The gear I'm going to carry on the trail is going to get me through months and months of hiking, so putting together the perfect pack is no easy feat. Over the past month my gear choices have gone through several different iterations, based on what I already own, what other PCT hikers recommend, and most important, how much it weighs.
If I'm going to have to carry it every day, I for sure don't want to be lugging around fifty pounds of stuff. Weight plays a big factor in what I choose to bring and not bring. You'd think that a longer-length hike requires more gear, but actually, (besides food) it tends to require less. The best thing of being out in the wilderness is realizing how well you can live with so few personal commodities.
So, without further ado, here is the (revised!) list of stuff I brought on the PCT and how well it worked or didn't work!
PACK: REI Flash 52 liter
Prehike: Although Gregory is my favorite pack brand, they don't really have a good "ultralight" pack on the market at the moment. REI packs tend to fit me well, too, so I opted for the lightest weight pack they make. I generally backpack with 65 liter packs, so dropping to 52 liters is going to make packing a bit more of a challenge! (I like bringing the kitchen sink. No judging.)
Posthike: This pack worked really well for me. It fit nicely, carried the right amount of gear, and withstood some serious abuse over 2,000 miles. You get really attached to your gear when it's your whole world, and I can safely say that I loved my pack. The REI Flash was also the third most common pack on the trail after the Granite Gear and ULA brands. A lot of thru-hikers shed weight by ditching the top loader, but I like having a "junk drawer" for snacks and my headlamp, so I kept mine on the whole trek. No regrets.
Prehike: After a lot of back and forth (this was a tough decision for me) I ultimately decided at the last minute to change up my sleep system. Southern California is supposed to have very cold nights and very prickly (read: cactus thorns) ground, so I'm going to have a 20 degree sleeping bag with a closed cell foam sleeping bag, and then switch after the cold Sierra mountains to the not-as-warm but lighter weight 32 degree bag and blow-up sleeping pad.
Posthike: I LOVED my sleep system. The REI Joule (though slightly on the heavier side) is one of the best sleeping bags I have ever owned. I was never cold in it, and usually didn't want to get out of it in the morning! It was also nice to switch to a much lighter sleeping bag once I was out of the Sierras. The only thing I would change would be to switch back to my 20+ degree bag in Washington. In the last two weeks of my hike, the weather got drastically colder and I had a few chilly nights sleep in my 32+ degree bag. Otherwise, I loved everything about my choices.
Prehike: The BA Scout UL 2 is brand new from Big Agnes, and having taken it on a couple gear shakedown hikes, I really like it! It's basically a glorified tarp, without poles (you use your trekking poles, to save weight) and the rainfly is integrated into the tent itself ("single wall"). It's surprisingly roomy on the inside (fits both of us and our gear!) for how small it is - only 1 lb 9 oz and it packs to the size of a Nalgene bottle - and the mesh running around it keeps it ventilated. Still, I think having a warmer single-wall tent will be good for those colder nights.
Posthike: Katie and I called the Scout tent our "Taj Mahal" because it was so gloriously roomy and lightweight and everyone was jealous. Besides these obvious pluses, it did have a few downsides. In damper conditions, it condensates pretty badly on the inside (being a single-walled tent, this is expected), and in a Pacific Northwest downpour it can be uncomfortable and leaky. I recommend this tent for California, as the conditions there are perfect for it, but I was glad to switch to my double-walled Fly Creek UL 2 for Oregon and Washington. A lot of people on trail had the one person version of this lightweight tent, but since the two person version is only 4 oz more and has a lot more space, it was totally worth it to me to get the bigger one. The only issue I had were some finicky zippers, otherwise, I loved it and would totally do another long distance hike with the Fly Creek.
STOVE: Jetboil Titanium Sol (with isobutane fuel) + matches and lighter
Prehike: I know a lot of people opt for alcohol stoves on long distance treks, but I didn't like that they are finicky and have a limited ability to simmer. The Jetboil Titanium Sol stove + cup boils water lightning fast, requiring less fuel in the long run, and more time for relaxing. Plus, the attached cup acts as a pot and a storage unit for the stove, fuel, and accessories.
Posthike: Jetboils and alcohol stoves were the two most common cook systems on trail. Since all I was doing each night was heating up a bag of Pasta Sides, the Jetboil was more than enough for me and I had a ready-made meal in no time flat. Plus, the canister fuels lasted much longer than expected so I didn't have to worry very often with replacing them. The only downside to the Jetboil is its bulky shape and weight. And we did end up with a burner that had a broken lighter, so bring some sort of lighter/matches with you! Toward the end of the trail (due to long hours hiking and exhaustion) a lot of people were growing tired with cooking and went stoveless through Washington. I considered it, too, but it was nice to have something warm on a cold night.
