, its almost 500 miles longer, and much further away from home.  But… the trail on the PCT is better graded (no monster rock scrambles), and the scenery is absolutely stunning most of the time.  That’s the aspect that is driving me there.

So I have been repackaging our supplies over the past week to reconfigure for a single hike with different resupply stages.  And making minor gear changes.  I spoke with a fellow hiker that I met on the AT in 2013 who did the PCT in 2014 about some of the differences and I will be making a few changes.

  • The first is switching from the alcohol to canister stove – I knew about that one.  [post-hike: The canister stove worked out well.  I did not know how fast I would go through gas, so when I bought my first canister in San Diego, I bought both a 110g and 230g canister.  The plan was to use the 230g to see how long it would last, and use the 110g as the emergency spare.  The result was that the 230g lasted 3-4 weeks depending on if I was cooking lunch or not, I never touched the 110g until I got to Oregon and decided it was stupid to carry two, so I used up the 110g – they last 8-12 days.  Also, I could buy canisters at nearly every single resupply, whereas I only saw alcohol for sale two or three times on the entire trail (except for Heet in nearly every gas station).  So I would say the PCT is definitely a canister or no-cook trail.]
  • The second is switching to a tent for the first 700 miles.  The desert has few trees at low elevations, and the first 700 miles are significantly desert terrain – Mojave desert anyone?  [post-hike: I actually carried the tent for 2000 miles (until Timberline lodge in Oregon).  I don’t think a hammock is practical from Campo to Sierra City, CA unless you can pitch it on the ground.  While there are a few areas with trees, the trees tend to be too small for hammocking and there could be 100 miles between trees.  A tent is definitely more convenient.  Even the Sierras don’t have good trees for hammocking.  Next time, I would probably cowboy camp with minimal provisions for mosquito protection from Campo to Kennedy Meadows (no rain), then tent from Kennedy to North Kennedy (bad mosquitoes), then cowboy again from North Kennedy to Timberline, then hammock from Timberline to Canada.  I was happy with the tent everywhere up to Timberline, but switched to the hammock mainly for better rain camping.  I was lucky to not have to pitch or break camp in heavy rain.  But if I were, using the hammock in the rain is much easier.  Pitch the fly first, then you have a dry-ish place to sit under to cook, set up the hammock, etc.]
  • The third is moving from an inflatable sleep pad to a foam one.  They are bulky and not very comfy, but they can’t puncture.  My Prolite pad has developed a very small leak and as my friend put it “There is a lot of sharp shit in the desert.”  [post-hike: The foam pad worked great.  I used it for lunch breaks and it never failed me.  When I switched to the hammock, I switched to the inflatable pad, but I forgot to bring the Prolite when I returned to Timberline with Kevin.  Luckily, I had him using the Prolite Plus, so I stole that from him when he returned from Cascade Locks.  The first two nights I had to sleep without a pad in the hammock at around 35 degrees in a 10 degree bag, I froze my ass off.  I was wearing three layers of clothes and was still too cold to sleep comfortably.  But after I got the pad from Kevin, I slept like a baby, even below freezing.]
  • The fourth is to bring a ground cloth to protect the tent floor from said “sharp shit” and/or allow me to cowboy camp (under the stars with no tent).  I need to find Tyvek to make one, and Lowes has left me high and dry.  [post-hike: On the second day, when hitting the outfitter at Mount Laguna, I was able to find a Tyvek sheet in the hiker box that I used for the rest of the hike.  The ground in the desert is so dusty, that the ground cloth definitely kept things cleaner.  It was perfect for cowboy camping, too, where you put your sleeping bag right on the ground without a tent.  I found several outfitters and hostels (Agua Dulce) that sold Tyvek by the foot.]
