On June 6, 2017, my friend Indigo and I began our journey on the Pacific Crest Trail, a long distance scenic trail that runs from Mexico to Canada. We started from Tehachapi, CA at mile 566 and ended our adventure in Manning Park, BC, logging over 1,800 miles of sandy, rocky, grassy, muddy, snowy trail. This year turned out to be known as the “Year of Fire and Ice” because of a record high Sierra snowpack and numerous heat waves and wildfires – it was certainly a crazy adventure.
The PCT turned out to be more than just a trail. It was our home for 112 days. It gave me a family. It allowed me to grow stronger, more confident, and more appreciative of both the small treasures and vast wonders of life. The trail was a test for myself, an investment in myself, and a gift to myself.
Here are 107 things, big and small, I learned while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail:
1. Most people won’t answer you honestly when you ask them if you smell bad.
2. Soft cotton, showers, and filtered water should never be taken for granted.
3. A liter of water weighs 2.2 pounds.
4. Your nostrils and lips can get sunburned.
5. Patience, like a muscle, must be exercised to get stronger.
6. Always take more pictures of people than of landscapes.
7. ADAPTABILITY — Life on the Pacific Crest Trail is unpredictable at its core. When you go every day unsure of where you’ll sleep that night, you must assume a strong level of adaptability and flexibility for surprises, good and bad. I’m someone who likes to plan out things, and while I feel that characteristic helped me prepare for the trip, it was not particularly useful while hiking. So I learned to be flexible and adapt. Sometimes you find out that there’s a fire closure ahead of you and have to hitch around or do some road walking. Sometimes it’s about physically and mentally adapting to walking over a marathon every single day and learning to walk through the pain. And other times it’s watching everyone come together to help your friend do a video job interview at a small town cafe. It’s not about being ready for everything, it’s about being ready for anything.
8. Women are the more likely than men to break their tailbones. I learned this after flying down a bumpy, icy hill near Forester Pass followed by intensive WebMD research.
9. Your shoes will deteriorate to the point you literally start dreaming for new shoes to aid your aching feet.
10. By waving your trekking pole in front of your face, you can create a temporary force field so that little gnats won’t fly into your nose and eyes.
15. If you ever have the chance to summit Mt. Whitney, do it. And do it at 2:00am so you get to the peak in time for the sunrise. Trust me.
16. There’s no point in buying a $12 titanium spoon. The long plastic one will do just fine. Also if you lose your spoon, tent stakes can double as a pair of chopsticks.
17. Cherish every letter, phone call, or message you get from a friend or family member. Remember who is rooting you on when you want to cry because everything hurts and Canada seems so far away.
18. The SaveMart in Tahoe City is surprisingly expensive.
19. Unexpected joy can come from sitting in the parking lot of a Motel 6 eating an entire bag of salad with a spoon.
20. If you play guitar, make sure you know a few songs that everyone can sing along to.
21. If you tell a little girl that you eat two candy bars a day, her reaction will be priceless. I had this exchange with the daughter of a woman who gave us a ride into Lake Isabella. She was also relieved to finally sit with some hikers who knew the lyrics to her favorite Taylor Swift songs as they blasted on the radio.
22. Towns smell like soap and bacon.
23. A human being can survive solely on instant mashed potatoes and candy.
25. Dance a lot. Make it goofy. Use your poles as much as possible.
26. If your gear breaks (like your spikes just as you enter the Sierras), call the company, be courteous, and they might send you a free replacement.
27. If you are offered trail magic, accept it, say thank you, and let the person know they are a trail angel.
28. DISCIPLINE — It’s hard to not hit snooze when your alarm goes off at 5:00am each day. It’s hard to keep walking when your feet have gone numb. This trail can be lovely and wonderful, but it can be really hard at times. There’s a saying on trail, “Smiles not miles,” but honestly sometimes the reality is “Miles not smiles” when you’re trying to make it to Canada before October. Discipline to put in the work each day was fundamental to our success in reaching the border.
29. Riding in the back of a pickup truck is one of the most liberating feelings in the world, especially after you’ve already hiked over 30 miles that day.
30. Women have a much easier time hitching rides than men.
38. Some hikers like to think of the lightheadedness you get after blowing up your sleeping pad as a “free high.”
39. If you have committed a crime within the past seven years, Canada will not allow you to enter via the Pacific Crest Trail. DUIs are the most common crime based on a nonscientific study run by me.
40. Eat Snickers before 9:00am for an unmelted chocolate experience.
41. You can buy raw dough from pizzerias.
42. While difficult, it is possible to sleep next to a highway while 18-wheelers roar by all night.
43. People like to shoot signs in Oregon more so than they do in Washington.
44. Feet swell up when you stop walking.
45. HUMANITY — One of the biggest takeaways from hiking the Pacific Crest Trail was the fundamental goodness of humanity. People from all walks of life wanted to help us along our journey to Canada. I lost track of how many times complete strangers offered me rides, food, beer, water, prayers, hugs, and kind words. Trail magic was truly one of the most memorable parts of this trip. As refreshing as it was to drink a can of soda on trail, what I really appreciated was the energy and morale boost from receiving unconditional kindness from someone who just wanted to help. Paying it forward is more common than you think, and it shines a spotlight on the beauty of humanity.
46. Hot weather makes you lose your appetite.
47. Hiking through smoke for days gives you a sore throat, turns your eyes red, and makes your tent smell like a campfire.
48. Afternoon brandy is just like regular brandy except you drink it in the afternoon.
49. If your body needs more calories but you can’t stand the taste of peanut butter any longer, you can swallow a spoonful with water like a pill.
50. If a stranger finds you crouched in the candy aisle calculating on your phone to make sure you have enough calories for the next section, they will offer to buy you a six pack.
51. Marmots exist, and they are wonderful.
52. You should keep putting on sunscreen at least once a day even if your hiking buds tease you.
53. People can talk about their gear forever. Seriously. It never stops.
54. Even if you have zero mountaineering and river fording experience, you can cross the Sierras in the second highest ever recorded snow pack.
55. Apple Maps is currently mapping forest service roads. The irony is there is usually no cell service to use Apple Maps to navigate forest service roads. Also the drivers of the mapping vans don’t give rides to road-walking hikers.
56. Insects like some people more than others. I am the Snow White of insects.
57. When estimating one’s pack weight, some choose to not include the weight of beer.
58. People will lie and tell you Northern California is flat. Don’t believe them.
59. Steep ridge walks present an interesting challenge to female hikers who would like to pee but would rather not fall off a cliff in the process.
60. When backflushing your Sawyer water filter, tap it firmly on the edge of the sink. Learn to do this before Washington or else you will be disgusted with the quantity of black gunk coming out of your filter.
61. LAUGHTER — No amount of pain meds can make it as easy to get through the toughest of times as laughter. When it seems that just about everything has gone wrong, your best move is to laugh. Fortunately, I got to share these moments with the silliest, funniest people I know. When Indigo and I shared a tent in North Yosemite, we would make each other laugh at 4:00am. To get through the pain that comes with increased mileage in Northern California, we’d crack jokes about how our bodies might completely shutdown in protest if we told them we had 30 miles to do the next day. We made it through a snow storm in Washington by laughing over how deliriously cold we were, struggling to flick a lighter on because we couldn’t feel our hands. Laughter is absolutely essential to make it on the PCT.
