What Worked, What Didn’t, and Next Time
Long time no see, readers!
It’s been a minute since the end of my PCT hike and I’ve had time to reflect on things. I spent a while being sad; missing the trail tremendously. Missing the freedom of nature and the simple task of ‘just walking’. Coming home was a mess of anxiety and a clusterfuck of tasks needing to be done. Figure out the bills, find a job, etc…
But I’ve started planning my next PCT thru-hike attempt. 2019, baby! I’ll be back out there pounding trail as a solo hiker. Thinking about my new adventure has cleared my head, and I’m no longer moping about what happened.
So, in that, I’ve been putting a lot of thought into these experience points accrued over 800 miles of hiking; thinking about what worked, what didn’t, and what I’d do differently next time. Budget gear, hiking style, and of course, food! I love food so much, and it’s a factor I can control from a distance. I can’t control my health, the weather, or other people on the trail, but I can control what I eat.
Food & Resupply
Pre-hike I set up a spreadsheet with resupply box information: destination, days in between drops, grocery stores at or around that stop, and special contents (shoes, medication, sketchbook, etc.). I referred to this list a lot, especially when I was having my medication mishap.
Our strategy was to gather our snacks in every town we visited, plus a box from home with meals and a few snacks. The meals sent were awesome in comparison to the options available in towns, and I included spice blends in some boxes (used to doctor up ramen). However, even though I prepared 15 different meals, they got boring real quick. Next time: a much wider variety, and only a few of each. My favorite meals were the ones I only made one or two of. Was this because they were specially made? Or because their uniqueness in a sea of curried rice and lentils made them special?
On top of all that, we sent too much food. We split the boxes from home and sent half ahead to the next drop. In hindsight, this ended up being stupidly expensive. At $18.95 a box, every 100 miles, and a bounce box? We’re looking at three to four hundred dollars, folks. It was dumb, really dumb. Next time, a box from home only every 300 to 400 miles, and only to locations where I’d be sending boxes ahead anyway. I’ll I still get my home-dehydrated meals, and I save myself the frustration and boredom of food I picked out months ago.
A few weeks in, Bones and I started bouncing a box with extra food, supplies, and other crap in it. We disagree on it, Bones and I, but I really liked having these supplies available when I got to town without wondering if the store stocked them. I would make sure to only put uncommon items in it, not things I could get for cheap in any town; that $18.95 flat rate really adds up!
The best Bounce Box items were: Duct tape, Leukotape, pills/medication, a full supply of carnation shakes, (caffeinated) flavored water packets, and some other things I can’t remember. Next time, however, I want to keep a full first-aid refill, toothpaste, oil refills, laundry pods, a set of town clothes, and pieces of gear I could manage a few days without (ie: sleeping pad repair kit, nail clippers, etc.)
After my bout with elevation sickness, I started drinking carnation shakes mixed with Nido and coffee for breakfast–it was the only thing I could keep down first thing in the morning–and fell in love with them. They’re a staple in my backpacking pantry now. I’m thinking up different flavor combinations for future hikes, like vanilla chai, vanilla fruit smoothies (with freeze-dried fruit that’s been powdered). Mmm, yummy.
Inspired by other hikers, toward the end of my hike I ditched my 8oz bottle of olive oil in favor of small single-shot liquor bottles. Now I can carry a wider variety of liquids like toasted sesame oil and sriracha (but I just found out that McCormick makes a sriracha pepper, so I can probably skip the hot sauce).
Overall I was always carrying too much food and not finishing it before arriving in town again. Maybe this was because I kept getting sick? My stomach kept shrinking back to normal or smaller than usual and I’d get full quickly. I always felt rushed and guilty about stopping, so I didn’t take enough breaks to eat anyway (I’ll go into this later).
Carrying a selection of less-common OTC medication was a life saver. When I caught a cold in the Angeles National Forest, another hiker had miraculously been carrying a single-dose of DayQuil and NyQuil. Without this I doubt I would have been able to hike the 12-miles to Mill Creek where a curious trail angel took us to a Motel 6 in Palmdale. Afterward, I carried 6 doses of cold medicine minimum (Tylenol Cold & Flu–instead of DayQuil–as they are smaller and not liquicaps).
Post-cold, I developed vertigo and carried Dramamine to combat the associated nausea. I’d never taken it before and was scared to–so many horror stories of hallucinations, or knocking you on your ass like Benadryl! Turns out I don’t metabolise medications like a normal human so it doesn’t make me drowsy at all… Same with Benadryl; not only does it not work but it makes me itch more.
Most hikers use Emergen-C to boost their immune system while destroying their bodies.I jumped on that bandwagon soon after my cold. Concerned with taking so many supplements in the morning, I found the next best thing: Emergen-Zzz to take before bed. Same as the regular product, but sans-B vitamins, and added melatonin. They worked well enough to continue using post-trail.
Prescription medication: Scripts were a real pain. I was to receive a 3-week supply every other town and obviously ended up hiking slower than planned. In Big Bear Lake I needed to get an emergency supply at Walgreens. Next time I’ll carry more at a time and send more frequent refills, that way I’ll always have an extra 2-weeks supply on hand. My pills don’t weigh much; the extra ounce won’t kill me. I don’t know how comfortable I feel about keeping it all in my Bounce Box. That’s too many eggs in one basket to be lost in transit.
