Thursday, October 8, 2009

New PCT Speed Record Set

See how two young men set a new PCT speed record in 2009 in this article. These guys passed by me early one morning as I was packing up my stuff, and I unfortunately never got a chance to hike with them a bit and learn about them. I regret having missed my opportunity!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

My Thru-Hike Write-Up

Here it is, everyone: "Buckwheat's PCT Adventure"

Thursday, September 3, 2009

PCT Complete! Major updates soon.

I apologize for not updating in months. What little Internet time I had in town was spent sending food requests to my mother and chatting with my fiancee. Now I will be doing a major writeup and photos, but posted on my personal website. This info and a link from here will be posted in the days and weeks to come.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Update after 703 miles

(updated June 1)

So here I am in Kennedy Meadows after the first 703 miles of the PCT. I'd like to sum up my experience so far.

Scenery and terrain
Most of what I've covered can be classified as semi-desert. I've passed through almost all the major mountains of Southern California. There's been a lot of desert scrub, tons of chaparral, and occasional stretches of pine, oak, and fir forest. I'm looking forward to being into higher mountains for the rest of the trip.

Water and snow
I've never needed to carry more than 4 liters of water at a time, by carefully planning my water resupplies. Caches have been more frequent and reliable than I initially expected. There was not too much snow on the northwest side of San Jacinto this year to create any difficulties, and the Baden Powell trail was almost entirely snow-free.

I quickly fell 4.5 days behind schedule in the first 10 days of the trip, but now I have caught back up to my mostly arbitrary schedule and am even two days ahead, with possibly more gains expected in the coming weeks. At this point a 20-mile day sounds super-easy, a 25-mile day sounds like an easy day, and a 30-mile day sounds like a normal goal. After a month on the trail, my body seems to be ready for consistent 25+ mile days.

After weeks with no blisters when others were suffering, I got a bunch in the week before my shoes were due for replacement. Grit in the insole seems to have something to do with it, as well as not letting my feet cool off as often as I should have. My new inov-8 305s feel great. Before the blisters came, I got a slightly inflamed ankle tendon at the end of a 33-mile day that took nearly 10 days to disappear. Now I have sore feet at the start of each day or after long breaks (when you stand up and feel like your feet are bruised on the bottom), but it goes away after a few minutes of slow walking. I expect this to be last for the entire trip and a few weeks afterwards.

The biggest challenges have been keeping a positive attitude despite foot problems and feelings of loneliness. There were at least 2 points where I was seriously considering returning home early -- right before Idyllwild and a couple days before Agua Dulce. I was feeling lonely and down because I'd fallen so far behind people I'd made friends with during the first few days (the first time) or because of foot problems that weren't going away (the second). Both times, these feelings passed within a day. Ups and downs are to be expected. I've spent more time hiking and camping with others recently and feel better emotionally as a result. You don't connect with everyone you meet on the trail, so not every chance meeting with another thru-hiker will necessarily lift your spirits.

I'm really pleased with my food strategy so far. A diet of 4800-5000 calories per day seems to be about right for me, and I have not lost weight. I've slightly increased my breakfast size, added tuna and onion powder to my buckwheat dinners, and am still wondering whether or not to keep the Oreos with peanut or almond butter. That's the only thing I'm getting tired of. I really like my breakfast granola and evening buckwheat dish. Now my trail name is "Buckwheat," by the way. I like to soak my wild groats, I tell people.

My kitchen setup has been optimized as follows: 1 liter grease pot, peanut butter jar for soaking buckwheat, and a lexan spoon. I do not miss hot food. I have not had food cravings, nor do I spend much time thinking about food. That is a good sign that my food situation is pretty good.

I've pared down my gear to only what I'm actually using for this section. It has not rained once so far. Heat has been more of an issue than cold. I'm enjoying the bivy for use in windy areas and for occasional wonderful naps in the heat of the day, but it often gets hot inside at night. It's hard to regulate the temperature with everything closed off to the passage of air. I might choose a bug bivy if I did the PCT again, and if I kept the bivy sack, I'd sew loops on the corners for staking out (useful in wind).

I've been using the poles in the morning and sometimes later evening, with the umbrella dominating during the day. The Chrome Dome is stable in winds and does not break, but occasionally it has been too windy to use it.

My pack is doing great, the map case is superb, the sleeping bag (quilt, actually) is perhaps a bit too warm.

I'm very satisfied with my clothes and would not change anything at this point. I always hike in my polyester running shorts and merino wool T-shirt. An insulating layer seems superfluous for the conditions I've been in so far out here. Nylon socks are awesome. I use the "rinse only" method for washing clothes. On certain stretches it has been impossible to wash clothes, but those always end eventually.

Coming up
Next to come are the Sierra Nevada. I have a heftier ULA backpack for this section, as well as an ice axe, Microspikes crampons, gloves, and a plastic pack liner (important for river crossings).

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Backpacks and Packweight on the PCT

I'd guess the average baseweight among thru-hikers this year is a little under 15 lbs. I'd recommend using a frameless pack for baseweights of 10-12 lbs or less, and a frame pack for over 12. 90% of PCT'ers are using frame packs (almost all internal frame), the most popular of which this year is the finely-made ULA Catalyst (which I am carrying from Kennedy Meadows to Lake Tahoe). Everyone seems to love their ULA packs.

Behind the Catalyst in popularity is probably the Golite Pinnacle, which is one of the few frameless packs that can be bought retail. Other popular packs are others in the ULA line, the Golite Jam2, the Gossamer Gear Mariposa Plus, Granite Gear packs, and occasionally some Osprey, Six Moon Designs, and other packs. I have only seen one other person ("Lint") with another Mountain Laurel Designs pack like myself. I highly recommend them. I have not seen anyone with a lighter backpack than myself (not the baseweight, but the backpack itself). I have met one person with a sub-8 lbs baseweight, and she was a girl ("Cat").

If you can get your baseweight minus pack to under 10 lbs, then you can switch to an ultralight frameless backpack and instantly drop another 2 pounds (a kind of snowball weight-dropping effect). Then, you can walk more miles and have fewer days between resupplies, meaning less food to carry.

I recommend the well-built and minimalist Mountain Laurel Designs and Zpacks backpacks. Their translucent cuben fiber packs are the lightest reasonably durable packs on the market (weighing as little as 6 oz). It may be too late to order an MLD pack for a trek this summer, but Zpacks is accepting orders through the end of MAY and has a turnaround of about a week. If you've got a low baseweight with a 2 or 3 lbs pack, getting a crazy light Zpack mailed to you on the trail is a quick way to drop 2 lbs. The Golite line weighs a pound more than the truly ultralight packs and are not as carefully designed or sewn, but should be sufficient for most hikers. Used ultralight packs can be found at the Gear Swap forum. I have bought many things at this forum.

When you're already out on the trail, it may seem like a daunting task to get ahold of some ultralight gear and trade out your equipment, but it can be done. You'll need to take some time online to peruse and order gear and arrange to have it mailed to a resupply point a couple weeks up the trail. You'll probably have to make some phone calls to clarify the shipping address and method.

Lightening the Load

I started out on the PCT with a baseweight (all nonconsumables in pack) of about 12 pounds. After two packages sent home from Warner Springs and Big Bear City, I'm down to around 8. There is a big difference between 8 and 12 lbs. 8 means that most of the time I'm carrying a pack that's under 20 lbs with food and water; 12 means that most of the time it weighs over 20. Less than 20 lbs feels like a light load on the back. With my packweight down to the minimum, there's also a lot more room for food in my 40 liter pack. Here's a list of what I've sent home and the rationale for it:

  • Hammock and bug-net. Alas, I decided to abandon this because of warmth and weight issues. With so much wind on the PCT, it is sometimes hard to keep warm in the hammock at even 45 degrees. To be warm and truly comfortable I feel like I'd need an underquilt, which would add quite a bit of weight to my system. The allure of dropping my baseweight and freeing up space in my pack was also a major factor.
  • Warm merino wool socks from Darn Tough. Unnecessary. Target/Walmart nylon dress socks rule.
  • Thin Gossamer Gear torso pad. Unnecessary once the hammock is gone.
  • Ball-point pen. Already got one on my Victorinox Classic knife.
  • Whistle with compass and thermometer. Got most of that on my watch.
  • Montbell UL down vest. Weighs just 6 oz, but I can easily get by without this. Heat is the problem out here, not cold.
  • Caldera Cone alcohol stove with plastic container. I like the stove, but I don't need hot food so often to justify the additional half pound to a pound (when the weight of fuel is included).
  • MSR Titan pot with pot cozy. With the stove gone, now I can switch to the lighter and slightly larger (and more convenient) K-Mart grease pot. If I must boil water, I can build a small fire.
  • Possum Down gloves. Cold is not a problem. Might get these back in the Sierra.
  • Mountain Laurel Designs rain mitts. Might get these back in the Sierra.
  • Cuben fiber poncho-tarp with tie-outs and stakes. There will be no sustained precipitation between here and the Sierra. If there happens to be a brief shower, I can get through it with my umbrella, etc. Will get this back in Kennedy Meadows.
  • ADZPCTKO bandana. Not absorbant enough to be used as a towel. Not as good as a sponge for washing. Only good for hitchhiking (says "Hiker to Town" and "Hiker to Trail" on it).
  • DEET. Will get back in the Sierra Nevada. Bugs not a significant problem now.
  • Some first-aid supplies. You know those things you've carried with you on your last 100 backpacking trips and never used? I kept the ones that have >50% chance of actually being used.