62. Mice will eat your hat. Your favorite hat. Bastards.
64. If given the opportunity, your body can surprise you with how much it can do.
65. Never rely on water caches.
66. To some, trail mix is simply various sour candies mixed in a bag.
67. Hanging your food to keep it safe from bears always takes longer than you anticipate.
68. TEAMWORK — While hiking in a group is not necessary, we felt that it was critical to our safety and success through the Sierras. Indigo and I lucked out with our team and first trail family, Blis, Airplane Mode, and Happy Feet. Together, we strategized our mileages, worked together to cross rivers and make it over mountain passes, and stuck with each other, never leaving someone behind. We communicated clearly with each other and made decisions as a group. We made each other laugh, jumped into action if someone got hurt, and learned how to work as a team. I felt safe with my trail family which in turn helped me grow to be a more confident hiker and believe in myself when presented with tough challenges.
69. Seeing a dog provides you with a boost of energy.
70. If you’re lucky, you’ll only use your first aid alcohol wipes when fixing your gear.
71. The 2:00am Greyhound bus ride from Manning Park to Vancouver is laughably terrible.
72. Deer react to humans like humans react to rattlesnakes — slowly walking around the other with a wide radius while holding a look of terror and shock in their eyes.
73. Glissading is the act of sliding on your butt down a snowy mountain face to descend in a faster and more exciting fashion.
74. When you can’t afford to lose a single feather of down from your jacket, duct tape can patch up a hole.
75. Plastic food service gloves can provide a much needed waterproof layer to your gloves.
76. The “I” formation is a group technique used to cross high, fast moving rivers safely.
77. There’s no place on Earth where you are safe from being scolded for not watching Game of Thrones, including the Pacific Crest Trail.
78. Eventually you’ll get to the point at which it’s easier to sleep in your sweaty, dirty hiking clothes than it is to put on sweaty, dirty hiking clothes in the morning.
79. Ranger gossip is a popular topic of conversation. (Shoutout to Rangers Victor, Dario, and Marcel)
80. The scars you got in the Sierras will stay with you all the way to the Canadian border.
81. If you announce that this hour is Honesty Hour, people will become surprisingly open about their lives.
82. Trail names like Sultry Bear, Fat and Sassy, and Stupid Fucking Mustache are easier to recall than normal names.
83. A large flat rate USPS box costs $18.85 to send.
102. If you live in the woods for long enough, you eventually become what is called “hiker trash” and slowly forget about societal norms. For instance, you might forget that it’s not normal to clip your nails in public or become frustrated that you have to wait in line to use the restroom.
103. Civilization is white wine and fleeces.
104. If you’re desperate for new insoles, duct taping paper napkins for extra cushion can provide you with brief comfort until you reach a town.
105. If you hike long enough with someone, you will eventually be able to track their footprints.
106. The trail is magical and just might reunite you with most of your original trail family so you can all finish together.
107. FAITH — Years ago, a friend of mine shared a quote with me when I was going through a rough time: “Things work out in the end. If things aren’t working out, then it’s not the end.” I thought of this quote often while on the trail. I can’t think of a better place to believe in this sentiment than on the PCT. I can sometimes be an anxious person, but on the trail I gained faith that things work out. You’ll find the trail. You’ll get a hitch. You’ll make it across the river. You’ll ration your food out well. You’ll get new shoes soon. You’ll make it to Canada. You just have to have faith that it will happen.
There’s no way to “life hack” your way to an easy, breezy thru-hike, but these are some tips and tricks I learned along the way that might make trail life that much more wonderful, efficient, and tasty.
1. Sawyer Squeeze hack: If you have a Sawyer Squeeze, do yourself a huge favor and get this tiny adaptor piece. It allows you to screw your filter directly onto your clean water output. This way, you don’t have to carefully direct the filter into the bottle/bladder/whatever. You could even hold the whole contraption with one hand and keep hiking.
2. Conserve energy with a watch: By using a simple watch alarm, you can save a boatload of energy by keeping your phone off instead of using it as an alarm clock. Less energy you need = less battery weight you need to carry.
4. Leukotape > Duct tape: Duct tape is no match to the strength of Leukotape. Broken gear? Leukotape. Unruly blisters? Leukotape. Your microspikes break right before the most dangerous, snowy pass? MacGyver them back onto your shoes with, you guessed it, Leukotape.
5. Rip your bandana in half: First off, ladies, if you’re not already using a pee rag, get on that. It will change your life. This tip is just to note that you only need half a bandana for your pee rag and half a bandana for your sweat rag. Buy one bandana for both and save a buck at the Dollar General.
6. Rubber band organization: Bring a rubber band to keep your pot, lid, stove, and lighter together. Otherwise, these things are flying around the inside of your pack and chaos quickly ensues.
7. Cut off your tags: It seems silly, but cut off all your clothing, tent, backpack tags. I saved almost 1/4 lb doing this. Every ounce counts!
8. Location, location, location: Keep your sunscreen in an easily accessible spot so that you’re more likely to use it at least once a day. You’re more likely to develop skin cancer than fall off a mountain. This tip also applies to snacks.
9. Double-bag the Deet: Put your bug spray inside TWO durable plastic bags. Once that stuff leaks, it is a nightmare to clean and everything will smell like chemicals. I also recommend storing it on the outside of your pack to to make doubly sure you have no risk of Deet-ing up your sleeping bag.
Tucked away in the mountains surrounding Sonoma Valley, CA is Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, a 90 minute ride away from the East Bay.
I was yearning to finally get out camping in April for my first trip since completing the Pacific Crest Trail. There were two reasons why I chose to do an overnight trip in Sugarloaf:
I’m fairly certain it was the last non-ADA campsite available in the state of California when I was trying to book for the weekend.
It provided a unique opportunity to see the regrowth of the North Bay following the expansive wildfires that occured back in fall.
I had originally planned to go on a secluded solo overnight backpacking trip, but when nature was apparently already booked, I decided to snag the last campsite in the state of California (probably) and do my first bout of car-camping since high school.
Sugarloaf boasts over 25 miles of hiking trails in the mountains between the Sonoma and Napa Valleys. They have a visitor’s center, campgrounds (with fire pits and picnic tables) with bathrooms, potable water, and showers, and even an observatory. Compared to my PCT adventure, this was an amenity-packed trip.
I arrived at Sugarloaf on a Saturday at around 12:20 p.m. As you might be aware, this area was hit hard with wildfires back in fall. Driving up to the park gates, you could see the large swathes of land that had been charred by the fires, which was a stark contrast to the vibrant green grass that saturated the landscape.
The park was bustling at that point in the day, but friendly park volunteers were eager to check me in and show me popular trails on the map. It was clear they were excited to have so many folks come enjoy the park as they had recently reopened after restoration efforts following the fires. I was amused when one of the volunteers offered to sell me firewood without a tinge of irony in her voice.
After I parked my car in Campsite 29, I was eager to hit the trails. I walked to the day parking lot where the Lower Bald Mountain Trail began. As I ascended, the lush, springtime greenery was quickly contrasted with the blackened trees, charred from last year’s wildfires. I couldn’t get over how fascinating it was to see the leaveless, charcoal black trees tucked away in the vibrancy of the new life. On the Pacific Crest Trail, we had oftentimes walked through burn areas, but the life and death was never as intermingled as it was in Sugar Loaf.
After a little over half a mile on trail, I came to the junction at Bald Mountain trail, which was technically a service road. I wouldn’t walk on a proper trail for the rest of the day. From this vista point, I looked back to where I had started. In true Napa/Sonoma fashion, I could spot grape vines on a hill to the south.
The service road went up and up, winding around the mountains. I stopped at another burned tree to touch it. My hands soon became covered in ash. A very fresh burn. I wondered what this land would look like in a year, five years, ten years.
