PCT Advice from a 2010 Thru-hiker

I want to share the wonderful advice I got from Thump Thump in 2012 while planning my PCT hike. I met her while bikepacking at Crater Lake. It helped me so much, and it could help you, too!


Hi! It’s awesome that you’re thinking about doing the PCT. I was pretty unconventional, so please take my advice with a few grains of salt.

A lot of the PCT forums were really overwhelming about gear. A lot of really opinionated people, some with experience to back it, ramming stuff down other people’s throats. It really turned me off. I ended up using backcountry.com for a lot of my gear, because I love them and I’m loyal. It might have been better go with all REI so it would have been easier to return things that just weren’t working out for me so well, but that’s reliant on FINDING an REI versus finding a Post Office.

I think I spent way too much time planning the hiking part because of the nervous energy I had about the trip. If I could do it again, I’d do the following:

  1. Come up with a ROUGH itinerary based on miles per day averages of different sections and time spent in towns.
    1. Southern California = start at kick off, Kennedy Meadows day based on snow depths, average it out and you can see that you’ll have time to start easy, play in towns (recommended! but expensive. give yourself a few nights in Wrightwood). I started at 15 miles per day and came into Kennedy Meadows on a 26 mile day.
    2. Central California: Sierra Nevada – we averaged 13 mile, GRUELING days through the Sierra Nevada. It’s beautiful, take your time through here, and for god’s sake, resupply as often as seems reasonable. You have to eat a ton to posthole all day long at high elevation, trying to cram 10 days worth of food in your bear barrel is going to make you miserable in so many ways. After Sonora Pass, I think we averaged 20 miles per day.
    3. Northern California: up-down-up-down, we averaged 23-28 miles per day, and it was rough. Dryness again – you may want your water filter for this.
    4. Oregon: Easy cheesy breezy. We averaged 28-30 miles per day. Water is gross, worth having a filter, not just AquaMira.
    5. Washington: now you’re racing against dark and snow. Because of daylight and cold, we only averaged 22-25 miles per day.

    As for time spent in towns, it’s really ideal to resupply every 4 days. Food is heavy. Unless you’ve got diet restrictions, I wouldn’t spend your winter packing resupply boxes. Just identify which towns you’ll have to send boxes to, and which towns you’ll have to send boxes from. Your tastes and appetites will change. Maybe stockpile a whole bunch of high-quality mailable snacks (put that dehydrator to good use) for people to send to you when you request.

    After all that hiking, you do need down time. Don’t expect to turn-and-burn every single town. You need several uninterrupted hours of veg time to recharge. Generally, in every town, we did the following: 1. Laundry (1.5-2hours) 2. Showers (0.5 hours) 3. Post Office (0.5 hours) 4. Grocery Shopping (.5-1 hour) 5. Repacking and post-officing again (.75-1.5 hours). So that’s about 5 hours of chores. Balance it out with a meal and beverage and unladen hiker time, and it’s not unreasonable to expect to spend 6-12 hours of daylight time in town.

    You need something to look forward to. Sometimes, hiking sucks. If it didn’t, there’d be more people completing the trail every year. Set aside some MONEY AND TIME to spend in each section (i.e. a hotel room and a nice dinner and some drinks in each section). Also set aside some money and time for when you hit bigger cities – you’ll need to do some gear swapping. Idyllwild, South Lake Tahoe, Ashland, and Seattle were our big ones. Wrightwood and Agua Dulce could be good too.

    So after you have a rough idea of dates you’ll be coming into each town (and you’ll probably need to tweak here and there to make sure you’re finishing on a date you find acceptable), what next?

  2. CHILL THE F*CK OUT. Don’t overplan your hike. If you go into the hike with all these plans and expectations, all the surprises are more likely to shock you and knock you flat rather than give you a learning opportunity. Make sure you’ve got your gear ducks in an order, and save your money. Don’t bother with figuring out campsites or water distances now.
  3. Get some winter travel experience. Go out with friends who are knowledgeable and ask more questions than a 7-year old, or better yet, take a class. Not so much avalanche safety as crossing steep hard snow, glissading, ice axe use, avoiding hypothermia, etc.
  4. Practice fast-walking. Get used to the cadence.
  5. Figure out how you’re going to deal with your period, and start doing it now. Your brain and/or body takes time to adjust.

