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. 

Cooking on the PCT

What are the cooking options on the PCT?

  1. No stove, no cooking. Lightest option in terms of cookware, and makes the eating process as quick as possible. However, the use of exclusively no-cook food may end up adding weight, since these foods may contain more water. Also, it is somewhat easier to tire of uncooked dry foods. 
  2. Gas stove. Adds a lot of weight: stove + fuel. Finding fuel canisters along the trail may be problematic. Compared to the no stove option, hikers with gas stoves will find themselves carrying approx. 300 or more grams on average. 
  3. Alcohol stove. The stove itself weighs almost nothing, but HEET is sold in bottles that may be heavier than backpackers would like. However, HEET is readily available in nearly all trailside towns. Total average weight of cooking gear could be even more than that of a gas stove setup. The solution would be to obtain small amounts of alcohol at a time (filling up a smaller bottle and pouring out the rest of the HEET that I don't need), keeping the average weight of the stove equipment to 150 grams or less. 
  4. Esbit stove. Stove weighs almost nothing, and fuel tabs, while expensive, are significantly lighter than alcohol. Getting fuel tabs on the trail may be problematic.
  5. Wood stove. The Bush Buddy weighs about 140 grams, which makes it a lighter option than gas or alcohol stoves. It's fun to use, and fuel is unlimited, but cooking time may be greater than with other stoves. Also, hikers have to learn to deal with smoot on their pots. 
  6. Cook fires. Lighter than even a wood stove, but perhaps not as efficient or manageable as a special stove. Soot may be an issue.
Mailing fuel

Here is an excellent article on shipping fuel and combustibles to PCT hikers by mail. Basically, all fuel types can be shipped, but only if certain precautions are kept. This makes it possible to mail smaller amounts of fuel to oneself while on the trail, reducing the average carried weight of one's stove setup significantly.

My choice

Originally, I needed to make a decision in favor of either my Bush Buddy wood-burning stove, or an alcohol stove which would weigh next to nothing. When I realized that I may have to carry around more HEET fuel at any given time than I needed, I decided to stick with the Bush Buddy. With my MSR Titan 0.85 L pot, my cooking setup would have come to 275 grams. I had also been considering taking my 2 L pot, whose larger size makes cooking big meals easier, as well as using the pot for washing one's body (though I can do a full body wash, including hair, with just a 0.85 L pot). 

Then I did some soul-searching. On the CDT in Colorado, my girlfriend was generally in charge of the cooking (I would usually light and feed the stove). When I'm on my own, I don't have a lot of patience for cooking meals and tend to skip cooking whenever I feel at all rushed. I don't know that I'm going to often feel like taking long breaks specifically to cook, and I'll probably gravitate towards quick-cooking foods anyway. For my needs, 275 grams of cooking gear seems like overkill. 

What I've finally settled on is a single 1 liter pot -- the K-Mart grease strainer (pot) -- which weighs in at 107 grams without the strainer part. It costs $7 and seems to be sold at any K-Mart store. It is superior to the Walmart grease strainer because the lip is rolled outward, not inward, and thus will not catch food. Both pots are made out of aluminum, which is lighter, but somewhat more malleable than titanium. Removing the lid handle, as many people do, saves a trifling 6 grams, but some ease of use is lost, so I put it back on. The pot is wider and lower than my MSR Titan and seems to be a more usable shape for both eating and washing. When I want to make some hot food, I'll build a cook fire and set the sufficiently wide pot across two stones over the fire. If practical, I may carry a few Esbit solid fuel tabs on each section to avoid having to build (and extinguish) fires. Either way, I save about 170 grams of cooking gear and have a setup that better fits my actual needs. Basically, all I need is a pot, and most of the time I won't be heating anything in it. 

My single utensil is a long-handled titanium spoon which weighs 10 g. I love the long handle and find I never need a fork during my backpacking trips anyway. 

I still have some doubts about this decision as I think about my nutritional needs. I've recently discovered some inexpensive dehydrated meals that are full of nutrients, and I can't cook those three times a day on Esbit tablets (expensive!). The jury's still out...

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Electronic Devices

Here are the electronic devices I plan on taking with me:

  1. 2 Flashlights: the lamp piece of a Petzl XP Tikka (will clip to my belt for night hiking); one Photon Freedom (emergency; this tiny button flashlight burns out too quickly to be of much use).
  2. High Gear Summit altimeter watch: this isn't a necessity, but I enjoy noting day and nighttime temperatures (if the watch is off me), and the altimeter is good for orienteering -- it can help tell you where you are on the trail and how much you have to go. The compass is very useful (I'll have a tiny backup compass, too, since the watch needs occasional recalibration), and the barometer is nice, but not a necessity. I'll also carry a spare battery.
  3. Canon G7 camera with spare battery and wall charger: not the lightest setup, but good pictures are very important to me. I'll recharge one or both of the batteries when in town (say, when online at the public library -- they recharge in under 2 hours), and I'll be able to immediately upload a few of the better pictures from the previous section. 
  4. RCA 2Gb MP3 player (Walmart, $35): for long-distance hiking, I prefer an MP3 player that runs on a single AAA battery and has a USB port so that I can download podcasts or radio programs during my hike, and any files or edited photos that I want to carry around with me. This MP3 player also allows for voice recording and has an FM radio with recording capabilities. During my Colorado thru-hike last summer, my girlfriend and I enjoyed listening to music and other recordings for about an hour a day, especially on days when we weren't feeling perfectly happy. Now that I'll be hiking solo, that could go up to a couple hours. 
What I'm not taking with me: cell phone, GPS, pocketmail, solar charger, etc. 

Preparation Update

Today I mailed off the forms for my permits (see earlier post). I decided to pay the $15 for the Mt. Whitney permit just in case. U.S. wilderness authorities aren't exactly known for corruption and embezzlement, so I don't feel bad contributing a bit beyond what is absolutely necessary. Now I just have to remember to send in my ADZPCTKO application in March when it becomes available.

Printing PCT maps
I went to a print shop to find out about options for printing out Halfmile's free PCT maps. I learned it would cost me $50 to print all the California section maps on regular 8.5'' x 11'' paper, with two maps on each side of the sheet. This would be the optimal solution, as you can still make out all the detail and have to deal with 4 times fewer pages than if you just printed out all the maps straight. $20 of the $50 would pay for the work of arranging the pages so that they print at half size.

I had tried to paste the maps into a Word document to make it easier to print two maps to a page, but this drastically reduced the print quality. The same map printed at half size from the original .pdf file printed out crisply. 

