A hiker named Tommy asked me 16 questions about the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Before getting into the Q&A with him, here is a bit of background on him. He wrote:
- I am 56 years old and live in Texas.
- I have degrees in computer science and mathematics from 1983.
- I have a wife and four kids.
- All the kids are now out of college.
- I really have the PCT bug. I will soon try to convince my wife to let me go next year.
- I want to be a Sobo.
- I plan on finishing at Kennedy Meadows. (I have lived in the desert and the very last part of the PCT south does not interest me.)
- I want to leave as early as I can but I do not want to be trying to find the trail in the snow and get lost.
- I would rather carry more gear than freeze and I don’t really want to run low on water or food supplies.
- I would like YOUR advice as I plan to follow it.
16 Questions About Thru-Hiking the PCT Southbound.
1) Knowing I would rather have more than less, what backpack do you recommend?
I've used Gossamer Gear's Mariposa Plus for 10 years. Although it has evolved, the design has been consistently brilliant. It's a great balance between durability and lightness. Zpacks has its Arc Blast pack, which is also well designed. I haven't hiked with it, but I've seen Zpacks's other products. They are a leader in ultralight gear. So they're a safe bet.
You might be tempted by their lighter or heavier options. Resist them. Heavier usually means more capacity. That adds the temptation to carry more junk. Small backpacks force you to have discipline.
Small backpacks force you to have discipline.
On the other hand, super ultralight backpacks are usually flimsy (although the ones made of cuben fibre are relatively strong). An example of a super ultralight backpack is Zpacks's Nero.
If you opt for the super ultralight backpack, then make sure that whoever is mailing your resupplies has a backup backpack for you. I went through 4 super ultra-lightweight backpacks in 5,600 miles when I did a round-trip on the Continental Divide Trail. Gossamer Gear doesn't make the ones I use anymore (probably because customers overpacked them and then complained that they fell apart to quickly).
2) What tent do you recommend?
For the Pacific Crest Trail, I recommend a tarp, not a tent.
The PCT is generally cold at night (which keeps the mosquitoes away).
Also, the PCT doesn't get that much rain, especially if you're going southbound. The Pacific Northwest in July (which is when Sobos go) is far drier than September or October (which is when the Northbounders are going).
For over a decade, I've used Gossamer Gear's Twinn Tarp. It's no frills and good enough for two people, which means you either have a palace or extra space if your wife decides to join you. Gossamer Gear also has a nice tent called The One, if you're sure you want a tent.
In the last 5 years in Africa, I've been using Zpacks's Duplex Tent, but I think it's overkill for the PCT. I would look at ZPacks's other shelters, especially their tarps for the PCT.
Lastly, consider Mountain Laurel Designs. They also make good lightweight stuff.
3) What sleeping bag do you recommend?
That's easy: the one I've been using for a decade: a quilt from Jacks 'R Better.
Quilts confuse some people who are used to traditional sleeping bags. They claim that a quilt can't keep them warm even though we all use blankets in the house. If blankets work for you in your cold house, then a quilt will work in the wild. I prefer the JRB High Sierra Sniveler.
The website of Jacks 'R Better is never as slick as its competitors, but their products are solid.
Although I haven't tried the Zpacks quilt, it looks promising.
However, make sure you test sleeping in a quilt before you set off on the Pacific Crest Trail! It's especially dangerous to go with an untested sleeping bag when you're doing southbound because you hit snow right from the start.
4) What water containers do you recommend?
5) What water filter do you recommend?
I rarely use water filters, the Sawyer Mini Water Filtration system is super lightweight.
6) What coat do you recommend?
I prefer the lightest you can get away with. ExOfficio makes a bug proof one. But they have other styles too.
7) What rain gear do you recommend?
I really like the Zpacks ultralight rain jacket ultralight rain jacket because it's one of the lightest around and it's good enough for the PCT, especially a southbound hike, which gets less rain than a northbound hike. However, the Zpacks jacket is not ideal for places with heavy rain, like the Pacific Northwest. Therefore, if you're heading somewhere wet like the Appalachian Trail or the PNW, then you should carry a thicker rainjacket, like the Rain Logic.
8) What boots do you recommend for the first part and where do you think I should trade them for shoes?
You really don't need boots for any thru-hike unless you're going in winter. Trail runners are all you need.
9) What watertight compartment do you recommend?
Zpacks sells ultra-lightweight waterproof bags.
10) Whats the best way to make a fire if absolutely needed for warmth?
11) What GPS do you recommend? If I have one is there much danger of losing the trail?
Nowadays, most hikers bring a smartphone with them. Most smartphones have a built-in GPS, which will work offline. Make sure you test its offline capabilities before you go. You'll need to download offline maps on your phone, put your phone in airplane mode, and see if the GPS really works. Load the best GPS topography map app on your phone.
12) What is the max number of days food I need to have in the pack?
It depends on many kilometers you can do per day but most people don't carry more than six days between re-supplies. As a Sobo, I did the Sierra section without a re-supply and it took me 9 days. The benefit of going southbound is that the hiker boxes in the High Sierra are filled in the late summer due to all the leftovers of thru-hikers and section hikers. Yes, you're gambling to depend on them but it's a safe bet. The High Sierra is the most inconvenient section for resupplying. The rest of the PCT is will have resupplies every four days, on average.
13) Are bears a real consideration? What can I do to prevent them?
Don't sue me but I wouldn't lose sleep over bears as long as you don't cook where you camp. Even camping in designated camping sites is not ideal but the real problem is cooking at your campsite because that sends an aromatic beacon to all the wildlife (including rodents) that there's food nearby. Therefore, I suggest cooking in the morning or at least one hour before you pick your campsite. I usually cooked in the afternoon when it was uncomfortably hot. Then I would hike until sunset.
If you really must cook at camp, then hang your food 10+ meters away from your campsite.
14) How many pairs of socks do you start with?
Two. Wash and rotate daily.
15) How many pants do you start out with?
One. I had lycra shorts that doubled as underwear that I could wear when doing laundry. I only had one pair of underwear + the lycra one. If it's warm and sunny, you can wash your pants, wring them, and put them on immediately. They will dry within 30 minutes if it's warm and dry - and it might even have a pleasant cooling effect while you're hiking on a hot day.
16) How many shirts do you start out with?