What’s it really like? Routines, food, equipment & clothing

Why would anyone want to hike over 2500 miles in one summer? That’s a question that I’ve been asked several times. There are potentially a lot of ways to answer that, but it’s still not a simple thing to do. I was captivated by the idea of a long journey through the mountains and wilder places over twenty-five years ago when I worked on a summer camp in Pennsylvania, hiking small sections of the Appalachian Trail with youngsters. Since then the lure of that challenging yet also peaceful experience of living and travelling, away from the comforts of the modern world and closer to the nature from which we originate, has continued to maintain a hold over me in a way that, had I been smarter, I might have acted upon considerably sooner. There is something that comes from time spent in the outdoors that builds inner strength, calms anxiety and creates peace, within and between people in a way that I have not found elsewhere. Spending time in this way has not cured me, only reaffirmed to me the value of undertaking simple journeys among the nature and landscapes that seem, time and again, to bring out the best in the people I’ve met along the trail.
I had promised to respond to the many questions we have had about food, clothing, daily routines and so on, so I have put together this post to try to answer some of these. If there is something specific you would like to know that I have not covered here, then please do leave a question in the comments box below and I will get back to you with a response as soon as I can.

The practical realities of undertaking a journey like this are, of course, inevitably somewhat less romantic than the overarching concept or the enduring memories that will remain. Questions of transport, money, equipment and perhaps above all else, a sense of insecurity about fitness; the ‘can I really do this?’ question, plagued us for months before we set out.

In the early days of the hike,  when we were still relatively unfit, we hiked anything between twelve and fifteen miles a day. That enabled a civilised start to the day with a relaxed pack-up, breakfast as the sun reliably appeared over the horizon, and a gentle pace through the day that facilitated a significant about of pondering great views and photographing unusual sights. Aches and pains were commonplace and largely ignored with as little moaning as possible. Blisters came and went and we quickly learned to recognise and deal with the early signs of dehydration. None of this could dampen our spirits, or the awe that we felt for the desert, an incredibly special place that will always remain one of our favourite environments. In many ways that ‘honeymoon period’ lasted for the whole of the desert section, seven hundred miles from Campo to Kennedy Meadows.

We were not keen to rush into the Sierra’s until a good amount of the snow had melted from the high passes so in a sense there was no pressure to achieve high mileages. Until that point therefore the whole hike had a really relaxed feel to it with all the time in the world to explore side trails or the small towns along the way. All of that began to change as we entered the Sierra mountains. Not only had we waited for the snow to melt, but we also then found ourselves taking ten days out from the trail in the hope that the pain in Lisa’s foot would subside sufficiently for her to continue. As you now know, it did not improve, it got worse and she would subsequently have to take the difficult decision to go home.When I returned to the trail, having been out to the airport with Lisa and said goodbye, I was fairly depressed. Despite being in the midst of the High Sierra, some of the most incredible scenery in the world, mountains I had long dreamed of, I was both incredibly sad for Lisa, being unable to continue, and unhappy about continuing alone on a trip we had planned together. I was also by then over two weeks behind schedule and had to maintain a much higher daily mileage to be sure of completing within the typical weather window available, reaching Canada by the end of September. Although some hikers will finish after that point, it becomes increasingly likely that the high passes in the Cascade mountains, one of the remotest and most challenging sections, would be under the first snowfall of the year. 

I tried hard to keep focused on the challenges ahead and threw myself into achieving heroic mileages, sometimes climbing two big passes over 11,000ft in a day. I camped on the high passes to minimise mosquito issues and rationed my food to avoid wasting time travelling out of the mountains to resupply in a section 200 miles long before I would cross another road. 

Throughout Oregon and Washington I was hiking typically 12 hours a day and covering anything between 25 and 35 miles each day. I would be up about 6am and aim to be hiking before 7am each morning, then hike until around 12pm for about a 30 minute lunch break, then continue until 7pm, sometimes later to find a suitable camp spot. 