Pretty soon, I had made it to the top of Bald Mountain. I hadn’t researched the mountain, but now I gained that the mountain may have gotten its name due to the lack of foliage at the top. I dropped my pack and sat overlooking the views while eating the sandwich I had packed for lunch.
Since I had made it to the highest point in the park before 2:00 p.m., I decided to venture to what was marked as Red Barn about 1.5 miles from the top of Bald Mountain. To get to Red Barn, I walked on more service roads, but there was not another soul to be found. I had the trail all to myself, so I spent time singing out loud. If you venture down to Red Barn, I highly recommend climbing on the rocks on the right of the trail. I stood all the way on the highest point and nearly got knocked down by the wind. A fun time for sure!
Pretty soon I realized why no one was on this route. It basically went down the entire time – pretty steep at some points, too. I had forgotten my trekking poles at home, so I had to be careful to not lose my footing on the loose service road gravel.
After about 45 minutes, I made it to Red Barn which was a literal red barn. It looked like it had been abandoned long ago. The light going through the gaps between the old, wood walls was mesmerizing. I spent some time here taking a break in the shade and enjoying the peacefulness of this spot.
At this point, I was starting to run out of water, but luckily for me, humans tend to build structures near water sources. I took note of this and listened for a water source. I found a stream flowing nicely about a hundred feet down, where I took some time to filter water (#alwaysbringyourwaterfilter). All hydrated up, I set back to walk up the steep service road to the junction from where I had started on Bald Mountain.
Back on top of Bald Mountain, I took Gray Pine Trail with the intention of going all the way out to Brushy Peaks Trail. I was making such good time that day that I set a goal of hiking all the trails in the state park (I would not end up hitting this goal). Gray Pine Trail was another service road that winded through the greenery along a ridge. There were some spectacular views of the park and its surrounding area.
Pretty soon, I came to understand that my goal of hiking on all the trails would be infeasible as the wildfires had caused the park to close off several of the trails. Brushy Peaks Trail would have to wait for another time.
The day started to cool off as I slowly made my way down Gray Pine Trail back towards camp. There were even some creek crossings, but nothing that forced me to get my shoes wet. My feet and legs were starting to show their first signs of fatigue, so I was happy to make my way back, especially as the sun started to get low in the sky.
As I was quietly eating my dinner and reading a book, a guttural scream erupted from another nearby campsite.
I looked over to see a dozen or so 12-year-old boys piling out of a van. They were teeming with energy from their ride to the campsite. Screaming, playing, cajoling each other. It was LOUD.
At first, I briefly became annoyed that these kids were going to disrupt the peacefulness of my evening. But soon I found myself instead grateful that I was not chaperoning their trip. I had done several overnight camping trips as a summer camp counselor, so I knew first hand how much work it took to set up those giant tents, cook dinner for ravenous kids, and eventually quiet them down. I was grateful to just spend time with myself reading.
Tired from my work week and the day’s adventures, I read for a few hours and found myself falling asleep at 8:40 p.m.
I woke up naturally to the morning light in my tent at around 7:20 a.m. The campgrounds were quiet. Not needing to go anywhere fast, I lazily read in my sleeping bag until the sun cooked my tent, and I felt the urge to get out. It had been a while since I had hiked double digit miles, so my body felt a bit sore. Because of that, I resolved to do a short hike down to the waterfalls and head out before noon.
After packing up my tent, I ate a simple breakfast of apples and almond butter while watching the camp boys emerge from their tents and start a pick up game of baseball. I even broke out my old cold soak jar from the PCT (my Talenti gelato jar) and made my favorite Trader Joe’s instant coffee.
To get to the waterfalls, you walk back to the entrance kiosk by the visitor’s center to start on the Pony Gate Trail. It travels up through a grassy valley and then weaves back down into the tree cover. Pretty soon, you cross the main road to get to the waterfall trail.
The waterfall trail descends on the south side of the main road, running parallel to the creek. There wasn’t a clear sign telling you which offshoot trail to take, so after 15 minutes or so of descending, I decided to turn left towards the creek.
I quickly found myself at the base of the waterfall. It was still pretty early, so no one else was there. I played on some of the rocks and sat listening to its roar. When I felt satiated, I walked back up to the main waterfall trail and backtracked my way to the visitor’s center.
Packed up and ready to go, I said goodbye to the park and thanked the park volunteers (always thank the park volunteers) for my stay.
Sugarloaf State Ridge Park is a lovely little state park in North Bay. It was such a unique experience to walk among the burn area during such a high bloom time in mid-April. The green hills will soon turn to golden hills in the summer, but either way, I highly recommend taking a brief reprieve from the city to spend a day or night out in this area.
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. I do not intend to act as a doctor. This is not medical advice. This is not even a first aid class. This is just my account of what I brought in my first aid kit on the Pacific Crest Trail. It worked out for me, but the same combination of items may not work out for you.
A first aid kit should be designed for its stated purpose: providing the first aid you use in an injury or illness before full medical treatment is available. So the key with first aid kits on trail is that they should have the essentials while not acting as a mini-hospital. You have to carry everything after all.
You’ll note just by glancing at the contents of my first aid kit that a lot of the items were in fact more for comfort than for emergency medical situations. While you are going out into the wilderness, you are usually not very far from civilization, especially if you carry a GPS device (like the SPOT or Delorme InReach) that allows you to push an SOS button to request a medical helicopter. I did not carry one, but I often hiked with others who did.
When I put together my kit, I was fairly minimalistic (and optimistic). Some factors worked in my favor: I only got three blisters on trail, the only bone (I am 99% sure) I broke was my tailbone for which there’s really no treatment according to my rigorous on-trail WebMD research, and I am young which is quite beneficial for a long distance trek. You’ll also notice that my first aid kit was also my repair kit and hygiene kit. No need to separate little, loose items.
What Was in My First Aid Kit
A bag full of pills
Ah, my bag of loose pills. My little treasure trove. The three main pills I carried were Tylenol, ibuprofen, and Benadryl. I carried the Tylenol (AKA “tylie”) for when the pain every day became intense in NorCal with our long miles. I carried ibuprofen for the same reason, but used it less frequently because it wasn’t quite as effective as Tylenol. I carried Benadryl for any allergic reactions that might happen on trail. The little pink pills became very useful when I discovered an allergy to Juniper trees on the second day.
Campho-Phenique is the most effective antidote to mosquito bites, and I will fight anyone who challenges me on this. I carried this little miracle worker the entire time. I should be hired as their spokesperson because I am radically supportive of this product. It comes in both a liquid form (as shown in the bottle) as well as a cream form. I started with the cream form and when that ran out, I picked up a bottle. They don’t sell the cream form (which is lighter than the liquid form) on trail, as far as I could tell. The best way to use Campho is to apply it directly to the skin as soon as you notice you’ve been bitten by a mosquito. If applied early on, you will hardly notice it. I am very sensitive to mosquito bites and often would have large, swollen areas of itchiness. I did not have this effect if I applied Campho, even a few hours after the immediate bite. I 100% recommend this product if you are sensitive to mosquito bites.
I picked up a bottle of probiotics when I was having digestion problems in the Sierra section. I would take one every day. I’m not sure if it helped all that much, but I liked the idea of taking in some good bacteria considering all the garbage food I was putting into my body day after day. I would also recommend eating yogurt when you are in town.
I carried Neosporin antibiotic ointment in the event that I got an open wound or was doing blister treatment. Scratches and cuts on your legs were common in the Sierra section when we had to climb over fallen trees. When I used to pop and draw out the fluid in blisters, I cleaned the area with alcohol wipes and Neosporin.
