My thru-hiking career began in 2011. I had nearly no knowledge and treated the 2,650-mile backpacking trip similar to the three mile hikes to lakes I had done growing up. At the southern terminus, the learning curve that stood before me was steep, and seemed about as impossible to ascend as northward progress on the Pacific Crest Trail.
My pack was too heavy, I had too many clothes, I didn't know how to use items in my pack, and all my gear looked different than that of other hikers. But, despite these issues, I stuck with it.
By the end of the Pacific Crest Trail, my pack dipped near 40 pounds and my tent dropped from a three-person capacity to two. My water treatment system became more reliable and my sleeping bag shifted from synthetic to down. As I made my way through Northern Washington, I was hiking and camping alone and felt at home after more than 100 days of living out of a backpack.
I took all of these lessons into my second thru-hike — the Pacific Northwest Trail. In order to impart some wisdom and help you avoid making the same mistakes I did, here are the major things I changed from my first thru-hike to my second.
I started my first thru-hike with the intention of treating water with a steripen. The UV light apparatus is designed to swirl around in the water for one minute per liter to kill harmful bacteria. I arrived at my first water source on my first thru-hike, Hauser Creek, and found I had no idea how to use this water treatment method. When I did finally manage to get it going, the UV light failed immediately. By the end of the thru-hike, I had switched to the classic Sawyer Squeeze, and still use it today.
Synthetic Sleeping Bag
Synthetic insulation felt like the perfect fabric to depend on for 2,650 miles. But, it turns out that it rarely rains on the Pacific Crest Trail, and when it does, it is fairly easy to keep a sleeping bag dry. Synthetic insulation is heavier and I was overthinking the possibility of inclement weather. Near the halfway point, I cut more than a pound in weight by switching to down insulation. I haven’t hiked with a synthetic sleeping bag since.
Carrying double the weight of most thru-hikers, I felt compelled to start my first thru-hike with a three-person tent. It weighed more than 5 pounds and was 10% of my pack weight. After linking up with a group of hikers, with all of us sticking together for 500 miles, I became convinced that a two-person tent would do the job just fine. When my hiking companions realized I didn't have the funds or ability to get a new tent, one of them had an old one shipped out to me. I finished out my first trail and continued onto my second trail with a two-person tarp tent.
I began my hiking career with sleeping clothes and two hiking outfits. I soon found out that after an exhausting day I had no interest in changing into my sleeping clothes. While my sleeping bag definitely suffered from the near constant body odor, the spare clothes sat unused in my pack. By the time I went on my second thru-hike, I left the sleeping clothes as well as that second hiking outfit at home. My new hiking wardrobe consisted of the outfit I would wear, an insulated jacket, long johns, and rain gear. The cut in excess clothing saved more weight than I expected.
I began my first thru-hike in 2011 with an external frame pack. Near Mammoth Lakes another hiker felt so bad for me, they had their spare internal frame backpack sent out. The pack obtained by capitalizing on the compassion of another hiker carried me all the way through my second thru-hike.
With a name like ‘stuff sack,’ I thought I needed to stuff as much of my gear into them as humanly possible. Everything I had fit in a stuff sack. But, by mile 700 on the PCT, I had learned a few things, and before entering the Sierra Nevada Mountains, I paired down both my excess clothing, and the compression sacks I stored it in. By my second hike I was down to one compression sack for my sleeping bag, and a second one for my food. Now I simply carry one food bag.
After reading the blog of a hiker that used an Esbit stove on his thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, I opted for the same strategy. It was immediately recognized as a mistake when I found it near impossible to get fuel in towns. On top of the scarcity of fuel, an esbit stove burns through the cube completely before going out. This means that sometimes there is excess fuel and sometimes not enough to finish cooking. This turned out to be one of the most frustrating pieces of gear I started with. Eventually, I bought a small canister stove and have used one ever since.
I boarded my plane to San Diego with a 20-pound food bag. It was full of homemade hummus powder, pounds of hard cheese, and countless expensive dinners. It turned out to be far too much. Carrying all that excess food made me rethink trying to predict how I would feel in the future. After my first thru-hike, I transitioned to a more balanced approach of buying my food about 50% of the time and mailing resupply boxes the other 50%. This allows for flexibility while still ensuring successful resupplies.