I decided to take my girlfriend up on her free printing privileges as the university and just print out double-sized, full-size maps. $50 is too much for me. 

Once I print out the maps in a couple weeks, I'll start making notes on them regarding water sources and towns -- information that I plan on gleaning from the web. I'm hoping I don't have to pay for any guide books. Really, all I need are detailed maps, reliable information on water sources, and info for post offices, food stores, and public libraries in trailside towns. All of that is available online. I don't see why I'd need any more than that for my hike, even though everyone says to get the guide books and Yogi's guide. 

I've been going to the gym off and on since fall, and did a strenuous 9-day hike in the Peruvian Andes in January, so I'm in decent shape. With the PCT little more than two months away, though, it's time for a daily concerted effort to get in the best shape possible. I plan to mix running with stair steps, cycling, and elliptical machines (sp.?) to give my legs a full workout, in addition to the standard upper-body stuff. I don't want to overstrain my knees running every single day, and these other machines will focus on muscles that are used when hiking, but not when running. 

Poles or no poles?
I have not decided yet whether I'm going to take trekking poles on the PCT. I've found that the umbrella trumps poles hands-down, and most of the time I don't use the poles anymore. Shielding myself from the sun is more important. The reason I might take them is to help my knees on downhill segments. However, I think my knees strengthen up after a while, and by just slowing my pace I can do fine. Plus, the PCT is gently graded, unlike trails in Crimea (Ukraine). 

UPDATE 18 FEB: I've tentatively decided to leave the poles at home. If I find I need them, I can have them mailed to me.

Value of trekking poles
I recently happened across an article in the Jan/Feb 2009 edition of Men's Health magazine that talked about the fitness value of trekking poles. It cited research that said that people who used trekking poles had a 6% higher heart rate (e.g. 106 bpm vs. 100 bpm, or 141 bpm vs. 133 bpm) and a 10% higher oxygen consumption rate while walking at the same speed as people who did not use them, but they did not report a higher subjective level of exertion. I have done little mini-experiments on myself, just observing my sensations when hiking at a certain pace with and without poles, and came to similar conclusions. It takes a lot more energy to do with the arms what one can easily do with the legs (i.e. propel oneself forward). This research suggests that trekking poles increase cardiovascular fatigue; however they may reduce other kinds of fatigue. See the links below for more details.

Here are links to research reports regarding the use of trekking poles:

- hiking downhill (with and without poles)

These studies suggest that poles reduce impact on the lower body and slightly reduce perceived exertion, despite a small increase in heartrate. 

Trip financing
I'm probably going to have to sell off some more of my fancy backpacking gear to finance my thru-hike. With no rent or various living expenses to pay for the duration of my hike, I suspect I will actually be spending a little less per month than if I stayed where I am now. 

Monday, February 16, 2009

Planning My Hammock Bug Net

I mentioned in an earlier post that I was planning on sewing a bug net for my hammock. The hammock I will use on the PCT is the ultralight Grand Trunk hammock, which weighs around 12 oz and costs $20 at

I went out and hung my hammock the other day to determine the exact size of the bug net I will need. I want to keep it as small and lightweight as possible. I arrived at a bug tube circumference of 200 cm (6.5 feet) as optimal for my needs, and the length of the net would need to be slightly longer than the length of my hammock fabric, so 10 feet long. 

Rather than sewing a tube out of a rectangular 6.5' x 10' piece of bug netting, I can taper the foot end of the net and save some weight. After all, I only need to enter through one end of the net. The other end can have a 2'' diameter opening, and that will be enough to slip it over the end of the hammock. 

I have to keep in mind that I will probably occasionally be sleeping on the ground in this netting as well, so it has to be usable for that as well. 

I have decided to put a side zip on the bug net. I've reviewed the experience of other hammock campers who've sewn similar nets, and I think a 4' to 6' long side zipper will make it a lot easier to get in and out of the bug net. Also, I won't ever have to take it off the hammock when packing up, unless I spend the night on the ground. 

Now, if I'm always using the side zip, then I might as well taper the head end of the net as well, right? Or am I going to want to leave that end open so that I can pull the netting over my head in a standing position? :)

Final question. It might be a good idea to sew the bottom half of the bug net with windproof lightweight fabric such as Momentum or standard 1.1 oz nylon. This way, the hammock body is protected from wind as well as bugs. If it is hot and the wind is welcome, the bug net could be rotated to have all netting on the windward side of the hammock. However, I've decided against this option for simplicity's sake. I'm unsure of how it'll work in practice, and I only have one shot to sew the bug net. 

I just ordered all the necessary materials from 5 yards of 60'' wide noseeum, an ultralight continuous coil zipper with 2 double-pull zipper sliders, some draw cord and cord locks, and hydrophobe sewing thread for this and other sewing projects. 

Final result
I decided to stick with the tube shape and not taper anything, because that would make it significantly harder to sew. The net has a long 7' zipper along the side that can be shifted under or over the hammock as necessary. Thanks to my mom for a fine sewing job. 

Sunday, February 15, 2009

PCT Podcasts

I've really enjoyed listening to podcasts related to the PCT. They give me a ton of practical info and fire me up about my upcoming adventure. Here are the PCT-related podcasts I've been able to find on the web (please write me if you know of any more):

I like to download these onto my MP3 player and listen to them 2 or 3 times apiece while exercising. I think they provide a clearer view of the PCT experience than written texts.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Inov-8 Trail Shoes for the PCT

I'm a big fan of Inov-8 trail running/walking shoes. I wore 315s on my Colorado hike last year and was pleased with them. I've also hiked in 320s (good) and have held models 295, 270, 212, and 312 in my hands. 

Best models for the PCT

A lot depends on the person, but I think I need thicker midsoles on my shoes for long-distance walking. Inov-8s have 3 degrees of midsole cushioning. Here are the models with the greatest amount of cushioning that are appropriate for the PCT (i.e. trail runners, but with no gore-tex, which impedes breathability and slows drying):

Each of these models generally costs $90-100, unless you find a great sale (more on that later). In order of likely breathability: 335 (most breathable), 305, 320 (still dries pretty quick). Reverse that order for durability of uppers (important for rocky sections of trail)

Here are some other appropriate models with a bit less cushioning than the above:

These all cost about the same, too. (note to self:  stocks 3 of these 6 models - 295, 305, 315 - in my size at prices between $70 and $75.)

Finding deals on Inov-8 shoes

Here are some websites to follow. You should never have to pay full price for Inov-8 shoes!