And I had two items mailed to me: my lighter pot and a bivy sack from Titanium Goat that weighs about 7 oz. That's my wind and bug protection.

Wildlife on the PCT

The southern portion of the PCT is full of wildlife. By mile 328 I have seen:
  • countless rattlesnakes, some light-colored, some darker; most slither off the trail, but occasionally they coil up and stand their ground, and you must go around them
  • a gopher snake
  • a couple dark snakes that move extremely fast
  • a thin green snake
  • mule deer
  • rabbits or hares, squirrels, gophers, chipmunks
  • dozens of horned lizards
  • myriad other lizards, some of them quite exotic
  • possibly, the side of a mountain lion -- it was a large tan shape that moved out of sight quickly and silently, and I could have been seeing things
  • tarantulas; one had been stung by a wasp and was immobile, the other was lurking in its den 1 foot from my groundcloth waiting for insects (I fed it some)
  • a dead bobcat (roadkill)
  • coyotes; did not see them, but heard their wailing
  • countless bird species from hummingbirds to hawks

Riled-up rattlesnake; had to go around it:
Rattlesnake moving off trail:


Horned lizard. The coloring of these things varies widely.

Is this lizard surveying his dominion or merely sunbathing? Either way, he appears highly self-content.

Rattler poised for a strike. Nature's way of posting a "Detour" sign.

Tarantulas usually lurk in their holes and rarely come outside.

Male lizards overcome by the "mentality of scarcity."

Is this a gecko?

Probably a gopher snake.

Chickens huddling together to preserve warmth.

Homo sapiens after some successful hunting and gathering.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Sustainable Long-Distance Backpacking

One thing that I am trying to work on during my PCT thru-hike is to master practices of sustainable backpacking. "Sustainable" means that any methods used do not lead to a deterioration of one's physical condition if applied over a long period of time. If you're running a race, obviously you wear yourself out in order to finish first. If the race is many days, weeks, or months long, you can no longer afford to exhaust your body's reserves. Here are some of the things encompassed by sustainable backpacking:

  • no significant weight loss over time
  • no chronic hygiene-related problems
  • no chronic physical ailments related to poor nutrition or hiking practices
  • no chronic discomfort (physical, mental, emotional)
The keys to "sustainability," I think, are avoiding chronic conditions and satisfying physical needs in time.

Potentially chronic conditions need to be recognized early on and treated early. These are things like severe blistering, inflammation of joints and ligaments, malnutrition, chronic pain, etc. As soon as you discover a recurring condition of any kind, pay attention to it and see what you can do about it while it's still in the beginning stages.

Needs arise all the time while backpacking. Most are physical -- the needs to eat, drink, defecate, urinate, cool off, clean up, get that thorn out of your sock, etc. A rule that I formulated while doing extensive solo hikes in Ukraine was this: as soon as two needs are activated, do something about it. Before that, I would frequently find myself in situations where I was hungry, thirsty, hot, dirty, and needed to defecate -- all at once. This can be overwhelming and leads to a loss of morale and coping ability. When only one need is activated, satisfaction of the need can be put off for a little while, but two leads to a worsening of the mood (at least for me). Staying happy while backpacking seems to boil down to basically satisfying one's needs on schedule.

Tips for Staying Clean

I've seen a lot of filthy thru-hikers over the past week and would like to share some know-how for staying clean on the trail, especially in the hot, arid sections.

Where trail grime comes from
Abundant desert dust sticks to any moisture it encounters. If you are sweating, dust will accumulate where there is sweat. The coarser the weave of your clothing, the more dust will collect there as well, if the clothing is moist. Dust does not tend to settle on dry objects, so, the best way to avoid grime is to be dry.

Most hikers are wearing long pants and long-sleave shirts. Many or most of these hikers already have dark swaths of grime under their shoulder straps and in other places on the clothing. The weave of this clothing is usually coarse to allow for maximum breathability, and a lot of dust settles in the fabric. Of course, these items are not washed on a regular basis, and hand washing is rarely sufficient to clean them. So, they grow dirtier and dirtier and soon stink up, especially if the fabric is synthetic. Even if you sponge yourself down at night, every morning you put the same filthy clothes back on. Only a laundromat can clean these clothes now, and so there is more reason to go into town and spend hours there, getting a hotel room for convenience.

My alternative is to avoid these problems by keeping as dry as possible by wearing fewer clothes and carrying a sun umbrella. Sometimes it is too windy for brief periods to use the umbrella, but at this point my skin is tanned enough to go without the umbrella for up to half an hour if I need to. I wear airy polyester running shorts whose weave is too tight to accumulate dust, and on top I wear a merino wool T-shirt that I take off if I start getting too sweaty. Sometimes I get a little damp on my lower back where my back touches my pack, but that's about it. When it's colder, I put a fine-weave windshirt on over the T-shirt. This way, I avoid the grime problems that are already beginning to plague many thru-hikers.

As a rule, it is much easier to wash dust off one's skin than to get the grime out of dirty clothing. My legs can be quickly cleaned at night by passing a wet sponge over the skin. My shorts don't often need cleaning and can simply be rinsed in water. Same with the windshirt. The T-shirt can use a washing about once a week. The only items that need frequent, serious washing are socks and underwear. These can be washed using the ziploc bag trick -- put some water and some soap (Dr. Bronners or shampoo) in a ziploc bag with the items and agitate them, then repeat the process in a bag of clean water with no soap for rinsing.

To wash my body with little water, what I usually do is put some water in a cup, add a few drops of Dr. Bronner's liquid soap, and wash and scrub myself with a small sponge. There is just enough soap to make me feel cleaner, but not so much that I would need to rinse myself off afterwards. Hair washing requires more soap (shampoo) and is usually done separately and not as often.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Sample Resupply: Julian, CA

I have some ideas about getting food at town stops that may help some thru-hikers. We'll look at the tiny tourist town of Julian, CA as an example. There is a gas station with mostly junk food, two small groceries, and a nuts store.

Eat while in Julian: (ideally split into 2 meals)
- loaf of whole-wheat bread
- two sticks of butter
- head of lettuce
- several tomatoes
- an apple or two
- block of cheese OR cottage cheese
Yum! Lots of fat, complex carbs, and even some vegetables. I just bite into the head of lettuce as if it were an apple. All this can be found at the 2 groceries. A quicker, but decently healthy option is:
- box of generic whol-grain bran flakes
- half-gallon of whole milk
- a few bananas
- an orange

Don't miss the nut shop!! It has tons of high-calorie, high-fat goodies:
- nuts (sweetened and plain)
- banana chips
- awesome home-style granola
- dates
- all sorts of chocolatey, nutty stuff

At the groceries you can get:
- whole-wheat bread
- cream cheese
- cheese
- expensive, "crummy" calories like instant noodles, potato flakes, etc.

Eating out
There are a number of places to eat out. Ask for a local's recommendation before choosing a place to eat!!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Foot Problems on the PCT, and Starting Slow

The bulk of 2009 thru-hikers seem to be several days into the PCT right now. Yesterday and today dozens have passed through Scissors Crossing at mile 78. Of these, most have foot problems, the most common of which is blisters. A couple blisters may be manageable, but some hikers have reached a critical mass where they can no longer walk.

Luckily, I hardly ever get blisters or even hot spots, but I don't know why. I have been hiking in thin nylon dress socks and Inov-8 shoes. But I got a foot cramp at the end of the first day that has lasted till the present. I thought it would go away during the day at Lake Morena, but it didn't. It seemed to be walking itself off on the fourth day, but on the fifth it was back, along with some slightly sore ligaments on the top of my foot due to overcompensating for the painful area on the bottom of my foot. On the walk to Scissors Crossing, I was almost limping to avoid pain.

In my opinion, many or most of the people I've met so far are trying to do too many miles too soon (including myself). Although the trail is easy and it's easy to put in 20+ miles a day from the very beginning, the body is not yet prepared to handle the strain on feet, joints, ligaments, and muscles. Last summer on the Colorado CDT we started slower and had no foot issues. Based on what I've been seeing here on the PCT, I would say the ideal schedule for most people would be:

1st week: 10-12 miles / day
2nd week: 12-15 miles / day
3rd week: 15-18 miles / day
4th week: 18-20 miles / day
5th week: etc.

