I had most of the hiking and backpacking skills I would need from a lifetime of trips with my dad and other people. The desert skills that are crucial to the southern California sections I honed in years of hikes around San Diego County. What I knew nothing about when I first started day hikes on the PCT circa 1990 was snow, avalanches, ice axes, etc. When I worked two years at Boeing in Seattle, I joined The Mountaineers and learned all my snow skills from their various classes and programs. I've put those skills to the test many times on the PCT. I learned some excellent first aid skills in classes taught by Wilderness Medical Associates. Most First Aid classes teach you to call 911 and keep the patient alive for 15 minutes while the ambulance arives. WMA and their competitors emphasize First Aid under the severe environments of the outdoors, and care of the patient for the hours or days that may pass before help can be summoned. I recommend their classes for any prospective thru hiker. You spend a lot of time alone and need to know how to take care of yourself.
Drinking lots of water is crucial to safely hiking the blazing hot Southern California portion of the PCT. At altitude in the Sierra Nevada, drinking lots of water will help head off altitude sickness, of which I am a big sufferer. However, sometimes natural water sources are 30 miles or more apart. Sometimes they are contaminated with cattle feces from upstream grazing lands. So what did I do to keep hydrated?
I carried a SweetWater Filter with an extra prefilter to clean biological and dirt contamination out of suspect water sources. This filtered everything but viruses out of the water. Viral contamination on the PCT is much less of a problem than other, larger critters which cause waterborne illnesses, so I didn't worry about the viruses. I carried Potable Aqua iodine pills as a backup to the filter.
I read ahead in the guidebook, and consulted other sources to understand how far I would need to travel between water sources, and I carried enough 1 quart Gatorade bottles to hike safely and comfortably. I didn't necessarily fill them all, except for the longest dry stretches. Gatorade bottles work great because they are cheap, lightweight, strong, have a lid that seals really well, and are available in any store from a gas station market to a supermarket. I threw them away and replaced them on a regular basis.
On the PCT, I got water from many types of sources. Most obvious are streams, springs, and lakes/ponds. These are often marked on topographic maps, are listed in the PCT Guidebook, and may be obvious from far away on the trail from the brighter than average green vegetation near them. Another source the guidebook often mentioned was fire water cisterns. Provided they were not locked up, I filtered from lots of them. Sometimes there might be a spigot or drinking fountain in a trail head area or other park near the trail. Once Lynn and I dug seep holes in a wet, sandy stream bed on our descent from the San Jacintos to I-10. My seep was silty, and clogged my filter after only a few strokes of the pump, whereas Lynn's, only 10 feet away, was much cleaner and I was able to get plenty of water. Next time I have to resort to a seep hole, I'll know to keep digging them till I get a clean one. Sometimes I cooked snow on my stove or a fire for water. This requires a lot of fuel, so it's not as attractive as finding liquid water. One very important source type is water caches, or where some wonderful person puts jugs of water out on the trail for hikers to use. They must be very charitable people, for water is heavy, hikers drink a lot of it, and some of these caches are quite remote. Some of the caches had 40-50 gallons of water, and they were restocked several times a week. We called the people who did this and other wonderful things for hikers trail angels. Some hiked the trail in they past, some had no reason to help other than that they are super nice. In any case, thank you angels very much for all the water I drank from the caches. Finally, if it weren't nice enough to find jugs of water on the trail, sometimes the angels drove right to the trail and passed out ice cold sodas, water, Gatorade, fruit, or whatever. You wouldn't believe how grateful we were for cold drinks on some blazing hot day.
Sometimes the water had hidden nasties in it. Sometime just before I twisted my ankles descending Baden-Powell, I picked up Giardia Lamblia, and got Giardiasis a week later. Giardiasis is a horrible thing, with severe diarrhea, sulpherous belches, and fatigue. It's just nasty. I ended up taking Flagyl to stop it, side effects that got me included headache, super dark urine, and severe crankiness. I was very careful with filtering any suspect water source, but even the careful ones get hit sometimes.
One thing I had a lot of fun with this trip was trying to guess what the weather would be. Several times, I predicted rain or snow in a couple of days, but not before. As it turned out, I was right on. Other times, I wasn't able to predict something at all. Obviously, knowing when it will rain is useful to a hiker, but what is more important is how severe the storm will be. I say this because I carried storm gear from the Mexican border into Canada, so I was always prepared for rain. It was better to know that the storm would be really severe tomorrow, but not the day after that, and then delay an ascent into the high mountains for a day so I wouldn't be miserably cold.