Alcohol wipes serve two purposes: first aid and equipment repair. When I got a particularly rough cut climbing over fallen trees, I would clean the wound with alcohol wipes. Honestly though, my legs were so cut up that I usually just left them to scab over. I only used a couple alcohol wipes for larger gashes. Alcohol wipes are also used to clean the area around broken gear, so that the adhesive of Tenacious Tape (see below) or other repair tape would adhere properly.
This is the repair kit that comes with a Therm-a-rest inflatable pad. In the event that there is a hole in your pad, you can patch over it with the contents of this kit. I never used it, but I figured it was worth carrying.
Sewing up broken gear is a common occurrence, especially several hundred miles in when your gear may be worse for wear. I acquired these needles and thread from a zipper repair kit that ended up being useless in the task of repairing my tent zipper. I tossed the zipper replacements and kept the needles and thread. They were useful when I had to sew up my gaiters a few times.
I would not hike without a back-up water treatment tool. Water-borne illnesses are common on trail, namely Giardia. In the event that I lost or broke my main water treatment, my Sawyer Squeeze, I would be able to use these iodine tablets to treat my water. Pro tip for anyone who is getting really nuts about weight: Do not take iodine tablets out of the glass bottle. I thought I could cut weight by putting them into a plastic bag and it ended up causing my desk to become discolored.
Half hygiene / half repair. I flossed religiously on trail. Some might see that as super weird, but I kept up my dental hygiene because it seemed to be the only hygiene I could keep up on trail. In fact, I think my teeth had never been cleaner. If you are out of thread, you can also use floss to repair gear. I hear it’s actually stronger than thread.
Half of a toothbrush (not pictured)
First off, sawing off half your toothbrush is a very fun pre-hike chore. You can brush your teeth with half a toothbrush just fine. If that’s not your jam, others often carried a child-sized toothbrush.
Put on your sunscreen. Save your skin. You are probably more likely to develop skin cancer than fall off a mountain side. I put on sunscreen every day, often twice a day. I carried a 3 oz bottle that I refilled.
Fun fact: Your lips can get sunburned. I recommend getting a lip balm with SPF protection so you don’t have trouble falling asleep because your lips hurt so much. I used this product and was very happy with it.
This tape is the most common repair tape on trail. It is most often used to patch up holes. I used Tenacious Tape to repair my tent when it ripped at the base and zipper area, as well as when I ripped my rain pants when glissading.
What Should Have Been in My First Aid Kit (kind of…)
Honestly, I was fine. I was apparently not very injury-prone (and very, very, very grateful for that).
Here is a list of other items that were commonly found in others’ first aid kits:
Leukotape is an extremely sticky tape that works well both as a first aid tape and repair tape. Its superpower is that it can even stick to sweaty, sandy feet for blister protection. Regular athletic tape isn’t up to par. I also saw it being used by one of my trail family members to Macgyver his microspikes back together right before we ascended our most technically challenging and dangerous Sierra pass, Mather Pass.
I saw people carry way more alcohol wipes than I did. My hiking partner experienced awful blisters, especially at the beginning, so she wasn’t constantly cleaning and treating her blisters. You probably should pack more than three at a time.
This was actually something my hiking partner carried, and she used it on our fourth day. Ever slammed the back of your head into a Joshua tree? You bleed profusely! I honestly don’t know what we would have done without this seemingly overzealous first aid kit item. It worked like a charm. I don’t know the exact product she had, but here is an example.
I actually carried some of these for a while at the beginning, and then they crushed into a fine powder amongst the other loose pills. In the event you get Giardia on trail, I’d imagine these would be helpful.
Before hiking 1,833.3 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, I was by no means an avid backpacker. I had a total of four backpacking trips under my belt before taking my first steps on the PCT, three of which were overnight ventures. Basically what I had going for me was a decent fitness base, a naive yet much-needed sense of confidence, and the willingness to read practically every blogpost about gear, resupply strategies, and how to use an ice axe.
So with this piece, I thought I’d start to pay it forward and offer personal experience with my gear. I tried using only pictures I took while on the trail, so you can see it in action. Hopefully someone as inexperienced and gleefully excited as I was will gain something from this.
If you are looking for a specific gear recommendation, I suggest you ctrl/command-f (find) to jump to what you want to see (e.g. “base layer” or “water filter”) as this is a lengthy post that took me hours to put together.
Before we get into it, I highly recommend you use Honey and Priceblink extensions to help you find the best prices when shopping online. Also always check eBay! I was able to save over $800 off the MSRP of the gear I bought using these tools.
Why I loved it: So in total honesty, I originally planned to go with my Osprey Aura AG 50L, but about a week before our start date, I freaked out about how heavy that pack was and made an impulse buy on the ULA Circuit. And, I’m so happy I did! The Osprey is great for carrying heavy loads comfortably, but at over 4lbs it is unnecessarily heavy for a thru-hike (or a 1,833.3 mile section hike). My ULA Circuit, lovingly nicknamed “My Sweet Burden,” was perfect for what I was carrying, around a 15lb base weight including the pack. In the Sierra section, it initially was a bit uncomfortable with the additional snow gear and eight days of food, but the temporary discomfort is by no means a dealbreaker. Additionally, it is durable as hell. I dropped this pack roughly on the ground the whole hike, and no major parts broke. The fabric is tough, the straps are big enough that they won’t rip, and the mesh never tore on me. I did somehow shatter a cord stopper on the back, but the ULA company is awesome and sent me a replacement part for free when I got home. This is not an “ultra-light” pack, but if you’re not obsessed with shaving grams and want something that will last longer than a ZPacks Arc Blast, I wholeheartedly recommend the ULA Circuit.
Why I loved it: It was mad comfortable, and it was light. Sleep is absolutely precious, especially on the PCT, and this pad was amazing to lay on after a long day. If you’re a side sleeper, this one is for you. There were complaints about it causing loud, crinkly noise whenever you moved. I didn’t mind that, but your hiking friends might. It does take a minute or two to blow up, but the minor chore was totally worth the comfort. If you hate blowing things up, there is a 2.3 oz pump available, and it sounds like a tiny vacuum cleaner. Final thought on this pad: it takes up very little space in your pack.
Prices paid: $29.95 for the stove; $28.99 for the pot (both eBay finds)
Why I loved them: Going stoveless is an option that many people choose to do on trail, but I anticipated that I’d love a hot meal at the end of the day. With that in mind, I tried to get the lightest cooking set I could possibly get. This stove is amazing — so simple, so fast, so light. Unlike some other stoves, there is no spark feature, so you have to bring a lighter. Not a huge deal. This pot was also amazing. Titanium is one the lightest metals out there, and I also found that it retained heat really well. Like so well that I would routinely burn my tongue because I was too hungry and impatient to wait for my food to cool down. Because of how expensive titanium is, the pot is pretty pricey, so I recommend you scour a used one on eBay to save money like I did.
Why I loved it: This case saved my phone when I fell in a creek, the phone fell out of my hip belt pocket, and I spent a full two minutes trying to find my completely submerged phone. I was stunned to find it still fully functional with absolutely no water damage. You really want a heavy duty phone case on trail. Everything gets dirty, sandy, and wet, your phone included.