We’ve been asked a lot about what we (or subsequent to Lisa having to retire, I) carried, what equipment choices we made and what clothes we took for such varied climates. The answer is essentially ‘as little as possible’, primarily because everything has to be carried, including food and water which would typically be about fifty percent of our pack weight at any given time. Many hikers who blog or have websites to share their adventures dedicate a page for each trip to equipment and list everything with detailed specs and weights for others to reference. Many will also promote their favourite kit or preferred choices to encourage others to pick the same. We have avoided doing this primarily because we have learnt that there are no ‘right’ choices when it comes to kit, only right for you. We have seen people successfully using vastly different equipment, for reasons of both budget or availability as well as preference. What is important to remember in the planning stages, as well en route, is that good equipment makes you more comfortable, and sometimes safer, however it is only determination that will.. well, determine the success or completion of a trip or adventure. Few great adventurers of the past had the luxury of equipment and clothing half as good as most of what’s available to us today. Even on one of the most iconic and dangerous climbs there is, the North Face of the Eiger, one of the four climbers to first successfully summit managed without crampons, something that would seem absurd to attempt today, yet he couldn’t afford them. What he lacked in equipment he made up for with determination.

The point I am making is not to encourage anybody to set off ill-prepared, but that choices of brand, style, material and so on are very much individual choices and are unlikely to play a significant factor in determining a successful trip, provided the overall weight is manageable. 

That said we’ve had many questions about our choices of equipment, so for those interested in gear I’ll use this post to talk a little about what we chose to take and why.

Weight is of course the biggest issue when you have to carry everything. We spent a lot of time (and a bit too much money) before we left finding lighter alternatives to most of our ‘normal’ kit. However lighter is not always better. There is a big trade off with comfort and durability.

Our ‘big three’ items are sleeping bag, tent and backpack. These have most impact on our overall weight (before food, water and fuel). We set off with backpacks we had used before; Lisa’s a Golite Odyssey and mine a Granite Gear Crown. Both packs weighed around a kilogram, pretty much at the lightweight end of the market. I subsequently switched mine out for an Osprey Atmos 65, so that I could take additional weight from Lisa while her foot was painful (before we knew it was a stress fracture). The Atmos suspension/venting back system is undoubtedly the most comfortable I have ever carried. I wouldn’t hesitate to choose it again if my typical load was over 35lbs. I then reverted to a lighter Osprey Exos 58 after Lisa had gone home. I have been extremely happy with the Exos which is both light and comfortable but can still carry a fair load. 

Our tent is made by Z-Packs in the US. Known as a Duplex (http://www.zpacks.com/shelter/duplex.shtml), it is a single skin cuben fibre ridge with bug mesh sewn in at either end and sewn in groundsheet. This is where our greatest weight saving was made. Although not cheap, it weighed just 650grams before stakes and poles. It is designed to use trekking poles for support so there is no additional pole weight to carry, stakes are Easton aluminium nails. Being smooth and round they do not fray the guy lines with repeated use. Comparing to the weight of a typical lightweight two person tent weighing around two kilograms it is considered ultralight. It’s been a great choice. A little condensation can build up on the inside as it is a single-skin tent, so we’d usually sleep with the sides open for ventilation, watching the stars! 

Finally our sleeping bags; these are also from ZPacks and were chosen for warmth, weight and design. 

Unlike most lightweight bags these have 3/4 length zippers, no baffle and no hood, to enable them to be opened out and used as quilts in warmer weather. We also use silk sleeping bag liners, on their own when it’s really hot but primarily in or under our down bags to keep them clean – it’s a lot easier to wash a liner than the down bag! A sleeping mat was something that took me a while to settle on. I began the trip with a Thermarest Neo-air Xlite. I found I didn’t like the noise (it rustled like dry leaves) nor the width that left my arms on the cold ground. At various times I tried to sleep on a Z-lite pad (too hard for my aging back) and a Thermarest pro-lite medium pad. Both of these were attempts to lower the pack weight in this area. In the end I accepted that a good night’s sleep was worth a small weight penalty and I settled on an Exped synmat hyperlite and chose the wide pad. This enabled me to sleep in comfort and weighed only a few ounces more than my original X-lite mat, but packed down smaller. 

