Five Mistakes We Made While Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)

 

“Success is its own reward, but failure is a great teacher, and not to be feared.” – Sonia Sotomayor

Darren writes about the mistakes we made during our 1,828 mile 2016 Pacific Crest Trail hike.

Sandy and I decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 2016 after hearing about Dylan, our daughter’s friend from college, who was planning to complete the entire journey in one season. I remember following Dylan on the trail, waking up each morning with the eager anticipation of reviewing his progress on Instagram. The scenery was absolutely gorgeous. And, the confidence and determination that I saw on his face while he steadily made progress was inspiring.

I was amazed to see Dylan cover over 30 miles in one day as he crossed the desert on foot north of Los Angeles. It was exciting to imagine what it must be like to complete the entire 2,650 miles across the United States from border to border.

While Dylan decided to hike the PCT southbound, we decided to hike it the more traditional direction northbound from Campo, California (about 50 miles east of San Diego) on the Mexican border to Manning Provincial Park, in British Columbia (about 125 miles east of Vancouver). Though we did everything in our power to complete the entire journey, we “only” made it 1,828 miles.

Leaving the Mexican Border with full packs

We happened to be hiking in the Sierras when much of the snow melted at once, causing very high water levels in many of the streams we needed to cross. This made it difficult for us to continue. Rather than giving up completely, we skipped ahead to Lake Tahoe. Our plan at the time was to return to the Sierras after reaching the Canadian border. But, unfortunately, we simply ran out of time. Exhausted and famished, we ended our journey at the Columbia River, on the border between Oregon and Washington.

If you are considering taking on the challenge of completing the PCT, you might want to continue reading. Though we don’t think of our journey as a failure, we did identify some mistakes that could help others. In fact, I would go as far to say that our “lessons learned” might be more valuable than the experience of another hiker who made it all the way.
 

1. Sweat the Small Stuff – Gear

I remember as a Boy Scout hearing that some of the boys were cutting the ends off their toothbrushes to reduce the amount of weight that they needed to carry on an upcoming backpacking trip. I laughed at the time, since, obviously, this would have only saved an ounce (or less). But, as they say, “Ounces equal pounds and pounds equal pain.” In the end, I can say without a doubt, carrying excessive weight was the biggest mistake that we made on the PCT.

Based on the calculator here, I’ve estimated every extra pound you carry equals somewhere around five calories per hour. Here’s how I figured it out: I entered my personal weight and one hour into the calculator and then compared the number of calories burned at the midpoint of “climbing hills with 10 to 20 pound load” and “climbing hills with 21 to 42 pound load.” For my weight there was an 80 calorie difference between the midpoints, which were 16.5 pounds apart. Dividing the two gave me a 4.85 calorie increase per pound/hour.

Five calories may not sound like much, but it can add up if you are hiking 10 to 12 hours day. Just five extra pounds (at 5 calories per pound) over 10 hours equates to 250 calories every day. You’ll see later why this is important when I bring up weight loss.

I had heard of “ultralight,” but both Sandy and I viewed it as an extreme philosophy guaranteed to make the journey a “death march” because of the lack of necessary items you would be carrying. For example, we had heard of hikers forgoing a tent all together and bringing only a tarp in the event of rain. They would “cowboy camp,” meaning that they would sleep under the stars on top of the tarp.

We also heard of hikers forgoing their morning coffee and leaving their stove at home for portions of the hike, eating all their meals cold. “Going without coffee? That’s barbaric,” we thought. It is not the experience that we wanted. But, as one ultralight hiker we met said, “You can either be comfortable when you are hiking or when you are sleeping, but not both.” Good point!

Darren enjoying a cup of coffee at our final campsite at Watum Lake, OR

One of the reasons that Sandy and I even considered tackling the PCT was that we already had a lot of the gear. Our items might have been a little heavier, but they were in fine condition. Ultralight equipment tends to be more expensive. For example, we left with a Sea to Summit iPood Pocket Trowel. It weighs 3.5 ounces and costs $11.45 (at time of writing). But, we saw many hikers with The Deuce of Spades Backcountry Potty Trowel. It weighs a mere 0.6 ounces and costs $19.95. If you do the math shaving the difference in weight costs $2.93 per ounce. The other thing to consider is that, if you look carefully at the Deuce, it doesn’t look like it is going to hold up over five months. (The truth is otherwise. We own the Deuce today and I can say, it is every bit of tough as the Sea to Summit. But, I digress.)

