Reflections on Pacific Crest Trail Gear
Thursday, March 26, 2020 8:46 pm

My gear on the Pacific Crest Trail was mostly a gradual evolution from my Appalachian Trail and Long Trail thru-hikes, with some changes to reduce weight and additions for requirements in the desert and the Sierra Nevada.

For the most part, it was successful, in that my gear got me through the whole trail, although some of it did not work out near as well as I expected.

Gear on the Pacific Crest Trail

I originally wrote this a year ago, in March 2019, and in the hustle of preparing for the Benton MacKaye Trail, it didn’t get posted. With my planned 2020 Continental Divide Trail hike seemingly on hold, now’s a good time to reflect on older trails.

Clothing

Because the PCT is such a different environment from the typically humid, low-altitude, tree-covered Appalachian Trail, my AT clothing didn’t really line up well with what I needed on the PCT. The most significant change was getting a long-sleeved shirt, and sending away most of the clothes I brought. The short-sleeved shirts turned into a liability (too much skin exposed to the sun), and the generally much drier conditions meant I didn’t really need a second pair of hiking clothes.

For more details, see my earlier post, What To Wear on the PCT.

The Big Three

I continued to use my Osprey Atmos 65 AG pack from the AT, and aside from popping one of the size zippers open when overstuffing it with my resupply at Mount Laguna on day 4, it continued to perform quite well. I think my pack may be slightly oversized; as I lost weight on the trail, the hip belt was no longer tight enough, even at its shortest setting, and too much weight wound up resting on my shoulders towards the end of the hike.

The same can’t be said for my tent and sleeping bag, though. For weight savings, I opted to replace my tent and sleeping bag with new equipment from Zpacks. While they were indeed lightweight, neither held up to the rigors of a thru-hike.

My tent’s roof sprung a leak along its ridgeline at some point before reaching Crabtree Meadows, only two months in. This wasn’t a problem until three months later, when I got rained on in Washington and the leak soaked my sleeping bag. And this was after Zpacks put a line of tape along the ridge to prevent leaks. Following that leak, I put two more strips of tape along the ridge after that, and that didn’t help either. So even as expensive as it was, it doesn’t look like I can ever use this particular tent again in any situation where it might rain.

Additionally, all four zippers on my tent, as well as both zippers on my sleeping bag, started to fail to engage, making it harder or impossible to get them properly closed. The sleeping bag’s zipper first started having issues just south of Forester Pass (two months in), and failed completely (as in, fell apart) a month later by the time I got to South Lake Tahoe. I didn’t note when the tent zippers first started to have a problem, but all four of them were problematic by the time I reached Ashland, a little more than four months in.

To their credit, Zpacks did send me a replacement zipper strip for the sleeping bag, and new zipper heads for the tent and instructions for how to replace them, but actually getting them installed on-trail was impractical: at Trail Days in Cascade Locks, someone from Zpacks replaced the zipper heads on my tent, and it took him well over an hour of painstaking work to get them installed and which meant that the doors to my tent do not open as far they did before. (And if I had tried to do the repair myself, it likely would have ended up a disaster.)

Zpacks also claimed that it is the very dusty environment on the PCT that caused the problems with the zippers, and that they’d never seen that kind of failure from hikers on other trails. But their website didn’t suggest dust would be an issue ahead of time, and not one of the other zippers on any of the gear or clothing I had ever had a problem (save for the one zipper in my pack I mentioned above). So if this is something they knew of ahead of time, they failed spectacularly in communicating that information and setting expectations.

Although I was happy with Zpacks’ customer service, I was still quite disappointed with the quality and longevity of the gear I bought, and would not likely be quick to buy anything from Zpacks in the future.

Electronics

Technology on the Appalachian Trail

My electronics situation was largely the same as for my AT and LT hikes. I’ve previously written about that in depth, so I’ll only cover the changes here.

I upgraded from a 21,000 mAh battery to the Anker PowerCore 26800. Besides the nearly 30% larger size (and unfortunately, commensurate weight penalty), the Anker had two input charging ports, which helped charge the battery twice as fast. The four-port wall charger I brought (up from a two-port charger) made it possible to charge all of my electronics at once, including the battery. Both of those helped a lot when I had to charge up at hostels or other places where wall outlets were limited and in high contention.

