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Planning for a PCT Thru-hike

Recently a friend asked if I might be interested in writing a blog article about the planning process for the PCT.  Until he had suggested it to me, I hadn’t thought about detailing the steps of planning the hike.  Sure, I have been loosely documenting my experience with this blog, mentioning my experiences so far with little tidbits about the process of getting ready to hike.  But so far, I have not written any specific articles detailing the process as a whole.  So here it goes.

Getting the Bug

It all starts with an inspiring series of events.  At least that’s how I would describe my experience with ‘catching the bug’ for a long distance hike.  Rewind a few (15+) years.  When I was a middle school student I got involved with a fantastic program known as Overland (www.overlandsummers.com).  They are based out of Williamstown, Massachusettes and offer summer outdoor recreation based camp programs for students from middle-highschool.  I had never attended any kind of sleep-away camp and was a bit apprehensive at first.  With some coaxing from my family I participated in a two week program in the North East, hiking and mountain biking.  Some of our hiking took us on the Appalachian Trail, one of the most famous long-distance hiking trails in North America.  This was not the specific moment, but this was the beginning of my love of hiking.20140321-170158.jpg

I participated in other trips with Overland as a student, later returning as a trip leader for three years.  I took students mountain biking in Colorado, backpacking in Yellowstone National Park, and on my final year as an instructor, co-led a cross country bicycle tour from Georgia to California.  Up until our cross-country ride I had never completed a long distance journey and to say we were thrilled with our accomplishment would be an understatement.  This trip, which lasted six weeks, was a testament to the ability of the human body, given time, motivation, team work, and the desire to accomplish something ‘great’.  Our group of students and my co-leader amazed me with what we all accomplished together.

Fast forward.  Some time after my coast to coast bike tour it occurred to me:  I biked 3000 miles in 6 weeks, why couldn’t I hike 2000+ miles in 5-6 months?  During college in Maine, I had some opportunities to hike on the AT near it’s Northern terminus in Baxter State Park and on occasion I had the opportunity to meet and chat with some AT thru-hikers.  They seemed like an odd breed, talking about eating gallons of ice cream in mere minutes, carrying VERY simplified backpacking setups, and sporting strange ‘trail names’.  I wanted to be one of these people.

I didn’t catch the bug at one specific moment, I had lots of opportunities and experiences that conspired to make the idea of thru-hiking a long distance trail something that I wanted to do at some point in my life.

When is the time right?

While getting excited and deciding that you would like to attempt a thru-hike might seem like a big step (actually wanting to hike thousands of miles you say?), deciding when the time is right is a much more difficult task.  We don’t exactly live in a society that embraces the idea of leaving your job (or career?), home, and responsibilities (who needs those anyway…) behind, in favor living in the woods for 4-6 months.  And even if this sounds appealing, how realistic is it to just pick up and go?  Could you leave your job and would it be waiting for you 5 months later to pick up where you left off?  Do you have the ability to move out of your home so that you don’t have a mortgage or rent?  Can you afford your other bills – phone, health insurance, student loans while not working?  Regardless of money and societal expectations, you also have your family and loved one’s who will no doubt have an opinion of the hike you are about to embark on.

Luckily for me conditions have been just right.  It hasn’t been an easy set of events to get to this point though.  In addition to a nine year long relationship ending, I was laid off in late September, a month before Thanksgiving.  While both of these events have conspired to make my thru-hike attempt possible, I would not wish divorce or loss of work on anyone.  They are both terrible and will make even the most confident person examine their self-worth.  Instead of getting depressed about the shitty hand I was just dealt I decided to remain positive.  I no longer had any responsibility to anyone other then myself – this is a good place to find yourself if you want to go hiking for 5 months.

Without speaking too much longer on ‘when the time is right’, it has become clear to me that often there is no ‘right’ time.  You simply have to get off your ass and DO IT.  Don’t wait.  You are only going to get older and fatter (it’s the American way).  You are only going to become more entrenched in your way of life, having commitments, obligations, bills, events, Jesus, you might even have kids.  You either take the steps necessary to make it happen or it won’t.  You have to be proactive here, it’s the only way.  If you wait, the opportunity could slip by without giving you the slightest chance to embrace to unknown and get out there.

Some stuff you HAVE to do

I already mentioned some big picture stuff like leaving your job, your home, and almost all of your responsibilities.  But let’s backtrack a tiny bit.  What do you know about the trail?  Where does it start?  Where does it end?  How long is it and how much will it cost you to hike it and what do you need and where will you sleep and…  What I am getting at here is research.  You have to do some.  Behold, the greatness of the interwebs.

