Lessons Learnt

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Every day I learned something new on the PCT.  They are things that either were successful that I want to repeat or failures that I want to improve upon, as well as, everything in between.  I don’t want to forget such valuable info so I thought it would be a good idea to record it and help you for your PCT thru-hike.

Planning:

  1. No matter how much planning you do there is always more to do.
  2. No amount of planning and experience will make this trip easy.  It is still physically & mentally hard.
  3. Eventually planning will become overwhelming.  Break it up into bite size pieces to make it more manageable.  Accept that you will have to do planning on the trail.
  4. Every day on the trail you plan – execute – evaluate – repeat.  You get better at it as the trip progresses.
  5. Talking to former PCTers and reading PCT trail blogs were most helpful for planning and gear selection.
  6. Get familiar with the names of resupply towns along the PCT.
  7. Plan to budget more money than you anticipate, especially for gear and food along the way.

 

Training:

  1. The best training for the PCT is learning how to increase awareness both personal, group, trail and situational.  And then with this awareness learning how to adapt, managing changes and overcoming unforeseen changes because there is a plenty of it.
  2. If you can, try to train in all types of conditions from desert heat to snowy and rainy conditions, from low elevations to higher alpine conditions.
  3. Knowing how to cross snow-melt swollen creeks safely is important.  2 PCTers died this year crossing creeks in the Sierra.
  4. Take advantage of free classes offered by local retailers, local mountaineering clubs, people on the Facebook PCT group, and experienced friends.
  5. You want to be able to hike at least 15 miles in one day before starting the PCT.
  6. Training hikes and conditioning should be a high priority but will be placed on the back burner as you try to prep and transition for your trip.
  7. The PCT is on-the-job training.  What you don’t know you’ll learn fast on the trail from others or by making mistakes.
  8. Even if you have previously hiked the John Muir Trail, it will be a completely different experience when you do it as the PCT in snow.

 

Gear:

  1. Do as many “shakedown hikes” as possible to test out and get use to your gear.  When you are assembling your gear you are making assumptions and you need to verify if they are valid or not.  Is a piece of gear comfortable enough, do what it is suppose to do, worth carrying, etc.  Not until you actually do it will you know.
  2. Do as many pack shakedowns as possible.  Have more experienced thru-hikers go through your pack to offer suggestions for improvements.  It will take more than one shakedown to get it in the light weight zone.  It will be hard at first because you’ve done so much research curating your gear, but their advise will make your load lighter and your journey more enjoyable in the long run.
  3. Going ultralight/light does not happen overnight.  It takes time to get there and acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to allow you to get there.
  4. Your target base weight for thru-hiking (April-September, normal conditions) should be no more than 15 lbs.  Lighter is better.
  5. Know your base weight.  Use lighterpack.com to calculate it to help you see where your strengths and weaknesses are in your gear.
  6. Try to have gear with multiple uses.  A towel with clasp can double as a drying towel, snot rag, sun shield, mosquito shield, cooling cloth, cook towel.  Avoid overlap items and multiples (except socks) as much as possible.
  7. They say you pack for your fears.  Remember, if you go out there and decide you really need it then you can buy it at the next town, or, have it delivered via mail or online retailer.
  8. Something in one or more of your gear systems will fail over the course of your thru-hike.
  9. That do-it-yourself piece of gear you brilliantly made will be tested to the max and may fail.
  10. An ounce lighter doesn’t always make it the best gear for the PCT.  (ie. my 1st umbrella did not survive the gusts of winds)
  11. Shoes are the most important piece of gear.  Your feet will make or break your trip.  Spend considerable time finding it.  Record your shoe sizing with each one you try on so if you need to switch out on the trail, you can order it right away.
  12. Camp shoes like flip flops are the 8th wonder of world.  They are like clouds when you are not hiking.
  13. I don’t think there is one ultimate pack out there that will solve everything.  Every pack has pluses and minuses.  And how you load it is part of the equation.
  14. Your body is a piece of gear and it will ultimately become an elite hiking machine!!!
  15. At the end of the long trail you will notice that it is the thru-hikers with fortitude and strong motivation that finish.  Their gear is of all calibers and weight ranges.

