Monday, September 20, 2010

Gear for a PCT Repeat: What I'd change

Here are some things I've learned from the last two years of hiking that would influence my ideal gear choices if I were to do the PCT again.

1. The real goal for selecting gear is to maximize speed, not minimize packweight.
The addition of 100 grams of weight to your pack translates into less distance traveled per day -- roughly what you'd cover in 5 minutes of walking. So, if the addition of 100 additional grams of gear saves you 10 minutes (in cooking, getting ready in the mornings, setting up camp, sleeping better, etc.), then you are in effect adding 5 more minutes to your walking day.

Using this logic and a bit of personal experience, you might decide to switch some ultralight options for somewhat heavier, but quicker and easier to use options. For instance:

  • A separate rain poncho (~200 g) and tarp instead of a poncho-tarp (I have become deeply disappointed in poncho tarps) or simply using an umbrella alone and quickly setting up camp if hard slanted rain or extended drizzling hits. Considering the summer weather of the coastal ranges, it might be better to set up camp and wait through the 10 cumulative hours of such weather during your PCT thru-hike rather than carry a 200 g poncho that translates into 2 x 5 minutes x 120 hiking days = 1200 minutes or 20 hours lost.
  • Wind pants made of a slightly heavier fabric than Momentum (keep the light stuff for your wind shirt which is less prone to tearing on rocks, snow, and branches).
  • Dedicated tarp pole/s if you don't carry trekking poles (save time looking for branches or trees spaced correctly), but only if you will need to set up your shelter most nights (otherwise the weight may not be justified).
  • Just a down quilt instead of a "wearable" down quilt (e.g. the Jacks R Better quilts). The cost in weight (velcro, fabric, cord, etc.) of the extra functionality is about 100 g. The conversion time between quilt and serape is too long to do often, so you'll wear it about 1-3 times the whole hike. But you can also wrap a quilt around you and get a similar, if not perfect, result.
  • A large stuff sack for your sleeping bag/quilt instead of a small one. You lose time stuffing it in and taking it out, are much less prone to do so during the day if it takes time, AND you progressively lose loft in your quilt, meaning that it does a poorer job of keeping you warm. Instead of getting an 800 g quilt, stuffing it into a 20 g stuff sack and storing it at the bottom of your pack, consider a 600 g quilt stored loosely in a 60 g stuff sack on top of your heavy stuff. Here you save both weight and time (both in storage and in lost sleep/lost warmth)!
  • A thicker sleeping pad instead of a thinner one. Instead of one 100 g Gossamer Gear pad, how about 2 or 3? Trust me, you'll get more than 5-10 additional minutes of deep sleep, so it's worth its weight. You may be tempted to get the NeoAir and will surely love it and reduce time lost on low-quality sleep... UNTIL it gets a micropuncture that you are unable to locate. Then you'll curse it. That's the only thing holding me back from getting one. That and the time spent inflating and deflating it (5 minutes per day? How about getting yet another Gossamer Gear pad for the same time/weight?).
In addition, you might want to choose a packing style that allows you to set up camp and go to sleep without taking everything out of your pack. This could save you 5 or more minutes a day. Using a shelter option that doesn't require you to set up a full-blown tent every night is also wise, since the vast majority of the time you'll only need bug protection, if any. Something like the A16 Bug Bivy might be well justified due to the high speed of use, even though it weighs more than something like the minimalist Gossamer Gear bugnet.

2. Pack needs to be higher volume and comfortable above 20 lbs.
Higher volume in order to make packing quicker (see point #1), and also to store quilt/sleeping bag loosely. Very rarely are PCT thru-hikers able to consistently keep their packweight under 20 lbs. including food. Let's say on a typical day you've got a 9 lbs. baseweight, 2.5 days of food at 3 lbs. a day, and water weighing 2 lbs. That adds up to 18.5 lbs. Probably 40% of the time your pack will be over 20 lbs, meaning some discomfort if you're using a frameless pack. Discomfort can also translate into lost time. Therefore, the ideal PCT pack might be something with a frame of some type that makes it comfortable to 30 lbs, a volume of maybe 60 liters to allow for looser packing, and as light a weight as is reasonable. Such a pack might conceivably weigh 600 grams.

I could compensate for the increased weight of such a pack simply by switching to an ultralight camera.

Monday, August 23, 2010

If I Did the PCT Again...

I think I'd try going south.

