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From the AT to the PCT: The Journey to Ultralight

Words & Photos by Robin “Little Spoon” Standish

“I only had a vague notion of what ultralight meant, and that was based on a reddit post about using a Sawyer syringe as a bidet to cut out the weight of toilet paper.”

My parents raised me to have a fearless approach to life and unintentionally instilled a deep-rooted, unsatisfiable need for extremes and adventure. Thus, I spent my youth mushing dog teams, exploring the Alaskan wilderness, snowshoeing for miles while breaking trails after winter storms, and staying alive during months of 40-, 50-, and even 60-below temperatures. Consequentially, a youth of la vida loca set me up to have unrealistically high expectations for all my future endeavors. I now frolic through Death Valley for fun, hike for weeks in the Himalayas, explore malaria-filled, Southeast Asian jungles dotted with land mines, and, most recently, I walked from Maine to Georgia (the Appalachian Trail) because I had nothing else to do. And now I’m heading out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (aka the PCT).

Robin Standish posing by a sign on the AT
Fresh off the Appalachian Trail (AT), Robin Standish Hits the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).

Anyone who knows me can tell you that I DON’T PLAN, and slogging through the wealth of information via Whiteblaze.com, forums, books and blogs was more than enough to remind me of why. Despite being an outdoor enthusiast I felt dumb when it came to making choices. Silnylon vs Cuben Fiber? Aqua Mira vs Sawyer? Boots vs shoes? Tents vs hammock? And, of course, the endless arguments over the pounds, ounces and grams of every single item. At the time I only had a vague notion of what ultralight meant, and that was based on a reddit post about using a Sawyer syringe as a bidet to cut out the weight of toilet paper. I didn’t want this hike to be easy; I wanted to walk every step of the 2189.2 miles and feel like I earned it. I did just that, but I also earned countless infected blisters, missing toenails, a broken foot and the sour scent of ammonia seeping through my pores. I don’t know if by doing better research before the hike if I could have avoided any of that. I am a stubborn masochist that learns exceptionally through trial and a lot of error, and because of this, the first 700 miles hurt.

A fellow hiker picked up my broken self when I arrive to New York; he took me into the city to shake down my pack and set me on the right track. I learned about insoles, how toe socks help prevent blisters and ponchos. I exchanged, replaced or disposed of nearly everything besides my hammock, backpack and pocket rocket that weekend. By the time I hit the trail again I was nowhere near ultralight. But going from 30 pounds to 20 pounds felt incredible. And I looked at the trail with an entirely different perspective. Take the pain out the equation, and the walk becomes much more enjoyable. I started to fall in love with the solitude, the sunsets, and with hearing my slow heartbeat as I fell asleep every night. I loved walking into the misty summer mornings. And the strength of my body awed me; I felt so minutely in tune to its every need.

Somewhere in the Shenandoah’s, while lost in the earthy smells and glowing fall foliage, I started thinking about finishing the trail and what that meant for me and the future. Originally the Appalachian Trail was going to be a hit it and quit it deal, but the closer I got to finishing, the more I just wanted to keep walking. I wondered, “if I’m not walking, who and what am I?” The simplicity of trail life captivated me. I woke each day with a purpose and ended the day accomplished, knowing that I was achieving something that few humans ever will.

After 142 days, I made it to the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. While I reveled in the comforts of the “real world,” the idea of hiking the PCT consumed me. At that point it was only a question of when. The bleak post-trail life inspired me pretty quickly, and here I am three months later, just days from flying to San Diego. I’d be lying if I said I put more effort into mapping this trail out. It’s too easy to get caught up and overwhelmed trying to account for every detail of the 2,650 miles. A lot of my gear has stayed the same, but the biggest changes I’ve made have cut out nearly 4 pounds from my baseweight; I invested in a lightweight, 20-degree sleeping bag, a 2400 Southwest pack and ditching the hammock for a Gatewood cape which doubles as a poncho. A lighter load will be critical when hiking between those elusive water sources in the desert. I also downloaded Guthooks, the PCT water report and a town guide. I also regularly follow the very active PCT Facebook group, mostly for moral support and to remind myself of everything I’m probably doing wrong. But hey, hike your own hike, as they say.

While the Pacific Crest Trail is often regarded at the AT’s easier West Coast sister, I’m sure it wont be without its own brutal challenges. The only way I’ll know exactly what I need is to just get out there and start doing it. My first day on the Appalachian Trail, Old Man told to just focus on getting through the 100-mile wilderness; and then focus on making it to the Maine/New Hampshire border; and then just make it through the White Mountains; and on and on. Make small, feasible goals for myself, he told me. And as long as the basics are covered—shelter, sleeping bag, food, water, good shoes and a solid attitude—then I wouldn’t have to worry about the rest because the trail will always provide.


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