  • - good places to start, because they track prices in many shops (but not all)
  • - 295 and 315 usually cost around $70, with no sales tax and free delivery (note to self: if you order by phone - 1-800-606-9598 ("Terra") - they can ship to general delivery addresses, but they "assume no liability for the package". So I can wait till I get on the trail to order new shoes, and see whether I'll need size 13 or 14.)
  • - you never know what will be selling
  • and - selection varies from week to week; can have some awesome deals; free shipping over $50
  • - small discounts; has large selection of models
  • - occasional sales; has large selection of models
  • - occasional discounts
  • - occasional deals; free shipping over $100
Sizing of Inov-8 shoes

Almost everyone recommends going up half a size compared to your other shoes. Also, most people's shoe size increases when hiking in the desert and/or hiking for more than a week at a time. For me, that means wearing size 13, possibly 14 for long-distance hiking. Since I don't know how much my feet will expand (they didn't expand as much over a month in Colorado as people said they would), I'll try to put off buying new pairs of shoes till I'm a month or so into the trail. 

Footwear for the PCT

As an ultralight backpacker, I've come to prefer lightweight trail runners for just about any kind of hiking. I never get blisters anymore, and a quickly drying shoe is very important for lengthy treks with a high chance of rain or marshy ground. Even trail runners can become putrid, too, though, if they're continually wet for days on end. 

My favorite brand these days is Inov-8, which I will focus on in my next post. The price of those shoes - and brands like New Balance, The North Face, Salomon, etc. - can really add up over a multi-month trek, though, and I'm considering experimenting with cheap, no-name running shoes from K-Mart or Walmart. In fact, I'll probably buy myself a pair that seems decent (good cushioning, lightweight, highly breathable, comfortable) and start the hike in them, shipping myself my Inov-8s to a resupply point 40 to 100 miles up the trail when I'll begin climbing into the higher mountains of Southern California. At that point I will know if the cheap shoes are any good and can mail them to myself further up the trail. If $20 shoes will do the trick, then I might be able to save myself $150 or more during the hike. 

ADDED LATER: I looked at shoes at both K-Mart and Walmart and was not impressed. I only found possibly one model (at K-Mart) that might be breathable enough for hiking. In general, the shoes have too much padding around the foot, which will lead to excessive sweating.

Sierra Nevada
During this section, many people recommend a tougher boot with a stiffer sole and covered ankles. When postholing, or slogging through snow with a crusty top that you keep breaking through, one's ankles and shins can get bruised and cut up in trail runners. At the moment I expect to keep hiking on in a fresh pair of Inov-8 trail runners, but with gaiters covering my ankles and [partially] protecting them from harm. I'll probably have my wind pants on, too, which will protect my legs [somewhat] from abrasion. I'll be following snow reports, though, and could opt for something more protective at the last minute. Also, I will try to get out early to be walking on harder snow (I have a good traction device - the Kahtoola microspikes). 

Mosquitos on the PCT

This is an issue that worries me. Clouds of mosquitos can force one to make irrational decisions, such as putting off eating, washing, and resting. I saw this happen to us on the Colorado CDT last summer, and this time I intend to prepare better for it. 

The arrival of mosquitos corresponds to the time of snowmelt and the presence of areas of flatter terrain with standing water. A five-time PCT thru-hiker put the average start of the mosquito season in the Sierras at June 18. This year the snowpack is currently at about 70% of average, so this date will probably come a bit earlier. No matter what I do, I'm going to end up in the High Sierra at the start of the mosquito season, which will likely extend another month and a half through northern California and the Oregon Cascades. Yikes.  

Here I'll lay out my mosquito protection plans in three categories:

1. Stationary (protection during the night and during long rest stops)
I am going to make a long noseeum tube out of a swath of netting 10' x 6.5', with drawcords on both ends that can be accessed from inside the tube. This will enclose my hammock and can be pulled over me in a sitting or standing position as well. My experience is that a headnet is far from adequate stationary protection, since you can't eat with it on (!) or expose more of your body.

2. Mobile (protection while walking or taking short breaks)
I will have a mosquito (not noseeum - the weave is too dense, and you can't see well enough through it, and it gets stuffy!) headnet, and am considering sewing "hand nets" which are basically just net bags with elastic for the wrists. I can wear my wind layer, which is mosquito-proof, and mini-gaiters, which cover exposed ankles.

3. Emergency (if the above is not sufficient, or it's too hot to wear a wind layer)
A bottle of 100% DEET. 

Also of critical importance is to not sacrifice more important physiological needs - such as food, water, rest, and defecation - because of mosquitos. I may plan regular stops where I quickly set up my hammock and bug net and get in to snack, rehydrate, and rest.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Bear Canisters

A bear canister is a container for food and hygienic items that bears cannot break into. According to, canisters are required for 400 miles of the PCT along the Sierra Nevada. Canisters come in different sizes, and thru-hikers will need the largest. Hopefully, it'll fit in your pack!... From what I've read, the best deal is the easy-to-use, transparent BearVault 500. It can be bought or loaned. Its volume is 700 cubic inches, 11.5 liters, 8.7 x 12.7 inches, 21 x 32 centimeters, 3.038 gallons, or 388 ounces.

Bear canister loan program

Too poor to shell out $60-70 for a new bear canister that you'll use for a month at most? Read more here. The only downside to this program is that you'll have to begin carrying your canister in Agua Dulce - 250 miles before you'll actually need it at Kennedy Meadows and beyond. This is what I plan to do.

Getting the BearVault at Kennedy Meadows

You can order a new BearVault 500 directly from for the lowest available price of $65 and have it mailed to you at Kennedy Meadows. This is a special program for PCT thru-hikers. You'll need to fill out the PDF form and mail it to them with a check. If you're plans change, make sure you've got their phone number. 

Bear boxes

In addition, there are bear boxes available for backpackers at certain locations in the Sierra Nevada (see map of these here, clicking "My Topo" at right to see where the PCT lies). If you're carrying a canister, you don't really need bear boxes and will be able to camp wherever you like. If you think they'll make your life easier, make sure they're marked on your map before you head out. 