Another weight factor concerned safety. Yes, you could probably get away without bringing a first aid kit. But, I just couldn’t justify not having bandage and antibacterial ointment if one of us got hurt. In fact, we knew of a hiker who had to get off the trail because of an infection she got only six days into the PCT.

Still another consideration was comfort. Some people were bragging that their base weight (the weight of your backpack without water, food, or fuel) was 15 pounds, or even as low as 12 pounds. We thought these people were obsessed. We knew that this trek was going to be hard enough; at least we thought we could keep our weight relatively low and bring what was important for our comfort.

Sandy and I weighed our packs before leaving for Campo. My base weight was 24 pounds and Sandy’s was 22 pounds. The difference between a 15 pound and a 24 pound base weight is, in a word, huge. For one, unnecessary weight reduces the total distance that you can hike in a day. This has all sorts of implications. For example, since you can only resupply at certain points along the route, it slows your progress and thus, increases the number of days between resupplies.

In retrospect, the key to the whole weight equation is the “Big Four” – your backpack, tent, sleeping bag, and pad. These are the heaviest items. Thus, if you are on a budget (and even if you aren’t) start there. Once you have tackled these items, look at the other things on your list and either leave them home (because you really don’t need them) or make that tradeoff decision – weight vs. money. In retrospect, we should have started with a blank slate, built our gear list, and then evaluated what we currently had.
 

2. You are What You Eat – Food

In reading other people’s blogs, we decided that one of the big dangers of hiking the PCT is weight loss. We saw the before and after pictures of hikers at the beginning and end of the trail and, wow, what a difference! Losing thirty or more pounds is not unusual. I know what you are thinking. Hmm, I could stand to lose a few pounds… Let me assure you, losing 30 or more pounds might sound like a good thing to some of you out there, but, losing this much weight over just a few months, medically speaking, is very hard on your body, as you shall see.

Because of my concern for maintaining our weight as much as possible, I spent a lot of time thinking about our meal plan. I figured we would need plenty of energy to keep us going day after day. Going back through my records, I figured at the time we would burn around 5,000 calories per day. Unfortunately, because of several incorrect assumptions, my calculations where way off. Again using the calculator here and some simple math, I now believe we were burning more like 6,000 calories per day at the beginning and over 7,000 calories near the end (when we were hiking further each day). No matter how you cut it, it is almost impossible to maintain your weight if you are burning this many calories. So, it really becomes a game of not losing weight too quickly.

The problem with most of the dehydrated meals you can buy is that they have too few calories. As a result, I came up with the idea of making our own dehydrated meals to save money and to also boost the calorie count. I scoured the Internet looking for low-cost recipes that I could duplicate on the trail. I came across Harmony House Foods, which had a large selection of dehydrated veggies and legumes. I was also able to purchase dehydrated meat on Amazon. With these ingredients, I built the ultimate high-calorie, high-protein and low-cost meal plan. We purchased all of the dry ingredients, assembled them in our kitchen, and vacuum packed them to maintain their freshness. Sounds like a great plan, right? Not so fast!

Assembling meals in our kitchen
Food for a resupply box

The problem with this strategy is that some of the recipes needed time to cook. For example, one of my go-to recipes was “Six-Bean Chili.” This recipe was 990 calories per serving. It was loaded with protein and cost about a $1.72 per meal. As I later learned, there’s a difference between a dried bean and a dehydrated one (Harmony House sold dried beans). Dried beans need to cook awhile – at least 20 minutes. This meant I couldn’t just add boiling water. I needed a pot, an adapter for the pot, and some extra fuel to cook the meal.

Because prepared dehydrated meals come in a mylar bag, the only thing you need to clean when you are done is the spoon. The other point, beyond the fuel, is the time and water required for cleaning up. On the nights we were dry camping (not next to a water source), it was even worse, because we needed to carry extra water from the source to our campsite. Do you see a theme here? Weight. Weight for the pot, weight for the adapter, and weight for the fuel. And we carried even more weight for the water to clean up.

