Discover more from Gib’s 2023 Pacific Crest Trail backpack trip updates
"Luxury Light" Thru-Hiking
Starting 4/15/23 we hiked 86 miles from Tehachapi (mile 566) to Walkers Pass. We loved Tehachapi, hiked with a new "tramily," & continued our quest to define a new "Luxury Light" thru-hiking standard.
Tehachapi to Walkers doesn’t get much love from PCT thru-hikers due to high temperatures (the Mojave Desert is just to the east), little water, and a series of 2-3K foot climbs. But because we skipped ahead 300 miles, we arrived three weeks earlier than planned. So the temps were a cool 25 to 60 degrees, there were two very well-stocked water caches, and to add to the excitement, we had steady 40-knot winds for 36 hours during this five-day section. (Watch the windy video by Trailhead, here.)
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Our strategy of skipping ahead worked. There was no snow, easy water crossings and the only downside was because we were early, we beat the trail crews, so had to climb over, under and through lots of deadfall — one hundred trees fell during the winter.
Here’s the visual summary of the hike via FarOut, our go-to navigation app:
The total ascent over 86 miles: 16,000 feet. Total descent: 14,000 feet. Lots of ups and downs!
Water is scarce during this stretch and defines where you camp. We hiked 17 miles the first day, climbing 3,000 feet, carrying 6 liters of water (at 2.2 pounds per liter) to the first water source. But later, we were forced to do two nights of dry camping. This means you “camel up” at a water source, use most of the water that night for food/drink, then dash to the next water source in the morning to restock. Thankfully, there were two well-stocked water caches (Kelso Road, Bird Spring Pass) with 50 five-gallon water jugs provided by trail angels.
Tehachapi: A New Favorite Trail Town
One of the best experiences of the PCT so far is the ability to explore towns off the beaten path and to see them from a unique perspective. If you fly or drive into a city you have a very posh frame of reference. If you enter Tehachapi (population 12,000, elevation 4,000 feet) from the bushes, smelling like a locker room laundry hamper, you start from a radically different perspective.
As we approached Tehachapi, we discussed what we wanted to do:
Kristen: “I want to hang out in our Airbnb, take a shower, and enjoy a beer.”
Gib: “I want a shave and a haircut at a real barber shop.”
Kristen: “That’s ridiculous. You don’t need a haircut. And you can shave on your own.”
So much for a shared vision.
As we pulled off the trail, we immediately bumped into a trail angel who took us to our swank, modern AirBnb in Tehachapi. And right next door was “Lucky’s Barber Shop.” Kristen sprinted through the door for the first shower, and I took a seat in the barber shop.
After a minute, the barber asked,
“Would you like a beer while you wait?”
Me: “Absolutely. But can I take an extra beer to my wife next door?”
The barber handed me two beers and I dashed to deliver Kristen’s beer. My shave and haircut was LUXURY. Like a spa experience, I nearly feel asleep in the barber chair. And when I returned to our Airbnb for my shower, Kristen, adorned in a plush bathrobe, was in heaven and even approved of my #4 blade buzz cut.
The Tehachapi serendipity continued all day:
I walked 1.5 miles to the post office to pick up three boxes (ice axe/micro-spikes— not needed— and two boxes of food). My hands were full so I couldn’t extend my thumb to hitchhike, so I kept walking to find a fuel canister. As I left Home Depot, a rusted, twenty-five year-old Ford Explorer with a missing rear window swerved, crossed into my lane and appeared to be running me down. At the last minute, the driver, a woman with a face tattoo (which freaks me out), yelled, “Want a ride?” I hopped in the back and she and her three kids couldn’t have been more helpful. When I listed the things I needed, they directed me to a local thrift store, to Goodwill, and the local salvage yard. As the minutes passed, I began to understand that they thought I was homeless. When we pulled into our swank Airbnb and they asked me how much it cost, I answered truthfully, “$170 dollars.” All four family members did a collective double take. I’m sure I am now known as the “Billionaire hiker” in Tehachapi.
