“My particular dread–the vivid possibility that left me staring at tree shadows on the bedroom ceiling night after night–was having to lie in a small tent, alone in an inky wilderness, listening to a foraging bear outside and wondering what its intentions were. I was especially riveted by an amateur photograph in Herrero’s book, taken late at night by a camper with a flash at a campground out West. The photograph caught four black bears as they puzzled over a suspended food bag. The bears were clearly startled but not remotely alarmed by the flash. It was not the size or demeanor of the bears that troubled me–they looked almost comically nonaggressive, like four guys who had gotten a Frisbee caught up a tree–but their numbers. Up to that moment it had not occurred to me that bears might prowl in parties. What on earth would I do if four bears came into my camp? Why, I would die, of course. Literally shit myself lifeless. I would blow my sphincter out my backside like one of those unrolling paper streamers you get at children’s parties–I daresay it would even give a merry toot–and bleed to a messy death in my sleeping bag.”
― Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail
The PCT equipment list is unfinished, and probably won’t be settled until a week or two before the start of the hike. My base weight (w/o food or water) is presently around 26 lbs, which is much more than I would like it to be.
I’m including in my base weight a 2.5 lb bear canister. The bears in the Sierras have learned how to get food bags down from the trees, which compelled national forests and parks in the region to make carrying an approved bear canister compulsory. Why not carry the canister the whole trail, even outside the required areas? After all, I don’t relish the idea of spending every evening after a long day of hiking, going in search of a suitable tree to hang my food bag. What a hassle. But then, 2.5 lbs is a considerable addition to my base weight. I’ll probably decide to carry/not carry the canister once I’m on the trail. I may postpone using the canister until I reach the Sierras, and then continue carrying it through northern CA, Oregon and Washington, where I’ll be fit enough to handle the extra weight. After all, I’ll probably lose several times this weight by then. The canister is a Bearvault BV 500. The capacity is 11.5 liters and claimed to carry 7 days of food. I’m skeptical about the number of days specified as I believe I’m a more ravenous eater than most and it all rides on what types of food I carry (calorie density). Being a fan of all seven deadly sins, I would say gluttony is king and my favorite transgression. But, it’s difficult to carry all high calorie dense food as you will need a little variety out there. Eating olive oil and chocolate bars all day gets old. By my estimates, my longest stretch should only be about 7 days without a resupply stop, and that only happens twice. Also, the first and last days don’t count as you can carry all the food for the first day outside the canister, as long as you consume it before retiring for the night. On the last day, you can plan at least dinner and possibly lunch in town. Everything that smells must go in the canister, including toothpaste, lip balm, sun screen, deodorant, empty food wrappers, etc. Bears have an extraordinary sense of smell and an arrestingly broad palate. If they smell it, they want to eat it. Your negligible tent wall will not deter a bear. My biggest fear is that I will neglect to remove the snack bars from my front pouches of my backpack hip belt or my pants pockets before retiring them to my tent. Do I really want to wrestle a bear for my backpack, when they’re well schooled in the smash and grab technique even if the reward is a few morsels of trail mix? I’ll still have the food and the tent (what’s left of it), but no water bladder/bottles and will have to carry everything remaining in my arms to the next town. Worst case scenario is the bear can carry you out into the woods and eat you. Keep the food out of the tent and camp away from those who don’t follow this rule. It seems many, even experienced, hikers keep their food in their tents. What happens is they do it a few times, probably out of laziness, and decide that since no bears have gone for the food, it’s safe. You may get away with this for years. It’s all about statistical odds. If I have to die, I would rather fall off a cliff or get crushed in an avalanche than being eaten alive by a wild animal. The worst case scenario is so bad that I don’t want to play these odds. In fact, I would like to get hold of one of those fake molars that hold cyanide so that you can bite down and break the tooth and end it before the horror begins.
I’m also carrying a luxurious amount of padding for sleeping.
