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Pacific Crest Trail Desert Hiking
I left the Mexican border at Campo on April 26, 1999 and finished the 700 mile desert portion of the PCT on June 25, 1999 at Kennedy Meadows.
Please note that I am not making any suggestions here concerning what anyone else should do. I am merely stating what worked for me. --Rainmaker
The most water that I had to carry at one time in the desert portion of the PCT was 6 liters. I found that I could get by with less water than some of my fellow hikers; others carried up to 9 liters. I opted for the sports bottles / Evian bottled-water type containers. They are economical, very lightweight and durable. In fact, one not only survived a thousand miles of hiking, but two trans-continental airline flights as well. And I'm still using it. These bottles usually will not leak if they are carried in the upright position.
I carried one wide-mouth Nalgene bottle (for dipping in shallow springs). I also carried 2 one-liter bottles in nylon carriers that were secured to the lower portion of my pack, and they were accessible while hiking.
I also used two 1.5 liter bottles. One was carried in the bottle-holder side pocket of my Camp Trails pack, and the other was carried in the long zippered side pocket on the opposite side. Both were carried in the upright position when hiking. In addition, I carried another one-liter bottle inside my pack, which gave me a total capacity of 6 liters.
Waterless stretches of 15 - 25 miles are common in the desert. To calculate the amount of water I needed to carry between sources, I divided the number of miles by 4 (since I could get by with one liter of water for each 4 miles). So, on a 25 mile waterless stretch, I would normally "tank up" (drink as much water as I could), then carry 6 liters of water. I would expect to arrive at the next water source hot, thirsty and perhaps mildly dehydrated.
The PCT Data Book (available from the PCTA) is invaluable for identifying water sources and calculating the distances between them. Sometimes I wonder how hikers ever got along without it. However, it is not 100% accurate. There is not water at every location indicated in the book.
Occasionally, on long waterless stretches I found water caches that had been left by volunteers. These caches normally consist of 10 - 25 one gallon plastic water containers lashed together with nylon rope.
However, it was very important that I did not depend on the caches. If I had chosen to carry less water than I needed, and arrived at the cache site only to find all the containers empty, I could have been in a very bad situation. Serious dehydration, or worse, could have resulted.
I became disillusioned with water filters during my 1992 thru-hike of the AT, and have not used them since. At the approximate mid point of my AT hike, I sent my filter home and began using Clorox bleach for purifying drinking water.
Since that time, I have used bleach on backpacking trips that have totaled about 2,500 miles in length and about 7 months spent in the outdoors. To my knowledge, I have had no ill effects from the bleach, nor have I become ill from drinking contaminated water.
I add 4 - 5 drops of bleach per liter of water, shake it well, and let it sit for 30 minutes (this has taken some will power when I have been dehydrated in the desert and the temperature was about 100 degrees).
According to an article I once read from the EPA, the water should be safe to drink if enough bleach has been added so that I can smell and taste the bleach 30 minutes later. It is also important to shake the water container thoroughly when the bleach is added.
I feel confident that bleach will kill any "bugs" in the water. However, I do not feel that this method of purification will do anything to remove or neutralize the chemical pollutants that may be found in fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or industrial waste.
I have found that the chemical taste of the bleach can be greatly neutralized by adding Kool-Aid or Crystal Light powdered drink mixes to the treated water. However, I feel that it is important that nothing be added to the water until after the bleach has had 30 minutes to do its work.
I carry 2 containers of bleach; a one ounce plastic bottle (inside my coffee mug, to keep it from being squeezed inside my pack) and a smaller 1/4 ounce bottle in my waist pack. The 1/4 ounce container originally contained solution for cleaning contact lenses. The one ounce bottle originally contained Murine eye solution. I have found that 1 1/4 ounces of bleach will last a week or more.
I used a folding Esbit stove and hexamine solid fuel tablets. I carried a small metal mayonnaise jar lid in the stove, in case I wanted or needed to switch to alcohol for fuel. The stove weighs about 3 ounces, and is available from Campmor for about $10. I used Coglan's brand hexamine fuel tablets, which come in boxes of 24, however, they are hard to find. The fuel tablets burn about 10 minutes.
