Don’t Hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) Without Reading This

“Timing. We give it many names: Destiny, Fate, Kismet, the will of God. Whatever we call it, lives are changed and molded by it, in small or drastic ways beyond our control. The precise, exquisite influence of timing moves people into new positions as surely as a spring flood rearranges the landscape. It is as unavoidable as life.” – Helen Van Slyke

Darren writes a companion story to the post about our Pacific Crest Trail mistakes, detailing the things that went well for us, and other factors for potential PCT hikers to consider.

If someone wants to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail in a single season, they are going to need to get a lot of things right. But, make no mistake, even if they get everything right with their planning AND their preparation, they may still fail.

After our attempt last year (in 2016), a good friend remarked to me, “I didn’t realize how much ‘kismet’ was involved in completing the entire PCT in one season.” He was correct – nearly everything has to go right.

For us, while we did many things right in our planning and preparation, we still couldn’t control everything that happened to us on the trail. Even though we reached California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains on our schedule and at an optimal time, who knew that a heat wave would hit, melting a vast amount of snow in just a couple of days’ time?

The result was that unmarked streams suddenly became raging torrents. In the end, we just weren’t comfortable with the risks of crossing some of the streams we came upon, which meant we left the Sierras at about PCT mile 800 of our trek. Although we skipped ahead and still completed 1,828 miles of the PCT last year, our kismet experience ensured that we would not be able to finish the entire distance in one season.

Sandy crossing an unmarked stream close to where we left the Sierra Nevada Mountains (PCT mile 800)

In my last article, titled, Five Mistakes We Made While Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), I talked about what we did wrong (or rather what we “learned”) as a result of the trip. If a person is planning to hike the PCT, I definitely recommend that they read that companion article in addition to this one.

Maybe you’ve never hiked or even been in the wilderness before. If so, I will try to give describe what it’s like. Much of the time, we were alone. In all seriousness, on any given day, we might see just a few other hikers. Many nights we camped by ourselves. It’s true, we saw a lot of hikers at the beginning or along the way at places like Hiker Heaven (in Agua Dolce, CA). But, as the journey unfolded, we found people simply dropped out.

View of the Sierras from Forester Pass (13,153 feet), the highest point on the PCT (mile 779)

The other point I want to make is that the PCT can be very remote. Along portions of the route, we could be 50 miles or more from civilization. There is one section in the Sierras where it is over 200 trail miles between road crossings. If we needed help, it could take a day or more to alert the right people. As I’ll discuss later, it’s unusual to have a cell signal. As a result, we needed to remain as self-sufficient as possible.

In this article, I’ll be covering what we believe were the things that we did right. Everyone has their own style, so I’m sure not everyone is going to agree. Also, since we are older than the average thru-hiker (in our mid 50’s) we wanted to mitigate as much risk as possible to maximize our chance of success. So, maybe it’s best to mention that what follows are just suggestions.

 

Plan the Work and Work the Plan

Sandy and I are planners. If we are going anywhere, we will typically have a detailed itinerary and reservations for each night. That is not to say we aren’t flexible. But, in our way of thinking, we would rather relax and follow a plan, than scramble to find a room for the night or tickets for a sold-out show.

I know our philosophy goes against some of the travel advice that’s out there. Before we left, we read articles about the PCT that basically said don’t plan, don’t prepare, just do it! I remember a trail angel saying, “Give it a shot and you’ll be fine. At least you will have stories to tell your grandchildren.” Well, that’s not my idea of fun. I have come to learn that I don’t like drama. I don’t like chaos. Instead, I like to see a good plan come together, meaning… I like to win.

As we have written elsewhere, Sandy and I have an ongoing “deal” with our family not do things that are inherently dangerous. There are things that might, at first blush, seem dangerous but, rest assured, we always read the “Dangers and Annoyances” section of the pertinent guidebooks and also have plans to mitigate the obvious risks.

Beyond the inherent danger of being in the wilderness, we needed a permit for a specific PCT start day. Moreover, this permit needed to be reserved months in advance, before we knew how much snow would fall in the Sierras. The traditional date to enter the Sierra Nevada Mountains (via Kennedy Meadows) is around June 15. The idea is that if a hiker gets there too early, the snow levels may necessitate that they would have to wait or skip ahead on the trail. Too late and they might not make it all the way to Canada before snow hits Washington’s Cascade Mountains.