At breakfast, when Cap, Kristen and I were talking about our gear and each component’s weight (that’s really all that PCT hikers talk about) a gentleman with a well-coiffed Mohawk dropped by our booth, excused himself for eavesdropping, and explained that he was Split, a local trail angel. He ended up being our personal trail angel, chauffeur, and guide for the day.
As I walked to have a beer at “Local Craft Beer,” another car ran me down and yelled, “You’re going the wrong way.” It was Split, with tramily members Cap and Trailhead, on their way to the brew pub. Split picked me up, threaded his way through an industrial neighborhood, and took me to a brew pub that rivaled my hometown Bend (Oregon) brew pubs.
At the brew pub, we met Luke and Lucy. They had been a day behind us for a week but sprinted in to town to have a beer with us. Over the last week, I had sent daily texts to them, outlining the best water sources and campsites. In return they brought us yummy homemade moose sausage. (Luke is a chef and shot the moose himself.) Another trail angel, Grandpa, who also sports a Mohawk, joined us, too.
There was a local band at the pub. It was fun to sing “He’s bad, bad, Leroy Brown, the baddest man in the whole damn town” together. Then a local, Rosita, lit a gas grill and prepared 2,000 calorie burritos, which each of us polished off easily.
The next morning, Split drove Trailhead, Cap, KarMMa and me to the trailhead. We were about to hoist our fully loaded packs onto our backs when Split pulled a scale out of his trunk. Note: I’m carrying ten+ pounds of food for six days in my backpack, plus 8.8 pounds of water, and Kristen has 4.4 pounds of water. The result:
Cap, our ultralight pal: 22 pounds.
Kristen: 31 pounds.
Trailhead (fully self-supported with a week of food and seven pounds of water): 39 pounds.
My moment of truth: 41 pounds. UGH.
As Split left, he encouraged us, “With six days of food and a full-day water carry, you’re all on the light end.” Note: This is where Cheryl Strayed, author of “Wild,” began her PCT hike with a 70-pound backpack.
Last note: It turns out that Cap, a Hollywood Director (SharkTank, Project Runway, Top Chef) suggested in advance that Split bring a scale. Cap filmed the entire “reality TV” moment. Of course, as an ultralight hiker, he knew his pack would be the lightest. (Watch the “Weigh In” here.)
We set out on the trail with fond feelings for Tehachapi and a special place in our hearts for out personal trail angel, Split.
By now, I hope it’s understood that a “tramily” is a “trail family.” On the PCT, strength in numbers is helpful (think of how hikers can support each other during deep, fast river crossings) and for the 60% who hike alone, it’s nice to have someone to talk to and to share a campsite.
Kristen and I hike together all the time. I dutifully follow about two yards behind her which makes it easier for me to match her pace. I’m faster than she is uphill but I have to motor on the flats and downhills to keep up with her due to my mysteriously short stride. (We are the same height and I have longer legs than she— go figure.)
With tramilies there’s no requirement to hike together, but most of the time you begin and end the day at the same campsite. The advantage for us is we got to see different thru-hiking styles and had the opportunity to compare notes on both gear and thru-hiking approaches. Cap and Trailhead are good role models for our transition from traditional backpacking, to thru-hiking. They have also lightly introduced us to ultra-light hiking.
A typical day with Cap, Trailhead, KarMMa, and me:
Cap wakes around 5 am, instantly packs his Durston lightweight tent and is on his way by 5:30 am, walking the trail in the cool of the morning via headlamp.
Trailhead wakes at 6 am and disappears by 6:30 am.
I wake at 5:30 am, open the valve on my Thermarest mattress (motivating me to get out of bed) and after packing the tent, we enjoy a leisurely breakfast (coffee, hot cereal) and leave by 7:30 am.
Depending on the day, we might see Trailhead eating a stove-cooked breakfast by the side of the trail two hours later, or at lunchtime we’ll round the corner to see Cap napping under a Joshua tree. Cap’s “meals”— largely consisting of nuts and salty snacks — don’t require a stove.
It’s anyone’s guess who will arrive at the next campsite first.
Both Cap (the ultralight thru-hiker) and Trailhead (medium weight) have been incredibly helpful in nudging us along the thru-hiking learning curve. We’re now able to articulate our personal goal for thru-hiking. We call it “Luxury Light.”
