Leaving tomorrow! And finally I have a rough schedule for you. The dates will certainly change and I will try to update them here. I believe at most stops I will have either cell service or wifi, so I will have some ability to read/respond to email, text, and Facebook communication.
We also welcome physical correspondence! Post cards, letters, or parcels. Please let me know if you send something so I can tell the post office how many items I’m expecting. A text or email early enough that I can get it at the stop before would be ideal. Use USPS, not UPS or FedEx. It can take longer for mail to reach some of these little towns so something sent 1 week ahead of our ETA may not reach us (more for some classes of mail). Post offices only hold mail for 30 days so something sent 5 weeks ahead of our ETA could be sent back. I think 2 to 4 weeks ahead of our ETA is the safe zone.
PCT Hiker, ETA: 5/4/17
Warner Springs, CA 92086
Big Bear City
Louise and Morgan Marks
PCT Hikers, ETA 6/3/17
Tehachapi, CA 93581
Louise and Morgan Marks
PCT Hikers, ETA 6/18/17
Independence, CA 93526
Red’s Meadow/ Mammoth Lakes
South Lake Tahoe
Louise and Morgan Marks
PCT Hikers, ETA 7/11/17
Sierra City, CA 96125
Burney Falls State Park
Morgan and Louise Marks
PCT Hikers, ETA 7/21/17
c/o Burney Park Camp Store McArthur Burney Falls State Park
24900 State Highway 89
Burney, CA 96013
Ashland (Callahan’s lodge)
Crater Lake National Park (Mazama)
Louise and Morgan Marks
c/o Mazama Village Camper Store
Crater Lake, OR 97604
Elk Lake Resort
Big Lake Youth Camp
Louise and Morgan Marks
c/o Big Lake Youth Camp
13100 Highway 20
Sisters, OR 97759
PCT Hiker, ETA 9/7/17
c/o Chevron Station
Snoqualmie Pass, WA 98068
PCT Hiker, ETA 9/11/17
c/o General Delivery
Stehekin, WA 98852
Less than 3 days before I take off! I am back in Seattle after spending 4 lovely days in Charleston, a precursor vacation to my vacation. I got to see lots of family, nearly everyone I planned to (Sorry I missed you Aunt Kay!) Besides just visiting and enjoying the weather, I used the trip to undertake some non-critical but nonetheless important preparations.
My mom and I did some shopping to round out my resupply boxes with ‘morale’ items. Aunt Barbara and I pampered our feet and I decided that sparkly toes will move faster. I am certainly more prepared to face a bear after discussions with Aunt Anne, Uncle Sam, Sam, and Virginia. My dad helped me cope with the notion of weeks in an arid environment with a day surrounded by water, spectating the regatta and boating about the waterways. Hanging with Richie and Alex made me feel hip enough to make trail friends, and Nana, Papa, and Uncle Tommy imbued me with wisdom and good sense. To everyone, I enjoyed seeing you so much, your support means a lot!
But I am not writing just to ramble my many gratitudes, I have a purpose! I have been thinking about how I will have A LOT of time this summer with only my own thoughts, especially before Louise joins. I expect to spend a good amount of time oohing and aahing over all the nature, but I think boredom is inevitable walking 10 hrs a day through many miles of identical landscape. Music and audiobooks will help as long as my phone battery lasts, but I did come up with a more fun idea.
I was remembering how I had to memorize the Saint Crispin’s Day speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V in 8th grade. It’s such a rousing and fun passage, I would like to know it again. Then it occurred to me that there are plenty of things that would be cool to have memorized. Poems, speeches, monologues, lyrics, ghost stories, fables, myths. This could be a great way to spend hours alone on the trail. And perhaps make friends? (Here is the request) I asked a couple people and got good suggestions. But would love more! If I can get my act together, I will print them out real small and make a little booklet. If you think of something in the next couple days, send it my way, either by email or text or Facebook or the contact section of this blog. A link to a webpage, a pdf attachment, copy pasted text, anything will work. I can’t guarantee that I will memorize everything but it will all make good reading material. I’m not yet sure if I will want to carry the weight and bulk of a real paper book.
