I’m Hiking the PCT! 12 Things to Know About Me

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1. I’m 25. I live in Arizona. I’ve been working as an editor but quit my job to do the PCT.

2. I did not grow up hiking. I went on a handful of hikes and camping trips as a kid. I found hiking arduous and not fun. I’ve been fishing once and managed to hook a fish through its eyeball. That ended it for me. For most of my life I didn’t see the appeal of nature.

3. I’ve been hiking and backpacking for 2 years. I’ve been on a hundred or so hikes, mostly by myself, and 12 backpacking trips total. Two of those backpacking trips were solo.

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4. The longest mileage I’ve done on a backpacking trip is 16 miles.

5. I’ve never seen a rattlesnake, a bear or a mountain lion. I’ve seen two nonvenomous snakes, massive muddy bear prints and heard a bobcat. (They don’t sound like what you think they sound like.)

6. I’ve only ever briefly walked on snow in the Rockies and Chiricahuas. I’ve never used an ice axe or micro spikes. This is one of the highest snow years for the PCT on record. I will have to learn quickly.

7. I am afraid of basically everything. Hiking has, in many ways, been a practice for me of putting my fears in context.

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8. For example, I am afraid of heights. I have spent most of my life avoiding panic-inducing heights because my body tends to freeze. This year I have been actively putting myself in scary, high, scrambling/climbing situations to try to learn my way past it. It’s been working pretty well.

9. I hate bridges and walking on logs.

10. I have wide feet and tried on and tested about 20 pairs of shoes (yes, including Altras) trying to find one that would work for the PCT. I ended up with a pair of Inov8s. We’ll see how that goes.

11. I’ve been married for eight years. My husband is staying home and I’m hiking the trail solo. It’s the first time both of us will be alone.

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12. My biggest fear for the trail is that I’ll let myself get too afraid of the idea of something and I’ll quit. It’s also part of why I’m going out there. I want to show myself that my fears don’t have to steer the ship.

My Mother and the Pacific Crest Trail

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In January of 2015, my mother died of stomach cancer. It took six months from her diagnosis. She spent most of it in a hospital.

A month before her diagnosis, but while we knew she was sick, we took a planned road trip for my birthday to Zion National Park. We drove through miles and miles of empty roads. We drank margaritas and ate Mexican food in Cedar City. We lounged in the pool in Springdale. We hiked through The Narrows.

“We should make a trip like this an annual tradition,” she said. We wouldn’t get a chance.

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My mom and me at The Narrows

I’d first been to the Narrows in high school on a field trip. It was the first time I remember doing something and actually enjoying it while I was doing it. I had a habit as a teen of living in my head. The walls of the canyons, the cool wet of the river, the struggle to stay upright on slick rocks forced me to be there, in the moment. Still, I wouldn’t hike again for years.

Six days after my mother died, my aunt and I went on a summit hike. I don’t know why that seemed like the thing to do. The weather was nice, I guess. I didn’t want to sit around the house. I’d been on maybe two hikes the year before. I wasn’t a hiker.

We didn’t make it to the top. We hadn’t eaten breakfast. We’d taken on the second highest summit in the valley. We turned around.

Still, I remember thinking: There is something out here that helps. I told myself I’d try to go on one hike a month that year.

I read the book Wild when it was published. I’d been a long follower of Cheryl Strayed’s advice column Dear Sugar and got the book on it’s first printing. I devoured it. I didn’t think I’d ever do something as crazy as the PCT. I wasn’t athletic, I didn’t especially enjoy being outside, I didn’t see the value in putting yourself through so much suffering, and it seemed impractical to up and leave one’s life for several months. But I thought maybe someday I’d go on a backpacking trip. That would be adventure enough for me.

I passed the book to my mom. I often gave my mother books that I’d screened – she didn’t like it when books had sad endings. I wish I could remember what she thought of it. I know she liked it. I wondered if the book had made her think about what it was like to lose her own mother some ten years before. I remember being grateful that I loved my mom so much, that she was healthy, that I would have her for a long, long time. She wasn’t afraid of getting older. She liked to say she planned to live to be 120.

A year before the book Wild was published, my mother had emergency surgery for a burst ulcer. It was scary, dangerous, but they’d caught it. When I saw her after she came out of the hospital, she was weak, frail, thin in a way I’d never seen her, and it scared me. But I also thought: Of course you didn’t die. The universe would never take you from me. I wouldn’t let it.

More weeks passed after my mother’s death. In February I took three days and went north and stayed in a cabin my myself. I read. I made campfires. I went on a short hike to Tonto Natural Bridge, climbing over boulders along a creek. I stopped under the massive travertine walkway and watched other hikers trickle in through the morning and wrote in my journal.

