PCT Gear Review: What I Picked, Switched, and Ditched
It’s been almost a month since I finished the Pacific Crest Trail, and I still haven’t been able to unpack how I really feel about my journey from Mexico to Canada. I have, however, recently unpacked the things I carried, and I figured it was time for a good old-fashioned gear review.
Because researching gear for hours on end helped ease some of the anxiety I was feeling being a backpacking novice, I want to provide a resource for anyone who might be doing the same. Remember that finishing a thru is more about your will and determination than having the perfect UL setup; however, having a lighter pack does make life a little easier on those long resupplies (looking at you, Kennedy Meadows – Kearsarge Pass).
The Big Four
Tent (kept): Zpacks Duplex (with six titanium stakes and two MSR groundhogs)
Oh Duplex, you lovely thing. You are my castle, my home. I loved this tent. I loved having enough space for all of my gear when I was alone (and still having enough room to spread out), and I loved having plenty of space to share (when it got ridiculously cold in Washington at the end of my hike). My bathtub even survived a VERY poor pitching decision when it dumped rain and hail on me before going over Sonora Pass. I was literally camped in a puddle, the bottom of my tent felt like a water bed, but I was completely dry inside. For those worried about not having a freestanding tent on the PCT, I never ran into any issues. You really can’t beat this baby for the weight (19 ounces!!!). I will, without a doubt, be using my Duplex for the foreseeable future.
(Side note: Like all single walls, the inside will sometimes get wet with condensation. I found that leaving at least two storm doors open at all times helped with this.)
Sleeping Pad (kept): Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol (short)
I did a few shakedowns with the NeoAir but ended up switching to the Z Lite before my hike because; 1) the NeoAir really is pretty loud and 2) I apparently consistently fall right off air pads.
While I should preface that I’m the kind of person that can pretty much sleep on anything, I could not be happier with my decision to use the Z Lite. I laid out my pad for siestas in the desert while my friends with air pads looked on in envy. I chucked that baby into my tent every night without wasting precious breath to blow it up. And I never had to spend an exorbitant amount of time in a motel bathtub trying to figure out where it was leaking from. If you’re comfortable sleeping on a foam pad, a ZLite is the move.
You can save more weight by getting the short pad, and using your pack as insulation when it’s super cold (although I almost never had to do this).
(Pro tip: You can write on the yellow side with a big ol’ sharpie and have a hitching sign always ready to go.)
Sleeping Bag (kept): Zpacks Classic – 5 degree
I got a 5 degree bag because I sleep cold, and I wanted to be prepared for the coldest sections of trail without having to send gear back and forth. While I was happy with the features of the bag (closed foot box, partial zipper, drawstring close top), I wasn’t impressed with the warmth. Thirty-degree nights were colder than they should have been in a 5-degree bag, and I often resorted to sharing my tent for warmth in Washington.
Pack (kept): Zpacks Arc Haul (w/two hip belt pockets and T-strap)
I wanted to love this pack, but I’ll settle for liking it. My main issue with it is the frame doesn’t really work the way it’s supposed to without a lot of finagling and frustration. I usually just settled for the frame resting on my back however it decided to that day, which usually meant it wasn’t creating any suspension or was bending sideways.
After an accidental glissade, my hip belt completely popped out of the pack. It was easy enough to reinsert and worked the same, but then I seemed to have the same issue every time I glissaded. Eventually, the hip belt stay broke and I had to get a new one (Zpacks did send it for free). I also had one hip belt pocket break and toward the end, both of the zippers broke (but again, Zpacks replaced the hip belt pocket for free).
I did love the single pocket, roll-top closure, and mesh. That mesh held whatever I wanted it too and held up to quite a bit of abuse with no holes. This pack will also hold a BV500 sideways in the bottom, which is a huge plus. Overall, this bag put up with an entire thru-hike and served me well enough.
(Added features note: Don’t bother with the T-strap if you want it for holding a bear can. I found that it worked better to just put the can in the bottom of my pack. The T-strap didn’t always hold it down (it would slip out and sometimes roll down a hill, fml). Also, the water bottle pouch is useless; your water bottle will fly out a million times before you decide to just use it as a convenient trash pocket.