With 9 days before I leave, the reality of it all is setting in. All of the sudden, this plan I’ve made feels gigantic and ridiculous. I’ve spent so much time and effort ‘getting ready.’ Ready to walk from Mexico to Canada, across desert, through forests, and over mountains. Hah! Now I can see that there’s no such thing.
My job ended last week to give me time to finish preparations and see family in Charleston. The ‘finishing preparations’ bit boils down to putting things in boxes and thinking about all the ways that things could go wrong. I don’t think the latter is productive at this point, so I’ll tell you more about my boxes and resupplying in general.
There are two ways to get supplies on the trail. Send them to yourself or buy them along the way. By sending them to yourself I mean sending them to a place that will hold them for you, often a post office. Some businesses also hold packages for a fee. At some resupply points, there is no place to mail a box or there is a place that charges a lot to hold it for you (up to $75!), and at others, there is no place to buy food or the selection is limited and expensive. This means that most people do both. Each has drawbacks, though the more time I’ve spent working on my resupply boxes the more I feel like buying food along the way must be easier.
If you send boxes, you can get foods you wouldn’t find along the way, online or from specialty stores. You can also save money by buying in bulk and waiting for certain foods to go on sale at your local grocery store. There are many drawbacks though. With the cost of shipping, I’m not sure that mailing boxes is cheaper in the long run. Also, common advice for new thru hikers is not to send too much because you don’t know what food you will want in 4 months. Almost every thru hiker has a food item they they can longer eat by the end of their hike. Post office hours are also a consideration. Most of the time its not a problem, but arrive in a town Saturday afternoon and you will have to wait until Monday morning to get your box. The sending strategy also requires that someone sends it. You cannot do it all ahead of time because post offices only hold things so long. (This is a good place to mention how grateful I am to have a housemate as wonderful as Cameron!)
With hopes of having a somewhat well-rounded, if not completely healthy, diet, I chose to mail many of my stops. In one of the books I read about someone’s hike, they described trying to resupply in a convenient store with many shelves cleaned out and walking away with very overpriced nuts, candy bars, chips and pop tarts. I would like to avoid that situation if possible. I read that hiker hunger will come to overpower all food preferences, but even if I reach a point where I want nothing but junk food, I know that pop tarts are not adequate fuel for the long and demanding days of walking.
Me planning boxes. I started buying food early, so as not to shock my bank account. Over the course of three months I accrued a wide assortment. Bulk foods, every day snacks, cheap ‘instant’ foods from the grocery store, and some backpacking specific freeze-dried meals. My bags and boxes of food began to spill out of my closet and take over my room. It seemed like a lot, but I had no idea if it would be adequate nutrition. Are there enough calories for all the days? Is there way too much sodium? Not enough protein? Will it be too heavy?
My spreadsheet was born to answer those questions. I am both embarrassed and proud of it and felt sheepish about posting a link to it on the right as I did. So much time, so many columns and rows and calculations. It encapsulates every part of my resupply planning and has been invaluable, someone else should see it. Yet without an explanation, it seems crazy over-the-top. Probably is regardless but here I will explain myself.
I first started the spreadsheet to decide which stops to choose. There are more than 50 places one could stop, but you only need to stop 20 to 25 times. Choosing which places is so hard. You need to think about how to get to a stop from the trail, whether it will have an adequate grocery store, a post office or other place to mail a box, canister fuel, lodging. And the stops need to be spread kind of evenly. We wouldn’t want to stop to resupply for just 2 days, and we must resupply at least every 7 days. But I’m looking at miles, not days, between towns so I need to decide roughly what our pace will be and calculate days. Additionally I know that some stops are especially popular and if we’ve made friends we will want to stop with them at the cool spots. Even with information about town amenities readily available and Craig’s PCT Planner, choosing stops was too much for me to think about. I made the spreadsheet to make all the information that I could not hold in my head visible in one view. No wading through multiple tabs and looking back at Yogi’s book. It was immensely helpful.