Stealth camping

Stealth camping greatly reduces the chances of a nighttime bear encounter, which is a very real possibility along much of the PCT - not only in the Sierra Nevada. It involves:
  1. cooking and eating dinner before you stop for the night (say, an hour before camping)
  2. finding a campsite off the trail (say, at least 200 yards) and away from established campgrounds (where legal, which is almost everywhere)
I have heard very few accounts of stealth campers having food stolen by bears, even if they had no canister.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Planning and Booking a Flight to Start the PCT

I'm sure most readers have booked a flight online. Just in case you haven't, or don't know how to best go about doing it, here's what I did:

Go to and enter your flight search parameters. Then click on all the search options on the right to find out what different websites can offer you. Chances are many or most will offer the same flights, but at somewhat different prices. Also, the booking fees can vary widely and are a source of hidden costs. Make sure that you know the real total cost, and book the cheapest flight you can find. This way, I found a one-way flight from Detroit to San Diego for April 23rd for $140, which I think is a pretty decent price. 

I will buy my return ticket somewhere in southern Washington when I know when I'm going to finish and where I'll be flying to. 

Checked baggage

Checked baggage often costs extra for domestic flights. Typical costs are $15 to $25 for the first bag, and $20-25 for the second. Carefully consider whether it makes more sense to check your trekking poles, matches, gas stoves, knives, etc., or to mail them to yourself and pick them up near the trailhead. Postage will almost certainly cost less. I'll have to make the decision myself: pay $15 for the checked bag, or send my package to the town of Campo, just 2 miles into the hike from the Mexican border (a quick google search shows that it opens at 8:30 a.m...).


Here are the permits I will need to get, and how to get them.

PCT permit 
Covers all forest and wilderness areas along the PCT. Free, but a $5 donation is suggested. Download here and mail to the address shown. 
Time for submission: after January 31

Mt. Whitney permit
The tallest mountain in the lower 48 states requires a permit to climb. This can be acquired for $15 using the general PCT permit form. It is dubious whether you really need this permit, as it covers the climb in from Whitney Portal, on the east side of the mountain. Some people say that this is a way of "fishing for money." This seems to be true; further research reveals that the permit is for entering the "Whitney Zone" (see map), which one would never formally enter climbing up the mountain from the west. However, a visitor has commented:

I noticed on your PCT blog that you have the Whitney Zone only including the Whitney Portal side of the mountain. I was up there last year and the Whitney Zone now starts outside of Crabtree Meadow on the backside. They also require wagbags in that area which are available as you enter the Whitney Zone.
But after this, I read on

Note: The Mt. Whitney permit is only required if one is exiting and re-entering the PCT through Whitney Portal to the East; it is NOT required for climbing Mt. Whitney from the West (PCT, Crabtree Meadows) and returning to the PCT.

This is all really confusing...!

ADDED LATER: I ended up getting the $15 Whitney permit just in case. 

Application to enter Canada
Download free application here, send it to the address shown. It's not clear whether you only mail part A or the entire thing. In a podcast I heard that they mail a letter back to you, and you'll need to have that with you as you cross the Canadian border. 
Time for submission: 2-3 months before you begin your trek (so right now for me)

*Note: you must have a U.S. passport to reenter the U.S. from Canada!

California fire permit
This is "strongly recommended," but is it required? I don't know. You can download it and read instructions here, and you apparently don't have to send it anywhere, but just carry it on your person. Also, it is almost certain that thru-hikers will be able to get a permit at the annual ADZPCTKO event on April 25 (see previous post). 

So, to summarize, I need to get moving and send in 3 permits (PCT, Canada, CA fire). Total cost = $5 (or $20 if I get the Whitney permit). Easy enough!

Permits received! Read about it here.


Every year there is a sort of kick-off party in late April near the southern terminus of the PCT. It's called "ADZPCTKO" and can be read about and registered for here (registration will begin some time later in February). This year the dates are April 24-26, with the main event on Saturday, April 25. It's 20 miles from the beginning of the PCT, right along the trail. 

They say it's a lot of fun, you can eat free food, meet other PCT thru-hikers, and discuss, analyze, and buy gear. On the downside, it means that there will be a large group of hikers all bunched together on the trail for several hundred miles. If you want solitude for these sections, they say, start your hike a week or two before or after the ADZPCTKO. 

Seeing that I am hiking alone, have never done the PCT before, and am a curious fellow, I plan to start off my hike at the ADZPCTKO. I want to see what it's all about and maybe start getting to know people (even though I expect to hike alone most of the time). 

Links for Snow and Water Conditions

For a NOBO hiker starting in late April / early May, it is important to be aware of snow conditions in the mountains of southern and central California, and of water availability along the first 700 miles of the PCT up to Kennedy Meadows. There are also significant waterless stretches in northern California and Oregon, but these have no seasonal water sources to check up on. Here I post links to places where one can find out about those conditions.


Southern California

San Jacinto Mts. 
San Bernardino Mts.
San Gabriel Mts. 
Sierra Nevada
  • Superb chart at In the column on the right you can also select specific stations in the Sierra Nevada and find out about current temps and snow. 
Western U.S. mountains
  • Up-to-date maps showing snowpack levels as percentages of normal for the mountains of the western United States. 
Entire U.S. 
  • Water reports for sections A-G. All the info I think I'll need to know. Shows date of last update for each water source. 
  • Up-to-date water info for sections E-G is available at Agua Dulce at the home of the Saufleys, who house and take care of all thru-hikers free of charge. 
  • Up-to-date water information will be shared with hikers at ADZPCTKO.

PCT Forums

As I've gone around looking for real-life info on the Pacific Crest Trail, I've run into a number of forums:

  1. PCT Forum at - Regular activity and generally useful and knowledgeable responses.
  2. PCT Forum at - Regular activity; seems to have a bit more socializing. 
  3. PCT Forum at - Sporadic activity; site also has lots of useful links and resources
  4. Forum at - Lots of good info, but little activity since 2007/2008. Info spread over tons of categories.
I am a member at some of these (my username is RickD). 

If you know of any more, let me know!

Budget UL Gear

Let's say your on a real tight gear budget (not just food and hiking expenses, like me). You may want to look at the following for some ideas of how to make or buy lightweight equipment at low cost. 
  • Take a look at Mags' Backpacking Gear - the color commentary. He has the same baseweight as I do, but often has cheaper gear. If you're on a tight gear budget, some of his solutions could help you out a bit. 
  • Ray Jardine pioneered the use of many homemade gear items on the PCT. His book Beyond Backpacking, as well as his website, which sells kits, are the best sources. 
K-Mart: cheap lightweight gear

  • Grease strainer (as an UL cooking pot): 1 liter, 107 grams, $7
  • Generic blue foam pad: 50 x 182 cm, approx. 300 grams, $7
  • Two kinds of ponchos: emergency and multiple-use ($1-5)

Rain Gear

I'll be using my Golite Chrome Dome umbrella, which is sturdy and weighs just 8 oz, for rain protection. I can't recommend it highly enough. If the rain is heavy and I want to keep hiking in spite of it, I will use a "rain wrap," or rain skirt, which protects the legs from the waist down to one's shins. I have not yet decided whether I'll use my actual homemade rain skirt (just 2 oz) or just wrap my groundcloth around me and tuck it in at the waist. I'm leaning towards the latter. 