My iPhone X and Apple Watch 3 both performed better than I expected, as well. Both had larger batteries that lasted longer than the iPhone 6s and first-generation Apple Watch I had on the AT and LT. This, when coupled with the larger battery back, meant I only came close to completely running out of battery power once or twice, even though I used my phone significantly more on the PCT than I did on the AT. And, the camera on the iPhone X was generally amazing, compared to the pretty good one on the 6s.

As with the LT, I brought along a keyboard. While it did make it easier to write my blog posts than on the AT, the major thing lacking on the PCT were picnic tables and other flat sturdy surfaces to put it on. I wound up using the keyboard a lot less than I wanted because there often wasn’t a good surface to use it with. The keyboard’s battery was also surprisingly good: it still had over 40% charge once I arrived home, even though I didn’t charge it at all while on the trail.

Bear Canister

Bear canisters are required for food storage in the Sierra, and my choice was the popular BearVault BV500. A large, tough, heavy (2.5 lbs) plastic cylinder. It worked quite well, and I have no complaints, other than the standard gripe about its weight and physical bulk and inflexibility, which made my pack more unbalanced than usual.

While I was still in the desert, I met two hikers, then collectively known as the “Bear Can Brothers” because they started hiking from the southern terminus with their bear cans, and intended to keep them all the way to the northern terminus. Their reasoning this was was for protection from rodents, and the cans are also sturdy enough to use as a chair.

I admit I entertained the notion of keeping my bear can because their argument made sense. Once I made it through the Sierra, though, I sent my bear can home at my first opportunity, at Kennedy Meadows North. It was just too heavy.

The supposed swarms of rodents in the north never bothered me, and while it would have been nice to have as a chair, a lightweight camp chair would have weighed less and been far more comfy.

The only “problem” I had with the BV500 was that the entirety of my food frequently did not fit. I’m glad this didn’t lead to actual animal problems on the PCT, but it was still disappointing that it wasn’t truly possible to Do The Right Thing and keep all my food in proper storage while in the Sierra, and it makes me a little apprehensive of food storage in grizzly country on the Continental Divide Trail.

Snow Gear

The only snow-related gear I carried was a pair of Kahtoola Microspikes. I could probably have mailed them to Kennedy Meadows with my bear can, but I carried them from Campo, having heard that there might be snow around the San Jacinto and Baden-Powell peaks. There was, but not really enough to matter; the first time I used my spikes was on my first Whitney summit attempt. Past Whitney, I used them frequently up through Sonora Pass, at which point I sent them home with my bear can. After Sonora Pass, there were a couple of times between there and Donner Pass where it might have been handy to have spikes, but it was a similar situation to San Jacinto and Baden-Powell: it wouldn’t have been worth the time to put them on and take them off. North of Donner Pass, I didn’t run into any snow on the trail until the Knife’s Edge in the Goat Rock Wilderness of Washington.

I didn’t carry an ice axe. Largely, this was because 2018 was a low-snow year, and I gambled that by the time I got to any substantial snow, an ice axe wouldn’t be necessary. This was true, though only just, and if I had been a couple of days earlier in the Sierra, it might have been a really good idea to have one. Not having ever used or practiced with an ice axe before was also a contributing reason: I saw little benefit in carrying a piece of equipment I didn’t know how to properly use.

The Bounce Box

Up until Bishop, I carried all the gear I started with. In Bishop, my trail family and I did pack shakedowns, and I identified about two pounds of gear that I could put into a bounce box and ship ahead. Initially, this was the legs on one of my convertible pants, my two short-sleeved hiking shirts, an extra buff, some extra socks, my knife, an extra water bottle (necessary in the desert, but not further north), and some souvenirs I picked up along the way.

My box eventually picked up the second pair of pants legs (and further along, the entirety of one of the pants), a pair of gaiters I bought and never used, insect repellant, an emergency blanket, my gloves (which I wish I had gotten out of my box while in Packwood), one of the two ankle braces I brought, and some other small odds and ends.

The heaviest item that went into my bounce box, in Quincy, was my down jacket, which spent most of its time on trail folded up to be used as a pillow. (After that, I just used my clothes bag as a pillow.)

Other Gear Changes

The only gear I had that I replaced outright was my REI trekking poles. By the time I reached Agua Dulce, the tips on one of them had spectacularly failed. Since the replacing the tips meant replacing the poles (which is entirely wasteful, even with REI’s return policy), I replaced them with a pair of Leki CorkLite Trekking Poles. I did have to replace the tips once, in Truckee, but that was a lot less hassle than getting new poles again.

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