8 Things East Coast Hikers Must Know Before Hiking Out West
Hiking in the lush forests of the Appalachian Mountains is radically different from trekking through the rugged peaks of the American West. If you’ve never had the opportunity to hike out west before, we highly recommend it: the scenery is unparalleled and totally unlike anything you’ll see at home.
But if you’re based on the east coast and have done most of your hiking in that region, be aware that the west is a land of extremes. Weather patterns, terrain, logistical considerations, and more will all be drastically different than what you’re used to. Here are eight key differences between hiking in the east and the west (and how to prepare).
8 Things East Coast Hikers Should Know Before Hiking Out West
1. Long water carries are common.
Out west, water is rarely abundant. Many sources are seasonal and spaced 15-20 miles apart or further. You may find yourself filtering water from stagnant/unpleasant sources you wouldn’t touch on the east coast.
You’ll probably want to carry a minimum of two liters at all times out west—four to 10 liters in very dry environments. Water-rich areas of the Pacific Northwest are the main exception to this rule of thumb. Make sure you have enough containers to accommodate big water carries and a pack that can handle the load.
If you normally use a filter like the Sawyer Squeeze, consider bringing a secondary method of purification, like Aqua Mira drops, on trails where water is scarce and existing sources may be marginal (looking at you, AZT).
When thinking about how much water to carry, remember that you’ll need to drink more than on the east coast. This is because dehydration can sneak up on you in arid environments. Unlike on the muggy east coast, the dry air of the west will evaporate your sweat rapidly—so rapidly you may not even realize how much water you’ve lost.
In hot, dry weather, aim to drink a liter per hour of activity. Eat salty snacks or use an electrolyte supplement to replenish your salt levels, and suck on hard candies between water breaks to avoid dry mouth.
One benefit of the moisture-sucking dry air of the west is that wet clothes and gear will actually dry out, often within a matter of hours—unlike back east, where sweat-soaked clothes and rain-sodden tents stay clammy for days.
On a Related Note
Wildfires are a fact of life out west due to that same lack of water. You should expect to encounter hazy, smoky skies in July and August. Fires can start very easily in this dry, hot environment and can burn with frightening intensity. It’s paramount that you respect any and all fire bans. We recommend just not having a campfire at all, regardless of what bans are in place—it’s not worth the risk. Check local conditions before heading out and consult the national Fire and Smoke Map. Be extra cautious if you have asthma or other respiratory conditions. Note that smoke can blow in from fires buring hundreds of miles away, so just because you smell smoke it doesn’t mean there’s a fire in the immediate vicinity.
2. Be prepared for afternoon thunderstorms in summertime.
The highest peak in the east is North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell at 6,684 feet above sea level. Out west, the mountains are much higher—the tallest peak in the contiguous US, California’s Mt. Whitney, is 14,505 feet above sea level.
The weather behaves differently around tall mountains. For one thing, afternoon thunderstorms are a common, sometimes daily occurrence at high elevations in the summertime.
These storms can materialize rapidly with very little warning. They are highly localized and very intense, bringing heavy rain, hail, high winds, and lightning. Temperatures can plummet by 10-20° when they hit. Plan to be below treeline (or in the most sheltered location possible) by noon from late June through August.
If you get caught up high in the midst of a lightning storm, try to move quickly below treeline if possible. If that’s not realistic, remove all metal from your body, space your group at least 50 feet apart (to avoid conducting electricity between bodies), and crouch down in the lightning position. Don’t shelter beneath a lone tree or an isolated high point.
READ NEXT – How to Stay Safe While Hiking at High Elevation.
3. Temperatures can vary by 30-50 degrees in a single day.
This is especially true if you’re hiking in the desert: during the day, the sun bakes the earth and it feels hot as anything, but after the sun sets, all that heat simply radiates away, cooling the desert rapidly. You may also feel a sudden chill if the sun slips temporarily behind a cloud or you step into the dense shade of a tree or cliff (or if a thunderstorm rolls in). Even on a hot day, pack layers and be prepared for sudden temperature changes.
Dramatic changes in elevation also affect the temperature. When I hiked across the Grand Canyon, for instance, it was in the 80s when I started up from the canyon floor at 2,200 feet but had plummeted to the low 40s by the time I crested the 8,300-foot North Rim a few hours later.
The rule of thumb is to subtract five degrees Fahrenheit for every 1000 feet of elevation gain. If you’re hiking at high elevations, you might encounter snowfields year-round and could get hailed or snowed on even in late summer. Remember that winter comes early to the high country, with the first snow falling in earnest by early to mid-September.