I'll be taking no fancy jackets or rainproof pants, as I've found the above combination to work spectacularly in prolongued Andean rains. You are adequately protected from the rain and get enough ventilation at the same time. Any rain that happens to reach your torso, arms, or ankles, tends to dry up really quickly, as the vast majority falls on the umbrella and rain skirt. 

If there is a serious need for it, I'll throw on my MLD cuben poncho tarp, though I prefer hiking under just an umbrella. 

For the Sierra Nevada and possibly the mountains of Southern California, I expect to take along my MLD rain mitts, but more to keep dry while touching snow with my hands than for rain protection.

Note that all three elements of my rain gear (umbrella, poncho, and rain wrap) are dual-purpose items. If one were on a tight gear budget as well as a food and lodging budget, one could have this same awesome combo for $70-80 by substituting the Golite poncho tarp for my custom-made MLD tarp. 

Hammocking the PCT

Why hammock?

It's comfortable (for most people), it raises your legs, it is restful, it lets you catch more breeze (important for hot areas), it allows you to get more rest during rest stops, it's easy to use, etc. 

My hammock sets up in 1 minute, and I expect to use it all the time for rest stops and sleeping. Whereas other hikers will be resting by sitting down in the shade and swatting mosquitos, I'll be completely lying down with my net pulled over my hammock, catching the breeze. This will even make it possible to sleep in the hottest hours of the day and spend more time hiking in the early morning and late evening to avoid the heat. To be fair, I haven't tried this schedule before and don't know how it'll work. 

Why a tube net?

Some hammocks come with netting attached, which seems like it would be more convenient. However, mosquitos can often get to you through the bottom fabric of the hammock. I could make my own hammock with an impermeable fabric such as silnylon or cuben, but then I would lose breathability and the ability to catch breezes, which I suspect will be very important on the PCT. Bug netting significantly slows breezes but does not stop the flow of air. Finally, a tube net can be used for ground sleeping as well, whereas you'd need a separate net for the ground if you had, say, a Hennessy hammock with an integrated net. 

Why pads instead of an underquilt?

I use pads (see previous post) because they provide the same amount of bottom insulation as underquilts (but less ease of use) for less weight, and because they can just as readily be used on the ground. 

Best hammocking resource:

My Sleep System

As stated in an earlier post, one generally needs to be prepared for nighttime temperatures down to as low as -7 C (20 F) on the PCT during the early and late sections. One can expect a lot of wind in places, and occasional rain or snow. In this post, I'll simply state my gear choices and their rationale.

Sleeping bag

I'll be taking my Jacks 'R Better Rocky Mountain No Sniveller quilt (size L), which weighs about 800 grams (28 oz) and can keep me warm down to 20 F. I have come to like quilts, because you never get hot in them since you can easily toss it aside in your sleep. Quilts are especially convenient for hammocks, too. This quilt can be converted into a down jacket that comes down to the knees, though I've found it's rarely practical to use it as such. I'll also have the down hood along with it, which adds another 2 oz. 

There's a chance I'll trade my down quilt in for something lighter in the mid-summer, if temperatures are expected to be 10 C (50 F) and over at night. I might take the Backpackinglight Pro-90 quilt, for instance, saving 400 grams (14 oz) of weight. 

ADDED LATER: No, scratch that idea. Everyone says cold nights can occur anywhere along the trail. 

I am undecided as to whether or not to take my silk sleeping bag liner. The reason would be to keep my quilt clean. In the past I have generally slept in clothing, but the liner would allow me to take it off. The silk liner weighs under 5 oz. The cheapest silk liners are to be found on New Zealand websites, and the cost of shipping to the U.S. is minimal for such a lightweight item. 

Ground cloth

I'll cut a two-man Adventure Medical Kits emergency blanket in half lengthwise and use that as a ground sheet. It weighs 1.5 oz, and the reflective side makes it useful for creating shade, or signalling for help (never tried that). Since I'll be sleeping in my hammock most nights, I'll mainly use it during breaks or as I'm going to bed. 

Sleeping pads

I would normally take a pad for just my torso, but since I'm planning to sleep in a hammock most of the time, I'll need a longer pad. I expect to take the GG nightlight torso pad and the 1/4'' thick hammock pad, cut in half lengthwise (now 50 cm x 155 cm). I've found adequate sleeping pads to be very important to getting a good night's sleep, and a big difference can sometimes be as "cheap" as an extra 50 grams of pad under the torso. So I don't regret adding another 100 grams of padding to my sleep system, as this will translate into better sleep. I'm not taking an inflatable pad because of the greater weight and risk of puncture. I'll have spare pads sitting at home ready to be mailed to me if the pads I take eventually get too flat (which they can do after days and days of use, though hammocking seems to not flatten them as much). 


The hammock involves a total weight penalty of approximately 1 lb (hammock + extra pad), however, I feel I'll be very pleased I brought it. I'll be taking the inexpensive ($20) Travel Hammock, which is long and wide enough for me, about as light as mass produced hammocks come, and has a very easy set-up system. It may lack durability, but I can always call up Campmor on the trail and get a new one mailed to my next town stop if necessary. 

Tarp and bug net

Discussed in previous post

Shelter(s) for the PCT

I'm a dedicated tarp camper and will be using an ultralight poncho-tarp on the PCT. Those who carry tents on the PCT generally do so for the larger enclosed, most convenient bug-free space. There may be individual psychological reasons as well, such as feeling subjectively safer being completely out of view. Obviously, bugs (especially mosquitos) are a major force to be dealt with on the PCT, and tarp campers must have some kind of net enclosure to protect themselves at night - at the very least, a headnet to wear to bed. 

On the Colorado CDT, we lacked such an enclosure and suffered as a result. For our trip to Peru, I sewed an effective two-man net enclosure weighing only 200 grams (7 oz). Now that I'm going alone, I'll need something different. 

Since it doesn't rain much on the PCT in the summertime, most thru-hikers end up sleeping under the stars most of the time. This is what I plan to do as well. My MLD cuben poncho-tarp weighs only 200 grams (7 oz) along with the tie-outs and stakes, and I don't expect to have to use it much. It's even big enough for two people, if rain is infrequent or brief. My model of the poncho-tarp is 5'4'' wide as opposed to the standard 4' wide ponchos that Ron at MLD sews. This gives the poncho more versatility, but cost me a lot more for the custom design. 

