Thru-hiking Questions that Local Backpacking Helped Me Answer

What do you do when you’ve been anticipating the PCT for 5 years, actively planning for it for two years, and finally had to sit it out (because …. 2020)?

You want to thru-hike in 2021, and you want to be prepared. But, you don’t want to get your hopes up too much in case you get the same gut punch you got this year.

So, you hike and backpack local (socially distanced and safely) because you are a lucky bastard and live in Arizona where the Grand Canyon is practically in your backyard. The act of testing gear and your setup, in preparation for a hike you hope to occur in 2021, is enjoyable in and of itself. We didn’t all just start backpacking so that we could end up hiking a thru-hike. We started hiking and backpacking because we love spending time outdoors. 

Can I carry a typical thru-hike resupply (4 or 5 days), planning food correctly? 

My 5 day (4 night) backpacking trip at the Grand Canyon last month (rim to rim to rim) was the longest amount of time and distance I’d backpacked before. I’d done shorter trips there before and had a good feel for what I would eat. So, planning wasn’t difficult.  And this trip proved my planning was close as I came out with only a tuna packet and a few granola bars. Water supplies along the central corridor were consistent and I never needed to have more than a couple of liters.

Do I know how to pack clothing for drastic temperature shifts?

There is probably no better place to test this than the Grand Canyon, especially in November. Camping at Bright Angel Campground and Cottonwood Campground, both lower in elevation, the temperature was in the 60’s & 70’s.  But, when you climb 5K+ feet in a day, you are back at 8,000 feet and temps dip into the teens at night. Lightweight shorts, tights, a puffy, a thermal midlayer and wicking top, in all their combinations, allow you to adjust for every change.

Does wearing a full set of microspikes work better than just one?

Surprisingly, yes! A little explanation is in order. Last year, some friends and I hiked Humphreys Peak near Flagstaff in June.  It’s the highest point (12,600 ft) in Arizona, but by summer is generally free of snow.  2019 was unusually wet and cool, however, and there was still some scattered snow on the trail. I brought hiking poles, but no microspikes. A fellow hiker in my group brought microspikes but no poles. Being a clever fellow, he suggested we exchange one of each for the balance of our hike. Even having one microspike helped with footing.

Bright Angel Trail

Fast-forward to my Grand Canyon hike in mid-November. The first half mile or so of the Bright Angel Trail on the South Rim and the North Kaibab Trail on the North Rim were icy in the morning and slushy at other times. Being the aspiring thru-hiker that I am now, I actually have the correct equipment. My Kahtoola Microspikes were awesome and allowed me to fly through those stretches.

Has my slow but steady upgrading of gear, and dialing in of my backpacking kit, resulted in a lighter pack and more enjoyable backcountry experience?

Sure. Compared with my first Grand Canyon backpacking trip, I’ve shed probably 20 pounds of weight in my pack. This is due to many things but more than anything, it is just being a more experienced backpacker. My first trip, I had a big pack, a heavy synthetic sleeping bag, a huge stove, multiple gas canisters, way too much clothing, food, water, you name it.  And it was still fun, because I didn’t know any better.

Now, I’ve upgraded gear, eliminated duplication, and developed an understanding of what I actually NEED. And now I don’t just wonder whether I can do a multiday hike with a full pack and a 5K elevation gain or loss on several of those days. I know I can. Experience allows you to make wiser choices.

Is sleeping in a National Park Service privy as sexy as it has been made out to be by thru-hikers?

Definitely not sexy, but absolutely necessary.  Faced with temps in the upper teens at a near-deserted North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and an empty campground, I made the conscious choice to sleep on the floor in the shitter.  A clean, well-maintained one mind you … but a shitter nonetheless. My REI quilt is rated for 30 degrees, and I had doubts on whether I’d be warm enough that night.  Thankfully, the inside of the privy was probably at least 10 degrees warmer than outside and I slept fine.

Have all the things I’ve done prepared me enough for a thru-hike?

Who knows? Probably not. But, I’ve faced challenges in the past and overcame them enough to know that I won’t panic when they come up. The path of preparation is fulfilling and fun on its own. 

If this year has taught us anything, be prepared for anything. Find solace in friends and family, and find enjoyment in the simple pleasures along the way, not just at the destination.

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Comments 4

  • Avatar
    pearwood : Dec 16th

    Thanks, Lance. At 70, my pack-lightening is largely figuring out which dear old friends get left behind. I’ve already weeded out my lovely Case shieth knife, but I do love my Svea 123 stove. We shall see.
    Blessings,
    Steve
    (Son and father of a Lanse/Lansing)

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Lance A Goehring : Dec 16th

    I agree Steve. Pack lightening is not about getting rid of everything. It’s more about being honest with yourself about how important each piece is. We all have those items we really love and that are worth the little weight ding they may incur.

    Looking forward to following your hike! Hope 2021 trends well so that we can both hike.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Bob Taylor : Jan 5th

    Good stuff, appreciate the insights.

    My biggest challenge is compulsively packing my entire closet to be prepared for absolutely any weather conditions from -10 to 100 in 5 degree increments with special modifiers for wind, rain, locusts, etc…

    Also, great photos!

    See you on the trail.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Lance A Goehring : Jan 5th

    Lol. Indeed. We pack our fears. A couple hundred miles of a heavy pack should beat that tendency out of us eventually. And thanks!

    Reply

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