Scott and Rachel's Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike journal: Trail Notes, Stumbling Toward Canada, Jul 25

Los Molinos (still) - So far, we've hiked 1,500 miles since leaving the Mexican border on April 15th. That's a LOT of walking! We're now somewhat of experts on 'walking' and thought that we'd share some random thoughts on this topic.

On the trail, with 35-50 lbs on our backs, we quickly realized that walking is a meta-stable activity. By that, we mean, one constantly needs to put forth energy to remain upright. Whether you're moving forward or standing still, the leg muscles constantly work to keep us from toppling over. (Just ask someone who's had to stand still for any great length of time ... it takes energy and is very tiring!) Walking, therefore, is really a "lean", and then, "move the other leg forward so that you don't fall" endeavor. We've often said that we're not so much "walking along the PCT," as we are "stumbling toward Canada"!

Carrying weight on our backs makes walking more difficult, but in reality, we carry very little weight on our shoulders or "backs". (The primary function of the shoulder straps is to hold the pack upright). The frame and hip-belt transfers most of the weight to our hip bones (which get sore, from time-to-time, especially when we're fully loaded). Having weight on our hips is WAY better than having it on our shoulders. Some of the "ultra-light" backpackers that are on the PCT trail (carrying 35 or pounds ... or less), use packs that lack this type of support system and often end up with sore shoulders.

When we first started walking along the PCT trail, we quickly realized that, with weight on our backs and an uneven trail, we really needed to focus on walking. If we didn't concentrate, on placing every step, we were likely to trip, stumble, twist an ankle or worse - injure a knee. Even if we did concentrate, these things still happened from time-to-time. In addition, our ankles and knees weren't used to the extra weight of our packs and often complained when we encountered a steep uphill or downhill section. We needed help; something to level the playing field. The trail was getting the better of us.

So we bought trekking poles, which are a lot like ski poles, but are adjustable and have a different kind of wrist strap. They've been life-savers and I don't think we'd ever hike again without them. (How's that for an endorsement?) Before we left for the hike, Scott ridiculed them as being "geriatric sticks", extra weight and an unnecessary added expense (they aren't cheap). But when he hurt his knee coming down, out of the Laguna Mountains, on a portion of the trail described in the guidebook as "bone-jarring", Rachel's trekking pole enabled him to continue hiking.

We use our trekking poles as stabilizers, we use them to take weight off our knees when going downhill, we use them for an extra push when going uphill, they keep us from swimming when we ford streams, and we wedge them under our packs to keep them upright when they're off our backs. But there are additional benefits from trekking poles. They keep our hands moving and position them about the same level as our hearts, which means our hands don't swell and get puffy. (This is something that used to plague us on previous backpacking trips and we always attributed it to high altitude. Nope!) We also use the trekking poles as a form of trail recreation, as we have become quite adroit at stabbing and tossing pine cones and clearing the trail of small sticks.

Even with the poles, we still stumble and (occasionally) fall and we still need to concentrate on the trail, nearly 100% of the time. In fact, so much so, that we don't often get the luxury of looking at the passing terrain. (It's kinda like the person driving the car doesn't get to gawk out the window because they're too busy paying attention to the road and traffic). Depending on the type of trail we're walking over, we might get a chance to lift our head for a quick look, but generally, not for long.

So what's the trail like? Is it a broad graveled path? Is it easy to follow?

It's hard to say because it varies so much. We've walked on all sorts of path types (or "treads", as they are called). We've walked on sand, dirt, grass, pebbles, and cobbles. We've walked on trails covered with pine needles, oak leaves, powdery dust, running water, snow, ice and thick mud. Sometimes the trail is wide, sometimes narrow and sometimes barely visible.

The PCT is relatively easy to follow. We use a guidebook that describes the trail in detail, mile-by-mile. It tells us if we're going to cross a 'seasonal stream', or that we've got a '3.5-mile climb up to a clear ridge', or that we'll 'switchback down through a Lodgepole Pine forest until we reach a well-used campground'. We've ripped the book up and we mail pertinent sections to ourselves, along with our food and other supplies. The trail is also marked by a variety of markers all displaying the PCT logo. These markers are placed on trees, on 4x4 posts placed at trail intersections and other non-treed locations. There are also "blazes" on trees (part of the bark is cut in a recognizable pattern) or white, reflective "diamonds" are nailed to various trees. In rocky areas "ducks" (distinctive, man-made piles of rock) are used to help hikers find their way. And the trail tread, which cuts a path through a green meadow, through a forest, or across a sandy desert, marks the way.

We haven't really been lost (yet). The most lost we've been was when Rachel left the guidebook behind near Wrightwood. We were flying "blind" for a few days. The trail came out onto a dirt road and (without the guidebook) we had no idea where the trail took off from the dirt road. (We walked past it and got lost. We didn't get far. Less than a quarter of a mile bushwhacking became too difficult, we simply backtracked and found the trail. Less than a half-hour was lost).

Others have gotten lost, however. The most common mishap is that that people take the wrong path at a trail junction. Some junctions indicate "PCT this way", but many are local points of interest instead "Mary Lake this way" and "Scott Ridge that way". Or worse, they aren't marked at all, they're just a fork in the road and you have to know which way to go (and it isn't always the more traveled path). We know thru-hikers who have followed these wrong paths for quite some distance! Some backtrack to get back to the PCT, others just plow forward, eventually figuring out where they are and heading back to the PCT as expeditiously as they can (sometimes missing big chunks of trail).