I personally started with The Pacific Crest Trail Association website.  You will find more information on this site that you can easily digest in one sitting – it is a fantastic starting point complete with maps, trail journals, photos, phone numbers, distances, and any other information regarding this hiking trail you could desire.

Another great course of action would be a Google search for ‘PCT trail journals’ or some similar keyword combination.  In the past few months I have come across multiple journals and blogs of previous and aspiring PCT thru-hikers.  The experiences and lessons they have learned will no doubt help you refine your planning stages, avoiding some of their mistakes, and learning from their successes.

PERMITS

This is really part of ‘stuff you have to do’ but deserves a small, separate section.  The two big ones you will need are:

My long distance hiking and Canada entry permits.

My long distance hiking and Canada entry permits.need are:

Long Distance Permit – Information and forms to obtain this are available on www.pcta.org.  The paperwork is easy to fill out and straight forward but you will want to do a little bit of general research about the trail prior to filling out the forms.  The PCTA will want to know things like your anticipated starting and ending dates in addition to where you will be starting and finishing your hike.  This permit is only needed if you are going to be hiking more then 500 continuous miles.  I received my permit roughly 2 weeks after sending in my paperwork but the closer you get to April/May, the longer I would anticipate waiting – best to secure this one early.

Permit to enter Canada via PCT – Like the Long Distance Permit, I would recommend securing this as early as possible.  I have read about other hikers having to wait over a month to receive this permit after mailing in their paperwork.  I got mine in two weeks.  You will need a valid US passport and drivers license and color copies will be required in addition to an estimated date of entry to Canada and itinerary while in Canada.  While it sounds a little daunting, filling out this paperwork was not very difficult.  Write legibly and be as complete as possible to avoid having your paperwork returned or denied.

*There are a couple of other, less important permits you will likely want to secure.  All the information regarding permits is provided on the PCTA website – I’ll let you figure it out, it’s part of the adventure!

GEAR

Current gear selection for my 2014 pct thru-hike attempt

Current gear selection for my 2014 pct thru-hike attempt

I won’t mention every item because YOU will have to decide what you can and can’t live without.  Here is the breakdown as far as I am concerned:

  • Three big items – Backpack, Sleeping bag, Tent.  These are usually the heaviest items.  I am using an internal frame pack (Gregory Z55, my heaviest piece of gear).  I am using a silnylon tarp-tent (Black Diamond beta lite).  I am using a 20(ish) degree down sleeping bag (Rab neutrino 600).  Don’t get hung up too much on weights, but if possible, shoot for under 10 lbs (it’s very doable with today’s fancy-pants materials).
  • Cookware – Stove and other cooking items.  I am using a small canister stove (MSR micro-rocket) and a titanium (Evernew) cook pot.  While I have used and read about others using alcohol stoves (exceptionally light) this is not possible due to fire restrictions in California and possibly other areas on the PCT this year (2014).  Consider eating utensils, mug, seasonings, etc.
  • Water treatment – I will most likely be using bleach.  There are lots of options out there, filters, uv sterilizers, chemical treatments.  I would suggest something that is lite, fail-proof, and cost-effective.
  • Clothing – Upper and lower body layers.  The criteria I am using:  Can I wear everything all at once.  I am choosing layers that compliment each other and can all be used together (comfortably).  Minimalism is key here to avoid bulk and excess weight.  In the past month and a half I have removed almost half the items I originally planned on bringing.  An important note – you will likely need to make changes based on the region you are in.  Your clothing selection for the Southern California desert will most definitely be different then what you need in the Cascades.
  •   Footwear – Not too much info here.  The amount of support you should seek for footwear depends on a couple factors.  Do you pronate or supinate?  Do you know what these two terms mean?  Also, the ‘burliness’ of your footwear should be relative to the weight that you are carrying on your back.  The less weight in your pack, the lighter footwear will PROBABLY be sufficient for you.  I plan on using trail running shoes.  Test your proposed footwear PRIOR to your hike WITH the FULL WEIGHT you anticipate hiking with for DISTANCES THAT ARE EQUIVALENT to what you expect to hike on the trail.
  • Other items – Lots of things can be included here.  Some extras I am bringing include trekking poles, a camera, a digital voice recorder, a journal, a PLB, and some other small items.  Keep in mind ‘even small’ items add up.

My original pack weight was roughly 20lbs.  I removed some items and got it down to a little over 15lbs.  I am aiming to reduce that number by 2-3lbs more before I get on the trail.  Am I a fanatic about pack weight? No, but having hiked with packs as heavy as 85lbs (thanks NOLS) and also with lightweight ‘minimal’ backpacking setups, I have concluded that going light rather then heavy is the correct choice for me.

