Category Archives: Pre-trail

Preparation: All the Rest of It

While I realize it is in no way about thru-hiking, I’ve had lines from En Vogue’s “Free Your Mind” in my head for the past 24 hours: Free your mind / And the rest will follow. (Seriously. Nothing to do with thru-hiking.)

Deciding to walk the Pacific Crest Trail has been a long process. The interest has been there for years, the desire has increased with every long hike I’ve taken, and I’ve slowly gained a cautious confidence in my preparedness for the attempt.  

The biggest hurdles were mental. Getting over my fears about turning down work for six months. Letting go of anxiety about foot pain or stress injuries ending my hike. More fears about turning down work.

But once I decided that what mattered more was actually attempting this thing—this big, ridiculous, arbitrary endeavor—those fears faded. What’s left in their place is an incredible excitement, a thrill of possibility, a sense of lightness and freedom. 

Which isn’t to say that I’m trotting off for Canada fueled solely by rainbows and unicorns. I’ve put in work: I bought an under-desk treadmill in December and since then have written emails, edited video, and done my taxes while walking at 2mph with a backpack stuffed with 30 pounds of sandbags and free weights. I’ve purchased and walked miles in three pairs of trail runners and three different types of insoles. 

But when the trail is wearing me down—hot desert, steep mountains, rain for days, plain old boredom—it’s that core sense of lightness—of excitement, gratitude and joy at the fact that I’m here, alive in the world and doing this at all—that I anticipate will keep me going. The rest will follow.

Right? Either way, we start walking tomorrow. Today we had dinner at trail angels Scout and Frodo’s house with a crowd of other hopefuls, and tonight we’re staying with Girlscout, who will drive us out to the southern terminus early tomorrow morning. (More on trail names later.) It’s nice to start to really feel a part of the incredible thru-hiker community that we’re joining—not the bickering on the listserv or the trolling on Facebook groups but the actual on-the-trail, walking-to-Canada community. 

Onward!

Preparation: Food

When preparing for this hike, food resupplies were always the most daunting to me—how can you possibly plan out, buy, and ship that much food? 

For eating during a long hike, the basic idea is to do some combination of buying food in towns as you go and shipping food to places along the trail where you can pick it up and then keep walking. You resupply a few days’ to maybe a week’s worth of food at a time in order to keep your pack weight down. Because we’re wary of getting stuck eating pop-tarts and slim-jims from gas stations for days at a time, we’re leaning heavily towards the ship-ahead plan: 36 mail-drops and only 3 stops where we’ll be buying all our food locally. 

Our food strategy has evolved over the past few years from hit-or-miss prepackaged freeze-dried dinners and super-bulky granola to some reliable freezer bag dinner recipes and no-cook breakfasts. A lot of credit goes to our friend Kalia, who hiked the JMT with us and went all-in on the freezer bag meals—which we’ve totally copied since then.

But the most we’d ever planned for was a month. How do you scale that up to six times the granola bars, and how do you possibly manage to get enough calories—roughly half a million each over the course of six months? 

This is when it’s (extra) nice to have Andrew around, because the boy sure does love his spreadsheets. He took over and owned our food resupplies. He calculated calories per ounce and calories per dollar, ordered freeze-dries supplies literally by the bucket, and then counted out, assembled, and divided 136 days worth of food into 36 resupply drops. Just go read about it on his blog—I’m not even going to attempt to do justice to all that work here. (Also: photos.) 

My favorite parts: a kitty-litter-sized bin filled with 222 servings of freeze-dried broccoli; ordering a month’s worth of Soylent, which we’ll be eating for breakfast approximately every third morning on the trail; and the radical mind-shift from always choosing the “low fat” version of foods to intentionally seeking out the most calorie-dense. 

Will we get sick of our mail-drop food a month into hiking? Perhaps. But we’ve got tasty dinners and enough Annie’s bunny snacks to survive nuclear winter: we’re not going to go hungry. 

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.