Here are some budget options for a shelter on the PCT:

  1. Buy 3 yards of 60'' wide silnylon 2nds (they're just as good as 1sts) at and make yourself a one-piece, one-man tarp for roughly $30-35. The best size is 5' x 9'. All you'll need to do is sew around the edges and put 8 grosgrain loops on the corners and halfway between each corner. To make it even more usable, put linelocks on the loops to make tensioning the tarp a cinch. 
  2. Get the Golite poncho tarp. It can be found used or on sale for as little as $30-35. The size is ideal for a one-man shelter, housing two if necessary (if you have little gear, and the rain is not lengthy). You'll have to seam-seal the hood seams and tie the hood to a branch or stake when setting up the tarp to avoid leakage.
  3. Use a tent fly and leave the rest of the tent home. Tent flies can be harder to pitch as a tarp because of their tent-fitting shape, but this has worked for me before. Cost: $0 (assuming you already have a tent). 
  4. (Not for the faint of heart). Attach four tie-outs using a sheet bend knot to a two-man Adventure Medical Kits emergency blanket (3.5 oz) and pitch over a string drawn between two trees or posts. Sleeping under this can be scary at first, but it has worked for me in moderate rains. I would be concerned about hail. The emergency blanket also provides unsurpassed shade in the desert sun if you have a place to tie it to. It costs $6-7. 

Generally, the cheapest ultralight waterproof material is silnylon, and the cheapest shelters are made of this material. You won't gain much by paying a lot more for spinnaker or cuben fiber. 

Bug nets

Assuming you're using a tarp like me, you'll need a bug-free enclosure to avoid going insane. It can be a minimalist one that just drapes over you, like the Gossamer Gear (GG) bug net, or one that attaches to your groundcloth, creating a fully enclosed space. A mid-way solution would be the A16 bug bivy. Each of these can weigh very little (under 200 grams, or 7 oz). For me, a headnet didn't cut it on the CDT, because I couldn't eat in one (duh) or completely protect my hands and ankles while resting. I strongly recommend having a bug-free enclosure that allows you to eat, rest, and write in your journal without having to worry about mosquitos biting you. This means something at least as protecting as the GG throw-over bug net or the A16 bug bivy, which pops open easily using a lightweight fiberglass frame. These will cost under $50. 

Fully enclosed "net tents" cost a bit more, unless you sew one yourself. Here are some options:

  1. Ray-way net tent (two-man only, if I'm not mistaken). You'll need to sew it yourself, and it's designed to be used in conjunction with their tarp. It seems to be a little clumsy to use on its own, as it would require quite a few stakes and two sticks to hold it upright. 
  2. MLD bug bivy. Lightweight and does the trick, but needs something overhead to hang on. 
  3. Six Moon Designs (SMD) Serenity net tent. Lightweight and allows you to sit up to eat (very convenient). The downside is that it needs to be staked out before using. This reduces the likelihood that you'll actually set it up for lunch breaks. 
  4. Any bivy sack with a fully netted head section, such as the Titanium Goat Ptarmigan bivy in the full netting option. This is certainly usable, but I wonder if I will not want more breeze passing across my body during breaks in the hot sections of the PCT. 

My choice

I expect to be sleeping in a hammock most nights, so my choice of net enclosure has to be built around that. I'm going to sew a net tube with drawstrings at both ends (similar to this or perhaps one of the tapered ones shown here), and slip that over my hammock. A string will be tied over the top of the hammock to hold up the netting. It seems to be a very functional concept, and the net would weigh under 6 oz. Furthermore, I could slide into this netting if I ever sleep on the ground, and even suspend it from a branch for rest stops where I want to sit on the ground. I'll take pictures of this set-up as soon as I complete it. 

My poncho-tarp is large enough to provide decent, though not ideal, coverage for my hammock. Most of the time I won't be using it, though. 

Backpack(s) for the PCT

As a general rule, if your total pack weight is going to be consistently over 25 pounds, a pack with a stiff frame is a good idea. It will weigh more than a frameless pack, but the increased comfort provided by the effective transfer of load bearing to the hips will be worth it. Under 25 lbs (especially under 20), a frameless pack is plenty comfortable, and the weight savings can give you a considerable speed and mileage advantage will be worth it. 

With this in mind, and expecting to have a base weight (not counting consumables and what I'm wearing as I hike) in the 7-10 lbs range during the hike, I will be using frameless ultralight packs for most of the journey, and a semi-stiff large capacity pack for the Sierra Nevada, where I will be most loaded down with extra gear (bear canister, ice axe, crampons, warm jacket) and 8 or 9 days of food. 

I would like to try out all three of my packs on the PCT (evidently, I have not always been on as strict a budget as I am now!). I expect to start with the Mountain Laurel Designs (MLD) Zip pack (2008 model). It weighs about 300 grams (10.5 oz) and has about a 40 liter capacity. During the first 1-2 weeks, I expect to have a slightly depressed appetite, and there will be plenty of volume in the pack for the 3-5 days of food I'll need between resupply towns in this section. 

At some point as early as Big Bear I plan to trade my Zip for my Zpacks Blast 36 pack, which weighs 200 grams (7 oz) and has a capacity of 50-55 liters. This pack is a bit worn already, having seen 50 days of backpacking, but I expect it to hold up for another 50 to 100 days. It has convenient storage bags on the hip belt and shoulder straps, where I put all my little stuff and carry maps and camera. I think I will appreciate the extra volume when my trail appetite comes into its own and I'm wolfing down 5000-6000 calories a day. I'll be able to pack high-volume food such as bread, spiral pasta, etc. 

For the High Sierra starting at Kennedy Meadows (700 miles into the trek), I'll use my Golite Pinnacle pack. It has a semi-stiff back and seems to carry up to 30 or 35 lbs in relative comfort. It weighs 700 grams (25 oz) and has a volume of 70 liters. It's also made of a tougher fabric than the other two packs. I'll need the added volume for the mandatory bear canister and for the warm jacket I plan to take. I expect to use a plastic pack liner every day to guard against getting food and gear wet during river crossings. As soon as I can get rid of the extra gear (probably Sierra City, nearly 500 miles later), I'll trade in the Pinnacle for the Blast, which I'll probably use for the remainder of the hike. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

General Trail Considerations

I've done some research to try to pinpoint the conditions I'll need to prepare for psychologically, logistically, and gear-wise. Obviously, gear can be received or sent home (or further ahead to another trail town) at any resupply stop, so gear decisions do not have to be final. 