If I walked fast enough and started late enough, I could eliminate most of the particular seasonal challenges of the PCT: excessive heat, snow, full creeks, and mosquitos.

The other day I did an analysis of my mileage on the PCT. I took 131 days and had 13 zeros (all but two in the first half of the hike). It took about 3 weeks to build up my mileage to an average of about 22 miles a day, then it took a drop to about 15 in the Sierra before rising to nearly 24 through northern California and Oregon. It dropped slightly to 23 miles/day in Washington.

What I think I can do

If I repeat the PCT, I don't think I can expect to do far better than my last hike. I was already pretty lightweight and may be able to shave off 1-2 lbs from my pack. My food was close to optimal as well. What I could improve, however, is time management.

High-mileage days (>32 miles) tended to be followed by days with under 10 miles due to exhaustion and loss of energy. Instead, I should stay within a comfortable range of 25-30 miles a day whenever possible and avoid overworking my body.

Town stops were not optimal. In the hot season, I really should try more to reach towns early in the morning and get out as quickly as possible. Town stops were draining on my morale.

I could get rid of most or even all zeros by not staying in town with relatives and friends (yes, I know, that's part of the adventure), by entering towns earlier in the day, by keeping my mileage to under 33 miles per day, and by starting my hike doing 15 miles a day instead of 20.

My plan for a PCT Sobo hike

So, here's my plan:

July 10: Manning Park
August 3: Cascade Locks
August 23: CA-OR border
September 10: Sierra City
September 30: Kennedy Meadows
October 21: San Jacinto Peak
October 28: Mexican border

Social needs are not to be underestimated. Walking in complete solitude for more than 2 days at a time is not for me! According to this plan, I figure I would meet Nobos roughly Aug. 5-23 and Sobos during the months of September and October. Most Sobos would start a lot earlier than I, so it would take some time to catch up.

With a schedule like this, I think I would probably get enough social interaction to keep me going. In the early part of the hike I would not be so early in Washington that the seasonal backpackers would not be out, so I'd have them to talk to. In Oregon I'd have numerous but -- unfortunately -- brief conversations with all the Nobos. In California I might have caught up with the Sobos (which seem to clump into just a couple groups because there are so few of them) and would probably be able to spend a lot of time with them. If I eventually passed them by southern California, I would probably still meet backpackers hiking along the PCT and nearby trails since that's perfect hiking season there.

Mosquito season
Is roughly from June 15 to August 7, with isolated pockets hanging on for a couple more weeks. By starting on July 10, I'd miss half the season and would also have little snow to cross in the Washington Cascades.

My plan involves starting at 15 miles per day and gradually building up to 25 miles per day by day 20. From there on I could expect to average 25 miles a day regardless of the location, because:
  • by the time I got to the Sierras there would be no snow and no rushing creeks to cross, just beautiful empty terrain, fall colors, and almost no backpackers
  • by the time I got to the southern California semidesert, it would be October, with much lower temperatures and more tolerable sun
I'm pretty certain I can reach 25 miles per day just by being slightly more efficient with town stops and avoiding 33+ mile days. On my Nobo hike in 2009, 24 miles a day was a sustainable pace for me, with zeros and town stops included.

Weight benefits
No ice-axe would be needed for mid July in Washington. No trekking poles would be needed for crossing Sierra streams. And no bear canister either, since the bears and the rangers would have (I think!) moved lower by the time I got there. With a faster pace through the Sierras, I wouldn't have to restock in Independence and could carry fewer days of food between town stops.

But there are some slight weight penalties. I would need a warmer sleeping bag (quilt) starting in the northern Sierras, as well as a base layer, jacket, gloves, etc. This could add 2 lbs. of weight (less than what I save by not taking a bear canister).

Gear choices
Most of my gear would be the same or very similar. I'd probably get a new pack for the trip, though. I'd probably consider a Zpacks Blast 32 with stiffening rods and other accessories.

Final words
This schedule, I think, would allow me to avoid much of the most unpleasant aspects of my Nobo hike: the heat (esp. during town stops down below) and mosquitos (northern Sierra and southern Oregon).

Thursday, August 19, 2010

General Advice for a Beginner for a 40-Day Hike

Here's a letter I got and my response below:

1. im going backpacking for a month or so by myself, and you are one of
the people that i know that has done similar things to this and i need
advice. ill be on foot for the most part, sleeping outside, and in the
U.S. i need to know what to pack, and what kind of gear i need to buy,
and what kind of clothes are good for this sort of thing. ill be
walking south, i think, starting sept 7 or 8th. ive neve done anything
like this before, so any advice you can give me would be great.
again, ANYTHING you can think of that a new backpacker should know, i
would like to know. i know that might be a tall order, but i would
greatly appreciate your help.

