One week from today, I will be in San Diego, preparing to begin my thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. My backpack has been loaded and unloaded many times, as I’ve worked to choose the ideal configuration of the ideal pieces of gear for me. The belongings in my room have been reorganized and packed up to facilitate a post-trail move and to make way for a legion of resupply boxes. The dehydrator my grandmother gave me years ago has run around the clock for weeks, preparing enough dinners to feed me for 4.5 months of hiking. Those dinners are filling 24 boxes of food that are packed, addressed, and decorated and that I’ll be picking up as I walk from Mexico to Canada.
While my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail and subsequent backpacking adventures have made the mental and emotional side of trail preparations easier this time around, there are many ways in which preparing to hike the Pacific Crest Trail is unusually complicated.
First of all, resupplying on the PCT is more difficult than it was on the AT. The towns I’ll be hitchhiking to won’t always be far from the trail, but some will require fairly complicated hikes/hitchhikes. And, while it’s very easy to plan to resupply every three to five days on the AT, the stretches between resupplies are much more variable on the PCT. As it stands now, there’s one spot where I’ll be carrying 14 days of food.
In my mind, one of the biggest logistical differences between the AT and the PCT is that the latter almost requires the use of a map. It’s pretty easy to walk from Georgia to Maine by following white blazes and only looking at guidebooks when there’s nothing interesting to read in a shelter. Not only are maps generally considered important on the PCT, but the go-to maps are heavy! While I carried an entire guidebook from Georgia to Maine, which made what a friend of mine calls “spontaneous planning” (and “planned spontaneity,” for that matter) straightforward, the Halfmile maps of the PCT and the guidebook needed to be divided among the maildrops. Because I won’t be able to plan ahead with ease on trail, I’ve taken more time to plan at home than I did before I left for the AT.
An important focus of the planning that needed to be done is related to water. The PCT is infamously dry, and this winter has been the driest in California since meteorological data collecting began. I’ve needed to learn about the water sources and consider places to drink and camp in order to prevent problems while I’m on the trail. As I’m hiking, I’ll need to continue to check the updated water report.
In a similar vein, to prepare for the PCT, I’ve done a fair amount of reading about the variety of climates I’ll be needing to hike in. I’ve lived east of the Mississippi for as long as I can remember, and I’m very familiar with our humid climate. Whether it’s the hot, south Georgia, near-sub-tropical climates or the chilly alpine zones atop New Hampshire’s 4000’ers, even the unpredictable weather doesn’t catch me off guard. However, I’ve never hiked above 7000’, I’ve never crossed a snowfield with an ice ax, and I’ve never hiked in the desert. For both safety and sanity’s sakes, I needed to research the conditions I might face.
Once I knew what might await me in the West, I decided it would be ideal to learn more before I made it out there. While I wasn’t able to take a winter mountaineering course, I did get up on several high peaks while they were snow covered. (Not that it looks as though this will be an ice ax/crampons–or even microspikes!–kind of year.) I got a couple of western field guides and learned about the flowers and trees I am likely to see. I participated in an orienteering event (and fell in love with the sport) to improve my compass and map-reading skills. And, because I needed it for post-PCT life, I earned my Wilderness First Responder certification, which made me feel better able to both prevent possible wilderness emergencies and treat those that do arise.
While the primary quasi-deadline for a northbounder on the Appalachian Trail is being out of Baxter State Park before the park closes, a thru-hike of the PCT seems much more weather-dependent. Hike too late/slow, and there’ll be no water in the desert and too much snow in the Cascades. Hike too early/fast, and the Sierras will be a winter wonderland. I think the PCT will demand more flexibility in scheduling than the AT did.
But, maybe that is just because so much of what I’ll be seeing currently feels foreign to me. I think the PCT has felt so difficult to plan for primarily because of the physical distance between it and me. It was reassuring to know that home was never more than a 1.5-day drive from the Appalachian Trail; if I really needed help, I’d be able to get home easily.
Thinking back about it, what could I have possibly needed help with on the AT? Life was so much easier then! I already had Lyme Disease (thanks to a tick bite I’d received during a month-long section hike the year before), but I didn’t know it yet; ignorance is bliss, right? I’m still working to recover from a late-winter Lyme relapse that succinctly demonstrated that I’ll be dealing with the nasty little spirochetes for the long haul. I’m still on Doxycycline, but, now that I can stay awake and don’t have perpetual muscle issues, I’m bound and determined to keep to my planned start date. That’ll mean that I’ll be covering every inch of my photosensitive (because of the antibiotics) skin during the desert section, but perhaps I’ll find I like wearing more clothing than the traditional Rainbow Dash attire.
Being so recently ill has made the goal of my hike–to raise money for the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society–even more important to me. If you’d like to support ILADS in their research and education efforts, please consider a per-mile sponsorship; even one cent per mile is a wonderful help!
So, what is there left to do in the week before the wheels touch down? Continue healing. Get the latest water report. Collect the contact information of friends and friends of friends near the trail. Reach out to friends and family before I lose touch with civilization again. Enjoy a send-off party in my hometown. Breathe.