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?

TRAINING HIKE: Barrel Springs to Agua Caliente Creek Camp Overnight!

As mentioned in a previous training hike post, Marissa and I (Jon) were planning on doing an overnight hike/camp trip to the trail camp that is roughly 4 miles north of Warner Springs along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). This is the account of that overnight hike.

To get to the Barrel Springs entry point on the PCT we parked along Montezuma Valley Road (S22) at the 1 mile marker. There was a pretty well defined dirt pullout on the south side of the road with good shade cover where we parked. From the car we entered onto the PCT by crossing the road (Look both ways! The speed limit is 55 here so cars can come up fast!) and entering through a cattle gate heading north. This part of the trail begins with a slight climb on some looping ridge lines finally bringing you to the top of a chaparral covered ridge. From here you’ll descend through the chaparral and cacti to reach the valley below. Once at the valley, you may feel a bit exposed as the terrain is much more prairie like and contains nearly no overhead growth until you reach the next ridge. The first valley is pretty short, though, and serves as a bit of a prelude to what is to come. After the first valley you’ll traverse another small ridge with more chaparral and cacti before descending again to the next valley floor. The climbs are negligible, as you’ll see in the stats images at the end of this post. The total gain/loss for the entire one-way hike from Barrel Springs to our camp site was only 1040 ft. Once you’re on the second valley floor you’ll head out into the open again with great panoramic views of rolling hills and their accompanied ridge lines on the outskirts. The trail first takes you to some rock formations you can just make out as your start your trek through the meadow. From these first rock formations you’ll follow the trail up a slight ascent and then back down again as it bends west a bit and finally arrives at Eagle Rock. Eagle rock is another grouping of rock formations right around the 5 mile mark.

A main challenge in this open space, at least on the days we were coming through in mid-November, was wind. The wind coming through the valleys can be pretty brutal if you don’t have some sort of wind protection. I was wearing a long sleeve dryfit shirt to protect against the sun and wind and my hat has a chin strap which came in very handy in this area. We took a break at the trail crossing to Eagle Rock (you can take a small side trail up to the rocks if you’re nasty) where there were a few decent sized rocks near the trail that we could get a rest from the wind for a few minutes. Click here for a video of the panoramic view from the trail with my AEE MagiCam SD22 (It’s like a GoPro but a fraction of the cost). I replaced the annoying wind flooding the camera’s microphone with a more soothing, yet still fitting, tone.

Eagle Rock between Barrel Springs and Warner Springs
Eagle Rock between Barrel Springs and Warner Springs on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Click here for a video of the area.

After leaving Eagle Rock the trail leads you through the final stretch of meadow and then into a shaded area that appears to follow a creek bed, which was dry during our hike. From here, you’ll descend some while enjoying the much more protected area of the shady oaks around you until you finally reach Warner Springs. Before you reach the first crossing of Highway 79 near Warner Springs you can opt to take the California Riding and Hiking Trail into town if you want to grab a bite to eat or need to tend to anything else in a small town before heading to camp. We continued on the Pacific Crest Trail with goes wide to the west of the town. If you continue on the PCT, first you’ll come to the Warner Springs Fire Station where you will have to come up to the road and cross (you can’t go under the bridge even when the creek is dry as there is a barbed wire fence on one side). Once across Highway 79, you’ll follow the trail northwest through some more open meadow lands until you reach some more shady oaks just before the second Highway 79 crossing. Just before crossing the second road we took another little break at what appeared to be an ill maintained campground. It wasn’t pretty but there were picnic tables and a rope swing in the area we set our packs down.

After starting up again you’ll pass by what looks like some fire fighter training grounds with a ropes course and some other structures around. Then you’ll come to the white bridge that you would park near if you were going to start the Agua Caliente Trail hike that was outlined in a previous post. From here, you will follow the PCT northbound as described in that earlier Agua Caliente Trail Hike post.

You can find a short video showing the Agua Caliente Creek trail camp site that we used on the San Diego Sloggers Facebook page. Here area  couple pictures of the area if you’re lazy.

