Opening Statement

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach
~Henry David Thoreau, Walden


Saturday, May 18, 2019

The Flip from Kennedy Meadows to Dunsmuir


In a high snow year, the biggest schedule danger for many NOBO thru-hikers is waiting for the snow in the Sierras to melt.  As of May 16, 2019 the "Sierra Entry Indicator" suggests June 15th as the first safe entry day for the Sierras.  This timing will just barely work for hikers that were comfortable banging out 22.5 miles on an average day by the time they reached KM.  For slower hikers, June 15th is already too late.  See this post for more details:  When you should leave Kennedy Meadows

One option is to go into the Sierras early enough to get through before the melt takes hold.  This is tough for all but the more aggressive hikers, so if you hiked 18 to 22 miles on a typical day as you finished up the desert section, making it through the Sierras starting on May 20th or so is a risky plan.  You have a high likelihood of getting into conditions that you aren't comfortable with, especially high stream crossings.

Another good option for hikers that feel comfortable doing 18 to 22 miles a day is to flip up to Dunsmuir around mile 1500 and start hiking south.  This looked doable starting around May 20th and will be easier as the weather warms and snow melts off.  June 1st would be a very reasonable start for this section, much earlier than going up into the Sierras.  The 300 miles from Dunsmuir to Sierra City include some short snowy sections, but these are relatively easy to traverse -- more like Mt. Baden Powell than like Fuller Ridge.  You will still want your microspikes, but won't use them often.  Once you reach Sierra City, you will already be well into June and the Sierras will start to look friendlier.  Most of the really tough stream crossings are south of Sonora Pass, which is around mile 1000, so you will be hitting them later still.  If you want to see the snow conditions as of right now, please take a look at this page:  Postholer.Com PCT Snow Conditions Page

If you do this flip, you have to travel from Kennedy Meadows to Dunsmuir twice.  First, get a ride out of Kennedy Meadows and hitch or get a bus to Mojave or Bakersfield.  From there you can use Greyhound and Amtrak to get up to Dunsmuir.  For each trip, there is a total elapsed time of about 2 days, and cost about $100, although it can be done in just over a day if you get a perfect hitch out of KM.

I did this exact flip in 2018, and did a skip from Kennedy Meadows to Quincy and then hiked north in 2017 due to the snow conditions.  While not everyone likes the idea of a flip, if you aren't pounding out 25 mile days routinely, this is a good way to "bank" miles during late May and early June that you will need to complete the trail in 2019.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

PCT Closures - Know How to Download Detour Maps


Fire closures on the PCT combined with heavy snow accumulation earned 2017 the nickname "The Year of Fire and Ice," and in 2018 with lighter snow, we had at least as much trouble with fire closures, including closures in the symbolic section between Hart's Pass and the Northern Monument.  Many times hikers had to detour off of the official PCT route, usually following signs, but occasionally getting off course.  Guthooks, the most popular map application on the trail in 2017 and 2018, often did not cover the detour routes.

What can you do?  In addition to talking with other hikers, check the PCT trail closures every time you get into town to see if something has been announced, and if warnings have been posted, usually when a closure seems imminent.  Next, study the closure and alternates, possibly downloading the closure details to your phone.

Do I need to say this?  Never Hike a Closure.  It's hard for me imagine a more disrespectful violation of trail etiquette.  The PCTA, volunteers, and land managers are working hard to keep the trail safe and open, and you are abusing the trail and these people when you hike a closure.  Regardless of your own judgement, hiking a trail that has been damaged almost always causes additional erosion and increases the effort to bring the trail back up to standard.

Next, consider locating a paper map, or download digital maps that cover the closure route.  Digital maps show you the trails mentioned in the alternate route, elevation changes, major water sources and campgrounds, and can be especially valuable in the first few days of a closure announcement when signage may not be up yet.  Viewed through a smartphone application, these maps will also pinpoint your location using the phone's GPS.  Avenza is an easy-to-use map display app favored by the Forest Service that you can download free.  Some maps are free on Avenza, but a fee of up to about $15 is more typical.

Two digital map resources cover almost the entire trail in detail: the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Maps, which cover most of the PCT, and the Forest Service Visitor Maps for California, which fill in most of the gaps in the Trails Illustrated maps.

In 2018 in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, I was happy to have a digital map of a nine mile detour.  The map showed me exactly where I was on the detour, and helped me pick a great campsite.  The next morning, two Forest Service rangers told me about another PCT hiker taking a wrong turn and ending up in their fire line just the day before.

