How To: Pack for the PCT

Thinking about doing a thru hike yourself? Find out what gear you need to keep your base weight under 12 lbs.
Michael Telstad Michael Telstad
Education Intern & Mountaineers Adventure Club Alumni
January 18, 2017

Editors note: During the summer of 2016, six current and former Mountaineers Adventure Club (MAC) members hiked the Washington section of the Pacific Crest Trail. This blog outlines how to prep for a trip. To find out what happened on the actual trip, read Part 1 by Logan Urrutia.

If there's one thing all fastpackers and thru hikers have in common it's a love for gear. I myself have spent an embarrassing amount of time researching gear and working on the this gear list spreadsheet. Through this post I hope to pass on some of my gear knowledge; friends don't let friends buy bad gear.

Clothing:

Everyone has different comfort levels when it comes to clothes. Personally in the summer I try to keep it light, clothing is one place where you can add a lot of weight to your pack. My every day hiking clothes consist of one pair of light shorts and a long sleeved button up shirt, no matter how long the trip.

Element Protection

Rain jackets are heavy, and they tend to live in your pack 90% of the time. For these reasons, many thru hikers have opted for lighter, cheaper options when choosing a rain jacket. Popular makes are the super light and cheap DryDucks top, the Outdoor Research Helium ii, and even wind shells like the Patagonia Hudini.

Sleep/Stop Clothing:

You're not always moving on a thru hike, it's those moments when your resting that you want to be the most comfortable. Having sleep/rest specific clothes can add several degrees to your sleep system, keep your sleeping bag clean, and can be used as cold weather clothes if temps drop unexpectedly. What I use is a two part system, the first is a light weight pair of long underwear top and bottom, these are used only for sleeping and seldom see the light of day. The second consists of a light weight down jacket, and a cheap pair of flipflops. I use a hooded Mountain Hardwear Ghost whisperer.

Footwear:

While many people still wear heavy waterproof hiking boots, I went the path of lightweight mesh trail runners. When hiking in the rain you are guaranteed to get wet feet, there is no way around it. You're better off having completely non waterproof breathable shoes that will dry quickly after the storm has passed, and let your feet breathe on those hot days. When it comes to ankle support, if you're carrying a light load, you don't generally need a tall burly boot, however low cut shoes like to collect pebbles and dirt, this is where gaiters come in to play. Many thru hikers have gone with little spandex ankle high gaiters with the sole purpose of keeping debris out of your shoes. With my setup of Darn tough ankle high socks, LA Sportiva Wildcats, and a pair of Dirty Girl Gaiters I only had one tiny painless blister in all 500+ miles. In my opinion, good footwear and foot care is an absolute necessity, as long as your feet feel good, you can keep moving.

Packing:

Backpacks

This is a highly individual topic, however many things ring true for everyone, Comfort, weight, and weather resistance. In terms of packs I chose the ULA OHM 2.0, It's not the lightest, nor is it the most comfortable, but after doing much research I found it to be the best choice for me.  To make it water resistant I chose to line my pack with a large trash compactor bag instead of a pack cover. If closed properly the compactor bag can completely seal off any water from entering, even if submerged, it also allows you to separate wet and dry items within your pack. The only drawback I have found is that while your contents stay dry, the outer fabric of your pack gets very wet, thus getting heavier. 

Organization

There's more to packing than just your bag, organization within your pack is crucial for efficiency. After using a pack with a large vertical mesh pocket I will never go back, It's the equivalent of a brain on a normal pack, but holds twice as much stuff and doesn't make your pack top heavy. A nice addition that the ULA OHM has is enormous water bottle pockets, large enough to fit two full sized nalgene bottles. Lastly I chose to leave the sleeping bag stuff sack at home and just stuff my bag in the bottom of my pack, this made packing much easier as you don't have to pack everything around a bowling ball.

Food Storage

Bear hangs can be time consuming annoying work. Not to mention on the heavy side if you chose the wrong setup. What I chose was 50ft of 2.2mm Zline Slick Dyneema cord from Zpacks, It is spectacularly light weight while staying very strong. The waxy coating allows the cord to slide nicely across branches, making lifting heavy food bags a breeze. As a storage/ rock sack, I sewed my own little Tyvek draw cord baggie. To connect it all together, some people opt to tie it straight to their food bag but if you can find a tiny carabiner that makes it much easier. As a food bag I used an old rei dry bag I had lying around. I'd recommend a Granite Gear air zipsack for this purpose, they are light, tough, and the side zip allows you to see everything inside unlike a tube style roll top bag.

