2018 PCT Info Part II: Keeping Yourself and the PCT Healthy

This is Part II of our 2018 PCT Guide. Read Part I here.

It is often said that the only way to truly prepare yourself for a thru-hike is by thru-hiking. And while there is some truth to that statement; that doesn’t mean that you should just sit on your butt up until the day that you leave. Keeping yourself healthy on the trail starts before you even leave your house.

If you don’t already have an active lifestyle, start a training program now. The best thing to do is just get outside (anywhere!) and walk and be on your feet as much as possible. It will help toughen up your feet. Simple exercises like crunches, planks, and sit-ups will help strengthen your core to help prevent back problems. 

Ideally, you should go for a few backpacking trips with the gear you’ll have when you start on the trail. Get used to the weight, and make adjustments as needed. Set up your tent, make yourself dinner, and get familiar with your kit. 

Hiking from Mexico to Canada (or vice versa) is an endeavor…. don’t make it harder than it needs to be. Injury is a common reason for getting off the trail soon after beginning. Hikers will push too hard too fast, aren’t strong enough, or find they have a medical condition they didn’t account for. You’ve been looking forward to this hike—do everything you can before you hit the trail to ensure you’ll be on the trail for awhile!

“Threats to life”

Unfortunately, getting in shape before you hit the trail cannot prepare you for everything you’ll encounter on the PCT.  I had a chance to speak with Jack Haskel, the PCTA’s Trail Information Manager for this article, and he emphasized that threats to life are “much more common than our community realizes.”

“Threats to life” are near misses; situations that don’t cause death, but have the real possibility to do so. A PCT hiker is responsible for managing his or her own risk. Common threats to life include heat illness, hypothermia, falling, getting lost, medical emergencies, and lightning. Consider taking a Wilderness First Aid or Responder course to know how to keep yourself and others safe.

One of the most important things you can do to help yourself should a threat to life occur is to designate a trip support contact off the trail. This should be the person you text/call each time you get into town to let them know that you are okay. Furthermore, when you talk with them, tell them what town you’re going to next and specifically when they can expect to hear from you. I personally like to text/e-mail this information so that it is in writing “We’re in Cajon Pass now, staying at the Best Western tonight. Tomorrow we’ll be leaving before sunrise to beat the heat, and hope to be in Big Bear Lake by Tuesday morning. So expect to hear from us by 8pm Tuesday at the latest.” What if they don’t hear from you? Make a plan. Again, the PCTA’s website has a very informative section for you and your point person at home regarding these situations. While personal rescue locators can be lifesavers, but just pressing the “I’m okay” button on the locator isn’t a substitute for a trip plan.

Weather

Ominous sky before a ranging hail storm in Northern Cali.

Extremes: Be ready for extremes. Extreme heat. Extreme snow. Extreme sun. Extreme wind. Extreme rain (Washington). Prepare with proper equipment, expectations, and mental prep. Lighting is an underrated threat. If the sky looks ominous, don’t be a hero. Hang below tree line until conditions improve.

Washington warning: Each year, thru-hikers get caught off guard with wintry conditions in Washington.  If you want to avoid this risk, plan to finish your thru-hike no later than the end of September, and even that timeline is no guarantee. If hikers are falling behind schedule, they should consider flipping to the Northern Terminus and hiking south, where the weather will be slightly more forgiving.  Hypothermia is a threat in cold rainy weather, which is par for the course in September.

October 5th, 2016 in Northern Washington; the day I finished the PCT.

San Jacinto: Depending on your start date, San Jacinto just north of Idyllwild, California may have snow that can make for dangerous travel. Check the PCT Water’s snow report before starting the trail for current conditions.

Animals

Rattlesnakes

Can you spot the snake?

There are a few types of rattlesnakes along the PCT. They will be found in Southern California and some parts of Northern California. You will probably see one. A rattlesnake does not want to attack you, but will if provoked. Keep your eyes and ears open while hiking in rattlesnake habitat. If you see one, go out of your way to get around the snake if possible. Throwing small rocks or debris near it may help scare it off. Whatever you do, please don’t harm the snake.

Mountain lions

Mountain lions are present along the trail, again mostly in Southern and Northern California. They are most active at night. If you see a mountain lion, do not run. Make yourself look big, make noise, and slowly back away, giving the lion a chance to walk away unhindered. Be aware of your surroundings during the encounter to assure you aren’t between the lion and its prey or kittens.

Mice and deer

While many hikers tend to worry most about snakes, lions, and bear; mice and deer are the critters that cause the most problems for hikers. Mice love stealing your food at night by chewing holes through all fabrics. Deer enjoy eating all and everything salty (like sweaty hiker shirts left hanging on a tree). Food-proof your tent before you sleep, especially in high-use areas. I was careful to rarely eat in my tent. I never had a problem with mice, but often camped near other hikers who had mouse problems overnight. 

