119 — The number of days until Dalai Llama and I begin our incredible thru hike of the Pacific Crest Trail.
It feels like an eternity. Like Christmas to a five-year old in August. Like Alpha Centauri. Light years away. Then I think about all the things that need to be done to prepare and time compresses, becomes a steam-belching locomotive barreling straight for us. It’s a tumult of wistfulness and panic swirling heavily with excitement. Such is the stuff of anticipation.
The first step in preparation is to make a plan. Based on as much information as possible. In pencil. With lots of scratch outs and overwrites and erasures…. or the computer’s virtual equivalent of them. So, that’s what I’ve done.
Because it is virtually impossible for anyone to carry everything they will need – gear, clothing, food, water, and fuel – the entire 2650+ miles of the PCT, it is necessary to stop occasionally to resupply. While the first, super-hardy backpackers of the late 1960s and 1970s carried 80+ pound packs and resupplied only a hand full of times, gear has gotten much lighter and resupply points along the trail far more plentiful.
In fact, according to Halfway’s “The Annual Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hiker Survey (2017),” the average thru hiker made 26 resupply stops in the campgrounds and towns sprinkled on and around the PCT. That’s an average of one stop every 5.6 days. Ten of these stops, the survey said, included collecting resupply boxes the hikers or their supporters had shipped in advance. The other thirteen stops required shopping in grocery and convenience stores.
While the survey doesn’t cover the average number of nights spent off the trail, the vast majority of hikers took breaks from their thru hikes. They walked or hitchhiked into towns, spent a night or two in hostels and hotels, even crashed at the homes of trail angels, the beloved folks who bring water and candy and other delights to the trail to surprise and support hikers. They plugged in, turned on, took showers, feasted in restaurants, and did laundry in laundromats. They hit grocery stores to replenish their food and fuel supplies, and local outfitters to buy replacement gear. Then, freshly scrubbed, backpacks stuffed to the seams, they hit the trail once again.
With Dalai Llama, our trek will be different. Very different. In fact, I think it will be much closer to an old-fashioned expedition than a modern day thru hike. There aren’t going to be many town visits and exactly zero planned overnights in the comfy, electrified confines of hotel rooms. What would I do with Dalai? I can’t very well tie him up and leave him unattended. Not for more than a few minutes, anyway. That limits our resupply stops to points on the trail, or as close to it as possible. It also means every night, start to finish, is likely to be spent on the ground in the backcountry — something I’m surprisingly excited about!
Rather than shopping at grocery stores for provisions, I’ll be picking up resupply boxes shipped in advance. Not only is shopping not easily feasible when your hiking companion is a llama, but most towns don’t have feed stores where we can pick up llama food. Since there is minimal forage on the trail — especially the first 1850 miles of desert, high desert, high Sierra, followed by higher desert — Dalai is going to need supplemental grain. Two pounds per day. Every day. That means resupply boxes, and plenty of them!
There’s a fabulous, free online tool for plotting out PCT thru hikes. “Craig’s PCT Planner.” I can’t recommend it highly enough. It lists the towns and most used resupply points along the trail and the number of additional miles required to reach them. Hikers enter their start date and the speed at which they expect to walk and then select resupply points. The planner then shows the miles per day they will travel (including adding extra time for elevation gains along the way), when they will arrive at each stop, how many miles and days there are between stops, how many total stops they’ve planned and how many total days they’ll be on the trail. Fantastic tool! (Links follow at the end)
A second incredibly helpful tool is the “Resupply Points” section of “Plan Your Hike.” The whole site offers helpful information, but the Resupply Points section is essential. Like Craig’s Planner, the Plan Your Hike Resupply Points lists the most commonly used resupply points, plus their addresses and conditions for sending resupply boxes. For example, some only accept UPS service, not USPS, others charge a fee to hold boxes (anywhere from a couple of bucks to a whopping $75 at Muir Trail Ranch), and some have special address and packaging requirements. Used with Craig’s Planner, It’s really easy to put together a reasonable travel plan.
I did. It took several days of plotting and adjusting (and it my not yet be completely final). Since Dalai Llama and I –combined– can easily carry more than two hikers usually do, it looks like we will make only 15 resupply stops, each an average of 10 days apart (the shortest span is six days, the longest, 17). Most of the stops will be within a mile of the trail, though one is two miles away and another four and a half. We’ll travel slower than other hikers, too, averaging between 15 and 16 miles per day. (Most thru hikers average between 18 and 19, with their top miles days in the 30 and 40-mile range).