Also in 2018 I had downloaded the Trails Illustrated Map covering the Northern Cascades National Park and was able to see the entire Ross Lake detour.  Camped in a smoky haze north of Stehekin, I opted to come back later, hoping that the trail from Rainy Pass to Manning Park would reopen, which it did, with a remaining detour.  Some of my fellow hikers on tighter schedules, painstakingly transcribed information off of my map, even taking photos of my phone screen.  That group did make it to the Canadian border via Ross Lake, but at least one of them was going to quit the trail before they were able to study the detailed map.  Later, when I hiked passed Hart's Pass, I was happy to have a detailed map of the remaining detour, which again helped in picking a campsite, and helped sort out one trail junction where the PCT signage was missing.

Hiking the PCT will be adventure enough without getting lost on a detour.  Good luck and enjoy your hike.

Friday, February 22, 2019

If you hike 22.5 miles per day, leave Kennedy Meadows by June 17


In 2017 many people told me on trail that they wouldn't finish because they spent too much time trying to get through the Sierras, or waiting out the snow between Kennedy Meadows and Bishop.  After hiking 2,000 miles in 2017 and thru-hiking the PCT in 2018, I've talked to a lot of people that missed a thru-hike by 150 to 500 miles, or 660 miles for me in 2017.  For many people, their miss was predictable and avoidable.

2019 looks like another high snow year, so if a thru-hike is important to you, the schedule math below should be important to you as well.  Everything is keyed to your average hiking pace.  For a NOBO hiker that's often what you find comfortable when you hike the Walker Pass to Kennedy Meadows section, or just a little above that pace. I've added a zero/resupply day every 8th day and set September 27th as your finish date in Manning Park, because weather usually gets dicey around then. 

There are speed adjustments for each section since the Sierras are a lot slower than Oregon.  More details on how I calculated trail days for each section, as well as a discussion of each trail section and flipping, are in this post: Calendar Math



Average Pace in miles per day by Kennedy Meadows
Milestones
17.5 20.0 22.5 25.0 27.5
Campo (start)
22-Mar 15-Apr 3-May 18-May 30-May
Kennedy Meadows
18-May 4-Jun 17-Jun 27-Jun 5-Jul
Sierra City
28-Jun 9-Jul 18-Jul 25-Jul 31-Jul
Ashland
31-Jul 7-Aug 13-Aug 17-Aug 21-Aug
Cascade Locks
24-Aug 28-Aug 31-Aug 3-Sep 5-Sep
Manning Park (finish)
27-Sep 27-Sep 27-Sep 27-Sep 27-Sep

Here's a simple way to read this chart:

  • Hiking pace of 20 miles per day or below:  In a high snow year, you have to increase your pace, or plan on a flip to finish.  It's unlikely that you will be able to go up into the Sierras safely and make good miles by early June.  In 2018, which was a low to moderate snow year, many people did successfully go up into the Sierras by early June.  Read this post for options:  Calendar Math  
  • Hiking pace of 22.5 miles per day:  if you can get up into the Sierras by mid-June, a straight-thru hike should be in the cards.  But ... if you find the snow too slow or get tempted to "wait it out" you risk running out of time for a finish at the Northern Terminus.  Key point:  get back on trail rather than cool your heels for an extra week or two, even if it means a skip or flip.
  • Hiking pace of 25 miles per day or longer:  you probably don't need this post to make the miles.  It might just be interesting context for you as you chat with slower hikers.

Putting all this math aside, just stay on trail and don't underestimate how long 2,661 miles takes to hike.  In 2018 I did not set out to do a thru-hike, but I did stay on trail and a thru-hike just sort of happened.  You can read about my 2018 hike here:  My Accidental Thru-Hike

Good luck, and enjoy your hike.  I'll be on the PCT in the Sierras in 2019.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Sweet and Spicy Ginger Cookies -- For Trail or Home


These cookies pack a sweet and spicy punch.  If bakery and commercial ginger snaps seem bland to you, then give this recipe a try.  This is a "double" recipe, but don't worry about overdoing it.  These cookies freeze well sealed in ziplock bags, and they also keep well backpacking due to a very low moisture content.

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cups unsalted butter
2 cups dark brown sugar
3 medium to large eggs
1/2 cup of blackstrap molasses
5 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
4 tablespoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon dried lemon (or lemon zest)
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice (or ground cloves)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

3 cups unbleached white bread flour
1 cup unbleached white whole wheat flour
3 teaspoons baking soda

14 to 16 ounces of candied ginger chips
1 cup (approx.) white sugar for rolling the dough