Foot Care 

Be kind to your feet. They will swell and blister in the desert, freeze and be constantly wet in the Sierra, and walk big-mile days in Oregon. Take care of them. Take care of a blister before it becomes a problem. Better yet, do everything you can to avoid blisters. Your feet may swell from heat in the desert, so be prepared to go up a size if need be (or start out with shoes a half size larger). One of my never-leave-home-without items is a small nail cutter, as long toenails can cause problems. Toe socks work for many as well. Whichever you choose, change your socks often!

Skin Irritants and Disease

Poodle dog bush

Poodle Dog Brush

This plant runs rampant through the Southern California section and can put uninformed hikers into the ER with its nasty rash. Familiarize yourself with the appearance and smell of this plant to avoid a really bad time. Spiky leaves starting at the base of the plant. These will flower purple. There’s no other way to put it—its smell is reminiscent of marijuana. Once you smell it and identify it, you’ll never forget. I often times smelled it before I saw it. 

Poison oak

Primarily in Northern California…. the trail was lined with poison oak heading north into Belden. Poison Oak grows either as a woody shrub or as a vine. Note the dark, oily, green leaves in clusters of three.

Biting flies and mosquitos

The mosquitos in the Sierra and biting flies in Oregon can be bad. Like, the worst most people have experienced in their life if they’re not from Alaska. A head net will make hiking so much more enjoyable. As for insect repellent, that is up for you to decide. I did without DEET in the Sierras for the couple of weeks the mosquitos were nasty, but eventually, choose Picardin in Oregon to ward off the black flies. If you use insect repellant, it is best to start carrying it from Kennedy Meadows when and where you hit the swarm will depend on the season.

Valley Fever

Valley Fever is a disease that is caused by a fungus that lives in the soil in the Southwest, and infection is on the rise in California. It can cause an irritating lung infection, and in extreme cases can be life-threatening. If you have a cough, fever or painful breathing for two weeks during (or after leaving) the PCT, talk to your healthcare provider about Valley Fever. Awareness is low for the condition even in the Southwest, and it can often be misdiagnosed as other ailments.

Water-borne Pathogens

Filtering or chemically treating your water is a simple way to avoid the risk of infection by giardia, or other pathogens.

 

Responsible Use of the Trail

While you may be an individual on the trail, your actions represent PCT users as a whole. You are a trail ambassador, whether you like it or not (and hopefully you embrace the opportunity!). Leave the trail and trail communities better than when you found it.

Leave No Trace

While it should be obvious, it is worth stating that following Leave No Trace principles should be a no-brainer for everyone setting foot on the PCT (and any outdoor space). To refresh your memory, the seven LNT principles are:

  • Plan and prepare
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  • Dispose of waste properly
  • Leave what you find
  • Minimize campfire impact
  • Respect wildlife
  • Be considerate of other visitors

Here are some points that need particular emphasis for 2018:

Dispose of poo responsibly 

  • Truth: I once stepped in poorly buried human poo on the PCT. It was gross.
  • Just bring a shovel, the most popular variety has the same weight as an orange slice. You can carry an orange slice from Mexico to Canada, or vice versa. It is near impossible to dig a proper cathole without one.
  • The PCTA is asking that hikers carry out used toilet paper. Yes, it sounds gross, but toilet paper doesn’t break down in the fragile soil surrounding the trail. Carry a Ziplock bag, and slip that bag in a brown paper bag or another opaque wrapper so you don’t have to look at the used paper. It’s easier than it sounds, and you’re preserving the trail for future generations.

Choose campsites responsibility 

  • Despite the fact that you could be fined in some areas for not camping appropriately, this is your most consequential LNT decision of the day.
  •  While it may be tempting to camp right by water or the trail, at 10-foot buffer from water will prevent erosion.
  • An improper site can widen the trail, and trail maintainers have better things to do than fixing your mistake. Camp on established sites, or if one cannot be found, camp out of sight of the trail.

Campfires

  • Campfires are inappropriate along many parts of the PCT, and outright banned in parts of California. Don’t be a jerk. Don’t start a wildfire. It is likely that if campfires are banned in an area, so are stoves without a shut-off valve (i.e., twig or alcohol stoves).
  • If you do find a spot where it is legal and appropriate to have a campfire, don’t make a new fire ring, and make sure the fire is fully extinguished before you fall asleep.
  • The PCTA has a wildfire information page as to what to do should you see a wildfire from the trail.

Protect water sources

  • Don’t wash in fragile water sources. If you use DEET and sunscreen, you’ll add these to water others may want to drink. And washing adds nutrients to the water that can contribute to algae blooms.

Be considerate of wildlife and others

  • Please, no amplified music on the trail. There is no evidence it will prevent an attack, and consider all the other wildlife you may be disturbing.
  • Be considerate of towns and angels. Having the trail go through the town may be a benefit to the local economy, but that doesn’t give you a reason to act like a fool.