I went home. I got a tattoo, a hummingbird, tied to a memory of my mother. I started painting. I read Wild again. I reread Tiny Beautiful Things. I clung to Cheryl Strayed’s writing like a bible for my grief. Backpacking. I would like to go backpacking, I thought. There was a hike I’d heard people talk about in Arizona that took you to clear blue waterfalls. Havasu Falls. Maybe I’d be a strong enough hiker by the end of the year to go there.

But then it was April, and a coworker posted on Facebook that they were going to Havasu Falls and had an extra permit.

When? I asked.

Friday, she said.

I had three days. My tattoo wasn’t finished healing. I had no backpacking gear. I’d never been on more than an eight mile day hike which had nearly destroyed me, let alone carrying weight. The trip to the falls was 10 miles in, 10 miles out.

I said yes.

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The hike was the first really hard thing I’d done since losing my mom. On the way out, I convinced myself I couldn’t do it. I was going to take a tourist helicopter out. My group passed me and said they’d see me at the top. But then the helicopter was going to take longer than I’d anticipated, almost as long as the hike itself, so instead I hiked my way out. As I climbed the 1000 feet out of the canyon, I looked back at where I’d come from. I wished my mom could see it too. I stopped in every patch of shade to cry. And then I kept walking.

It was nearly a year after Havasu before I went on my next backpacking trip. I started to warm the idea that I might do the PCT someday. Someday, when I’m stronger. Someday, when I’m more confident in nature.

I went on a few more backpacking trips. I liked the way they made me struggle. I liked the way I so often had to do the thing I didn’t think I could do.

I started reading thru-hiker’s blogs. I followed them on Instagram. I saw something I didn’t expect to see, which was that they were just like me. They had all of the same fears and pains I had. The only difference was that they had decided to go.

A year and a half after I lost my mom, I decided for sure I was going to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. I’m a month away from starting at the border of Campo, CA.

Losing my mother was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to live through. A close second was the six months I spent watching her die. It doesn’t escape me that for nearly the same amount of time, I will be putting one foot in front of the other, trying to reach the Northern Terminus.

Sometimes I try to imagine whether I would be hiking this trail if my mother were alive. One answer is no. I wouldn’t have needed to. I wouldn’t have needed to see just how much I could suffer and survive if she’d lived.

Another answer is yes. She would come with me. She would make friends with every hiker and trail angel we passed. She would insist we splurge in town on good food and a comfortable bed. She would probably pack wine. She would snore. She would be slow but steady. She would make sure we called home.

Before my mother died, I’d always seen her as a completely different species to me. We got along well, but we were different. Where she was positive I was critical. Where she relaxed, I planned. Where she schemed, I played by the rules.

When she died, an image came to me without asking for it. I imagined that she had shrunk back into a fetus and implanted herself inside my literal, anatomical heart. This essence of my mother would leech out particles of vulnerability when I wanted to be closed, compassion I’d never had capacity for, love for every ounce of my fear. It was as if she’d decided: I can’t be there to help you become this person anymore. I’ll have to show you how to do it on your own.

I don’t get to know what my mother would think of me hiking from Mexico to Canada. I don’t get to know if I’ll make it to the Northern Terminus, or if my pack will be too heavy, or if I’ll wither in the sun or sink in the snow. But I hope to spend as much time as I can being the woman I believe my mother knew I could be. More brave than afraid. More free than secure. More wild and alive.

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Mom holding me at the Grand Canyon

FAQ: I’m Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail

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What is the Pacific Crest Trail?

The PCT is a continuous footpath from Mexico to Canada. It’s approximately 2,660 miles long and goes through California, Oregon and Washington.

Who are you going with?

Myself, and a few thousand strangers who are also day hiking, section hiking or attempting to thruhike. Rumor has it the relationships you form with other thru-hikers are the best part of the trail.

How long does it take?

The average hiker takes 5 months.You’re essentially trying to time yourself right so that you aren’t entering the Sierra too early before the snow melt, or the Cascades too late (when it starts to snow in the fall/winter). But that’s going to be an extra challenge this year, because it’s an unusually high snow year.

How far will you hike every day?

At first, probably only 15 miles a day on average or maybe even less. Eventually, more like 20 miles a day average, with some flat terrain days nearing 30 miles. That average includes “zero” days (days where I hike zero miles) and “nero” days (days where I don’t hike very many miles) which may be spent on the trail or in a hotel room or trail angel’s house in one of the trail towns.

What made you want to do that?!

Well, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, for one. Then hiking and backpacking personally. Then Girl in the Woods and Carrot Quinn and Dora la Explorer and HalfwayAnywhere and an innumerable amount of other trail journals and articles online.

How do you feed yourself? 

