A New Season on the PCT

Anza Valley view

Looking across the Anza Valley to Mt. San Jacinto

(UPDATE 12/23/14: With the release of the movie version of Wild, this post might get some increased attention, so I thought I’d just post a reminder that it was written last spring, and some of the specific points about conditions at that time don’t apply. The general advice should still hold. Also, I still haven’t gotten around to reading the book, but still plan to. The book got a lot of bashing from PCT elitists, and apparently the movie is too; I liked the PCTA’s response in this Facebook post: “Hike your own hike.” They’re also holding a “ResponsiblyWild” contest in conjunction with the movie.)

On this rainy and snowy spring day in Michigan, I find my thoughts turning to the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s late March, and that’s always the beginning of thru-hiker season, when I used to suddenly find myself with more company than usual on the trail. That was when I was working on a guidebook to the San Diego section of the PCT, and before we moved to the frozen north. I always looked with envy on those vagabonds with four or five months to spend walking.

But also I’m thinking about the PCT because I just read a report of a hiker who became disoriented and dehydrated just a few miles north of the border trailhead. Fellow hikers found him four days later, gave him water, and helped him walk to a nearby dirt road. His pack was so heavy, and thus he had walked so slowly, that he had run out of water before reaching the next source at Hauser Creek (which was dry in any case). And these were not the desert-like conditions that so many thru-hikers describe in their journals – according to Weather Underground, the high at Potrero didn’t break 70 degrees over the four days he was out there.

PCT sign

PCT Sign with Morena Butte in background

Predictably, comment from the hiking community was harsh. The PCTA Facebook page’s posting of the report had many critical comments about the dehydrated hiker’s ineptitude, with just a few people speaking up in sympathy. What kind of fool carries that much weight, or is so unprepared to carry it? (I won’t join them in their derision. I always remember the time my climbing partner and I were caught out on the side of Tahquitz Rock in a torrential rain and thunderstorm. We learned why the route we had chosen was called “The Trough.” It’s easy to feel smug about your superior skills until you’re the person having the emergency.)

Adding to the usual disdainful comments, this year there is a feeling that Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, is contributing to an exceptionally silly season on the PCT. I’ve never read it, an oversight which I mean to correct soon. Judging from the reviews and descriptions by friends who have read it, I can see how it would inspire folks to undertake a similar journey, but also how it would serve as a cautionary tale. (Although one friend pointed out that those who know nothing of wilderness travel might not realize how many times the author came close to dying.)

Horned Lizard

Horned Lizard

If there are more rescues on the PCT in southern California this year, I’m guessing it will be due to the drought more than an increase in unprepared hikers. According to the PCT Water Report, Hauser Creek is dry, and there’s only a half-liter-per-minute flow at one spot in the trail’s first twenty miles (and that’s only four miles in). Nance Creek, where I camped and found a decent flow on a trip in 2010, is described this year as “the death throes of a creek.” Fortunately, there’s a well stocked cache a few miles north of there, but hikers who choose to camp near that artificial water supply will find themselves in the dirt-road ‘burbs of Anza rather than the wilderness they’ve come to experience.

(Hint: tank up on water at Tule Spring, then carry it to one of the nice camping spots at Nance Creek or on the ridge north of it. You’ll be in one of the wildest-feeling spots in southern California, with great views down the Coyote Canyon drainage well into the Anza-Borrego desert. And if you want to know more about that desert you’ll be looking at, and partly in, for a week or so, check out my book, All the Wild and Lonely Places: Journeys in a Desert Landscape.)

Sunset on Whale Peak

Sunset on Whale Peak

If the PCT started out in more gentle country – Michigan, say, with its flat or gently rolling terrain and frequent water – you could start with easy days and ease into the thru-hike. But the PCT hits you right in the face from the very beginning, with twenty miles and around 2,500 feet of gain and loss, in what may seem like an alien environment, with little to no water. According to the Pacific Crest Trail Association, roughly 50% of hikers setting out to do the whole trail succeed in their quests. I’d have to guess that a lot of those who don’t reach that goal see their dreams come crashing down in Sections A and B, with their extremes of elevation, temperature, and terrain. Snow storms, excessive heat, climbs and descents of thousands of feet – and the blisters, dehydration, hypo- and hyperthermia, stress fractures, and cactus punctures that go with such conditions – it’s nothing to be taken lightly.

paintbrush and sunflower

Orange paintbrush and yellow sunflower

With that in mind, here are a few tips from a section hiker who’s familiar with the desert and desert-like conditions:

    • Get tips from fellow hikers on places like the PCT listserv and the PCT Facebook group. In both places you’ll find people who have more recent experience of the trail than I do.

    • Use Halfmile’s maps (and make sure you know how to read them), and follow the PCT Water Reports.

    • Read Yogi’s guidebook, follow the tips on Postholer.com, or use the Wilderness Press guides.

    • Get in shape before your hike – jog, go for long hikes with a loaded backpack, climb stairs or bleachers if you don’t have hills where you live, and exercise at the warmest times of day to prepare for the desert heat as much as you can.

    • Get some experience first. Don’t make a thru-hike your first backpacking experience, Cheryl Strayed notwithstanding.

    • Do a “shakedown cruise” in southern California a few days before you start, so you’ll acclimate to local conditions.