Clothes and Rain Gear
Hiking Shirt (switched): PFG long sleeve
In the desert and Sierra I wore a long-sleeve PFG to protect me from the sun while staying cool. I loved hiking in it and only switched because I wanted something more fun (read: thrifted Hawaiian shirts) to wear in NorCal.
Hiking Shorts (switched): Nike Running Shorts (with built-in compression shorts)
Instead of buying new shorts, I wore a pair from Nike that I already owned. The shorts stuck with me until Sierra City, where I treated myself to a cute Outdoor Voices skort (which I loved).
I loved my puffy and loved having a hood on it even more. I’m a cold person, and I snuggled up inside that thing like it was my forever home. Layering became necessary when it was in the 30s in Washington, but my puffy along with my base layer kept me warm.
Base Layer Top (kept): Arc’teryx Rho LT Zip Neck
This base layer kept me warm and happy while sleeping on my entire hike, and then kept me warm and happy while hiking in Washington (it really got cold, y’all). It was nice to have the quarter-zip once I was using it as an active layer to adjust for temperature. I also loved having the arm pocket to keep my cards and things when I was in town.
Base Layer Bottoms (kept): Minus 33 Merino Wool Leggings
These were the cheapest merino wool leggings I could find on Amazon, and they outdid themselves. They got softer and softer throughout my hike, and I want to live in them forever and ever.
Bra (kept): Lulu Lemon Sports Bra
This was the most comfortable bra I owned before starting the trail, and I didn’t want to take my chances with getting something else. I wore this the whole hike, including during dips in alpine lakes, and don’t have a bad thing to say about it.
Underwear (kept): Ex Officio Bikini Briefs
Ex Officios were great and awesome for when you wanted to go swimming but not be walking around in wet underwear all day. They held up to washing and wearing for my entire thru-hike. I highly recommend them but did get chafing from them on occasion (switching between these and another pair of underwear helped). It also might be worth trying the string bikini cut to reduce chafing.
Socks (ditched): Injinji Midweight Mini-Crew
I liked how toe socks made me feel but didn’t like how they got holes SO QUICKLY! One pair even got a hole without hiking any miles in them. I didn’t have issues with between-the-toe blisters, so I ditched them (if you do get in-between the toe blisters, I would recommend pairing Injinji liners with Darn Toughs).
Socks (kept): Darn Tough Hiking Sock
There’s a reason pretty much every hiker you know wears these. My Darn Toughs served me well, and my mom somehow had access to cool colors and sent me some retro teal ones. I felt like the coolest kid on the trail. I always carried two pairs of socks so I never had to hike in frozen/wet ones.
Sleep Socks (ditched): Smartwool women’s socks
Unless it was extremely cold, I just didn’t find sleep socks necessary.
Trail Runners (kept x5): Saucony Peregrines (size 10)
I usually wear an 8.5, sized up to a 9.5, and then needed to go up another half-size (consider this your warning that thru-hike foot swell is real). The traction on the Peregrines is amazing, and I felt they did well on lots of terrains.
I didn’t love that, without fail in all five pairs I wore, my pinky toes would tear through the sides after about a week of hiking. It didn’t affect my hiking other than dirt and snow got inside a lot easier, and I was too worried about messing up my feet to switch. I’ll be on the search for something else for my next hike, though.
Camp Shoes (kept): Jiyaru Shower Shoes
These things are amazing. They are comfy, and weigh only 3.4 ounces (much lighter than Crocs). I was very grateful for them not only when I had to pee late at night and couldn’t be bothered to put on my trail runners, but also when I had to stand in the many questionable shower stalls along the PCT.
(Side note: Size up in these bad boys.)
Gloves (switched): Nike Running Gloves + work gloves (Purchased from a gas station)
After leaving the Sierra, I naively sent home my Nike running gloves. They kept me warm there and I had no complaints; however, when we hit Oregon and Washington they were useless because they were 1) not with me and 2) not waterproof. I purchased some bright orange, fleece-lined work gloves from a gas station for $12 and they worked wonders.
Baseball/Sun Hats (ditched)
I went through multiple baseball/sun hats and discovered I am just not a hat girl in the heat (I was carrying them but never wearing them). Instead, I used lots of sunscreen and sent the hats home.
