I Thought I Had My Thru-Hiking Setup Dialed—and Then I Started the Pacific Crest Trail
A double-wall tent, camp sandals, and cushier trail runners were among the changes Patricia “Blackpacker” Cameron made once she hit the PCT.
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Editor’s Note: Patricia “Blackpacker” Cameron is the founder of Blackpackers, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing access to the outdoors, and Backpacker’s 2022 Pacific Crest Trail correspondent.
Backpacking always gives me a greater connection to my belongings because the stakes are so high. For one, everything I carry has to justify its weight, because I can literally feel every ounce in my pack. Second, any particular item not functioning as intended is a much bigger issue in the backcountry than in the frontcountry, where repair or replacement is a short hike and a car ride away. Aside from a couple of luxury items, everything I am carrying has a specific and integral role in my journey.
I spent months researching gear for this trip. Unlike my first thru-hike on the Colorado Trail, I knew I would have to really focus on cutting weight for the PCT due to the length of time I would be on trail. I’ve also learned a lot since my first long walk: I have many more miles and outdoor education courses under my belt that inform my gear choices. My Colorado Trail pack was weighed down with plenty of stuff I didn’t need. This time, I was determined to whittle my equipment down to absolute necessities. A lot of that changed, however, as soon as I stepped foot into Southern California.
One of the first changes I made was to my shoes, swapping out my zero-drop trail runners for a cushier pair of Hoka Speedgoats with a 4mm drop. I’ll probably still use zero drops for my runs back home in Colorado Springs, but the super rocky terrain of the Sierra made the cushioning necessary for my flat feet. While I don’t usually get blisters, I decided to add toe socks as liners underneath some Grateful Dead Smartwool socks. (It’s paid off: To date I haven’t had even a single hot spot on my feet.) For camp shoes, I swapped out my beloved closed- toe Crocs for Teva sandals. A lot of people consider camp shoes a luxury but I like to give my feet a break during the day and at camp and while in town. Plus, the scrappy sandals let me cross streams without having to hike in wet shoes, which is just asking for blisters.
I’m also sleeping in a completely different tent from my first couple weeks on trail. I usually backpack with a single-wall trekking pole tent. But about two weeks into the trip, I became frustrated with the amount of condensation that was collecting in my shelter. I was lucky enough to snag a double-wall Durston X-Mid 1 during their brief online pre-order last year, so I decided to ask a friend from home to send it out. There’s a lot more headroom and I haven’t had to worry about drying out my tent or quilt in the morning.
The quilt is a newer addition to my pack as well: I replaced my CT mummy bag with a lightweight quilt from Katabatic Gear. The 15 degree treated down quilt kept me toasty even on the coldest Sierra nights back in June. While I thought I would miss having the head covering, I sleep with a fleece pullover and use the hood if I ever need a little extra warmth.
I’ve also had to revamp my first aid kit after gashing open my leg on trail. I wasn’t able to reach a doctor to stitch it in time, so it’s been left to heal open, from the inside out. The injury made me reconsider my first aid kit as a whole: It was a logistical nightmare to keep it both clean and dry (I usually only succeeded in doing one or the other). Every time I changed the dressing, I needed a new pair of non-latex gloves, more gauze, and tagaderm to protect the wound from dust and dirt. The syringe I use to flush the wound has also become a necessity. As a precaution, I’ve carried antibiotics too, though I’ve managed to avoid using them so far.
I’ve also found that I like to hike while listening to music or podcasts, which really helps break some of the monotony of long days. Because of how much I use my electronics (to listen to music, podcasts, to talk to my employees or my family, and to write) I ended up adding another small power bank to the lightweight Nitecore NB20000 I already had.
There are some other small adjustments in here too. I’ve never had to use a mosquito net in Colorado but the PCT is inundated with mozzies; I upgraded to nearly 100% DEET and treated my clothes with permethrin, and I am still getting swarmed almost any time I stop moving. In addition to the 2 one-liter Smartwater bottles I use for my drinking water, I’ve added a third for my backcountry bidet. It’s also been truly hot and humid here—too hot for my Colorado self—so I traded out my pants for shorts. Food-wise, I’ve sent my stove and pot home and switched over to cold soaking and all-day snacking. Eating a warm meal at the end of the day is nauseating for me, and I never eat breakfast. Electrolyte supplements, in contrast, have become a priority in the high heat. I’m always sweating and have experienced muscle cramping the few times I was unable to properly replenish my electrolyte loss
These adjustments may seem minor. But when your world has shrunk to only what your can carry on my back, each item takes on a different importance that you need to consider next to its literal and figurative weight. The landscape, climate, and my experience inform all of the gear decisions I have made. The more dialed-in my pack gets, the more efficient I feel—and the more likely I am to put in the mileage I need.