(for some people, it may be 12-15, 15-20, 20-25, etc., depending on packweight and level of fitness)

What's happening is that people are putting in 20+ mile days from the very beginning. A scarcity of water sources encourages this mileage. But just three days of this right at the beginning of the hike is enough to put many thru-hikers out of commission. Some are trying to push through to Warner Springs (mile 110) where they will crash, enjoy the hot springs and nurse themselves back to health, while others are taking breaks at Julian (mile 78) to recuperate. In my opinion, it's best to catch problems right at the onset rather than "push through." That's why I'm relaxing now for 2 days rather than potentially losing many more days than that later on due to a chronic condition. On long distance hikes, chronic ailments need to be avoided at all cost.

See this great article on medical issues and prevention on the PCT at

To avoid blisters, you need to have footwear that fits well and feels naturally comfortable on your foot. You need to have socks that don't slide around on your foot, but allow sliding between the sock and the shoe. You need to change socks regularly and keep them as clean as possible, and address hot spots before they become blisters, by applying moleskin or athletic tape. Airing out your feet and shoes during frequent breaks (1 per hour) is important. Heat promotes blistering. Once a blister has formed, it may need to be popped if it gets in the way.

ADDED MAY 14: Yesterday I got my first two blisters out in the Deep Creak - Lake Silverwood area. Reason? Having to hurry to a meetingplace with relatives and not taking off my socks and shoes to air out my feet often enough. I ended up having to pop two blisters and put bandaids on them. I managed to arrest a hotspot before it turned into a blister by wrapping the two in medical tape. Worked great.

No need to rush!
If you started out at the border on April 23 and want to get to Kennedy Meadows on June 8. That's 45 days for 700 miles, or roughly 15.5 miles per day. You could average 12 miles for the first 23 days and 19 for the last 22 days and get there on schedule. Why would you want to get to Kennedy Meadows much earlier than that and have to sit around waiting for snow to melt?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Must-Have Items and Where to Get Them

Two items PCT hikers may not be able to live without:

1. Sunglasses

Even though I'll be carrying an umbrella to shield myself from the sun, snowblindness is a real risk in the High Sierra, as the sun reflects off the snow and reaches me from below. A similar reflection effect can happen in desert areas where there is uncovered, light-colored ground. Furthermore, there is a lot of dust on the PCT, and sunglasses may be just as needed for protection from dust as from sun.

I have a history of sunglasses cracking and breaking on me. Rather than spend $60 on another pair of Polaroids, I decided to get the cheapest I could find that fit well. I found a nice pair for $6 a the Dollar Store that covers my eyes well. 

2. Poison oak ointment

Poison oak is supposedly most prevalent on the PCT in southern California and from Sierra City to the Oregon border. Almost every hiker has to deal with it at some point. The consensus is that nothing works as well as Zanfel -- an expensive product that comes in small tubes and is rubbed on the skin to releave itching in under a minute. 

Here are the prices for Zanfel in central Michigan:

K-mart: $30
Walmart: $36
Rite-aid: $40

They say there is a generic equivalent for under $10 that works just as well, but I am not sure what it is or where to get it. I expect to hold off getting Zanfel till I am on the trail. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Update - 1 Week To Go

Here's a list of things I've been doing:

1. Food planning
I made a google document (an online document that multiple people can edit) for my parents and girlfriend, who will be sending me packages of food and maps along the way. The spreadsheet contains a section for requests for upcoming boxes, including relevant addresses, as well as an expense sheet so that I can reimburse them along the way from my bank account. The first food box -- for Warner Springs -- needs to go out this Friday. I also had my first shipment of MealPack bars sent to my parents' home. At roughly $1 per 100 grams and 400 calories, they're a good deal as far as nutritious energy bars go. 

Hopefully, this arrangement will give me the flexibility to adjust my eating habits along the way while still enjoying the advantages of maildrops. 

2. Itinerary
I have done a day-by-day breakdown of the route, as discussed in a previous post. I am not tied to this itinerary, but it is important as an estimate and a list of important information that has a bearing on my decisions along the way. I've sent the itinerary to those who are involved in my hike in some way. 

3. Maps
I'll finish printing out maps in a day or two (Halfmile's maps), as well as Jonathan Ley's Glacier Peaks reroute. I bought resealable freezer bags (hard to find in 11'' height) to store map sections in. I've decided to cut out pages of Yogi's trail guide and include those in each section. I can toss those as I need to along the way, but some pages will certainly come in handy -- enough so that I don't feel like rewriting the most important info on a special sheet. 

I'll mail off the maps, divided into sections, to my parents' house and have them include them in maildrops. 

Finally, the day before I leave I'll print out the water report for sections A-G. I was originally going to plan out water sources in advance, but it seems like too much work. I'll probably do this on a section by section basis just a day or two in advance. 

4. Packages
I just sent off a tube with my trekking poles, knife, and tent stakes to Scout and Frodo's home in San Diego. These are trail angels who typically take in PCT thru-hikers at the start of their hikes. I saved just $3 over the cost of checking this piece of luggage on my flight. 

I will prepare a package soon with my gear for the High Sierra to be sent to Kennedy Meadows in a couple weeks: ice axe, Kahtoola microspikes (crampon-like traction devices for snow), gaitors, larger backpack (Golite Pinnacle), plastic pack liner, and a fresh bottle of DEET. 

5. Body
I have one more session at the tanner's left, and 2 or 3 sessions at the gym, as well as some jogging and biking. The day before I head out, I'll cut my hair short and shave certain parts of my body to make things easier on myself later on.

I'm still looking for small bottles to store contact lens fluid in. 

6. Boxing up belongings
I've begun packing up my not-so-numerous belongings and listing the contents of each box on the top and side. Of particular importance is the box of backpacking gear. This box has a detailed list of its contents inside the box, so that anyone could find the piece I need on request and mail it to me in a maildrop.

7. Wrapping up business
I have lots of writing and web work to finish up...

8. Excitement
I'm excited to leave this boring, computer-based lifestyle behind me, free up my mind, and be out in the wilderness living a simple lifestyle. This excitement overrides any sadness at leaving my girlfriend behind, but we'll see how that plays out in the coming weeks. 

Monday, April 13, 2009

PCT Itinerary

I've decided that I need all basic information about my route and itinerary on one sheet. Here are the reasons:

  1. I will need to think about post office hours in advance when planning out my next few days of hiking. Some are open just a few yours each weekday. Same with public libraries and Internet
  2. With my budgeting strategy, I need to plan my movements so that I can get into towns early, do my business, fill up on food, and leave later that same day. 
  3. Major stream fords and high passes in the Sierra Nevada are most safely crossed at certain times of day, rather than whenever I happen to get to them. 
  4. I will be meeting some friends and relatives along the way and need to have a strategy for reaching our meetingplace.
  5. This sheet will help me track my progress and make sure I order food on time to be delivered to trailside towns. 

Here is the result. This is only tentative. Note that I've left some columns empty to record my actual itinerary (as opposed to planned). I plan to carry this sheet around with me in a sealed bag. 

Please write a comment if you have any questions about the itinerary. Feel free to adapt it for your own PCT thru-hike. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Physical Training for the PCT

I've been training steadily for the PCT for the past 2 months, with about 4 months of sporadic gym attendance before that. I had planned to go every day, but you know how it goes. I've exercised 3 or 4 days a week for two months. In addition, I ride my bike around our small town and walk a lot, too. 

I'm probably in nearly the best shape I've ever been in. Weight training two days a week can take as little as 10 minutes to do can be really effective. I've basically doubled my bench press since the fall. Cardiovascular improvement seems to take place more slowly; my pulse when running 3 miles in 30 minutes has only dropped a couple beats per minute (I use a heartrate monitor). 

I've read that it's a good idea to mix leg exercises when preparing for a long hike. I do a good mixture of cycling and jogging to work both the fronts and backs of my legs. 

Yesterday I went out for a run outside instead of using the smooth track at the gym. I decided spontaneously to try running on the rocky bed of the railroad track. I figured that was about the closest I could get to hills here in central Michigan. The next day, my calves and ankles can testify to the effectiveness. It seems to be a great exercise for building foot and ankle strength. So, maybe the best place to train is to find the worst possible place and try jogging there?:) Like a furrowed and lumpy field or a railroad track (be sure to take off the MP3 player, though). 

To be honest, I don't harbor any illusions about the effectiveness of my training. It's good for comfort value and to feel good about myself. But ultimately, after a couple weeks into the hike, we'll all pretty much be in our optimal cardiovascular shape, and my upper body muscle mass will have begun its inexorable decline. Woohoo!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

MealPack Bar Review

Bear Valley MealPack bars are a different kind of bar than you might expect. They are made of exclusively healthy, natural ingredients and are very dense. Each bar weighs about 100 grams and has a little over 400 calories. They are block-shaped and packaged in a thin transparent wrapping.

