Mastering the Art of Strategery

Also, The Saga of the Packs, Part Two

Strategery? Is that the word you meant to use?

Yes, indeedy. It somehow seems to fit.

In the first days of a newbie’s thru hike, it seems like the hardest part is getting used to the actual hiking. You have miles and miles of it; up and down hills and mountains, through creeks and rivers, over logs and rocks. Maybe even across snow. Sure, you just put one foot in front of the other and take a step; not so hard. It’s the “repeat 40,000 times per day” part that gets you.

Plan, Hike, Hike, Plan

After awhile (or, perhaps, immediately), you figure out that you can do whatever you like when it comes to the hiking bit. Want to sleep in? Sure! Want to start hiking early in the day to beat the heat. Do it! Want to press for a high mileage day so you can make the famous Sunday brunch at the lodge on the trail? Kick on, then! Or maybe you just want to call a couple of miles good. It happens. How far you go really just depends on the needs and the day.

Daily hiking tasks include finding water, finding a good campsite, and eating something. On especially good days, you can catch a nice sunset photo!


No matter your initial thoughts on the hiking bit, however, one thing becomes immediately apparent. While physically demanding, that might actually be the easy part. There are no shortage of daily and longer term challenges that require simultaneous discipline and flexibility. It’s one of those things that becomes second nature with the endless practice you get when actually thru hiking. However, it is nearly impossible to fully grasp all of the subtle nuances simply by reading about them. Even hiking for a week at a time won’t quite get you the same feeling.

The rigors of self sufficiency for the long haul demand some amount of thought and planning. Sure, you can “wing it” while out on the trail, doing what you can when you can. You can also spend a lot of time hanging out in or near a town doing nothing, waiting for a post office to open up so you can get your much needed resupply package because you didn’t plan your timing very well. Ask me how I know that happens…

On the flip side, of course, are the things you can’t really plan for. Sure, you carry a few first aid products, an emergency beacon/satellite communication device, an extra day’s worth of food. You learn to check weather forecasts and trail closures whenever you get cell service. You try to talk to others who’ve recently been where you’re headed and likewise pass along trail info about where you’ve been.

But storms, fires, and accidents can happen anywhere, anytime. You have to be ready to ditch your current plan on a moment’s notice if something goes sideways. There’s a balance between being prepared for anything and carrying so much gear you kill yourself trying to make miles. Not only is it a balance, its a balance that’s different for everyone.

Daily Demands

Here, in the Deep Creek Canyon, the PCT travels high above the creek, along the canyon wall, below the rim. Looking closely, a bit of the trail can be seen on the right side of the photo, just above the rock face, well above the creek itself.

Regardless of where you are on your hike, finding the most basic of basic necessities, water, can be an arduous task. The trail crosses miles of terrain where water sources are rarely found. Even if they do exist, they can be ephemeral and dry by the time you’re there. In other instances, you can be very near a lovely water source, but completely unable to reach it. The PCT favors a good walk, along a canyon wall, high above creeks and lakes.

Heck, it can even be difficult to get water from the otherwise amply flowing mountain streams when they are covered in ice and snow. Sure, snow is made of the stuff, but you have to get it melted, which takes a fair amount of energy. Pretty darn quickly, you learn to pay close attention to how much water you have, how much water you need, and where the next water source may be.

After water, there is the nightly quest to find the best possible camp spot with enough flat room for your tent, shade (or sun if needed), near water if possible, but not too buggy. Bonus if there’s a good view with logs or rocks to sit on while in camp. Double bonus if there’s a restroom/privy/toilet on site (or at least nearby). Of course, inevitably, there are always the late days where you push for just a few more miles, and end up throwing your pad down on a vaguely flat-ish spot that’s barely big enough, too tired to do more than “cowboy camp” (sleep without a tent) for the night.

