So, by now you have probably figured out that long distance hiking is a completely different sport than backpacking. You will be hiking 8-12 hours a day, spending little (awake) time in camp, and spending a good portion of any leftover mental energy on how to get water, food, and to your next resupply. Likely, a change of strategies will be necessary if you have been backpacking for a while.
Not enough/the wrong kind of planning seems to be the number one reason people spend way too much money on their first long distance hike. Getting the wrong gear or not having the right planning materials can lead to costly mid-hike gear or strategy switch ups–or worse, injury! Do the work up front, and you may save yourself a lot of anguish on your hike!
Of course, there are as many ways to hike the PCT as there are people hiking it, none of which are wrong. However, if you are open to it, there are people who have hiked before you who have done a LOT of legwork figuring out maps, resupply strategies, and gear. It will make the whole journey a lot easier to benefit from their mistakes and triumphs. So, here what I would purchase/do/bring if I was going to hike the PCT again next year.
There are lots of resources out there for the PCT. The ones that I find most useful are: Yogi’s PCT Handbook , Halfmile’s Maps (you can now buy them together, with the maps printed on an industrial printer, for way cheaper than you can do on your own) and the Water Report.
Yogi’s handbook has about everything you need to know to hike the PCT in it. She compiles the knowledge that she has gained hiking the PCT numerous times, as well as the opinions and feedback of many other past hikers. It has two sections. One section is for planning your hike and includes everything you need from gear selection, start dates, long distance hiking philosophies, and all of the names, addresses and phone numbers of anyone who may be able to help you on or before your hike.
The other section is meant to carry with you on-trail and it will help you find water sources, figure out awkward trail junctions, and navigate through trail towns to find showers, hiker-friendly restaurants, the Post Office, affordable lodging, stove fuel, and the best grocery stores.
Halfmile’s maps are a complete mapset of the PCT, with additional information in the margins about water, campsites, trail junctions, interesting facts, etiquette, trail angels, resupply, and more. They are just the right scale to be able to navigate by, but they are also broad enough that if you had to bail out on a road in an emergency you could use them to do that. Please carry a set of paper maps and do not rely solely on your phone (and it’s battery life). The PCT is easily navigated, but every year someone goes missing and it is preventable.
The Water Report is a constantly updated list of water sources in the desert to help you determine the reliability of water during the time you are hiking through. It is a helpful publication, but is probably going to be obsolete with this years’ versions of the smartphone apps. If it were me, I would still at least cache it on my phone (or print a copy at a library) each time I could between Campo and Kennedy Meadows, especially if this year ends up being a dry one.
Those three items provide all of the info that is necessary to get you safely on the your thru hike of the PCT. Other items that may make your life easier (and don’t weigh any more) are: Halfmile’s App and Guthook’s App.
I used to carry: The Schaffer guides, the PCT Data Book, and the Town Guide. Most hikers I have talked to these days think these books are heavy, antiquated, and replaced by the above-mentioned guides and apps. I would likely not carry them again.
You can find the details for these required permits on the PCTA website:
- Passport (you don’t need it until you return to the US from Canada)
- Thru Hiker Permit
- Permission to enter Canada via the PCT (for Northbounders)
- California Fire Permit (if you plan to use a stove)
- North Cascades National Park backcountry permit (you can get in Stehekin)
If you climb Mt. Whitney from the PCT and return via the PCT, you do not need anything extra to add Mt. Whitney to your hike. But, if you go down Whitney Portal from Whitney, you need a Whitney Permit.
Another way long distance hiking is different from thru hiking is that you can’t possibly carry all of the consumables you need for the whole trail in your pack at one time. Food alone, at 2lbs. per day, would weigh about 300 lbs! You are going to want to resupply your food, fuel, TP, sunblock, hand sanitizer, batteries, even the next portion of your guides, at regular intervals along the trail. Luckily, the PCT crosses roads at fairly regular intervals (and roads lead to towns!). Depending on how fast you hike, you will come to a road with a decent resupply every 2-10 days.
There are 2 ways to resupply, both has pros and cons.
