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.