My air mattress weighs about 31 oz and under it will be a foam pad that weighs another 15 oz. Most ultralight hikers would only carry the foam pad, but I’m not a good sleeper and need my comfort in this area. These pads not only provide relief from the hard, lumpy earth, they are your insulation from the cold ground. Sleeping bags do not insulate much on the bottom. They require loft to keep you warm. On the bottom, they are flattened by your weight and there is no loft, so no heat retention. In my case, I’m using a hiking quilt rather than a sleeping bag, as it is lighter and more versatile. But a quilt depends even more so on the pad for insulation. The air mattress is mainly for comfort as the foam pad would probably provide enough insulation. I’m carrying the foam pad to protect the bottom of the air mattress from sharp objects that will puncture it, and as a backup should the air mattress spring a leak. This is a very common problem with air mattresses as they are thin walled to keep them as light as possible. In the desert, there are lots of poky needles and sharp rocks buried in the sand that can puncture the tent ground cloth, tent bottom and the air mattress. The foam pad provides an extra layer of protection. Also, the pad can be used at rest stops to sit and lay on while resting and eating. One tires of sitting on the cold ground or rocks. It is quite bulky and will be strapped to the outside of my pack. This placement also makes it easier to access when taking a break.
As I previously mentioned, I will be taking a quilt rather than a sleeping bag. This is becoming more popular with the ultralight crowd as they are smaller and lighter than a sleeping bag without a bottom portion that you lay on. The quilt must be used with a suitable insulation pad for this to work. There are several advantages to using a quilt over a sleeping bag. First is weight. My quilt is from JacksRBetter and called the High Sierra Sniveller. It’s weight is 30 oz (1.9 lbs) and it’s rated to 5-10 deg F. An equivalent sleeping bag would weight over 3 lbs. A quilt is easier to adjust for warm or cooler nights. Sleeping bags can be very hot and difficult to adjust the internal temperature. This particular quilt has some additional features that other quilts don’t have. It has a Velcro hole in the middle so you can open it up and slip it over your head and wear as a warm poncho. The sides have straps to make it snug up to your body when in poncho mode. There are hoods and arm sleeves that can be purchased separately. Wearing it like a poncho is nice for prattling around camp in the morning when it’s cold and you need to pack up. You can put the quilt in the pack last, then get on the road to let hiking heat you up. The bottom of the quilt has velcro straps that you can fold up to make an enclosed foot box to keep your feet warm. There are also straps to secure the quilt to your sleeping pad and seal it from opening up while sleeping. I’m currently using the quilt in my Motorhome and find it very nice and warm. I just kick it off if it gets too hot. It’s a reasonable $300 cost where an equivalent sleeping bag would run $400-$500. I like this quilt. I hope it works well on the trail.
My tent is 42 oz (2.6 lbs) which is light for a two person, double walled tent. But, ultralight hikers get this down to about a pound. Double walled means that it has mesh sections on the tent for ventilation and viewing out but also includes a rain fly. Single walled tents are lighter (no mesh, so no rain fly) but have a problem with condensation build up on the inner walls that can lead to wet sleeping bags. Getting the sleeping bag (with down insulation) wet is the worst thing you can do. It’s very cold at night most everywhere on the trail. A wet bag can lead to miserable, sleepless nights at best and hypothermia at worst.
Finally, some ultralight hikers use tarp tents or just a bivy bag or both. These are the lightest options but leave you somewhat exposed to the outside world (bugs, scorpions, snakes, mountain lions, etc.). They’ll protect you from rain, but that’s about it.