  • The fifth is water.  I normally carry 2 liter bottles and a 4 liter bladder, but that might not be enough.  I will add 2 or 4 more liter bottles to carry on some of the dry stretches (20-40 miles in some cases) that I will keep inside the pack to keep them cool and then ditch them when I am out of the desert.  I have also made bottle cozys from leftover reflectix to try to insulate the ones I don’t have inside the pack.  [post-hike: I carried four 1 liter bottles plus a 3 liter bladder on most of the hike.  I started with two 3 liter bladders, but sent one bladder home in Tehachapi.  I carried six 1 liter bottles for much of the desert south of Tehachapi, and three 1 liter bottles from Timberline to Canada.  With the 3 liter bladder, I could have only carried two bottles, but I used the third to carry about 300 ml of coffee.  I didn’t need the bladder north of Timberline, but I just always carry it with me for emergencies.  In the cool weather in Washington, I would fill water only once a day – drinking one liter right there, and filling 2.3 liters in my three bottles, and that would last me 25-28 miles plus camping.  In the desert, I was drinking one liter every 4 miles.]
  • The sixth is clothing.  Shorts and a T-shirt sound nice for the hot desert, but you are better off wearing long pants and a long sleeve shirt.  I had no suitable long sleeve shirt so I ordered one and it will go nicely with the Prana long pants we bought for cold protection for the AT trip.  I’ll also probably bring a full brim straw hat instead of a baseball hat for sun protection (even though I will be hiking with a reflective umbrella).  [post-hike: The long pants and long sleeve shirt were perfect.  My shirt was white and was filthy in less than a week, so I earned the name Dirty Gil (started out as Gilligan).  The long pants did well, but ended up being too big on me after the first month – I lost 2 inches in my waist.  I carried shorts and a T shirt and wore them one day in the desert, but I sunburned badly (did not use sunscreen).  The long pants also protected me from thorny brush.  I had to tuck my pants into my socks (or use gaiters) to prevent the dust from going up the inside of my pants and making me filthy all the way up to my underwear.  I found a nice straw golf hat in San Diego and used that hat all the way to Timberline, where I switched out to a baseball hat for better rain usage.  The baseball hat allowed my ears to get sunburned, so next time I’ll use the frumpy canvas hats I hate so much.  The umbrella was a huge boost in the hot desert both while hiking and sitting at siesta time.  I had to use it inside my tent when I thought the tent tarp would block out most of the sun – it only blocked out maybe 10% of the sun, but the umbrella blocks out 100%.  I also found that road walking on asphalt in the desert is cooler than walking on sand.  The sand reflected more heat up from the ground than the asphalt did.  That’s the opposite of how it works in Florida.  The umbrella was blocking the heat from above perfectly.]
  • The seventh is battery power.  Since the PCT is more remote, I will need a larger spare battery (10,000 mAh) than the tiny one (3,600 mAh) that I usually carry because there are far less charging options.  [post-hike:  From Campo to Kennedy Meadows, there were enough outlets that I could have gone without a battery.  I bought a solar charger in Tehachapi since I knew the Sierras would be too long for even the 10,000 mAh battery.  It worked perfectly, but my battery failed at Kennedy Meadows North, and I was without a battery for nearly a week, until ordering a 6700 mAh and getting it in South Lake Tahoe.  That worked fair, but it was a goofy model that would power on by shaking it (it had accelerometers).  That’s a horrible design, as it would sometimes discharge more than it charged if I was in wooded areas.  I mailed the solar charger home in Sierra City and relied on the 6700 mAh battery alone, which was barely enough.  I switched back to a new 10,000 mAh in Washington without the solar charger.  The phone plus 10,000 mAh battery would get me 8-10 days in airplane mode, but I recently found battery saving mode which I think could extend me to 10-14 days.  The solar charger is so heavy (16 oz vs 6 oz for 10,000 mAh battery), I will only use that when I have 10+ days I know I will need to go between outlets.]
  • The eighth change is I will also not bring Crocs as camp shoes until I get to Oregon since I am not expecting much rain in Cali and the humidity being much lower will dry shoes much faster than on the AT.  [post-hike:  Not having Crocs was fine for much of the trail.  I brought flip flops instead and did use them quite frequently.  I used them as camp shoes in the desert (nearly every day), I wore them on river crossings (four times), and I wore them as camp shoes in Washington during lunch breaks when I was trying to dry my feet to help the blisters.  If I had Crocs in Washington, I could have worn socks to keep my feet warmer, but the flips were fine in the cold for the 30 minutes or so I was wearing them.  Crocs would have been better for the river crossings, but they were only needed so few times, that flips worked fine.]