I’ll be hitchhiking at trail crossings and resupplying every few days (2-3 days average, up to 10 days) in towns along the way. Mostly my goal is to grocery shop for whatever I need along the way, although there will be some areas where I’ll have to send a box of food to a Post Office where stores are scarce.

What are you afraid of?

On a physical level, I’m afraid of rattlesnakes, bears, mountain lions, broken or twisted ankles, exposure, heights, raging rivers, Giardia, blisters, sun burns, hypothermia, dehydration, getting lost and Poodle Dog bush.

But mostly what I’m afraid of is that I’m going to get out there and it’s going to be hard and my fears are going to overwhelm me, and I won’t stick it out long enough to really prove to myself what I’m capable of. Or to put it simply: I’m afraid of the fear itself.

What are you doing to prepare?

So far I’ve just been hiking frequently and backpacking when I can. I haven’t focused on long mileage, though I have managed a few 30-mile backpacking trips with one 16-mile day. 10 mile day hikes aren’t rare for me. I’ve been trying to put myself in new situations in the hopes that it will teach me how to get through things I don’t want to or think I can’t do –  like hike up a terrifying mountain (a la Picket Post Mountain near Superior, AZ), night hike on an exposed ridge or hike through the rain.

What are you bringing with you?

I have my whole planned gear list here.

How are you financing the trip?

I’ve been actively saving money while also slowly upgrading my gear. By the time I hit the trail, I’ll have around $6,000 to spend while on-trail. If I were single, finances would also have included selling everything I own and breaking the lease on my house and canceling/paying off any monthly charges, but since I’m married, Mark is going to be the adult in the relationship and take care of bills while I’m gone. I can only imagine the food bill will shrink dramatically.

Where are you going to be documenting your trip?

A little bit of everywhere. Here, on this blog, on my Instagram, on YouTube, and for friends, family and fellow hikers, on Facebook.

What is your husband going to do while you’re gone?

Continue being a living, breathing independent organism, I imagine. Once I’d decided to go (rather than just talk about it as a “someday” thing) it took Mark a little while to get comfortable with the idea, but since then he’s been incredibly supportive. He’s gone with me on overnights, put the Forest Service number on speed dial while I did solo trips, generously bought me some of my most expensive gear, and listened to me rattle on about trail plans at length. I’m sure he’ll be lonely, though, so please make plans to hang out with them, even if he ignores your first 15 offers. He really does want to meet up.

What are you going to do when you finish?

I have no idea. I have a few practical plans (try to work for an outdoor gear company?) and a few more radical ones (convince Mark to live in a van and travel the country?) but it’s hard to say. I don’t really know who I’ll be when I’m done.

What I’m Packing: Pacific Crest Trail Gear List

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One thing you can learn about thruhiking via the internet is that how much weight you’re carrying will have a measured effect on how much you’re enjoying you’re hike.

Not that long ago, it wasn’t rare for people to carry packs that, not counting food, water, etc weighed upwards of 30 or 40lbs. Cheryl Strayed’s pack, fully loaded, supposedly weighed half her body weight (there’s a reason she named it Monster.)

Now backpacking gear and it’s enthusiasts are trying to find a balance between lighter weight, durability and price point. Some people spent a lot of time, energy, education and often money trying to make their base weight – the weight of a person’s gear not including the clothes on their back, food, water, or fuel – as little as possible.

An “ultralight” hiker is someone who’s base weight is typically less than 12 lbs. Almost every UL hiker whose gear you look at will be carrying a tarp or a tarptent – an easy way to shave a pound or more off your base weight. They also tend to be fastidious about not carrying duplicate gear.

A “lightweight” hiker’s base weight ranges between 13 to 20 lbs. They might have a freestanding tent (like me), sleep clothes, town clothes, and a few other luxury items.

A “traditional” hiker has a base weight of 20 lbs or more.

My baseweight comes in just under 15 lbs, which is considered lightweight. My pack recommends not carrying more than 35lbs at a time, which means I’ve got about 20lbs to play with as far as food, water, and changing gear is concerned. That’s not much, considering that water weights 2.2lbs/liter (and there will be sections I’ll have to carry 6 or more liters of water) and in order to eat enough calories, I’ll be carrying around 2 lbs of food per day I’m hiking. Not to mention, 35lbs is heavy, and heavy slows you down.

I’m giving exact numbers where I can and making guesses where I can’t. I’m not invested enough in exact ounces to weigh each individual piece myself, so I’m going off of product weight details or other hiker’s estimates.