 

Hiking:

  1. Hike your own hike.  It’s not a competition.  Although you will have to push yourself to do miles, what matters most is you enjoy yourself and have fun.
  2. The most enjoyable hiking is in the morning and evening when it isn’t too hot.
  3. At your first sense of “did we pass it?”, instead of reassuring yourself that you are okay just check your map/gps so you don’t walk an extra unnecessary mile.  1 wrong mile equals 2 unnecessary miles since you have to back track.
  4. Tortoise and the Rabbit.  There are super fast hikers out there that will whiz by you and will have already pulled off amazing daily mileage.  However, as strange as it seems, you will catch up as these super fast hikers usually get distracted, take more time in town, or, get injured.  There’s also just some fast hikers out there that you’ll only see when they pass you.
  5. When you get into camp know the way out so the next day when you start you head off in the right direction.  This is especially useful for early starts.
  6. The PCT is a very social trail since you will be travelling with the same bubble of hikers for the next 5 months. You still can gain your solitude on the trail.  It just won’t be long extended moments.

 

Feet:

  1. Shoes that have worked for you earlier such as in a marathon, might not work for you thru-hiking.  Namely because the desert is hotter which your feet won’t be ready for.  Your feet will swell up 2 sizes larger.
  2. Stop at the first sign of foot discomfort to figure out how you can fix it before it becomes worst.
  3. If you get a blister, cut a good long slash through it that allows it to drain and dry up.  A pin prick doesn’t work as it will clog up after a bit and not fully dry out.  Apply a membrane like 2nd Skin and then Leuko tape over it.
  4. During town resupplies soak your feet in a warm epsom salt bath to begin the healing process, and then let your feet dry out as much as possible.
  5. On the trail, air out your feet out as much as possible.  You should try to do it at least 2 or 3 times a day.
  6. Wash your socks often (everyday if possible) to flush out the grit that gives blisters.
  7. Injinji socks are also known as 5 minute socks -they take 5 minutes to put on since you have to convince each of your 10 toes to fit into it’s individual place.
  8. If your blisters are really bad, it’s better to give your injured feet a day or two off to recover then to carry on.  It will make a big difference in your enjoyment.
  9. The blisters you receive early on will toughen your feet for the later rounds.  I had 7 blisters in the first week and had to manage them for the first month, but by the Sierras and beyond I had none.

 

Food:

  1. You can find a lot of  good food & gear in the hiker boxes.  I’d start my town resupply by going through the hiker boxes and then supplementing my finds with a run to the grocery store.
  2. There are many places along the trail to get more food.
  3. Dollar stores are located in many of the towns along the store.  Their food is packaged smaller than the regular grocery store thus making it cheaper, and also  making it the perfect size for thru-hikers’ needs.
  4. The first time you walk into a grocery store to buy food it will be daunting and take awhile.  However, by your 4th or 5th time you’ll be a pro.  You’ll develop the vision to spot high calorie, dense, cheap and tasty foods.
  5. When deciding whether to buy or mail, remember it costs roughly 15 non-edible bucks to mail your box, and you have to get to the post office at certain times and days.  Plus you tastes and how much you need will surely have changed by the time you get the box.
  6. Too much food can add a lot of extra unnecessary weight to your bag.  If you arrive at town with too much food it could mean the following: a) you are walking faster than what you estimated; b) you are not eating enough; c) your food doesn’t taste good and you need to reevaluate your menu; d) you are not planning correctly; e) all of the above;
  7. If you tire of your trail food and are suffering from low energy, carry out more food from town that you like to eat such as pizza, burgers, burritos, sandwiches or chicken strips.
  8. Peanut butter in your Ramen is delish.
  9. Favorite trail dinner: angel hair pasta with pesto powder, pepperoni and those fried crunchy onion/jalepeno salad toppings.
  10. Favorite trail bars: Pro Bar and Luna Bars.
  11. Favorite trail candy: sour watermelon gummies
  12. It’s almost nearly impossible to finish Trail Mix no matter how much you eat.

 

Sleep:

  1. Sleep is very important on the trail.  Not sleeping well over a thru-hike can lead to energy deficiencies, less enjoyment, less miles, extra costs and wasting time trying to recover.  Not having the right sleep system is detrimental because unlike weekend camping where you can come back to a bed, in thru-hiking you are doing this for many weeks/months in a row, and a few hours of no sleep here and there can add up to missing one full night’s sleep really quickly.
  2. Choosing a sleep pad should not be under-estimated.  I started with a short narrow air pad thinking I could save weight by just using my backpack to lay my legs on.  Of course, it ended up not being as great of a sleep experience.  By Mammoth I ended up getting a pad wide enough to rest my elbows, long enough to capture my feet and head, and with more insulation to keep me warmer.  It made a BIG difference in how I slept.  All those extra luxuries only added 4 extra ounces.
  3. A sleeping quilt is great since it offers lots of flexibility for the very wide range of temperatures you encounter on your thru-hike.
  4. A sleeping quilt is more finicky than a sleeping bag.  Just the placement of the strap buckles makes a huge difference.  So it is very important to get to know your quilt intimately and be acutely aware of any discomfort.  Spend time before going to bed to fix it so it doesn’t keep you up all night or surprise you at 4am.
  5. A sleeping bag liner is great for adding warmth to your quilt, shielding against small drafts and protecting your down fill material from your body oils/dirt that might diminish its warmth.  It’s easy to throw the liner in the wash with your other clothes and it smells great afterward.  For cowboy camping it offers another line of  defense against creepy crawly bugs and reptiles from getting in your quilt.
  6. To prevent night time tent condensation, avoid grassy areas or places next to water.  Try to camp under a tree.
  7. If condensation is emminent, position your sleeping bag so it is not touching the sides of your tent which allows condensated water to leak onto your bag and diminish its warmth.  Putting your bag/quilt in a trash bag to protect it from moisture will have the opposite effect than you intend.  Sleeping bags/quilts need to breath.
  8. On very cold nights your breath will also condensate onto the section of your sleeping bag/quilt directly under your nose which could dampen your bag.
  9. If you find yourself cold through a particular section of trail, its possible and cheap to stop at a thrift store along the way to buy an extra layer of clothing like the fleece jacket I had to buy in Washington. 4 dollars!
  10. Mosquitoes sometimes wait for you to get all cozy and commit to cowboy camping before coming out and viciously harassing you.
  11. If you are attacked by mosquitos while cowboy camping and have to sleep with a headnet, be sure it is pulled away from your face with a hat since mosquitos will still land on it and bite through.  It still won’t be pleasant as they have a fine knack for buzzing loudly by your ears.
  12. Some thru-hikers are better and more comfortable at cowboy camping than others.  Just like Hike Your Own Hike, you have to Sleep Your Own Sleep.
  13. Earplugs work! Especially if someone near you is a snorer, a tosser on a squeaky air mattress, late night loud talkers, or you are sensitive to outdoor noises.
  14. Sleeping with your hiking clothes on is an efficient way to get an early jump out of camp.  I find it alright as long as you have clothes that don’t trap sweat or dirt, and your body feels relatively clean.
  15. Sleeping with your food is the thru-hiker norm.  I might reconsider if I’m in grizzly bear country or there’s known high bear activity in the area and there’s an alternative storage system out there.
  16. Mark your calendar for the Perseid Meteor Shower (or any other astrological event).  It is sometime in August and you’ll want to cowboy camp and be in an area where you can experience it in its full grandeur.
  17. Sleeping in during thru-hiking is not sleeping in at home.  It means out of camp by 6:30 am!

 

Weather and Rain:

  1. When you are stuck by weather so are 90% of the other hikers.  The other 10% are hiking but are cold and miserable.
  2. Weather really becomes a factor in Washington in September.  The rain is cold and frigid.
  3. Rain in northern California isn’t so bad as it is hot outside and the rain is much warmer.
  4. Snow on a sunny June/July day in the Sierras is not as bad as snow on a cold winter  day.
  5. I experienced rain 9 times.  In California and Oregon I only experienced rain 4 times but in Washington it was 5 times.  It made me wonder if I could have carried only my rain jacket all the way to Washington before adding the rest of my rain gear kit (rain skirt, waterproof gloves).
  6. Sometimes when sleeping under a tree you’ll think it is really raining hard, when really it is just captured rain water falling from the branches.  If you get up and walk 100 feet away you’ll see that it is a perfectly good time to hike.
  7. Summer heat waves become a factor starting in the Sierras.
  8. During your thru-hike you will become more acclimatized and tolerant to the weather.

 

Snow Travel:

  1. The majority of PCTers who skipped the Sierras because of snow got to Kennedy Meadows before or near June 16.
  2. One week can make a big difference in the snow conditions.  A lot of snow can melt in a few days making trails more passable, especially if there is a heatwave.
  3. It’s difficult to determine if there is too much snow in the Sierras.  The best way for me to determine it was to see if others 1 or 2 weeks ahead were getting through it on the trail.  If you can’t determine it by Kennedy Meadows, try the section from Cottonwood Pass to Kersarge Pass to see if you feel comfortable with the snow and creek conditions.
  4. The snowfields get really hot during the day.  Although you want to stay cool, the sun reflects off the snow really well and can lead to sunburn.
  5. Microspikes worked really well.  I’m glad I had them over crampons.
  6. It doesn’t matter whether you have waterproof shoes or not.  It will all get wet when you ford the numerous creeks along the way.
  7. Trekking poles were very useful for keeping your balance on the very deep snow suncups, and when ascending/descending the passes.
  8. There will be ice and snow bridges over creeks and you’ll need to decide if they are safe enough to cross or not.  Sometimes you’ll see footprints over them and think they are okay to cross.  However, they are melting and getting weaker every day and you don’t want to be one to fall through and be swept down river.  To minimize this risks I first determine if I fall through an ice bridge is the river strong enough to sweep me away to death or injury?  If not, I’ll start to walk across what I think is the strongest part of the bridge.  I’ll poke my poles in the snow to see if there any weak points.  As I get close to the center of the bridge sometimes I’ll notice weakness like thin snow, and I’ll choose to hop over it to the other side.  As you get more experience you’ll be able to make these evaluations in seconds.

