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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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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