1) Buy-as-you-go: Many of the towns along the PCT have ample food and hiker items to get you to the next resupply. With this method, you buy everything you need in town. The pros:
- You are going to town already (all resupply strategies include towns unless you are supported and even then you are going to want to go to town for a hot meal).
- You don’t have to worry about items being lost in the mail.
- You don’t have to adjust your hiking to account for post office hours of operation.
- It may be cheaper than mailing boxes ahead.
- You can buy whatever food sounds good to you at the time (trust me, your tastes and needs are likely to change).
- If, for some reason, you can’t complete your hike (be realistic, the attrition rate is about 50%), you will not have wasted a bunch of money on food (and you probably aren’t going to want to eat it at home).
- You are limited to what the town has, and some “towns” have little more than a gas station.
- You may have to visit several stores within a town to get all of the items you want.
- Shopping is an added stress when getting into town.
2) Maildrops: Sending resupply to yourself in the mail ahead of time to collect when you get to a town (often at a post office) is another way of replenishing your consumables. The pros:
- You can mail whatever you want to yourself and not be limited to what the town has.
- You don’t have to stress about running all around town to resupply when you get there. You can enjoy your time there!
- You are dependent on getting to the place that is holding your box during their business hours. With the Post Office, these can be limited.
- If your box is lost in the mail, or arrives behind your schedule, it can cause you some stress.
- Shipping costs can sometimes be high, which can be frustrating when you get to a town that sells all of the things you mailed yourself.
- You may not feel like the food you sent yourself at the time you get it.
If you choose to depend on maildrops exclusively for your resupply, please, for the love of all things holy, make sure to mail yourself variety. I have seen many people make the mistake of sending the same crap in every box. And, while I like taking their food out of the hiker boxes when they give it away, I do feel bad for them having spent so much effort and money sending food they could no longer stomach.
A version of the maildrop strategy is the bounce bucket. A bounce bucket or box is a container that you mail ahead of you and, when you reach a town, you pick it up from the post office, collect items from it, and then mail it ahead of you again. Some people actually use a 5 gallon bucket because it is durable and easy for the postal employees to find on the shelf (with two hundred other hiker boxes). Some items people put in bounce buckets/boxes are: backup socks, stakes, ground sheets, pack liners, sporks, or other items that are likely to wear out or break. Also, some people include items for town stops like: a change of clothes, laundry detergent, razors, toenail clippers, hairbrushes, or a phone charger. Also, items that you don’t want to buy a whole box of in every town, or are hard to find in some towns like: small sunblock, mini Body Glide, ziplock bags, weird-sized batteries, dried veggies or meats, or a favorite drink mix.
I think the majority of people use a combination strategy, and I think that is wise. They buy in the towns that have a lot and aren’t super expensive. And, they mail a box to the towns that don’t have a lot, allowing for a little supplementation if something sounds good at the time. Add a bounce bucket every 3-4 town stops to grab some replacement items, and a well-rounded resupply is born! (How do you know which towns have what? Yogi’s PCT Handbook actually has a table in it listing every town and what you can expect to find in the way of hiker-specific resupply items. It is a critical planning tool.)
You may already have been backpacking for a long time. That gear will work, but some of it will not be ideal. Because you are going to be spending all of your free time walking, rather than hanging out at a lake, you are going to want to finally get really serious about lightening up your pack. A big part of that can be paring down items that you will not need on this hike, some of which may not be intuitive.
In a seemingly stark contrast to lightening up, you are going to want gear that will last for 5 months. If you are used to shopping in a store for your gear, you may think that the lighter the weight the gear is, the more it costs and the less durable it is. Before you start to have a panic attack, let me tell you this: With the exception of two gear items, the gear that is ideal for long distance hiking is actually cheaper than that used for mainstream backpacking. I’m not kidding!
I will have several articles on gear selection over the next month. But, in the meantime, Yogi’s guide discusses this in detail and I highly recommend you read her book before making any major gear purchases. It may not change what you buy, but at least you will know what is out there before you see it on the trail (and covet it).
Planning seem overwhelming? Maybe knowing this will help: Once your planning is complete, your work to hike the PCT is halfway done!
If any of these terms are new to you, please refer to my Thru Hiking Glossary.