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Backpacking on the PCT & What I've Learned Along the Way

I fell in love with backpacking in 2015 in the mountains of Peru, where my kids and I hiked with a guide to the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. There is a peace that comes with leaving the modern world behind and connecting with nature. It certainly brings the perspective that all the little things I worry about are not so important in the long run. Backpacking makes me appreciate clean water that comes from my faucet and showerhead. It also brings a sense of physical and mental achievement - I can thrive with only what I can carry as I push through mile after mile.

Since that incredible trek in Peru, I have been backpacking sections of the 2,650 mile long Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) which runs from Mexico to Canada through the western United States. Two of my teenagers and I just returned from backpacking 47 miles on this trail through the eastern side of Inyo & Sequoia National Forests.

As we hiked the last handful of miles, I realized that I had come a long way from that first backpacking trip - literally and in my understanding of how to have a successful trip. This is a photo of us still smiling at the end!

Here's some of what I learned:

  1. Prepare physically: Exercise often and consistently doing things you enjoy. This time I trained with weight lifting (moderate weight with lots of reps), high intensity aerobics, and some hiking. I also worked on getting good sleep before we left.

  2. Listen to your body on the trail: Take breaks, drink lots of water, snack often, and apply mole skin before a blister forms. When planning your trip, give yourself more time than you expect. This way you can have rest periods or set up camp early when you need to. I find 8-12 miles a day is a really reasonable pace depending on how steep the trail is and the weather.

  3. Reduce irritations and risks: Bring lots of bug repellant and some itch cream. Bring an inflatable sleeping mat and inflatable pillow. Use good quality mole skin. Know the weather before you leave and dress accordingly. Leave non-essentials at home so your pack is light as possible. Know where you are going and let others know before you leave.

  4. Look up: Yes it's important to keep an eye on the trail so you don't trip or roll an ankle but if you're constantly looking down, you'll miss the view, the animals, the trees, the meadows, the creeks, the waterfalls, the flowers, the bees, etc.

  5. Be friendly and conversational: Take your earbuds out and say hi not only to the hikers in your group but all the others on the trail. You'll remember the people you meet and will be glad you took the time to get to know them a little. This also helps with safety on the trail. This trip we lead a hiker to water while another hiker shared her bug repellant us.

List of essential items:

  • Trail map/guide book: Find one that is full of details about your trail - where water is, elevation info, maps, distances, where you can park, alternate paths, where to restock your supplies, good camping spots, and landmarks. I highly recommend "Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail" by Shawnté Salabert. She has never led us astray and even talks about the wildlife of the area which I love. I cut out the pages I'll need, staple them together and put them in the easily accessible pocket of my pack.

  • Wilderness permit: You need this to camp overnight on most trails. is where you can purchase one, print it, and bring it with you. The site is not very user friendly so it takes a bit to find exactly the permit you need. You will need to know specifically where and when you will be starting and ending your backpacking adventure.

  • A well fitting backpack: Size means two things - fit and capacity. Fit being the right size for your torso and hips and capacity meaning the volume the pack carries. 80% or more of the pack's weight should be carried by your hips so the right fit is essential. This article is spot on for understanding how to find the right fit and how to use the adjustment straps. I was due for a better fitting pack and found this one for sale this memorial day! It's the Women's Terra 55 Backpack by North Face and it's great!

  • Hiking sticks or ski poles: One for each hand. I don't use these hiking unless I'm carrying a pack. The weight of a pack is easier to manage when you can use your arms to help you up and down climbs. Sticks are also great at preventing falls when you get a bit off balance which happens easily with an uneven path and pack weight.

  • Waterproof hiking boots and camp shoes: It's so nice to take off your boots when you pick a camp. We use cheap knock off crocks as camp shoes. Crocks are great because you can wear them if you need to cross a deep stream or river and they won't fall off.

  • Large heavy duty garbage bag for each person: If you get to a place where you have to swim, put your pack in the garbage bag, tie it tight, and then you can float it across with you. They're also great to keep your pack dry if it rains.