When I started to become overwhelmed by all the food I took the same approach. Make all the information visible in one place and it will stop cluttering my mind. I recorded the nutritional information of every item. I add the quantity and voila! It tells me the overall calories and average nutritional profile. This new tool first yielded the surprising revelation that I did not have nearly enough food. 45 days. It looked like so much though! I needed closer to a hundred days for the boxes for Louise and myself. (I define a ‘day’ by a number of calories. At first I used 4000 but changed it to 3500. There will be a calorie deficit and thats ok) This is when the spreadsheet was most helpful. I could change the quantity of certain items to see what it would do to the overall numbers. It helped me decide where I was lacking and what I should buy more of. I also set up the ‘Chosen stops’ worksheet so I could change whether I’m mailing or buying at a stop and it would update the total number of days I need for boxes. It was pretty easy to consider different scenarios and ultimately feel like I had a reasonable amount of food. It may not be entirely up-to-date now.
After all of that considering and re-figuring it was difficult for me to commit to my plans and put the things in boxes. What if I decided to change everything again? I had imagined I’d have a burst of motivation one day and do it all, but it has happened slowly. I’m pretty close now. In addition to food, I need to include paper maps, toiletries, batteries, and contacts. Some stops I need to add new shoes or other gear like ice axes and bear canisters.
Some people have asked me how they might go about sending us a postcard. I will give more information about where and when later, but you’d send it to one of the places we are already picking up a box.
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!
A year ago when, somewhat to my surprise, Louise and I realized that we both still wanted to hike the PCT together, I knew very little about how to make it happen. I decided to start with setting dates, to make things real. I needed to figure out when we should start and about how long it would take. I had no idea what speed to expect from us, and it seemed the optimal start time changed year to year. The main difficulty, though, was working within Louise’s summer break. She would be in school until some time in May and need to be back in early September. Three and a half months, at most. There are people who have hiked the whole trail in that timeframe, but given our experience level and our uncertainty of our physical capabilities, I could not count on that for us. After agonizing over many possible scenarios, we decided I would do the whole thing and she do part. We would start at the southern terminus together and see how far we got before she had to fly home.
This was the plan until I mentioned it to a PCT hiker, Lapsong, who I ran into on the Wonderland trail last September. He said starting as late as mid May, we would miss out on the social aspect of the trail. Most people would be leaving a month earlier. Another friend back from months of wilderness restoration in the desert warned against hiking through the Mojave in late June, due to intense heat and water scarcity. It was very hard for me to accept that my plan was not a good one. For months, I had been spending my dull moments romanticizing day one… Louise and I, stepping foot in a desert for the first time, looking like we walked out of an REI catalogue, flashing wild grins at each other, incredulous and silly, prepared as we could be but still with no clue. The version where it’s just me at the start is not as good. But makes the most sense by far.
So here’s the real plan. On April 27, I fly to San Diego where I will be hosted by some trail angels for a night. I start my journey from Campo, CA on April 28. Louise will still be studying abroad in Prague at this point. After she returns home in mid May, she will fly to LA on May 20 and a trail angel will help her get to me in Wrightwood, CA, at mile 364. On May 21, we will set out together, planning to go almost 2000 miles to White Pass in Washington where we will leave the trail to make it to Seattle for Louise’s flight back to Charleston at the end of August. I will continue, as long as it takes to finish the remaining 270 miles to Manning Park, weather permitting. I chose my start date based on the depth of the snow pack in the Sierras this year. Other years I may have chosen to start earlier but we don’t want to enter the Sierras (~mile 700) before mid June.
Having such a rigid itinerary makes me nervous. It’s impossible to predict what natural pace we will fall into together, and there are so many things that could put us behind schedule. Someone gets injured or sick, we leave the trail to replace a piece of gear, we lose a day when were are rerouted around a wildfire, I could think of dozens more but I’ll stop there. I have to keep reminding myself that there are no disastrous repercussions for being too slow. Perhaps Louise waits for me in Wrightwood for a day. Or we have a crazy time making our way from southern Oregon to Seattle to catch her flight. Or we miss her flight and we may have lost some money but she will still get home.
The plan may have strayed from our original vision but it works. I still spend my dull moments imagining day one. There is less grinning and silliness but just as much excitement and uncertainty. Louise and I will still get one hundred days together. I’m sure at times that will feel like enough.
