This is a write up that a member of BackpackingLight.com did this month on a section hike of an area I just went through. A ‘section hiker’ does just that: hike a section of a long trail, such as the PCT. It’s just a little perspective from someone not unfamiliar with hiking, but out on his longest hike ever, with a little comparison with actual ‘thru-hiking,’ which I’m doing currently. Thank you for this, Mark, and God bless. I hope you do get to attempt a thru-hike someday soon!
Actually this should be titled “thru hiker takes a weekender out for a week on the pct”.
My brother in law completed the pct in 06 and is slated to do the cdt next year. We have been weekending and day hiking for a few years now, but had never done an extended trip. I think he wanted to do a little training, and we thought we could benefit from his experience.
I know we learned a lot in this week.
I thought instead of the usual, I walked here, and did this, type report, I would go into the things I learned from being a week on the trail, vs what I thought I knew from weekends.
I wanted to start off by saying I am writing this from my perspective, and my experience, and skill level. From my reading here, I see many who have greater skills and experience, so for them, maybe my revelations will bring a smile from when they experienced the same thing. For some one else that maybe hasn’t done this yet, it may make you think about things a bit different.
Up until this trip, our longest outing was 46 miles over 3 days. This trip when complete was about 105 miles over 7 days. Our longest day was 18, our shortest was 11.
We left sierra city in the late afternoon with a goal to get to Jackson meadows reservoir. It was a hot day, and we started up the 2000′ climb.
Things I learned:
Pace: The family and I have developed a natural pace from all our hikes in the past. We didn’t even realize we had one, but we did, and it in no way matched up to a thru hikers pace. When we brought in the thru hiker to our little group, of course the man in me wanted to keep up with him. About 9 miles up the mountain, I learned a very important lesson. I can’t keep up. I pushed way to hard, didnt drink nearly enough, and became seriously ill. I mean so ill that it put my on my back breathing as if I were dying, and my heart racing 20,00 bpm. Still not sure what exactly my problem was, whether I was in some way sick, and didn’t know it, or I simply pushed too hard, but my ego allowed me to ignore the obvious warning signs and boy did I pay the price. I am a big guy, and one who is basically never sick, I mean never sick, so this one really got me thinking. Long story short, I laid down under a tree, drank water for half an hour, yogi’d some of my pack weight off to super hiker, and dragged my but into camp, where I drank 2 liters of water, set up my tent and collapsed.
Agreeably, not the way to start your hike. I woke up the next day not feeling much better, but halfway through the day, it got back to “normal”. As in I didn’t feel as though death was imminent.
Lesson learned was go your own pace, when you need to stop and drink, stop and drink, and catch super hiker in the next town, or not at all, if you cant keep up, you cant keep up!
Food: I have read so much about long distance hiking and planning your menus, I thought I had this all figured out. I had my calories per day, and I had my food density all figured out, to carry the least amount of weight, and after day one, that all went to hell. For me at least, who cares about how many pounds per day of food I carry, if I cant, or wont eat it when I get there. I had Laura bars which taste fine on short trips or in my home, but out on this trip after 2 days, I couldn’t choke one down. I simply could not work up enough moisture in my mouth to swallow them. Not to mention after eating them for 7 days…well you get the picture. I took all sorts of fruit nut combos that ranged from 150-200 calories an once, and they worked OK. Not great, but OK. I could at least eat them, but they got simply old.
I found what I really wanted was anything with moisture in it, and meat. On day 4, I would have paid 50 bucks for a slim jim. On day 7 I would have given my life savings for 2 pepperoni pizzas. I was actually having dreams of hamburgers a night. (maybe during the day while hiking too).
What worked wonderfully well for me was taking hammer nutrition’s Perpetuem. Not trying to sound like an add for the product, but for me it was amazing. When I couldn’t stand to choke down anything else, this went down great. Not only that, but on hard climbs, when my legs were screaming at me, I could take a break, drink a liter of water with 2 scoops of this in it, and my legs quieted down for rest of the climb. It seemed like instant energy and muscle food.