Directions:
  1. Melt the butter using a double boiler until just melted, but not hot.
  2. Combine the butter and sugar, using an electric mixer
  3. Add the eggs, and mix in
  4. Add the molasses and vanilla and mix in
  5. Add the spices and mix in
  6. Add the baking soda, then the flour and mix in one cup at a time
  7. Add the candied ginger and mix in
Let the dough cool in the refrigerator for 30+ minutes, as it will be easier to work with, and this will also help to bring out the spice flavors.  While the dough cools, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and put silicone mats on your baking pans, or use a light coating of cooking oil.
  1. Make dough balls of about 2 tablespoons and roll them in the white sugar before putting on the baking pan.
  2. Bake until just beginning to brown, about 18 minutes (ovens vary significantly)
  3. Immediately transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling for a ginger snap, or cool five minutes on the pan and then transfer to a wire rack for a slightly chewier cookie.
Blackstrap molasses has a more bitter flavor than regular molasses.  If you have regular molasses on hand, you could adapt by slightly reducing the sugar.  King Arthur Flour works well for this recipe.  For an extra treat, press the dough into baking brittle chips before placing on the pan.

These cookies normally come out with a cracked top, but if you put two pans in at once, the lower pan may come out with a smooth top.  To correct this, put the lower pan in first, and follow with the top pan after 4-5 minutes.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

PCT Risks - Real and Imagined


You can count on questions about bears and mountain lions, and even whether you are planning to carry a gun as soon as people hear that you are planning to hike the PCT.  Hardly anyone will ask what you plan to do about blisters.

This post is a quick overview of common risks that you will actually face, and some of the less common risks.  You shouldn't hesitate to get on trail because of these risks ... just be aware of them and take precautions when you can.  When I use the term "serious risk," I mean things that take people off trail.  I've added some brief comments about my own experience.

The most common serious risks:

Overuse Injuries - Shin splints, joint inflammation, painful neuromas, and other over-use injuries plague long-distance hikers.  These common injuries tend to kick in after the first few hundred miles of hiking and can take you off trail for weeks at a time.  Conditioning before the hike helps and taking zero days early in the hike can also help.  I had to take 15 days off trail in 2017 to recover from an overuse injury to my left knee, and it seriously impacted my hiking schedule.

Hiking Falls - Many, and maybe most, hikers trip or slip and fall resulting in a scrape or two, and a few percent of hikers have serious falls resulting in injuries that take them off trail.  Falls happen on all kinds of terrain, but especially on steep snow, and in icy conditions.  I met one woman in 2018 who had broken her leg in the first two miles of trail the prior year, and met many hikers sporting obvious fall injuries.  I tripped and fell on trail myself, but was lucky not to be injured.

Water Crossing Problems - Due to the high snow levels in 2017, two PCT hikers drowned in the Sierras.  This is unusual and was probably preventable; however, many people get wet, and some people have close calls every year.  Lost footing during a water crossing can result in anything from a serious injury to simply a water-soaked backpack and unusable phone.  I fell off a log at a smaller crossing in 2018 in the early evening and had a cold night with wet gear.

Exceptional Weather - You may be fine 99% of the time, but you are likely to catch at least one exceptional weather event, especially if you start early or finish late.  High winds and hail can both shred lightweight tents.  A heavy snow can obscure the trail, and white-out condition can be deadly since you won't be able to safely navigate.  Multiple rain days in a row can make it impossible to get dry and warm until you make the next town.  These events can cause falls, navigational problems and hypothermia, and these all can have serious consequences.

Hyper and hypothermia - These are almost always the result of unusual weather, poor judgement, risk taking, and/or inadequate gear -- been there, done that.  Once the process starts, you start to lose the mental and physical capabilities that you need to get yourself back on track, so these are serious backcountry problems.  The early stages are common and the late stages thankfully rare.  One simple rule:  at the first hint that you are getting overheated or chilled, take action or make a plan to resolve the problem quickly.

Homesickness, Boredom, and Lack of Motivation - You won't likely stay on trail if you are lonely and homesick, feel like your relationships at home are deteriorating, are bored with the trail, or feel like your hike has no purpose.  I used a Garmin InReach to stay in touch with my wife and listened to audiobooks or music on my phone for a few hours most days.

Anti-social Behavior - While most PCT hikers have a positive experience, anti-social behavior can really "kill the vibe" for others.  Some women and LGBTQ hikers have commented on encountering an uncomfortable "bro-culture" on trail.  Also, some women have had other uncomfortable experiences, and make a point to not camp alone.  The dialogue on the PCT pages on Facebook can become critical, disrespectful, and dispiriting.  You may see some hikers not practicing LNT.  One older hiker commented to me that he felt "invisible" to younger hikers, although my own experience was almost the opposite.

Common, usually less-serious risks:

Blisters - Although very common, blisters are often preventable by taping your feet immediately when you start to feel a hot spot.  But, since most of us wait too long, blisters are a common source of misery on trail.  To minimize problems, break in your shoes for 100+ miles before getting on trail and carry blister-preventative tape.  Switching to a new pair of shoes the week before your start date is likely to result in blisters!