  • Sleeping Bag, inflatable mat, pillow, and tent: Choose a lightweight and compact sleeping bag and tent suitable for the expected weather conditions. I find the quality of my sleep improves so drastically with a sleeping mat and pillow that they are well worth the weight.

  • Clothes (weather dependent): For hiking bring a shirt, soft comfortable shorts with good pockets, a pair of hiking socks, and a sports bra. For sleeping bring a shirt, warm sweats or leggings, a warm pair of socks, and a beanie (I pull it over my eyes so I can wake up naturally instead of to the sun). I also bring a lightweight sweater and a lightweight windbreaker that's waterproof. At night I hang my sweaty hiking clothes up on the tent or a clothesline so I don't have to put on cold wet clothes in the morning.

  • Calf sleeves: I have a history of a calf sprain that took months and months to heal so compression on my calves when they start to get sore is a must to reduce my risk of reinjury. Other hikers also use knee sleeves depending on their history and how much downhill hiking there is.

  • Wide brim hat, cheap sunglasses, & sunscreen: I like to use a sunscreen bar as it is lightweight and doesn't take up much space. Aquaphor is great for lips.

  • Bug repellant: Essential in mosquito prone areas which is basically anywhere near water. They are crazy during dawn and dusk but still bite all day long.

  • Comb, toothbrush, travel size toothpaste: Deodorant is not essential, you will stink, it is what it is. It's just not worth the weight, even as a travel size.

  • First aid kit: tiny scissors & tweezers (if not on your pocket knife/multitool), benadryl or other anti-itch cream, NSAIDs (Motrin, Tylenol, or Aleve), pepto, anti-diarrheal (Imodium), neosporin, good quality mole skin (I take 3 sheets), a small role of medical tape. The problem with cheaper mole skin is that it doesn't stick well. Mole skin is like putting a marshmallow between a sore spot on your foot and your shoe and it needs to stick well to do the job. If you're lucky, mole skin will stick for a couple days so you can leave it while you sleep.

  • IcyHot and anti chafe cream: Icy hot and other menthol creams are great to rub in over sore muscles but they don't feel good on sunburns. I put a little in a snack sized ziplock. Chamois Butt'r is great for skin that's getting too much friction. It comes in small packs but I have a big tube so I put a little in a snack size ziplock. These two look the same but don't smell the same so they're easy to tell apart.

  • Daily meds: Don't stop taking something you usually take just because you're hiking.

  • Cellphone, solar charger, and cable: Use a solar charger that has the option to fill the battery by plugging it in. I plug mine in before we leave so it's fully charged to start.

  • Emergency/repair stuff: Multi tool/pocket knife, paracord or rope, some gorilla tape wrapped around a lighter, a small flashlight with new batteries in it.

  • Shovel: I bring a small but sturdy plastic one. Dig a hole, do your business, bury it.

  • Biodegradable wet wipes: 2-3 per day per person. It's really nice to wipe down before bed and I put that wipe in my trash bag. Biodegradable wipes take a long time to breakdown but it's gross to bag up and carry out wipes with poop on them so I do bury those. I also put a rock on top afterwards so that wipe doesn't end up loose as trash in the woods. If your moral compass tells you this is not okay then carry your wipes out.

  • Gallon sized Ziplock: I bring one for trash.

  • Camp stove with pot and fuel: You have to have a permit to use a camp stove in California. Print and carry your permit with you. The black handles in this photo are on hinges so you can flip them outward before cooking. The second photo shows the campstove in action. The small pot makes a great lid. Some backpackers cook in their pots, I keep mine clean by only using them to boil water.

  • Cup and utensil: I take a lightweight plastic coffee mug and a plastic utensil that's a fork on one end and a spoon on the other. Plastic foldable sporks are great too. I mix food in my cup not in my pot so my pot is always clean. It's hard to waste a drop of something you've been carrying so the trick is to save a bit of water for after eating, put it in your cup, scrape/swirl as needed to collect remaining food bits then drink. Then you get every calorie and have a clean cup.

