Time Has Changed the Trail and Technology Has Changed the Hiker

“Time has changed the trail and technology has changed the hiker.” I keep hearing this phrase over and over in my thoughts as I think about the changes that have occurred since my first PCT hike. What has happened to hiking boots rates right up there with the most dramatic changes I have seen with equipment and applies to how technology has changes the hiker.

Yesterday, our boots from Salomon arrived, the Quest 4D GTX. We plan to use them in conditions which exceed the capabilities of our light weight trail runners, primarily in the southern Sierra, but also in the early sections of the PCT like San Jacinto and San Gorgonio. The technology involved in making these shows the depth companies have gone to today in making high quality products. They are made with a chasis construction with 2 different mid-sole components, a patented Contagrip for traction, Goretex for breath-ability and water protection, rubber heel and caps, patented ortholite foam, and so on.

I couldn’t wait to try them out, so today I hit the local mountains. I am use to trail runners, so I immediately felt the increased stability and grip on the steep inclines and the rocky downhill where small pebbles lead to slip and slide. Naturally, they are heavier which slightly slows down the speed of my stride. With a high cut profile I was expecting a stiffer feel, but their light weight and flexible construction gave a fairly close feel to a trail runner.

I tend to compare boots to the classic Vasque Hiker II’s from years ago. These one time popular boots of the seventies were typical of those of that time period in that they required a break in period. Before taking them out on the trail I would wear them for weeks, wear them to school, to work, around the house, and just about anywhere to put the time in needed, so as to avoid the blisters that would come with new, stiff boots on the trail. Half of the break in taking place was more like my feet molding to the boots instead of just the boots becoming more flexible. Hiking in Mission Trails Regional Park today, I climbed North Fortuna, then after dropping to the saddle I headed up South Fortuna. Being a warm sunny day where the fields were green with grasses, I had to look at the deciduous trees to be reminded that it is still winter. Before lunch time I had added Cowles Mountainn to the hike, having exceeded 11 miles and 2500 ft. In the end, I had no blister or hot spots making this a great day of preparing for the PCT, and a reminder of what today’s technology has allowed hikers to do with a brand new pair of boots.

Gary and His New Salomon Quest 4D GTX Boots for Snow on the Pacific Crest Trail. (Click Image for Larger View.)
Gary and His New Salomon Quest 4D GTX Boots for Snow on the Pacific Crest Trail. (Click Image for Larger View.)

Gary’s Gear List, First Edition

As someone who has hiked the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) for the first time forty years ago it has become more and more important for me to become gear and weight conscious as the miles tally up on my hiking career. It is for this reason, that I’ve made it my goal to leave the border with a pack weight of just twenty pounds including my food. Obviously, when in the Sierra Nevada region more cold weather gear will be required which will increase pack weight in that area. One benefit of having such a long hiking career is that I’ve been able to accumulate a healthy list of gear items that can accommodate a variety of weather conditions. This will allow me to cut ounces by swapping items in and out between mail drops and drop offs from our support crew. Keeping that in mind, when you browse through my gear list remember that items along the trial will be picked up and dropped off and this list is more fluid than rigid.

Starting with my “Big Four”, which is made up of my pack, tent, sleeping bag and sleeping pad, you’ll see this section will account for the mafority of non-food/water weight. My pack is the ULA CDT Pack, which could be swapped out should I need more space in the Sierra’s. Jon and I are splitting the weight of the Big Agnes Copper Spur 2 as our tent. My main sleeping bag, which will change in the Sierra’s as more warmth is needed, will be my Marmot Hydrogen Bag which is rated down to 30 degrees. I’ll be sleeping on the Therm-a-rest NeoAir XTherm which adds some warmth by having a layer of air between me and the ground and is also quite comfortable.

Gary's "Big Four" Items for the Pacific Crest Trail (Click for Larger View.)
Gary’s “Big Four” Items for the Pacific Crest Trail (Click for Larger View.)

Moving on to how I’ll cook my meals. I’ll have my pocket rocket stove from MSR along with, typically, an eight ounce fuel can, 2 sporks (because I am notorious spork breaker) and a simple lighter.

Gary's Cooking System for the Pacific Crest Trail. (Click for Larger View.)
Gary’s Cooking System for the Pacific Crest Trail. (Click for Larger View.)

Now that we’ve covered my food preparation let’s talk about hydration. I’ll mostly be carrying two collapsible Platypus bottles for the majority of the trail and supplementing during the long dry spots on the trail with a regular old two liter bottle. My filter will be the Sawyer mini water filter, you can’t beat the ease of use and the weight saving size of that thing!

