With less than three weeks until I leave, I am scrambling to complete my resupply boxes, consolidate a bunch of information about the trail, move all my stuff out of my room, and still get some quality time with friends and family. Thankfully, I have spent the past year and a half trying out gear and I settled on what I’m taking months ago, so there’s one thing that I’m not worrying about right now. I’ll give you a rundown of gear on the PCT and my choices. I will not weigh the pros and cons of coated nylon versus cuben fiber shelters, this is meant more as a introduction to the more basic decisions hikers make about what to take.
Everyone agrees you need a shelter. Tents are the most common. When most people think of a tent, they’re probably imagining a double-walled freestanding tent. It has the main compartment, with a waterproof bathtub floor and mesh ‘windows’, held up with collapsible tent poles, and can be zippered up to keep bugs out. And then the rainfly can be added, often providing one or two vestibules, space outside the tent thats still covered from the rain, good for boots. You probably stake this tent down to make it more stable in the wind, but it would stand without stakes and you could pick it up and move it.
The other option is a tarp, set up with trekking poles, or trees if they’re around, and stakes. This option can be very light, versatile, and pack easily. Its also more difficult to set up and without a floor, does not offer the same protection from bugs and dirt. When using a tarp, people often have a groundsheet or bivvy or both. A bivvy is basically just a bag that goes around your sleeping bag and pad.
When the weather allows it, I prefer cowboy camping, or camping without a tent or tarp. Its requires almost no setup and you can look up at the stars. Some people don’t like it because of bugs and dew settling on your sleeping bag, but those can be solved with a bivvy and selecting the right campsite. Usually there are few nights of rain on the PCT, especially in California, so cowboy camping is common.
So what am I using? Everything. When I’m on my own I’ll have a tarp, groundsheet, and lightweight bivvy. This will be great for cowboy camping and I’ll use my very light and packable tarp if it rains. When Louise joins I will add a two-person tent. Weeze prefers a tent and she can have it to herself most of the time. If the weather is bad I can join her rather than fussing with my tarp. And we will both have shelters if we have to separate for some reason.
My tarp is a Hyperlite Mountain Gear 8 ft x 10 ft. With guy lines and stakes, it only weighs 1 lb. I have a very light bivvy made by Borah. With a bivvy I can completely enclose myself to protect from bugs (the part that goes in front of my face is bug mesh). It also helps keep dew off my bag and it keeps me from sliding off my sleeping pad. I’m using a Tyvek groundsheet. Tyvek is a durable, lightweight, and waterproof housing material, also great for protecting your sleeping pad from the ground. The tent is the MSR Hubba Hubba. At 3 lbs 13 oz, it is not the lightest two person tent on the market but it is pretty good. And it’s spacious and has two entrances and two vestibules.
This one is pretty straightforward. Besides the few ultra-lighters who have a sleeping bag that integrates with or also functions as clothing, hikers sleep in a sleeping bag or a sleeping quilt. People choose a temperature rating based on their own sleeping temperature and the warmth of their entire sleep system. For example, if you use a sleeping bag liner, you could have a slightly warmer weather bag. Most people will have a bag rated for 10 to 30 degrees. Almost everyone chooses down because it is lighter and packs smaller than synthetic. I have always used a bag rather than a quilt. I don’t know much about quilts, but some people really like them.
I have the 20 degree Feathered Friends Egret UL. Louise has the Egret Nano 20, almost the same. There are other brands popular with long distance hikers that make great bags, but I choose Feathered Friends because they’re local (for me living in Seattle), very friendly, and they use ethically sourced down. The Egret UL is light (1 lb 12 oz), packs small (9 L), and has features common in women’s bags that appeal to me. Women’s bags differ from men’s in cut, temperature, and the side that the zipper is on. Since women sleep colder than men, a woman’s bag is roughly 10 degrees warmer for the same temperature rating. Men’s bags typically are widest at the top and taper to the feet. The Egret is widest at the hips which is nice for my anatomy and sleeping curled on my side.
Sleeping pads. Everyone sleeps on something. The two main categories are ones that inflate and ones that don’t. Inflatable ones take longer to set up and can be punctured (thus rendered useless), yet they pack smaller and many find them more comfortable. Sleeping pads contribute to the overall temperature of the sleep system, and they are not all the same. Every pad will have an R value that is an indicator of how well it insulates you from the cold ground. When sleeping on snow or frozen ground, you want to have a high R value (4 or higher). I have the Sea to Summit Comfort Lite Insulated (an inflatable one). I liked it most out of the few I tried in the store, and it has served me well on maybe 20 nights of use so far. Its reasonably warm (4.2 R value).
The biggest decision people make about cooking is whether to do it at all. Many people do long distance hikes without a stove. It saves space and weight, of the stove, the pot, and the fuel. And some say they still do a cooking of sorts. They use some of the same dehydrated foods you would add boiling water to, instead adding any water and letting it sit for much, much longer. The fact that many people do this makes me think that it must not be so bad, but I can’t imagine going camping without a stove.
If you do take a stove, you decide between canister and alcohol. Alcohol stoves are smaller and lighter, but much less convenient and more dangerous in my opinion, though many people use them and like them. I tried one out on the Wonderland trail, and decided to stick with my heavier canister stove. I have an MSR Windburner, an integrated stove and pot very similar to a Jetboil. The pot locks onto the stove, making the system very efficient. Very little heat is lost in the transfer to the pot and it performs very well in wind. It can boil a liter of water in a few minutes, even on a cold night. This type of stove is ideal for boiling water, not so much for simmering or sauteeing. I plan to have mostly meals that need only boiling water, like couscous, instant mashed potatoes, and oatmeal.
Like with all other gear, a big concern with packs is their weight. Most of the big-name packs you’d find at REI weigh more than 3 lbs. Most through hikers are trying to go lighter than that. There are a handful of smaller outdoor brands that make lighter packs. I have a 60 L ZPacks Arc Blast. Very basic roll-top bag with a large mesh pocket on the back and weighing roughly 2 lbs. I love it. Besides being very light, it is the most comfortable pack I’ve worn.
Some might think that people would want packs with a large capacity for a trip as long as the PCT, but its kind of the opposite. When I’m doing just an overnight, I’ll bring all sorts of comforts, even a chair, and use the full capacity of my pack. I would never consider lugging that kind of stuff 2000 miles. Many people will have packs with a smaller capacity than mine.
So there’s a few things. Do I think I have the right things that will suit me perfectly the whole way? Probably not. I have chosen some things have worked for me on short outings in the Cascades and make sense given the information I have, but its hard to be certain what will work for many weeks across very different landscapes. I know I might be wrong and want to switch out some gear and that happens a lot.
There’s other gear I haven’t gotten to, not to mention clothing, but this post is too long already. There’s a link to my complete gear list on the right. And look out for part 2!