Here are my gear recommendations:

Cooking

Canister stove, I liked the Snow Peak, just take off the Piezo electric lighter and put some loc-tite on the screws, they do come out super-easy. Those Jetboil all-in-one systems look pretty rad. 1 spoon, one cup/mug/pot thing (1 piece) with lid (aluminum foil). Make a koozy for it with that tinfoil-bubble wrap stuff. Cooking = boil water then add stuff to it and let it sit, or add stuff to water, boil it, and let it sit. I like crunchy food, but on the trail, I reserved crunchy food for snacks. Hot food was ideally mushy and easy to swallow as soon as it was cool enough.

Sleeping

I had a 0 degree down bag, and I regretted the warmth rating less than 5 times on the whole trip, I smugly snuggled into it while my friends were freezing WAY more often. I caved partway through the trip and bought a full-length thermorest neo-air and was very happy about it. It wasn’t cold, it was 2″ of air, and it meant a good night sleep every night. Hiking became what I had to do in order to get to the next place I could sleep. Sleep is very important to me. The Thermorest Z-rest packed out quickly and was uncomfortable, though quite light. I kept a remnant of it for sitting on- so worth the extra ounce. Pillowcase = silky stuffsack my climbing skins came in. Worked wonderfully as a purse in town. Sleeping/town clothes v. silk bag liner? I did both. It was nice to be able to crawl into my silk bag liner naked when I was sweaty and disgusting all day and the night wasn’t cold. When it was hot, I unzipped all but around my face, and knew the bugs wouldn’t get in. The hotel-sheet like ones rip on the sides easily, and you can get lost and tangled up in them. I don’t know if the mummy-specific ones are any better, or just as aggravating. When I had clothes, it was nice to know that they were less stinky when I got to town. It’s nice to put on dry clean clothes after hiking. I’d probably go with sleeping clothes if I did it again, but it’s a toss-up.

Tent

Used in Washington, very rarely anywhere else, but when it was, it needed to be good (and keep out bugs). I think it’s stupid to carry tent poles and hiking poles. Gossamer Gear makes a tent I drooled over – keeps out bugs, has ventilation, packs down small. I had a 2-person groundcloth, and really enjoyed the extra space to spread my stuff out for cowboy camping. I <3 cowboy camping. A piece of plastic, if lightweight, may be the best way to go. It sucks when moisture soaks through the cloth to you. Tyvek picks up seeds on one side.

Bugs

I really liked my Sea-to-Summit simple bug net, worth all $6. I didn’t use much bug dope (less than an ounce) because I didn’t want that getting into the streams, my food, my skin, my eyes, and disintegrating my gear. I wore a bug net (also good for spiderwebs, DEET can’t do that!), and rain gear for the bugs.