Cooking with stove, pot, attachment and fuel in Kennedy Meadows, CA
Six-Bean Chili with added store-bought cheese cooked in the pot

In retrospect, I now believe that there is a better strategy. I would leave the pot and adapter at home. I would carry less fuel. I would purchase meals from Mountain House and other providers that are already pre-made and tasty. Then, in order to make sure we were getting the calories we need, I would supplement them with olive oil and powdered heavy whipping cream. Sure, this strategy is more expensive. But, on the other side, it means carrying less weight and spending less time cooking (and cleaning).

There is one other subtle point I’d like to make. I say subtle, not because it is insignificant, but because it is not obvious. Switching to this new philosophy (more prepared dehydrated meals) only reduces the amount of weight you need to carry by a pound or two. But, when you realize that carrying the extra weight also increases the number of calories you will burn, you start to look at it a little differently. Carrying extra weight either means that you need to carry additional food (more weight) to compensate for extra effort or you will lose weight faster. So, in a way, every extra pound as a tax on it.
 

3. One Thing You Can’t Live Without – Water

Finding water is always a challenge along the PCT. There were points along the trail where we needed to carry enough water for two days. When you realize that each liter weighs about 2.2 pounds, this becomes a significant amount of extra weight. Inevitably, these long water carries occurred in very hot climates.

Many of the PCT hikers adjusted by hiking at night. But, since we live in a hot climate in Palm Desert, California, we decided to hike during the day. While this was probably a good move from a safety perspective, it meant that we needed to carry even more water as compared to the other hikers. Walking during the heat of the day did increase our stamina, and we felt stronger hiking in the mountains. Bottom line: I would still shy away from hiking at night.

Long uphill climb ahead in the mid-day California desert heat

Beyond the water carries, there was our choice of water filter. We decided to go with a gravity filter and purchased the Sawyer Gravity Filter. The idea was that we would be able to filter water while we performed other duties, like cooking. Most other hikers brought the Sawyer Squeeze, which weighs only 4 ounces. Thus, it was much lighter that our gravity filter that came in at 12 ounces.

Another advantage of the Sawyer Squeeze was that it was easier to filter a small amount of water very quickly. In fact, some people simply placed the filter on top of a disposable water bottle and drank the water out of the other end. This meant that they could leave camp with just enough water to make it to the next water source. Because water took so long for us to make, we typically only filtered water once per day and carried it all with us.

Filtering water with the gravity filter on the trail

If we had to do it again, we would have purchased two Sawyer Squeeze filters. This would allow us to make water as we needed at the sources, thereby lowering the amount of weight we were carrying at any given time by a significant amount (remember each liter weighs 2.2 pounds). Having two filters would have given us a backup should one of them become clogged. And, the Sawyer Squeeze comes with a cleaning syringe, which, used consistently, would have kept our water production at full capacity.
 

4. One Pound at a Time – Weight Loss

By the time we made it to Tehachapi, CA (mile 566) it was clear that Sandy was losing weight. We were staying at a hotel, and even though she had a towel on, I could tell she had lost at least 10 to 15 pounds when she got out of the shower. We tried to make a course correction by eating more in town and purchasing additional food to eat on the trail. But it was impossible to gain significant weight back. And, by carrying more food, we just made things worse because it made our packs heavier.

Sandy eating a breakfast burrito during a zero day in the town of Dunsmuir, CA

Here’s the thing. Assuming that you weigh yourself (with your hiking clothes on) before you leave, you’ll have a baseline to monitor your weight along the trip. Here is a sampling of major towns with public scales along the first 500 miles or so of the trail.

  • Day 14 – Idyllwild – PCT Mile 162
  • Day 21 – Big Bear City – Mile 266
  • Day 37 – Agua Dulce / Hiker Heaven – Mile 454
  • Day 46 – Mojave/Tehachapi – Mile 566

As you pass through these towns, you can take the time and weigh yourself at each opportunity and then do a quick calculation to determine your weight loss. A pound down is 3,500 calories lost.