Much to my amusement, the first thing to be touched by the morning sun at the Coon Creek Cabin Campground was the outhouse. We were lucky enough to be in the area when a Boy Scout Troop, Troop 773 from Laguna Niguel, CA, showed up to camp. They were kind enough to provide trail magic while there, bringing snacks and drinks, as well as collecting trash. As a bonus, they invited everyone to use the very clean outhouse!

Somewhere in the mix of hiking, finding and drinking water, and resting, is the food aspect. Everyone needs food, but, holy moly, are there A LOT of different theories on this. Some people have very diverse diets when hiking, with many options in their packs. Other hikers literally eat the same thing every single day. Every. Single. Day. Some prefer at least one hot meal a day, A growing number shave weight out of their packs by skipping the stove and only cold soaking their food. A few hikers I know live on food that needs no prep what so ever.

The Logistics Challenge

No matter what you prefer to eat, nor how fast you can hike, you will not be able to carry all of the food you need for months of hiking. Nor will you be able to carry all of the gear you will ultimately need for a 2,500 mile hike right from the start. Enter the true logistics challenge of trail town resupplies.

Depending on your food preference and dietary needs, there are three options when it comes to trail food: buying all of your food in trail towns, shipping all of your food to trail towns, or a mix of the first two options. There are pluses and minuses to each of these, but no matter which option you choose, you still have to navigate the towns.

Likewise when it comes to gear. At a bare minimum, you’ll need several pairs of shoes to complete your hike. These will either need to be mailed to a place along the trail, or purchased from a gear shop in a town somewhere at or near the trail.

Other gear, such as bear canisters, ice axes, and cold weather equipment are typically shipped to Kennedy Meadows for use in the Sierras. Or, in a high snow year such as this one, shipped to Idyllwild for use in the San Jacintos, forwarded to Wrtightwood for use on Mt Baden-Powell, then sent on to Kennedy Meadows. Again, no matter what you do, you will still have to deal with getting things to and picked up from a trail town.

While this seems simple enough, keep in mind many of these places are small, destination communities. The stores have limited hours of operation. Ubers and taxis re non-existent. Further, what limited resources there are are often being shared by non-hiking tourists as well. And, in case that wasn’t enough of a gauntlet, cell phone service on the trail tends to be spotty at best. Try checking the local post office’s hours of operation, surfing the web for a place to stay, or making plans for anything on one or two bars of 4g. It’s frustrating, to say the least.

The Trail Town Learning Curve

Fortunately, the south end of the PCT provides a terrific introduction to trail towns. Kicking things off is CLEEF, the Camp Lockett Event and Equestrian Facility in Campo, CA. This is the gathering place and overnight camp spot for PCT hikers wishing to get an early start on the trail. You literally walk a couple of hundred yards up the hill and there you are, at the southern terminus. Easy.

Even at night, the Lake Moreno area is picturesque. It was a welcome moment of “civilization” for us newbie thru hikers.

From Campo, it’s a mere twenty miles to the next community, Lake Moreno, which is conveniently situated right on the trail. Here, hikers can camp at a facility with all the amenities including running water for flush toilets and showers! The malt shop is a must stop for most, with pretty darn tasty food, ice cream, cold drinks, and a well stocked convenience store. Oh, and, of course, delicious shakes and malts! This was the first place I witnessed “hiker hunger” kick in; the sudden ability to eat triple the normal amount of whatever you eat.

Motivate yourself enough to move another twenty or so miles down the trail and you’ll arrive at Mount Laguna, a welcome community with several restaurant and lodging options. Its location on the trail, coupled with the presence of a post office alongside the general store makes it the perfect place for hikers to receive early packages. Personal experience also confirms it’s a great place to take a zero day and reconsider all of the things in your pack. I would venture a guess that almost as much stuff is shipped home from here as is picked up.

Enjoying cell phone service and good food in Mount Laguna!

