Category Archives: PCT2015

Preparation: Gear

How does one prepare for a six-month hike? 

Initially, lots of gear research. Scouring other hikers’ gear lists, paging through BackpackingLight.com forums and comparing materials, manufacturers and weights trying to assemble the “perfect” gear list. When you’re not out on the trail actually hiking and camping, you can live in an internet-based fantasy land where The Ultimate Trail Runners and The Ultimate Baselayer mean that all of your backpacking problems will be solved. This is not actually true, of course, but it’s what you tell yourself when you’re up at 2AM for the third night in a row reading reviews of titanium sporks. 

If you’re aiming for “ultralight,” this is when you start entering weights into your gear spreadsheets in grams rather than ounces because ounces aren’t fine-grained or accurate enough for comparison purposes. 

Then come big purchases. Before our 2014 Collegiate Loop hike, I upgraded my pack from the $115-on-sale three-pound-two-ounce REI Flash 65 I’d carried on the John Muir Trail to a $330 one-and-a-half-pound ZPacks Arc Blast 60L cuben fiber pack. I went from one-pound-plus Black Diamond hiking poles I’d bought in 2008 to go up Half Dome to 5.4oz Gossamer Gear LT3C fixed-length poles. 

All of that starts to seem reasonable once you’ve spent hour after hour figuring out how to shave as much weight as possible off of your base weight—the weight of everything you carry outside of food, water, and clothing worn. Exact cutoffs are up for debate, but “lightweight” is generally a base weight under 15 or 20 pounds, “ultralight” is under 10, and “super ultralight” is under 5 (which involves stuff like sleeping in a full-body puffy suit under a poncho instead of a sleeping bag in a tent). But lighter is generally better because when you’re walking all day every day, how much you carry really does add up. Hiking with a 30-pound pack in Colorado last year was markedly easier than hiking with a 40-plus-pound pack on the JMT. 

So we’ve ordered gear, made gear, hiked with gear, replaced gear. I’m feeling pretty happy with my choices (listed on the Gear page), but it’s all speculation until I’ve been hiking with them mile after mile, day after day. Right now I’m at a base weight of about 16.5 pounds—heavier than I’d been hoping for, but better than any previous hikes. I’m hoping to whittle that weight down once we’re out on the trail. I’ll report back on how it goes.

Snow Basics Course

Growing up in Louisiana and only ever backpacking in the summer, I had zero experience with winter hiking and camping.

Well, one experience. In 2013 Andrew and I did a late-season trip in SEKI and were surprised by snow flurries on the approach to the south side of Forester Pass. We turned back from the pass and made camp, and it snowed lightly for the rest of the evening. Maybe one or two inches overnight.

We thought we were going to die.

Oh shit, what if we can’t see the trail? What if we can’t get over Forester? If we can’t get out over Forester, there’s no way we can get over Trail Pass. Holy %^&# it’s cold!!

Turns out, we were fine. The next morning, the trail was totally visible, Forester was no problem, and, after all, we had maps, two phones, a GPS, and a SPOT device.

Point being, some confidence-building was in order.

So in late January, we took a snow skills course with Ned Tibbits of Mountain Education. Ned managed to find some snow in the Sierra, just off of Carson Pass, and we joined him and three other students—two other prospective PCT thru-hikers and one guy who’d already done the PCT and is now section-hiking the AT.

The three-day class covered basics—navigating across snow, traversing a slope, camping on snow, cooking in your tent, ice axe self-arrest. It was great. The biggest takeaway was that we will not automatically freeze to death if we have to hike through or camp on snow. Fabulous. The second was: cross-country snowshoeing is fun! You don’t have to worry about following a trail, you just figure out where you’re trying to get to and then head in that direction over a smooth, soft landscape.

The snow-covered mountains were staggeringly beautiful, and we had them almost all to ourselves. And while we were definitely pushing the limits of our three-season tent and 20-degree (and 10-degree, for Andrew the cold sleeper) bags, I did discover the joy of a hot-water-filled Nalgene at my feet.

Ultimately, the most memorable part was the camaraderie. This was our first time to officially try on this new identity as PCT thru-hikers: I will be thru-hiking. I am a person who thru-hikes. For 2600 miles. But Ned, Dan, Mike, and Joe spoke the same language.

Yes, of course this is something we do.

 

Full photo set on Flickr

Do what, now?

I grew up hiking. My parents took me on my first overnight backpacking trip when I was six years old, and we returned to Colorado together every summer after that for the next ten years. These were short trips—maybe four days on an out-and-back trail—but they permanently connected “summer” and “vacation” and “where would I rather be?” to “MOUNTAINS.”

The long trails have been on my radar since college, when I read A Walk in the Woods and made an aspirational purchase of a book called Hiking the Triple Crown. I vaguely considered an Appalachian Trail hike as a post-Peace-Corps plan—I’d basically been “camping” in a mud hut in Senegal for two years, so I figured five more months would be a piece of cake—but moving to California and starting grad school took precedence.

So my first thru-hike was the John Muir Trail in 2012, 210 miles from Yosemite Valley to the top of Mount Whitney. I hiked it with my boyfriend Andrew and our friend Kalia. We went very slowly and our packs were too heavy and there was a surprise side trip to the emergency room in Mammoth, but it was amazing because helloooooo Range of Light.

Ritter_web

Andrew and I have done other long hikes since then—a loop through King’s Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, the Collegiate Loop in Colorado—but this is the big one, for us. We’re both lucky enough to be in a position to step away from our careers for six months and do this big crazy thing that we’ve both wanted to do for years.

The plan is to walk northbound from the Mexican border starting on April 8, 2015, and make it to the Canadian border by the end of September(ish). That’s 2660 miles over six months, averaging about 20 miles a day.

What. the. shit.

The numbers still don’t sound any less insane than they did before I decided that, yes, this is something I’m actually going to attempt. But right now, this is what I want to be doing more than anything else: waking up in the woods (or the desert, or the mountains) and walking all day and then doing the same thing again the next day and the next day and the next.