Tunnel Vision: Preparing to Hike the Pacific Crest Trail
After ringing in the new year, I felt a shift in my life. I decided – sometime back in the fall of 2018 – that 2020 would be the year I would attempt to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s hovered like a carrot as I researched gear, gave my job the longest notice ever, and put hundreds of hiking miles on my legs. It started with explanations of “Not next year, but in 2020…” then the switch to “Next year…” and now I am counting down by months. It’ll be weeks, then days before I know it. 2020 is here and the PCT is all I’m really thinking about, everything else is just everything else.
For those unfamiliar, the Pacific Crest Trail is a hiking trail that runs from the border of Mexico to the border of Canada. It travels through the desert, forests, along high mountain ranges, and all the meadows, lakes, and rivers in between, for 2,650 miles. To thru-hike is to walk the whole thing all in one go. It’s a goal that’s been incubating since I was 12-ish years old, but it’s taken until now for me to feel like it’s time.
Believe it or not, thousands each year set out to attempt a thru-hike. Some make it without issue. Some get diverted by snow or fires. Many drop out. And in this media-soaked age, more and more are doing blogs and vlogs of their journeys. This is not my plan, I’m going as analog as possible for my hike, but there’s always been one part of those blogs and vlogs that calls to me: the gear post. What goes in a backpack, and how it all works. I’m such a nerd for gear. So since my mind is on nothing else at the moment, I thought I’d (selfishly) take all you lovely Backwords readers on a tour of my backpack; give you a glimpse of what will be my home for the 5 months I’m out on the trail.
The pack: Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Southwest
I love my backpack. My backpack feels like home. I bought it before I had a solid plan to hike the PCT, but I’d been wanting to upgrade my 15-year-old REI pack for several years. After buying my car and increasing my time in the wilderness dramatically, I finally justified dropping the cash on a svelte ultralight backpack. It’s so simple, just a roll-top compartment and three outside pockets. It’s made of fabric that’s super light, but also rugged and waterproof. It has already served me well on a handful of prep trips. When people ask if I like my backpack I generally reply jokingly, “With every waking breath.”
The tent: Nemo Equipment Hornet 1-Person Backpacking Tent
My backpack is my home but my tent is my house. A compact waterproof shelter that fits me and my gear with just a bit of room to spare.
The bedroom: Sea to Summit Ultralight Insulated Sleeping Pad, Enlightened Equipment 10-degree Enigma quilt, Sea to Summit Aeros pillow
So. Cozy. Believe it or not, finding a good pillow has been the trickiest part of my gear testing. I am prone to headaches and I’ve learned a pillow means fewer days taking Ibuprofen first thing in the morning. My little pillow is inflatable and packs down tiny. My quilt I bought specifically for the PCT. It’s like a sleeping bag but with a small opening down the bottom that connects together with flat buckles. I can open it up like a blanket when it’s warm at night or buckle it around me when it’s cold. It’s fluffy goose down and when paired with my sleeping pad I’m about as comfy as I am at home in my bed. Really!
The kitchen: MSR Pocket Rocket stove, MSR Titan Kettle, titanium spoon
People always ask me about food. How on earth will I have enough food? The answer? I’ll stop in towns along the way to resupply. Generally about every 3-5 days I’ll have access to a grocery store or a box of food I mailed to myself ahead of time. My cooking setup is simple: a small stove that attaches to a canister of fuel, a small pot, and a spoon. I only use it for cooking dinner – light, dried meals like mac-n-cheese, ramen, instant mashed potatoes, and rice sides. I fill the rest of my day with protein and fruit bars, tortillas with cheese, peanut butter, crackers, chips, candy, and just about anything that sounds good while I’m out hiking.
Water: Sawyer Squeeze Micro filter, Cnoc hydration bladder, Nalgene water bottles
I get the same question about water. I’ll filter water as I go out of streams, rivers, and lakes. My filter is small and attaches to a rubber bladder. Fill the bladder with water, squeeze it through the filter into my bottles. Easy! Most hikers use single-use plastic bottles because they’re lighter, but even though they’re used over and over, the environmentalist in me still can’t stomach the waste.
The bathroom: Deuce of Spades trowel, TP, hand sanitizer
No one likes pooping in a hole. Or maybe some people do, but I don’t. And yet that’s what I’ll be doing every time nature calls when I’m on the trail. The policy is Leave No Trace. Dig a “cathole” 6-8 inches deep (hence the trowel), do your business, bury it, pack out your toilet paper. And yes, packing out used toilet paper sounds super gross but it’s not so bad. And there’s nothing worse than seeing little white globs of toilet paper all along the trail. Leave no trace, y’all!
I will be spending 5 months in pretty much the same 2 outfits. A hiking outfit (shorts and either a sun shirt or tank top, depending on where I am) and a sleeping outfit (wool bottoms and a wool top). I’ll have a warm puffy jacket and a rain jacket, along with rain pants, a beanie, and gloves for chilly or wet weather. Marie Kondo eat your heart out. Backpacking is minimalism at the most beautiful extreme.
Embrace the stink. That’s what every thru-hiker out there says and I have no hesitations. I am familiar with being dirty and stinky in the backcountry. That said, I still plan on taking real showers every opportunity I get. Both for the lovely feeling of being clean after days of sweat, sunscreen, and dirt, but also because showers are one way I relax and de-stress. I’m bringing along 2 ounces of Dr. Bronner’s soap which I’m sure I’ll have to replace from time to time. A lot of hikers don’t even bring that.
Despite wanting to go analog, I will have a certain amount of tech on me during my trip. My phone for pictures and a GPS maps app called Guthook; a Garmin Mini satellite messenger with SOS; a portable anker battery charger; and all the necessary cords for charging. I’ll have other small things like a pocket knife, sunglasses, sunscreen, a toothbrush, and nail clippers. I’ll also be carrying a small journal and pens. I plan to write down where I’m camped and at least one sentence about every day I’m on the trail. Even if it’s just “Well, today kind of sucked.”
This isn’t a complete list, all the details are in a packing list on my Google drive (I stare at it longingly sometimes when I’m bored at work), but it gives you an idea. One of my favorite things about being in the backcountry is the lack of need. The ability to get by with so few things is freeing. Losing track of time, eating when you’re hungry, sleeping when you’re tired. One foot in front of the other. I plan to do the trail light and fast, but often I can’t help but stop and notice the little things, take way too many photos when the light is just right, take in a view, listen to the sounds of the wilderness. But that’s all part of it. More so than the high-tech gear in my backpack, or how many miles I hike in a day, taking in those little things is the whole point. Following the rhythms of the world one day, one hour, one step at a time.