In terms of clothing, we both wore hiking shirts at the outset. The long sleeves and collar were essential sun protection. In Washington I subsequently switched this to a Patagonia Capilene medium weight base layer which was warmer when damp. We wore long trousers in the desert too, to protect from sun, but also to protect against the many poisonous, sharp or stinging flora and fauna. However I switched to shorts as soon as possible, and Lisa, while she was with me, then wore a hiking skirt, for coolness. Interestingly we have seen a couple of male hikers wearing lightweight kilts for hiking, for the same reason, coolness and comfort. The Scottish clans were clearly on to something, although I am less convinced when it comes to evening time and there are biting insects around! Waterproof outerwear was initially Montane Minimus pants and a Rab Spark jacket, all Pertex Shield+. In a bout of minimal weight-saving fervour I switched these out unworn in Northern California for a Mountain Laurel Designs rain kilt and an Outdoor Research Helium jacket, saving several ounces. These I wore through some serious rain in Washington. The jacket was adequate and a good compromise for this trip given the low number of wet days overall, but I didn’t get on well with the rain kilt which I found to ride up, restrict stride and not keep me terribly dry. It could be argued to be less sweaty than rain pants however so I can see why some hikers prefer them, especially if hiking in shorts.

Footwear has varied a lot. The majority of thru-hikers value low weight above all else and will hike all terrains in trail-runners; the most popular being Altras. However, my feet require a little more support than these provide. I did the seven hundred miles of desert in Scarpa Zen approach shoes which were great, although I’d have benefitted from a more cushioned insole. I switched to Scarpa R-Evo boots for the Sierra’s which were fantastic. Then, seeking something lighter for North California and Oregon, I briefly went into Salomon X-Ultra mids. This was a mistake, it was mid-summer, very hot and I needed something more breathable. I also started at about that time to get some unexpected foot pains. I later discovered my arches were collapsing and this helped to explain why my feet no longer fit the x-ultra’s. I searched about to find something breathable, supportive and wide but also sufficiently protective under the soles. After a lot of searching I settled on these:

Lowa Zephyr’s. I wouldn’t previously have expected them to fit but I have gone up a full size and got wider feet since the start of this trip. I can’t help wondering whether my feet will ever return to how they were. Even though these boots are vented, I have worn them through Oregon and Washington, despite the rain in the latter stages. Wool socks (Smartwool) kept my feet warm even when wet (most of the time).

In the latter part of the desert sections I acquired a chrome top umbrella. In some areas of the Mojave there is just no shade anywhere so it’s helpful to bring your own. I would have benefitted from it throughout the desert and it would have helped to prevent a couple of bouts of heat stroke/dehydration. I guess I can chalk that up to something new learnt on this trip.

I began the trip carrying Black Diamond trekking poles, but quickly found I did not like the shape of the handle tops. I switched to Leki poles and have found the handle shape to be fantastically comfortable,  even with day after day use. I find the, almost silky, straps to be really comfortable for prolonged use too. Tip longevity was a big issue for many hikers. Obviously how you use the poles has a significant bearing on this but watching many hikers over the course of the summer revealed an interesting trend: older style Black Diamond tips typically lasted longer than the newer style of tip appearing on Black Diamond’s latest poles, which wore or broke worryingly swiftly. The tips on the Leki poles I used have lasted a full two thousand miles of continuous use and although still intact, are definitely in need of replacement now.

In the kitchen department I carried a relatively cheap Hi-Gear titanium stove burner. We’ve had it for years and can’t find a good reason to replace it. An Evernew ti 1.3l pot came with us until Lisa’s departure then was substituted for a 750ml ti cup thereafter. Breakable Sporks were swiftly switched out for long handled ti spoons too. 

Diet on the trail was limited by availability of food low in weight and high in calories. When else in life can you actually hunt down the food with the most calories? I’ve read various estimates of how many calories a hiker will burn and of course it varies from person to person, but I would guess that I was typically burning around 4500 calories a day. Replenishing that with enough food that I could reasonably carry for about a weeks’ supply was always a challenge. Oats have been a daily staple. Various pastries such as pop tarts and cinnamon rolls. Fruit leathers, snack bars, protein bars and trail mix are all good for snacking every hour. Flour tortilla wraps with packet tuna and cream cheese make a good lunch, sometimes supplemented with instant noodles. Ritz cheese-filled crackers are good too, 210 calories for just six. Evening meals were occasionally expensive freeze-dried meals designed for backpackers, but more often were basic packet rice or pasta sides. At various times I would add olive oil to a meal just to add calories, or take a tub of chocolate spread. Trail mix in the beginning was typical shop-bought varieties, but as time went on I began making my own up just for variety, including my particular luxury favourite: peanut mnm’s, chocolate mnm’s and chocolate raisins! 