Maps

Eric the Black is overpriced and under-detailed. It’s nice to have good maps when you need them. You won’t need them a lot, but when you do, you’ll be super-aggravated. I’d recommend printing out the Half-Mile maps at half-size in color all at once, and mailing them to yourself. It cost me $30 to get all of Oregon printed out at once professionally, and I was really happy with the result- totally worth the money (although Oregon isn’t as map-intensive as other places). The maps, once used, make excellent personalized stationary to write home with too! Supplement with Yogi’s town guide. The atlases have low-quality maps that aren’t good for when you need them, and are hard to read. If you have the money for them, I think they would be good to send to yourself at each resupply town, you can read what you’re facing, keep what seems pertinent, and ditch the rest. Reading now won’t help you all that much. Keep and carry the stuff for the high sierra, the descriptions can be helpful for getting over the passes. I had a PCT data book, which was really helpful for planning the day based on water, landmarks, mileages, and calculations. It’s all written in, but if you want it, I can send it to you. You can send yourself sections at a time (don’t pare down too much, because you’ll always be thinking ahead.) If you don’t carry the whole book, I’d carry one piece of paper that lists the mileages of all the civilization landmarks (highway crossings, towns) for the whole trail. That is, if you’re obsessive like me and your brain likes to play with numbers. Carry a compass. It doesn’t need to be fancy with mirrors, but I wouldn’t rely on those tiny zipper pull ones. Mine was $1_ at REI. If you have a GPS, I recommend having it ready to be sent to you for Hwy 74/Pines-to-Palms the interstate between Fuller Ridge and Mission Creek (Idyllwild is smack-dab-in-the-middle), possibly the area right before and after Wrightwood too, and all of Central California. Have it loaded with Half-mile’s points.

Clothes

If I were to hike again, I’d carry this:

Rainjacket (My Marmot worked. I dreamt of a really simple, lightweight one, kind of like the Patagonia Houdini but rain-worthy. If I had the money, it would have been nice to upgrade to a new and nice (though bulky) one for northern Oregon and Washington, mine wasn’t very waterproof at that point. At the very least, Nikwax yours in Sisters or Seattle)
Rainpants (full zippers on the side allow for easy on-off, and more importantly, VENTING. I wish mine had them, they only had ankle zips. My Marmot ones withstood Alaskan field work and the entire trail- much better than some other hikers’. Reinforce the inner ankle inseam, and possibly the buttcrack seam. Those are the two most likely failure points. My inseams were torn up to the knees by the time I finished, but it took a lot of abuse to get them there, versus 1 week for my hiking partners’ North Face and Outdoor Research. We were rained on and snowed on and blowed on in southern California, it was nice to have them there. We were postholing and glissading in Central California, it was nice to have them there. I got rid of them in favor of my Gramicci’s in Northern California and Oregon, but we were snowed on before Sisters and I REALLY wished I had them then. Used almost every day in Washington, if not for rain then for cold.)
Fleece jacket (I had a cheapo thin pullover… I don’t know if it would have been worth the extra weight and money to have a nice, puffy, windproof expensive one to trash. I knew I couldn’t have everything, and what I had worked)
Lightweight, white/light long-sleeved shirt. (It won’t stay lightcolored, but it’s high albedo for when it’s sunny, and insulating when it’s cold, and you don’t have to change. If you can afford it, go with merino wool, but know that you’ll have to replace it 3-5 times on the trail.
Light colored, lightweight nylon pants (I loved my Gramicci’s. Good for the sunny and hot, the buggy, and the poison-oaked. I got rid of mine for the high sierra and for Washington. Zippers are a total pain in the ass- they brake, they itch, and when you want ventilation, it’s much easier to roll pant legs up than to zip them off)
Black longjohns (not as important to be merino wool, though it’s nice, on your legs the faster drying properties of synthetic is worth the stink factor.)
Simple bright hiking skirt (my favorite thing to hike in, no chafe, no sag, no awkward thick waistband. Excellent hitching aid. I ditched mine for Washington when my gut told me I’d be wearing rainpants everyday)
Spandex shorts (anti-chafe)
Swix hat (brand not important, but as a cross-country skier, I’m particularly fond of cute cross-country skiing hats. Carry from Mexican border to Canadian. Supplement with a Buff for Southern/Central Cali and N. Oregon-Washington. Alternatively, carry a Buff the entire way, and supplement with a hat for the colder parts.)
Fleece or wool gloves (even better, windproof fleece. I happily carried mine the whole way)
2 pairs short, thin socks (one to wash/dry, one to wear)
1 pair warm socks for sleeping
2 pairs underwear (I really liked my DKNY thin black synthetic ones from Nordstrom. Served as a bikini just fine, dried quickly, fit my particular butt, held up well)
1 sports bra (not the patagonia yoga strap kind, those spaghetti straps are murder underneath a pack)
Dirty Girl Gaiters (I spent $36 on a North Face zippered pair that broke in 170 miles. the $17 Dirty Girl Gaiters were ubiquitous on the trail. They’re simple – harder to break – and fun. I never got them, but kept meaning to while fishing grit out of my shoes. I was cursing myself out every single step through snow for not having them.)
Hat (well vented straw cowboy hat with neck strap for SoCal through Or (sun), visor/baseball cap for N. OR and Wa (rain, fits under your hood)
Sunglasses- I liked carrying a backup pair, though I never needed to use them, just lent them out. I had croakies to keep them around my neck. My hiking partner didn’t and lost hers often. Super-important that they are dark and enclosing in the snow.