The hiking distance between Campo (the Mexican border) and Kennedy Meadows is appropriately 704 miles. Therefore, based on the miles we thought we could manage each day, we worked backwards to figure out the ideal start date. There’s a great tool that’s out there that helped us to come up with a daily schedule, as well as our start date. It’s called Craig’s PCT Planner.

Once we had a schedule, we calculated the number of hiking days between each resupply point and also the dates when we would pass through them. With this information, we knew with some certainty how many days of food to put in our resupply boxes, as well as when each one needed to arrive. Because we wanted to control our food and caloric intake (see my previous story), we opted to send ourselves resupply boxes at each location, rather than rely on buying the majority of our items at the stores.

Since we built a menu plan with a great variety of food (eight rotating dinners for example), we didn’t get tired of what was sent to us. And in some towns, the food was very expensive. We were picking up a few snacks in one Northern California town to supplement what we had, and the hiker in front of us spent over $100 on just a tote basket full of groceries. So I’m sure we saved money as well.

Darren eating one of our dinners of Pad Thai in Southern California (mile 395)

Much of what we included in our boxes was purchased at Walmart, Trader Joe’s or online at places like Amazon.com. Once we had all of our supplies, it was simply of matter of filling the boxes. We numbered each of the boxes to keep them straight.

Resupply boxes lined up at home

We were able to bring the first few boxes to the post office ourselves before we left. But, for the rest, we asked Kristen, our daughter, and Sandy’s parents for help. Before we left, we gave them the numbered boxes for which they were responsible and a written schedule of when and where to send each box.

Fuel is another problem. It’s not available at all resupply points. But, there is a fantastic website that told us which places to expect it. We found information about fuel and the towns we would pass through here. Just as a note, we always carried one small additional fuel canister with us just in case we ran out.

Not only did our schedule help us in preparing our resupplies, but it also assisted us every day, giving us confidence that we were staying on plan. We noticed a lot of the other PCT hikers did not have a schedule and, as a result, seemed anxious about their progress. That’s not to say that we stayed strictly to our schedule the entire time, because we didn’t. At times we were a couple of days ahead and towards the end we were a little behind. But we did think about our schedule and used it to judge how we were doing and estimate when we would arrive in Kennedy Meadows. We ended up getting there on June 12th.
 

Practice Makes Perfect

Once we purchased all of our equipment, we were able to organize dry runs in nearby Joshua Tree National Park, as well as on the actual PCT (we live in Southern California). This is where we determined what worked well and what didn’t. We tried to leave nothing to chance. For example, we sampled all the food we would eat before we left.

In all, we took a total of four practice one-night backpacking trips before embarking on the PCT. These trips, in retrospect, were invaluable. After each one we felt we learned a little bit more about what we needed to bring. These trips also helped us to get in shape.

Darren on the PCT for an overnight training hike (mile 221)

Because we had access and felt the need to get in shape in a short amount of time, we went to the gym at least three times a week for several months. During each visit, we would typically do a full-body workout with the weight machines, and then we would spend some time on one of the cardio machines, namely the treadmill, the elliptical or the AMT (Adaptive Motion Trainer).

Working out in the gym prior to the start of the PCT

The cool thing about all of the cardio machines was that we could bump up the difficulty, making it easy to get in a good workout in a short amount of time. We typically spent 30 minutes on the weights and another 30 minutes on the cardio machines. When we got closer to our start date, we skipped the weights and spent the entire time (60 minutes) on the cardio machines. We even brought our backpacks to the gym and filled them with enough gallon water bottles to simulate the weight of a full pack.
 

Start Slow and Taper

When we built our schedule, we assumed we would start slow and build up the miles each day. The first day on the PCT we only hiked 10 miles. Many hikers hike 20 miles the first day because they don’t want to dry camp (without a nearby water source) the first night. We hiked 10 to 12 miles everyday for the first four days. Then, after that, we hiked between 12 and 14 miles for each of the next four days. We slowly built up our distance each day. As they say, “Bend, don’t break.”