2. this is what im thinking.

as this is my first trip, and ill be gone for so long, im thinking
pack size up to 60 pounds. a friend of mine is letting me use his
external frame pack, and if i had to guess without measuring it i
would guess it weighs 6 pounds on it own, 12 pounds with the
stove/plates/silverware/canteen that came w it. ill give you a better
weight tomorrow when i weigh it for real. ill be starting in MI, but
heading south. i want to put down a lot of ground, but im not sure
what is a realistic amount to walk in a day. right now im thinking
that i can cover 20 miles a day without to much trouble... does that
sound realistic? could i do more and not be crazy?
like i said, ill be heading south but dont have any plan as to were i
want to go. i just wana walk and dont care where i end up.
my budget is 2,000. the less i can spend the happier i will be, but i
would be willing to spend at least that much. the pack itself is
already acquired, but the things that i know ill be needing are:

bed roll/bag
rain gear
butane (thats what my stove runs on)
back pack cover
appropriate clothing (i dont know what is good and what is not)

thats what i can think of right now. what otehr things will i be
needing? i plan on picking up food along the way as i go, and in that
regard lots of rice, beans, potatoes, oatmeal, and fruit. im a
vegetarian, otherwise i would go for some jerky as well, but thats
out. any suggestions in the food depo?

in general, im lacking most in practical advice about backpacking, like...
-how far can i expect to go in a month and a half?
-is it safe to walk on major highways on the shoulder, or should i
stick to side roads more, or should i avoid roads all together?
-if i go off road, are rivers and such a common obstacle that will
give me trouble, or are they easily overcome?
-is the threat of people mugging me something to worry about? (ive
talked to 2 people who have done traveling somewhat like this, and
both of them had mugging attempts. :/ is this something that happens a

wew! thats just a few of the questions i have. thanks a lot for your help with this. :)

3.ok, ive done some reading on your page and feel a little
more prepared to tell you what im thinking.

like i said earlier, i will be doing this by myself without any
re-supply "points" on my trip, other than walmarts. i think this would
effect my pack size and type, right? im not opposed to buying a new
pack for myself if you think the external i am carrying is a bad idea,
but for what im doing i think it will be ok.

after reading about the PCT, im thinking that doing a trail like that
might better than trying to walk off roads and the like. im not doing
the trip for any one reason, just to see the world from a different
perspective, so completeing a trail wasnt vital to my goals for the
trip, but from some of the reading ive been doing is sounds like i
might cover more ground this way. what do you think? im still
undecided, esspecially as i dont know of any trails in michigan. i
want to go south were it is a little warmer, and the north country
trail ive read about doesnt go that direction.

And my response:

1. I would strongly recommend hiking not along roads, but on established long-distance hiking paths. It is much more scenic and pleasant, you don't have to worry about cars and riff-raff, and you will be part of a trail culture and will meet other people like yourself. Hiking completely alone for more than 2 days is tiresome for most people psychologically, and you may lose interest in not-very-scenic road walking without companions. Also, you'll have the satisfaction of completing a route or a specific segment of a route, which you won't get from road walking. You'll see the most scenic areas in the region and will have bridges to cross creeks and good trail markings to avoid getting lost. Some areas even have pit toilets. That's a lot more hiking infrastructure than you'd get on a road walk.

There are 4 awesome long-distance trails in your region:

Here's a complete list of long-distance trails in the U.S. if you want to find something further south (see the Buckeye Trail, for instance):

2. With a 60-pound pack you will be limited to about 10 miles per day and will be at high risk of knee and ankle injuries unless you have been training extensively. For comparison, in the Rockies Kim was able to hike nearly 20 miles a day with a 20-pound pack and might have been able to work up to 25 miles. I could average between 25 and 28 miles a day on the PCT carrying a pack that typically weighed about 20 pounds. You will literally be able to cover twice as much territory (and thus be able to resupply twice as often and carry twice as little food between town stops) if you can get your loaded (with food) pack weight at least to 30 lbs. After that you'll still be thinking after your trip how you could have shaved off more pounds, because the weight of your pack will really come to weigh on you during your hike. 60 lbs means limited mobility even in towns because you simply don't feel like running around on errands with the pack on. It means fewer detours to campsites to use showers and restrooms, because the extra half-mile just isn't worth it. And when it rains, you'll feel even less mobile with a heavy pack because it's so much effort to take if off and get out raingear and then put it back on. You can take a 6-lbs pack on your hike, but I guarantee you you'll remember my words with regret :)