Getting to the trailhead has been a whirlwind experience, too.  I made my permit request a week ago, but still have not received the permit.  I was intending on flying out Saturday and taking the bus to Campo on Sunday, but the rural buses do not run on weekends (or Memorial day).  There is a network of trail angels that house and transport hikers to the trailhead from the airport, but they are closed now (I’m two weeks past the normal season) and another one is out of town.  So that leaves delaying a few days, or heading out a day earlier and not having a layover and going to the trailhead immediately after getting into San Diego.  Check.  Public transportation in San Diego is awesome except for one small detail – you can buy a day pass for $5, but you can’t buy them in the airport – Whaaaat?  [post-hike:  Yes, there is a kiosk in the airport where you can buy a day pass]  I’ll have to take a bus from the airport for $2.25 to get to a station where I can then buy a $5 pass (plus $2 for the card).  I checked into Uber, which would be an $80 ride.  [post-hike: I met a hiker who did have to take Uber because the last bus on Friday was cancelled because of the car accident, and it cost him $140.]

The publishers of the primary trail guide (Yogi’s PCT guide) have moved their home from Kansas to California this month, so their sales have been suspended right in the middle of my effort to plan out the hike.  Needless to say, I have had to use other resources (which there are several) but I just got notification yesterday that my book has shipped and will arrive the day after I leave.  I’ll just have to have Karen mail it to me while I am on the trail and tear out the pages as I read it.  [post-hike: Karen shipped the book to me in Wrightwood, and I carried it a week before mailing it back to her.  The book weighs 2 lbs, and is just too much to carry.  Even though it has pages intended to be ripped out to carry on the trail, they are just too verbose and heavy to actually carry on the trail.  I relied on the Guthook phone app 98% of the time.  The Yogi book is really only good for the first half of the book on gear expectations, etc.  The fact that you get the opinions of 8-10 hikers, not just one, is where Yogi’s book really shines, in my opinion.]

The resupply plan has proven much more difficult than the AT, too.  The AT has far more options than the PCT, but the PCT’s options are fraught with difficulty.  The few hundred miles across the Sierra are either 10-25 miles off trail, or cost $70 to transport a package – yes, you read that right, $70 to avoid hiking 10+ miles over a mountain pass (which also takes a full day extra).  Decisions, decisions.  And I need to decide quickly, because it takes 3 weeks to transport your 5 gallon bucket by truck to the lake, then by ferry, then by horse, then by 4WD.  So they do work for their $70.  [post-hike:  After looking into the $70 Muir Trail Ranch resupply which really ends up being $130 because you also have to spend $50 getting your bucket to them, I decided not to use them.  I only wanted to ship 3 days of food, and at $130 for three days of food I decided that was not a good plan.  Instead, I loaded the canister with 7 days of food and carried another 1.5 days from Kennedy Meadows and did 25 mile days thru the Sierras and did not resupply until 200 miles at Red’s Meadow.  That plan worked, but the days in the Sierras were long and I was starving by the time I hit Reds Meadow to resupply in Mammoth Lakes.  I took a zero there to rest and camel up on fresh food.  I would do the same resupply again, but I would not skimp on the snacks and would probably have to pay more attention to calorie vs volume foods as opposed to calorie vs weight foods.  A bear canister is rather small when you get to packing it up.  Seven days fit, but I had to leave out extra snacks.  If i were not able to do 25 days, then adding a midpoint resupply via Kearsarge Pass is about the next best option, but its a tough climb over the pass and back.]

It’s going to be tough on both of us this summer to be apart for so long.  I will call as often as I can, but cell coverage is much more sparse on most of the trail.  But hopefully I can find some new places to bring Karen in the future.


  1. From today’s NYTimes:

    Sore, Happy Feet on the Pacific Crest Trail

    Nicholas Kristof, NYTimes, MAY 26, 2016


    Nicholas Kristof and his daughter have hiked across Washington, Oregon and hundreds of miles of California. Credit Barney Scout Mann
    ON THE PACIFIC CREST TRAIL, Calif. — Every spring or summer, in lieu of professional help, I ditch civilization for the therapy of the wilderness. I’ve just been backpacking with my 18-year-old daughter on the Pacific Crest Trail in California, abandoning our material world for an alternative reality in which the aim is to possess as little as possible — because if you have it, you lug it.