The next town along the way is the one that truly introduces newbie thru hikers to the amazing community of volunteers who often dedicate a good deal of their time (and a fair bit of money) to making sure said hikers survive: Julian. Julian is a charming town some 12 miles (or a 20 minute drive) west of the trail where it meets California State Route 78. In the spring, it becomes a destination for NoBo (north bound) thru hikers. The junction where the trail crosses under CA-78 is known as Scissors Crossing. This is where we, as well as many others, faced the next hurdle; getting a ride into town.

Good Fortunes

Let me start by saying that none of us in my group are frequent hitchhikers. While we had read that it was easy to get a hitch into Julian, this was not really something we wanted to try our hand at. Instead, we looked for an Uber ride or taxi to town. None could be had. There is a bus stop just west of Scissors Crossing, but the bus had already come through for the day. I asked for a ride on a Facebook page I had found for the area, but only ended up with a number to a store to call. Though I was hesitant, with no other options, I called the store. Boy was I glad I did!

The seemingly random number put me in touch with Mary at Two Foot Adventures, an online store selling everything a hiker needs. In addition to the online store, Two Foot has a temporary physical store in Julian and a mobile unit that moves north with the bulk of the NoBo hikers.

From what I saw, Two Foot has become the hub of the hiker world in Julian. Mary and her team coordinate rides between those in need and those available to drive in addition to selling hiker oriented food, supplies, clothing, and gear. The breezeway outside the store offers a sheltered place for hikers and their packs to hang out.

Hark! A Trail Angel!

It was through that phone call that we arranged our first interaction with a “trail angel”, a retiree who went by the trail name “Professor”. As we would come to learn, trail angels are kind souls who offer hikers rides, food, a place to sleep, cold drinks, a hot shower, and any number of other helpful things. They do not charge money for these services, but most hikers leave donations when they can. This ended up being a terrific introduction for us newbies to the off-trail side of long distance thru hiking.

A memorial bench in honor of John Hachey, overlooking the train tracks at Sullivan’s Curve, near Cajon Pass. John was a well respected Trail Gorilla (trail maintainer) in Southern California who won numerous awards in recognition of his work and dedication to the PCT. He, along with several friends, put together the Swarthout Canyon water cache, west of Cajon Pass, which is still actively maintained. For more information on this awesome man, check out his binder at the water cache, or follow the link to an In Memorandum PCTA blog: .

In places like Scissors Crossing, where it can get quite hot, with little water available for miles, trail angels maintain water caches; places where multiple gallons of water are left for hikers to use. Generous people also preform acts of “trail magic”, bringing things like food, drinks, snacks, shelter, and comfy chairs to the trail for thru hikers to enjoy. It’s truly amazing how even a simple piece of fruit can really lift your spirits after days of eating dehydrated foods. But, enough of that for now. Back to Julian…

Since we had some time to kill in Julian, waiting around for the post office to open (we’d be waiting a good 36 hours, sigh), we decided to visit the Two Foot Adventures store. I chatted with Mary for a bit, giving her our story, eying the line of packs she had on a high shelf along one wall. One very pretty one caught my eye.

The Hunt For THE Pack

The plan had been to order for me another Zpacks pack that was actually the correct size and have it shipped to a trail town. Simple. But that hadn’t happened yet by the time we made it to Julian, so I felt justified in admiring packs. I mentioned the selection to my mom, who agreed that I should have a pack that didn’t cause me immediate pain upon donning it. She thought it was smart to check out what was readily available. Plus, we love to support small businesses!

We excitedly made our way back to the shop. My mom is a huge gear fan and was more than ready to help find me a suitable method for conveying all of her heavy stuff down the trail. Recall, our deal is she buys the things and I carry the things. Unfortunately, the pretty pack I so liked the day before wasn’t a better fit than what I already had. Nor were the next few packs I tried on. I was ready to heave a sigh and give up.

Mary looked once more through her supply, looked at me, then pulled down one last pack, a Superior Wilderness design. It wasn’t a pack she typically carried, as it was large. Given my load, however, she thought it might work for me.

I tried it on and tentatively gave it a thumbs up, so we decided to add a bit of weight. In went a sack of beans, a sleeping bag, and a gallon of water. I pulled it on. It was good, but I typically carried more weight than that. In went another sack of beans and another gallon of water.