Ramping our miles up lowered our chances of injury and reduced the severity of our blisters. Even on the first day, we pretaped our feet with adhesive tape to reduce the amount of heat, and thus, the severity of our blisters. (We knew that we would get blisters and where they would form because of our practice hikes. By the way, I swear by Nexcare Absolute Waterproof First Aid Tape).

By the time we reached Julian, California (at mile 77), we noted that some hikers stopped there, not because they had planned to, but because they were injured or had severe blisters from overdoing it the first few days. (By the way, Julian is a fun town. We’ve been there before and loved it. Just didn’t want to stop so early into the hike unless we had to.)

Darren with his feet pretaped the first week of the PCT (mile 101)

You might wonder how could we confidently hike such a limited number of miles each day. Weren’t we a bit anxious about making the Canadian border on time? The truth is that, because we had a schedule, we knew what we needed to accomplish each day. And, because we were on schedule for Kennedy Meadows, it didn’t make sense to speed up. After the Sierras was a different matter, of course. We wanted to cover as much ground as we could because we were racing against the onset of winter in Washington.
 

Clothes Makes the Man (or Woman)

Sandy and I had learned long ago about packing for our other adventures. So when it came to the PCT, we relied on some of the successes we had in the past. We settled on convertible pants and large sun hats to reduce our sun exposure. We had short-sleeve shirts and removable sleeves. We could hike with our sleeves on or off depending on the time of day. Also, because we were mostly covered up, we reduced the amount of sunscreen that we needed to carry. (Most hikers hiked in just shorts and short sleeves. But, this was just too much sun for us.) Your results may vary.

Darren at the 500 mile point with his hat, shirt and sleeves

Another unusual item were gloves. They reduced the blisters on our hands from our walking sticks and also kept the sun off of them too. The funny thing is that I bought expensive mountaineering gloves before we left. Later, Sandy decided that she wanted some gloves too, so we visited a Home Depot while in Tehachapi, CA (mile 566). She bought Fingerless Mechanics Gloves which were half the cost of mine and actually lasted a lot longer. When my gloves gave out, I purchased another pair like hers.

Sandy examining a piece of volcanic rock, providing a view of her gloves (mile 1302)

Then there’s the topic of footwear. The most common shoe we saw on the trail (in 2016) was the Altra Lone Peak Trail Runner. Some people prefer boots. It’s true that hikers are less likely to twist their ankle with a mid-top boot. But, I don’’t like the idea of immobilizing my ankle.

As a result, I wore the Salomon Men’s Speedcross 4 Trail Runner and Sandy went with the Salomon Women’s Speedcross 4 Trail Runner. We sent ourselves a new pair (in the resupply box) every 500 trail miles. In retrospect, it probably would have been better to switch them out every 400 miles, as you could really feel the trail underneath your feet walking with worn out shoes during the last 100 miles.

Sandy’s new and worn shoe comparison – Tehachapi, CA (mile 566)

While we liked those shoes a lot, today I would probably go for the increased cushioning of the Hoka Speedgoat 2 Trail Shoe, while Sandy also prefers the Hoka One One Women’s Speedgoat 2 Trail Shoe.

We also brought running gaiters, which we used to cover the tops of our shoes, thereby reducing the amount of dirt and gravel that ended up inside them. Gaiters are inexpensive and weigh nothing. Definitely would bring them next time.
 

Phone Home

If I could only bring one piece of equipment other than the clothes on my back it would be my phone. We met several hikers who left their phones at home. They said they wanted to “unplug.” But, of course, we were so far off the grid that we were pretty much unplugged most of the time. Having a phone meant that we could check in with family when we had a signal. And it was always good to let everyone know we were doing OK.

Sandy calling family from a campsite in Southern California (mile 23)

That said, the utility of the phone, even without a signal, is immense. First and foremost, it is functions as a map. There is a free app called Halfmile and it’s available for both Apple and Android.

Halfmile App showing trail in Southern California

There’s another paid app called Guthook. It’s a bargain at $24.99 (at time of writing) for the entire trail. We didn’t purchase it at first. But, later we saw its utility and made the investment.

Guthook has very detailed campsite information, which helped us decide whether to continue to the next location or stop for the night. It also showed us the elevation profile, giving us an edge because we could quickly see and mentally prepare for what was ahead. Guthook is available for Apple and Android.

