A Day in the Life of a PCT Thru-Hiker: Desert Edition

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to hike the Pacific Crest Trail? If so, we hope to give you an idea of what it is like with posts about each section of the trail.

In 2019, my boyfriend (Tuna Butter) and I (Calypso) hiked the PCT. The whole. damn. thing. And we learned a thing or two along the way. Hopefully this series – this so-called glimpse at “A Day in the Life of a PCT Thru-Hiker” – will provide some insight into what hiking the trail is like.

If not… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

We hope to do a post each week first detailing the 5 different sections of the PCT: Desert, Sierra, Northern California, Oregon, and Washington. We might intersperse some bonus and Q&A posts. For now, let’s start with the Desert section.

Outside of Mt Laguna, photo by Amos Almy.

For the first 700 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, northbound hikers are subjected to the beauty and harsh conditions of the Southern California desert. The first few hundred miles are especially tough on the mind and body. Mentally, you have to adjust to packing up and unpacking your home every day, body aches, and to things like creepy spiders and various flavors of rattlesnakes. Also, your body isn’t used to walking 15-25 miles a day; many hikers get injured within a month or two of being on Trail. To avoid this, Tuna Butter and I intentionally hiked around 12-15 miles each day for two weeks. Of course, some twenties snuck their way in, but we tried to keep our egos at bay. It is important to listen to your body and not start too fast.

Note: Before I break down the average day-to-day, I wanted to bring up the conditions of 2019. It was an abnormally wet spring in California. April and May brought rain showers and cool, overcast days to SoCal. In the mountains, this translated to late season snowfall. We walked through snow in the High Desert. Filled our bottles up at unmarked streams. The wildflowers were also exceptional (yes, we got to experience the ‘Poppy Apocalypse‘).

In the desert, there were many instances of rain – once even snow. We know some folks who were able to hike the L.A. Aqueduct, a notoriously hot and exposed section, during the day… and with their puffy jackets on! However, in May we took several weeks off from Trail to go see family, and once we’d made it back to the trail things were not the same. Before we left, peak temps were around 80F. When we came back in June, it was a good twenty degrees hotter during the day. I’m talking over 100F in full sun, every day. Water was more limited, too. We had to quickly adapt to this change, carry more water, and take longer siestas.

Because of this break in time, I believe this post will provide a pretty accurate representation of the Desert section, even during a drier year.

Waking Up

For this section, we often woke up between 4 and 5am, sometimes earlier but rarely later. Our intention of an early morning was to get in as many miles as we could before 11am or noon, when our inevitable siesta would occur. Tuna Butter is a morning bird. I often relied on him to make the call that yes, we are in fact getting up and not snoozing the alarm again. He communicated this decision to me by deflating his raft-of-an-air-mattress right by my ear, and a pestering “It’s time to get up. Now.”

Once it was time, I deflated my own sleeping pad, rolled it up into a small burrito shape and then crammed my down quilt back into its stuff sack. After placing those items at the bottom of my pack, I then gathered up all other miscellaneous gear.

Our crisp new gear and ziplock bags, photo by Amos Almy.

For the first few weeks, we were both still figuring out what items were absolutely essential. My rule of thumb is that if I don’t use an item within a two-week period, it’s gone. Of course, there are exceptions for first aid supplies and repair kits. So during this process the items in my bag would often get shuffled around, ditched, and occasionally replaced. But that’s just how it goes in the beginning of a thru-hike.

Breaking Down Camp

Tuna often took off the rainfly as I packed away my personal items. Next came the stakes. Once I’d made it outside of the tent, crawling from my night’s den like the zombie creature that I am in the morning, he shoved the tent body into his backpack and I took the poles and stakes. Right after getting out of the tent, I’d sit on the ground and put on my dusty socks over dusty feet, then put on my dusty dirty girl gaiters, and then my Altra Lone Peak trail runners. Cue the hand sanitizing.

Then I removed food from my stuff sack and placed it near the top or in the mesh part of my pack for easy access. My snacks for the day went into a holey ziplock bag I lovingly referred to as my “snack pack”. I also poured a packet of instant coffee into a small juice bottle that I kept near my shoulder, added water, shook it up with the lid closed, and voila! A nice cup of mediocre coffee, ready to go.

Ignore the giant pine cone and check out the juice bottle, aka my coffee container

This whole process took us anywhere from 30-45 minutes. If I was a tired grouch, it took longer. Really, I feel bad for Tuna Butter having to deal with me everyday before my intake of caffeine.