I'm not sure if I'll be able to eat these day in, day out, but I think I am going to try a few dozen of them first before ordering a ton. The ones I liked were the Fruit 'N Nut Pemmican and the Coconut Almond bars. I ate just one of each. They have lots of nutrients, but not as much protein as some of peanut bars you can get in stores. The price of these bars depends on the quantity you order and seems very reasonable. They are considerably less pricey than, say, Probars, which are tasty but expensive. 

The salesperson confirmed over the phone that orders may be sent to General Delivery, so hikers can have these sent directly to the post office to pick up. 

Monday, March 23, 2009

Hammock Test Night

Last night I went out with my bike to go spend the night in the woods in my hammock. I took exactly the clothes I'd be wearing in the beginning of the PCT, and exactly the same sleep system I'd be using, which included enough Gossamer Gear sleeping pads to keep me warm in my hammock -- or so I thought. 

At first I hung the hammock too slack, and I couldn't find a comfortable position to sleep in. Either my feet were way up high (sleeping down the middle) or my feet slid off the hammock (trying to sleep at a diagonal. I recognized my mistake and got up and hung the hammock tauter -- but perhaps not taut enough. The second time I could get a decent sleeping position. The Gossamer Gear pads are better than most in "sticking" to the hammock fabric and actually don't slide around too much. However, the temperature soon dipped to -3 C (27 F), and I could feel a chill on my back and sides of arms. After a while contemplating what would happen next, I got up again to move one of my thin pads (I'm using three, of different shapes and sizes) to my torso region). That helped a little bit, but it didn't seem like enough. I fell asleep anyway, though, and woke up a bit chilled at 2 am. Had to get out to pee, and my back was cold. Out of the hammock a third time. Ate a few nut bars, but the water in the nozzle of my bladder had frozen, and I could drink. Got back in hammock, but did not fall asleep, or just dozed off, reluctant to do anything about the cold. Near 4 am, I mustered the resolve to do something about the cold, realizing I would otherwise not sleep anymore tonight. The temperature was now -4 C (25 F). Time to look for a spot on the ground. After 5 minutes of wandering around, cold, I found a decent spot right behind the tree my hammock was tied to. I got the sleeping pads and quilt out and settled into a decent sleeping pose a few minutes later. This time my pads were sufficient for the leaf-covered ground, and I was not cold after that. 

I woke up, not exactly refreshed, at 7:30 am. Packing up at -5 C is not always fun. I quickly opened the velcro-secured hole in the center of the quilt ("Jacks R Better Rocky Mt. No Sniveller") to convert it to a coat, or "serape," and put it on immediately. It did help keep me warmer, but cold advanced up my body from my legs. Luckily, my hammock setup requires no knots, and several minutes later I had packed up and set off on my bike, my teeth chattering. 

My sleeping pads are sufficient for temps roughly above freezing in the hammock. If it looks like it will be colder, I'll switch to a ground setup, where I should be able to manage fine to about -7 C (19 F). If It gets colder than that, I may get cold. Moving from the hammock to the ground during the night is no fun (especially if it's raining!) and should be avoided at all cost. 

I expect many nights near freezing on the PCT in April to early June and maybe a couple nights as cold as -5 to -10 C in Southern California (you never know). The nights I have to sleep on the ground, I will not need to set up a bug shelter, because at those temperatures the bugs are not active anyway. 

Saturday, March 21, 2009

ADZPCTKO Registration Open

Registration for the annual ADZPCTKO PCT kick-off event is open. I have just registered for it here, and arrangements are being made with some regular trail angels and former thru-hikers in San Diego whom I found through the ADZPCTKO ride board to pick me up at the airport and take me to the trailhead at 6:00 a.m. the next morning.  

I'll be walking into Lake Morena on my first day of the hike in the evening. It'll be a 20 mile walk on the very first day in potentially warm to hot weather. It could be a challenge. 

I have gotten a spreadsheet from the trail angels picking me up in San Diego with contact information for all the hikers who are going to be passing through their homes in April and May. Talk about highly organized altruism! 

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

efoodsdirect 3-Day Responder

I got my package with a 3-day supply of food in the mail today from Starting tomorrow, I'm going to try eating the food for exactly 3 days and see how I like it. I'll be adding olive oil to the dinner recipes for more calories.

The packaging is resealable mylar bags with several servings per bag. There is a bit of air in the bags, but not much. They seem to reseal securely. The bags weigh on average 20% more than expected going off the packaging information, including the weight of packaging itself. 

Caloric content
Going by the info on the bags, here is what I get.

1. Apple Cinnamon Oatmeal: 368 cal. / 100 g
2. Tropical Fruit Medley: 228 cal. / 100 g
3. Cheesy Chicken Rice Casserole: 276 cal. / 100 g
4. Vegetable Beef Stew: 350 cal. / 100 g
5. Instant Potatoes: 179 cal. / 100 g
6. Cheesy Potato Soup: 311 cal. / 100 g

1168 calories per day is built into the meal plan, with 40 grams of protein. Assuming 20% more food than what is declared on the packaging, that makes 1401 calories per day and 48 grams of protein. Perhaps another 400 calories could be added by using olive oil liberally with the recipes. 

Cooking instructions
The cooked meals require adding the mixture to boiling water and simmering for 20-25 minutes. I think the same effect could be achieved by taking the pot of boiling liquid off the stove and letting it sit in its "pot cozy" for the same amount of time. The water will slowly cool, but it should still be hot enough to do the trick. 25 minutes is a long time to wait for dinner, though.

I will report on my opinion of the food in 3 days...

Taste test
Oatmeal -- really tasty; I could imagine eating it for days on end
Tropical fruit medley -- pretty good
Casserole -- really tasty
Vegetable beef stew -- didn't like it much
Instant potatoes -- good
Potato soup -- decent

Since I will have only one pot to use during my hike, I can't pour soup over the potatoes.

I liked much of the Responder kit, but not all of it enough to use it to supplement my rations. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

My Current Food Ideas

I've been reading a lot about backpacking food and general nutrition lately. I now understand the difference between complex and simple carbohydrates, the importance of fats, and the Glycemic Index. The reason I'm so concerned about this is because of a failed food strategy during last year's hike through the Colorado Rockies (which I've mentioned before). So here are my tentative food plans for the PCT.

I won't know until a few weeks into the hike, but I think I can expect to be consuming 6000 calories a day, or nearly 3 lbs (1360 grams) of food at 460 calories per 100 grams of food. 

General meal plan
Large cold breakfast, large hot dinner (probably on Caldera Cone alcohol stove) with large dessert. Mostly bars as snacks during the day. If necessary, can switch to 2 hot meals a day or do dinner in 2 stages. 

The information below assumes a food drop strategy. I am fairly certain I can eat all the food below day in and day out. I like it all and have eaten it on hikes, albeit not for this long. I would not have to buy the entire supply of food at once, so there would be chances to adjust my diet.

Breakfast either right as I get up or within a half hour or starting the day's hike. Hot dinner about half an hour to an hour before stopping. Dessert at camp (unless in bear country, then with dinner).

Breakfast (tentative)
1. 200 grams Quaker Natural Granola (Oats, Honey & Raisins) + 60 gram Nido whole dried milk and water.
Total 260 grams, 1140 calories, 40 grams protein, about 30% of calories from fat. 

Snacks (tentative)
(I'll aim for bars with comparatively less sugars and more complex carbohydrates.)
1. 200 grams Mealpack Pemmican Fruit 'N Nut Bars
850 calories, 34 grams protein, 28% of calories from fat.
2. 210 grams Nature Valley Sweet & Salty Nut Bars
1000 calories, 24 grams protein, 45% of calories from fat.
I'm going to aim for 40% of my calories from fat
3. 110 grams Snickers (or similar bar) >>> these are not as good because they have too much sugars
540 calories, 9 grams protein, 45% of calories from fat.

Total 520 grams, 2400 calories, 67 grams of protein, and nearly 40% of calories from fat.

Dinner (tentative)
Dinner might be a dehydrated dinner from or a similar producer, with plenty of vegetables and different kinds of tastes, possibly with some dehydrated meat thrown in. Or, I may boil buckwheat (kasha) with dehydrated carrots, onions, and meat. In either case, I will drench my dinner in vegetable (olive) oil. Over time, I might have to make myself 2 dinners (or one hot lunch) to keep myself satisfied, and for variety.

200 grams, ~700 calories, 20 grams protein, ~40% of calories from fat.

Dessert (tentative)
100 grams Oreos + 60 grams creamy peanut butter
850 calories, 17 grams protein, ~50% of calories from fat.

Total for dinner + dessert: 360 grams, 1550 calories, 37 grams of protein, 45% of calories from fat.

Total for day (tentative)
1140 grams of food, 5300 calories, 144 grams of protein, ~40% of calories from fat.
Cost: should be about $12/day of food, not including food in town.

