Here are some of my favorite questions I have gotten since I announced to friends and family that I plan to walk 2,000 odd miles this summer…
Okay, this one is kind of tough. Here’s an answer…. If you can, how can you not? Let’s say someone told you that there was a wilderness trail that started at the Mexican border and wound 2600 miles along mountain ridges through some of the most stunning scenery in North America all the way to Canada. How could you hear that statement and, assuming you have the time, money and ability, not want to throw on a pack and go?
Are you taking a gun?
What? Why? Just in general I am a bit confused by the American obsession with firearms. The “personal protection” argument, which on the surface seems valid, falls apart when you look at the statistics – a lot more people are hurt with their own guns than are saved by them. And they are heavy. I am debating whether to take a 1 oz or a 1.2 oz toothbrush. A 3 lb handgun is out of the question. So… No.
How heavy is your pack?
Over the past 30 years or so the approach to long distance backpacking has changed dramatically. When we hiked in the 80’s (for a 3-4 night hike) a 50 lb pack was not unusual. The ultra-light hiking movement has changed all that. A tyical base weight now for a PCT thru-hiker (everything but water, food and fuel) is 15-16 lbs. And some people get it under 10 lbs! That means with 2L of water and 6 days of food you’re carrying a 27-30 lb pack. My base weight is about 14.5 lbs. This is about 2 lbs lighter than I had last summer. How do you do this? You don’t take anything you won’t use. No extra batteries, no spare fuel canister, no extra anything. And, at the end of a week, assuming water is not a problem, you can end up hiking into town with an 18 lb pack!
For anyone who thinks the obsession with weight is silly, I propose the following experiment. Get a pack. Load it up to 40 lbs. Go to the gym and get on the stair master and step for 30 minutes. Do the same thing the following day, with the stair stepper set at the same pace, with a 20 lb pack. You’ll understand.
What kind of shoes will you use?
In the ultra-light world nobody uses hiking boots anymore. Everyone uses trail unners (10-14 oz versus 2-3 lbs). I will be using Saucony Peregrine 5 trail runners (10.25 oz each). Most people go through 3-5 pairs of shoes if they do the whole thing. I’m pretty easy on shoes so I expect to get 6-700 miles out of a pair. Don’t your feet get wet? Yep. But they would with hiking boots also and they dry a lot faster.
What about bears?
What about them? I’ve seen a lot of bears hiking and never been bothered by them. The California Grizzly is extinct (which says something about who should be worried about whom) but there are Grizzlys in the north. Roughly 1-3 people a year are killed by bears annually in North America. This compares to about 25 people a year killed by dogs and 90 or so killed by lightning. There is no recorded instance of a bear killing a hiker on the PCT while at least two people have died in car accidents. So, not gonna worry about bears…
What about… you now…okay… pooping?
People, modern people, people just like you and me, have been pooping in the woods for thousands of years. As far as I know this has not caused any problems. In fact, there is some evidence that the modern “porcelain throne” toilet puts the body in the wrong position. But, in any case, anyone who has travelled outside the US has probably encountered squat toilets. The only difference is that, if you use TP, you have to pack it out. I personally like wet wipes for clean up. If water is not a problem, a squirt bottle and a hand works pretty good.
One of my favorite Francis toddler books was “Everyone Poops”. That pretty much sums up my feelings about pooping.
What about food?
There are two basic approaches to resupply on the PCT, buy-as-you-go and mail-drops. There are pros and cons to both. Most people do a combination of both. You can only carry about 6-8 days of food. In the Sierras, where a bear can is required, you can only stuff about 7 days of food in the can. The rule of thumb (which is pretty accurate in my experience) is 1.5-2.0 lbs/day/person. This means that, every 7 days or so, you have to get someplace where you can buy food or get to a post office or someplace where a package can be mailed.
The mail-drop aproach is a logistics nightmare. Imagine having to plan every meal for the next 5 months. Now, you have to bag it up and place the meals in roughly 20 different boxes, all addressed to different places with different ship times. Then you have to find someone you trust enough to regularly, every two weeks or so, ship the boxes out. You can’t ship them all before you go because the post offices won’t hold them that long. Now, imagine that, after two months, just thinking about that veggie, freeze dried, thai noodle concoction you thought was absolutely fantastic three months ago makes you feel physically ill. And, you still have 15 more boxes , each with three servings of thai noodles, still waiting up the trail!
So, I am doing the buy-as-you-go almost exclusively. There are places, especially in Washington, where this is difficult. In those spots I plan on using one of the on-trail shipping services (e.g. zerodayresupply) that allow you to select meals on line and they will box them and ship them to a location. This option is more expensive but it allows you to tailor you meals as your tastes change. Very important to me
How often to you go to town?
Because of food mainly, you have to hit town about every 7 days. Because of the way the trail works, sometimes this is 5 days and sometimes it is 8. But you really can’t go much longer than 9 days in a pinch. Most people take “zero days” in town – i.e. They take a day off from the trail. I found last year that these were important. Hit town in the afternoon – get a room at a hotel or a hostel – do laundry, shower, eat. Eat some more. Next day you spend resupplying – buying food, fuel. Note that this does not mean no walking – you usually have to walk several miles to get to a decent grocery store. Spend another night, then hit the trail early the next morning
Double-zero’s are a bad idea, I found. One day allows the body to recover. Two days and your body starts to forget the trail and you have to spend a day relearning.