Why I loved it: I never ran out of power. Now let me qualify this by saying I was using my phone conservatively, and I didn’t have to charge other electronics like a camera or GPS device. My phone was always on airplane mode, I only used it to take 5–15 pictures a day, listen to music/podcasts, and navigate maps, and I turned it off at night and used my watch as an alarm. If you do these things, the Anker PowerCore 10000 will work for you. My only complaint is that it does take a long time to fully charge, but, on the flip side, it charges my phone faster than public outlets.
Weight: N/A because you’re not really carrying your poles
Price paid: $89.58
Why I loved them: These are super durable poles. When you’re hiking through snow and sometimes putting your full weight on your poles, you want something that will not break. These didn’t break. Also I am clumsy and definitely stepped on these a bunch of times. Didn’t break. The cork grip was a huge plus on hot, sweaty days. Black plastic foam grips would likely rub off on your hands, but the cork did not. Poles are also a great place to stash your duct tape, a must-have repair item.
Prices paid: $48.49 – $76.00 (I purchased four pairs before the hike)
Why I loved them: Honestly it’s hard to put shoes in the “Love” category since I associate them with sore feet, but these shoes worked out well for me. Foot pain and soreness is just a factor of the PCT, but I believe that’s more to do with the fact you’re walking over a marathon a day rather than wearing these specific shoes. The benefits of Altras, which are undoubtedly the most popular shoe on trail, include how light they are compared to traditional hiking boots, how quickly they dry (very important when you are crossing multiple creeks every day in the Sierra), and their zero-drop design which is more minimalistic than a shoe with a raised heel. I highly recommend you find an insole to replace their factory one as I found the material wore down to almost nothing after 500 or so miles.This is the insole I used. You’ll want to replace these shoes after 400–700 miles of use. Another perk of the Altra Lone Peak: They have a gaiter trap on the back which is a piece of velcro so you don’t have to superglue your own velcro to your shoes.
Why I loved it: This bra is so freaking comfortable. When hiking, small-chested women like me don’t really need the support of a traditional sports bra. This bra is soft, has no clasps, and never caused me chafing. Also, I could easily swim in it.
Why I loved them: They were tough (I only got holes in the final days of the trail). They were not too hot. And they have an unconditional warranty. This means that if/when your socks get holes or get too thin, Darn Tough will take back old pairs and give you new socks for free. On trail, there are many retailers that do this in-person.
Price paid: $0.00 (this was a gift from my wonderful brother)
Why I loved it: Is it a headband? Is it an eyeshade? Is it something you can you use hold down an emergency blood-clotting bandage when your hiking partner stabs her head on a Joshua tree? The buff is all of the above and more. This is a great piece of equipment that you can use for just about anything.
Why I loved them: These were my go-to pants for just about anything on trail. I used them when glissading to keep my butt from freezing. I used them at camp to protect my legs against bugs. I used them when it was raining and snowing in Washington. I used them when crossing frigid, thigh-deep creeks at 6am in the Sierra. I used them when packing up camp in the morning when it was too cold to just wear my shorts. I used them when I was washing all my other clothing in town. Aside from my daily hiking outfit, this was probably my most-used piece of clothing. Also, they are ridiculously light.
14. MY BABY WIPES: Literally any baby wipes I could find in town
Weight: Who cares about weight? These are worth their weight in gold, my friend.
Price paid: IDK, a few dollars for a pack of 25 every few hundred miles
Why I loved them: Okay, so I may have been more hygiene-focused than the average thruhiker, but baby-wiping my face, neck, and feet made me feel so good at the end of the day. Also in hot, dusty, sweaty Northern California, I developed a foot rash from being dirty all the time. Airing out my feet at lunch, washing my socks, and baby-wiping my feet before I went to sleep helped cure my rash. Baby wipes forever. Don’t listen to the haters.
Why I loved it: I cooked the majority of my meals, but sometimes it was easier to cold soak my dinner so that I could eat and then crawl into bed or get back to hiking. Also, this jar was my coffee cup at lunch. Oh, and a great vessel to store wild huckleberries. I ❤ my Talentini jar.
Why I loved it: I thought the idea of paying $12 for a fancy, titanium spoon was ridiculous – maybe even more ridiculous than deciding to hike the PCT in the first place. So I opted to buy this cheap, plastic spoon from REI instead. I loved how long it was (7 in.) so I could reach deep into my pot and the occasional Backpacker’s Pantry pack without getting my hands dirty (or get my food dirty with my gross hands). Sure, it’s 0.4 oz heavier than a titanium alternative, but I am not that stir-crazy when it comes to grams. It did melt a tiny bit if I left it at the bottom of my cooking pot, but that wasn’t an issue.
Why I loved it: I used this knife practically every day. I liked having a knife to cut loose threads, cheese, and Knorr’s rice sides packages, the scissors to cut my nails and blister skin, the file to file down my nails after cutting them, and the tweezers to pluck my eyebrows when I got to town because I love plucking my eyebrows. I always kept it handy in the hipbelt pocket of my bag. It also comes with a toothpick, but I never found a use for that.
18. MY HAT: Cal running hat
Price paid: Preowned
Why I loved it: This hat just holds a lot of sentimental value for me. I think it’s good to have a piece of gear that makes you think about a nice memory or your home. Clearly, I went to Cal (go bears), and I bought this hat after my freshman orientation. I wear it on almost every run I do and it’s been with me to the Grand Canyon, D.C., and Vietnam, so of course, I wanted to take it with me on the PCT. The velcro strap in the back was broken before I started, so I fashioned a safety pin to hold it together (side note: carry a safety pin for popping blisters). I was certain the hat would disintegrate by the time we got to the border, but, the mice who ate the back of it be damned, it made it, and I still wear it on my runs. My god, it smelled terrible when we finished, though.
Why I loved them: They are a simple, lightweight tool to keep dirt, rocks, and snow out of your shoes (also, I loved my design). Dirty Girl gaiters are very common on the PCT, and there are dozens, if not hundreds, of designs to choose from. So they are a great conversation starter, especially when you find your gaiter twin. They did develop a hole at one point and I had to re-sew my velcro patch in the back, but overall, these did a great job on trail for me. Make sure you measure your calves according to the website. I saw some people that had too loose gaiters, and it didn’t look like they were as effective.
Why I loved them: These pairs of underwear are really comfortable, lightweight, and they honestly never felt super dirty – even after several days of use. To keep things fresh, I would wash a pair every two days in a creek by hand and strap them to my pack to dry in the sunlight, like I did with my socks every day.
Price paid: Preowned for the Patagonia pair; gifted from Blis in Burney Falls, CA
Why I loved them: I loved the thick Patagonia pair because they really kept my feet warm during cold nights. On especially cold nights, I would wear a pair of my regular hiking socks underneath them. I also loved the cheap, lightweight pair of ankle socks that Blis gave me when he bought a pack of them at a drugstore in Burney Falls, CA. This was an especially hot section on the PCT, and these socks were great for nights where I couldn’t fathom wearing thick socks, but I still wanted a barrier between my dirty feet and my sleeping bag. I never hiked in either of these pairs of socks so that they never got very dirty or wet.
23 and 24. my sweat rag and my pee rag: Two halves of a ripped bandana
Weight: 0.5 oz x 2
Price paid: $1 for one bandana (dollar store purchase)
Why I loved them: Sweat rags and pee rags (if you’re a woman) are crucial for the trail. At the very start of the trail, I both didn’t have a sweat rag and had an allergic reaction, so I was forced to wipe my snot on my shirt for four days. It was nasty to say the least. Having a rag to wipe sweat and snot was a gamechanger. I tied my sweat rag (half bandana) to my left side strap, so I could grab it very easily. You only need half of a bandana for this rag. Additionally, having a pee rag (also only need half) was lifechanging. I tied it to the back of my pack to dry (and sterilize) in the sun and made sure to only use the bottom half for its purpose. I would wash both of these rags in town or a creek pretty regularly.
