The Life of a PCT Thru-Hiker: Washington Edition

Our message for this post is simple: the Pacific Crest Trail section through Washington is special. At least we think so. After five years of living in this state, there’s no place we’d rather be… except maybe somewhere warm and sunny during the thick of winter, but that’s beside the point. As soon as our feet crossed the Bridge of the Gods on the OR/WA border, we felt at home and excited to see new areas of the Cascade range.

Goat Rocks Wilderness

Even with our love for Washington in mind, we’re still able to admit that things start out a little underwhelming considering the hype of this section. But you’ve got to have faith! As you climb out of the Columbia River Gorge and towards Mount Adams, you’re mostly in the heart of a forest. Everything is green and lush. Streams are abundant but the views are limited. That is, until the trail takes you around the base of Mt. Adams, where you catch frequent glimpses of the 12,280 foot volcano. It’s easy to then think, “Huh, the guide books weren’t kidding.” Best of all, you’re just getting started.

Mt. Adams shining pink in the alpenglow at sunset.
Photo by Amos Almy

Once Mt. Adams is in the rearview and you continue north, the next big landmark is Goat Rocks Wilderness. If you ask a PCT Thru-hiker what their favorite section is, 9 times out of 10 (maybe more! This is a made up figure after all) they will chant Goat Rocks – Goat ROCKS! Rather than over explain the spectacular nature of this place, I will shut up and let the pictures say it all.

This stretch has some of the best ridge walking on the entire PCT. Three volcanoes can be seen from one place, two of them looking equally massive from your vantage. Doesn’t this just make you want to dance?!

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The Life of a PCT Thru-hiker: Oregon Edition

When a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker reaches Oregon it’s like putting on a fresh pair of trail runners. The air feels full of fresh oxygen (no stinky foot odor), the trail itself seems smoother, and the uphills are no big deal. Hikers that reach Oregon usually have one thing on their mind: it’s time to cruise! Remember, the mornings are meant for cooking miles, not oatmeal! When thru-hikers talk about hiking 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 miles in a single day, they’re usually bragging about some stretch they did in Oregon. There are two well-known trail challenges that some people embrace. The first one is to hike the entire state (450 miles) in 14 days, and the second challenge is to hike as many miles as possible within 24 hours.

We did neither challenge. But ended up hiking Oregon in a casual 16 days.

Crater Lake

Photo by Amos Almy.

Sure, this is a state for hiking big miles, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t beauty along the way. Crater Lake is one of our most memorable experiences on trail. To get to the viewpoint, you trudge uphill through a green tunnel, wondering when you’ll finally catch a glimpse. Once you break out of the trees, there’s this sandy walk to the caldera rim and GASP – before you is the bluest blue you have ever blued.

Tuna Butter hates walking on sand, absolutely despises it, but he was able to set that aside to walk the Rim Trail, catching amazing views of the lake. If you follow this alternate route (which you should), you’ll find yourself falling into step with national park visitors and day hikers. Can they smell you? Yes, most definitely. But at this point into the trail, what others perceive of you no longer matters.

Calypso eating lunch by ze lake. Photo by Amos Almy.
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A Day in the Life of a PCT Thru-Hiker: NorCal Edition

In 2019, there were hella high levels of snow in the Sierra Mountain Range. The snowpack was at 176%, which left us Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers with a difficult decision to make: do we try to hike through the Sierra or figure out another option? Eventually, Tuna Butter and I settled on skipping 400 miles north into Northern California. This blog post picks up after that skip. You can learn more about what went into that decision-making process in our previous post “To Hike, Flip, Skip or Quit in the Snow Sierra?

We jumped north into Truckee, California and set off on the PCT from Donner Pass (Mile 1157). We made the skip with a trail friend named Fish Addict. After a bus and a hitch, we set off in the early evening of the Summer Solstice.

Mt Shasta and Calypso in conversation. Photo by Amos Almy.

Day 1

It was inevitable that we’d hit snow. We were hiking this section earlier in the season than most thru-hikers. Because of this, we came prepared with our ice axes and microspikes. On a normal year, these items would be unnecessary for this section, but we were glad to have them.