Assuming your goal is to lose no more than 30 pounds and that you plan to complete the entire PCT in approximately 5 months, losing 30 pounds, on average, works out to be a deficit of 700 calories per day. Here’s my math:

  • (30 pounds * 3500 calories per pound) / (5 months * 30 days in a month) = losing 700 calories a day.

In this case, you would be losing a pound every five days.

In the end, Sandy lost 42 pounds. In fact, this is the reason we decided to stop at the Columbia River (Mile 2144). Beyond the weight loss, Sandy noticed that some of her hair was falling out when she combed it out after showers. All the while we were eating more than we ever. I can remember having a huge burger, fries, and a milkshake for lunch in one town. And this was just a warm up because I had a giant porterhouse steak with all of the fixings just a few hours later for dinner. Sandy was eating the same. But to no avail. As we continued to cross Oregon, I could tell we weren’t stemming the tide. So we decided that we would continue as far as the border of Oregon and Washington and declare victory!

Beginning at Campo in April

Finishing at the Columbia River in August after both losing weight while hiking

 

5. Long Carries – Resupply

The standard practice on the PCT is to hitchhike when necessary in order to get to the towns needed to resupply. Sandy and I decided to avoid this. We didn’t like the uncertainty with hitchhiking. That is not to say we didn’t hitchhike. We did of course. You had to in places like Big Bear where you have little choice. But, we didn’t want to do it unnecessarily. As a result, our average food carries (between resupply points) became longer than other hikers who were willing to hitch.

Sandy hitchhiking in Big Bear, CA

A perfect example was Wrightwood, CA (mile 369). In order to get from the trail to the small town of Wrightwood required a five-mile hitch. Skipping Wrightwood was easy. Simply leave Cajon Pass (a resupply point right on the trail) with two additional days of food. Skipping Wrightwood also meant that we would be avoiding temptation. We heard from other hikers about cheap Taco Tuesdays which, don’t get me wrong, sounded great. But, we wanted to make sure we maintained our hiking plans and discipline during the early part of our journey. The rewards could come later, we thought.

Another reason to forgo rides to town is that they would often result in missing a portion of the trail. From the beginning, we wanted to hike every single mile of the PCT that was open. But, with Wrightwood and many other hitches, hikers would get dropped off at a later trail location than where they got picked up. While this didn’t bother some hikers, it did bother us. In fact a couple of times, we had to backtrack a short distance from where we got dropped off to keep to our walking goal. Sandy and I felt a little like salmon swimming upstream at those times trying to explain why we didn’t want to skip. But, as they say, “Hike your own Hike.”

I can remember another opportunity for an early resupply on a long segment. It was in the town of Etna, CA (mile 1597). We had heard good things about this town and that the people there really embraced PCT hikers. Unfortunately, the town was 10.4 miles off the trail. What happens if you arrive late at night and there’s no one there to help you out? Even if we didn’t stay overnight, we would spend at least a half-day hitching each way plus the time to pick up our resupply box. But, on the other hand, skipping Etna meant carrying three additional days of food from Dunsmuir to Seiad Valley, CA. Since each day of food weighed approximately 1.5 pounds per person per day, we carried another 4.5 pounds on the first day of that eight day segment.

Sandy leaving Cajon Pass, CA with eight days full of food

 

Conclusion

When you add the extra weight we carried because of our resupply strategy to the weight of our heavier gear, extra food, and excessive water, we were easily carrying between 35 and 45 pounds a day on average. With a few changes, we could have easily cut this by 10 pounds.

We wanted to revisit the PCT this year, but a combination of factors conspired against us. We are committed to finishing the 800 miles we have left, and we have already been purchasing lighter gear (backpacks, sleeping bags, etc.) to get our base weight down for the next time we hike the trail.

Overall, there are so many factors to consider in a successful PCT thru-hike. I don’t think this advice would have made the difference for us because we still had trouble in the Sierras with the river crossings (a whole other story). But, I do think that learning from our mistakes could mean the difference for someone who had everything else going for them – good weather and no serious injuries. Something to think about if you are considering this challenge.

Good luck!

I will detail the things that we did right in our next story.


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