Food in towns
Eat different stuff for variety, especially fruits and vegetables, and things with tasty sauces, maybe picking up some snacks to take on the trail with me. 

Andrew Skurka's Eating Habits

Now we'll look at the eating habits of another well-known long-distance hiker -- Andrew Skurka. Excerpts from articles are given below.

His daily diet consists of two Balance Bars and a Clif Bar for breakfast; a snack every two hours for the next 12 hours, alternating between Snack A, a Balance Bar and a candy bar, and Snack B, exactly three ounces of Pringles and three ounces of mixed nuts; and a dinner of instant mashed potatoes rolled up in a tortilla followed by three ounces of Hershey's Dark Chocolate. The rationale? It's light and easily packable. To offset the caloric deficit he builds up in the wilds, he gorges on eggs, bacon, cookies, and peanuts whenever he reaches a town, usually every few days. 

2. Notes from "Nutrition and Cuisine" article from Skurka's site

  • Eats energy bars during the day and has one easy-cook meal in the evening, cooked on an alcohol stove. 
  • The best energy bars are high in calories, favor complex carbohydrates over sugars, contain adequate fat and protein, and are fortified with vitamins and minerals.
  • "Breakfast and snack bars [i.e. not energy bars designed for sports performance] can be another healthy staple in a backpacker's diet. I say "can be" because it entirely depends on the bar. Many contain over-processed granola and sugars; and they offer few vitamins/minerals and little fiber. Instead, look for bars with whole grains, nuts and berries, and good sugars (e.g. honey, not corn syrup). Particularly avoid Pop-Tarts and Milk 'N' Cereal bars, which set you up to crash-and-burn."
  • Candy bars "are heavy in fat, which helps to mitigate the crash-and-burn effect of their simple sugars; and some contain a fair amount of protein, particularly those that contain peanuts or peanut butter. All candy bars are not well suited to the backcountry: some are thin (and break too easily) or awkwardly sized; others cannot be eaten on-the-go; and some come with cardboard sleeves that create more trash for you to carry. My favorites are Fast Break's, Kit-Kat's (but only the Big Kat bar), Nutrageous,' Baby Ruth's, Pay Day's, and Snickers'. I avoid thin chocolate bars (like Hershey's chocolate, Krackel's and Kat Kit wafers), bars with cardboard sleeves (like Mounds and Take5's), and chocolate candies (M&M's and Whoopers)."
  • Hot dinners include: "angel hair pasta, coos-coos, dehydrated and freeze-dried meals, and instant mashed potato burritos. These meals strike a good balance between simplicity and sustenance." 
  • Eats about every 2-2.5 hours during the day, starting with a breakfast of about 600 calories. Each snack is 300-500 calories. 
  • Daily caloric intake is roughly 4000 calories a day, which maintains energy, but is not enough to maintain body weight. So he binges in town.
  • To maintain vitamin and mineral levels, "make energy bars (almost all of which are fortified) a regular part of your diet; eat dried fruits and legumes if you are willing to accept their inconveniences; and take a multivitamin, which can't hurt, though they might not help much either, as most studies have shown only marginal benefits. In trail towns, stock up on fresh fruit and produce, ideally before you hit up the local burger joint and lose your appetite."
  • Says that the cost of "fattening up" before a hike usually outweighs the gains. 
  • Apparently recommends getting about 35% of one's calories from fat. This is consistent with other sources, which recommend 35-40%.
  • Recommends aiming for 125 calories per ounce of food (440 per 100 grams); other, somewhat more "liberal" sources recommend aiming for 100 (350 per 100 grams)
Now compare that information with his actual meal plan for the Great Western Loop

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Hiking Clothes and their Care

This post is about what clothes I'll be wearing on the PCT, and how I'll be caring for them and avoiding thru-hiker stink. 


Most of the time on the PCT I'll be hiking in shorts. I have black (unfortunately) polyester running shorts (unfortunately, black) with pockets on the sides. They dry extremely quickly and rarely need more than a few rinses and squeezes to get them "clean." 

I'll have with me just one pair of synthetic underpants from ExOfficio. They are comfortable, dry quickly, and I can go without them for several hours as they dry. Rinsing and squeezing is often enough to clean them and takes just a minute, but a bit of scrubbing -- with or without soap/shampoo -- is sometimes necessary. These will need a rinse or wash on an almost daily basis. 

I was initially planning to wear my thin Golite polyester shirt, but it develops a slight stingy smell after the first day of use that is almost impossible to remove. Wishing to avoid thru-hiker stink, I've decided to switch to the Icebreaker superfine 140 Tech T, made of merino wool. It weighs about 150 grams in size L. I know from experience that this fabric stinks up very slowly if ever. When it does need more than a rinsing, shampoo works on it much better than, say, Dr. Bronner's soap (after all, wool is a hair). 

Actually, much of the time I'll be hiking shirtless to keep cool. I'll be protected from the sun by my Golite chrome dome umbrella. I'll be sweating less and drinking less water with the umbrella. 

Wind layer
I have a complete wind layer, including hooded jacket, that weighs 200 grams in total. I'll be wearing this in cooler weather, when it's very windy and not hot, and when I want to protect myself from flies or poison oak. These can be sufficiently cleaned by rinsing and squeezing, and do not stink up in my experience.

Sleeping clothes
I've been debating what to sleep in -- a silk bag liner, or a set of clothes that covers my whole body. If I don't sleep in some extra layer, my down quilt will get very soiled over time. The silk liner is obviously the lighter option, but slipping that on and then trying to enter my hammock will be a difficult feat. That means some sort of long underwear-type layer, which also doubles as hiking clothes for cooler temperatures. If I wear these on the trail, I should try to make sure I have my wind layer on top to keep the dirt out of them and keep them clean for sleeping. 

I'll probably end up taking my Icebreaker merino wool: 150 weight leggings, and Mondo 200 zip long-sleave shirt. Together these weigh 400 grams and will probably be my only insulating layer. These will almost never require washing. If I switched to a capilene top and bottoms, that would only weigh 250 grams, but I think I'm hooked on merino wool. I think it will provide better insulation, as well (which I might or might not actually need).

I'll have lightweight and warm possum-down gloves from I love these, but some people complain that they are not durable enough. If you'll be using them with trekking poles day after day, these might not hold up.

I also have a pair of Event rain mitts from I will probably carry these all the time, because they double as bug mitts. 

I'll be carrying just a Golite visor over a moist bandanna (which I'll pick up at ADZPCTKO) for sun protection when I can't use the umbrella for some reason. 

For insulation, I'll have a very handy $1 fleece headband and a hooded wind shirt. For very cold conditions I can use the down hood that I use with my Jacks R Better down quilt. I doubt this will happen often.

I will probably try out a couple Walmart nylon dress socks early on, but I'll have a couple merino wool socks as well. I have some Smartwool socks to use up and expect them to develop holes after 20-40 days of use. Then I'll probably switch to Darn Tough socks, which are supposedly much more durable. If the nylon socks turn out to work best, then I'll have some more of those mailed to me. 

For parts of Southern California and all of the Sierra, I'll be carrying Integral Designs vapor-barrier socks. These keep my feet dry and warm when hiking through snow or constantly wet trails. I have tried gore-tex socks, but they seem to stink up over time. Nylon can be washed more easily, and the warming effect seems greater. 

Socks will require regular rinsing and squeezing and just occasional washing. Shampoo is best for merino wool. 

If I feel I need more insulation for the Sierra or Washington, then I will choose either my Montbell UL down vest (160 grams) or backpackinglight Pro-60 parka (~350 grams). The second is a much better choice for cold, windy, and rainy conditions, while the first is greater as an additional layer in dry conditions. 

Also, my Jacks R Better Rocky Mt. No Sniveller quilt doubles as a "serape" and can be worn around camp. It's generally not that practical to hike in, though (only in emergencies when it is not raining/snowing).

Clothes washing summary
To sum up, I can expect to be rinsing out socks and underwear on a daily basis, and two or three other items (shorts, shirt, windbreaker) about once per section. That's not too much work, and should be enough to keep me from getting stinky. Of course, they say that after a while on the trail you can't smell yourself anymore :)

Bug Net Completed

I made a video of my hammock with bug net. I think it's pretty nifty. The net weighs about 200 grams (7.4 oz). The zipper along the side was clearly a good idea (I was considering not having one at first, and entering through the end of the tube).

To hold the netting above my face, I use a thin rope with a line tensioner. The hammock used is the inexpensive Grand Trunk Ultralight Hammock. It weighs about 400 grams, including the tree-hugging ropes. Materials for the bug net were ordered from

Why all this trouble? Why not just get a "Skeeter Beeter" hammock from the same company (Grand Trunk) and enjoy the built-in bug net, saving quite a bit of time and money? Because it doesn't fully enclose the hammock, and I'm not sure that the hammock material is mosquito-proof. I don't want to get bitten from beneath. Actually, come to think of it, the weave probably is tight enough that bugs can't bite through it, but this is still unconfirmed. I didn't want to risk it. Another reason is that I wanted to be able to use the bug net by itself when forced to sleep on the ground. Of course, I could get into the Skeeter Beeter on the ground, and the effect would be about the same. Oh well...