Our original plan for day one was to stay at a hut on trail – one of the few rare ones along the entire PCT. We left Donner Pass separately from Fish Addict, fully intending to meet up that night. Right away, we were walking on several feet of snow. It was a pain to navigate through the thick forest with no trail markers. The GPS on our phones came in handy, as well as our own intuition. Surprisingly, we crossed paths with a SOBO (southbounder) who informed us that the Sierra Club had rented out the hut for the night and were not letting thru-hikers stay there, which was a major disappointment.

Instead, we found a spot to sleep on an exposed ridge. It was super windy but miraculously snow free. We texted Fish Addict with a plan to meet up the next day. Tuna Butter hardly slept that night and kept worrying that the wind would rip apart our tent. Fortunately, that didn’t happen (thanks Big Agnes!).

In the morning we passed the hut full of Sierra Clubbers, all warm and snuggly by their wood stove. I, Calypso, tried not to feel envious as I wore all of my warm layers to hike.

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To Hike, Flip, Skip, or Quit in the Snowy Sierra?

It’s not every year that you have to think about your options for the Sierra. But sometimes, the Sierra Mountain Range gets pummeled with snow and it does not melt away until late July or August. This can make for a difficult decision for a thru hiker. 

When we started the trail (and probably like most thru hikers) we believed we would walk from one border of a country to another: Mexico to Canada. Our intention was to hike a single footpath covering 2650+ miles. We would not call ourselves “Purists”, and most hikers probably wouldn’t either, but there is an inherent attraction in hiking from a place to another in one continuous line – South to North, or North to South. So, as we neared the end of the desert section, we started analyzing our options for the foreboding Sierra Mountains ahead. Here is a bit of our thought process.

This is a little confusing but compare the green line (2019 snow) to the black line (average).

The Sierra were at 176% for their snowpack. That means it was 76% above normal, leaving us and many hikers in a bit of a pickle. Here is a peek at the back and forth that happened frequently among us:

“That snow is going to make navigation really tough.”

“Ya but how bad can it really be? We have Guthooks (navigation app) and paper maps.”

“Have you seen the pictures of people going over Forester Pass?!?”

“Ya but that was like 2 weeks ago, it should be better by the time we get there.”

“What about the raging river crossings?”

“Well, that’s just a part of hiking the PCT! We will be smart about it.”

“But what about the fact that I’m 5’3, pint-sized, and not a very good swimmer?” (Maybe more relevant to Calypso than others).

And you go on and on, trying to justify entering this no-joke of a mountain range. Remember, the trail takes you up to 12,000-14,000 feet in elevation. It’s tricky to make the decision by crowdsourcing, even if you talk to previous thru-hikers. The constant advice you will receive from others is “hike your own hike, man”. Which is good advice but you still have to figure out how to hike your own hike…man.

What the trail looked like heading out of Truckee, CA

Here are some options we had to consider:

  1. Hike through the Sierra, no matter the conditions.
  2. Wait a few days, then a few more, maybe a week or two, and then hike through the Sierra.
  3. Flip-flop (jump ahead and hike back in the opposite direction).
  4. Skip the Sierra, keep hiking north, and return after reaching Canada.
  5. Leave the trail and save it for another year. 
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Insight on a Frugal Thru-hike

This post is a compilation of random tips, tricks, and gear advice that we believe is worth sharing to potential Appalachian Trail thru-hikers–or long-distance backpackers–who are on a budget. It’s the kind of stuff that Lucas and I wish we knew ahead of time.

In total, we spent about $3,000 each (gear included).

Hitch-hike, but be smart about it.

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Lookin’ completely hiker-ish with a purpose, aka not threatening to strangers.

We stuck out our grimy thumbs at passing trucks from the get-go; since Lucas had already hitched around Europe, there was no hesitation. In the beginning, many hikers called up taxis or shuttles to pick them up. Up until Harper’s Ferry, the unofficial halfway point, we still witnessed people calling up taxis. That cost adds up!

  • Most locals near the trail are aware of thru-hikers. They know that you need to resupply in town and want to help/like someone to talk to.
  • If the driver doesn’t ask where you’re headed to within 30 seconds of saying hello, looks at you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, or has an open beer can in their hand, don’t get into the car.
  • Try not to hitch alone, especially if you’re female.
  • You are absolutely allowed to turn people down! Make up an excuse. Say you forgot something, or that you’re actually waiting for a friend.
  • Stand by the road in a place where a car can easily pull-off.
  • Take note if hitching is illegal in the area.
  • Make fun signs like a big thumb, smile, or dance.
  • Go to grocery stores. People will ask if you need a ride back to the A.T.
  • If desperate, approach drivers at gas stations. Tell them your story.