On that note, I had originally arranged an intensive vitamin regimen to stay in tip-top shape. I had multivitamins, digestive enzymes, and joint supplements. But big pills and I don’t get along, and it’s a struggle to swallow them. Four big horse pills a day (plus the nasty multivitamin)?? I ended up not taking them because choking and gagging is a great way to start the day. Don’t know how much good they did anyway; the DEs were for a vegan diet and I was now eating vegetarian. In the end, I was just taking an iron supplement (which helped combat muscle fatigue, I think) and a multi. So next time I’ll just take those two.
Silk sock liners were probably the only reason I was hiking at all. My feet were too large for them so I sent them home (my feet were hardy by now, why wear them anyway?), and those rashes on my ankles appeared. I’m pretty sure at this point I could have stayed on the trail had I kept those socks.
Sunbrellas are awesome. My desert hiking experience changed for the better when Boxes emerged from the forest one morning with the silver umbrella and tossed it my way. Found it in a tree! Whoever lost or left behind their umbrella: thanks! I hope your hike went well without it.
La Sportiva Wildcat trail runners are my new favorite shoes. Turns out everyone’s feet are different (wow, what a shocker), so don’t base your shoe decision on what other people wear. I tried the trail-famous Altras, and they didn’t work out. It may take more money, more time, and more frustration, but try out a wide variety of shoes before you attempt a big hike for the first time. I didn’t do this, and ordered 4 pairs of those Altra Superiors pre-hike! D’oh!
In Idyllwild, I swapped out my well-loved Deuter ACT Lite 65+ for a ULA Circuit. At that point, I had a lot of lower-back pain. At two pounds lighter than the Deuter it forced me to lighten up. I ditched my Nalgene, hydration system, and trimmed gear here and there. I never did know what my base weight was.
Toward the end, the Circuit was killing my shoulders; numbing my arms and causing headaches that radiated from my neck to my eyeballs. I thought I had a defective pack! I sent emails back and forth to ULA, with photos, and it turns out I had a pack that was a size too large and had MEN’S STRAPS. I’ll be selling it now. I wonder how comfortable a properly fitted pack will feel..? Because although ill-fitting, it was nice. But maybe that was my increasingly lighter gear. Does anyone want a medium ULA Circuit with j-straps?
Bones and I hiked as a team and split our gear in the beginning. We shared a tent, a water filter, an external battery, a phone, and our Garmin Inreach. You probably saw the problem before finishing that sentence. The tent wasn’t a big deal, but sharing the water filter could have been deadly. I carried Aquamira tabs just in case, but the one time it happened I forgot about them. It was 100F+ and, big surprise, I ran out of water. The crew decided to push past our agreed lunch spot due to the insane clouds of biting black flies in the area. But I was exhausted, hungry, and dehydrated. Luckily Tailor-Made and Bear Tripper were there and let me use theirs while I anxiously looked at the horizon wondering where my crew was.
It was shitty to share the phone and external battery, this basically left Bones without a device since I–for some selfish reason–decided I would be the one to deal with the GPS and Bones would have paper maps. He carried the InReach, but neither of us figured out how to use the maps on it, and what good would it do if I got hurt while separated? Especially since it was registered to my name (read: I was insured under it, not Bones).
Sometime in NorCal, I got my own tent. It was my sanctuary. When I returned to the trail after 4 weeks off, I brought my own water filter and InReach, and Bones had his own phone and battery. I learned to never let my life depend on something someone else is carrying if you know for a fact that you won’t be together 24/7.
I had some bad habits on trail that were my downfall, but after 800 miles I finally started to get my act together and resembled a somewhat competent hiker.
It was time to put me first and shove guilt out the window. Took breaks when I wanted to, ate more when I needed to–I didn’t need to wait until I caught up with the crew to do this–and went as fast or slow as I felt comfortable with. I was done hiking someone else’s hike or feeling like I’m slowing everyone down. That was never the case at all, and I was only making myself unhappy by trying to please the rest of the group. By trying to prove that I was ‘just as good’ as everyone else I wasn’t enjoying myself or the experience. I’m just as good as I need to be for myself, and nothing else matters.
Other changing habits included not listening to music all day, instead opting for 1 hour/album in the morning to pump me up, and then 1 hour/album on my way into camp to speed me up or chill me out. I actually found that I enjoyed the trail more this way, and time moved faster (also saved on battery).
Two Aleve in the morning for all-day soreness, and an Advil to reduce inflammation overnight. When the 12-hour mark on that Aleve hit, boy did I feel it. I tried to be done hiking by then.
It took me too long to realize that when hiking uphill I would become increasingly tired every time I stopped to catch my breath. I literally felt waves of exhaustion washing over me. But if I didn’t push myself to hike so fast that I needed to take breaks, I could go farther without fatigue. This became clear after my 700th mile, and I started pulling 20 mile days on the regular without feeling like death (okay, I felt like death a few times). Sadly, another hundred miles later, I had to get off trail. Finally, I’m doing something right, but it was all for naught.
And then there were habits that weren’t necessarily hiking related. The trail exposed some serious flaws that I didn’t realize until a few months back home. I have some anger management issues. If I can’t express myself and change the thing hurting me, I take it out on my husband. I don’t realize I’m doing this, and I never feel angry at him. When confronted, I deny everything and honestly believe myself. I’m trying to be more conscious of this, and it’s hard. I have a lot of work to do.
Long-distance backpacking is the experience of a lifetime: you go in not knowing how you’ll come out. We agreed in the beginning that if we change in some way that led to us splitting, we’d be okay with that. But when those situations arose, we clung to each other tightly, refusing to let go.
Although it was cut short, and nowhere near what we imagined, I honestly think we’re better people and have a better marriage because of it. I learned so much about myself, other people, and about wilderness backpacking. I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything in the world, and I can’t wait for the next one.
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