Monday, March 9, 2009


Buckwheat is one of those rare foods that I can eat day after day without getting tired of it. It is a bit of an acquired taste, and I ate it for years in Ukraine and Russia. Buckwheat sold in the U.S. is generally of a lower quality and turns to mush when boiled, so I recommend heading down to the nearest Russian foods store to buy the real thing. A bag of 1 kg of dark brown buckwheat groats imported from Ukraine or Russia ("grechka" in Russian) should cost between $2 and $3. 

Buckwheat is not a grain like many people think. It provides a high amount of complete protein (13 grams per 100 grams) that's supposedly better than that of soy or even fish and packs over 300 calories per 100 grams. At $2.50 for a kilo, that's a really good deal on a prime protein source. I personally just boil it and eat it with butter and vegetables, cheese, meat, or beans. 

Buckwheat takes about 10 minutes in boiling water to cook. You can also soak it in warmish water for half a day and just bring it to a boil, and it'll be ready. 

I'm considering making buckwheat a staple for my hike and eating between 150 and 200 grams a day for lunch or dinner. That's 20 grams of protein and lots of complex carbohydrates.

More Dehydrated Food Options

Here is another site I have come across that has good prices for dehydrated foods: As opposed to the previous site I mentioned that focuses on meals, sells cans of many different kinds of dehydrated foods. Some of the things that have caught my eye (all dehydrated):

  • butter
  • meat
  • refried beans
  • eggs
  • cheese
  • granola

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Getting to the Campo Trailhead from the San Diego Airport

Believe it or not, there are people who can help you with this for free! See the ADZPCTKO ride board. Hopefully, I can find a ride and possibly a supermarket stop with one of these people.

Otherwise, one can taxi to the border (very expensive) or take a combination of bus connections described in Yogi's guide. 

What My PCT Thru-Hike Means to Me

"What my hike means to me" is probably something I'll think about nearly every day on the trail and frequently discuss with other thru-hikers. People will compare motivations and personal values and try to clarify their own views of their hike after hearing others'. Inevitably, one will be influenced in subtle ways by other hikers in the community. Some influences will seem positive, some negative. By formulating some of my thoughts beforehand, I'll have something to come back to later on and compare my expectations with the reality of my experience.

I'm 31 and have settled into a certain lifestyle, personal values, and worldview that I'm very comfortable with. My hike is not about "coming of age." It's not an epic journey, a momentous challenge, or a search for self. I'm not at a major crossroads in life, because it's normal for me to pretty much always be at a crossroads. 

I don't expect to look back upon my thru-hike as being a singular event in my life, but rather as one adventure of many. I would like to integrate these adventures into my life to the point that the adventure never leaves. I want to always be looking forward to and preparing for something exciting and challenging. 

I think a major goal for my hike is to achieve sustainability within the context of a major adventure. In other words, to be able to maintain a certain lifestyle with limited ill effects for an indefinite period of time. That means learning to maintain a healthy body and state of consciousness for a long period of time as I'm doing my hike. I will try to avoid sacrificing well-being for more than very short periods -- for instance, letting hygiene and nutrition slide, overstraining my body, and not getting enough rest. I don't want to view my hike as a one-time adventure where I can put important things temporarily on hold as I sprint to the finish line. I want to finish the hike in good shape and good spirits. 

Part of sustainability for me is remaining mentally active and productive. If I don't, I'll crave mental activity that I can only get "in civilization." If I could take along a lightweight, solar-powered laptop, that would be ideal. I can simply practice writing by hand on whatever topics come to my mind, and do some writing or typing in town. I would like to be thinking seriously about some topics during my hike -- topics related to lifestyle, philosophy, and the natural world. I would like to integrate my adventures into my work rather than having them be a break from work. 

I also want to get to know the thru-hiking community and make new friends while still "hiking my own hike" -- keeping my own pace and pursuing my own goals. Almost everyone else is going to be stopping in towns and spending money, and I think I can avoid that without feeling bad about it. In fact, being forced to do my own thing will be a positive factor, I'm sure. I feel best when I am close enough to people to form connections, while not being tied up in a group.

I also want to use this opportunity to learn about the nature of the American West -- the ecosystems and landscapes that I pass through. I'll be taking lots of pictures and probably making some videos along the way to share with other people. I'm excited to be surrounded by nature (again), and I want to be learning about it as well as basking in it. 

As I hike this long distance, I want to hone my backpacking skills and learn how best to deal with the challenges I encounter. For instance, I'd like to consistently roll out of bed early and quickly and rest more during the heat of the day. I'd like to learn to deal effectively with all the challenges of hiking on the PCT. I'll be thinking about my gear and what best works for which conditions.

Since any random accident or combination of events can put one off the trail, I don't want to be too emotionally attached to the idea of finishing the hike. Only 50% who start actually finish the PCT. A month on the Colorado CDT made me aware of my potential weak spots when hiking for weeks on end: bruised feet and malnutrition. The second I think I can do much better at this time, but I still don't know how to avoid bruised feet except by trying shoes with a bit more cushioning. And I don't know if that will help. On the CDT, the bottoms of my feet began feeling bruised after about 200 miles and fully recovered only after a couple of weeks off the trail.

If I get to the border early and still have plenty of time left, I'm not averse to the idea of turning around and hiking back through Washington, hiking a section of the Northwest Trail, or taking the Amtrak to Glacier National Park and hiking south along the wild and scenic CDT as far as I have time to go. If I could see Olympic National Park, the Montana Rockies, or Yellowstone and the Wind Rivers in the same trip, that would only add to my experience.

Some of these wishes may well turn out to be naive. We'll see how it all pans out in the end!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Permits Received!

Today, just three weeks after sending in my applications to the PCTA and the Canada Border Service, I have received back both permits. 

The envelope from the PCTA included the permit itself, a letter from the PCTA (talking about food storage, bears, fire, border crossing, and completion certificates for $4), a handout on Leave No Trace principles, and a broschure on volunteering for the trail.

The envelope from Canada contained only my entire application form with a fresh stamp and signature on it.

PCT Videos

See a selection of videos from the PCT here. Some are quite interesting/exciting/funny.

Maybe I'll make some videos from the trail and upload them to YouTube.

Scott Williamson, PCT Thru-Hiker Extraordinaire

Scott Williamson began hiking on the PCT over 15 years ago and has now thru-hiked over 10 times. He's done a couple yo-yos (there and back in one season) and in 2009 will be attempting to beat the current speed record of 66 days (41 miles/day) for a one-way journey. That means I will probably see him along the way. Here I will list some places where one can find out more about his experiences on the PCT and his approach to hiking it. I'll also make note of some of Scott's more important gear, food, and logistics practices.

Now you can read all about Scott Williamson at Wikipedia.

Scott's hiking style
  • no trekking poles
  • no-cook food; organic diet
  • mails food to himself; eats out in towns
This is also the style of well-known long-distance hikers Ray & Jenny Jardine and Francis Tapon (and probably some others), both also over 35 years old. Younger hikers such as Andrew Skurka and Matt Hazley (under 30) tend to eat less nutritiously, and each of these (I think) also uses trekking poles.


Gear lists
Note the following interesting gear choices:
- very thin pad (1/8'')
- unusually sized tarp (7 x 12')
- 3 pairs of thin nylon dress socks (wool socks for Sierra)

Articles, with selected quotes

On the importance of the "right pace":

I have found out that hiking someone else’s pace, which is significantly different from my normal pace, actually tires me out more than if I were doing my normal pace. Recently, when Michelle sat out for a few days to rest her feet, I opened up to 40-mile days and was shocked to find myself feeling much better than I did hiking 25 miles in the same 12-14 hour period. This makes me think that the amount of time spent on the feet plays almost as much of a role in fatigue as does the number of miles done.
On food:

He ate about 2.5 pounds of food per day and resupplied with caches every 3-4 days on average. During some stretches he carried up to eight days of food and water, and his pack totaled 35-40 pounds. He didn't bring a stove. Dinner consisted of dehydrated refried beans soaked for three hours while hiking along the trail, topped with tortilla chips and olive oil. For breakfast, he had a protein shake. And for lunch, he snacked on dried fruit, nuts and organic raspberry fig bars. After leaving towns, he'd supplement his diet with fresh fruit. "To me, a good diet on the trail is very important. I focus a lot on organic or more natural food. Other people are able to do the PCT on Top Ramen and Snickers bars. I avoid sugar on the trail because sugar highs and crashes affect my hiking rhythms. But in towns I pigged out on junk food and ate whatever I wanted: candy bars, pastries, burgers."
More on food:

He doesn't pack a stove, but instead eats a mostly organic diet of protein shakes, dried fruits, crackers and refried beans. He augmented his diet by foraging for tidbits like miner's lettuce, wild onions and various berries along the way. His typical dinner was to mix dehydrated refried beans with water in a plastic container and add crumbled organic corn chips and olive oil. He ate two to three pounds of food each day, stopping in towns occasionally to “pig out” on junk food and salad bars.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Article review: "Budget Hiking on a Short Schedule"

Good article! It raises once again the tricky topic of food and resupply. Eating junk food may require you to consume more calories, the author thinks. A couple links to more bulk food stores are included.