Why I liked it: It was very easy to set up, even in sandy, rocky terrain. Others who did not have freestanding tents would sometimes have trouble pitching their tents, whereas I never had issues. The two-person size is ideal for one person who does not want to feel like they’re sleeping in a coffin. I was able to lay out my gear inside my tent and still have space to sleep. But, when we needed to make it a two-person set up, we could squeeze two people in there. Also, it’s definitely not the lightest shelter out there, but I thought it was pretty darn light.
Why I didn’t like it: It wasn’t as durable as some other shelters. I got a hole at the foot of the tent while setting it up one night, and my zippers deteriorated over the course of the hike. (I will note that Big Agnes has totally hooked me up now that I’m off trail, and they sent me a replacement tent because the zippers were totally broken. Great customer service.) I also envied my hiking friends’ cuban fiber tents since they didn’t have to throw over an extra rain fly on a wet night. Finally, some might find the door’s location awkward, but I didn’t think it was that big of a deal.
Why I liked it: I had never hiked in a long sleeve, collared shirt before, but I wanted something that protected my skin from the sun. This shirt was great for that as it has a 30+ UPF rating. The collar also helped to protect my neck when I popped it up. Additionally, despite it being long sleeve, I was rarely too hot in this shirt, and I found it to be quite breathable. It was also quick-drying which is important when you are the queen of back sweat or when you try to do “laundry” in a river. I would routinely lay out this shirt in the sun at lunch to dry it.
Why I didn’t like it: I’m not the most fashionable person, but this is not the nicest shirt to look at. Also this is not the shirt’s fault, but as I lost weight, it became very baggy on me.
Why I liked it: This is a fairly lightweight headlamp for its brightness and price. Also the red light feature was great for saving battery power and not blinding you early in the morning.
Why I didn’t like it: I was disappointed with how often I had to change out the batteries. Supposedly on this headlamp, an indicator light will turn on when it’s time to change the batteries, but I found I had to put fresh ones in earlier because the light got so dim. In retrospect, I should have bit the bullet and gone with a more expensive, rechargeable headlamp.
Why I liked it: It is an incredibly lightweight rain jacket, and keeps you pretty dry. Pretty dry is about as dry as you can hope to be when it’s raining on the PCT. Also, I got the men’s version because they were having a sale, but I ended up appreciating the sizing. The sleeves were long on me which added more coverage and the waist was tighter which kept me drier and was useful as I lost weight. Also the color is bomb!
Why I didn’t like it: The hood. The hood is dumb. Unlike a normal rain jacket which tightens around the front of your face, this jacket hood tightens by pulling it towards the back of your head. I could never keep the hood on when it was windy.
Why I liked them: These glasses protected my eyes incredibly well in the Sierra when we were staring at bright white snow all day. They’re not polarized, but they have 100% UV protection. I also appreciated the wrap design because it prevented light from entering on the sides.
Why I didn’t like them: The design is super sporty and makes you look like the Terminator. I always made a point of taking them off when hitchhiking so I didn’t look threatening.
Why I liked them: The microspikes are great for giving you traction on icy, snowy slopes. I have no idea how I could have done the Sierra mountain passes without these. Also they could be worn on granite rock which was a major plus because the Sierra Nevadas are just that: snow and granite. People with crampons had to take them on and off a lot more than we did.
Why I didn’t like them: The rubber broke on my and my friend’s pair. The traction we got from the spikes was vital when doing dangerous passes, so this gear failure was not welcomed. But, I will note that when I called Kahtoola and let them know that this happened, they immediately sent me and my friend new pairs of microspikes.
Why I liked it: Overall, I was satisfied with the filter. Compared to pump filters and iodine tablets, it is a much more convenient system – pretty much as convenient as it can get. It would take me about five minutes to filter a liter of water (as best as I can recall). Plus it was fairly light and small. I also paired it with this adaptor piece (HIGHLY RECOMMEND THIS EXTRA PURCHASE) so I could screw the output side of my filter directly on to my water bladders and bottles and not have to worry about delicately holding it in place (see this video for a better display of what I mean).
Pro tips for the Sawyer Squeeze: Not only should you backflush routinely (every time you go into town is a good rate), but you should tap the filter on the side of a sink after doing so to get out all the gunk that has built up inside of this. It makes it filter faster, and you won’t be horrified like me in WA when you learn how to do this and a swamp of black muck comes out of your filter. Here’s a video of how to backflush using a Smartwater bottle.
Why I didn’t like it: Eventually it became very slow (probably due to me not tapping it against a sink when I backflushed). Also, you need to sleep with it if you anticipate below freezing weather at night because the water inside of it can freeze, expand, and shatter the filtration system. There is no way for you to know if this has happened. Finally, the washers that create a seal to the input side of the bladder can get lost easily, especially if you screw your input side directly on to a Smartwater bottle. Be warned: carry an extra (I hear they sell them at hardware stores).
I carried 2 Evernew 2L bladders and 5 1L Smartwater bottles with me when we started in Tehachapi – this is too much water by the way (you drink a liter every 3-4 miles depending on the weather, plus more for camp and cooking). Eventually, I dropped a water bladder and 3 Smartwater bottles (total storage capacity 4L). I had to replace my water bladder twice.
Why I liked them: Both of brands of water bladders are fairly durable. I liked the Evernew ones slightly better because it had the cap on a leash (d o n o t l o s e y o u r c a p), but they were effectively the same product in my opinion. Smartwater bottles are great because they are very durable and slender, so I could put one in my front strap water bottle ties and keep for easy access all day. I highly recommend you pair a Smartwater 1L bottle with the cap from its 0.75 L brethren so you can use the active sport flip cap.
Why I didn’t like them: The water bladders break, unlike Smartwater bottles. Also the cap on the Platypus is easy to lose.
I used my 15L one to stuff my sleeping bag, the 10L one to store my extra clothing (which I used as a pillow), and the 2.5L one to store my wallet and electronics.
Weight: 1.9 oz for the 15L; 1.7 oz for the 10L; 1 oz for the 2.5L
Price paid: $13.21 for the 15L; $17.02 for the 10L; $12.50 for the 2.5L
Why I liked them: Light, waterproof when not torn (see below), easy to roll and clasp. Plus, the different colors, helped me differentiate them. Also, you can machine wash these if you want them to dazzle.
Why I didn’t like them: Unfortunately, my 15L and 10L got rips in them somehow early on into my hike. I tried to patch them up with duct tape, but it didn’t seal them. In hindsight, I should have patched them with Tenacious Tape, which is a must-have item in your repair kit.
Why I liked them: They were cozy!! The shirt was already one of my favorite winter running shirts, and I knew I’d love the soft, warm fabric at night. I ended up hiking in this shirt once we got to Washington because my Sahara shirt was too cold. This wouldn’t have been a good hiking shirt for the previous sections because it would have been way too hot. I also loved the bottoms because they were very soft and warm as well. I ended up sending these home in NorCal because it was too hot to sleep in them and having them sent back to me in Washington.
Why I didn’t like them: They were heavy. I could have gone for something lighter, but I really did like these pieces and didn’t want to spend more money.
