Monday, November 10, 2014

PCT Questions: The Most Useful (Non-Essential) Gear

I'd like to know what items you found most useful [on the Pacific Crest Trail] and if you thought of something that you didn't bring but you wished you had (within the realm of feasibility).

It’s hard to break down this question, because everything we brought on the trail was useful. In fact, we used almost every item we had every day. (The only item that we never used on trail, but still never got rid off, was a light bundle of rope. Go figure.) Obviously, it was most useful to have good backpacks, a tent, a sleeping bag, warm clothes, a stove and pot and dishes, solid trail runners (shoes), toilet paper and a trowel, etc. But if you’re talking about miscellaneous non-essential items, here are what come to mind…

Trekking poles. Holy cow, if you are going to take a long-distance hike, do yourself a favor and buy some trekking poles! We started without them and nearly wore Zach’s knees into the ground before we purchased them. We bought one set, so each of us just carried one, but they were massively useful. I can’t tell you how many times I would have fallen flat on my face if it weren’t for catching myself. Our joints had less pressure on the downhills, going up hills was easier, and stream crossings were more stable. Trekking poles rock. (Note: there were a couple people on trail who didn’t consistently use trekking poles. But most people still had use for them frequently, even if they didn’t use them all the time.)

Camp shoes (aka flip flops). This was something we ended up buying on trail: a super-lightweight pair of flip flops for me to wear around camp. It was really nice to be able to air out my feet when we were taking breaks for the day (sunlight is good to help harden up blisters) but still walk around if I needed to. They were also perfect footwear for stream crossings and midnight bathroom breaks! Just be sure the sandals are as lightweight as possible.

Backpacking hats look dorky (especially when you've
been wearing them for five months), but they're useful!
Hats. In the desert, I was determined not to get sunburn or heat exhaustion, which are both common acquaintances of mine in summer. When the sun beats down on my head too long, even if I’m wearing a hat, I tend to get a nasty headache that aspirin doesn’t curb. Naturally, I was pretty nervous about covering seven hundred miles of desert, and then another few hundred miles in 10,000-foot-plus elevation, in blazing near-solstice sun. I bought a dorky, expensive backpacking hat and hoped for the best. I was shocked— on the entire trail, I never got sunstroke. Not once. It was incredible. By the end of the trail my hat was trashed, but I’m definitely going to invest in a Sun Day Afternoon brand hat again. And no, nobody’s paying me to say that! (Note: A lot of people on trail didn’t wear hats, opting for no protection, or sunglasses, instead. Obviously they don’t have as much problem with sun headaches.)

Warm gloves. I almost didn’t buy gloves before we left, and what a mistake that would have been! The trail gets surprisingly cold— the desert at night, the High Sierra, and southern Washington would often leave a layer of frost on our tent. You can’t just stay in your tent until everything warms up (you’d be in there till noon), so being able to use your hands and still be warm is essential.

Headphones (with mp3 player). We bought these a couple weeks in because we were getting bored out of our minds. Yes, there was breathtaking scenery all around. But when you’re hiking for twelve hours a day without any sort of mental stimulation, you feel your brain start to calcify. After we got the headphones, Zach listened to podcasts a lot, and we took turns listening to music. A lot of people on the trail went through audiobooks. It’s nice to give your brain something to do.

The one item I wish we’d had…

Gaiters. This was the item that we almost bought several times, but kept putting off until it was too late. They are basically glorified socks that hook onto the outside of your trail runners, keeping dust, dirt, sand, and leaf litter from falling into your shoes. They are useful in pretty much every section of the trail: sand in the desert, snow in the Sierra, dirt and dust in Oregon and Washington, and pine needles everywhere in between. We often wished for them when we had to stop ten times a day to empty tiny pebbles out of our shoes. It’s a little thing, which is why we never ended up buying them, but they sure would have been nice to have.

Have a question about backpacking or the Pacific Crest Trail? Leave a comment!

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