    • Hit the trail sooner. The end of April is the most popular time to begin a thru-hike, based on snow conditions in the Sierra, and the annual kick off at Lake Morena is again being held the weekend of April 26. But this year the snow pack is thin, so there’s no reason to suffer through the hotter temps of May in the desert to avoid the snows of the mountains (although the infamous Fuller Ridge on Mt. San Jacinto could always pose a problem).

    • Carry rain gear. Just because you’re hearing about “drought in California” doesn’t mean you won’t need to be prepared for precipitation. A snowstorm hit the Lagunas and the San Felipe Hills shortly after the kickoff weekend one year. Drought years in southern California are known for rain falling at odd times, such as the middle of spring or early in the fall (and these days, who knows what to expect with the weather?).

    • Canterbury Bells

      Canterbury Bells

      Go light and fast… Usually I feel like thru-hikers should slow down and experience the subtle beauties of San Diego’s backcountry, leaving the 30-mile days for later, when they’re in better shape and the scenery is on a grander scale. In the chaparral, it pays to go slow, enjoy the surprising variety of flowers, breathe in the aroma of sage and California lilac, and really appreciate one of the most threatened habitat types in the world (with its own conservation outfit). But not this year, with the infrequent water sources (and probably a disappointing bloom). If you’re ready for a 20-mile hike with thousands of feet of elevation gain and loss, it’s a good idea to stash your gear at Lake Morena Campground, find a trail angel to take you to the border, and “slack-pack” your way back to the lake in one day. But again, only if you’re ready for it. You don’t want gargantuan blisters, or worse, to end your hike before it begins.

    • …or heavy and slow. If you’re not up for that kind of first day, then you’ll likely need to carry enough water to last you overnight, since Hauser Creek is dry. That means at least six liters on just a warm day, two gallons if the thermometer is expected to go past 90. That’s 16 extra pounds in your pack. Consider dayhiking part-way in and caching  water a day or so before you begin your trip, which will also serve as a tune-up hike. That’s what those hikers were doing when they found the dehydrated fellow.

    • Drink plenty. If you’re from a humid part of the world, you’ll be surprised how quickly your body loses water in the arid west, without you realizing it. You’re losing water just standing around breathing, and your sweat evaporates so fast, you don’t realize you’re sweating.

    • Don’t ration your water. Your body can ration your water better than you can. Drink small amounts frequently. Remember to eat something too, and include an electrolyte replacement mix in your water, to avoid “water intoxication.”

    • If you do run out of water, it’s best just to continue hiking to the nearest known source of water – but don’t go far off the trail to do it, or no one will know where to look for you! If it’s mid-day and brutally hot, consider resting in whatever shade you can find – or create – until the sun is lower in the sky.

    • Don’t eat a prickly pear or other cactus to get its juice. That dehydrated hiker tried it, but the idea is a myth spread by John C. Van Dyke in his classic book, The Desert, when he wrote of cutting the top off a barrel cactus and drinking the juice inside. The truth is, it’s too alkaline for consumption. Prickly pear is edible, but requires a lot of effort to remove the tiny spines, and the flesh of the pads will likely produce an upset stomach if eaten raw. Some recommend digging a solar still, but again, is the water it will produce worth the effort? Is the soil soft enough to dig? (On the PCT, you’ll only rarely be in true desert, with its soft, sandy soil.) And do you have a clear sheet of plastic?

    • Mt. Laguna Store

      Hikers at the Mt. Laguna Store

      Dehydrated food is useless without water, as that dehydrated hiker reportedly learned. If you have to carry your own water anyway, go ahead, carry canned fruit, MREs, or other ready-to-eat, water-dense foods.

    • Hike early and late when it’s hot (even if you’re not in a water emergency), with a break in the shade during the hottest part of the day. You may need to rig a tarp to create your own shade. Moonlight hiking in the desert is great, too, and is best in the days before the moon is full.

    • In the mountains, cotton kills, but in the desert, synthetics wick your life away. Desert hikers know that cotton traps moisture and releases it at just the right rate for evaporative cooling. Get an old long-sleeved button-down cotton shirt at Goodwill and re-donate it when you get to Tehachapi. A shirt is lighter than an ice-axe (which I’ve seen thru-hikers carrying in the desert!), and it’s more useful.

    • Consider wearing long pants. Zip-offs for desert hiking are light and work great. You’ll retain more moisture, and your legs will thank you on those overgrown sections of trail.

    • Wear a broad-brimmed hat – you’ll be amazed how much cooler you’ll feel without the sun beating down on your shoulders. Make sure it has an adjustable chin strap so it doesn’t blow away in the frequent high winds.

    • Follow the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s advice – always carry a towel, or in the case of backpacking, a bandanna. On a hot day, you can soak it in whatever water you come across, even the trickliest of desert seeps, squeeze it over your head, wash your face, or tie it around your neck. All will help to keep you cool. You can also use it to turn a baseball cap into a cheap version of a desert safari hat. If you happen to find a good flow of water, go ahead and soak that cotton shirt in it.

So, that’s a lot of advice. On second thought, maybe sometimes you just have to say, “What the fuck!”, put on a pack, and go. To paraphrase Yvon Chouinard, if you’re not getting sunburnt, rained on, low on water, and shat on by a bird nesting above your bivy site, you’re not having an adventure.

Comments

  1. Really enjoyable read! Thanks for spending the time to write out your ‘hints’ for a more successful hike.

  2. larryhogue says:

    Glad you enjoyed it, John.

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