Sunset on the PCT

I’m seeing a lot of people going on “shakedown hikes” this year, which is a new term to me. These are practice runs in which people determine what is and isn’t essential for them in preparation for the main thru-hike event, ideally with the goal of lightening base pack weight (gear not including food and water). I find this idea interesting, mainly because this process occurs naturally for me on every hike; I’m constantly learning, re-learning, evaluating, and re-evaluating what I need, what I don’t, what’s important, and what is not. Additionally, my needs change depending on a myriad factors, including: climate, season, water availability, and re-supply opportunities. The shakedown then, never really ends.

This past weekend, I went on a 3-day trip with the intent to do some reconnaissance around the Mountain Fire closure in Section B of the PCT. I packed the gear I intended to bring for the desert Southern California section of the hike, or roughly the first 700 miles. Having packed less than I’ve ever packed before, I was feeling incredibly savvy and legitimately ultralight!


This isn’t that much stuff, right?!


I'm ready to go!

I’m ready to go!

That is, I was feeling ultralight, until my hike partner for this trip, a minimalist fast-packer with extensive long-distance experience got hold of my pack, and began flipping items out like a bargain-bin shopper searching for the real goods. 

Tent? Gone. “It’s not going to rain.” “I don’t cowboy camp! I don’t want to sleep with bugs.” “There aren’t any bugs.” (I am suspicious about this claim, but decide that this is not the hill I’m going to die on today.)

Flip-flops? Gone. “What are these??” (audible tone of disdain is really impossible to describe here.) “I wear those to mill about in camp.” “Why would you mill about in camp after walking until you’ve decided you can’t walk anymore so you need to stop for the day?”  

First Aid kit? Gone. “We’re not going that far. And we’re not going to be that far from civilization.” I rescued my eyedrops from the kit, but not without interrogation. “Why do you need those?” “I had Lasik. I can’t let my eyes get too dry.” I get a suspicious look, but I keep the drops, palming them away, out of sight.

Whistle? Gone. No comment, just a small snort of disgust.

Metal carabiner I’d been using to attach my Platypus to my pack? Gone. “What is this? We don’t bring metal. Heavy!” 

A brief glance into one hip belt pocket produced an, “I see a bunch of lotions and potions in there,” but nothing was removed. I never did need the bug spray, and probably won’t for most of this section, but I did use the chapstick (not frequently enough), the hand sanitizer, and the sunscreen, which together comprise the aforementioned “lotions and potions.”

I made my cases for keeping my headphones and Spot, as they were briefly on the chopping block as well.

A cursory glance over my food bag resulted in no further removals, although by the end of the trip, “I don’t ever want to see that Ursack again.” 

It was a very humbling and mildly traumatic experience as I watched many of the items I had already decided to be essential to my ability to hike successfully get unceremoniously tossed back into the car. 

I should make it clear here that we have very different hiking goals: while he wants to go as far as possible as quickly as possible, to break speed records, my goal is merely to complete the hike, preferably without too much unnecessary pain, and definitely without dying (sometimes, I may tend toward the dramatic). 

So, shakedown completed, I commenced to hiking with significant reservations about what I had left behind while at the same time feeling as if I was carrying nothing on my back, which unquestionably made the walking easier and my pace faster. We set off shortly after having eaten large meals to reduce the amount of food we would need to carry, and hiked south on the PCT from Hwy 74 near the Paradise Cafe. My usual sock configuration had initially been nixed as well, and I had to stop less than two miles from the start to go back to what I was used to, as a hot spot had already started to develop on my right foot. I should have made it clear that I have gone through extensive experimentation to figure out my ideal footwear combination, as when I started hiking, I couldn’t go 4 miles without blistering. Without my first aid kit this time though, I couldn’t afford to blister out.

Ultimately, we came to a large boulder outcropping that was noted on both the Halfmile and Guthook apps as having several tentsites, and stopped for the day. It seemed ideal, until sundown, when it quickly became clear that rock outcroppings on high ground become wind tunnels when night falls. My sinuses became clogged, and without the Benadryl in my first aid kit, I spent an inordinate portion of the night miserably blowing my increasingly beleaguered nose. And, when I had to pee, I  couldn’t just step into my flip-flops and quickly take care of business. Needless to say, I did not rest that night.

The calm before the windstorm

The calm before the windstorm

The next morning, my partner asked if I had a knife he could use to cut into his vacuum-packed food pouch. I replied, a little smugly, “I did, but it was in my first aid kit.” But then, I appreciated sharing some hot coffee, as I had no stove (I intend to go stoveless through SoCal). These gear choices can be tricky! I hiked almost 10 miles that morning and felt not at all burdened by my load. Camp that evening was in a much calmer spot, so I was able to sleep more or less peacefully. 

The view from the "back porch" of campsite #2

The view from the “back porch” of campsite #2

Ultimately, I learned that cowboy camping is not as horrible as I’d imagined, and that if I don’t have flip-flops in which to mill about in camp, I actually get more rest, because I get into my bag and stay there. As a result, I may bounce my tent up the trail while keeping a close eye on the weather forecasts, because losing the tent is a fairly significant weight reduction, and there are many segments in which I will have to carry large amounts of water, which is very heavy. However, I will probably carry the flip flops, because they weigh only 5.4 ounces and do make life much easier in camp if I need to go to the bathroom, or something blows away, or I just want to watch the sunset without having to fully lace back into my trail runners. On the PCT, which will be full of people at the time I hike, I probably don’t need a whistle. I can cut back on the amount of first aid items I carry and I can bounce the bug spray, but I definitely need to take Benadryl and some supplies to deal with blisters should they arise (although this hike was a great exercise in prevention). I will definitely use the “eat and drink now to carry less for later” technique every chance I get. I ate almost none of the food I brought, having filled up at the Cafe and taking with me the leftovers.

Individually, the weight of these items seems negligible, but as a whole, my savings were significant. My base weight was reduced to less than 8 pounds, which translated to a noticeable improvement in my performance on the trail. Clearly, giving greater consideration to every item that goes into my pack and onto my back is worthwhile. It was a challenging exercise, but I greatly appreciate having had this learning experience and the benefits I’ll take with me on the PCT.