Planning for the Arizona Trail
Last year, an affable hiker called Drum Solo described the Arizona Trail as “hardcore desert” when I told him I wanted to hike it. We were boiling our butts off trudging through the Mohave Desert at the time and his description unsettled me. I thought, surely this is hardcore enough?
Later this month I will fly to Tucson and shuttle to the Mexican border to find out for myself.
The Arizona Trail starts in the Coronado National Memorial and heads 800 miles north over mountains and through grassland and canyons to the Utah border. I will sleep outside, eat big food in small towns and travel day after day on foot. But before the hiking comes the planning and the trail has become a bit of an obsession these last few months.
Navigation, water and what-ifs
Guidebooks are a labour of love and a truckload of work to compile and I wish people wouldn’t complain that the information is out-of-date because a business has closed or the trail is rerouted. There are plenty of current information sources available but Matthew Nelson’s Your Complete Guide to the Arizona National Scenic Trail has been my go-to for learning about the trail’s rocks, plants, animals and history.
On trail I will have a compass and maps for the broader context but will mostly use Guthook on my phone because of its current water information. For a while water was looking like a real problem and, after Drum Solo’s “hardcore” comment, water was the next thing to spook me.
Worrying about what-ifs is standard planning for me. Rattlesnake bite, getting lost, being chased by javelinas. Once I am on the trail, these things evaporate from my mind like water from an Arizonan creek. But beforehand I sift through the crazy possibilities and in the end revert to the mantra that gets me through almost all* trail challenges. People have done it, so it can be done. (*At a river crossing on the PCT I added but I don’t want to, then quit.)
Happily, there has been some late rain and snow and I am watching the reports of hikers on trail now to decide if I need to cache. After travelling from Australia, and while my body wrestles with its new time zone, the idea of driving hundreds of miles to cache water does not fill me with joy. But neither does withering in the desert so, if need be, I will rent a car.
Watching someone who has a bear outside their tent is different to having a bear outside your tent. No trail is ever what I imagine when I am trawling blogs, hiking sites like The Trek, and You Tube videos. But online research can’t be beat for planning the logistics of a hike.
The Arizona Trail Facebook group has been great. Discussions are helpful, good mannered and free of the knuckle scrapers that haunt some other groups. Last year, for example, I posted a question about a dry stretch to a PCT group and among the normal people responses were comments like: it’s a f**king desert, it was worse in 2015 and, my personal favourite, why don’t you go hike the AT.
Sigh. Life is so competitive.
Gear and fear
You pack what you fear. I first heard this saying from Five, a gregarious AT superhiker I liked crossing paths with and who used his enormous food bag to demonstrate his point. I fear the cold and carry too many layers and a 20-degree Feathered Friends bag regardless of the hike. Sometimes I sweat but it’s worth it not to be cold.
I researched gear until my fingers bled when I started out hiking and, because I don’t like spending money to replace stuff that is still functional, I am sticking with what I have.
My tent is perfect except for its weight and although I envy the lighter set ups when I’m bitching my way up a mountain, I love my MSR Hubba with its now temperamental zipper. I also carry a light tarp to cowboy camp and will use my slow leaking Thermarest Neo Air because it’s already had a good life and the prickly desert has a reputation for ruining air mattresses.
My Aarn Peak Aspiration pack is the opposite of ultralight but it feels like part of my body and its front pockets add extra space and make my water, snacks and maps accessible without having to stop. My Aarn has been bounced down cliffs and stuffed until its brain is bursting but it soldiers on regardless.
Covering up in the desert is important: fashion is not. I’ll be in long pants because of biters, cactus and sunburn. A sunhat and an oversized long-sleeve shirt that covers my hands will keep me from frying.
On my pungent feet will be Darn Tough, and my Solomon trail runners with the worn uppers that let in debris but I hope to nurse along for a bit.
Some don’t bother with camp clothes but I do. I will pack thermal leggings, socks in their own zip lock bag, a t-shirt and long sleeved mid-layer, a beanie, puffy and my useless rain jacket. I love flip flops, which I would call thongs if Americans didn’t titter when I said it. Flip flops are the ultimate in foot airing and I can’t wait to get into them when I am done hiking.
Options for resupply and town food on the Arizona Trail are spaced out at good distances and I shouldn’t have to carry more than about five days food. Trail communities have been kind to me so I like spending money in their towns. I will buy as I go but may send one resupply box to Roosevelt Lake around mile 346 where options are reportedly limited.
My trail kitchen is a spoon (thanks Shona and Geoff), small knife, fuel canister and screw-on stove, lighter, foil to block wind and the pot given to me by Country Jen about 4000 trail miles ago.
If there are extended dry sections where I need to carry more water, I will compensate weight by sending my cooking gear ahead. Hiking has a way of raising the grossness bar and cold soaked noodles are not too bad eaten with tuna, walnuts and four-day old sweaty cheese.
The shrinking list
I am still working my way through my to do list and grappling with whether to bring a sun umbrella, an emergency beacon and drops to supplement my filter on the cow-fouled water sources. When I get to Arizona I will need to buy supplies, reactivate my American phone, download Guthook and forward my extra luggage somewhere. But my list gets smaller as the trail gets closer.
I can’t wait to find out how “hardcore desert” this Arizona Trail really is.
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