Desert Shakedown

It’s permit day! I’m counting down the hours until permit release, even though the likelihood of a responsible NOBO hike seems slimmer than ever. To occupy the wait, I thought I’d share a few reflections of my recent shakedown hike in the desert of Arizona.

While the conservation corps was closed for the annual holiday furlough, I stayed in Flagstaff. Traveling, especially home to see my immune-compromised father, seemed risky, so I planned a couple of local adventures. On January 6th, a friend and I drove to the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix and spent three days in the wilderness. This was my first time backpacking in a desert, and I learned a few lessons that I will (maybe, possibly, hopefully) utilize in southern California on the PCT.

1) Water is heavy, but water is freedom.

On the AT, I never carried more than two liters of water at a time. Creeks and springs are plentiful in the Appalachians, especially in a wet year like 2018. Most thru-hikers choose to refill a few times per day rather than carry extra water weight. Dry camping is unnecessary unless you choose it; almost every shelter and official tent site is near a water source.

In the Superstitions, our three-day, 24-mile route only had one confirmed spring. On Day 1, I packed in 5L to satisfy my needs for the first day and the second morning, when we would refill at the spring for the remainder of the hike. As we passed one scenic dispersed camping site after another, I wished that I’d packed more to allow more flexibility to explore. You can’t change your plans spontaneously in the desert…that is, not unless you’re carrying an abundance of water. Note to self for the PCT: Don’t be a UL gram weenie when it comes water. Stay safe and stay flexible by carrying more than enough.

At this dispersed site, someone had built some comfy stone lounge chairs. However, I didn’t have enough water to change our plans and make camp early.

2) A non-freestanding tent can be tricky in the sand.

I bought a new tent in 2020: an REI Flash 2. At just under 2lbs, it has double the floor space of the Quarter Dome that I carried on the AT. However, as a non-freestanding trekking pole tent, stakes are not optional. In sandy desert terrain, it can collapse in on itself when the stakes slide out of the sand. Luckily, the guy lines are long enough to tie around some heavy rocks to support the tent instead.

Here’s an example of my tent pitched with rocks instead of stakes while on a conservation project near Yuma, AZ.

3) Everything in the desert has spikes.

At 7000 feet of elevation, Flagstaff is fairly cold in December and January. When the forecast predicted a high temperature of 70* and sunshine during our trip, I eagerly packed my favorite running shorts. For the first section of trail, this was fine. However, as our Figure-8 route took us to a less-trafficked area of the wilderness, the desert brush encroached on the trail corridor. We joked about how we should have brought some loppers from the office for some vigilante trail maintenance. Instead, I did my best to use my trekking poles to push aside the prickly bushes and downright treacherous cholla cactus.

Although the scratches on my legs were superficial, the true victim was my puffy jacket. I was wearing it around my waist on the first evening when it caught on a prickly tree and ripped open. My heart sank as a flurry of white feathers was released with a *puff*. I did my best to stuff the goose down back inside and repair the tear with duct tape. In the future, I’ll probably choose lightweight pants instead of shorts, and I’ll be a lot more careful with my fragile items of gear.

Overall, hiking in the desert was fun, different, and educational. The Superstition Wilderness was gorgeous, even the eerie recent burns like this one. 10/10 would recommend.

Decision time

Permit release is drawing near. Less than 15 minutes now! The temptation to hike is strong—it’s a low snow year, I’m craving an adventure, and a permit is practically within my grasp—but I intend to weigh my options carefully and decide based on what seems best for me and for the community during the pandemic. I’ll write more about that decision in the upcoming weeks.

Wish me luck in the permit queue!

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Comments 2

  • Lance A Goehring : Jan 19th

    The ‘Supes are great. I live in Phoenix and camp there often.

    Great post! Did you get a permit, and for a date you like? I was able to get the date I wanted. Hopefully, the next few months will trend in the right direction and we can both make the hike.

  • Megan : Feb 8th

    Hi! I’ve been reading your PCT posts and you inspire me. I am deeply unhappy in my job and quarantine life in general, and I managed to snag a NOBO permit for April 13th! I’ve decided I will make my go/no-go decision on my birthday, March 12th. Here’s to hoping the March start dates get to hit the trail and California’s Covid cases continue their decline. Maybe I’ll see you out there!


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