How to Survive the Desert on the PCT

A few years back when I first started thinking about thru-hiking the PCT, the idea of the southern desert section completely freaked me out. I’m that girl who always has a full water bottle at her side, as if it were a second appendage. So the thought of potentially being without water for long periods of time and walking in the hot sun all day for almost 700 miles sounded like my worst nightmare.

I got my first trial with walking in the heat while hiking a long route through Spain and Portugal in 2017. That particular spring and summer was a heat wave and man, was it toasty to be hiking. I only carried about a liter and a half at any given time, so indirectly I was training my body to go for lengthy durations without a lot of water. There were moments it was unbearable, with no shade for miles and miles. But I did it, and this gave me confidence that I could handle the desert section of the PCT.

In my early experience of the southern section on the PCT, here are a few things I’ve learned on how to survive and even possibly thrive in the oppressive desert heat.

Get Up Early

Get those honey buns of yours up and at ‘em early, y’all. I mean, really early; before the sun even comes up. Some of the nicest weather to hike in is at dawn, and it can be spectacular to see the sun rise as you greet the day on trail.

Not all sunrises are pink and red; get up early to witness the variety each day!

Break in the Middle of the Day

It can start to get brutal close to noon, so find some shade and take a breather. There is no sense in depleting all of your energy fighting with the sun. The sun will win and kick your ass, so don’t even play the game. It may seem annoying at first to stop walking for a few hours when you just want to go; however, it’s not worth it to push and experience heat exhaustion or dehydration. Chill out, eat lunch, take a nap, write a story, memorize Guthook and play trivia with yourself, do some yoga, meditate, call your mom if you have service, admire the view, and think about how this is better than sitting in an office. Then when it’s cooled off a bit, walk later in the afternoon or into the evening, a gorgeous time for sunset views.

Sometimes you just have to put your feet up and kick it.

Go Up in Shoe Size

I have never had to go up in shoe size while long-distance hiking: not when I thru-hiked the AT, the 1,500-mile hike in Europe, or any other extended trek I’ve done. So of course I didn’t think I’d have to buy shoes bigger than my normal size when I started the PCT, despite all I read. Wrong-o. Big wrong-o. I had a blister on the first day, which horrified me since I never get blisters! My right big toe was cramming into my toe box with all of the swelling due to the heat. I thought I would eventually adjust, but by Warner Springs I was done with cramped feet. The nice folks at Two Foot Adventures who set up a mobile shop next to the community center were kind enough to let me try on my shoes in the next half size and whole size up, even though I told them I was going to exchange what I had with REI. To my surprise, going up a whole size in my Altras felt way better. Like trumpets and whistles playing in triumph kinda better. This was a bit hard for my ego to accept at first since I have always loved my sweet little feet, but whatever; all goes while on trail as a dirty, sweaty hiker.

Don’t learn the hard way like I did and do yourself a favor by starting off at least a half size up when you start the PCT.

Oh happy feet with more space!

Use a Sun Umbrella

This has been an absolute lifesaver for me out here; I actually think it may be my favorite piece of gear right now. I prop it underneath the chest strap of my pack so I don’t have to carry it with one hand. It definitely keeps me cooler because the sun isn’t directly beating upon me. I have the one Gossamer Gear makes and it’s completely worth the eight ounces. It also holds up really well in the wind, unless it’s ridiculously blustery.

My sun umbrella is my new best friend.

Drink Till You Can’t Drink Anymore

At any water source you come to, camel up by chugging at least a liter of water. You can avoid dehydration by drinking before your body is thirsty; don’t wait till after. Try using electrolyte powders or drink mixes that can revitalize you when you feel depleted due to loss of salts. You can find these at any grocery store or pharmacy. When you leave the water source, be sure to carry enough water with you for those long stretches. Believe me, I know the extra 2.2 pounds per liter sucks, but it’s a necessary evil.

With these tips, I’m gonna keep truckin’ along to Canada!

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Comments 6

  • Avatar
    Lotus : May 5th

    Great info. I hiked the AT in 18. I could relate to everything you wrote. Some of my toughest days were the hot sunny ones. I was never into the sun umbrella. I am hiking the PCT in 20. I am going to try the umbrellas this summer.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Daya : May 11th

      Definitely do it! It’s great for rain, too!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    James Lantz : May 5th

    I’ve never heard of using an umbrella on a trail but it’s genius. Do you have any favorite electrolytes that you use?

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Daya : May 11th

      I like the company Nuun. I also like products by Amazing Grass, filled with all sorts of antioxidants, fruits and veggies.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Amelie Frei : May 11th

    Thank you very much Daya for those important tips! I will notice this for me on a paper with the time, the big break on the middle of the day, the water, the bigger shoe size and the umbrella. Great 🙂 Take care and buen Camino!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Daya : May 11th

      Love you, Amelie and thanks for reading and being so supportive!

      Reply

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