I started to learn to observe and predict weather years ago when I hiked most of the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington (1998). First of all, it rains a few times a month there, so there are lots of chances to observe building storms. Second, most of the mountains in WA are no more than about 6000 feet, and the few that are taller are much taller. For example, Mount Adams is about 12000, Ranier is about 14500, and what's left of Saint Helens is about 8500. So I as I watched the lenticular clouds form over each of these mountains, I knew something about the weather at various atmospheric levels. Things like the relative amount of moisture and speed of the wind can be ascertained with some experience. So Washington was a particularly good laboratory for learning about mountain effect weather. There are other weather signs independent of the mountains.
First I'll discuss what I call Mountain Effect weather. This is where weather forms around a mountain or a mountain range that is substantially higher than the surrounding terrain. It's important for two reasons. First, if I'm going over that mountain or range, the weather will directly affect me. Second, mountain effect weather is often tells me what's going to happen to the general weather, away from the mountain, in a day or two. If I can clearly see the shape of a lenticular cloud, it's pretty easy to read it. Lenticular means lens shaped, but I like to describe lenticular clouds as being shaped like a football squashed over the top of the peak. If the shape is tall but not very long, it means there's lots of water in the air, but it's not too windy. If the shape is skinny but really long, not so much water, but very high winds. There's no exact ratio, reading it just comes from experience. It's more complicated to stand down in a valley watching clouds boil off a ridge, and make the same type of conclusions, but with experience, possible.
For general sky observations, there are a lot of great nature guides on weather, with great pictures and descriptions, so I'll just summarize. The more clouds in the sky, and the more dense, the more water there is up there. Duh. If the clouds are stretched out and wispy, or moving across the sky, there is lots of wind. Lots of wind often means the weather will change substantially in a day or two. Just observe over time to see if clouds are collecting or dispersing to know whether it will get worse or better. This is why my daily journal is full of references to cloud coverage at various time of the day. Cirrostratus clouds indicate high winds high in the air, often indicating weather which will change over the coming days, and possibly high winds in the high country when there is little in the valley I'm standing in. Contrails indicate moisture aloft, and at night, as they slew across the stars, wind velocity. And there are so many more signs. Go read a weather book.
No one sign is a reliable predictor of weather to come, but when four or five signs seem to indicate rain, or winds, or whatever, then you have something. It appeals to me because it's a tremendous intellectual challenge, and because it's very useful to a hiker to know when a storm will hit, and how severe it will be. I can't predict the weather all the time, but even predicting half the storms is useful. Also, if a rainstorm comes along that I didn't predict, then I know it won't be severe, and will blow over pretty quickly.
One more thing about weather: In my daily journal I mention several instances of Rime Ice. Rime is a very short technical word which does not do justice, so I'll take this chance to expand on it. The first thing to know is that rime forms in horribly cold weather conditions. Two things must occur. There must be supercooled water mist. This means something like fog which is colder than the freezing temperature of water, but which still contains liquid water. There must also be severe winds. When the mist smacks into something, like a tree or your face, it instantly turns to ice. This chills you much more than driving snow, for example, because instead of bouncing off your face, like a snowflake, the ice is spread over and bonded to your face. So that's the first thing, any night I mentioned rime forming was a bitterly cold night. The good thing about rime is that it is exceptionally beautiful. Sparkly white branches of ice grow into the wind from branches, rocks, etc. When the morning sun strikes, the scenery is breathtaking. It definitely makes up for the miserable, shivering night I've just spent!
So what did I eat on the trail? For breakfast, powdered milk and granola. I eat it from my pot. Lots of people put portions of cereal and dry milk in Ziploc bags and eat it straight from there, but I have no desire to carry bags with wet milk and cereal residue in my trash. For me, the pot cleaning is preferable to the smelly trash. For "lunch", nuts, crackers, dried fruit, in cold weather, cookies for extra calories. I eat lunch whenever I'm hungry, from 1 to 5 times per day! When I'll be sweating a lot, I carry Gatorade powder and make a weak solution (one spoonful per quart of water) for most of my daily drinking. I don't like full strength Gatorade, it tastes too salty, and makes my sweat much more salty, so that the sweat from my brow really stings my eyes. When I hiked most of the PCT in Washington years ago, I also ate a candy bar every day, but on this trip, I've found that I don't like stuff that sweet. For dinner, I use powdered potatoes, freeze dried vegetables, and canned chicken or fish to cook up a meal. I carry pepper and Tabasco Sauce to make it tasty. For Kennedy Meadows to Red's Meadow, I carried freeze dried dinners, they were not too bad. In towns, I eat everything I can get my hands on! This definitely includes fresh vegetables and fruit, which I really miss on the trail. Sometimes I carry fresh fruit for the first couple of days out of a town.