Weight: 1.6 oz for the SmartLoft; 1.3 oz for the generic fleece gloves
Price paid:SmartLoft were preowned; ~$25 for the fleece gloves
Why I liked them: I used the SmartLoft gloves exactly once over the course of almost 1,000 miles before sending them back home in hot, hot, hot Northern California. On that one day I used them in the Sierra section, it was nice to have them, but not necessary. The reason why I switched to the fleece gloves in Washington is because I’m an idiot and thought I still wouldn’t need them in Washington … where it ended up snowing on us. I was extremely glad I picked up these fleece gloves in Leavenworth, WA before that snow storm.
Why I didn’t like them: I had no issues with the SmartLoft gloves because I only used them once, and they did fine. The fleece gloves did cause me trouble. They weren’t waterproof, which was a major issue during the rain and snow. Plus, they started to develop holes quite soon after I bought them.
Why I liked them: During the Sierra section, we were crossing creeks multiple times a day and trekking through snow. So our feet were constantly wet for a couple weeks. I really enjoyed having something else to wear around camp after a long day. My feet were like raisins from being wet all day, so I think it was healthy to air them out during the evening. Plus, these are a very lightweight pair of sandals.
Why I didn’t like them: After the Sierra section, I didn’t really need them anymore since my feet were no longer always wet. It was still nice to change into something besides my hiking shoes at the end of the day, but it was a luxury I didn’t want to carry any longer, so I sent them home in Northern California.
Why I liked it: It was a relief to put this on when gnats were attacking my mouth, eyes, and ears. Interestingly enough, I never used this when there were mosquitos because it was truly the gnats that came out in full force. Plus, this is an incredibly light piece of gear, so why not carry it?
Why I didn’t like it: Bugs could still get right up to your ear outside the net. Using my hat bill helped them not be able to reach my eyes and mouth.
Why I liked it: It felt super badass to carry an ice axe, and it’s like your seat belt when walking on steep, snowy mountain faces. I also found it was useful when clearing the snow to set up my tent. REI has good information on how to size yourself for an ice axe. You’ll want a straight, not curved axe. I also recommend getting a leash with your ice axe so you don’t lose it if you drop it.
Why I didn’t like it: It was just one more heavy thing we had to carry in the Sierra section.
Why I liked it: Um. It kept bears from eating my food.
Why I didn’t like it: It was bulky, heavy, and a pain to open (I’m just really bad at opening them). If you have a ULA Circuit, I found the best way to store it was to put my tent into it during the day and keep my food in a separate bag in my pack. Then after dinner, I would put my food back in the canister. I know what you’re going to say: “But then then bears smell food on your tent!!” Yes. Well, you try putting 8 days of food strapped to the top of your pack. It was my best option.
Price paid: $0 (the watch arrived with a factory defect, so the eBay seller gave me a full refund, and I was able to fix it myself)
Why I liked it: I think it is absolutely crucial to bring a watch with you on the trail. I looked at my watch multiple times a day, which would have been annoying if I had to take out my phone each time. Plus it had an alarm feature that allowed me to not drain my phone battery at night.
Why I didn’t like it: It had a weird “chime” setting that would make the watch beep every hour. I accidentally turned it on a bunch of times when trying to set my alarm. It was very annoying when I realized it was on at 10pm (waaaaay past hiker midnight).
Why I loathed them: It’s not the shorts’ fault. I’m the dumbass who bought shorts that were clearly too big for me at the start and way too big for me at the end. I had to roll the waistband twice and tie the string as tight as possible. Don’t be like me and buy shorts that fit you.
That’s it. I didn’t loathe anything else. I very meticulously researched and tried out my gear, like you probably are now, and it worked out pretty good for me.
WHY GEAR DOESN’T REALLY MATTER
Warning: Controversial take ahead
Look. Your gear is not walking thousands of miles. You are. Your strength of will is what is going to take you to Canada. Not your fancy, -4 oz sleeping bag.
Try not to sweat these details too much. Everything will work out. I promise.
Nature is great for looking at and listening to and smelling and shouting into its abyss. However, when you are hiking for 10-14 hours a day, week after week, its calming, awe-inspiring effects tend to wear off. In short, we become used to our surroundings and will eventually crave new stimuli.
So this post is about what I listened to in order to fight off boredom, as well as a few helpful tips.
Music is highly personal, so I won’t dive too deep into my own music. That being said, I did post a “Song of the Day” (SOTD) on my daily Instagrams, and I have compiled all of those songs on to this PCT SOTD Spotify playlist to give you all a sense of what I liked to listen to while on trail.
Since I was initially worried about maintaining the battery life of my phone, I opted to bring an iPod Nano (Sixth Generation) on the trail, but eventually I sent it home because I could listen to all the music I wanted to on my iPhone. Before I left for the trail, I maxed out the number of songs I had on the device and deleted any songs that had a skip count of 3+ so I wouldn’t waste space with songs I didn’t like listening to anymore.
More on Spotify for those who are not familiar: If you opt for the Premium subscription, you have the option to download songs via Wifi for listening offline. Whenever we got to town, I would hook up to Wifi and download the new songs to my collaborative playlists as well as any other music I fancied. Well worth the subscription.
I went all-in on podcasts while on trail, probably listening to 5-8 a day at my peak usage. Podcasts were great to think about anything else besides hiking and learn new things. Oftentimes, my hiking partner and I would talk about the various podcast episodes we listened to that day and even listen to them together while hiking (no earbuds). Here is a list of podcasts I listened to very often while hiking:
Planet Money – This show dives deep into the hidden world of weird industries, international commerce, and even tax law while being fun and light. Fun fact: One time on trail, I dreamt I worked for this podcast, and it truly felt like I had peaked.
Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People – Also known simply as Beautiful Anonymous, the set up of the show is that people call in to talk to the host, and they can’t reveal who they are. Shows either are light and funny or go to pretty heavy subject matter – or both. This show was great for simply feeling like you were having a conversation with someone.
Another Round – One of my favorite podcasts ever, the ladies of Another Round are super funny, excellent interviewers, and simply have a great time being themselves.
Pod Save America – While I didn’t follow the news for the first two months on trail, I eventually was curious about what was going on this summer in politics. The hosts of Pod Save America are former Obama White House staffers, so don’t expect them to be impartial, but do expect interesting insider takes at political stories.
The Moth – Listening to The Moth, a recording of people sharing stories to a live audience, provides you with some of the most captivating storytelling out there. I would always either laugh out loud or squeak out a tear when tuning into this show.
This American Life– Honesty hour, for some reason I can’t stand the cadence of Ira Glass’ voice when hiking, but TAL has some of the most incredible reporting and storytelling.
2 Dope Queens – Straight up just the best comedy podcast I’ve ever listened to giving a stage to awesome up-and-coming comedians.
Freakonomics– If you enjoyed the same-titled book by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt, you’ll really like this podcast which “explores the hidden side of everything.”
How I Built This– I got really interested in learning about stories behind entrepreneurs while on the PCT, and this show does a great job of showing you exactly how brands like Southwest Airlines, Patagonia, Airbnb got their start.
Old Voicemails and Audio Recordings
When I had moments deeply missing my friends and family (which will happen to you), I would re-listen to old voicemails. Even the simple, “Hey, just thought I’d call to see how you were doing. Give me a call back!” message brought a smile to my face, if only for the familiarity of the voice leaving the message.
I also dug up some random snippets of old lectures I once recorded from school. On the slightest of occasions, I would listen to those if I was truly, utterly bored.
Other Tips on Audio Entertainment While On Trail
Try to limit your earbud time. It can be tempting to plug into your music and podcasts all day, but I found it important to create rules of usage for myself. One of the reasons I was out on the trail was to appreciate nature. I had always enjoyed a calming effect from walking in the woods, and I wanted to always remind myself of that. So I set a rule in Northern California that I would not use my earbuds before lunch. After lunch, I listened to as much as I wanted to.