  • Meals: 4,000-5,000 calories a day/person. Hot breakfast is so satisfying on the trail as mornings are usually cool. I like oatmeal for breakfast and package it into single serving sizes in ziplock baggies before heading out. Granola with powdered milk works too. Oats recipe for one serving: 1/2 cup instant oats, 2 tbs powdered milk, 1-2 tbs brown sugar, then add different flavors to each bag- cinnamon & raisins, PB2 (powdered peanut butter), coco powder, & freeze dried bananas, freeze dried strawberries or other fruit. Pour it in your cup and add some boiling water, stir and let sit for a minute. I also bring instant coffee with powdered creamer and sugar. Since I have one cup, I do coffee after oats. For lunch we do ramen with tuna or chicken packages (not cans) or beef jerky, peanut butter and honey tortilla rollups, string cheese, crackers, and salami or beef jerky. Dried mangos are one of our lunch time favorites. For dinner I like pre-packaged freeze dried meals and instant potatoes with packaged meats. The freeze dried meals are hard to beat because they are so light weight and we haven't found one we don't like. The chicken pesto pasta below is a must. It says 2 servings but look at the calories and decide. Sometimes we share a dinner like this and augment with instant potatoes. Sometimes we eat the whole thing. For 3 of us, we eat 2-3 of these for dinner depending on the calories. The nice thing about these is that you just pour boiling water in, stir it up, reseal it, and wait. It typically takes 15-25 min to rehydrate the contents which is a good time to set up camp. Expect it to take longer at higher altitudes. Since the packages reseal, they make great trash bags for trash you don't want to look at through a ziplock like wipes and feminine hygiene products.

  • Dessert- When we share dinner packs, we usually want more to eat so I bring instant pudding and powdered milk. Sometimes we add freeze dried strawberries. It's just so easy - pour some of both powders in your cup, add water and stir, slowly adding more water until it's a good consistency.

  • Snacks - I find salty is way more satisfying than sweet out on the trail and chocolate melts so it's not great. I like to bring an apple for each of us and baby carrots and eat these on days 1 and 2. They're heavy but it is so nice to have a little fresh produce. Bars, trail mixes, candy, pretzels, cheese filled ritz crackers, jerky, and nuts are all great. Remember you'll need lots of calories. Weight loss is not the goal of backpacking. Feeling good so you can be safe and continue on is. It's good to keep a snack or two in a quick accessible pocket to munch on during a break. I always buy a bunch of snacks, put them all out on the kitchen table and have each kid fill a gallon ziplock. It's a treat to have a lot of different snacks to choose from when you're out there.

  • Bear Canister- You have to have one in bear country. Thankfully we've never had a bear bother us or touch our food. The canisters suck because they're hard to unlock and one more thing to carry. The plus is that they make a great seat. Since we hike as a threesome, we pack the breakfast in one, lunches in one, and dinners in one. This way we only need to access one at each meal. At night, snacks and toiletries go in too. We hike with them unlocked but sleep with them locked and right outside the tent. They come in various sizes and for anything more than an overnight hike, you'll need the larger size.

  • LAST but certainly NOT LEAST is water: Water is life and without it, backpacking does not go on. Water is soooo heavy so knowing how far you've got to go before there's more is essential. Most of the food in your pack is very low in water content so you'll need cooking water too. It's easier to camp near water so you can cook dinner and breakfast without having to hike with that water but then there are more mosquitos to battle. We take two sawyer water filters which filter out protozoa and bacteria, at least four 2 liter bags, and some smart water bottles with the sports cap. The filters are lightweight, reusable, and work by squeezing the water bag, sitting on it, or by gravity. You do not need iodine tablets. Sawyer states that you can filter a bottle in 30 seconds but I've never been able to do it that quickly even when my filters were brand new. To have enough water for three of us, it starts to feel like we are filtering water all the time. I just ordered a medical grade IV pressure bag to see if it makes filtering less of a task. The water bags are sturdy but can break. We broke two this time, one when my daughter was exhausted and intentionally dropped her pack. The other I broke a moment later by setting my pack on a sharp rock. Gorilla tape held them together enough we could still use them to carry water but not to squeeze. The smartwater bottles are compatible with the filter but you have to squeeze them first to filter directly into the bottles.

I can't wait to get back out there. Are the mountains calling to you too?

Happy Quilting!