Prehike: Since Southern California has lots of prickly stuff to sleep on, taking my favorite, comfy 3" thick insulated sleeping pad is not going to be the best option (WAHHH!). Instead, I'll be taking the lighter weight Thermarest Z-lite, which is a closed cell pad (ie, foam) so that it won't accidentally pop in the backcountry. Once I get out of cactus country I hope to change to the NeoAir (11 oz!) insulated air core and sleep in luxury again.
Posthike: This system worked really well. I highly recommend taking a Z-lite pad through California. Not only will you avoid popping an inflatable pad on prickly things, but you have an instant afternoon siesta mat to sleep on in the middle of the day. In the desert you can spend up to five hours hiding from the heat of the afternoon, and the Z-lite is a perfect nap pad. Don't worry about comfort - you'll be so tired at the end of each hiking day that lying on a closed cell foam pad will feel like heaven. And once you get to Oregon and switch to that inflatable NeoAir.... ahhhhhhhhhh. (Hint: cut off three panels of your Z-lite once you switch to a NeoAir so you can use it as a lightweight sit pad!) Can you tell I was in love with my sleep system? It's important to be happy at night!
FOOTWEAR: Brooks Cascadia 7/8 Trail runners
Prehike: This trail running shoe is apparently the most popular choice for footwear on the PCT. It was also one of my hardest decisions. Although they are unfailingly comfortable to wear, I have never backpacked in anything less than a waterproof mid-hiking boot, so switching to a more flexible, meshy running shoe is something very different for me. Paired with some green Superfeet insoles, hopefully these will keep me going in the hot desert of Southern California. I have a total of five pairs so I can switch every 500 miles or so.
Posthike: Unsurprisingly, I had some bad blisters my first month on trail. (I think this would be true for any shoe/boot, however.) Once my feet were used to walking 20+ miles every day, the Cascadias worked wonderfully. I got a new pair every 500 miles and the green Superfeet insoles are a MUST. Granted, my feet were always, always sore, but I never had any debilitating problems. I do know that those people with plantar fasciitis and other foot issues were much happier in true backpacking boots. And if I did the trail again I might consider boots, myself, once out of the desert. My only regret this time was that I didn't get a pair of waterproof boots for Washington. It rained so often and my wet feet were so miserable that I would highly recommend swapping for boots for the last stretch of trail.
TREKKING POLES: REI Traverse Power Lock poles
Prehike: I adore trekking poles. They're one of my favorite pieces of gear to hike with. But truthfully, I don't like these trekking poles very much, only because of the cork handles, which tend to rub my hands the wrong way. But this pair has locks on the outside of the pole, which is subject to less frequent breakdowns than the inner locks. And I don't really want to buy another pair, so... cork-handled poles it is.
Posthike: I had a love/hate relationship with my trekking poles. On the one hand, they saved my ass every time I had a brutal hill to climb, and they saved my knees every time I had a steep descent. But on the other hand, I tripped/ kicked/ hit myself/ dropped/ stumbled/ banged into my trekking poles so often while walking that I was usually cursing their uselessness. Sometimes I threatened to throw them off a ridgeline. (Just kidding, trekking poles. I would never do that to you.) I will say that they were lifesavers for river crossings and poop-hole digging, and overall, I wouldn't dream of hiking without them. My tip: get a pair with external locks. They tend to break less. And you will most likely need to replace the tips during your journey. I wore mine completely down before I even left California.
WATER STORAGE: Platypus Big Zip 3L, Nalgene Canteen 48oz, and 1L Gatorade bottles
Prehike: The best thing about the Platypus water bladder is that when empty, it weighs practically nothing. I integrated my Sawyer filter into the hose line so that the whole system works as a filter. I can simply fill up the bag with dirty water and drink straight from the tube with the filter attached. These bags do have a tendency to break over time, so I have a couple of smaller backups, just in case.
Posthike: This was a great water system. It allowed me to carry up to 6L of water through the desert, which was usually more than enough. I kept only filtered water in my Gatorade bottle for drink mixes and the canteen was for holding "extra" water directly from a water source to be purified later. Once out of the desert I got rid of the Nalgene canteen and carried instead another 1L Gatorade bottle that I used as my extra "dirty" bottle to fill up my water bladder. Usually it was empty, as 2L was enough to carry through OR and WA.
WATER FILTER: Sawyer 3-way Inline filter + AquaMira drops
Prehike: This filter integrates right into my water bladder and doesn't need replacement filters - you can simply backflush the filter to clean it. The only tricky thing is you have to make sure the filter doesn't freeze, or it breaks. I generally just sleep with mine at night. I'm also taking AquaMira drops as a chemical backup in case something happens with my filter.
Posthike: I was extremely happy with my water filter choice. It saved time and effort to simply fill up my bladder and drink as I hiked without worrying about chemicals or pumps. I carried AquaMira but only used it once or twice with a few sketchy water sources. Generally, using my inline filter as a gravity filter or directly drinking from it worked perfectly.