    Our lives were downsized to 10 pounds of possessions each, not counting food and water. We carried backpacks, sleeping bags, jackets, hats, a plastic groundsheet, a tarp in case of rain, a water filter and a tiny roll of duct tape for when things break.

    Few problems in life cannot be solved with duct tape.

    O.K., I know I’m supposed to use my column to pontificate about Donald Trump and global crises. But as summer beckons, let me commend such wilderness escapes to all of you, with your loved ones, precisely to find a brief refuge from the pressures of the world.

    This isn’t for everybody; astonishingly, some folks prefer beaches and clean sheets. But for me at least, a crazy jaunt in the outdoors is the perfect antidote to the absurdity of modern life.

    In the 21st century, we often find ourselves spinning on the hamster wheel, nervously jockeying for status with our peers — Is my barbecue bigger than my neighbor’s? Is my car flashier? — even as we’re too busy to barbecue anything. We’re like dogs chasing after our tails.

    That’s why I find it so cathartic to run away from home. My parents took me backpacking beginning when I was about 7, and my wife and I took our three children on overnight hikes as soon as they could toddle.

    Don’t tell Child Protective Services, but when my daughter was 4, I took her on an overnight trip on Oregon’s Eagle Creek Trail, carrying her most of the first day on my shoulders, on top of my backpack. The next morning, I bribed her: If she would walk by herself all 13 miles back to the car, I would buy her a spectacular ice cream in the nearest town.

    So we set off for the car. At every rest stop, we conjured that ice cream and how cold it would be, and, fortified, we trundled on down the trail beside glorious waterfalls. When we reached the car, we were both proud of her heroism, and she beamed tiredly as I buckled her into her car seat.

    When we arrived at an ice cream shop 20 minutes later, she was fast asleep. I couldn’t wake her.

    Thus began our hiking partnership, sometimes undertaken with the whole family, sometimes just the two of us. At home we’re all busy, but on the trail we’re beyond cellphone coverage or email reach and we’re stuck with each other.

    So we talk. Even as we’re disconnected, we reconnect. And on rest breaks and at night, camping under the stars, we read aloud to each other: On this trip, my daughter and I have been reading Adam Johnson’s brilliant Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Orphan Master’s Son,” and talking about what it means.

    No self-respecting teenage girl would normally allow her dad to read to her, but out in the wilderness, it’s a bond we share.

    It’s true that not everybody can get time off, the cost of equipment can add up and it can be a hassle to get to and from a trail. (When I’ve tried hitchhiking out, drivers see a bedraggled, unshaven hobo and speed up!). Still, costs are modest: While car campgrounds often charge, backpacking in the great outdoors is almost always free. And day after day, there is simply nowhere to spend money.

    I can’t pretend it’s glamorous. We’ve been scorched by the sun and chilled by rain, hail and snow. Sure, in trail conversations we bare our innermost thoughts, but we also spend plenty of time whining about blisters, rattlesnakes and 20-mile stretches without water. We curse trail designers for PUDS, or pointless ups and downs.

    And let’s be blunt: I stink. When you’re carrying everything on your back, you don’t pack any changes of clothing. We bathe our feet in creeks (hoping that anyone drinking downstream is using a water filter), and on this trip we luxuriated in the Deep Creek hot springs beside the trail. We commiserate together, and we exult together in America’s cathedral of the wild, our stunning common heritage and birthright.

    My daughter and I have now hiked across Washington and Oregon and hundreds of miles of California, and eventually we’ll have limped the entire Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. Nothing is as different from my daily life, nor as treasured, and that is why I suggest the wilderness to friends.

    For members of my family at least, these spring and summer hikes are a reminder that what shapes us is not so much the possessions we acquire but the memories we accumulate, that when you scrape away the veneer, what gives life meaning is not the grandest barbecue or the sportiest car. It’s each other.

  2. Good luck on your next adventure Jim!

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