Gear We Kept and Gear We Ditched after 700 Miles on the PCT
After one month of hiking North on the Pacific Crest Trail, my wife Vee and I have completed the first 700 miles, from Mexico to the small town of Kennedy Meadows. From amazing views and excellent days, to unforgiving weather and regrets, we’ve experienced a bit of it all. And we still have 1,950 miles to go until Canada!
How could we have been better prepared?
After taking some photos at the Southern Terminus monument, we were off and cruising down the trail! All and all, we felt pretty dang prepared for this first 700 mile stretch, but there are some different approaches that we would have taken before starting to be better prepared:
- Heat Training: Desert heat is no joke and we felt a bit unprepared. Beyond finding hotter climates to train in, some hikers have also taken to the saunas for exposure and developed a base tan for added sun protection.
- Pack Weight: While we are very pleased with the weight of our packs, we do feel that taking more trips before our PCT hike with a max-loaded pack would be helpful with expectations.
- Injury Prevention: Prior to hitting the trail, we did focus on strengthening some of our past physical weakness (Ankles for Tim and IT-Band for Vee) but we could have done a better job with other areas that hikers tend to struggle with on trail. Vee had suffered from Shin-Splints which could have been prevented with more long distance running prior to our start and a slower increase in mileage in the first week or so. Tim had some increased soreness on the bottom of his feet, which would have benefited from replacement shoes or insoles at an earlier time.
- Footwear: there is no one-size-fits-all method for footwear. Unlike Tim, who’d had months, if not years, of time successfully testing his Altra Lone Peaks, Vee had never found a pair that she knew would work for 500+ miles. Through trial and error, Vee found that her starting pair of Saucony Peregrines, and her next pair of Altra Lone peaks were no-gos. She landed on a more cushioned Altra Olympus in tandem with Superfeet Green insoles that provided the cushion and arch support she didn’t realize (until 500 miles in) that she needed.
Better preparation will pretty much always have its place when it comes to any journey or pursuit, however there are certainly some areas that will also be an inevitable challenge. Regardless of how much heat training you commit to before starting, desert heat, and mountain cold will not come without its difficulties.
Gear We Changed
Not all gear is created equal, or better yet, not all gear was made to perform in every environment. When we set off from the Mexican border, we both had high expectations for all of the gear we had packed. It became clear that the desert environment would pose challenges to our gear that we had not anticipated. Here are some of the tools that we ended up changing out due to damage or performance failures:
- Polycro: Typically used as window film, Polycro makes for a great lightweight alternative to a tent groundsheet. Unfortunately the desert floor made quick work of tearing holes in this sheet, which we ended up exchanging for Tyvek.
- Opsack: An odor-proof plastic bag used to store food. The shape and structure of the bag was not a comfortable fit for our food and resulted in tearing at the seam. We switched to Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Dry Sacks instead.
- Darn Tough Running Socks: While being comfortable and serving Tim’s feet well, after 500 miles of desert, we found the beginnings of holes and diminished padding in his Darn Tough running socks. Thankfully, due to darn tough’s lifetime warranty, these were easily exchanged for the quarter cushioned Darn Tough hiking socks.
- Power Bank: Frequent use of the phone is not necessary on trail; however, a sufficient power supply is certainly helpful. We initially started with two Nitecore 5000 MaH power banks, but found ourselves feeling anxious about battery usage, particularly on long 6-7 day stretches. After 700 miles, we swapped these out for one Nitecore 20,000 MAH power bank.
Gear That is Here to Stay
- Zpacks Duplex Tent: A palace for one, or a comfortable yet snug fit for two, this non-free-standing DCF tent is a shelter we have been proud to call home. Weighing in at 18.5 oz, it meets the standards of “ultralight” while providing the space needed to house a smelly 5’10” male and 5’2” female (other sizes/smells may apply).
- Mountain Laurel Designs Prophet: A frameless pack that has been an absolute workhorse. For dry stretches of trail which requires water carries as far as 40 miles, and resupply stretches up to 7 days, the pack has comfortably carried us throughout the California desert and is still going strong.
- Thrupack Fannypack: Simply stated, fanny packs are awesome! Fanny packs allow you to have quick and easy access to favorite items on trail and a jumbo pocket on town days. This Thrupack fanny has been a carrying chameleon. Not an hour goes by when we don’t capitalize on this easy access pack for our trail go-tos: snacks, sunscreen, chapstick, phone, etc.
- Black Diamond Trekking Poles: The Alpine Carbon Cork Trekking Poles from Black Diamond have been an absolute workhorse. Not only are they used to pitch our non-freestanding tent each night, they have also been repetitively pounded into dirt, sand, rock and concrete, day after day without issue.
Important Realities for the Desert
When we tell folks that we hiked 700 miles through the desert section of the trail, there are certainly some misconceptions and realities of the experience that aren’t so obvious. Some picture us walking through a vast sandy landscape straight out of “Dune”. Others envision a flat landscape with some minor hills to walk over. Here are some important details about the desert section of the Pacific Crest Trail:
- Diversity: The brutally hot desert landscape will be encountered from time to time, however there are also pine forests, rivers, lakes, and mountains.
- Water: This variable controls most aspects of our day to day movement. There was rarely a moment that we didn’t know how many miles to the next water source and availability wasn’t always certain. Our most valuable resource for water availability was found in our FarOut app in which other hikers can provide updates on flow rate, location and status.
- Climbs: While there aren’t many high mountain passes, there were still plenty of climbs to encounter almost every day. This included a 57.4 mile stretch around the Mt. Jacinto area which entails a 10,614 ft of ascending and 13,451 ft of descending.
- Shade: To take a break without shade would likely be foolish. Additionally, depending on the heat of the day, siestas may be a requirement to stay out of the heat.
Pros and Cons of the Desert
|Easy to cowboy camp||Dealing with high winds|
|Absence of Mosquitos||Absence of water|
|Lots of Trail Angels/Trail magic||Rattlesnakes|
|Minimal condensation in tent||Intense Heat|
|Beautiful Scenery||Sandy climbs|
The Final Word
700 miles of any terrain can be exhausting, but the Californian desert provided us with the appreciation we needed for the simplest of things, such as access to water and refuge from the heat. We were challenged, we had our successes and failures, we learned a lot, and we feel that we are stronger and better hikers for it. This isn’t to say that we’re done with the trail, as this only accounts for about 26% of the trail. Up next is the Sierras and Northern California, which means more snow, cold, mosquitoes and yet again, heat!
About the Gear Tester
Tim is thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail with his wife Vee. When he’s not hiking, he’s likely eating or sleeping, but off the trail you can find him running through the mountains, backcountry skiing or spectacularly failing at disc golf.