Guthook App showing trail in Oregon

Another key, key thing on the PCT is water. We met thru-hikers two months into our hike who asked us if we knew how far it was to the next water source. Huh? Like the location of the next campsite, knowing the location of an upcoming reliable water source was crucial. Why? Because we found we were more likely to limit our water carries if we knew that there was more water just ahead. (Water is heavy.) Conversely, if it was a long way to the next reliable water source, we didn’t want to run out of water before we arrived. Fortunately, that only happened to us twice. This is where the water report comes in. It is crowd sourced by hikers on the trail, so the status of a water source is usually up-to-date.

Sandy pouring water over her head on a hot day when we ran out of water before arriving at Snow Creek, Southern California (mile 205)

We recommend not downloading the PDF documents because they can quickly get out of date. Instead, we recommend following the instructions for the Google sheets version of the water report here. Every time we had service, we synced the Google sheets water report on our phones and were immediately up-to-date.

Another neat thing we did with our phones was to document our trip with Instagram. We were surprised how many people followed us there. I spent a few minutes every night selecting a photo and writing a short story about it. Our friends and family loved it. I also found that I could select the photos and write the commentary even if I didn’t have connectivity. Instagram buffered them and later, when I had Internet, I was able to send them out.

We also linked Instagram to Facebook, which helped with those who weren’t on Instagram. It was great to answer questions and have our friends and family rooting for us while we were on this tremendous adventure.

You might ask, how did we keep our phones charged? Here’s what we did.

  1. Before we left, we uninstalled everything but the most critical apps. Many apps take power even if they aren’t used. Facebook is the worst offender. Instead of leaving the Facebook app installed, I added a bookmark in my browser for Facebook and used it that way.
  2. We left our phones in airplane mode.
  3. We turned down our brightness as low as we could. The screen takes a lot of power.
  4. When I took photos, I turned on my phone, took the photo and then turned it right back off. I didn’t review my photos until later when I had house power.
  5. We brought paper maps (available for free here), which we printed and put in the resupply boxes before we left. Instead of continually looking at own phones, we highly recommend having the paper maps and tried to use them as our primary source.
  6. For charging, we didn’t buy a solar panel. I love the idea, but in practice it doesn’t work well. There are just too many days in Oregon and Washington where the tree and cloud cover doesn’t permit enough light. Instead, we purchased this inexpensive USB battery on Amazon.
Sandy checking the paper maps at a break in Northern California (mile 1560)

There’s some debate about which carrier is best along the PCT. I was told by several previous PCT hikers that AT&T had the best coverage. This was not true. (I have AT&T so I believe that I am being objective.) Verizon was far better. There were towns in Northern California that didn’t have even one AT&T tower. What a pain! Unless things have changed, T-Mobile and Sprint aren’t even in the race.

Phone coverage was OK at the beginning of the PCT. We would typically get a signal once a day or at least once every other day. The Sierras and beyond were a whole different story. We went for a week without a signal several times. Again, this is with AT&T, but even with Verizon, hikers will be off the grid much the time. Can you hear me now?
 

Conclusion

The PCT changed our lives. I have a new perspective now even though Sandy and I didn’t finish the entire 2,650 miles. For one, we look at stuff differently. The PCT confirmed for me that every asset that we own is also a liability. Everything we purchase has value but also weighs us down (financially and otherwise). Life is better with a few high quality items. And, hiking the trail confirmed to us that experiences are better than toys.

Beyond these obvious changes, completing even a portion of the PCT had a substantial impact on our confidence. We planned, we prepared, and we performed. I notice a greater level of confidence with both of us.

In Sandy’s case, she was terrified of those river crossings, like the one that caused us to leave the trail in the Sierras and skip ahead. But by the time we reached Northern Oregon and came upon other swollen rivers, Sandy amazed me by quickly and expertly navigating through them. A real testimony to her growth while on the trail.

Sandy navigating a river in Oregon (mile 2106)

The confidence that we gained from the PCT has also overflowed into other areas of our lives, meaning that we have become more self-assured outside of hiking. I found that the PCT was a challenge for sure, but it was also an great investment in our future selves.


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