4. Trails are often more gently graded.
The mountains of the west are much higher, and that leads many people to assume that the hiking will be more challenging. And there certainly are safety and logistical considerations associated with hiking out west that you don’t face on, say, the Appalachian Trail. But physically, many western trails are actually easier.
The tread is smoother, with fewer abrupt climbs and descents and fewer steep, rocky scrambles. The climbs and descents may be longer and cover more elevation change overall, but they’re much more gradual and involve a lot of gentle switchbacks. This is because many western trails were originally constructed for livestock and pack animals, whereas back east most trails were originally built for human transport.
If you’re fit enough to handle the grueling, technical terrain of east coast hiking, you’ll be more than a match for the terrain on most western trails.
5. You should pack out your TP in arid environments.
Mind you, we recommend that you pack out your TP on any trail. Even back east, where the sheer number of hikers pooping in the woods makes it hard to avoid unsightly “toilet paper blooms.” But at least the rich, biologically active soils of the east can decompose shit and TP in a timely manner.
If you’re hiking in the desert, however, it can take a long time for buried toilet paper to break down. There just isn’t enough moisture or enough of a decomposer population in the soil to make anything happen quickly.
Packing out your paper is the only way to be sure it won’t eventually reemerge at the soil surface. (OK, not strictly true: the other way would be to eschew TP in favor of a smooth stone, snowball, or a refreshing jet of water from a backcountry bidet). I was squeamish about doing so at first, but now it’s second nature and I feel good about doing it.
Leave No Trace also recommends digging shallower catholes in the desert—four to six inches rather than six to eight—to give the sun’s warmth a chance to penetrate and speed things up a bit.
READ NEXT – Five Ways to Poop in the Woods: An Illustration.
6. Watch your altitude.
The air is thinner at high elevations, and the body must be allowed to adapt gradually to lower oxygen levels.
If you aren’t already acclimatized to high elevations, you’ll be at risk of altitude sickness anywhere above 8,000 feet—especially if you’re coming from near sea level. Mild symptoms of altitude sickness include headaches, nausea, fatigue, and shortness of breath. More severe symptoms include confusion, loss of coordination, extreme difficulty breathing, coma, and death (so take this seriously).
It’s important to give yourself a few rest days when you first arrive at high elevation before attempting to hike. Endurance athletes consider 14 days to be the ideal amount of time to fully acclimate, but that’s not exactly a realistic timeline for most people and probably unnecessary for those of us who are not professional racers.
The more time you can spend acclimating before a strenuous hike, the better, but two or three days of rest before you start hiking should be adequate for most people. Be sure to drink plenty of water and avoid alcohol.
For multinight trips, try to increase the elevation you sleep at by no more than 1,000 feet per day, and sleep at least 3,000 feet lower than the highest elevation you hiked to that day. Take it slow and rest often. You’ll catch more UV radiation at high elevation, too, so bring adequate sun protection—you can burn faster and more easily up here than you would back home.
7. It can be tough to hang a bear bag.
…Because there aren’t always trees to hang ’em from (or the trees aren’t practical for hanging). Many hikers simply sleep with their food in these situations, though this isn’t the best plan: even in areas where there are no bears or the bears are not habituated to human food, rodents can still chew through the side of your $400 tent in search of morsels.
In known bear-free areas, you can do a “mouse hang,” hanging your food bag off the branch of a shrub or low tree so that it’s at least waist high to deter rodents. There’s a lot of disagreement in the community about whether rodents are more likely to steal your food from your tent or from a mouse hang. I’m just saying, at least if it’s outside your tent there’s much less risk of a critter chewing through your shelter and all the fun, exciting things that would entail.
If there are bears and no good options for hanging, you can either keep your food in a hard-sided container (a bear canister) or a soft-sided one (the chew-resistant, Kevlar Ursak). The Ursak is much lighter and easier to carry in a backpack. Just remember that in areas where bear canisters are required by land managers, the Ursak almost certainly won’t count and you’ll need to swap it out for an approved hard-sided container.
8. There are green things out there too!
The first time I brought my partner to my hometown in New Mexico, he was shocked to discover that the Land of Enchantment isn’t all barren desert and sandy desolation (though there’s plenty of that too). High mountains provide islands of lush greenery, even in the middle of otherwise arid deserts. The verdant Sangre de Cristo mountains above hot, cactus-studded Santa Fe are prime examples.
Then there’s the Pacific Northwest, which is home to dense rain forests and some of the largest trees in the world (not to mention a number of glaciers). Being west of the Mississippi doesn’t mean you’ll be hiking in the desert or in harsh, barren mountains. Depending on what region of the west you’re in (and what elevation you’re at), you may find yourself in beautiful, water-rich ecosystems that rival or exceed anything you’ll find in the east.
Featured image: Graphic design by Stephanie Ausfresser.
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