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are a labour of love and a truckload of work to compile and I wish people wouldn’t complain that the information is out-of-date because a business has closed or the trail is rerouted.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.

Knuckle scrapers

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.

Layer up

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.

Resupply

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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Comments 7

  • Avatar
    Jenny : Mar 2nd

    Another great read! You almost make me want to come hiking… but I think I will have more fun living vicariously through you… and not as many blisters. I wish you godspeed, friendly critters and feast not famine. Hike safe.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Siobhan Sheridan : Mar 2nd

      Thanks!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Jim Waller : Mar 2nd

    I hiked the AZT last year as my first thru hike so I had nothing to compare it to. After I hiked it, people told me how hard it was and I guess I didn’t know what to think about that. I hiked the Colorado Trail later last summer and found that to be different but not necessarily harder or easier. If you hiked the first 700 miles of the PCT, my guess is you will be fine.

    What I noticed about the AZT was that it was windy a lot and almost everyday. Thelongest water carry was about 27 miles, but I also was comming off a wet winter and all but few sources had water. The hiker water source info on Guthook that were just a few days ahead was invaluable for planning. The water soutces could be intimidating at first when competing with cattle, bees, minnows, mud, and algae, but you get used to it. I ditched my Sawyer Mini for the Squeeze after the first section to get more flow and it worked great! I used my paper maps once on the first day because I was still getting used to guthook. The trail is marked pretty well but the markers vary from section to section. Some mesas are cairins only because there are a lot of rocks. The trail can be very rocky and loose in many spots. I can remember rock skating to near falls before my sticks saved me.

    I too am afraid of being cold! The best thing i did was to send warmer clothes to Pine. The days aren’t bad with the sun, but the nights in northern AZ freeze regularly in the spring. I had about 6-8 nights of good freezes where i heated hot water at 1am to take the edge off. I have a ten degree bag and finished 4-23. The coldest night was on the north rim of the GC when it got to 19F. There was 3.5ft of snow up there from a 4-7 storm. I bypassed the trail for about 20 miles and then got back on. It isnt unusual to get a late spring storm on the north rim.

    You will love the Canyon and i got a permit at Cottonwood CG without staying with the mules! The Canyon was crowded with spring break families. There is a shuttle bus from Tusayan to the South Rim and around the South Rim. My original plan was to stay on the South Rim but the only roons available were $275, so I stayed in Tusayan for about $165 and shuttled in the am. I could have camped at Mather CG on the South Rim, but needed a real bed after the trip from Flag. I hiked to the South Rim, took the free shuttle to the Backcoutry permit office, shuttled to the GC General Store where I got a good selection of expensive food and the beta on the north rim snow from some sobo hikers, and took the free shuttle to Tusayan for the night.

    I saw more wildlife in AZ than i did in Colorado, with elk, mule deer, lots of birds, 4 rattlers, and three javalenas. Dont sweat the snakes. I saw them in two situations. Straight across the trail getting sun. They really blend in,but are easy to get around. One in the grass along the Gila River that i didnt see and whose rattle scared the shit out of me and i jumped about three feet to the right almost instantly! If they feel in danger, they will warm you!

    I used an alcohol stove because it seemed like alcohol was easier to get than canisters. Sounds like you are good with cold soak so not a show stopper either way. I called a few places to make sure i could get fuel. Being my first thru hike, i was a pretty anxious planner!

    Ironically, ill be doing the first 540 miles of the AT starting 3-18. Living in Maryland this is way closer than AZ and CO! I too hope I have enough time to hike what is on my list!

    Id be glad to answer any AZT questions that I can!

    Hope you have a great hike!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Siobhan Sheridan : Mar 2nd

      Wow Jim, thanks for your excellent response and all the great info. It sounds like you loved the AZT and I expect I will too (I love all my trails, just love the whole thru hiking life). Enjoy your stretch on the AT. You will go through some very beautiful landscape and do some serious climbing and I am sure you will love it. If you are ever hankering after a relatively short thru up near your part of the country, check out the Northville Placid Trail in NY. 130 miles of low elevation stunning landscape. Just beautiful. Happy trails to you and thanks again. Cheers.
      Happy trails to you and thanks again.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Longbeard : Apr 3rd

    Pretty sure Drum Solo and I had the same conversation last year on the PCT, I think he tends to be an exaggerator. Thanks for the article, have a great hike!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Siobhan (Drop Bear) : Apr 5th

      Thanks Longbeard. I think I have met you on a trail somewhere. Am loving this trail so far!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    dad : Apr 10th

    happy hiking siobhan.keep going /ps.we let out your room!!!love mumdad

    Reply

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