My PCT Thru-hike Preparation
Here is a breakdown of how I spent my time preparing for my 2021 PCT NOBO thru-hike:
- 90% analyzing gear
- 9% watching vlogs of other people hiking the PCT
- 1% calculating food and water resupply
- 0% learning navigational skills and how to read a topographic map
So yes, you could say I am feeling very prepared for my thru-hike…if my thru-hike consisted of a multiple choice quiz on the weight, fabrics and volume of the items on my gear list. However this will not help me when I am wandering through the Mojave Desert in 100° temperatures, wondering how difficult it is to self-diagnose heat exhaustion, after my phone died and I hope I am walking the right direction before I run out of water.
I rest easy knowing I am not alone. My echochamber of UL (Ultra Light) backpacking gear subreddits and YouTube videos has confirmed other thru-hikers love talking about gear as much as I do. I have made multiple gear lists and spreadsheets in search of the perfect, yet personal, balance of the backpacker’s Holy Trinity of Comfort (or Quality), Weight and Cost. My well versed cousin, and PCT alumnus, shared with me while I was preparing for my 2018 SOBO JMT hike that you can pick 2 out of 3 attributes for any given piece of backpacking gear, but you can’t have all three.
My JMT gear list heavily favored cost and comfort. I suffered the weight consequence the entire 220 miles along the JMT. One of the thru-hiking sayings is that you pack your fears. As the raw skin turned to callouses on my shoulders and hips on the JMT, I told myself I’d make lightweight gear my priority next time. With that, I’d have to sacrifice cost or comfort. My PCT Big 3 (backpack, shelter, sleep system) weighs half of what they did for the JMT. I’m still not in the sub-10 pound UL Cool Kids Club because I am not yet willing to give up certain comforts, like my pillow, sleep clothes and flip-flops. We’ll see what happens on the trail, how my starting gear varies and what my finishing gear ends up being.
2021 NOBO PCT Ultra-Awesome Gear List
So without further ado, here is my (current) 2021 NOBO PCT Ultra-Awesome Gear List:
I’ll do my best to show some restraint and not talk about every single item on my list, even though I really think you should look up my Litesmith 0.5 ounce mini dropper bottle I’ll use to hold liquid soap, dispensing 40 microliters per drop, but I digress. I’ll walk you through my Big 3.
1. Pack: ULA Circuit
After great debate, I finally purchased my pack. I really wanted to talk myself into a frameless pack that weighed half as much as this pack. If I was willing to sacrifice more comforts or had more experience then I can understand how some hikers opt for a frameless pack. However I am not yet willing to let go of my comfort items, nor do I have the thru-hiking experience necessary to make the good decisions necessary when carrying a minimal amount of gear.
The ULA has all the features that I loved about my previous Osprey Atmos 65 pack, and weighs half as much. There is good reason the ULA Circuit is the most popular pack on the PCT. Some of my favorite features of the ULA Circuit are the suspension hoop to distribute the load to my hips while also increasing the load carrying capacity, durable 400 Robic fabric and large hipbelt pockets for holding all my snacks.
ULA recommends this pack is for hikers with a base weight of 15 lbs or less. The recommended maximum load is 35 lbs. On paper my base weight is sitting just under 13 lbs. I will be carrying 13.2 lbs of water (6 L) to start in the desert section. That puts my total pack weight at 26.2 lbs without accounting for food.
When I reach the Sierra section I will be adding an ice axe, snow traction spikes, a bear canister and warmer layers. This will instantly add 4–5 more pounds to my base weight as I enter one of the most difficult sections on the PCT. Due to the remoteness of the PCT in the Sierra, I’ll be forced to carry more food between resupply points, again increasing the load.
My typical total pack weight should include my 13 lb base weight, 4.4 lbs of water (2 L) and 10 lbs of food (5 days), totaling 27.4 pounds. This falls well within the 30 lb comfort rating for the ULA Circuit. I can easily add an extra roll of Oreos, yes!
I ordered an off the shelf, large torso, medium waist size ULA Circuit with original J-curve shoulder straps in black. They have super customizable options, with numerous fabric weaves and weights. They will even embroider your name (or trail name) on your pack for a small fee. Being this is my first premium pack and thru-hike, I kept things simple, and I don’t have a trail name yet. I added a large shoulder pocket from ULA to keep my phone handy while hiking. My pack was ordered while they still included optional features of a hydration sleeve, internal stash pocket, hand loops and shoulder strap water bottle holders. I removed the hydration sleeve and hand loops from my pack. Now ULA does not include these accessories but they are available as individual add-ons.
2. Shelter: Six Moon Designs Skyscape Trekker (DCF)
I’m a 6’4” tall drink of water. Most tents are not accommodating to people north of 6’ tall. The floor length is over 6’, but once you add a sleeping pad, puffy sleeping bag and sloping walls, you’re quickly bumping the walls with your head or feet. This made my shelter search a challenge. Granted I’m used to sleeping in the average length tent so the occasional brushup against the wall doesn’t bother me.