Sunburn and UV damage - Some people get badly burned every year, and a lot of people get an unhealthy overdose of UV during the trail.  Most of the burn problems happen in the first few weeks.  I am very susceptible to burning, so I hike in long pants, long sleeves, a hat, and sungloves.

Poison Oak and Poodle Dog Bush - You are going to encounter poison oak encroaching on the trail in California and Oregon, and poodle dog bush near the trail in Southern California.  Most people sidestep these plants and don't get exposed.

Rodents - When you camp at heavily-used campsites, mice and squirrels can be more aggressive than usual.  Hikers that don't take extra care can end up with chew holes in their tent or backpack.  Rodents, and even deer, will sometimes chew trekking pole and/or backpack straps.

Uncommon, but serious and real:

Dehydration and Electrolyte Imbalance - Most of us are fanatical about carrying enough water for a simple reason:  dehydration is very uncomfortable, and then it leads to difficulty hiking, and can spiral down from there.  When you are sweating a lot, electrolytes can quickly get out of balance, so you should take electrolytes daily.  I met a woman who had to go to a hospital to recover just because she was not taking electrolytes in the desert section.

Snow Blindness - At high altitudes on snow it only takes a short time to "sunburn" your eyes.  This can result in temporary blindness, which is obviously a dangerous situation.  A good pair of sunglasses will eliminate this problem.  I only mention snow blindness here because another PCT hiker told me about his hiking buddy becoming snow blind and having to walk him down and set up a tent for him so he could rest his eyes.  Opticus can make great sunglasses for trail use to your prescription.

Getting Lost - The PCT is such a major trail that it's unusual to "lose" the trail, although it can happen occasionally.  Also there are only a few situations when you will be intentionally off the PCT, such as when digging a cathole, hiking over snow, or when on a fire-closure alternate.  Still, getting lost can lead to tragedy, so it's important to stay aware of where you are.  My phone, with GPS, always worked.  In addition to Guthooks, whenever there was a significant alternate, I loaded the National Geographic Trails Illustrated map covering the area into the Avenza app.  I also carry a Garmin InReach, a physical compass, and a whistle.

Giardia - A few people get giardia or other waterborne illnesses every year because they didn't treat their water.  Probably 80+ percent of hikers are very careful about this.  My personal options:  filter it, use chlorine dioxide tablets, boil it, or trust it (primarily at water caches or campgrounds).

Insect bites - There are ticks on the PCT and especially if you wear shorts, there is a good chance of getting a tick on you at some point, and tick bites can lead to serious illness.  While spiders are mostly harmless, some are poisonous, and can make you ill.  You are almost guaranteed to get mosquito bites, but I have not heard of mosquito-borne illnesses on the PCT yet.

Bee stings - Every year some people get stung by bees or wasps.  If you have an allergy that makes a bee sting potentially serious, you should probably carry some form of protective gear, such as an insect bonnet and/or medicine to counteract the sting.

Lightning Strikes - Especially in the high sierras, you can encounter late-afternoon thunderstorms.  If you are coming up over a pass during a storm, it can be pretty scary.  A few PCT hikers were struck and survived in recent years.

Cars - PCT hikers have been struck by cars while roadwalking, so while we don't spend that many hours walking on backcountry roads, these winding roads with narrow shoulders seem to be especially dangerous.

Hitch-hiking - This is an area where most people have great experiences, but there is always a risk that it won't go well.  Women usually make a point to hitch with at least one other person to reduce their risk level.

Theft - Since hikers are carrying over $2,000 in gear, and some cash, you might expect more robberies and thefts.  This turns out to be fairly rare, but it does happen.  Cameras and electronics are more at risk than your water filter.

Very uncommon, but not impossible:

Bears and Mountain Lions - Kind of like a shark attack, very high fear factor, but very low incidence.  I'm not aware of any actual attacks on PCT hikers ever.  Bears will sometimes false charge hikers and mountain lions will sometimes follow hikers though, both of which can be very scary.

Snakes - I saw over a dozen rattlesnakes in both 2017 and 2018, but there wasn't really any danger from them as long as you didn't get too close.  People aren't part of the "prey template" for a rattlesnake ... we are just too big to eat.

Avalanche, Rock falls, Pine Cones, Branches, and Tree falls - I would like to say that this never happens ... but sometimes nature just seems to fall apart.  It's very rare that PCT hikers get caught in the actual event.  Once I had to dodge a heavy falling oak branch, but not on the PCT.  Burn areas are the worst for tree falls.


Please let me know if I've left off any important risks that you would mention, or if you have other comments about this topic.  Thanks.