Training

There is no true consensus here.  Some people do a lot of training, some do a little, and some do none.  If you have never been on a backpacking trip I would suggest trying it out prior to making all the aforementioned preparations.  If you know what to expect then I would suggest incorporating SOME sort of regular physical activity into your daily life.  Other then being generally fit I think your thru-hike will kick you into shape.  Sure, it will hurt a little at first.  The short answer here is that everyone is different when it comes to physical activity and you should train in a way that will prepare YOU so that you can have the greatest chance of success.

Food

Two main options here: buy as you go or resupply via mail.  There is also the obvious middle ground where you do a little of both.  Using pre-packaged resupply boxes will likely give you better financial control over gear/food but can be limiting.  How can you possibly anticipate accurately everything you will need in advance?  Also, how will you know exactly how much food you will ACTUALLY consume?  I plan on purchasing as I go, but occasionally sending boxes of food/supplies ahead when availability/cost of resources dictates the need.

Sponsorship/free stuff

All I have to say is that this stuff exists.  Get creative.  Send letters, emails, and make phone calls.  Your chances of success will depend on a few factors including what you can offer potential sponsors as well as your persistence and professionalism.  Be polite, expect to get turned down a lot, but stay positive and you just might find some great opportunities.

In conclusion…

The above describes SOME of what I have experienced in getting ready for this endeavor.  It is highly likely that I have left some key information out (thanks recreational substances!).  The important take-away here is that preparing for a trip of this magnitude will be different for everyone.  Don’t expect the same experience as I have had.  Planning to thru-hike the PCT might be much more complicated, but it might also be simpler.  Do your research, have fun with it and make it yours!

Granite Pass, RMNP

Enjoying some shelter from the wind in RMNP

Enjoying some shelter from the wind in RMNP

My friend Jason is one of my more regular partners when it comes to adventure.  We do our best to get out regularly and motivate each other to stay active.  It might seem silly for two people who live in Colorado to need motivation to get out but we all need it now and then.

Jason called me up this past weekend to reminded me that his kids were in day care on Mondays and to see if I had any plans yet.  I jumped at the opportunity to get out for a couple of reasons.  I have been sick this past week and have scaled back my physical activity significantly in an effort to recover and be healthy for the climbing road trip I am about to take.  I was excited to get outside and enjoy some physical activity.  I also have my new pack from Gregory, the Z55 which I have been eager to load and test out on a real hike.  I told Jason I was in and we discussed our options in Rocky Mountain National Park.

We would be headed to the Longs Peak trail head which is off the Peak to Peak highway, a couple miles South of Estes Park.  This is one of my favorite park access points (free…).  Jason and I agreed to meet at the parking lot no later then nine o’clock to get started.

My drive to the trail head from Fort Collins was uneventful although I got to see a lot of flood damage on highway 34 that I had not previously seen.  Houses hanging off of slopes that had been partially washed away and metal pipes wrapped around trees like pieces of ribbon were a few of the highlights.  The construction crews are still busy at work, repairing pull-offs, adjusting the riverbed, and cleaning up debris.

I breezed through Estes park, buying a crappy cup of coffee at one of the local gas stations before heading South to the trail head.

When I pulled in, Jason was practically ready to go.  I rolled out of my car looking like I had just woken up.  I apologized for not having any of my gear ready to go.  It took me about 30 minutes to get organized, change clothes, and drink a few sips of water.  We decided to don snowshoes (uhggg) and got on the trail a little before ten.

Following the trail towards Granite Pass would give us the option to hike Mt. Lady Washington, Storm Peak, or the Keyhole (on Long’s Peak).  We didn’t want to set a specific goal until we got up above treeline and could assess the conditions and make an educated decision.  We meandered through the trees, taking our time and enjoying the fresh air.  After what seemed like a long time (we both remembered it being shorter) we ascended a small snow slope and broke out of the trees.  The views of Meeker and Longs were commanding.

Snow swirled in wintery dust devils high on the North face of Long’s.  The alpine intensity of the sun beamed down on us like a laser and I was thankful to have my goggles.  We picked a point up the valley and began the slow walk up hill.  This is when I realized that my energy reserves are still quite low from being sick (or maybe it was the altitude…or both).  Either way I felt like I was moving at a snails pace and I mentioned this to Jason to his amusement.  He said it made him feel great to see me moving slow for once.