As far as taking what are lovingly called “zeros” and “near-os” (days walking zero or nearly zero trail miles), the average hiker takes 18. Dalai Llama and I, not so many! In fact, I’m planning on only seven, in case either of us is injured or needs an unscheduled stop. We need to get off the trail by October 1st, when Winter usually lays claim to the Pacific Northwest. By only planning seven zeros, we’ll have an extra 10 emergency days if we need them.
Without the benefit of modern conveniences offered by town visits, ours will be a more hardscrabble trek than most. Laundry will have to be done in gallon bags 200 feet from any water source. Showers will be something to look forward to as I take sponge baths and an occasional dip into frigid snowmelt lakes and streams. Keeping my electronics charged will be done through a solar panel that will be hooked to the top of Dalai Llama’s panniers.
Although I plan to blog and vlog the journey, uploads will be entirely dependent upon the resources of our stopping places. If they have Wi-Fi, there will be updates of our journey. If not, updates will be delayed until the next place that has connection to the internet. I will have an emergency locator beacon that will be able to connect with satellites to send texts and call for help if there’s an emergency, so I won’t be entirely cut off from people between stops.
Even with the trip now plotted, there is still much to plan, equipment and supplies to gather, food to prepare.
Food is a huge planning issue for the trail. Since fresh food will be hit-and-miss, at best, I am hoping to use mostly freeze-dried foods (they reconstitute with the BEST flavor and texture and are the lightest to carry. I was on Harvest Right’s website — Harvest Right is the only manufacturer of home freeze dryers in the county — and other than straight fats like oil or butter, pretty much anything – including cooked and raw meats, veggies, fruits, cake, even ice cream — can be freeze-dried. I’d so love to work with them their equipment!).
Second option, is dehydrating meals. A workable solution, to be sure, but with much more flavor and nutrient loss. Plus, unlike freeze-drying, dehydrating actually breaks down the cells and fiber in foods, making the reconstituted results mushier. This is not necessarily bad, especially for sauces, soups and stews, but it’s not necessarily good, either!
Finally, there is the option of buying premade meals. Mountain House and Backpackers Pantry make excellent trail meals. I mean, EXCELLENT. They’re usually freeze-dried, light, delicious, and nutritious. But they’re also costly. A single entree can set a hiker back $6 to $9. With a planned 175 days on the trail, that can get mighty expensive mighty fast.
So, there is still the process of preparing meals. Healthy, delicious, nutritious meals to ship to resupply points along with Dalai Llama’s grains and treats.
And there is all the equipment we’ll need.
To that end, I’ve begun reaching out to sponsors for the trek .Our journey is unique enough, exciting enough, that companies may find us a worthy cause to join. And no doubt, I’d love for Dalai Llama and me to represent the best hiking & packing brands out there!
Some have already agreed to be our sponsors, including the wonderful folks at Rocky Mountain Llamas (our first sponsor!). They make and sell the best llama outfitting gear available. PStyle, who makes excellent equipment enabling women to pee while standing — a definite benefit when holding a llama’s lead, has also jumped onboard! We are so grateful! If you can support these amazing people and businesses, please do. They are the best of the best!
So, the calendar days tick down, the planning continues… While it’s not boots and two-toed padded feet on the trail, the journey has officially begun!
Links to sites and folks mentioned:
Please support Rocky Mountain Llama: www.Rockymountainllamas.com
Pleas support pStyle: www.Thepstyle.com
Here’s a link to that fabulous food freeze dryer company: www.Harvestright.com
For great Mountain House backpacking food, go here: www.mountainhouse.com
For wonderful Backpacker’s Pantry food, go here: www.backpackerspantry.com
To check out Craig’s PCT Planner, go here: www.pctplanner.com
For information about specific resupply points, shipping addresses and details, etc, click here: www.planyourhike.com/planning/resupply-points/
To read more about PCT hikers’ experiences, check out Halfway’s complete thru hiker survey (2017) here: https://www.halfwayanywhere.com/trails/pacific-crest-trail/pct-thru-hiker-survey-2017/