To sum up food, in the future I am going to take more “moisture” based foods. I am going to carry some sort of grain cereal with powdered milk for breakfast, nut, berry combos for snacks, meat sticks or shelf stable pepperoni for snacks, and perpetuem for supplementing those, and freeze dried meals for dinners. I did find that I need to buy the freeze dried meals in bulk, so i can make bags that fit my appetite. The first few days I couldn’t eat, the last 4, I could have eaten twice the normal dinner sizes.
Another thing I learned, is no matter what the calorie charts say you need to eat, I couldn’t eat that much in bulk form. We usually left camp by 8 (thru hiker and I were up and ready, while 13 year old boy, and wife were doing, we are not sure what for an hour) and depending on length of day, hiked to 5:30-7:30. We took a few breaks during the day, but they were filled with things like getting water, or map reading, so that only left in short periods for choking down food. Even at night, when we set up camp and did nightly chores, that left little time before dark for relaxing and eating. Even on our first night in town, when we ordered pizzas, I could only choke down 3 slices…not sure why.
#1, #2, Modesty, and monthly friend: OK, this is mostly meant to be funny, and even as I wright this, it sounds weird, but it was a interesting change that all 4 of us went through in our seven days together. On day one, everyone went out of their way to get into “hiding” for doing business. Day 7, you might have tripped over someone doing it. In our homes, well, you go into your bedroom, etc. to change. by day 7, if there was a stream that had direct sunshine on it, and we didn’t think we would freeze, it didn’t matter who you were or what sex you were, clothes started flying for the very real possibility you could wash off the 4″ of filth on you and get back to “normal”.
When you are snug, like a bug in a rug, in your toasty sleeping bag, the last thing you want to do is get up, and go pee. I found it had an unintended benefit however. The first night where I was sitting there grumbling to myself about the prospect of having to leave my quilt, and go out into the cold, I hatched a plan of how to do this with the least amount of time outside my quilt. Right in the middle of my plan for speed, I made the mistake of looking up. There in the night sky above me was a mostly full moon, a billion stars, and the silhouette of the mountains all around me. I think I stood there gawking until I was shivering. I still didn’t like being cold, but those nightly calls of nature just didn’t seem to bad after that.
Ladies, this last part if per my wife. Even though your monthly friend is not due anytime soon, never leave home with out your supplies. When it decided to show up two days out from the end of our trip, the only thing that saved us was we came across a back country ohv road that had a pit toilet. She robbed all the TP, but lets just say, the next two days were still an adventure, one that she never wants to repeat.
Mileage, and trail conditions: Miles per day that we had one on day hikes, or weekends, and miles per day 7 days a week (we quickly found) are two different things. While we had done several 20+ mile day hikes, we had never strung this many 15+ mile days in a row. By day 6, we were all tired, and were not able to recover overnight to a place where we felt “normal” in the morning. this didn’t really show up on easy level terrain, but on hard climbs, or serious snow, we really felt it.
Trail conditions became much more of an issue to us than we had ever experienced. We have been hiking on snow all this year, as we live in the sierra and are out about ever weekend, but up until now, if it was “scary” we simply went back down, or some other way. Now with a specific start and end point, if we came to a pass that had a major (for us) snow climb up to it, we had to go. Going south as we did, we quickly found that all the climbs going up the north sides of mountains were snow covered. In the lower sections where we were in the trees, this make route finding very difficult. We were constantly stopping and checking the map, and plotting our course. This of course seriously slowed down the MPD that we had planned and put us into camp later and later (than planned). It also seemed to take much more energy to walk up those passes on snow, as you had to kick many of your steps, and more often than not, you were simply climbing straight up, and not using switch backs. Add the slipping and perceived fear of falling into there and it was more than we expected. There was one particular pass coming around granite chief that we hit very late in our day. We were already tired, it was right after a resupply so our packs were heavy, and it was the largest, steepest snow climb we had to do. It was a totally exposed ridge with about 200 yard run down to rocks and trees. It was steep in the fact that you had to kick all your steps, and it was a climb, basically a giant set of steps.