Main Items
Backpack – ULA Circuit – 41 oz – I upgraded this from a 62 oz Deuter backpack to save myself 1.5 lbs and it ended up being more comfortable than the Deuter
Tent – REI quarter dome 1 – 34 oz
Sleeping pad – Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Women’s Regular – 12 oz
Sleeping bag/quilt – Enlightened Equipment Revelation – 21.5 oz
Ground sheet – Tyvek – 5 (?ish?) oz
Sleeping bag liner – 4 oz – Bringing this mainly to put over my sleeping pad because I find it super uncomfortable to sleep directly on plastic. It’s also a nice back up for especially cold nights to help prevent drafts from the quilt, or for warm nights where I don’t need my sleeping quilt.

Total: 117.5 oz 

Potential modifications: I could maybe be talked into a tarp tent, but have seen enough people struggle with them that I’m OK with the Quarter Dome for now. Price is also pretty prohibitive there. Also although some people don’t feel more “protected” inside a tent, I definitely do (for now.) It would be near impossible to talk me into a straight tarp at this point. I can drop the sleeping bag liner if I decide it’s unnecessary, ditto for Tyvek. I have been using both on weekend trips.

Worn clothing (not part of base weight)
Shoes – still figuring this out
Socks – Darn Toughs or Injinji’s (still figuring this out)
Sun shirt – Columbia sun hiking shirt
Smartwool Tshirt
Pants – Columbia Saturday Trail Pant
Underwear – Ibex Wool 
Bra – Panache
Sunglasses – Random cheap polarized glasses, fancier glasses for the Sierra snow
Hat
Trekking pole (one)

Potential modifications: Might drop sun gloves if they prove unnecessary, might switch to running shorts if pants prove too hot/my legs can handle the sun, might give up on trekking poles if I can’t teach myself to love them, might have to change shoes depending on just how swollen my already-wide feet get out there

Packed clothing
Rain gear – Dry ducks small jacket – 5 oz (ish)
Socks – Darn toughs x2 – 5 oz
Down jacket – 7.2 oz (Bought on sale from campsaver.com, 50% off)
Underwear – Ibex Wool – 1.6 oz
Cold weather gloves – 1 oz ish
Beanie – 1 oz ish
Bandanas x3 – 1 oz ish

Total: 35.8 oz

Potential modifications: Current plan with bandanas is one is for nose blowing, one is a pee rag, and one is for sun protection/water filtering. Could potentially drop one in the future.

Cooking/Food storage
Stove – Pocket rocket knockoff – 3 oz
Pot – 7.5 oz
Long spoon – .5 oz
Opsack odor proof food bag 28.20 – 2 oz
Windscreen (Aluminum foil) – .05 oz

Total: 13.5 oz

Water
1.5L Evernew Bladder – 1.3 oz
2L Evernew Bladder – 1.5 oz
Evernew Bladder Hose – 2oz (ish)
Smart Water Bottles x 2 – 2.6 oz
Sawyer Squeeze – 3 oz

Total: 10.4 oz

Potential changes: Likely using the 2L Evernew Bladder as a “dirty” bag for Sawyer – whole thing is subject to change, one of the challenges of carrying water on the sides of your pack is having to adjust it as you go through your water lest you end up walking like Igor. At this point I definitely prefer being able to sip water effortlessly via a tube than having to take a waterbottle out of my pack. But the bladder hose is compatible with Smart Water bottles so I may end up just attaching it to the bottles directly.

First aid/emergency/hygiene kit
Duct tape, Ibuprofen, Benadryl, Pepto, Antifungal, anti-chafe, Sunscreen, chapstick, antibacterial, sunscreen, needle, thread – 5oz ish
Toothbrush, Toothpaste,  Floss, Hand sanitizer, Wet wipes, TP, Menstrual cup, Deuce of Spades – 5 oz ish
Lighters x2, Whistle, Compass, (2.4 oz), Multitool – 5 oz ish
DeLorme InReach – 7 oz

Total: 22 oz

Potential modifications: Changes to first aid kit as different things become an issue/nonissue, will eventually add bug spray/lotion

Electronics
10k MAH Battery pack – 6.4 oz
Headlamp – 4.6 oz
iPhone7 w/ lifeproof case- 6 oz
Earbuds – .4.oz
Backup batteries for headlamp – 1 oz
Charges/cords – 3 oz (ish)

Total: 21 oz

Misc
Trash compactor bag – pack liner – 1 oz ish
Cards/cash/ID — 3 oz ish
Hiking Umbrella – 7 oz
Maps – varies, let’s say 2.5 oz
SticPic + Phone holder – 1 oz

Total: 14.5 oz

Potential modifications: Umbrella will get shipped ahead or ditched in the Sierra, possibly sooner. We’ll see if I use the SticPic, or the trekking poles that it attaches to, for that matter.

Total pack base weight: 234.1 oz (14.6 lbs)

Later gear
Bug net
Microspikes
Ice axe or whippet
Bear canister