Six Moon Designs (SMD) makes two of the market’s best value, lightweight and longest shelters, the Lunar Solo and Skyscape Trekker. The Skyscape Trekker has a cavernous 103” interior floor length. The Skyscape Trekker does have an aggressive taper at the head end, since it has a pentagonal footprint.
Full disclosure, I have not slept in this tent yet. My cousin was kind enough to loan me this shelter and I plan to pick it up the day before I start my thru-hike (Thanks Sue!). My cousin purchased a rare DCF version of the Skyscape Trekker. This version is not currently available from SMD.
Some standout features of this tent are that it’s a double wall hybrid tent, meaning it has integrated bug netting and rain fly, it sets up with trekking poles, saving weight, and the dual vestibules both roll back completely on fair weather nights providing 300° stargazer views.
Prior to being loaned this tent, the SMD Lunar Solo was on my top 3 list of PCT shelters. The Lunar Solo was the cheaper, lighter option of the two in the currently available silpoly versions. The main difference being the Lunar Solo only has one vestibule/entrance and only requires one trekking pole to set up, where the Skyscape Trekker has two vestibules/entrances and requires two poles.
In the end, if I had not lucked into the Skyscape Trekker I think my base weight phobia would have got the best of me and I would have tried a tarp / bivy shelter combination to reduce weight while staying reasonably affordable. The Skyscape Trekker in DCF is the best of both worlds, providing weather and bug protection while being very lightweight.
3. Sleep System: Sleeping Bag / Sleeping Pad / Pillow
REI Co-op Igneo 17° Sleeping Bag
I am including all components of my sleep system as the third part of my Big 3. REI recently discontinued this version of my sleeping bag. I’d argue it’s one of the best value sleeping bags for the temperature rating and weight. I even got it on sale before my 2018 JMT hike. I haven’t drank the quilt Kool-Aid yet. I’d be tempted to switch to a quilt and drop a quick 10+ ounces from my base weight. I feel extra cozy inside my full sleeping bag though, especially when temps are freezing and I wake up with frost on my sleeping bag or inside my tent.
Thermarest NeoAir UberLite Sleeping Pad
I was planning on using a Nemo Switchback closed cell foam pad for my thru-hike. It’s light, durable, quick to set up and break down and cheap. It’s also about as comfortable as you imagine sleeping on 1” of foam can be. I found a good deal for a new-in-box, small size version of the Thermarest NeoAir UberLite Sleeping Pad. Thank you ABUC for the last minute upgrade. My biggest complaint with this pad is the length of the name.
The small version weighs a feathery 6 ounces. This is currently the lightest inflatable sleeping pad known to man. Or at least known to me. The small is 47” in length. I am 76” in length. You may be questioning my spatial awareness and math skills right now. In theory as long as I have the padding and insulation from my head down past my hips, I’ll be relatively comfortable. I’m a side and back sleeper. When sleeping on my side, my shoulders and hips require the most padding. I’ll use my pack to provide some minimal insulation underneath my legs when fully stretched out. Curled up in a fetal position on my side, most of me can fit on the small sleeping pad.
This pad only has an R-value of 2.3, which isn’t great, but not terrible. I’m thru-hiking during spring, summer and possibly early fall. My previous, heavy, large size Thermarest NeoAir Venture pad had an R-value of 1.8. We slept at temperatures around freezing, judging by the frost on our sleeping bags, +10,000’ elevation on the JMT. My 17° sleeping bag and 1.8 R-value sleeping pad did the job just fine, so I know my same 17° sleeping bag and warmer 2.3 R-value sleeping pad will perform well on my thru-hike.
Big Sky DreamSleeper Pillow
I am trying a new pillow too. The Big Sky DreamSleeper UltraLight inflatable pillow (what is with the long names?!), weighs 1.54 ounces. For perspective, a new wooden pencil weighs about one ounce. I’ll use my Buff as my pillow case at night. Some UL hikers consider a pillow a luxury item. An alternative would be to sleep without a pillow or to use some extra clothing in a stuff sack as a pillow. I’ve done this and I am not a fan. Give me my pillow. Big Sky states that by using thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) the pillow can withstand sub-freezing temperatures without cracking.
As promised I’ll stop my gear rambling here. The Big 3 are the most exciting. They can be where you spend the most, what weighs the most and really sets the tone for your total base weight.
Let me know in the comments if you want me to dive into more of my gear and reasons I am using, or at least starting with, the gear I have. I will give on-trail feedback and a post-hike review of my gear. What worked, what didn’t, what I loved and what I would change.
Next up will be how I resupply food while thru-hiking.
Thank you for reading.