3. Count on your calorie needs doubling during your hike. I needed 5000 cal a day. Food will cost you at least $10/day if you buy along the way and eat the cheapest foods available. If you're picky and like to eat nutritiously, it could be as much as $20/day. Rice may be a pain to cook. It'll use a lot of fuel (i.e. add more weight) and takes time to cook. Consider taking food that can be cooked by just bringing water to a boil once, and also bringing more food that doesn't need to be cooked at all. Some days you just won't feel like going to the effort of cooking (meanwhile you freeze as your rice is slowly cooking) and will just want to eat as quickly as possible.

4. It will be hard in the remaining time to learn about lightweight gear options, especially since you have little previous backpacking experience. But it's not impossible. Anyone with any experience hiking long distance literally weighs every item they are considering taking and makes spreadsheets showing the separate and total weights. First-timers tend to skip this step and either get discouraged and quit or mail home a huge chunk of stuff from the first town stop. That's why such a large percentage of people who set out to hike the Appalachian Trail quit (something like 3/4).

5. If I had 40 days and a budget of $2000 and no equipment, here's what I'd do:

a. dedicate $15/day for food, or $600
b. put aside maybe $200 for unforeseen expenditures (and whatever else you might have left over after gear purchases)
c. join the excellent forum and tell people in the "G-spot" forum that you've got $1000 and want to spend 40 days hiking in the Midwest with as light of a backpack as possible. You'll get tons of responses and good ideas. I would aim for a base pack weight (everything minus food and water) of no more than 15 lbs, even 10 lbs if possible. Then you can go to the used gear forum and look for the gear on sale. A rough budget might look like this (assuming you buy lightly used, but good gear):

1. $275 - down sleeping back to 20 degrees
2. $100 - lightweight pack
3. $125 - lightweight shelter
4. $20 - sleeping pads
5. $75 - trail running shoes
6. $30 - sturdy hiking umbrella
7. $25 - cheap raingear (frogg toggs or something + pack cover, or even a poncho)
8. $250 - other clothing (baselayer + breathable but windproof nylon layer + socks + gloves + warm hat + lightweight jacket)
9. $100 - odds and ends: small flashlight, pot, alcohol stove, spoon, etc.

I think that comes to $1000. The folks at can give you more specific options. I'd follow their advice, which tends to be very good. There are a lot of experienced hikers there, and they know all the lightweight gear options available.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Gear Question: JRB Quilt for PCT

Hi Buckwheat!

I've been really enjoying your blog on the PCT and have found some great information. I had a question I was hoping you could answer. I've been considering one of the JRB quilts (Sierra Sniveller) for a PCT thru hike but I am not sure if it will be warm enough for me.How did you find the Rocky Mt. sniveller? Was it overkill or was it just right. Could you also comment on the utility of using it as a jacket. I was thinking if I could use that as my main insulating layer when not hiking that I could save some ounces. Any information you could provide would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks in advance and happy trails,

Hi Adam,

Thanks for the message. I'm glad you've found my blog useful.

The Rocky Mt. Sniveller actually turned out to be just right for me. There were 15 to 20 nights where the temperature was between 25 and 32 degrees (I recorded the temp. each day), mostly in the southern and central Sierra. I am thin and sleep slightly cold, and by this time had lost a little bit of weight. Also, stuffing my quilt in a stuff sack each day had somewhat reduced its loft. I would consider the Sierra Sniveller if 1) I had a bigger stuff sack allowing me to not compress it so much each morning, 2) if I didn't sleep on the cold side, or 3) if I were beginning the Sierras June 15 or later, not June 2 like I did in 2009. A lot of guys were fine in quilts like the Golite Ultra 20 with just 12 oz of down, and the Sierra Sniveller is cut a little wider on top, which is nice especially if you're broad shouldered or heavier.

Like most people, I rarely used it as a jacket but appreciated it the few times I did. For instance, I wore it all the time during Kick-off, when most people froze their butts off standing around all the time in sub-50 temps. I was probably the only one there who was warm. It is slightly clumsy to switch to jacket mode with the tape and drawcords, but once you do it is very warm because it wraps around you all the way to the knees. However, I don't know that I like their hood much. If I did the PCT again I would take this hood I modified from the BPL Pro 90 Cocoon Balaclava: (scroll down to pictures). It is a lot more functional as a warm hood for daytime use in addition to the night, and it draws around your face better. It weighs the same or slightly less.