Gary's Hydration System for the Pacific Crest Trail. (Click for Larger View.)
Gary’s Hydration System for the Pacific Crest Trail. (Click for Larger View.)

Now that we’ve met some of the basic needs along the trail like shelter, food and water we can move on to some of the other items I’ll be carrying inside my pack. Let’s start that off with the navigation and trail essentials I’ll have with me. This includes crucial things like maps, compass, headlamp, first aid and repair kits, my knife and cordage. These are all things we’ll need at some point or another along the way.

Gary's Navigation and Trail Essential for the Pacific Crest Trail. (Click for Larger View.)
Gary’s Navigation and Trail Essential for the Pacific Crest Trail. (Click for Larger View.)

After trail essentials and navigation I’ll have some sanitation and hygiene items along the way. Here is the list of those items.

Gary's Toiletries for the Pacific Crest Trail. (Click for Larger View.)
Gary’s Toiletries for the Pacific Crest Trail. (Click for Larger View.)

Outside of sanitation and trail essentials there are always some items that don’t seem to fit into a certain category, these might be organizational items like stuff sacks and wallets, or personal items like journals and a phone. Here is what I am calling my miscellaneous category, for lack of a better term.

Gary's Miscellaneous Items for the Pacific Crest Trail. (Click for Larger View.)
Gary’s Miscellaneous Items for the Pacific Crest Trail. (Click for Larger View.)

We’ve basically covered all the stuff that I can’t wear, so let’s circle back to those items that can be worn. Firstly, there are the clothing items that will, for the most part, be in my pack. These are situational items such as thermals, jackets, rain gear, beanie, gloves, etc.

Gary's Clothing in Pack for the Pacific Crest Trail. (Click for Larger View.)
Gary’s Clothing in Pack for the Pacific Crest Trail. (Click for Larger View.)

Secondly, there are the items that will serve as my primary clothing pieces. I’ve also included items that will mostly be outside of my pack in this section. These other items are predominantly trekking poles, watch, and eyeglasses.

Gary's Primarily Worn Clothing for the Pacific Crest Trail. (Click for Larger View.)
Gary’s Primarily Worn Clothing for the Pacific Crest Trail. (Click for Larger View.)

Finally, there are those items that we’ll need only as needed. These things include ice axes, snowshoes and bear canisters in the Sierra Nevada area and possible heavier boots, gaiters and crampons should conditions dictate.

Gary's Sierra Nevada and Cold Weather Gear on the Pacific Crest Trail. (Click for Larger View.)
Gary’s Sierra Nevada and Cold Weather Gear on the Pacific Crest Trail. (Click for Larger View.)

So that’s it, that’s the first iteration of what I’ll be taking with my on the trail this year. Some items may drop out if I can save some ounces here or there. I’ll leave you with my pack totals as they stand now. Keep in mind, if you are doing the math on your own here that these totals have the weights of the “Clothing Worn” section dropped because it’s a pack total and those items won’t be in my pack, they’ll be on my back.

Gary's Pack Total Weight for the Pacific Crest Trail. (Click for Larger View.)
Gary’s Pack Total Weight for the Pacific Crest Trail. (Click for Larger View.)

Cold Weather Preparation on the PCT

What kind of weather will we have before we start backpacking the Pacific Crest Trail? That is a question we are frequently asked. The amount of precipitation above or below normal for the season and, especially the amount that falls a few months prior to departing, will be a good indicator of the snow levels in not only the Sierra Nevada region but also southern California. High snow levels in the early miles will require extra gear and will slow down anticipated mileage. Most hikers prefer to start in mid-to-late April to avoid this potential early slowing from the border.

With 3 years of extreme drought, thru-hikers may have gotten complacent in their preparation, preferring to leave earlier because previous reports have not indicated a problem during these early weeks. We prefer to leave at an earlier date anyway, but will be watching weather reports to see if snow gear is required even before reaching the Sierras. So far, for the 2 months of the season starting in October, the precipitation in the northern Sierra Nevada is at 18.3 inches or 145% normal! Lake Shasta, in northern California, is still only at 33% normal, but up from 23% three weeks ago after recent heavy rainfall in the area. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have issued a forecast of 75% chance of average or above average precipitation for January to March. Over the last 5 years the organization’s precipitation forecasts have been significantly lower.

El Niño has yet to be declared but remains a high possibility for the coming year. The warmer waters of the Pacific Ocean affect the jet stream causing it to come ashore in California instead of the Pacific northwest, bringing with it moisture and storms. Increased rainfall means more snow on the PCT, more gear worn and in packs for longer stretches, and potentially unprepared hikers. Will we be hiking or snowshoeing in the southern Sierra Nevada? Only time will tell for sure, what is to come, but we will be keeping our cold weather gear close at hand.