After what seemed like 45 minutes we had made it about half way up the rocky slopes between us and the summit of Granite pass.  We decided that just making it to the pass would be enough of an accomplishment for both of us.  Even though our objective was in sight, things began to get a bit more challenging as waves of wind blasted us with spindrift from the slopes above.  In addition to our outdoor pursuits, both of us worked on a 14er as Interpretive Rangers.  Jason and I have had plenty of exposure to high terrain and the wind that seems to persist there.  Today however was a bit more extreme.  Individual gusts began hitting us and we estimated them in the vicinity of 60 miles per hour.  We watched as these waves of energy descended the slopes above us, excavating and launching pieces of wind-crusted snow high into the air.  It was spectacular.

We continued upwards, stopping occasionally to steady ourselves with trekking poles, orienting our bodies to combat the powerful wind.  We were both almost blown over multiple times before we reached the summit some time around three o’clock.  On the saddle that is Granite pass the wind was less gusty and much more consistently insane, prompting me to find a large rock for shelter.  I shuffled over to make room for J as he sat down beside me, a look of satisfaction on his face.  We drank some water and decided that with how slow we were moving and how late in the day it was already, we better bust a move and start heading down.  We decided to make a little circuit and head down a different way then we originally came up.  A pleasantly angled ridge appeared to lead right back to our descent route.  We put our packs back on and began hiking again.

Often times in an alpine environment or any outdoor environment for that matter, our perception of the environment can be skewed.  Ill use our descent route as an example.  This benign looking ridge, with it’s few rock outcroppings and snow-free crest appeared to be a great choice.  After walking with snowshoes on for the better part of the day we were thrilled to have a nice tundra walk sans awkward foot attachments.  The reality of the situation was that, yes – the walking was pleasant.  Something that was difficult to judge however was the severity of the wind that we were about to experience.  Because there was no snow present on this ridge, it was difficult to SEE the wind.  As we worked our way down, the wind steadily increased.  By the time we were within a hundred yards of the rock outcroppings we had seen from afar, the wind seemed that of a tropical storm…no correction, of an arctic storm.  The icy blast increased as we approached the rock tower to a point at which I’m pretty sure we were being blasted in excess of 80 miles an hour.  The rocky tower was big enough and positioned perfectly to deflect the wind raging up the ridge and channel it around both sides to a focal point.  I stood in this location, facing the blast, leaning forwards, held at roughly a 40 degree angle by the tempest.

I had my fun for a few moments before seeking shelter once again.  In the lee of the rock I was able to comfortably sit down and watch Jason approach.  Watching him stumble his way across the tundra, almost being knocked on his ass brought me to the point of hysterical laughter.  Once he arrived safely we both ate some more food and drank.  We discussed the next obstacle, a saddle roughly 100 yards wide that we needed to cross to continue our descent.  It was the low point of the ridge and a frigid cloud of spindrift scouring this exposed area made it apparent that the wind at this location might be even more intense then what we had just experienced.

As we began our trek forward our predictions proved correct.  This intensity of the wind was almost enough to suck the breath right out of our lungs and we staggered across the low spot on the ridge.  Spindrift pelted the few millimeters of exposed skin on our faces, making us feel as if we were being sand-blasted.  Speaking to each other was pointless, we couldn’t hear a thing.  As we stumbled through the invisible force that attempted to prevent our travel we managed to cross the saddle only to arrive on an exposed high point.  We crouched for a moment and quickly decided to continue.  After rounding this small summit we almost let out a shout of joy as we dove into some haggard looking Limber Pine.  Shelter is a wonderful thing.

Hiking in RMNP

Hiking in RMNP

Our descent became much more tolerable as we wound through this dwarf forest of Pines in a place which was clearly demonstrated to us as one of the most extreme environments where life can carve out a foothold.  We remarked at how pleasant the now 40 mile per hour wind was as we crossed our old footprints and regained the trail down into the Spruce/Fir forest.  We walked with a spring in our step, enjoying the downhill grade and the shelter we could finally enjoy.

Just before getting to the trail head we ran into a group of four young hikers who asked if we had seen their friend.  They had gotten split up as he short-cutted the switch backs while they stuck to the trail.  Separated, they wrote a note in the snow for him and decided to head back to their truck.  We eluded to the extreme nature of the weather up high and wished them luck in finding their friend.

Getting back to the car always creates mixed feelings.  On the one hand there is relief.  The safety the vehicle seems to provide reassures us that we have ‘made it out alive’ and that we are going to be ‘ok’.  At the same time, reaching the car signifies the end of our adventure.  We recall our hours of exposure up high in the alpine, where we can only rely on each other and our previous experiences to keep us safe.  It is in those moments that we smile and know that we will go back at some point, a reassurance that the adventure is not over, we’re just taking a little break so we can rest, refuel, and do it again next week.