Morning Hiking

Once we hit the Trail, I’d take sips of coffee while hiking and eat my Brown Sugar and Cinnamon Poptarts – arguably the best Poptarts – during a flat section or downhill. Sometimes hunger overtook logic, and I inhaled bits of crumbled pastry while huffing and puffing up steep terrain. There was never an excusable reason to eat breakfast while sitting, and breaks felt unacceptable in the morning. No matter how tired we were, the mornings were meant for cooking miles, not oatmeal. Remember that. We learned right away that midday heat brought long stretches of inactivity in the afternoon, that the evening wasn’t much cooler, and making up mileage during those times can be torturous.

I tried to limit my intake of media in the morning. Mornings were peaceful, quiet: a walking meditation, or time for deep reflection on society and the self (We rarely talked to each other in the morning. If so, it was because I’d drank too much coffee and subjected Tuna to buzzed ramblings about society and the self). It was the time of day to see things like tarantulas eating millipedes, the sun rise over distant mountains, and few to no other hikers. The desert section of the PCT can get pretty crowded, and so it was nice to have that time and space to ourselves and the mountain lions.

If our water supply was running low, which it usually was by midmorning, we’d plan to stop at a water source within an hour or two to fill-up. In the desert, you often plan your whole day, sometimes week (!), around access to a water cache, water tanks, or a seasonal stream. You learn how to time your breaks and figure out how many liters of water you should carry in-between waterless sections. I personally drank at least a liter for every five miles during the day, and filled up 4Ls at a time – sometimes more. It was always a bonus, but not a rule of thumb, when we got to take a lunch break or camp by water. That rarely happened though. Long story short, water is life. Remember that as well.

Lunch / Taking Breaks

Oh, the inevitable 1-5 hours of “rest” ! In theory, this is a time for naps but what actually happens looks more like this…

It’s 11:20am and you’re trying to make it to noon before stopping for lunch. Your stomach is growling like an elephant, so you shove another chalky granola bar down your gullet, hoping to quiet the beast that is you. You hike faster. That only makes you hotter, hungrier. There are no more shadows on trail. Now you are engulfed in pure, unfiltered UV rays. This makes you hotter. So you stop hiking at 11:43am and call it close enough. Your next task is to find some shade, because you read in a guide book that this is what people do when it becomes too hot. The thing that the guide book failed to mention is that there are little to no ~ true ~ trees in the desert. So you leave the designated footpath in search of something, anything, avoiding cacti and rattlesnake with each step. Eventually, you fling off your pack and settle beneath the shade of a Joshua tree, which is really just a bush, and eat whatever food you have rationed for lunch. By now, it is noon and the sun has reached its broiling setting. So you cuddle closer to your spiky plant friend with the hopes of taking a nap. However, the guide book also failed to mention how the sun moves in the sky, which causes the shadows to move, too. You spend the next 1-5 hours awake, crawling on your hands and knees to stay in whatever sliver of shade you managed to find, anxious to get hiking again.

Tuna Butter taking a pretend nap under a Joshua tree

As an aside: the desert section of the Pacific Crest Trail is the only time I carried a basic Kindle ebook reader during my thru-hike. While Tuna tried to nap, I spent hours at a time reading Harry Potter and other books too heavy to carry in paperback. It was nice for me, and I recommend other bookworms consider an ebook reader or the Kindle app for your phone for this section in particular.

Afternoon Hiking

In the afternoon, meaning anywhere from 3pm to post-sunset, we started to hike again. We chose when to leave the comfort of our make-believe shade depending on the temperature and sun exposure of the trail. You know, picking the time of day when rattlesnakes become active again (same schedule really). Besides having to jump from a rattler on Trail every day or so, the afternoons were tough because it was still hot af. Still sunny. But in theory, we would begin hiking as soon as it began to cool off. I liked listening to podcasts and audiobooks during this time of day as a way to stay motivated. And by listen, I mean binge hours of podcast episodes and audiobooks.

Though “old school” hikers complain about seeing other hikers on trail with an earbud in, I craved the mental stimulation. When you hike 8-12 hours a day, there is not much time for anything else, unless you’re learning about something through your ear holes. In my opinion, podcasts and nonfiction audiobooks are like attending mini-lectures in the backcountry on any subject you’re interested in. It provided me with fresh info to ponder and contemplate as I walked, and often served as an afternoon conversation starter with my partner, whom I’d see everyday – 24 hours a day. The benefits for us outweighed whatever cons people may argue.

During our afternoon stretch, we were tasked with finding water and refilling our bottles before making it to camp. “Camp” is wherever we decided to aim for during lunch. We usually tried to reach a certain amount of miles hiked or a specific site, and we often ended the day on a big downhill, saving an uphill for the cooler morning.

Setting Up Camp / Dinner

What I lovingly refer to as the “McMansion”, also known as the Tiger Wall UL 3.
Photo by Amos Almy

We became a well-oiled machine in setting up camp pretty early on. It’s our best skill as a couple. In fact, I only seriously considered dating Tuna Butter once we had gone on a backpacking trip and I saw how well we could camp together. #couplegoalsamiright?