Will Snowy Conditions Be More Likely on the PCT This Year?
Will Snowy Conditions Be More Likely on the PCT This Year?

Thoughts on Training for The PCT

There are many different approaches to go about training for the PCT.  Most of which I imagine are successful considering some hikers simply hike their way into fitness the first several weeks having done little or no conditioning ahead of time.  I remember in the early years, many PCT’ers were so fired up at the beginning that they pushed themselves so hard they often sprained their knees or ankles and then needed to rest several days to recover, losing all that time they were trying to save. I guess that’s not surprising considering how much more the packs weighed back then.

In preparation for hiking the PCT, I have developed a strategy for training with the goal of just being in reasonable shape when we start. I don’t think it’s necessary that I start in peak condition, as if I’m going to run a marathon on day one.  I think that peak conditioning probably won’t occur until we are in the Sierras, after we have put in many successive 20 mile days, and we have acclimated to the high altitude.

As a middle aged hiker at 60 years old, I have learned to know what is reasonable to expect and what’s not.  I can increase my endurance and my aerobic capacity by putting in the necessary time. The rate of increase is much slower than when I was in my twenties, but nonetheless, it will increase with persistence.  Increasing speed is more difficult to achieve, and that probably won’t change much with more work outs. And increasing strength with weights is something I won’t even attempt it.  For me lifting weights of any significant amount usually results in a nagging injury instead of muscle building that happens with the 20 and 30 year olds. So, I’ll leave that to the youth.  All of this leads me to the primary emphasis of my training…. avoid injury!   My desire may push me to do more, but there is a price to pay for overdoing it.

It makes sense to train for a thru-hike by doing a lot of hiking, so I hike up the local mountains in Mission Trails Regional Park, Cowles Mtn, South Fortuna, and North Fortuna.   Typically, I get about 5 miles in, climbing about 1,000 ft each outing.  I try to achieve this 3-4 times a week. When I get a chance I go for a long one in the local mountains to the east, in the Lagunas or Cuyamacas.    I have now added cycling (either mountain or road bike) for about 1 ½ hours after a hike.  The advantage of crossing training with cycling is that it strengthens the knees without further impact that often occurs from too much downhill on rocky trails.  Excessive impact leads to injury.  Crossing training also strengthens different muscle groups that will help support hiking muscles.  The biggest benefit for me is the strengthening of the quadriceps that supports the knees and prevents patellar tendinitis.

Another source of knee pain for me comes from the common condition of flat arches and over-pronating.  I get poor tracking of my knee cap contributing to it aching.  I often use orthotics during a normal work day.  On the trail I look for maximum support and tend to replace my trail runners before the sole wears out.  I like the shock absorbing benefit from a new set of shoes and find it immediately provides relief from a slowly growing knee ache that gradually sets in from the wearing down of a sole.  Over the years of trying many hiking boots and trail runners I found maximum comfort with Solomon XA PRO 3D GTX.  I like its advanced chassis between the soles which provides the great stability and responsiveness as well as the cushioning in its footbed.  I know there are many good trail runners and a lot of times it depends on the fit for each individual, but I liked the Solomon’s so much that I sought them out as a sponsor and couldn’t be happier to have them back us.

I try to use common guidelines while training.  Occasionally, I check my heart rate if I am in a strenuous workout.  I use one of the equations found on the internet like the American Heart Associations which is 220 minus my age which is 160.  I’ll go a little beyond it but not by much.  No need to stroke out now, there is plenty of time to do that on the trail.  I also follow the conversation rule which recommends that your workout  not exceed your ability to carry on a conversation.

Dehydration is a significant issue on long stretches of the trail. Although water by itself will be the primary means of hydration, flavored drinks can help to increase the volume you take in.  Some are better than others for performance.  Gatorade, and various sports drinks don’t have the correct mix of carbohydrates, potassium, and sodium.  They are mostly just sweet drinks made to sell.   Carbohydrate levels in a drink are important for maximum water absorption and electrolyte balance is needed to prevent cramping and maximize muscle performance. (And I will need all the help I can get)  It is easy to dehydrate on the trail if you’re not watching your fluid intake.  Vitalyte was created for these conditions which I why I sought them out as a sponsor. I anticipate drinking about 2 quarts a day of Vitalyte.

I plan to slowly increase my mileage until February and March when I will accelerate the mileage per week and add longer single hikes to include 15-20 mile outings.  I am lucky that the PCT is practically in my backyard, not much more than 30 minutes away, and I have a cabin less that’s less than a mile off the trail. This will make It easy for us to actually do warm up hikes on the trail itself.

So, that is my strategy, and only time will tell whether or not it works.