We have our favorite trail treads and treads that we hate walking on. The best trail tread, by far, is a path through the forest, without rocks, thinly covered by forest duff. It is soft and springy, easy to follow and without rocks, it allows us the chance to take our eyes off the trail for longer periods of time. We've gotten good at looking at the path, memorizing obstacles over a 50-foot section, and then looking up, while walking over that 50-foot section. A path through a grassy field, with ankle-high or knee-high grasses on either side isn't bad either. Only about 10% of the tread falls into this "great" category.

Among the worst trail treads for us are: rock scree (loose, angular, fist-sized cobbles that twist ankles and are difficult to walk on); snow (wet, soft, late-afternoon snow that gets our shoes wet and which we punch through "post-hole", sometimes up to our hips); snow-cups (hard or soft, sun-melted snow that has deep holes and sharp ridges); trail-streams (where the trail actually becomes a creek and we have to walk on the sides of the trail to keep our feet from getting sopping wet); mud; and soft sand. I'd say that about 20% of the trail falls into this "awful" category.

Most of the trail is a mix of these extremes or somewhere in between. It's rocky enough that we have to really watch out footing, but not bad enough that it slows our pace, for example. Or it's covered in oak leaves, which is soft, but hides the rocks and other debris, so again, we have to really watch our footing.

Lately, we've discovered another bad trail tread: Dust. Volcanic rocks weather to nothing very quickly and many of the dry trails near Mt. Lassen have been covered, with up to 3 inches, in a dry powdery, very fine dust. This stuff gets into everything, including our shoes. This has become particularly problematic for Scott because his feet sweat and because he's wearing shoes that "breathe". Dust gets in between his sweaty toes and acts like sandpaper, wearing down the skin. His toes have become very sore after only a short distance in such terrain and he's tried a number of things to help eliminate the problem. The latest (and most successful), has been to cover his foot with a plastic baggie over his sock. It makes for hot feet, but minimizes the amount of dust that can enter, keeping his toes clean.

Our lightweight footwear, while shaving off pounds, means that we have thinner soles, which are more sensitive to sharp rocks. This has been one of the trade-offs we've made in order to travel "lighter" and "further". Scott used to hike in those old, 4-pound "waffle-stompers", pretty much mowing over whatever terrain the trail threw out. He has found that lighter-weight shoes, while shaving weight, came at a price. No longer can we just mow over the terrain. We take care to avoid stepping on sharp rocks and worry about foot placement to prevent ankle sprains.

But, even while we're vigilant about foot placement, we do turn our ankles from time-to-time. We're not alone in this. Other thru-hikers that we've had conversations with are reporting the same problem. Fortunately, these ankle sprains are not hike-ending, but still, they hurt a great deal. And they occur without a moment's notice. One minute, we're hiking along just fine and BOOM, the next moment, we've turned an ankle and are moaning in pain. We've learned to 'go down and roll' with the turned ankle, avoiding significant damage, but it causes us to stumble along the trail. Recently, Rachel turned the SAME ankle three times in one day! I'd say we turn an ankle a couple times per week. We've wondered if we're building our ankles up on this trail, or tearing them down?!

In places, the PCT isn't as much a trail as it is an "obstacle course". We've gone over fallen logs, under fallen logs, through fallen trees, and around fallen trees. We've hopped from rock to rock across muddy sections of trail. We've walked along the edge of trail when its filled with running water. We've danced along scree when small sections of the trail are wiped out. We motor off-trail to avoid slippery, snowy patches. Lately, we've been plowing our way through thick, overgrown underbrush, using our trekking poles and hands to push wrist-thick saplings out of the way so that we can struggle forward.

Like a couple of pampered Persians, we hate getting our feet wet! When we encounter a stream crossing, we'll walk upstream and down, searching for a fallen log or a place across which to rock-hop. We nearly go to extremes to avoid stopping, putting on our sandals and fording the stream. We'll walk on logs that roll, stand on slimy rocks, step on loose rocks, and leap farther than we should. And if we should get our shoes wet? We shake our feet just like cats, hoping to get as much water off as possible!

But what is dreaded more than water, are non-PCT miles! How many times have non-PCT thru-hikers said, "You're hiking 2,600 miles, what's another mile?" (to get to a camp, water, store or some other place). Well ... it's another mile! When you're pushing to make 23 miles in a day, every one counts. In addition, what is a mile off-trail, is generally a mile back ... now it's not a mile, it's TWO miles! And what's worse than non-PCT miles? Going BACK. PCT thru-hikers HATE to go back! That last camp looked better than the one you're at now? "Well, they'll be something up ahead!" and you continue forward. Going FORWARD is very important to the PCT thru-hiker.

Mileage is also very important. With a goal of completing 2,650 miles, in one season, before the snow falls in northern Washington, the PCT hiker must make miles: About 17 miles per day in order to complete the PCT in a 6-month hiking season. We used a 20-mile average to make our plans, but wanting to complete the trail by mid-September means that we've upped that to a 23-mile target. Walking 23 miles a day (or even 20) takes TIME. It's a full-time job - a 12-hour commitment. We're on the trail at 6:30 AM (most mornings) and pull into camp anywhere from 5:30 PM to 8:30 PM (depending on how much dilly-dallying we do during the day). I'd say that we get into camp by 6:30 PM on most evenings. Still ... that's 12 hours of walking per day (that's a lot!) It's more WORK than we thought it was going to be and as a result, we don't really recommend a thru-hike. (We'll probably never hike like this again). Because of the need for daily mileage, there isn't time to enjoy everything along the way. We don't have time to read a book, lounge by a cool creek, explore side-trails, or go fishing. We'd recommend section hikes instead, maybe 3-4 weeks at a time. That's probably what we'll do in the future - backpacking trips no longer than 3-4 weeks.

But who knows? "Never say never!"

In the meantime, we're still 'stumbling toward Canada'.