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.