 

Creek/River fording:

  1. It’s important to travel as a group through the Sierras so you can do the creek fords together.  If something goes wrong you have the protection of the group to save you.  The 2 thru-hikers that died last year were alone during their fatal crossings.
  2. Water levels recede in the morning and rise as the day progresses due to all the snow melt.  If a river is too high to cross wait until the morning and it might be a foot lower and easier to cross.
  3. Another reason a morning crossing is better is because if it goes awry and stuff gets wet, then you have all day to dry it out and recover.  If the accident happens at the end of the day you’ll have to do the emergency fire, share a sleeping bag, borrow clothes and it will be a miserable time for you and your group.
  4. Hiking poles are great for leveraging your weight on fast moving creek crossings.
  5. I found this to be the best guide to river crossings:  https://www.bushwalkingleadership.org.au/resource/river-crossings-techniques/
  6. I found from my experience I-formation (parallel to river) is much better than the linked arms (perpendicular to the river) method.  It is especially effective for smaller weight people because the heavier people are in the front of the line breaking the current. #1 is leading the group.  #2 is leaning on #1 to help break the current.  The lighter go in the middle.  You need a strong person in back just in case.  Everyone needs to step at the same time. See the video: https://youtu.be/fT4K8RGm8Nc

 

Desert & Dry Section Crossings, Night Hiking:

  1. Sun shade umbrellas are nice for the desert but require careful consideration on how to attach it to your pack to allow for hands-free travel.  It can be difficult to use in the wind and where vegetation encloses the trail.  I found 2 of those rubber wire ties held it to my shoulder pad well.
  2. Beware of rattlesnakes.
  3. Plan to have 6 liters of water carrying capacity for the desert.
  4. Try to learn of where the water caches are located.  But be aware, sometimes they are stocked and other times they are empty or the water is very dirty.
  5. Guthooks and the Water Report are essential resources for scouting water.  Read the comments at the bottom of a Guthooks location to see the most updated water status reports.
  6. Doing desert and hot crossings at night and in the early morning make it much more enjoyable and pleasant.  You want to avoid desert crossing between noon to 4pm.
  7. Night hiking is best done as a group, especially on your first one.  It’s a neat experience to only see your group’s headlamps in the distance switch backing and weaving through the landscape.

 

In-Town and Resupply:

  1. When everyone says they are not stopping in town after a desert crossing you’ll be sure to find everyone in town recuperating there.
  2. It costs $5 to $10 per hour to be in town.  This could be for food, lodging, entertainment, gear, etc.  The sooner you can get out of town the more money you will save.
  3. Sharing a room is the best way to save money.
  4. It is always tempting to stay in town a little longer, or, an extra night.
  5. You can get creative with scheduling coming in and out of town to limit zeros and save money.  For instance, instead of getting there at night and paying for a room, you can get to town in the morning, do your errands, and then leave in the evening.
  6. The first priorities when entering a town is to get to the post office to get your resupply box and to start charging your battery.
  7. Even the sheriff will pick up hitchhikers in a small town.
  8. Towns can be exhausting because there is so much that needs to be done: resupply grocery shopping, laundry, gear repair/upgrading, mail, blog updates, planning ahead, seeing friends, and just relaxing.
  9. Some towns require renting/borrowing a car like Lake Tahoe and Tehachapi.  We got Enterprise Car Rental to pick us up and drop us off at the trailhead when we were in Lake Tahoe.
  10. The best hiker friendly and very helpful towns on the PCT were Warner Springs, Idyllwild, Julian, Lone Pine, Mammoth and Bishop.  These places were easily accessible, or had shuttles/easy hitchhikes, gear shops, trail angels, a good selection of affordable food, charm and it was easy to meet other PCTers.
  11. When mailing resupplies try to find places that will accept your package for free.  Some places charge money and it can get expensive such as Kennedy Meadows General Store.  Send your package to Grumpy’s where they don’t charge and save money.
  12. Many PCTers had problems at one time or another getting their packages to arrive on time.  One key is to make sure items are shipped far in advance. 3 days is cutting it too close.  I’d give it a week just to be safe and you might have to setup mailing for new shoes 2 stops ahead to ensure you get them.