From Car Camping to Backpacking to Luxury Light Thru-Hiking
As a family, we began at the very heavy range of the camping continuum and are currently working our way toward the lighter end. Here’s how I think about the continuum, from heavy to ultra light:
Car Camping. We’d load up the car with both daughters, a cooler, beer, and a BBQ grill, then set up a heavyweight, eight-person North Face tent next to our parking spot in Yellowstone.
Backpacking. We’d take 3-5 day trips to specific locations, often an “out and back” or loop. We’d bring our chairs, fresh produce, Billionaire Margaritas, and a change of clothes. Our backpacks weighed around 40 pounds.
Thru-hiking. Our objective is to get from one place to the next, in this case from Campo to Canada. There’s a real trade-off between backpack weight and ability to cover lots of miles. Heavy items (e.g. fresh produce) feed the stomach (and soul!) but the extra weight drags on your shoulders and slows you down.
Ultra-light thru-hiking. At the extreme, you carry as little as possible, knowing that the weight is hard on your body and limits your daily mileage. Even your backpack is super light— it doesn’t even have a waist belt. It’s all about maintaining your mileage— there’s no feeding the soul, beyond the monastic simplicity that delights many thru-hikers.
Click here to watch “There’s Always Someone More Ultralight Than You.” (The gentleman in this video fashioned a tent from garbage bags and built a spoon out of bark using toenail clippers.)
The goal for KarMMa and me: Luxury Light. We want to carry some of the aspects we love from traditional backpacking and meld them with the maniacal focus on weight minimization that’s part of thru-hiking. Some things are worth the weight, while others are not. Examples:
My experiment of losing the one-pound chair went well as there’s lots of places to sit in the wild. Kristen, who spends lots of time sitting and cooking, feels her chair is worth the weight. (I also ditched the inflatable pillow while Kristen hung on to hers.)
We just took about a pound out of our weight each by “downweighting” our Gore-Tex pants and jacket to ultralight, waterproof gear from Z-Pack, one of the manufacturers who serves the niche, ultralight backpacking community. Traditional Gore-Tex isn’t worth the weight.
While many ultralight hikers leave their stove behind, Kristen has chosen to keep ours and has even hung on to her one ounce whisk to prepare the pudding.
While many hikers rely on snacks and energy bars for lunch, Kristen needs something to look forward to, so we’re carrying her homemade, German seeded Rye Sourdough bread along with real cheese and apples. (There’s an obvious agency problem as I carry these heavy luxury items; it’s obviously worth the weight to Kristen, as I’m carrying the items, but I put this contradiction in the “cost of being married” category.)
Kristen continues to carry our three-pound, Big Agnes Copper Spur 2 tent, but once we’re out of snow country we’ll switch to a 19-ounce single-wall Durston tent which uses our hiking poles as tent poles. Our current “double wall” tent (tent plus fly) handles dew and rain better but it’s also nearly pounds heavier and takes longer to set up and put away.
At the risk of over-sharing, I’ve decided one pair of Nike sport underwear is enough for me. We’ve both made a transition from a 35-liter clothes bag to a lightweight 12-liter clothes bag (which doubles as my pillow) which gives you a sense of how much clothing we’ve left behind. There have now been multiple evenings where I am wearing every piece of clothing I brought with me, with one exception: an extra pair of socks. I ditched the down pants, while Kristen hung on to hers.
We both decided to lose the 8 ounce water shoes in favor of crossing rivers in our hiking shoes and letting them dry as we hike. “Ounces equal pounds, pounds equal pain” is an old N.O.L.S. adage (National Outdoor Leadership School).
This afternoon, during our zero day in Palm Springs (at Greg and Cathy Long’s house) our digital scale arrived via free Amazon next-day delivery and we’re whittling away at our gear to get closer to our “Luxury Light” goal. As the seasons change, and days get both warmer and longer (with less threat of rain/snow) there will be more opportunity to shed weight. I’m sure I will lose my puffy down jacket (18 ounces) sometime in May. And as the snow melts, we’ll lose the micro-spikes, ice axe and hiking pole snow baskets (a total of 20.5 ounces for each of us).