Unless it’s a jacket or shoes, don’t worry about hiking-specific clothing.

Rockin' the hand-me-down hat and thrift store tank.

Rockin’ the hand-me-down hat and thrift store tank.

Instead, simply think synthetics and comfort. We both started with polyester shirts from Target, which we threw away after 700 miles and replaced them with thrift store shirts.

  • Synthetics hold smell, bad. Even if you buy a name brand shirt, it’ll eventually smell like cat urine, so why not recycle shirts and support local businesses for $2?
  • I sent my pants home early on and wore my long underwear under my shorts. It’s less weight, plus you have all the pockets you need.
  • Check hiker boxes for gloves, hats, and even boots.

Why pay to sleep somewhere when you can sleep in the woods for free?

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The morning after we slept in an alpaca barn at Four Pines.

…or on the outskirts of town…or (with their permission) behind a local’s house?

  • We stayed at hostels when all of our items were soaked or the owners were known for being awesome.
  • If you’re in the mood to meet locals, download the app Couchsurfing and give that a go, or simply talk to people you see.
  • If a hostel lists the price of every individual service in your guide book, beware. The nicest hostel owners (I encountered) have some sort of connection to the trail. They treat you like a human being not a profit, and then encourage you to leave donation.
  • Keep an eye out for work-for-stay options. There’s potential to learn skills/apply ones you already have in exchange for a bed.

It’s nice to be treated respectfully, so make sure to respect people in turn.

If the hostel is donation-based, leave a fair donation. If someone gives you a ride to the trail and tells you their story about how they’re struggling, politely offer a few bucks for gas.

Skip restaurants and hitch to the grocery store instead.

  • Load up on both nutritious and calorie-dense food to eat right then and there. For us, it was impossible to come into town not starving, so we’d do things like split a rotisserie chicken, eat a spring mix of lettuce from the bag, bananas, fresh loaves of bread and hummus, etc.
  • In cooler weather, load up on blocks of cheddar cheese; it keeps well for a few days. At times, Lucas and I ate a 1/4 lb. of cheese a day, and it was great. In New England, cheese that’s usually pricey ($4+) can be as low as $1.80.

Mail-drops are worth it, if you have enough time to plan ahead!

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Christmas Day

About half of our resupplies came from mail-drops, which were sent to not-the-best resupply points. When I made sure to vary the food, mail-drops were like Christmas. So yeah, keep them random and exciting!

  • If you buy items in bulk, the mail-drop becomes worth it. Let’s say a box is $15 to ship, and you have 10 clif bars in it that you bought at $.80 each and a huge jar of almond butter for $7. Already, you’ve saved at least $15 versus buying it at the store off the trail, and you still have a box to fill with more items bought at discounted prices.
  • Check-out Baltimore Jack’s resupply guide. It’s on point.
  • If the mail-drops are overly planned and mostly the same, you’ll end up ditching their contents in a nearby hiker box.
  • Stick mini candies in all the box’s empty spaces, except butterfingers because the texture changes.
  • It’s nice eating the (healthy) food you like, especially when the only resupply option is a convenience store.

Have lot’s of Ziplocks at all times. 

Just trust me on this one.

In the near future, I’ll make an in-depth post specifically about gear, but for now, I hope this helps you with your planning!

Gear Review: Salewa Wildfire Approach Shoes

 

Photo courtesy of Salewa

Photo courtesy of Salewa

One of the most important pieces of gear for long distance backpackers are their shoes. For my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, I chose the Salewa Wildfire Approach Shoes. I knew that if I planned on hiking anything more than fifteen miles a day with a 25+ lb backpack, foot love was top priority. I’ll be honest, what originally attracted me to these shoes was its style; the futuristic look and bright color scheme of the Wildfires caught my eye. In fact, my boyfriend/hiking partner, Lucas, saw me checking out the different colors online and said, “Wow. I want those.”

