- Buyer's Guide
5 Things I Never Expected Before Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail
Serial nomad Rozanne Pilbeam isn’t good at staying in one place for too long. But that hunger to discover new places and experiences has opened up a literal world of adventure. Her travels have taken her across the globe, from Mumbai to Mt Kilimanjaro and the northern coast of Spain. And when her travels led her to the Pacific Crest Trail, she was in for an adventure full of the unexpected…
I think it’s safe to say that most people have no idea what they’re getting themselves into when they decide to hike 4,200km from Mexico to Canada across the United States. All you can go off are stories from those who have braved the trail before you, their triumphs and their challenges. But no matter what you read, there’s always something inside us that says our experience will be different. No matter how many people talk about their horrifically blistered feet, or running out of water in the middle of the desert, none of these things will happen to me.
Yet most of them will, and do.
I’d camped a total of one night alone on a trail outside the northern suburbs of Sydney before I started my 174-day backpacking odyssey. Actually that’s not true, I’d slept at least four nights alone in my sister’s backyard while testing out my tent, and even urinated in her garden, so I guess that counts too.
But no matter what my inexperience taught me, nothing could prepare me for the six months I lived in the wilderness. I returned home part human, part wildebeest, and part something I still can’t put my finger on. Practically everything I experienced was new and unexpected, but I’ve outlined a handful of things that spring to mind.
1. Cowboy camping (sleeping without a tent)
Being an Australian, the idea of sleeping in the bush without the protection of a tent, bivy or even a bug net seems suicidal and foolish. I assumed it was an activity reserved for the braver and more conditioned hikers on the trail, until one night I was so mentally and physically fatigued, I no longer cared about my well-being.
I dared spiders to sleep in my ears and a raging nest of fire ants to carry me away during the night. But what I discovered instead was pure, blissful freedom. An uninterrupted view of the brightest, most dazzling constellations I’d ever seen. I didn’t wake up with a rattlesnake in my bag or a tarantula on my face. I woke up knowing my 1kg tent was somewhat unnecessary.
2. Walking 300kms in $5 sandals
Despite ignoring the stories, I did get horrifying blisters, worse than most people. I’d bought shoes that were two sizes too big for me, as recommended, and discovered that friction of sweaty feet inside socks that resemble sandpaper is a bad combination.
Reduced to a hobble, I resorted to wearing my fake Crocs, or as I called them ‘Frocs’, to hike through parts of the desert. My ankles suffered from the lack of support, and the tread wore away in one day, but those sandals went the distance, and four years later I’m still wearing them today.
3. Sheepskin and dental floss would save my shoulders
After the first week my shoulders were so battered from the 20kgs I was hauling, I had to add padding to the thin straps on my lightweight pack. After getting my hands on some good old Aussie sheepskin from a Trail Angel at the ADZPCTKO (Annual Day Zero Pacific Crest Trail Kick-Off), I took out my trusty sewing needle (mainly for blister care) and my roll of dental floss (a staple for every repair kit), and went to work on the alteration. Never leave home without this miracle cord! When you consider everything in your pack requires a second use, dental floss covers hacks and oral hygiene too!
4. I could travel light without cutting my toothbrush in half
As a newbie to backpacking, I set off with a lot of unnecessary gear. But even though I was adamant about carrying a full-sized toothbrush, shedding smaller items made all the difference.
I rid myself of any backups except my headlamp and spoon, used a stuff sack as a pillow, only carried two pairs of underwear and socks, and wrapped sports tape around my hiking poles to lighten my first aid kit.
“When you consider everything in your pack requires a second use, dental floss covers hacks and oral hygiene too!”
I spent days dreaming of things I could shed, and once I rid myself of the non-essentials like my e-reader, sleeping bag liner, soap and deodorant, my bag weighed 3.5kgs less than the day I started.
5. I would survive drinking from a horse trough
There’s nothing like sticking your filter into a concrete trough full of festering water and hoping for the best. It was then I truly appreciated my investment in a Katadyn Hiker Pro Microfilter, as opposed to the bandanna and bleach combinations the hardcore hikers were using.
I drank from guzzlers, puddles and ponds, yet miraculously remained in good health. Even when the water was a yellowish-brown, mixed with Gatorade powder you’d never know the difference.
So if there’s one piece of advice to take from all this, it’s to expect the unexpected, and to revel in it. Pack your curiosity and a sense of humor and you’ll be set!