As I understand, one needs to be prepared for nighttime temps down to as low as -7 C, or 20 F. These can occur in the mountains of southern and central California in late April to early June, or in the Cascades in September (assuming you're hiking north, as I plan to do). In July and August I'm expecting night temps to be around 8-10 C (45-50 F) most of the time. Daytime temperatures will be high most of the time, maybe even soaring as high as 40 C (104 F). Even on hot days, temperatures will quickly drop after dark, usually reaching the 40s at night. So one must be prepared for both heat and cold. One must have shoes that allow the feet to ventilate as much as possible during hot sections, or face blistered feet. 

Rain is rare on the PCT, mainly striking in the Cascades in early autumn. That said, thunderstorms and downpours can happen nearly anytime. One must have a shelter of some kind. Wind appears to be common, too, making wise campsite selection important. 

The sun will be shining most of the time, and it will be a killer. Much of the PCT is not in the shade. This dictates either reflective umbrellas (my personal choice) or clothing and a hat that covers all skin. Hikers who leave skin exposed and rely on sunscreen report that it does not work. I prefer staying cool by going shirtless in running shorts, protected from the scorching sun by my Golite Chrome Dome umbrella. This way I sweat less, need less water, and have fewer clothes to wash.


Water, or the lack thereof, is a serious issue for some parts of the PCT, notably the arid portions in southern California and some of Oregon's cattle country. One simply must know in advance where water will be and prepare accordingly. There will be waterless stretches of up to 30 miles. That could mean carrying 2 or more gallons of water. This requires advance planning and sufficient water bottles for these waterless sections. In other areas there is plenty of water, and one will hardly need to carry more than a liter of water at any time. 

Seasonal sources
Some sources of water may dry up as the summer wears on. One may need to follow water availability reports in order to not receive a bad surprise. I'll post a link to these in a subsequent post. 

Most sources say to treat all your water. Most thru-hikers report not treating much of their water. It takes a bit of experience to learn to discern a good water source from a potentially tainted one. Some form of water treatment (mechanical filter, electrical treatment, or chemical drops/tablets) will be needed. I'll be going with Aquamira drops and tablets, personally.


One will almost certainly encounter snow on the trail in southern and central California, and probably even into Oregon and Washington. There is snow even in low snow years, but the amount can vary widely. This necessitates following snow reports to know what amount of snow to expect. If there's an average amount or a lot, an ice axe is almost certainly necessary for safety on snowy slopes (as a self-arrest tool) in the mountains of southern and central California. Some people take crampons, but most never use them. Some people claim to self-arrest just fine with trekking poles. I personally will be taking an ice axe and Kahtoola microspikes (a traction device with spikes to put over one's shoes) for California's higher mountain areas. 

River crossings

There is no special gear you can have to make river crossings easier. Rope does not help and even paves the way for very dangerous situations. The best you can probably do is find a thick stick to help you through the water, and use a plastic pack liner to avoid getting important food and gear wet. Most or all difficult river crossings will be in the Sierra Nevada. 


Most hikers report quite a bit of mosquitos along many parts of the trail. Their amount depends on seasonal factors. This necessitates the use of DEET spray, headnets, and some kind of netted sleeping enclosure. 

Black bears
Much of the PCT passes through black bear country. Bears are most active in stealing hikers' food in the Sierra Nevada, where bear canisters are now required by law. You'll apparently be fined by a ranger or escorted out if you don't have one. I plan to get the Bear Vault 500, possibly borrowing one from previous PCT thru-hikers. I'll pick it up at Kennedy Meadows and send it home when I get out of the Sierras. Other sections of the trail aren't as dangerous, but the best strategy is to avoid established campgrounds and not cook food in camp, but before you stop for the night. Hanging food apparently is not very effective against experienced bears. Most thru-hikers keep it at their side and report no problems, though mice can occasionally gnaw at your food bags. 

Other "pests"
Rattlesnakes, ants, and yellowjackets may also occasionally pose problems, but they will not affect one's choice of gear. 

PCT Maps and Info for Budget Hikers

For Pay

The Pacific Crest Trail is well marked, but other trails and roads in the vicinity, and especially snow cover, can make navigating difficult at times. You must have some kind of maps and descriptions. 

If I had more money, I would buy the PCT Atlas by "Eric the Red" (the author's trail name). It has all the information you need condensed into a form that only an experienced long-distance hiker can truly appreciate. It costs $200 and seems perfect in every way. 

Next are the official PCT guidebooks from the Pacific Crest Trail Association. You can also buy these on Amazon. These have maps, but perhaps not "perfect" ones, and have lots of information that you might not need. They are also heavy. To make them really usable, you'd need to tear the books apart by sections and mail these to yourself along the way as you need them. They cost around $60 together.

Most people seem to get the official guidebooks along with the data book, which has brief trail notes describing distances between key points on the trail (water sources, roads, etc.). The data book costs $10. 

Most past PCT hikers recommend Yogi's guide. This is especially good for planning, it is said, and includes details on what exactly is in trailside towns. It compiles a lot of PCT thru-hiker know-how as well. I might buy this for planning purposes, or borrow one from one of last year's group.

The Pacific Crest Trail CD-ROM costs $30 and includes printable maps; however, I don't find them superior to the ones available for free below. 

For Free

There is a ton of info and even maps on the web about the Pacific Crest Trail. If all of it were somehow neatly compiled, you'd have an exhaustive PCT guidebook without having to pay anything.

This google-based map of the PCT at allows you to zoom in to exceptional detail. If you had this on a pocket PC or iPhone, you wouldn't need other maps. However, I don't think printing out pages of this map would be easy. And there are better maps than this. 

Halfmile's maps are homemade and can be downloaded for free. They have GPS coordinates, water sources, and a very high amount of detail, showing essentially every significant bend of the trail. They also have simple profiles and basic info on trailside towns, including post office hours. I plan to print these out on thin paper and carry sections with me. That's going to be a lot of paper, unless I print the maps back to back or fit two on each side of each page. I'm crossing my fingers that Halfmile finishes the Oregon and Washington sections before the end of April.

Here are some other very nice topo maps just like Halfmile's, but formatted smaller so you can fit more on a page and print out half as many pages of maps. I would go with these if they covered the entire PCT. However, they only go up to section G (less than 25% of the PCT). 