Other Resources

There are great resources out there to help make planning your task easier. A few favorites:

PCTA’s website. If you have a question, chances are they have an answer. A friend joining you to hike 250 miles and you want to know if they need a permit? The website has you covered. How to get to a trailhead? Oh hey, they have that, too. Take some time to familiarize yourself with the site, and click through the backpacker information pages. They have solid advice. And while you’re there, consider becoming a member of the PCTA. For a donation of $35, you get a free Backpacker Magazine subscription and discounts at the PCTA store to name a few perks, plus the knowledge that your donation is going to support the trail you know and love.

Yogi’s PCT Handbook: Yogi structures her book starting with a comprehensive overview of all topics important to your PCT hike (gear selection, permits, bear canister regulations) and then follows that with a very thorough town guide which is super helpful, especially if you’re mailing resupply boxes. 

Andrew Skurka, hiker extraordinaire, has a very informative page. He has a well-written “For Beginners” page on his site that benefits even hikers with some miles under their belts. From his page “I wish that I had found something like it 15 years ago when I began to backpack. It would have saved me a lot of time, money, and heartache.” So beginner backpackers, save yourself some heartache and listen to Skurka.

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Comments 9

  • Kevin : Feb 2nd

    You do not pack out toilet paper. TP is 100% wood and will decompose very quickly. For those who say “oh desert soil! desert soil!” do you realize that TP actually decomposes FASTER out of the ground? The only reason we bury it is for aesthetic reasons. But even in the desert ground it will decompose quickly. For those who scream desert have no clue what they are talking about. I live in Las Vegas and my PLASTIC and VINYL pool rafts decompose in one summer!!! Every year I have to buy new floats becauuse of the 115 sun. You guys have no clue how quickly stuff breaks down in the brutal desert environment.

    Reply
    • Kelsey Davis : Feb 6th

      I think I’ll listen to the people whose jobs it is to protect our trail and environment. Your pool floats decompose because plastics are UV reactive, meaning they break down when exposed to the ultraviolet rays of the sun. Toilet paper (which is not 100% wood) is not UV reactive. Not to mention that the soil in the desert does not contain the bacteria necessary to take care of your fecal matter, nor the water to soften the paper enough to degrade.
      How about instead of using your own unsupported “logic” you listen to the people who know what they are doing.

      Reply
  • Smokebeard : Feb 2nd

    You ABSOLUTELY pack out toilet paper. You sound like someone who’s never had to pack it out for others, like the people who clean up Scissors Crossing who regularly pack out TP, sun-dried turds, and shrivelled tampons.

    I know of people who have climbed Whitney, and reported the same craps that they themselves left, in the same place each year.

    Plastic and vinyl decomposes in full sun because the short UV rays snip the long polymers, rendering the plastic and vinyl brittle.

    Leave No Trace, and Dispose of Waste Properly. Be an adult.

    Reply
    • Kevin : Feb 3rd

      You ABSOLUTELY do not pack out WOOD. TP decomposes extremely quick both in and out of the ground. And comparing leaving TP on granite at 14,000 feet to that of being buried near the PCT is completely disingenuous. No one is suggesting leaving TP on Whitney or high altitude alpine snow, ice, granite. The surest way to know when someone has no argument to make is when they try to make up a completely different argument.

      Reply
      • Gary : Feb 5th

        You ABSOLUTELY pack out TP. If it decomposes why am I constantly finding TP blooms along the PCT?

        Reply
  • Carlos : Feb 3rd

    Well, i personally don’t like seeing toilet paper when i’m hiking so will be packing out all of my toilet paper (as i always do). Seriously, what’s the big deal?!? You are already carrying a bag of trash, just put the couple pieces of toilet paper in the bag with the rest of your trash instead of throwing it on/in the ground – it’s not that big of a burden.

    All i takes is a little bit of trash (including toilet paper) to make a wilderness are look awful and have a negative impact on other trail users’ experiences.

    Reply
  • Brian : Feb 7th

    I read this but I haven’t tried it yet… I have bought the squeeze bottle.

    This person suggested a bidet. Sounds crazy I know. He took a liter bottle of water and a squeeze bottle with him when he went to do numerous two. Dig the cat hole, do your business and then fill the squeeze bottle and use it it the spray water on the area… he suggested doing it several times and use the TP to just clean the residual and dry. He said that he used much less TP and that TP he did use was much less offensive to pack out.

    Interesting idea, I’ll let you know how it works out.

    Reply
  • Chris Guynn : Feb 8th

    I carry all my TP out and its really not that bad or gross. Regardless of how fast or slow TP decomposes if you pack it out you never have to worry about it possibly becoming a gross eye sore to future trail users. Seeing TP flowers all over a campsite does not make your camping experience pleasurable. LNT its the only way to ensure others get the same enjoyment out of the trail you have for years to come.

    Reply

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