 

Trail Family 

  1. Unless you are a very committed couple, everyone should have their own gear, tent, and cook stuff as injuries and different priorities can create separation for any amount of time.
  2. You will find your trail family eventually.  Don’t try to force your way into one.  Joining a trail family can sometimes come organically and naturally, and other times (such as through the Sierras) it intentionally comes together for safety.
  3. A trail family is only as fast as it’s slowest member.
  4. There’s a saying that you are the average of the 5 closest people around you that can apply to a trail family and how you might fit in.
  5. Drug use and tolerance for it seems to be a major factor in the forming of a trail family.  Some families do it, some don’t, and some are in the middle.
  6. Forming – Storming – Norming – Performing.  In a nutshell these are the phases a group goes through in developing into a cohesive strong unit.  By the Sierras you want your group to be Performing as this is the most dangerous section of the PCT with the steep snow passes, advanced navigation required, and high river crossings.
  7. Someone needs to eventually step up and become the leader of your trail family in order to solidify decision making and communication.
  8. It’s important on a daily basis to be aware of your trail family’s struggles, needs, strengths and weaknesses.
  9. No trail family is perfect.
  10. A trail family is a band of folks who come together and are acceptable of each other.  They are drawn together to help one another, offer laughter, comfort and bring out the best in each other.
  11. It’s acceptable for thru-hikers to go through several families.  It’s rare to see a same group hike the entire trail together from start to finish.  Injuries happen, priorities change or differ, conflicts arise, opportunities emerge, shit happens.
  12. You don’t necessarily need a trail family.  Soloists/pairs are easily accepted and co-miggle with their bubble’s trail families throughout the day and in resupply towns.  I think in the Sierras a soloist should definitely walk with a group for safety.  2 soloists died on river crossings in the Sierra this last season.
  13. Each trail family is different and has different priorities, personalities, structure, rigidity, and hiking standards.
  14. There will be some conflict with others on the trail.  You are doing extreme stuff and pushing the limits continuously for a very long period, and it is bound to happen.
  15. Do not hold resentment or grunges against others.  Practice empathy and be forgiving, and understand everyone has different reasons for doing the trail.  Just don’t take them so seriously next time.
  16. At the end of the day it is wonderful to sit with your trail family and reflect and laugh about the day’s hardships, accomplishments, and look ahead to the next day.
  17. After the journey is over it is wonderful to share your readjustment to society with your trail family, and follow up with your dreams you talked about on the trail.

 

Ending Early

  1. The PCTA estimates only a quarter or so of thru-hikers who start make it all the way to Canada.
  2. The PCT is as much a mental game as a physical challenge.  It will mentally challenge the strongest of us.  There were definitely a few times it came up in my head that I should quit when I was feeling weak or worn out.  However, what kept me walking was I had a strong desire to finish.
  3. It is the journey that counts, but you also need to finish it.
  4. Most PCTers who don’t finish end early in the first month when they realize this isn’t for them.  The next batch of PCTers that end early do it somewhere in Northern California where it is hot and feels lackluster after coming out of the amazing Sierras.
  5. The 3 major reasons for ending early are injury, lack of funds and boredom.  Other reasons can be off-trail obligations, a want for a “real relaxing” vacation, unfulfilled expectations, realizing this isn’t for them, a string of really bad luck, or, their visas running out.
  6. If you are thinking about ending early give it a week or two before doing it.  Try to change things up.  Don’t hold your feelings in.  Talk it out.
  7. Quiting the trail is not necessarily bad.  It is the realization of who you are, your priorities and what you really want to do.
  8.  Some injured hikers who had to quit turned into much needed and awesome trail angels providing trail magic at key points in the trail, working at hostels along the way, or giving valuable rides into town.

 

Hiker Community:

  1. Hikers and the Hiking Community are more awesome than you know!
  2. “The Trail” will give you a trail name better than any one you can think of.
  3. Tip trail angels if they allow it.  It costs money to feed you, house you and it’s a fraction of what it would cost to do on your own anyway.
  4. Laughter is the greatest thing ever.
  5. After you are done with your adventure pay it forward.  Help the next generation of PCTers, become a steward or advocate for the trail.  Do something to give back.

 

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