Water

I liked having a 6L water reservoir w/ drink tube through southern california, but the tube developed a biofilm and water started tasting gross. If you choose to use one, let it dry thoroughly or rinse with bleachy water once a week. MSR makes a burly bladder, I wouldn’t trust anything else over long distances with sharp pokey objects. Mark various capacities in sharpie. If you go water bottle (cheaper initial option), don’t carry fancy Nalgenes or Siggs, just figure out what brand sportsdrink/bottled water fits your pack, and replace occasionally. I was fond of Fiji’s square water bottle, my hiking partners liked Smart Water/Glaceau’s tall thin design. You can figure this out on trail or in the grocery store. Figure out the max capacity you need to get to the first town, and each town after that repeat to the next town. I drink a lot of water, I drank 1L/3 miles in the really hot dry sections, an average of 1L/4-5, sometimes as little as 1L/6-8mi, and I used 1-1.5L per camp for drinking, cooking, drinking my dishwater, and washing my feet and face, a very important nightly ritual. I carried an MSR auto-flow water filter through SoCal and could have gotten away with just AquaMira – you’re in the desert, your water sources are usually springs. I wished I had the faster Katadyn for NoCal and OR because we were getting water from some manky looking lakes, but oh well, I didn’t. I carried AquaMira for the rest, but really didn’t use it that much. When contemplating treatment, look upstream at your watershed, look for cow/horse shit, and think about how many weekenders you saw. Don’t eat the red snow. Or yellow or brown. Wash your hands, use hand sanitizer after pooping and before eating (I carried one tiny bottle for each purpose) and don’t let other grubby hikers touch your food – your most likely source of giardia is fecal contamination. Camel up (drink more water than you possibly think is reasonable, and then some more) at water sources in dry sections.

Pack

make sure yours fits you, and will carry well with a week’s worth of food and 20 miles worth of water. Unless you go ultra-light, don’t get an ultra-light pack, and even then, I’d argue against getting an ultra-light pack because the distances you need to carry food and water on the PCT is not ultra-light. I was quite happy with my Osprey Kestral 48 (48L capacity). I started with their Aether 60, it didn’t fit right, fell apart from funny wear, and was so big it was easy to carry too much. It did, however, have enough room to fit the bear canister required through the high Sierra.

Bear Canister

Bear Vault has a sweet program where you can have them send it to Kennedy Meadows or Tehachapi. I picked mine up at KM because I had a ride down to the nearby town to do a legit resupply, but it’s hard to get a ride if you don’t already have one. I’d recommend sending it to Tehachapi and packing it up with the food you’ll need to get to your chosen next resupply point (sierra resupply is a bitch) and then sending it, full of non-perishable food, to Kennedy Meadows. While in Kennedy Meadows, you can easily subsist off beer, ice-cream, and hiker food until it’s time to leave.