5 years ago, when I hiked most or Washington state's portion of the PCT, I used heavy leather mountaineering boots. By the time I finished, each foot was one big, painful bruise. It took months after the hike before my feet felt normal again. The boots just were not padded well enough to protect the feet from the constant pounding, even though I spent lots of money regularly replacing the insoles with the best I could get.
So for this hike, I elected to use trail running shoes, basically beefed up jogging shoes. They offer substantially less support to the foot, but since I stay on trail most of the time, that should not be a problem. The padding is way better, as I write this I've reached Red's Meadow, 900 trail miles, and I don't have the Washington problem at all. As you'll see in a couple of paragraphs, better support might have prevented other problems, but I still consider my choice better, my feet are in better shape than they were during the Washington hike.
Socks are another issue, I've worn out 6 pairs in 900 trail miles. See my fingers poking through all the holes at left. I tend to buy good, cushy socks, so this adds up.
In San Diego County, the Pines Fire of fall 2002 burned much of the PCT's route. Where the trail traverses over Oriflame Canyon, virtually all vegetation was lost. The trail is on steep loose sand and rock slopes, which had been anchored by the chaparral plant community there. Without the plants, sand and rock slid down and covered much of the trail. On this unstable footing, I got my first foot problem, a twist of the left ankle. Though this did not hurt too much, generally healed up over a couple of weeks, and did not slow me down much, it left me with tendonitis in the left Achilles. This didn't hurt while I was hiking, but was sometimes tender to the touch. By the time I reached Big Bear, I had athlete's foot. That was not actually too difficult to get rid of, which surprised me since my feet were always sweaty and dirty. I just cleaned them when I could and used Tinactin, and was OK in a couple of weeks. Later, while descending Mount Baden-Powell, I twisted both ankles. See the daily journal for details. As of Red's Meadow, those injuries seemed to be fine. The last big offence to my feet was my birthday march into Mojave. After walking 35 miles in one day, some in the dark, somewhat dehydrated, all the joints in my feet hurt for days.
At one point, I tried taping my ankles, much like football players do, with athletic tape to provide extra support for my ankles. I found that I was getting a rash under the tape after several days of use. I can't say whether it was the adhesive, or all the motion, or whatever else, but taping long term did not work for me.
Here's a snapshot of my gear as of Agua Dulce.
|?||Arcteryx backpack, modified|
|2||Garbage bag, rain cover for pack|
|?||Zero degree North Face sleeping bag|
|14.5||Ensolite Pad (In use since early 1970's)|
|3||Silnylon Ground sheet|
|11||5 foot by 10 foot Silnylon tarp and lines|
|26.5||Bivy sack (Outdoor Research Goretex with head hoops) and stuff sack|
|10||Bivy poles, stakes|
|0.8||Bivy bug fly|
|21||Fuel (denatured alcohol or methanol) (up to 21 ounces)|
|10||Pot, lid, spoon, scraper, rubber band|
|8.5||Stove, windscreen, lighter, small fuel bottle, bag|
|128||Water, up to 8 pounds, in Gatorade bottles|
|13||Book, The Portable Thoreau, missing a few essays|
|10||Book, Great American Short Stories|
|4||Book, Clouds and Weather|
|2||Town Guide, margins guillotined and useless pages discarded, pages discarded after use.|
|9||Trail Guide, margins guillotined and useless pages discarded, pages discarded after use.|
|17||Ice Axe, Leash, Adze Protector|
|2.5||Sunglasses, Wipes, soft sack|
|8.5||3.5 rolls athletic tape (for twisted ankles)|
|4||2 Ace Bandages (for twisted ankles)|
|8||2 disposable cameras|
|35||Assorted small gear, meds, etc.|
|60||2 pair New Balance 806 shoes, logos and tongues removed for ventilation|
|10||3 pair wool socks|
|8.5||Long Sleeve Shirt|
|3.5||Half Cotton T-Shirt|
|5||Lycra anti chafing shorts|
|10||Uncoated Nylon Shirt|
|1.5||Uncoated Nylon Hat|
|7.5||Uncoated Nylon Pants|
|5||Uncoated Nylon shorts for towns|
|Negligible||Silnylon rain hat|
|7.5||Waterproof breathable Jacket|
|7||Waterproof breathable Pants|
|0.5||Fuzzy Stuff Sack|
|540||A Total of 33.7 pounds, plus backpack and sleeping bag weight|
The Lycra bike shorts (minus the chamois) are key to avoiding chafing between the thighs. When the inseam blew out from wear, I started to get a rash within an hour, and I stopped to repair them immediately. If you have chafing problems, I highly recommend them.
I modified an Outback Oven to fit a one man pot and always use it when cooking. It makes cooking faster and hotter, with less fuel burned per cooking session. I recommend it.