The last of my big ticket items, the backpack, weights in at about 3 lbs. This is half the weight of my previous backpack, but, again, ultralight packs can get down to 1-2 lbs. My pack has an internal frame and should be able to handle 40 lbs or so of equipment and supplies. It’s volume capacity is 62 liters, which is plenty for me. When I carry the bear canister, I can either stuff it horizontally in the bottom of the pack, leaving much less room for everything else, or strap it to the top of the pack, which makes you a little top heavy and less stable, leading to possible stumbling and falling. I will have to decide after I attempt to get everything in the bag and see if there is room enough for the canister. The lighter weight packs have no internal frame but usually use a removable foam insert for a back cushion and support. When removed, the cushion may be used for a seat or knee pad while on a break. The max carry weight of these lighter packs is around 20-30 lbs, which is not enough for my needs.
The equipment cost of these foundational items is considerable so I don’t plan to replace any of them with lighter versions any time soon. The only one that I feel I can compromise on is the bear canister, but I don’t want to. Aside from protecting your food from bears, it also protects it from other small varmints like mice, squirrels, marmots, etc. And, it makes a pretty nice camp stool. After a couple of months of sitting on the ground, I’m sure I will appreciate a stool.
Another area of significant weight is rain gear. The total adds up to 2.5 lbs. It includes a rain coat and pant, a hiking umbrella (also useful for blocking the sun), a poncho and a pack cover. There’s a lot of redundancy here but, after reading how you can get soaked for days without a break and everything gets wet (and cold), I think redundancy may be called for, at least in Washington. I may reduce this to just a poncho and umbrella in the dryer, dessert sections. This would knock a pound off.
When reporting base carry weight, what you wear outside the pack is never included. This can be significant, and why wouldn’t it count? My carry weight, outside the backpack is about 8 lbs. That makes my real base weight (yikes!) 34 lbs. Now add food (10-14 lbs) and water (4-12 lbs) and you get 48-60 lbs coming out of every resupply. I don’t think I can carry this much weight and complete the trail in 4.5 months. I’m not sure my pack can carry 52 lbs. Compromise will be necessary but I don’t know what to cut yet. That will be one of the challenges over the next few months.
One other thing that I noticed about the base pack weight reporting in other blogs. They rarely include the weight of things that are not carried the whole way, like an ice ax, snow clothes, umbrellas, bear canister, rain clothes, etc. When you see someone posting that they have a base pack weight under 10 lbs, be suspicious that the reality is much higher. I think we need a standard weight measurement method that everyone uses that is closer to the reality on the trail. We should report a range that at minimum is the smallest likely carry weight (including clothes and equipment that is worn outside the pack) and a maximum that includes the greatest weight combination that is likely to be carried on the trail. The best way to do this is pack everything up and put it on. Weigh yourself, take everything off, including clothes, weigh yourself again. Take the difference. Do this for the expected maximum and minimum gear loads. Now we have something realistic to compare. The only problem I see with this method is you must own and have in your possession all the gear that you will use on the trail. I don’t currently own an ice ax, but I will by the time I hike the trail. There are other things that I may carry but I don’t yet have. The max/min method can still be used but the last step will be to add estimated ounces for the things that are not yet available for weighing.
Another mass that will be carried but is not reported by ultralight hikers is body fat. Body fat varies greatly from hiker to hiker and from mile to mile on the trail. Everyone loses body fat on the trail, but the more you start with, the more you are likely to lose. A bad diet with too few calories can also cause losses in lean tissue, which is generally a bad thing. It appears to be extremely difficult to eat enough calories on the trail and most are not able to make this up in town stops. I have lots of body fat to lose. My plan was to drop about 40 lbs before the hike and another 30-40 on the trail. I truly have this much to lose. Imagine me worrying about plus or minus a few pounds of pack weight when I currently carry around an extra 70-80 lbs of fat. This is why I don’t carry a heavy pack while in training. I’m already carrying more than my pack weight in excess fat. To carry more could lead to additional injuries, especially coming down hills or walking on loose rocks. The good news is that I will really feel light of foot after the fat comes off, even with an extra heavy backpack.
Below is a spreadsheet with my current pack and carry gear. I’ll update this as I make changes. Hopefully, the changes will reduce the weight, not increase it. Happy Days!