Beanie (keeping forever): Carhartt
You can bury me in my Carhartt beanie. I slept in it when cold, and lived in it in Washington. I will not take it off till spring, and you can’t make me.
Rain Gear (kept, but replaced three times): Frogg Toggs
Frog Toggs are my favorite and I don’t care who knows it! If I didn’t use them to glissade, I wouldn’t have had to replace them so many times. They keep you dry and they are cheap. I knew lots of people on trail who spent $150+ on their rain gear, and I was consistently more dry than them in my $20 Toggs.
Water Filter (switched): Sawyer Squeeze
I started out with a Mini and upgraded to a Squeeze. Honestly, do not even bother with the Mini. The years you will lose off your life trying to filter with that thing is not worth the weight you will save. I’m very happy with my Sawyer Squeeze though (never got Giardia, 10/10 would filter again).
Stove (kept): MSR PocketRocket 2
It’s tried, it’s true, and it has cooked me lots of ramen. The PocketRocket is a great stove for the weight and if I felt I needed a windshield I would take my sleeping pad and hold it up while I cooked.
Pot (kept): Stanco Grease Pot
This was a cheap aluminum pot I found because of Dixie (yes, the YouTube Dixie). It worked well for me throughout my entire hike, but I will probably upgrade to something with handles for my next long haul.
Bear Can (kept): BV500
I quite liked my bear can, even though it was heavy. This one worked well for me, worked nicely as a seat, and worked to keep the critters away. Anyone who says they can fit all their food in a BV450 is lying, insanely fast, or not eating enough.
Spork (kept): Sea to Summit Titanium
It’s a spork, and it sporked how it was supposed to. I would switch to a long handle in the future.
Phone (kept): iPhone 8+
It was the one I had and so it was the one I brought. I put an Otterbox case on it and threw it around like it was not an expensive electronic I was extremely dependent on for directions, etc.
Battery Pack (kept): Anker 20000 mAH
Call me bourgeois but I loved having a battery BRICK. This thing was huge and I never once ran out of battery, even with charging my InReach, phone, headphones, and headlamp. The security of charged devices is worth the extra weight for me.
Headphones (kept): Anker Wireless Headphones
I picked these up in Tahoe after my very old pair finally died. I like them a lot and have continued to use them off-trail. The battery on them would last me a full hiking day as long as I turned them off at lunch.
Headlamp (switched): Nitecore Nu25
I switched to this headlamp after my Black Diamond became so dim (even with new batteries) that it was essentially dead weight. I will never buy another headlamp. This one is so bright, the battery lasts for so long, and it even has a red light.
GPS Location Device (kept): Garmin InReach SE+
My parents bought me an InReach for Christmas, and I agreed to carry it to make them happy. Turns out, I was very happy to be carrying it too. I will probably switch to a Mini at some point just to save a bit of weight but I felt much safer having this on me (especially in the High Sierra with no service for days, and in Washington when we were running into lots of storms).
Say what you will about carrying a hiking umbrella, but I was extremely grateful to be (what felt like) 10 degrees cooler in the hottest parts of the desert. I could tuck this into the chest strap of my backpack and still have my hands free for my trekking poles or snacks (mostly snacks).
Mini Swiss Army Knife (picked up)
This tool has a little knife (for cutting cheese mostly), tweezers, and scissors (I used these for cutting my nails so I didn’t have to carry nail clippers).
This little travel brush is made from bamboo so it’s super lightweight. I might switch over to a smaller plastic comb, but this worked well for me.
Microspikes (kept): Weanas
I just got some cheap ones on Amazon and they worked phenomenally. It didn’t seem to me like you needed to break the bank for microspikes that worked. Also, I really never felt the need for crampons; microspikes will do the job (unless you are going into the Sierra unusually early).
Ice Axe (kept): Camp Corsa
I legitimately did not use it once, so I couldn’t really tell you how well it worked. This was the lightest one I could find and I pulled it out a grand total of three (maybe four?) times.
Trekking Poles: Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork
I loved my trekking poles! They also functioned as my tent poles, and my only complaint is the clasps were sometimes hard to open so I could adjust their height, but most people probably won’t be doing that very often. Also, the plastic pieces on the clasps fell off almost immediately, but it didn’t bother me at all.
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