A last note: My pack weight without food, water, and ice axe/microspikes, is getting close to 13 pounds, so what drives my total weight is our ability to accurately predict how much water is needed before we hit the next water source. Our current “cool weather algorithm,” which assumes drinking a lot of water before we begin a hike: one half liter, per person, for every five miles, plus one liter backup. So for a 15-mile day, we’ll carry four liters, total. (In hot weather, it’s one liter every five miles for each person, plus backup.)
What’s the right weight for food? We don’t really know yet. But so far, it feels like my food bag is about ten pounds, no matter the number of days in each stretch. For a three-day trip, we have more heavy, “luxury” items (apples, cheese, the dreaded cucumbers) and for a six-day carry, we have less of these items. We’ll figure this out over time.
After a month, I’ve lost ten pounds— about five percent of my body weight— which feels good— less total weight on my surgically repaired knee. But once I get to a place that’s close to a ten percent weight loss, Dr. KarMMa will likely double, then triple my pudding rations.
On Thursday, our nephew Bryden Pearson picked up KarMMa, Cap and me and drove us to our Southern Resupply Station (e.g. Greg and Cathy Long’s house in La Quinta/Palm Springs). In a brilliant twist, Bryden brought a special guest star with him— Bettina Pasinli. Bettina was a German exchange student who stayed with Kristen’s family in Portland, Oregon when Kristen was eight years old. Bettina’s visit was just one of many examples of the overwhelming support we’ve felt from family, friends and acquaintances along the PCT. The Trail provides.
Greg and Cathy Long now refer to their guest room as the “mailroom” as it’s littered with Amazon and USPS food resupply boxes for us. Kristen and I are here now, happily using their computers and internet as we begin to use our new digital scale for the next round of our ongoing, “Is it Worth The Weight?” debate.
Next: Tomorrow morning we plan to meet Luke and Lucy (Forager and Achilles) near the Pacific Crest Trail Cottonwood Canyon Trailhead to begin our next four-day chapter, navigating 56 miles into the San Bernardino mountains. We’ll get up to 8,000 feet but the snow is melting fast (it’s 90 degrees today in Palm Springs). There should be a well-trodden path, and we’re armed with micro spikes, ice axes and hiking poles (with full snow baskets). None of the stream crossings look worse than knee-deep, but we’ll take it safe and slow nonetheless.
To navigate the next 188 miles after that, we have a step-by-step approach with a series of five, two and five-day resupplies via Big Bear Lake, the McDonalds at Highway 15 (luxury!), and Wrightwood. In total, we have 244 miles to go (approximate 2.5 weeks) before we leave Southern California and skip ahead to somewhere north of Lake Tahoe (likely Belden, CA) in our continued “search for dirt.”
I’ll return to my old habit of closing with a juicy quote. What follows are the last lines from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses” poem. For Jim Kean, a Tuck b-school classmate who did the PCT in the late 1990’s, this poem was the inspiration for both his trail name, Ulysses, and his PCT journey:
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Pudding and KarMMa
(Gib and Kristen)
PS. For more photos, you can follow us on Instagram:
PPS. This newsletter now has 500 subscribers and I love all the likes and comments— keep them coming! One of my biggest (and most impatient) fans — Langley Steinert — shared this video with me today. It details, in a humorous way, the transition that both KarMMa and I are going through, now that we’ve spent 28 days on the trail (5 zero/travel days) and have hiked more than 350 miles. Click here to watch, “The Word ‘Shower’ Isn’t Even Part of My Vocabulary.” Enjoy!
PPPS. Here’s our best guess of our entire PCT itinerary if you’d like to deliver a watermelon to us somewhere on the trail: Click here.
Past PCT essays:
March 25, 2023: “Day One: Introducing our PCT hike”
March 26, 2023: “The Fears We Carry”
April 1, 2023: “Our First 100 Miles!”
April 7, 2023: “A Day In the Life”
April 15, 2023: “Deserts & Bears & Wind (Oh My!)”
April 22, 2023: “Luxury Light Thru Hiking”
May 4, 2023: “Demystifying the PCT”
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