The inevitable question is what would I do differently next time? My gear evolved somewhat over the summer and what I finished with was lighter than what I started with. I learned to prioritise weight over most other factors, except good sleep. I learnt that I didn’t need ‘spare clothes’, that it is normal to sit in a laundromat in your rain gear alone, and that you will smell no matter how hard you try to maintain hygiene. Most gear and clothing decisions are dictated by the environment and one of the challenges of the PCT is the wide range of climates and environments visited. However, I’ve also learnt that it’s easy to over-think the issue of gear and what is suitable. What’s important is getting out there! 

The final miles

I woke early, shivering a little and clasping the sleeping bag tightly around my face. If I released it a rasp of icy air entered the bag and stole valuable warmth from my head and neck. I’d listened hard from the depths of my sleeping bag for the patter of rain on the tent. It had rained persistently, although not hard, for several days in a row and I really needed to at least get my clothes and sleeping bag dry. Fortunately the temperature had been staying above freezing or I might have been somewhat more uncomfortable. The forecast out of Snoqualmie Pass had been favourable, however the reality had not lived up to expectations. That day was the first in several days that I did not wake to the sound of rain. It had started well but throughout the morning grey mists swirled and built as the sky darkened and eventually, in the afternoon, the rain returned.  This latter section of Washington was considered to be some of the most remote and challenging terrain on the whole hike, second only perhaps to the John Muir Trail section that we had followed through the High Sierra. The trail would see me climb pass after pass and I frequently encountered creeks and rivers to be crossed, many now a little more exciting than they’d been perhaps just days previously. At some of these log bridges had been constructed, and some had subsequently collapsed or been destroyed by falling trees, but for many such crossings the challenge was left to the individual to find an appropriate and safe crossing point, picking a way across wet and slippery rocks, dripping with moss, or accepting the inevitable wet feet. 

In the rain the narrow trail, where it climbed steeply through the dense and dripping undergrowth, had become a treacherous mudchute that required careful use of hiking poles and even the occasional use of roots and branches to ensure that upward motion was not lost to unwitting slides backward as gravity battled to hold me back. Occasionally bursting out of the undergrowth near the top of a long climb meant emerging from the trees to find oneself looking down upon a cloud inversion, out of the rain momentarily,  even if sweat and moisture-laden shrubs conspired to ensure that, even for a brief moment, I should not be dry.
That afternoon, as the sky darkened further and rain turned to sleet, I paused to fill water from a creek at the base of a climb. Despite stopping for just a few minutes, my sweat-soaked shirt quickly began to chill me and I hastened up one more long climb, resorting to my headlamp for way-finding as dusk became darkness and I stumbled over hidden rocks trying to find a sufficiently flat and protected spot to pitch my tent. The following morning was cold and clear, as well as blessedly dry, which meant a quicker and safer descent to reach Stevens Pass for resupply. This was for many hikers, a difficult section for resupply, with long hitches required on quiet roads. I was fortunate however to have been regularly hiking with another hiker who had family in the area. Their help and support with resupply throughout Washington had been invaluable and had undoubtedly saved me considerable time.

From Stevens Pass my sights were set on Stehekin, a remote habitation set at the north of Lake Chelan and only accessible by boat, float plane or on foot. No road reaches in to Stehekin, all goods must travel the four hour journey by boat and that isolation is what defines it’s character. A sense of excitement was building in me as the end was drawing near. Stehekin was to be the last supply stop in Washington. After that, all that remained was about eighty miles to the border which I’d planned to do in four days. I’d heard former thru-hikers talk about the conflicting emotions felt toward the end of such a hike, but until that point hadn’t appreciated the intensity of the conflict. A part of me was exhausted, with painful feet and sore knees, and longed to be done, to sleep in a bed again, and eat at a table. However, a side of me knew that this had been a very special summer, one that was rapidly coming to an end. I had become accustomed to watching the sun rise and set, to waking at night to the most stars I had ever seen, to observing the little rituals of the birds, animals and insects that I shared every day with, to drinking from gurgling mountain steams and stopping in awe several times each day to gaze in wonder at the beauty and grandeur of the landscapes around me. All of that would soon be over, and deep inside me I felt an almost overwhelming sadness forming that I would not shake for a long time to come. 

