Shakedown Hike on the PCT
I can’t believe my PCT start date is less than one week away! Hiking the PCT is a long-held bucket list event for me, many years in the making-a-dream-come-true department. After years of planning, reading, and learning about thru hiking, and after doing an easy 670-mile long-distance supported hike in 2018, I came out to Southern California to hike the PCT in 2020, only to make the difficult decision not to start the trail after state and federal lands went into Covid lock-downs and the Pacific Crest Trail Association asked hikers to get off the trail. I did some day and short section hikes on the trail in 2020, fully self-supplied so as not to violate Covid recommendations from that time period.
So here I am again, a New Hampshire “senior” hiker, giving it another try in 2021. I’m a year older, a little more physically damaged, and a whole lot more aware of the fact that there’s a lot I can’t control, and I’ve got to be able to roll with the (sometimes very painful) downs in life, on and off the trail. I’m also pretty much a newbie when it comes to unsupported long-distance hikes.
I came out to California a month ahead of my start date to visit family and acclimate to multiple situational and life events: the climate change (it was still very much winter in the Northeast when I left), the time change (3 hours), and the fact that this year, I would be doing the trail solo. And did I mention I also had a devastating ankle injury 5 months ago and wasn’t sure I would be able to hike at all without the recommended surgical repair, much less hike with a heavy pack?
I think I’ve made all the adjustments, and so far the ankle—braced, booted, and protected as much as possible—seems able to do the hiking. The ankle repair will hopefully wait until after this hike because I’m not getting any younger and I don’t think I should put the PCT off another year. I’ve done lots of getting-ready-for-the-trail desert hikes with a heavy pack. It’s been a lot of fun when other hikers on these non-PCT trails stop me to ask what I’m doing. They’ve been very intrigued and encouraging when they find out my age (70).
Some of my preparation for my PCT hike has included a month of camping in my family’s backyard in San Diego to practice pitching and breaking down camp and to really dial in my sleep system. I also wanted to be used to sleeping in a tent before I began the trail. I found I needed to add an additional 4-panel foam piece on top of my foam closed-cell sleeping pad to give my hips more padding for side-sleeping, and managed to get used to my clothing stuff sack pillow (I normally sleep on 2 big pillows). I also needed to get used to camping alone for the first time in almost 40 years. I’ve made all those adjustments, and feel confident in my ability to get a great night’s sleep on the trail from my first night out. I can cross the whole sleeping adjustment off the long list of things to get used to!
I did a super shakedown hike for two-and-a-half days on the PCT recently, just to make sure I could carry the 43-pound pack (6 liters of water and 2 pounds of food per day REALLY adds a lot of weight) and my can’t-possibly-leave-it-at-home 4 pound camera over the first few days of waterless desert trail when I begin the PCT at the US/Mexican border in Campo.
The shakedown was terrific as a confidence builder and trial run. I saw great scenery (minus the wonderful flowers of 2020), wonderful birdlife, and a few PCT hikers over my shakedown. I also found I could carry the weight despite the fact that I’m only 5 feet tall and 117 pounds, but it wasn’t easy, and I wasn’t fast.
California has been really dry this year, and water levels were much lower than when I did my hiking on the PCT in 2020. Despite that, I weathered a 14-hour rainstorm on the PCT from late afternoon to mid-morning the next day and was glad to have that experience as well. I’m hoping that drenching rain brought some much-needed water to the desert, and maybe when I start in a few days, there will be some flowers blooming. As an avid photographer (I’m not called Snaphappy for nothing!), I really enjoy having desert blooms in my photos.
The shakedown gave me a chance to see that I needed to modify a few things, including bringing a warmer liner for my quilt (I added in my heavier Sierra liner, and removed the light silk liner I used on the shakedown). The nights were still in the 30s in the southern desert. I also exchanged my summer weight sleep socks for my warm New Hampshire fleece socks. Those desert nights and early mornings were really cold, and I’m a cold sleeper.
Another great change was that after my shakedown, I switched my bulky six 1-liter Smart water bottles (what was I thinking?!) for three Cnoc collapsible bottles, one 2-liter Cnoc wide top opening collapsible water bladder, and one firm sided Smart water bottle. As I used up the water, I regained more space in my very stuffed pack with all the collapsible water containers.
The last eye-opener was how much less food I ate and needed than the 2 pounds a day I packed for the shakedown. I had twice as much food as I needed to consume—adding at least 2.5 pounds of unnecessary weight. Maybe when the often mentioned hiker-hunger strikes, I’ll need to eat more, but for now, I’m decreasing the quantity of food in my pack.
I know there will be many more adjustments and changes once I start the trail, but I’m hoping this shakedown will make the first few days a little easier and less stressful. I can’t wait to start, and hope to meet and photograph some of the PCT hikers on the trail North!
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