At you can download maps that are a bit rougher than the previous two sets, but formatted smaller so that you can print out half as many pages of maps as Halfmile's. It also includes a trail profile on top, but one that is perhaps not as useful as Bearcant's (see below). I also find the topo lines hard to read, as they are too close together and all have the same thickness. I might consider these maps, but I appreciate the higher degree of detail on Halfmile's maps. The author has not completed his maps of Central and Northern California or Washington yet, however Oregon is complete.

Bearcant's PCT Elevation Profiler is a superb tool for planning. It shows the trail's ups and downs and the relative location of resupply points and water sources. I plan to print these out and carry them with me. I will transfer key info by hand to these profiles after I print them. These combined with any of the above free maps seem to provide all the topographic information one could ever need. 

My choice

For me personally, detailed maps are more important than descriptions. I need to be able to orient myself and find important water sources. Research in advance will provide me with what I need to know about trail towns and trail conditions. Therefore, I expect to print out Halfmile's free maps and Bearcant's elevation profiler for on-trail use. I may or may not get Yogi's guide. In addition to the maps, I will make relevant notes in advance about the addresses and hours of post offices and public libraries in towns near the trail, and any other important things that I glean from the web. 

This will allow me to get all the info I'll need for under $50, or $20 (paper and printing costs) if I don't buy Yogi's guide. 

None of the people making free maps have gotten all the way through Washington yet. I may have to buy the official Washington guidebook to get those maps if they don't finish before I get to southern Oregon. 

Food Strategy

Food was a big problem for me on the CDT. I lost weight and never had enough calories and probably protein. This weakened me and I got sick and had to spend a week at a generous thru-hiker's house in Leadville, Colorado. We had planned for "healthy" food and soon couldn't eat it anymore. We had to mooch food off people too many times to count! 

This time, I am going to take a calories based approach. Rather than focus on the number of days ahead of me and try to plan meals for those days, I'm going to take the mileage ahead of me and multiply it by a coefficient to see how many calories I'll need, then buy that number in the store. As I gain experience and my caloric needs change, I can modify that coefficient. I hope that this approach will ensure that I have enough energy to get me from town to town. I found that in Colorado we would buy what seemed like plenty of food, but run out of it one day early. I think counting calories can help avoid this. If you judge food content with your eyes, you'll probably intuitively be going by your normal food intake rather than your hypermetabolic PCT intake. 

So, let's say my coefficient is 200 calories per 1 mile. If I have a 120 mile section coming up, I'll need 24,000 calories. If I take 6 days, that's 4000 calories/day at 20 miles/day. If I take 4 days, that's 6000 calories/day at 30 miles/day. 

This time around, I'll be especially looking for foods that are high in protein. I'll try to have on average at least 400 calories per 100 grams of food. Some things, like olive oil or butter, are far higher than that, whereas pasta is a bit lower. 

I'll let myself buy foods that I would never eat at home, such as Oreos with a load of peanut butter on top (our best discovery in Peru). I'll aim for whole grains, but will sometimes be reduced to buying enriched grains.

I'll typically load up on fruits and vegetables and eat as many as possible the day I'm in town and that evening. 

The PCT isn't as difficult to resupply on as the CDT, and I expect to average about 4-5 days between towns as opposed to 7 in Colorado. That means less weight in the pack, and more speed. 

My General PCT Strategy

This will be a budget hike*, because I don't have a lot of money right now, and my hiking style is one that doesn't incur many costs other than food anyways. I hope to spend $12 a day on the hike, $15 max. I will be trying to minimize unnecessary costs, such as restaurants, booze, and hotels. 

*Note that I already have practically all the gear I will need and that some of it is expensive. When I talk about my low budget, I'm referring to the actual hike of the PCT.

I will be hiking alone, or at least starting off alone. I expect to meet other PCT hikers at the annual "ADZPCTKO" event Apr. 24-26 and am looking forward to the new acquaintances and comraderie. At the same time, I am hardly a herd person and have my own plans for what I want to do in towns along the way. I sort of expect to be meeting a lot of people and spending short periods of time with them, but I don't foresee hiking long distances with the same people, unless we just hit it off incredibly well and have similar hiking strategies and goals. 

I will be limiting my stays in town to buying food, occasionally visiting the post office for resupply purposes, and spending hours at the local library working online for free. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Budget. The big reason. The reports I've read speak of restaurant and hotel prices that I am simply unable to afford. Like $20 for a meal, $50 for a room, etc. I have $500 a month max to spend while backpacking.
  2. I dislike the loss of time and focus that comes from spending the night in town and am going to try to wash stuff and keep clean on the trail day by day rather than saving it for town.
  3. I need the mental activity that comes from doing stuff online, writing for any of my various projects, etc. I found that after a couple weeks on the trail in Colorado, I came to crave mental work and information from the Internet. I want to be able to sit down and write about the things I've noted down in my notebook while on the trail. I want this time to be productive to me as a writer and adventurer and not to vegg too much while on the trail. My MP3 player can also help with this (I've found that 1-2 hours a day of listening to music/recordings is perfect for me).

I am going to try to generally enter town fairly early in the morning, grab food from the supermarket to gorge myself on during the day, head down to the local library and spend 3 to 5 hours there, then return to the supermarket to buy food for the next stretch of trail. Then I will leave town, either by hitchhiking or walking (if the town is on the trail). The days I am in town, I will try to hike as little as possible, and eat as much as possible (especially fresh fruits and veggies). These will basically be rest days with a little bit of hiking in the morning and the evening.

I will be gradually increasing mileage. I know that I can average at least 20 miles a day on terrain such as the CDT through Colorado. That was with my girlfriend, who slows me down a bit, but brings other benefits. Alone and on the PCT, I think I can eventually hike 30 miles a day, but I will have to listen to my body and force myself to hike less initially to avoid knee overuse (a problem I had a year ago from too long hiking days without adequate preparation). I expect to start out doing between 15 and 20 miles a day. If I want to finish the PCT by the end of September, I will need to average no less than 20 miles a day on the PCT. 

I will be resupplying as I go, as opposed to mailing myself food beforehand. We mailed ourselves "key food supplies" while hiking the CDT in Colorado, and the results were terrible. We couldn't swallow most of it down anymore! I don't know beforehand what food I'm going to want, so I'm not going to guess. However, along the way I may mail food from a storeside town to a point further up the trail if the stores up ahead are not supposed to be very good. 

I hope to see friends and relatives join me for parts along the way. That would be a lot of fun, and they can bring me pizzas and hamburgers and stuff :)