The part about hiking when it's cold and relaxing when it's hot to save time and energy is important, as is his advice to get into town in the mid-morning, eat some food, then do one's errands and leave when the food has had time to digest. 

Food ideas
This is really interesting:

Proper nutrition is essential. Poor nurtition will make you miserable. It will slow you down, and it will give you irrational, irresistible urges to spend lots of money at restaurants.

When I thru-hiked the AT in 2006 I bought food along the way. I ate around 7,000 calories a day, hiked far fewer miles than I did on 5,000 calories a day on the PCT, and had a never-ending appetite 24/7. 

I'm certainly not qualified to give nutritional advice, but pay attention to what you eat! If you read information from past thru-hikers you can end up with some terrible advice. Thru-hiking on pop tarts, peanut butter, bagels, and mac'n' cheese is very common. Most thru-hikers on such a diet struggle to do short mileages, are constantly hungry, and get worn down and depressed towards the end of their hikes. And they wonder why!

I recommend maildrops. That is to say, you will mail yourself packages of food to post offices (care of general delivery) and businesses that are near the trail. They are cheaper, more reliable, quicker, and they provide better nutrition when compared to buy as you go. The best way to mail yourself food is to use priority flat rate boxes. You can usually fit around 4 days of food in one of these, and you can send any reasonable amount of weight to anywhere in the US for $9. The post office will send you the boxes, tape, and labels for free if you are using priority mail. Let's assume that we have 40 total packages, an average of a package for every three days for 120 days. I try to send mail drops every 3-5 days, and the 5 day packages usually take up 2 boxes. So we spend $360 (rounded up to $400) on postage.

Here is a sample of my 2007 food. I ate the same thing every day on both my 850 mile AT training hike and my 2,700 mile PCT thru-hike. A typical day for me for the bulk of my PCT hike was 37-42 miles, and I weighed around 170 during that period. I spent around $11/day on food. Plan food according to mileage and your weight. $1000 should be plenty for an AT thru-hike.

Inexpensive Dehydrated Food Option

I've been investigating some dehydrated food options for the PCT. Normal dehydrated backpackers' dinners are far too expensive to use on the PCT with my budget, but I was given a link to, which offers considerably cheaper options. 

Obviously, their year's supply of food is out of the question. These products often require lengthy preparation times, and everything would have to be repackaged for my hike. Furthermore, it's very risky to get that much food at once, not knowing in advance if I'll even like it, or if I'll be able to complete the entire PCT. 

Here I'll look at the products that could be used for a thru-hike:

3-Day Responder
$22 for 3 days of food, or $7.30/day
Approx. 1400 calories a day, according to company rep.
Conveniently packaged meals that need just boiling water and a few minutes of simmering (i.e. sitting in boiling water with the lid on).
Very easy to transport when backpacking.
Little extra air in packages, so will not expand much at high altitudes. 
>>> I have ordered this to try out at home and will write a review when I get it and try it out.

3-Day Responder 5-Pack
Identical meals to the above.
$100 for 15 days of food, or $6.67/day
Shipping just twice as much as for 3-Day Responder.

Grab-n-Go Pack
$350 for 60 days of food (200 meals), or $5.83/day
More calories per day than Responder packs, according to company rep.
Meals are not individually packaged and would need to be redistributed in plastic bags. 
Many more meals and much more variety than the Responder packs.
Same cooking style -- just add boiling water and let sit.

Nutrition Case
$190 for 6 cans of food
Contains breakfast food, snack bars, and a drink powder.
Snack bars need to be reconstituted in water, with honey added (in small plastic container).

Quick-Fix Case
$110 for 6 cans of dinners.
More variety for main meals.

Shipping the above
Company reps have confirmed that they can ship priority mail to general delivery. That means food can be ordered from the trail, directly to the trail.

Food ideas

I'm going to try the basic Responder pack to test the overall quality of food, and make a decision on what to get, if anything, after that. The Responder packs are most convenient for backpacking use, but may lack variety for long-term use. The other food packages listed above would need to be repackaged for use in thru-hiking. Either the Grab-n-Go pack alone or the Nutrition and Quick-Fix Cases together could provide an entire meal system. A mixture of these could be used to add variety, but that could start getting complicated. 

Boosting calories

Obviously, 1400-1800 calories a day is not remotely enough for PCT thru-hikers. What I like about these meals, however, is that they provide all the nutrition I would need in a very condensed form, and include lots of fruit and vegetable ingredients and adequate protein. The caloric value of the dehydrated food seems to be in the 400 calorie per 100 gram range. These regular meals could then be supplemented with lots of energy bars packing approx. 500 calories per 100 gram (e.g. Snickers, oatmeal or nut bars, poptarts or equivalent). So, a day's food supply might consist of:

  • 400 grams dehydrated stuff = 1400 calories + 70 grams olive oil = 600 calories
  • 600 grams high-energy snack food = 3000 calories
Note that adding olive oil to the lunches and dinners can add quite a few calories, and I would be getting 5000 with about 1 kg of food. 

The cost for the above day's worth of food would be approx. $10-12, not including shipping costs, which would probably amount to another $3 or so per day depending how I choose to do it. In town, I would buy various supermarket foods for variety. Oh, and eating this dehydrated food would require using a stove - either the Bush Buddy or an alcohol stove (don't like the idea of carrying superfluous fuel around with me, though). 

Monday, March 2, 2009

Saving on Food Expenses with Costco

The other day, I visited Costco for the first time ever. Seeing a number of food items that I will almost certainly need on the PCT, I figured I might be able to save quite a bit of money if I could have these sent to me on the trail in bulk. These items include:
  • olive oil (poured into 16 oz bottles or smaller)
  • Nature Valley "Sweet & Salty Nut" bars
  • whole grain poptarts
  • Nut Goodies
  • king-size Snickers
At the U.S. Postal Service website, you can calculate how much sending a package would cost. The podcasts I've listened to recommend using priority mail because of its greater reliability, and because unopened packages can be forwarded for free. Priority mail has something called flat-rate boxes, which are boxes of a certain size that cost the same no matter where in the U.S. they are sent from, or how much they weigh. This makes them ideal for sending high-density, high-calorie foodstuffs such as those I've listed above. 

Flat-rate boxes come in three sizes:

1. 8-5/8'' x 5-3/8'' x 1-5/8'' = $4.95
2. 13-5/8'' x 11-7/8'' x 3-3/8'' OR 11'' x 8.5'' x 5.5'' = $10.35
3. 12'' x 12'' x 6'' = $13.95

Oatmeal bars bought in bulk at Costco may cost half as much than the same bars purchased separately at a trailside supermarket. The total expense of sending a variety of the food listed at top in the 2nd box shown above should come to roughly $35, compared to $50 on the trail.  

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Dealing with Snow in the High Sierra

It seems that no matter when I enter the High Sierra - whether late May, early June, or mid June, I'll have to deal with fairly copious amounts of snow. Here is what one 2003 PCT thru-hiker wrote about the snow (he entered Sierras on June 10, 2003 in a normal snowfall year):

When is it safe to enter the Sierra? This really depends on the year and how much experience you have on snow and in the mountains. The most generally accepted date to leave Kennedy Meadows is on June 15. I left on June 10 and did fine, although the snow was excessive at times. After leaving Crab Tree meadows, the jumping off point for climbing Mount Whitney, the PCT through the Sierras is a a sequence of passes, separated by valleys. Usually, snow would obscure the trail for the last 2-5 miles before the pass and for 2-5 miles after the pass. Sometimes the snow was nothing more than an annoyance for route finding. Othertimes, there was snow hidden in gullies and in cols that made traverses dangerous or difficult. In the morning the snow would be hard, but usually manageable, except before 9 or so. In the afternoon (around 2 or 3), the snow would be soft enough that postholing (when each step drops you to your knee or worse in the snow) became common.

I sense that I won't truly understand the conditions and how to approach them the safest way possible until I'm actually at the kick-off day (ADZPCTKO) and can talk to former thru-hikers in person.

I'm guessing that the problem with snow before 9 am is that it's icy. I don't see why my Kahtoola microspike traction devices wouldn't help with that. I've walked with them on frozen solid icy trails before, and they provide superb traction, biting into the ice with a loud crackling sound. It seems like it would be a wise idea to use those and get in more hours of morning hiking than to submit myself to hours of postholing in the afternoon.