Sierra Resupply

We hit Tehachapi, 7-8 days to Kennedy Meadows, I think 8 days to Indepedence, 9 days to Red’s Meadow (though we weren’t planning on it, we just ran out of food), 1-2 days to Tuolumne Meadows, Northern Kennedy Meadows (Resort) and onward. We were planning on going straight from Independence to Red’s Meadow, but it was slow and hungry going. I’d recommend seeing how you’re doing on time at Tehachapi to decide if you want to stop in Onyx (going out of Tehachapi is a long dry stretch, very heavy with a lot of water and food, highly windy and slightly miserable. if you can lighten your load by stopping in Onyx, it’ll make it nicer). Kennedy Meadows is right off the trail, you can’t NOT stop there, it’s the big hiker hangout. If you can, give yourself a little while to chill. Thanks to a visiting boyfriend, we were there a week, which was too long. I wouldn’t dream of going up and over Mt. Whitney for a resupply. I’d rather do it near Cottonwood Pass, but since that’s 2 days out of Kennedy Meadows, it seems kind of pointless. Independence is a tiny town with a tiny store, but you can take a bus to Bishop or Lone Pine and do better. Give yourself time for that whole endeavor, and if you can, do it on a weekend, getting from Onion something down to Independence will be a lot easier with day-hikers to hitch from. If you hear of a trail angel there, it’s worth the initial hassle to give them a resupply box and never leave the campground. Include some extra food and maybe a beer so you can celebrate your genius laziness in style. Independance to Tuolumne is too long, we thought it would take us 10 days and it took us 11 or 12. I think it would have been worth the fee to send a package to VVR. We stopped at Red’s Meadow, which was a super-tiny place that catered to hikers, packers, and tourists (it was a good resupply for how small it was), and it’s RIGHT off the trail. A good place to relax and resupply for the next 2-3 days. Mammoth is cute but overwhelming, and no matter what Slim might say, it’s not a short trip down there by bus. I sent food to Tuolumne Meadows, but I’m not sure I needed to. It does have a store, overpriced, but so is shipping. If you just CAN’T resupply in Tuolumne on what they have, you can hitch down to the valley. Resupply boxes are complicated headache-causers, I recommend avoiding them when you can. Kennedy Meadows Resort at Sonora Pass is small and a good resupply for it’s size. They also cater to hikers and packers. Bridgeport sounded spread out and expensive, I was happy with what we did.

Food

I figured out that I could eat the same thing every day for a week no problem, as long as I got to eat a different same thing everyday for the next week. That made resupplies and packing much simpler, cheaper, and more compact. I also figured out that I’m picky when it comes to snack food. Snickers just doesn’t cut it, I want my $4 whole food bars. I wish I’d spent the winter making snacks (my own granola bars, essentially), not taking stabs at dehydrated meals, and packing them up in parchment paper/saran wrap, and sticking them in my mom’s chest freezer to send to me in flat-rate envelopes. Mice WILL visit you in Washington and possibly Oregon. I wished I’d had a critter-sack (kevlar fabric, by the Ursack people) the whole way, I just used a big stuff sack, my hiking partner was a huge fan of her drybag, my other hiking partner 16 swore by her medical-supply ziploc from Fed-Ex, though it never quite held all of her food. My favorite foods:
Breakfast: granola and dry milk; instant oatmeal and nuts; bagels with cream cheese and nutella; bagels with almond butter and honey.
Snacks: nuts, cheese sticks, dry fruit, granola bars
Uncooked meals: tortillas, pb, cream cheese, nutella; salami and cheese (not in the hot sections); couscous or tabouli soaked with water and olive oil in a tupperware, bagels, avocados. I really wanted to figure out a light weight sprouting system, but I never did. Steal mayonnaise packets whenever possible.
Cooked meals: Couscous; split pea soup; 1/2 packet ea: gravy mix, stuffing mix, instant mashed potatoes; pasta with peanut butter, brown sugar, curry/asian spices, soy sauce or bouillon cube, cashews, dry veggies; everything is better with olive oil, butter, nuts, mayonnaise, or cheese.
I found lunch and dinner to be pretty interchangeable. I usually ate one cooked and one non-cooked meal a day. In cold rainy weather, it’s nice to make a hot lunch, and dive into your sleeping bag and eat finger food at night.