The stove, aluminum pot lifter, 2 Bic-type lighters, a week's worth of fuel, a small pot and an aluminum foil lid weigh just over a pound. I normally used 3 fuel tablets per day. One for making coffee in the mornings, and 2 more in the evenings (one for cooking supper and the other for making more coffee).
My suppers usually included some mixture of Cous-Cous, instant rice, and ramen augmented with Knorr or similar type soup mixes and various spices.
The Esbit stove is somewhat limiting, but I found the trade-off concerning the weight (of a conventional stove and fuel) worth it. There's very little that can go wrong with it, however, its not for everyone. I later switched to a soda can stove, and now use a soda can stove (that I made myself) for all my cooking needs while backpacking.
I opted for more sun protection than most of my fellow hikers. I normally hiked wearing REI glacier glasses ($30), a mesh baseball cap, an ear / neck cape ($12 from Campmor), a white long sleeve Cool-Max shirt and lycra / spandex biking shorts. If I hike the desert portion of the PCT again, I will probably splurge and get the insulated desert hat with the long bill and removable ear / neck cape. I believe they are available from Campmor (in season) for about $30.
I also wore Spenco foot-beds inside my New Balance 801 Trail Runner shoes. The foot-beds were not only comfortable, but they helped provide an "insulating layer" between the hot floor of the desert and my feet. I began my hike using Thorlo hiking socks, but later switched to lightweight nylon liner-type socks available from Wal-Mart (3 pair for about $2.50).
I bought the strongest I could find; usually 30 - 45 SPF. I applied it liberally twice per day to all exposed skin. I normally applied it before I began hiking in the mornings, and then again when I finished my lunch break.
This worked well, I did not suffer any sunburn while hiking the desert portion of the trail, and my skin was in pretty good shape when I reached the High Sierra.
I don't know of any hikers who hiked through the desert without getting blisters on their feet. Regardless of how comfortable shoes or boots are, the ground heats up during the day to temperatures approaching 140 degrees. This is hot enough to "cook" the skin on the feet, and that is exactly what happens. How to treat blisters is a very controversial subject, even among veteran long-distance hikers.
I drain my blisters with a sterilized needle, and apply iodine and an antibiotic cream. The iodine, in my opinion, takes some of the "fire" out of the blisters, and helps to dry them and toughen the skin. However, applying iodine to a raw blister can be very painful, and this technique is definitely not for everyone.
I do not feel that blisters will heal until they dry, and they will not dry if they are covered. So, I do not cover them with bandaids, mole skin, gauze, or anything else. However, none of my blisters became infected during my hike.
Like other things involving hiking, what works for one person may not work well for another. Especially with blisters, it is a good idea to check around, and to try various techniques.
I believe that prevention is the key to chafing. To prevent chafing, and to aid in personal hygiene on the trail, I carry a 2 ounce bottle of rubbing alcohol, and 1 cotton ball for each day of hiking. To keep the bottle of alcohol from being squeezed in my pack and leaking, I carry it inside my coffee mug in my pack.
Once per day, I apply alcohol to the cotton ball and swab the creases of my thighs, my groin area and the area between my buttocks. For me, this prevents chafing. Occasionally, there is some mild burning, which tells me that I had the beginnings of chafing, but that the alcohol is doing its job.
To cure chafing (once it gets established), I use hydrogen peroxide applied with a cotton ball.
It is very easy to get diarrhea and such while hiking in the desert. Sanitation and hygiene are complicated by scarce water, and the water itself can easily cause illness.
In 1999, many long distance hikers on the PCT became ill in the vicinity of Tehachapi. No one, to my knowledge, ever figured out why. The symptoms included nausea, vomiting and diarrhea and lasted several days to several weeks.
Having a bout of diarrhea while hiking in the desert can be a very serious matter. The loss of bodily fluids can easily lead to serious dehydration, and the lost bodily fluids cannot be easily replaced. For that reason, I carried 8 - 10 anti-diarrhea tablets with me at all times.