I am also concerned by stream crossings, which are best attempted early in the morning when flow is lowest. But if there are too many streams to cross, I suppose I will inevitably end up having to do afternoon crossings every once in a while.

Finally, I'm a bit scared at the thought of having to go straight up steep snowy passes like Forrester Pass, and doing any other potentially dangerous things. These fears are normal for PCT thru-hikers, I'm sure.

Since I'm beginning on April 24 and foresee keeping a pretty good pace, even in the early sections (maybe 20 mile/day on average), I could end up at Kennedy Meadows as soon as June 1st. I might try to slow myself down and delay my Sierra crossing by deliberately spending more time in towns in the public libraries, or spending more time hiking along the PCT with relatives and friends (I grew up in Southern California). Maybe someone would take me down into Orange County for old times' sake (never been back since age 21 - 10 years ago). Or, I could just get to Kennedy Meadows as soon as possible and hang out in the southern Sierras or Lone Pine area until the snow mostly melts. 

Ice axe

This page shows how to make an ice axe tether. I'll have to do something like this with my ice axe (CAMP Corsa, 70 cm).

Learning from a PCT Thru-Hiker's Detailed Trail Journal

I've seen quite a few, but this one by Chris Willett ("Suge") from 2003 was so detailed and thoughtful that I read the entire thing. It's basically an entire book. I think it gave me a very good idea of what it may be like to live on the trail. I also see from his diverse subsequent adventures that his first long hike on the PCT was a major turning point in his life. 

One of the ideas I gleaned from Chris' report is the idea of using a 5 gallon paint bucket as a bounce box - a container for extra gear and things that you may need further up the trail, that you keep forwarding to yourself to post offices further along the trail. As he states, the advantages of using the paint bucket - available from any hardware store are:

- They are very tough. You won't have a shredded box to pamper after the third mailing.

- You don't need any tape to seal them up. The lids snap shut and stay on tightly.

- They have a wire handle, which make them easy to carry through town.

- You can sit on them outside of the PO.

- They are very waterproof.

- They protect their contents.

- They are very big. You can put a lot of stuff in them.

That's a great idea that I plan to try out. 

Friday, February 20, 2009

Water Treatment on the PCT

As a rule, most American backpackers filter or otherwise purify all their water in the backcountry. The ones who are least likely to treat water are... ultralight thru-hikers. In Colorado we met plenty of short-distance backpackers (even those on the Colorado Trail) who seemed paranoid about getting ill from untreated water, even if it was flowing directly from a snowbank. "I don't know... Look at all the pink algae growing on the snow... I'd rather play it safe," someone actually told us. Then we'd meet some experienced thru-hiker who said he never treated any water on the CDT and had never gotten sick. Hm...

Read this article for a better understanding of the prevalence of much-feared Giardia in the Sierra Nevada. Basically, in two words, Giardia is uncommon, and you're more likely to get intestinal problems from poor hygiene or meals in restaurants in town. 

On the PCT, I will be using the same treatment strategy I used on the CDT, namely:

  • Drink from the best water sources possible: snowmelt trickles/streams, springs, and small streams coming out of ungrazed areas. Get water from larger streams when necessary.
  • Treat only water that is not flowing rapidly or water from areas that might have been grazed (i.e. has been exposed to cow dung). I will use Aquamira tablets and drops.
Following this strategy, I hope to treat no more than 5-10% of the water I drink on the PCT.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Trail Food Ideas

This post is mainly for personal reference, and I will continue to add to it as I come up with more ideas. I tend to be unimaginative in the food department, and glancing at this list while hiking the PCT will help me remember some of the food ideas I have had. 

Some things to focus on
- Caloric content (enter stores with a certain number of calories in mind to purchase). Aim for average of 400 calories per 100 grams. 
- Protein content: the more, the better. Cheese, meat, eggs, dairy products, protein powders, etc.
- Fruits and vegetables: maximize consumption on days in town and the day afterwards.
- Whole grains and complex carbohydrates: sugars are all too easy to come by and don't provide long-lasting energy
- Salt, spices, and vinegar-based sauces: do I have any cravings to satisfy? 

Foods for the trail (ideas)

- peanut butter; combine with cookies, crackers, and bread
- olive oil; pour in soups, mashed potatoes, and on bread; need to get plastic 16 oz bottle to carry oil
- cheese; string cheese and mozarella cheese
- sardines and tuna (occasional, for protein and fish oils)
- junk food as necessary: Oreos, Snickers, Butterfingers, Pop Tarts (if desperate)
- mashed potato flakes (check mixing requirements; powdered milk is expensive)
- whole grain pasta??? (what about sauce, though?)
- packaged soups??? (Ramen, Lipton, etc.)
- sandwiches: peanut butter and jam, or meat, cheese, and vegetable 

Foods to eat in town or shortly after leaving (ideas)

- juice from concentrate (mix myself shortly after purchase)
- cottage cheese
- ice cream
- box of cereal (or two) with milk 
- apples, bananas, tomatos, lettuce, spinach, grapes, baby carrots, etc. with sandwiches or with dip
- canned fruits and vegetables if fresh is unavailable
- hot dogs??? (can heat up on fire w/ titanium stakes, but how do I carry ketchup and mustard?)
- meat: any cooked meat, such as lunch meat or ham (will need flavorful sauce)
- sandwiches with meat, lettuce, spinach, tomatos, etc. (need to find sauces in small amounts, possibly stealing from McDonald's...)

PCT Gear Weight

Today I drafted my first PCT gear list with gear weight included. I tried to include every little item I could think of, down to spare batteries for my flashlight. This exercise is very useful for making rational gear decisions - especially for first-timers. 

My base weight came to right about 10 lbs. This was a little disappointing, as I'd basically been aiming subconsciously for 7 to 8 lbs and had imagined I'd reached that level. However, a second look shows that over 1 pound of that is the hammock, bug net, and second sleeping pad, which I feel will more than make up for their weight in comfort, quality of sleep and rest, and time spent looking for a campsite. Another pound is my relatively heavy Canon G7 camera with a spare battery and wall charger. I don't think I'm ready to get rid of that, and the cost of cutting the weight of my camera setup in half would be over $100, not to mention the corresponding loss of picture quality. Almost another pound is my merino wool top and leggings, which might not be necessary for substantial sections of the trail. 

In short, I've reduced my baseweight to my comfortable limit. If I decide to discard the hammock along the way or get rid of extra merino wool, I can always send those ahead in a bounce box.  

What is mildly unsettling is that this weight doesn't include the extra gear that I expect to be carrying in the Sierra Nevada: bear canister (1.15 kg), ice axe (.27 kg), heftier pack that is more comfortable with weights over 25 lbs (add .5 kg), and -- most likely -- a warm jacket (.35 kg), traction device for the snow (.42 kg), and waterproof socks (.09 kg). That adds up to another 2.8 kg of baseweight, or over 6 more pounds. I just can't believe I'll have a baseweight of 16 lbs. I will be heading out of Kennedy Meadows carrying a 40 pound pack!  

Expenses on the PCT

PCT guidebook author "Yogi" says that PCT thru-hikers spend between $2500 and $5000 on their hikes, not counting previously purchased gear. Obviously, if I'm aiming at spending under $500 a month, then I'm in a very rare category of low-budget thru-hikers. What does the breakdown of expenses look like for PCT hikers? How do they manage to spend so much money?

This podcast interview with British thru-hiker "Ben" helped clear things up for me. He says that a three-day supply of food at a typical supermarket in a trailside town cost between $30 and $40. I should note that this was in 2006, and that both the interviewee and his hiking buddy are the same height as I (so maybe our appetites match, too?). This matches what I was expecting: roughly $12 a day for food supplies using the buy-as-you-go strategy. 

Ben spent $4000 total on his trip, which lasted 134 days. Presumably about $1500 was spent on food for the trail, judging by the numbers he gave. The rest was spent on hotel rooms, restaurants, and in-town feeding frenzies. Perhaps a few hundred was spent on new gear (such as replacement running shoes). Judging from the interview, I would estimate that the hikers spent 25 nights in hotels, spending an average of $80 per night in town: $40-50 per person for a room (lodging in California is really expensive) and $30-40 on food splurges. From what I've read, $20-30 is a normal sum for a big thru-hiker dinner in a trailside town. 

What does this mean for me? Hopefully, I will be able to limit my expenses to $400 a month on store-bought food and $70 a month on a fresh pair of Inov-8 trail runners. I am not attracted to hotel rooms and prefer to sleep outside for free. I can maintain my personal hygiene as I go rather than letting it slide until I hit town. Avoiding restaurants may be a bit more difficult. Rather than going in for a $25 dinner, I can get a variety of appetizing foods from the supermarket and splurge on that instead.