Bears

We were dutiful in setting our bear canisters far away when we carried them, and the rest of the time slept with our food in groups of 3 or more. It’s more important to be aware and not too-quiet when hiking through thick brush. If you listen to music, sing along. I carried bear spray through southern and central california, and now I think it was dumb. I didn’t see bear scat ’til northern california.

Poles

I had black diamond flick-lock ones. It was nice that they were three-section poles so they could fit in/on my pack for hitching. It was nice that they had flick-lock adjustments rather than twisty ones, which seem to be ineffective. Powder baskets were a pain in the ass with rocks and grass. With none, my poles got stuck in mud and rocks. Try trekking ones, they seemed to work well for everybody else.

Feet

If I did it again, I’d break my boots in well before I left, do the whole thing with Chacos and shoes, but replace the shoes with boots for the high Sierra. I had feet and knee issues, being able to change footwear halfway through the day made it possible for me to finish. I started with shoes only, tried switching between shoes and crocs when that didn’t work, and then swallowed the weight of my Chacos and was instantly happier. I think Chacos are worth the weight FOR ME because I knew I could hike in them well before I started the trip, and they were good as camp shoes and river crossing shoes too. Why carry camp/river shoes that you can’t hike in? If you don’t have feet/knee issues, flip flops are good lightweight camp/town shoes, crocs are good lightweight camp/river/town shoes. Chacos gave me gnarly callouses, which were AWESOME, until they started to crack. I rubbed vaseline in them every night before putting socks on, that helped prevent cracking. In So Cal and OR, make sure you’re washing your feet and socks whenever you can (which isn’t often), and letting your feet air out and dry at every break. It really helps with the blisters. Superfeet really helped me when I got the right pair, but you have to break your feet into them slowly (a good pre-hike activity). They can supposedly help prevent your feet splaying out and swelling. If you have mad blisters, move up a shoe size or three. In the meantime, take vitamin I and it’ll help with the swelling.

Knees

It hurts real good to prop your legs up on a tree for 10-30 minutes and let them drain. It’s also helpful to sleep with your feet elevated for your knees and feet. I took lots of glucosamine and Vitamin I (Ibuprofen). Trekking poles are for your knees. When I figured out how to shuffle-walk-run downhill, it was much better.

Squatting

(the main topic of conversation once we were rid of men)

I carried a trowel when I didn’t have an ice axe. I probably just could have used my basketless trekking poles. My girlfriends went without and just swore by finding a digging rock or digging stick. I think they didn’t dig deep enough. The fact of the matter is that our bodies were running at double-triple their normal metabolism. When we had to poop, we had to poop NOW. Accidents did happen. Toilet paper is overrated. You have to use a bunch, it’s weak, and bulky. One of my hiking buddies liked her little kleenex-to-go pouches, the stuff was strong and easy to know how many uses were left. My other hiking buddy went more haphazardly for napkins and paper towels. After seeing enough white roses, we all vowed to carry out our toilet paper (you’re required in the Sierra anyway). I preferred the opaque tin food-pouch inside a ziploc method. Since I was carrying everything out anyway, I switched to Wet Ones. Snow and leaves are excellent, but not reliable enough to not carry anything. If I were to do it again, I’d probably mail myself a pack of unscented to every place I was already mailing myself. We all used pee-rags: quick drying, could be hung to dry and bleach clean in the sun. Rinse when possible, I’d take a sip of water and drizzle it out as a scrubbed and squeezed it with my hands. Most cleansing when wetted first. Of course, big fuzzy leaves and snow are better when available, but completely unreliable. Me and my two girlfriends all had Diva Cups. I was the only one who was used to using one in regular life, and the only one who didn’t have a problem with it. One woman tried to run her periods together with birth control and that didn’t work out super. Another woman I hiked with got an IUD just before hiking in March. She loved it but wished she’d gotten it earlier because she didn’t know how to deal with the spotting that came between regular periods and no periods.


Okay, that’s 10x more than enough for now. I’ve got to go to dinner.

-Thump Thump