Loaded down, I marched around the building, up and down the stairs. I even shopped for awhile, still wearing the pack. The shoulder straps were well padded; the hip belt was well padded; the frame was long enough. Nothing made me so sore I needed to constantly change the straps. It was glorious! I happily left my old pack behind in favor this this big, black beauty.

Goodness Gracious, Gear!

My pack, “the Blackhole”, spotted in the wild… I love this thing!

In the time and miles since I first got my pack, I’ve grown more and more fond of it. It has even earned a trail name of its own: The Blackhole. Believe me, an astonishing amount of stuff fits in this pack. That said, finding the one thing you need at the very bottom is almost impossible without unloading the whole thing. But I adore it anyways.

This experience has really highlighted the need for good fitting equipment. Sure, socks and shoes are important, but I would argue a good fitting pack is equally as important. While I agree, if your feet hurt, you can’t walk very far very fast. But if your back is in constant pain, you probably aren’t making big miles either. And while the feet get used to the grind by getting all calloused and whatnot, your muscles just get angrier and angrier with an ill fitting pack. So, lesson learned, find the pack that truly works for you!

Finding what truly works for you goes for all of your gear. Ultralight gear can be terrific, but it is often ultralight because it lacks some of the bells and whistles of other equipment. If you’re ok without the extras for weeks on end, perfect! If you try something out and immediately think, “how do people use this?!” though, perhaps you’d be better off with a different version, even if its slightly heavier.

Single-wall UL tents that pitch with hiking poles and stakes can be terrific. Or they can kind of suck if you’re not adept at pitching them. Thin sleeping pads save weight and space, but if you aren’t remotely comfortable on them, don’t expect a decent night’s sleep. You can certainly carry little to no extra clothing, little rain gear, and only a tarp to save weight. But, you have to be OK with potentially being wet and cold in a high-mountain thunderstorm.

It’s all about what you are comfortable with, which can change with time and technology. I’m always checking out what other people have, discussing what they like and don’t about it. I’ve always got my eyes open for second hand gear that might work for me. While hiking along, I contemplate the changes I’d make to my gear if I was redesigning it. Maybe something already exists with those changes, I just need to find it.

Everything you could ever want is somewhere out there, in the infinite gear cosmos. I like to think it’s all being carried over a rainbow by Jason Momoa riding an exceptionally clean unicorn. In the morning, he’ll bring me a hot coffee and a breakfast burrito to enjoy while he packs up my camp. Then he’ll load up my pack just how I like it, and I’ll prance off down the wildflower lined trail while being serenaded by a symphony of forest animals.

Like I said earlier, you have time to think about such things when thru hiking…

Sadly, my PCT experience has not, thus far, included Jason Momoa bringing me hot coffee and a burrito for breakfast. But I have had the pleasure of a morning hike down a flower lined trail! A minute long video of my hike through this section can be found at the following link

See you down the trail!


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Comments 4

  • Otter : Sep 11th

    This is an excellent post–lots of good insight into the thought process of a thru hiker. I hope a lot of people who are planning their 2024 hikes right now will see this.

    Happy trails!

    • Dulce Wassil : Sep 29th

      Thank you! Haha, I probably should have written it a few months ago… But hopefully it will help and maybe encourage others to get out and hike!

  • nephi : Sep 12th

    Pretty pics. All from SoCal. In September. Are you LASHing? Regardless, enjoyed the post.

    • Dulce Wassil : Sep 29th

      Thank you for the kind words and curiosity. We started as traditional, albeit very slow, thru hikers. Then there was an incident (see my current post out today for that story), and we’ve changed how were hiking. My Aunt has referred to it as “highlight hiking”. We’ve now hiked chunks in all three states. The going has been slow, but we’re still at it! I’ve just been very slow to write… Trying to get to it a bit more now days. My next blog will follow our adventures north.


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