Only use one earbud. Situational awareness is key on the trail. First off, rattlesnakes aren’t very loud. You’re going to want to make sure you can hear them so you don’t run into a testy situation.
Switch between using your left and right ears. Okay, so I didn’t do this and I regret it because I think only listening to music in my left ear has caused me hearing troubles. Learn from my mistakes.
The Pacific Crest Trail is not just a physical challenge. It’s not just a mental challenge. And it’s not even just an emotional challenge. The PCT is the combination of all of those and more.
To put it briefly, it kicks your ass.
Each day had its ups and downs, but while I was writing daily Instagram posts for my friends and family, it was hard to express the deep moments of doubt and anger and homesickness. Maybe I didn’t want to scare my parents or maybe I didn’t want to scare myself. But it would be untruthful for me to cast a rosy tint over my adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail and not note the moments when I wanted to stop.
Day 2: The Day I Thought, “What Have I Gotten Myself Into?”
Day 2 was Indigo’s birthday. I had packed out an extra Snickers bar and birthday candle for the occasion. Snickers eventually became just like a regular bar, but at the time it seemed like a treat. I was excited to spend the day with my friend on her birthday hiking the PCT.
But a few miles into the day, I noticed that I was starting to have trouble breathing. I was growing congested, and I could start the feel fluid in my chest. This is not good. As someone with asthma, I am hyperaware of breathing difficulties. I’ve had my asthma constantly hold me back in high school rowing. I’ve had my asthma thwart months of half marathon training. I was not going to let my asthma take the PCT away from me.
I took a few puffs of my inhaler that day, but it didn’t help much. As I struggled up the hills on day 2, I kept coughing and wheezing. I started to review any possible culprits. Was it my new diet? Was it exertion? Was it the dry air?
At one point, I declared that I couldn’t make it up the current hill and I asked Indigo if we could stop. So we did, in a random spot on the side of the hill. I then passed out for an hour and a half. Indigo was a gem waiting for me, but I felt really bad for forcing us to stop. On top of that, she offered to carry some of my water when we continued up the hill that afternoon. Again, she is a gem.
Eventually, Indigo suggested that I might be having an allergic reaction. I replied that it couldn’t possibly be that. I had taken an allergy test when I was a kid and the only thing that came up was a slight reaction to juniper tree. Juniper trees, as it turns out, are very common in the Mojave Desert. Culprit found. After I took a Benedryll, we continued on. In total, we did 18.9 miles that day and I was absolutely spent. Even though I figured out the allergy, breathing would still be a challenge for the next ten days as I coughed the fluid out of my lungs.
In my tent that night, I started to wonder whether I could really do this. Whether I could make it all the way to Canada, still over 2,000 miles away at that point. It was overwhelming to think about.
Why I Didn’t Stop Hiking
When something seems too big to comprehend, it’s helpful to break it down into smaller chunks. This applies to studying, to planning a trip, and, of course, to hiking the PCT. That night, I resolved I would focus on making it to Lake Isabella which was less than three days away. Small, achievable goals turned the impossible into possible.
Day 58: The Day I Attempted to Sleep While Walking
Northern California was probably the most challenging part of the PCT. You’re off your high of the Sierra Nevadas, yet you still have around 700 miles of California to push through before reaching Oregon. In fact, the official halfway point on the trail is in California. Slowed down by the epic snow of the Sierra Nevadas, we had to really push ourselves in NorCal to eventually make it to Canada before October.
This required work. Hard work. And lots of it. When this photo was taken, we were well into our routine of hiking 13 hours a day through heat and hills. On Day 58, we were coming out of Drakesbad Guest Ranch, our bellies full of fresh breakfast food and our bodies showered. To top it off, the next 10 or so miles were relatively flat, a treat after hundreds of miles of hills.
But walking through this flat, sandy burnt forest, I was kicking myself for not appreciating this terrain. I was tired – eight hours of sleep (if we were lucky) doesn’t cut it when you’re pushing your body this much. And my feet hurt so, so much – my shoes had around 500 miles on them at this point and were worse for wear. And my pack felt heavy – we had just loaded up with a fresh resupply of food.
As I walked, a thought popped into my head: “What if I just closed my eyes and tried to sleep? The trail is flat and straight. Maybe I could sleep and hike at the same time.”
That’s how a delirious hiker thinks.
I tried out this plan. After a few minutes, I realized how insane this was. And then it hit me like a wave. I was fatigued. I couldn’t eat enough to satisfy my body. I was carrying over 25 pounds on my back. I felt all the pain in my feet. I felt the pain everywhere. Then I started to cry.
I cried because I couldn’t think straight. I cried because I was tired of being in pain all the time. I cried because I wanted to stop walking. I don’t usually cry.
So, not knowing what to do and a mile away from the creek we were all going to meet at, I stopped hiking, tossed my pack on the ground, and sat on a log with my head in my hands. A few minutes later, my hiking family approached and asked me why I stopped early. I told them that I just had to stop, and they understood.
Why I Didn’t Stop Hiking
It was a simple fix, really. I changed two things after this experience:
1. That was the first day I took a “tylie” (AKA Tylenol). I’m not saying you should pop pain medication like candy, but Tylenol changed my life on the trail. I would take it as needed which was almost daily. Not great, but it helped me persevere.
2. The next day, we were in the tiny town of Old Station where I inspected my shoes. Turns out the factory insoles had been worn down to nothing. In a moment of desperation, I duct-taped restaurant paper napkins to my insoles to provide some added cushion until we reached Burney, a town that would have a drug store. That’s where I invested in some Dr. Scholl’s gel insoles that changed my life forever. My feet (and mood) felt instantly better.
Day 81: The Day After My Dog Died
I learned that Teddy, my dog, died via text. A few miles outside of Crater Lake, I turned off airplane mode on my phone out of boredom and received this message from my dad: “Teddy is at rest now. Mom and I held him til he was asleep. Matt knows.”
I stopped in my tracks. I knew that Teddy, our family dog of 14 years, had been a bit sick lately, but I didn’t think much of it. He had always pulled through. I read the text over and over and over again. I couldn’t face calling my parents then, so I did the only thing that made sense: I kept walking. While I walked, I cried. I had lost my friend. I wasn’t with my family. I should have been with my family.
When Indigo caught up to me, I told her the news, and she hugged me close, letting me decide when I would let go, and then I called my parents. Tears. It’s unnerving to hear your parents cry, and I didn’t know what to say even though there was nothing to say.
The next morning at 5:00am, my watch alarm went off like it had the past few months. But unlike the past few months, I had absolutely no desire to hike. All I wanted to do was be with my family. I wanted to hug them. I wanted to be home so the house didn’t seem so eerily quiet without Ted click-clacking across the hardwood floors. On top of this, my legs were incredibly sore – that felt like a cruel joke.
Why I Didn’t Stop Hiking
You should choose your hiking friends carefully. You’ll want people that make you laugh and will share their wisdom with you. You’ll want people who deeply understand what you’re going through. Fortunately, I had that during this awful time.
Indigo cared for me that day, checking in, offering me homemade treats. She understood. Sam, who I had met the day before, talked with me. He expressed empathy – one of his dogs had died while he was on trail as well. And Isko? Well, Isko ate nothing but candy bars and instant mashed potatoes that day, like he did every day. That made me laugh.
The people around you can help lift you out of your deepest sorrow. Choose wisely.