Most thru-hikers find they don't spend much time not hiking and not sleeping. Either they're getting ready for bed, or packing up, or eating while still in their sleeping bag, etc. Only in the Sierras and occasionally in WA did we spend significant time chilling out around fires. I sometimes wore the quilt then.

One thing I would change about my clothes (which were nearly perfect) is taking a Marmot Cocona PowerDry layer instead of a Merino long underwear top and bottom. I have this now, and it is at least twice as warm per weight than Merino. So, I would probably stick with the expensive Merino T-shirt, then have the PowerDry layer (total weight ~ 320 g top and bottom), sending home the bottoms from Truckee, then the wind layer, plus light gloves or mitts, my fleece ear wrap, and the BPL balaclava. Also, I would take Rocky goretex socks (for the narrow-footed) for the Sierras to help deal with cold and wet feet. Most of us had residual toe numbness for months after the 10+ days of daily snow crossings in 2009. Also, I would take this awesome new 25g flashlight of mine instead of the Photon Freedom or a 3-AAA Petzl headlamp: The reversible clip allows it to be used as a headlamp if you're wearing a hat or visor.

Finally, instead of a poncho-tarp and bivy combo I would consider a Zpacks Hexamid and a dedicated silnylon poncho for roughly the same total weight. The poncho could be used as an additional layer in the Sierras, even an emergency vapor barrier layer if needed. I got frustrated with clipping and unclipping the poncho tie-offs and trying to avoid tangling. This would give me a lot more room to relax and eat inside my shelter when the mosquitos come out (a major issue).

Best wishes,

Gear Question: Bivy & Tarp for PCT

Hello Richard,

My name is Joshua and I myself will be thru-hiking the PCT in 2011. I have been looking alot at bivy/tarp as a primary shelter; MLD superlight being the primary bivy and not sure on the tarp yet. I was curious from your experience would you recommend the full net hood for the Bivy or the half moon window? Also any other recommendations about what gear you recommend would be so much helpful. Thank you so much

Congrats on undertaking the PCT! I suppose you've come across my PCT prep blog at

Being an UL advocate and the owner of a Russian-language UL online community, I have a lot of thoughts and opinions on gear!:) Let me share a few, and if you have more questions I'll be happy to give input.

Bivy + tarp works well. Most of the time you won't want to pitch the tarp at all, and just having the bivy will save you time and effort over all the people with tarptents.

I would definitely take the full net hood, but I have never tried any other kind of bivy. What I found on the PCT is that heat is more of an issue than cold. Chances are you'll have a warm bag/quilt for Sierra temps (in 2009, it was 26 to 34 degrees at night for the first 20 days of June) that will feel like overkill for much of the rest of the summer. Having the netting will allow for more airflow.

I found myself at times thinking that perhaps a bug bivy would be more useful than a bivy much of the time. It would have been nice to have a bit more bug-free space, particularly around the head. For instance, I never tried eating more than small snacks inside the bivy. With the full screen, you'll also be able to talk to other thru-hikers more easily while in camp.

If I did it again I would probably take the MLD silnylon poncho-tarp and figure out a better solution for the problem of attaching tie-outs and avoiding tangling (I think I have a good one, but it needs testing). I have since sold my cuben poncho tarp and bought the more functional silnylon one, despite the additional weight.

An even lighter option is the Zpacks Hexamid plus some kind of rainwear such as a 200 gram poncho. You'd have more space to relax in buggy areas but would have to set it up almost every night, meaning less flexibility. I personally am nearly torn between these two options, but the Hexamid + poncho or light rain jacket combo is lighter even than the poncho tarp + bivy combo.

As I think I mentioned in my blog, the Golite Chrome Dome allows you to wear shorts and short sleeves in SoCal, avoiding much discomfort and grimeyness. I don't think I used sunscreen the entire time. A lot of PCT'ers agreed that it was a good idea, but didn't like the idea of choosing between poles and umbrella. But when I asked, most weren't 100% sure they actually needed the poles. For many poles seemed to be something they thought they had to have as backpackers. I, too, started with poles and used them plenty in the Sierras when crossing innumerable streams, but sent them home from Truckee and almost never regretted it.