I pushed all that out of my mind as I set out from Stevens Pass on a gorgeous afternoon of delicate autumn sun that filtered gently through the many shades of reds and yellow and softly probed under the corners of the growing carpet of peaty leaves and pine needles. Each of these days had its own unique character and the following day could not have been more different. I set out in low cloud and persistent rain which only eased momentarily throughout the day. It was not hard but it worked it’s way through every gap, up sleeves and into my pack. The trail took me up and up all morning, climbing to the high ridges of the Cascades, precipitous slopes and rocky crags reminding me strongly of the Sierras. Long drops into thickly forested valleys were only occasional glimpses and I sacrificed the amazing vistas for which the section was known, for a wilder, wind-swept and somewhat more desolate experience, isolated in the cloud, but with a heightened awareness of the immediate surroundings and the powerful potential of the weather which periodically reshaped this landscape. 

A lone marmot was sat high on a rock. I heard him long before I saw him. A high pitched whistling, emitted in rhythmic blasts, initially had me wondering whether a fallen hiker was using a whistle to draw attention. However as I descended, there he was, sitting prominently calling out, a marmot telegram, to a neighbour in the next valley. Sure enough between his whistles came an answering blast, clearly heard despite the distance and weather. I’d never seen them do that before. 

During that afternoon the weather really closed in and after the long climbs on exposed ridges in the wind I was glad to be descending deep into the belly of the forest, among the bracken, lichen and fungus, the smell of decay and the soft moss underfoot, where the air was still and I could camp in shelter. I’d passed a small stone marker that afternoon, constructed by another hiker and marking two and a half thousand miles of trail since Campo on the Mexican border back in April. I was feeling good, if a bit wet and cold.

Stehekin proved to be a fitting final stop. A small community, nestled between the mountains, well away from the ‘real world’ included several former hikers who’d either gone no further or returned to stay close to the mountains. Despite the number of hikers still around, the lodge/store, bakery and bustling post room were clearly getting ready for winter and in just a few weeks, when the summer visitors were gone, only a handful of hardy residents would celebrate the first crisp silent snowfall that would blanket the settlement until next year. 

It was fitting that my final days on trail were every bit as memorable as the first. The sun stayed with me and nights were clear and crisp. The Aspens were at the height of their colour change, glowing yellow amongst their evergreen companions, splashing the hillsides with rich colour. Ptarmigan were dotted amongst the shrubs, their feathers showing the first white flecks of their own winter change, and occasional elk could be spotted, grazing intently in the thickets between passes. The trails of the Cascades between Stehekin and the Canadian border were simply thrilling. Good, high paths that twisted around cliffs and canyons, with distant vista’s that stretched to views of Mount Baker among other snow capped giants. Scree slopes dropped away dramatically, and on more than one occasion required some careful footwork to negotiate. The lofty aspect and clear skies made my heart soar and I felt no doubt that this place, and the memories of this journey, would remain with me forever more. 
The border, when it came, was an anticlimax. Deep in the trees, in the final valley before the climb to Manning Park and the first highway in Canada, it was marked with a small metal monument, numbered 78, and a wooden marker post to match that one I’d stood by, many months ago on the Mexican border. I’d thought that this monument marked the achievement of a long-held goal. The fulfillment of a dream. Yet somehow it didn’t seem to represent for me the culmination of everything this summer had held. It couldn’t match the peace that I’d found sitting in absolute stillness high on a mountain top, nor the exhilaration of successfully crossing a river raging in snow-melt. Neither did it capture the kindness and generosity I’d received from strangers, some of whom had never met me but who had undertaken numerous acts of ‘trail magic’ for me, and hikers like me. It is an old adage that the journey is more important than the destination, but it had never felt truer or more real.

I have made many friends along the trail and met many wonderful people and I am full of gratitude to them for being a part of my hike. For sharing the experiences and reminding me what it is to live simply and happily. Thank you to you all.