Most evenings Tuna was tasked with building our tent, meanwhile I gathered up our ingredients for dinner and began to cook. Tuna would finish setting up our Big Agnes shelter within five or so minutes, depending on the terrain, and then sit down to take off his shoes. Sometimes he’d get up in his camp shoes to go collect unfiltered water, though we pretty regularly “dry camped” in the desert. Usually, he worked on whatever miscellaneous task needed to be done while I focused on dinner.

Everyday, I poured what was rationed for water into our titanium pot, lit the stove, boiled said water, added spices, oil, and whatever Knorr Side or pasta dish we planned to eat that night. Since our cooking set-up was minimal, I sat by it at all times and babied the pot, preventing the wind from blowing out the flame by blocking it with me body and kept a hand on the handle. Nobody wants spilled dinner.

After a minute or so of boiling our food, I’d turn the flame off to save fuel and let the pot sit with the lid on for 10-20 minutes as our food absorbed the water. During this time, I went over to the tent to blow up my sleeping pad and lay out my quilt.

Dinner was, arguably, one of the most. wonderful. times. of. the. daaaaaay. In the afternoon, I’d find myself mentally salivating at the thought of whatever we had planned for dinner. A friend recently asked if I ever got bored or sick of dinner. My answer?

Never. Absolutely never. It was our most realistic meal of the day. Everything else was candy bars and saw dust.

Bedtime!

After dinner, we’d crawl into the tent and settle in for the night. Amos would journal on his phone and then pass out. I’d stay up too late reading on my Kindle. And so were the days when we didn’t have to do big miles. Of course, this all changed after the desert. I sent home my Kindle and we hiked longer days.

Reaching the end of the Desert section felt like a serious achievement. Tuna Butter believed that if we made it through that section then we were going to finish the whole trail (barring injuries). You start thinking about plentiful water, real trees, green plants, and cooler temperatures. You imagine your feet being less dusty and only having to carry 2 liters of water! Finishing a 700 mile section and sucking down a soda and beer (or two) at Kennedy Meadows felt like bliss.

Bonus: Trail Towns

Trail towns – they can be great for waiting out less-than-perfect weather, refilling your tank, and good old-fashioned socialization. However, beware of vortexes and other money-blowing opportunities! There are more trail town opportunities in the SoCal desert than anywhere else on Trail. Tuna Butter and I spent little money on hotels, hostels, and Airbnbs. In fact, when we stayed at hotels or hostels it was mostly out of necessity (snowstorms, stranded somewhere, etc). We got lucky and stayed several times with Trail Angels. More on that another time.

Our top 3 Desert Trail Towns:

Idyllwild: The mayor is a dog! What else do you need to know??

But in all seriousness, the food in town was varied with several affordable options. Well-stocked grocery store. Very walkable layout. We were invited to stay with an awesome Trail Angel who approached us on the street for no reason other than “You two looked like nice people. Your outfits match!” Great thrift stores (I got a new pair of Nike shorts for 3 freaking dollars. Like what?). Easy hitches. Good hiker boxes, etc.

Wrightwood: the Hardware store is great, with an excellent hiker box. I liked the library – nice folks. Easy resupply. Fairly walkable town. Nice services. I got a quality 30-minute massage for $30 (it helped with the intense pain in my neck called Tuna… I mean, jk). There is a list of Trail Angels you can contact for a potential place to stay and a hostel. We lucked out and stayed with a like-minded couple and their sweet pup. In fact, they hosted us two nights while we waited out a rain/snowstorm.

Agua Dulce: Do you know why everyone loves Hiker Heaven and the Saufleys? ‘Cause they’re amazing. End of story. It was a wonderful place to wait out a freak rainstorm and Tuna’s cold. They run a tight ship, which is absolutely necessary when serving 30+ hikers at a time. We were able to do laundry, use the internet, pick up a package, take showers, and use a community kitchen… all in one place – their home! However, this year the Saufleys are moving to Washington, and who can blame them? For those interested in becoming professional Trail Angels, their place is up for sale.

And that’s all folks!

I hope this summary of our experience in the desert section is useful, entertaining, or whatever. This was Tuna’s worst section by far; he hated the heat, the siesta schedule, the weird rashes he’d get on his ankles, the rattlesnakes, etc. And I’m not going to lie, while this wasn’t quite the same living hell for me as it was for Tuna, I agree that it was by far my least favorite section. But then again, we are the type of people who choose to live in one of the lushest, wettest places in the country. (Western Washington)

Until next time,

Calypso

3 thoughts on “A Day in the Life of a PCT Thru-Hiker: Desert Edition

  1. Pingback: The Life of a PCT Thru-hiker: Oregon Edition | PEAKED CURIOSITY

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