This is geared towards those with little knowledge of the PCT. No information specific to my trip, maybe a little dry, but if you have no idea what ‘a PCT thru hike’ might be like then this could be informative.
What is the PCT?
The Pacific Crest Trail was designated a National Scenic Trial in 1968, along with the Appalachian Trail, but it was not until 1993 that it was officially completed. People have been hiking between Mexico and Canada on the trails that now make up the PCT long before that, starting in the 70s. Today it stretches about 2,650 miles between Campo, CA and Manning Park in Canada, roughly following the Sierra and Cascade mountain ranges. It hits 25 national forests and 7 national parks. It passes through a few small towns and crosses roads where hikers can hitch to a nearby town, but in general it is fairly remote.
Who does it?
In the past decade, the PCT’s popularity has boomed. In 2009, 103 people reported completing the trail. Last year, the number was was 697. And of course, many more hikers do a good chunk without finishing the entire thing. Last summer the PCTA (Pacific Crest Trail Association) issued 5,657 permits, with about 3,500 for people planning to go the whole way. Roughly two thirds of hikers are male. Most hikers are in their 20s or early 30s, but there are people out there in their 60s too. I’m not certain but I get the sense that there is roughly the same number of people hiking solo as hiking with a partner or group. People come from all over the world to hike it but most are from the US. The vast majority of hikers are northbound, over 90%.
How do they do it?
Planning a PCT thru hike feels like a gigantic endeavor. But today there is a wealth of information easily accessible that can answer any question you’d ever have about camping, navigating, resupplying, eating, drinking, and pooping on the trail. I can’t imagine doing it without all of the online and print resources I’ve found, all of which have become available in the past 10 years. I feel like the main things a thru hiker must have are the right clothing and shelter to be safe in a variety of settings, from the Mojave desert to the north Cascades; a plan for getting more food and supplies, whether it’s buying as you go or sending them to yourself; and enough knowledge of the trail to know where to find water, how far to the next exit point, where the trail might be closed due to wildfires, etc. Of course, being mentally prepared also really helps. I’m told that its good to be physically prepared but not essential because the trail will get you in shape pretty quickly.
How long does it take?
People hike the entire trail in as few as 2 and as many as 6 months (2 months being record speed). People’s hiking speeds range from 15 to 35 miles per day. The window of the year for safe hiking is smaller than for the Appalachian Trail. Snow conditions in the Sierras and Cascades dictate how early people can start (depending on which direction you are heading). This year there is so much snow in the Sierras that very few people are starting a northbound hike before April. And the coming of Fall in the north Cascades will determine how late one can be hiking northbound. There can be whiteout snow conditions on the last stretch of the trail in late September.
Well, there are some basic facts. Soon I will make a post about how Weeze and I plan to do it.
On a summer day in 2015, my sister and I sat across each other in a Seattle coffee shop, taking a break from the remote work of our respective jobs. Scrolling through Facebook, I came across a Jezebel article written by someone I went to school with who had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. Louise’s good friend was hiking it that summer. We considered what an incredible thing it is, and what remarkable knowledge, determination, and gumption those people who do it possess. We discussed all the challenges–acquiring backpacking knowledge, buying gear, feeling physically equipped, planning the whole thing, having the time and money, but mostly, who to do it with if not alone… Its unlikely that we’d have a friend with that kind of flexibility and commitment who we would want to spend that much time with in the wild. And we agreed that doing it with a boyfriend would change the experience in an undesirable way. Slowly we whittled down the list of potential hiking partners until there was almost no one left. I know we were both thinking it but I can’t remember which one of us asked, “So, uhh, wanna hike the PCT together?”
And that is how it all began. That day, Louise and I looked at our next 3 years and thought about how we could do this with Louise being a student and me trying to be a functioning adult. We decided 2017 could work, gushed a bit about how cool it would be, and left it there. It rested in the back of my mind, an exciting notion that was so distant and outlandish that I could hardly imagine sticking to it. But about 8 months after our initial PCT talk, I called Weeze to check in on the matter. Both of us still down, I went ahead and purchased Yogi’s PCT guide and have not stopped planning since.