Thru hiker scampered up to the top, the 13 year old, scampered right behind him, the wife went next. Half way out, she simply stopped. wouldn’t go up, wouldn’t go down, wouldn’t go back, just stopped. We got her off the slope, we dealt with the issue, but it took us over an hour, and taught us that everyone has their limits, and if you haven’t faced them yet, you better be prepared to be FLEXIBLE. It turned out fine, and she even did the higher pass (d i c k ‘ s pass) later in the trip and was more comfortable, but there for about 15 minutes, I wasn’t sure what we were going to do to get out of that one.
Much of the area we passed through was still undergoing snow melt. The trail for much of the way is a disaster compared to sections we hiked late season last year. Constant mud, constant blow downs, and constant mosquitoes (more on that later). Nothing in this was terrible, or impassable, but really dragged on you over time and made making the daily miles that much harder. Just something to keep in mind in your trip planning, (that we had up until now not really considered).
Mosquitoes: To be honest, we had never dealt much with these little buggers prior to this hike. A few day hikes we had run into patches of them, but we just hiked faster and eventually got out of them. For whatever reason this year, we couldn’t get out of them, and two nights we had to camp in the swarms. We were all wearing long sleeves, and long pants, and seriously if you stopped, in 20 seconds you were unable to count the number of bugs on your clothes. In spots, people 20 yards in front of you were obscured to some degree from your vision by the 2 billion bugs in between you and them.
The first night we had to camp in the swarm, we set up camp, dived into our tent and decided not to cook, for fear of being carried away. it turned out the next day this was a mistake, as not eating the largest meal of our day, caused us to be tired the next day. The second night where our pre-planned camp site was infested, we tried to deal with them a bit more. We pulled out the head nets, and rubbed deet on our hands and clothes so we could get a little relief and decided to cook anyway. It actually worked, were were somewhat surprised. An odd thing seemed to happen, at times the bugs actually seemed to get bored with trying to devour you, and left you alone. then of course they remembered you were there an hour later and happily returned to trying to suck your blood.
We have a lunar duo tent that has two doors, and even though were were as careful as we could be with getting all our stuff staged by the doors, unzipping them, then hastily throwing everything in, there were still tons of bugs in the tent by the time you zipped the screen shut. The inside of the green roof actually has all sorts of black stains from me mashing mosquitoes up against it each night. I can now be officially called a mass murderer of mosquitoes.
Filth: While this was less of an issue for me than my dear wife, lets just say that when I took my shirt off after the 7th day, I think it stood up on its own. I am positive it wont ever come clean. Even I was surprised at the level of funk that can build up on you in seven days.
Remembering why we came: Some of the sections were just completely awe inspiring. the ridge walks between Donner and barker were incredible, and the sections between Velma lakes and echo, were great too. Standing on top of dic_s pass where you had a 360 degree view of desolation (after scampering up a 1000 foot of snow to get there) was the crowning jewel. I could have stayed there all day. I think going forward I may change my plans to include stops. I may reduce some miles in my day to give me an hour or two, where I can simply plop myself down on a pass and soak up the beauty. With the schedule we had, I always felt like I had to push on. in the end I didn’t like that.
The best thing by far that happened to me, was that for once in 46 years of being alive and taking vacations, I completely and utterly forget about work, life, and what lay behind. I focused on where I was and what I was doing. I saw my life change in one week from constantly being concerned with business, customers, employees, money, relationships and schedules, to being concerned with hamburgers, and where I was going to camp next. I turned off my phone and shut down my email for the first time in 15 years. I didn’t even check it when I got home (although I did return to it the next morning)
As much as the trip hurt in many ways, i would go back tomorrow.
I have always had a great respect and even a bit of envy for pct thru hikers and many of you on this board. I have always fancied that I would like to thru hike the pct when I retire, or do sections of the CDT. I had the opportunity to talk to many thru hikers on this trip. Many we met on the trail, and few we had the fortune to camp with one night. Listening to their stories and trail reports as compared to what we experienced (from our perspective) was very eye opening. Sections that considered “easy” were “difficult” to us. I can only imagine what coming through the high sierra is like under full snow.
I learned you really don’t know, what you don’t know, and regardless of what you read here or other places, you wont know till you go.
So laugh a little (I know I have) from my experiences, learn a little if you care to, but go have fun and I hope you find the peace I did on the trail.
– Mark H.