After a bit of research, we both ordered our first pairs. I figured the shoe’s design would function well on the trail’s terrain and, long story short, it does. Untitled2

DESIGN

Although the Wildfires are an approach shoe, their sticky rubber, stiff sole, and unique ankle design serve well for long distance backpacking through tough terrain. There are many sections of the A.T. where scrambling up and down rocks is necessary, and the Vibram Tech Approach EVO sole gripped those rocks with no problem. As a rock climber (and shorter person), I appreciated the rubber toe box a lot. Instead of being forced to lunge up a section of rocky steps, I could find little toe chips and pockets to use as intermediates.

The sticky rubber also allowed Lucas and I the chance to slip off our packs and climb up boulders we saw along the trail, which is something you can’t do in a pair of traditional trail runners! 10336792_470475323085364_6745281100402170421_n

PERFORMANCE

They perform well on steep or uneven terrain, rocky descents, snow, dirt, and just about anything else. However, we did experience some slippage on mud and slick rocks, but I believe that becomes unavoidable to some extent. We purchased the shoes without Gore-Tex, and they dried overnight when laid sideways, which is important for a rainy Appalachian Trail afternoon. Lucas went the entire time without getting any blisters, giving credibility to Salewa’s “100% blister-free” claims. I, however, did acquire a tiny blister on one of my toes (it went away overnight though).

Many people use high-top boots on their hikes for the ankle support. During research, we came across theories that claimed the high-top ankle support actually weakens your body’s natural ability to stabilize itself. Since we have gone as far as we have without twisting an ankle (knock on wood), I’d say the ankle support in the Wildfires was enough.

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FIT

For six months, Lucas wore his Wildfires as his everyday street shoe. He was obsessed with the fit from the moment he took them out of the box. During our thru-hike, the shoes felt right, as if everything was how it should be in a shoe and the toe box was wide enough. That is, until our feet swelled. I made the mistake of ordering only a half size up–big mistake! I encourage you to buy a full size up from your street shoe if you intend to hike over 100 miles within a short period. Feet swelling and collapsed arches are inevitable when long distance backpacking!

Thankfully, the Wildfires are laced similar to climbing shoes, and extend far towards the toe. Again, buy your shoe that extra size up and just tighten the laces for a secure fit. Both Lucas and I found the customizable insoles interesting, but I admit that I did not take advantage of this feature because I used my own super stiff, replacement insole (which I regret). The MFF+ Footbed system is definitely something to play around with and use to create the best fit for your foot. The wider insoles and extra cushion in the heel options will help with foot swelling. We ended up re-lacing our shoes 500 miles into the A.T. because our feet widened too much.

Note: this strange method does allow the shoe to widen, but it doesn’t take advantage of the Wildfire’s unique lacing. photo 3(1)

DURABILITY

It’s not uncommon to see torn up shoes on the A.T.–seriously. Many thru-hikers sport duct tape on their shoes, or have a couple of toes hanging out the front. So, although parts of our shoes began to fall apart, there wasn’t much functional damage. Nothing that would hinder our hiking ability changed; there was no real tread wear and the toe box maintained its edge. I’m absolutely impressed with their durability!

The shoes only became less aesthetically pleasing with time. The first thing to show wear was the EXA shell that covers the bottom sides of the shoe–pieces of the beehive-like plastic began to fall off about 200 miles into our thru-hike. Next, we noticed the back and the sides of our ankle support wearing down to expose the inner foam. Luckily these changes did not effect the feel of our shoes–in truth, my heels couldn’t tell the difference. The rubber never separated from the outer fabric, and there are no holes either. photo 4

CONCLUSION

These shoes are absolutely superb/I highly recommend them. Wear them during a section hike, take them on a climbing trip, or sport them around town–it doesn’t matter, you’ll fall for their magical powers. If you plan on using them for a thru-hike, UP-size and enjoy! The quality of the Wildfire’s design and durability is suited for more difficult, technical hiking. This shoe makes a huge difference when scrambling over rocks. No joke, fellow hikers were envious of our gripping capabilities and asked to try on Lucas’ pair.

In the end, I wore my shoes for a little over 600 miles, and since Lucas wore his for 6 months before the trail, we guess his accumulated mileage is near 1,000. If we would have sized properly, I’d say the shoes could have easily handled 1,500 miles. Soon, we will be sporting new pairs of Firetails, which are the next model up in stiffness. We plan on walking in them all the way to Katahdin!