Agua Caliente Creek Trail Camp on PCT
Agua Caliente Creek Trail Camp on PCT. Click here for a short video showing the whole area.
Agua Caliente Creek Trail Camp on PCT.
Agua Caliente Creek Trail Camp on PCT. Click here for a short video showing the whole area.

Below are the hike stats from our adventure.

Barrel Springs to Agua Caliente Creek Pace
Our Pace From Barrel Springs to Agua Caliente Creek Trail Camp along the PCT.
Barrel Springs to Agua Caliente Creek Trail Camp
Our Elevation Gain/Loss From Barrel Springs to Agua Caliente Creek Trail Camp along the PCT.

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.

TRAINING HIKE: Agua Caliente Creek Trail

When preparing for a trip as long as the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) it is important to not only make sure your supply packages and town stops are planned out and in order. It’s also crucial to prepare your body for the wear and tear of walking all day everyday for an extended period of time. This means doing as much pre-departure training hikes as possible. Currently, as we are roughly 5 months out from the departure date of April 1, 2015, I am  hiking at least 3 times a week. Most of which are the usual 5-8 mile in town trails I’m used to. However, to give myself a change of scenery I try to get out of town when I can. A lot of the time this includes small sections of the PCT that can be done as day hikes. This hike is exactly one such section.

Less than a mile from Warner Springs, CA along highway 79 is a bridge that carry the cars on the highway across Agua Caliente Creek. At this bridge you’ll find turnouts on either side of the road to park your car. On the west end of the bridge is  a trail signed for the California Riding and Hiking Trail and just a few hundred feet up the trail is the PCT. Once entering onto the PCT, head north on the trail which will situate the seasonal stream of Agua Caliente Creek on your right hand side.

Late Summer view of the Pacific Crest Trail as it heads north along Agua Caliente Creek near Highway 79.
Late Summer view of the Pacific Crest Trail as it heads north along Agua Caliente Creek near Highway 79.

As you make your way north you’ll eventually cross the creek bed a couple times before heading up and around a small climb which takes you around a hillside and eventually back down to the creek. Once back to the creek after the climb (and subsequent descent), you’ll cross the creek again and then follow the trail along side of the stream bed for a while. While my wife, Marissa, and dog, Buster, hiked this in late summer I imagine that this section of the trail could be a bit soggy and problematic when water is actually flowing in the creek. Aqua Caliente Creek was bone dry by the time we made the journey in mid-October due to the severe California water drought. After following the creek bed for a while you’ll reach a fairly well defined campsite in a grove near the creek. This is where we chose to turn around which ended up being just short of 4 miles from our starting point on Highway 79. The campsite has a clearly groomed flat area for a tent and even a fire ring, though I believe this area is in the Cleveland National Forest which could make utilizing the fire ring slightly unlawful. Marissa and I are planning on extending this hike to come back to this campsite the week of Thanksgiving. Our likely extension will include starting at Barrel Spring along S2 (Montezuma Valley Road) and hiking up here for an overnight. I’ll detail that journey separately should it become a reality.

Buster relaxing near the makeshift fire ring at the campsite near Agua Caliente Creek
Buster relaxing near the makeshift fire ring at the campsite near Agua Caliente Creek.

From the campsite grove you’ll, simply, turn around and retrace your steps back to Highway 79 and your car. This was an enjoyable hike with some nice late Summer scenery, though I imagine water being in the stream would make it a bit more green and lush. I’m looking forward to seeing the same spot when we make our way past in mid/late-April next year!

Here are some trail stats I took with the MapMyRun app on my phone. It’s a nice free app (can pay for it for additional tracking and features if desired) to track things like distance, pace and elevation.

Stats from the MapMyRun app tracking distance, time, pace, calories and a map view of Agua Caliente Creek hike.
Stats from the MapMyRun app tracking distance, time, pace, calories and a map view of Agua Caliente Creek hike.


Stats from the MapMyRun app tracking elevation gain/loss, max and min elevation for Agua Caliente Creek hike.
Stats from the MapMyRun app tracking elevation gain/loss, max and min elevation for Agua Caliente Creek hike.