Shelter & Sleep:

This is probably the most important system you will have, Good sleep=more energy=more miles. It's also likely to be your heaviest system. Despite how much research I did, I was not too happy with my system, making for some unpleasant night & mornings.

For my tent I chose the Six Moon Designs Deschtes plus, a single wall Mid style trekking pole supported tarp with a mesh skirt to keep out flying bugs, with a tyvek sheet for a ground cloth. The condensation it collected was atrocious, paired with its low ceiling (and me being over six foot) I woke up many mornings with a wet head and feet. This was drastically increased when the ground I was camping on was wet. I can't really recommend this tent to anyone other than a short person on a budget who is willing to make sacrifices.

The tyvek ground sheet was okay, it kept me dry and folded up very nicely, however it is very slippery, if I was camped on even the slightest of hills my pad would slide right off of it.

And that brings me to my pad, oh the pad, I still don't know what to think about it, but what I do know is that I'm in the market for a Thermarest NeoAir Xlite.

For stakes I used six Zpacks 6.5 inch Titanium stakes, they worked great, never bent (granted I was very careful not to bend them) and are very light and compact, my only complaint is that they are a little pricey for stakes. Paul at PMags.com recommends using  gutter spike nails as  a cheap tent stake alternative, while I've never tried it, I certainly would if I needed to buy some stakes on the way to the trail head.

Last but not least is my sleeping "bag", I ended up going with the Enlightened Equipment Revelation. This is not a normal sleeping bag but a flat sleeping quilt with a cinchable footbox. The concept here is that in a normal sleeping bag you compress the down underneath you, canceling out it's insulating abilities, so why not get rid of the bottom insulation altogether, I could go on for much longer on this topic but this post is already getting too long, if you want to learn more about backpacking quilts go to this link or just google it. My favorite part of the Revelation is the DownTech treated down they used, it saved me on many nights, keeping the down semi lofty when it should be soaked through.

Cooking:

I can't expect most people to be as willing to commit to my cooking setup as others, but I went for a freezer bag cooking kit. I understand the dangers of ingesting food that was cooked in a a plastic bag, but made the sacrifice for cleanup and weights sake. For a stove I chose the $16 BRS-3000T, a phenomenally efficient 25gram canister stove. It worked much better than anticipated, Allowing me to use the same fuel canister all the way to Stehekin. As for a pot I used a Toaks Titanium 600ml pot with aluminum foil for the lid. This was enough to boil the water needed for every meal I had on trail, and just barely enough if I needed to cook a pasta side in a pinch. With this setup I had little to no cleanup, and very minimal effort needed to prep.

Hydration:

Water storage and filtration is where you can find a large difference between fastpackers and traditional backpackers. What I used along with many other thru hikers is a combination of a 1L and 1.5L Smart Water bottle, and a Sawer Squeeze filter screwed onto the 1L bottle. This technique allows you to fill up a designated dirty water bottle directly from the stream, lake, or pond, screw on the filter and keep going, filtering as you drink. I never really carried more than one liter at a time for a dry stretch of less than 8miles, just topping off my dirty bottle every time I got to a water source, keeping my pack light and staying efficient.

Navigation:

While many modern Thru hikers have unfortunately forgone paper maps altogether for gps or apps I still think a paper map is crucial.

For the PCT there are several apps out there that use GPS to tell you what mile you are at, the one I chose was the Halfmile app, paired with his paper maps I was easily able to plan out my day, with little to no effort, And if my phone were to die I would still have the maps to do the same. While I carried one, I never used my compass, and may downsize for my next long hike. In terms of watches I used a Casio with an altimeter, barometer, and thermometer, that I modified to hang off my shoulder strap. 

Other:

The rest is pretty much up to the individual, my only recommendation is to keep it as light as possible, if you don't need it, ditch it. You may not think that those tiny sub one ounce additions make that much difference but they do, maybe not in overall pack weight, but in clutter. The less stuff you have the easier it is to pack, unpack, and find what you need quickly.

Efficiency:

If you hadn't gathered it already the name of the game for me is efficiency, I gain the most reward from covering as many miles as possible. While I understand that not everyone is out there for miles, I do believe that everyone from weekenders, to mountaineers, to future Thru hikers can gain something from going light. 

Plan your own hike

For a more specific look at what I brought on my hike, check out my full gear list. To plan your own trip, here's a great resource from thru-hiker Andrew Skurka.

And be sure to read about our adventures starting with Part 1 by Logan Urrutia.



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Gary Wilson
Gary Wilson says:
Thu, Aug 3, 2017 4:31 AM

This is one of the best guide I found about trekking. Thanks a lot for posting. You can also visit https://trekkinggears.com for info about the latest trekking gadgets