Lessons Learned: One Week in on the PCT
Here we sit in Julian, CA, taking our first zero of the trail. Well, actually our fourth zero because all the buses got canceled on our original start date of Friday, Feb. 22, due to snow. So much snow in Southern California that I-8 leading into San Diego was closed for the day.
We were apprehensive about the PCT because it is so different than any trail we have hiked so far. Plus, with our early start, we didn’t know what type of weather conditions we would encounter, and so far, in just a week we have encountered just about everything possible with the exception of a deep freeze. But we know that’s coming as well. Last year on the AT (everybody drink), we had raw temps of -9 F in the Smokies, so we’re ready for that as well. We won’t like it, but we’ll deal with it when the time comes.
There has been a lot of fear-mongering about our early start, but we still intend to go slow and wait if we must. We’ll make the decision about whether to flip or not when the time comes. Until then, we’ll deal with each day as it comes. Our only goal is to hike the trail and have fun doing it. We aren’t interested in setting speed records or making extreme sacrifices to complete our trek.
We expected to see snow around Mount Laguna. We were not surprised to run into snow just seven miles up the trail from the Mexican border. In fact, I’d have been a little ticked if we didn’t encounter snow close to the beginning since it had caused the cancelation of bus service to Campo, delaying our start.
Snow has been with us daily but not a real factor until a few miles before Mount Laguna. We did have several trail miles of snow up to a couple of feet deep, but mostly in the six- to 12-inch range. It slowed us down a bit but didn’t stop us. It was actually kind of enjoyable when the sun came out and raised the air temperature to around 50.
We’ve also encountered heavy winds and rain. I don’t mind rain. I don’t mind strong winds. I don’t mind low temperatures. What I don’t like is all three at once, which we have had on a few occasions. The winds are the trickiest part because of their unpredictability. They will go from zero to 50 mph and back. So far, the winds have been our biggest headache. Campsites are often exposed along the ridgeline, which lead to unsettling nights.
My biggest question is, “Where are all the people?” With the PCTA reservation system, we could see the daily starting slots full to capacity back to nearly mid-February, but so far we have only encountered six other thru-hikers still on the trail. We’re also aware of four people starting and stopping already (the snow around Mount Laguna took care of them). My guess is that the PCT permit bypasses the JMT permitting system and lowlife weasels have found that loophole and are exploiting it. Or people just don’t pay attention to permit dates because they are never checked. At some point, the PCT and JMT are going to need to work out a system to ensure that PCT permit holders are actually hiking the trail when they are permitted to (perhaps some sort of passport system?).
This one is no surprise for us. We do it every time we start a trail. It’s one of the things we are working on today. We overpacked. With the unfamiliar terrain and unknown weather conditions, we packed for every contingency. But the bigger mistake than some extra gear was carrying way too much food.
There are resupply points at: mile 20 (Lake Mareno), mile 41 (Mount Laguna), and mile 77 (Stagecoach RV Park or Julian). There’s not really a need to carry more than a couple of days of food, at the most, for the first 100 miles of trail. We realized we had brought too much food and shipped several pounds ahead to Julian. When we got here, we still had an extra three days of food on our backs. We will walk out of Julian with enough food to make it to Idyllwild. Idiots!
A couple of days ago, we woke up knowing there was a 90% chance of rain. When I stuck my head out of the tent, it was abysmal. The winds were sustained at 20 mph with gusts to 40 mph. It was a light drizzle and the temps were low (we could see our breath in our tent). My wife immediately said, “Oh, hell no.”
We could hear the three other people we were camped by packing up. There were expletives and there was crying (and that was just from Bunny; imagine what those hikers packing up were experiencing). We had plenty of extra food and it was still only February. Last year on the AT (everybody drink) we summited Katahdin under similar conditions and it was the most miserable day of our entire hike.
We spent 41 hours straight in our tent and we’re glad we did. The day screamed “hypothermia.” On the plus side, we ate an extra day’s worth of food and lightened our load. We haven’t caught up with the other hikers yet, so we don’t know how well they fared or if they are even still on trail.
Most Useful Gear Hack
Since there’s two of us, I’ll list two “best ofs.” For me, it’s a small binder clip. I’ve mentioned all the wind and rain we’ve encountered and my binder clip has made it bearable. How so? By clipping my rain jacket hood to my hiking cap, I’m able to keep my hood from blowing off when hiking into the wind. I don’t have to cinch the hood down so tight that I lose my peripheral vision. I wear glasses, so as long as I can keep rain off them, I can handle just about anything nature throws my way. When my glasses get wet and my vision is blurred—end of game for me.
I’ll answer for my wife because this one is a no-brainer and she might get it wrong. The answer for the best hack is… me! I carry the tent. I carry the stove and fuel. I carry all of the food. I fetch and filter the water. I do all of the cooking. She’s had breakfast in bed eight days in a row! She has only one task that she has to do every day—start the tracker when we start hiking so our parents can see that we are safe. I’ve even had to do that task about half the time because she forgets. She’s a lucky woman.
In the interest of full disclosure and peace in marriage, my wife does take care of setting up the beds and organizing the tent layout each and every night, including inflating mattresses.
Biggest Concern Ahead of Us
Without a doubt, snow and ice. We’re aware of the heavy snow load in the Sierra, but even closer is San Jacinto. I’m a huge Peter Gabriel fan, so I only have love for San Jacinto. I believe it will be passable when we get there in ten days or so. If not, we might have to wait or bypass it and come back later.
On the AT last year (everybody drink), I was a purist. I tagged up every day and I was against slackpacking unless I got injured and was faced with a huge delay or possibly getting forced off trail. The fact that I’m even considering breaking up the trail may come as a shock to many people I hiked with then. But I’m older and more feeble now. As I said before, I’m not interested in huge sacrifices (such as loss of life) to complete the trail. Zen!
Advice to Those About to Start
Thru-hiking a long trail is not the time to try to figure out life decisions. If you do that, you will miss the experience. Long hikes are a time to learn how to “live in the now.” Experience every moment to its fullest measure. We truly are the lucky ones who have the time, freedom, and resources to get to spend five to eight months living on a trail.
Trail life will restore your faith in humanity when you experience the joy of random strangers helping you out in unexpected ways. We had two trail angels check up on us the day we decided to stay put and avoid the bad weather. One even left us a beer to help us pass the time in our tent. In “real” society, people don’t ever show their vulnerability so you don’t get a chance to see the best in those around you. Instead, we’re bombarded by a constant flow of negativity to keep us scared and isolated. How else can we be convinced to spend trillions on defense if we’re not always afraid?
Carry less, walk slower, and enjoy the experience. This is a first world and privileged experience to be out here. Reinvent yourself. Be the nice person you’d like to see others be. And carry tent stakes that will hold in the sand under heavy winds.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.