Getting organized: the gear…

Current gear selection for my 2014 pct thru-hike attempt

Current gear selection for my 2014 pct thru-hike attempt

Ok, here it is, the blog article going over the gear I plan on using for my 2014 thru-hike.  While I occasionally indulge in gear-geekery, I try not to get caught up in all the little gadgets and gizmos designed for those of us that like to recreate outdoors.  Why?  Let me ask you this question, if no new gear was developed ever, would it prevent us from enjoying our outdoor pursuits?  The answer is most definitely no.  All those companies out there who come out with newer, lighter, more advanced gear are mostly doing so to have a new product to sell you.  Now I don’t want to give the impression that this gear isn’t great or that I don’t find some of this stuff fascinating and awesome. I have bought a few new pieces of gear specifically for my thru-hike.  I will however be using MOSTLY gear that I already owned.  The point I am getting at is that you should not feel the need to buy gear just because there is a newer, lighter, brighter-colored version.

I did think it would be fun to mention all the different gear and geek out for a bit in hopes that some of you who read this might have some suggestions for me to cut a bit of weight.  My base-weight at the moment is right about 20lbs.  I was hoping for something in between 10 and 15.  And while the 20lb weight includes some things that I will actually be wearing and not carrying on my back, there were a few items that I realize I did not add that I will in fact be bringing (stakes, socks, maybe some other small stuff…).

So lets get to the gear.

Starting on the top left of the photo above – the pack, one of my new gear acquisitions for the trail.  This is a Gregory Z55.  This is a size small and weighs in at just over 3 lbs.  It has a frame (yeah I’m not sure if frameless appeals to me for 2600+ miles) and 55 liters of capacity.  Gregory packs graciously provided this pack to me for use as an ambassador while on the trail, communicating with others about my experience using their gear.  Thanks guys, I look forward to putting the Z55 to the test!

On the far right of the picture are two sleeping bags.  A Rab neutrino 600 down bag and a Mountain Hardware ultra lamina synthetic bag.  Both are rated for 20 degrees.  I plan on using the down bag in the desert section and switching over to the synthetic bag once I hit the mountains.

As for upper body layers: Patagonia lightweight wool tshirt, Ibex hooded long-sleeved wool shirt, Patagonia R1 fleece, Montbell windbreaker vest, Montbell Fleece, Patagonia Houdini windbreaker, Wildthingz alpine shell, Patagonia Nanopuff hooded jacket.  I’m already planning on ditching the Ibex base layer and one fleece (probably the R1, even though I love it).  I may add arm warmers.  I may also ditch the Houdini even though it weighs next to nothing.  Count the ounces and the pounds mind themselves right?

Lower body layers include:  Montbell expedition weight wool long underwear, Rab hiking pants, Patagonia hiking shorts.  Socks (haven’t picked them out yet).  And hopefully a pair of wool boxers.

My tent is a Black Diamond beta-lite tarp (19oz).  It is made of sip-nylon, pitches with my trekking poles and gives surprisingly good weather protection – I have used it above 9k feet in Colorado during a spring snow storm, and on the coast of Maine in high winds.  It has held up well.  I am forgoing a footprint.  I have a Big Agnes sleeping pad as well as a silk sleeping bag liner.

I am currently using an MSR 6 liter dromedary bag with a drinking hose attachment.  I might look for a lighter weight camelbak bladder which will most likely have 3-4 liter capacity and have to add a few lightweight water bottles.

As for cooking I am using an MSR micro rocket stove (new this year) with an Evernew titanium pot (.7 liters I think).  I also have a long-handled Sea To Summit spoon and an MSR titanium mug.

As far as other small items, I have a journal, signal mirror, whistle, pen, Black Diamond headlamp, mosquito head net, blister treatment kit, SteriPen, wide-brimmed hat, GoPro, extra batteries, and backup water treatment (iodine).

I know I haven’t gone into much detail on these items, their individual weights, their strengths and weaknesses, etc. etc.  I’m hoping that I’ll figure out what works and what doesn’t work while I’m on the trail (and I plan to blog/tweet about it).  I will also likely add items at certain points such as ice axe and crampons, helmet, etc.

Ok, I’m already losing my patience for this post.  Those are the items I’m brining.  I will attempt to ditch roughly 5 pounds of gear in the next month to get my base weight down into the sub-15 pound zone, I’m sure my feet and back will thank me for it.  Any suggestions or criticism is appreciated!

Later!