The active ingredient in the medication I carried is Loperamide Hydrochloride, and it works well for me. It is available as an over the counter medication at drug stores. I wouldn't hike in the desert, or anywhere else, without it.
In hiking the 700 mile desert portion of the PCT, I encountered 8 rattlesnakes and 2 scorpions. Three of the rattlesnake encounters occurred on the first day of the hike, between Highway 94 and Hauser Creek.
I did not find the snakes to be aggressive, but they didn't move away from me, either. Most stood their ground, and coiled and rattled. The sound that they make is not unlike the sound of frying bacon.
It took a while, but I learned to immediately stop moving when I heard the "buzzing". However, I would move my two hiking sticks around my body in a kind of circular motion while I was trying to locate the snake. I felt this served to distract it, and to give it a target (other than my legs) if it chose to strike. Once I located the snake, I quickly (this is an understatement) moved away from it. I feel that making a "mad dash" at the first sound of the rattling could very well serve to get me closer to the snake, instead of farther from it (this happened on one occasion).
One morning while having breakfast, I found that I was sharing my therma-rest with a small scorpion. I quickly flipped it away without incident. Another scorpion walked across the trail directly in front of me. Both were small, less than 2 inches long, and were gold / brown in color.
Once, I put my pack down in some pine needles while I put up my tent. When I returned to my pack a few minutes later, it was covered with hundreds of large, black ants. In the desert, ants will be found in most places where there are trees. They seem to love pines, and the area immediately around them.
Mice can be a problem in established campgrounds, or any place where there have been a lot of campers previously. And they won't mind one bit chewing a hole through a $400 pack or a $300 tent to get to a pack of 50 cent crackers.
Bears are not normally a problem in the desert, and most hikers don't worry about them until they reach the High Sierra.
I began hiking the desert portion of the PCT on April 26 at the Mexican border and completed it at Kennedy Meadows on June 25. Almost all days were clear, very sunny and very warm. However, the nights were cool. The temperature extremes ranged from 30 to 105 degrees (F). The 30 degree night was at Boulder Oaks Campground on April 29, and it was 105 degrees at Tehachapi Pass on June 15.
The average minimum temperature at night was probably 40 degrees, and the average maximum during the day was approximately 90 - 95 degrees. However, shortly before reaching Kennedy Meadows, most days were in the 100 degree range.
There was precipitation (rain, sleet, snow or a mixture) on approximately 6 days during the 2 months I spent in the desert. I believe that 1999 was somewhat cooler and wetter than normal.
Wind can be a problem. Wind speeds of 30 mph were fairly common when I hiked. There were also a couple of nights near San Gorgonio Pass when the winds were higher than that. It was blowing at least 50 mph when I made the two mile "sand slog" across the pass.
I thought that I would need to change my hiking style in the desert, but I didn't. I continued to get up at daylight, have a leisurely but cold breakfast with hot coffee and get on the trail about one and a half hours after waking. However, remember that I section-hiked the PCT over a period of 3 years (1999 - 2001), and did not thru-hike.
I hiked until about noon each day, then took 30 - 45 minutes for lunch, occasionally stretching out and dozing for a few minutes. I would then hike until 5:00 or 6:00 and camp. Generally, I averaged about 15 miles per day.
However, in late June, the temperatures became so warm that I nearly changed my routine. If the desert had gone on for even one more week, I probably would have started getting up earlier, and hiked until about 10:00 a.m. Then, I would have found some shade and rested until around 5:00 before hiking several more hours. However, that is not my hiking style of choice, and I'm glad I didn't have to do it.
The desert is an awesome and beautiful place, and I miss it. It provides a feeling of space and solitude that is difficult to describe. To me, hiking there was a very spiritual experience. The nights are especially beautiful, and I'm glad that my tent has lots of mesh for star gazing. I didn't use the rain fly on my Eureka Gossamer tent unless I needed it for warmth.
There are many plants, animals, scents, and sights that I had not experienced before, and may never experience again. I took my time and enjoyed it. However, when I reached Kennedy Meadows, I was more than ready to leave it behind and get into the High Sierra.