HEADLAMP: Black Diamond Spot
Prehike: Not the lightest headlamp out there, but it's bright and has several good settings: spot, diffused light, red light, and a range of brightnesses. Plus, mine is lime green. My favorite!
Posthike: Yes, there are much lighter weight headlamps out there, but you sacrifice brightness to cut ounces. We did a lot of night hiking in the desert and trust me, you want a headlamp with a good spot beam so you can see. I was happy with mine, though be warned it does eat through batteries faster than I thought - the brightest setting won't stay that way long. I changed batteries three times over the course of my thru-hike.
BATTERY CHARGER: Goal Zero Guide 10 (through California) and Anker (through OR and WA)
Prehike: Initially I started with the Goal Zero Adventure Pack solar charger and Guide 10 battery pack. After my first day on trail I sent the solar charger home since it weighed a pound. I kept the Guide 10 battery pack as a back-up battery to charge my phone in between town stops.
Posthike: The Guide 10 quickly turned out to be too much weight for its use. It gave me almost one full charge on my phone, not quite worth it. Halfway through my hike I swapped it for an Anker backup battery, since that's what everyone else seemed to be carrying once they ditched their solar chargers. The lighter weight Anker gave me two full charges, which was more than enough. On airplane mode I could get my phone to last 4-5 days, which was often enough to get me to the next town, but it was great having the Anker battery as a quick recharge on trail so I could keep using my mapping apps in the field. I would tell anyone to forget the solar charger (too much weight and hassle, unless you have several things you're needing to charge) and just go with an Anker battery.
- Ursack bear resistant food bag (a little on the heavier side, but I never had trouble with rodents or bears messing with my food as other hikers did)
- OpSak odor-proof food bag
- GSI food scraper for pot (this is one of my favorite pieces of gear!)
- Lightweight pack towel (small)
- Lighter/ matches
- Spoon (x2. You will probably lose one.)
- Ziplock bags
- Bear Vault BV500 (for the Sierras)
- iPhone 4
- Canon Powershot A260 + SD cards
- Extra batteries and phone charger
- Lifeproof iPhone case
- Permits, cash, ID
HIKING CLOTHES/ ACC:
- Tank top and running shorts (used for town clothes)
- REI long sleeved Sahara shirt
- REI Sahara pants
- Smartwool light hiking socks x3 (and one thicker pair for sleeping)
- Dirty girl gaiters
- REI Outback cape hat
- Thermarest ultralight pillow case
- Synthetic underwear/bras
- Smith Sunglasses
- Camp shoes/ river crossings: flip flops
- Bandanas (I highly stress bringing a few bandanas. I had one to wear on my head and one in my pocket for a handkerchief. Some people even bring another as a pee rag. You will be amazed at the amount of snot/ sweat/ blood/ mucus/ etc that comes out of your body every day. Trust me. You will panic if you don't have at least one bandana close at hand.)
- Patagonia NanoPuff jacket
- Smartwool midweight zip-neck
- REI lightweight long underwear top and bottoms
- Mountain hardwear power stretch gloves
- Smartwool balaclava or warm fleece hat
- Outdoor Research Helium 2 Jacket (weighs 5 oz!)
- Sea to Summit pack cover (for Washington)
- Sea to Summit pack liner
- Sea to Summit ultra-sil dry bags (for toiletries and first aid kit)
- OR waterproof compression sack (for sleeping bag)
- Travel umbrella (for OR/WA) - it may sound silly, but an umbrella is a lifesaver. It will be your most breathable piece of waterproof gear, hands down. Bring a few gear ties so you can attach it to your pack and still walk with your trekking poles.
On that note.....
GEAR I WISH I HAD BROUGHT:
GoLite Chrome Dome Umbrella
If I were to do the PCT again, I would bring a GoLite umbrella. Hands down. For some reason I thought they were too expensive (they're not) or every time I thought about getting one on trail I would tell myself,
well, I've gone this long without one....
But the truth is, this piece of gear is amazing for everything from 100 degree blasting desert sun to freezing cold Washington deluges. Not a day went by in the desert that I wasn't envious of those who carried their own shade with them, and in the northwest I was envious of those who were dry without rain jackets. I finally got myself a travel umbrella for the last part of the trail, and it was the best decision I could have made. Hiking with an umbrella is AMAZING. Plus, you look awesome. Dayhikers will laugh at you until they are suddenly hot and/or drenched, and then they will be jealous. Trust me. GET ONE.
Extras and Accessories
FIRST AID (in a small waterproof bag):
Ibuprofin, Benodryl, Immodium, Nail clippers, Tweezers, Moleskin, Bandaids, Sunscreen, Bug net, Bug spray, Ear plugs
TOILETRIES (in a small waterproof bag):
Notebook paper and pen
Total pack base weight: 15 pounds
Weight with a week of food and 6 L water: @ 35 pounds