From the AT to the PCT: The Journey to Ultralight
/ April 05, 2016
A thru hike can be like a lever. A lever that pulls back a curtain on your worldview. A lever that when thrown forward, gets your engine running at full speed. Or maybe it’s a tool that helps you lift and move something heavy up and out of the way so you can travel freely. No matter how you work it, (or it works you), the result is guaranteed to lead to a different outcome after you use it.
No question our friend Jeff "IBTAT" Oliver discovered this in 2018 on his Appalachian Trail thru hike. He finished lighter, clearer, and more motivated than ever. And once anyone gets a taste of that, it’s pert near impossible to sit still for long, not wanting more. So, this year, he’s going to keep the momentum going on the Pacific Crest Trail.
With all the time in the world to think about how he moved along while on the AT, and how his gear helped or hindered him, coupled with the time to reflect on it all between the AT finish and the PCT start that can’t come soon enough, Jeff’s gear and approach plan is taking shape. Walk with him a spell as he gets into the nitty-gritty as few others can.
Words & Photos by Jeff "IBTAT" Oliver
Ok, so I’m not gonna sit here and tell you that I’ve ever once thought about sawing my toothbrush in half to save an ounce or two. I WILL tell you that I’m mindful of the gear that’s going to be on my back all day/every day for six months – I’d be crazy not to! I’m no expert by any means, but by the end of the 2,190-mile hike from Georgia to Maine, I’d like to think I learned a thing or two about my gear, and what I should and shouldn’t be carrying on a thru hike.
First and foremost, I am a firm believer in testing your gear in as many situations as possible before attempting any long-distance hike. It is then, and only then that you’ll know what works for YOU. You know that old cliché saying that gets shoved down your throat all the time, “Hike Your Own Hike”? Well, it’s 100% true. Your gear should be dialed into you and your hiking style – nobody else’s!
Let’s take a look at the gear that carried my ass, saved my ass, and bruised my ass for six months. While we're at it, let’s take a look at what I’ve changed, and why I’ve changed it as I prepare to tackle the Pacific Crest Trail in 2019. At the end, I’ll give a list of all the gear I’ll be hauling.
DOWNLOAD MY FULL 2019 PCT GEAR LIST HERE
So, you wanna be an Ultra Lighter do ya? Well, you better have your “Big Three” dialed in because all those luxury items you’ve been eyeballing all off season, they’re gonna push you out of UL status pretty damn quick. Trust me, I know.
AT: From the first time I put on a loaded 3400 Windrider, I knew it was the pack for me. Aside from it fitting like a glove, what drew me to the Windrider initially was the simplicity of it. One big pocket, and three mesh pockets on the front. Boom, that’s all I need. The only downside I found was with the older version I had. The hip belt pockets were too small. I hate taking my pack off while I’m hiking so the more accessible space available on the outside, the better. Durability wise, the pack is pretty much bombproof. I walked through multiple downpours on the AT and never had water leak into the pack. I did have a couple of small tears in the mesh water bottle pockets from rubbing along jagged rocks in New Hampshire/Maine, but it never affected the functionality of the pack and could’ve been easily repaired with a little dental floss or with a call to the Hyperlite Mountain Gear HQ in Maine.
PCT: There is no doubt in my mind I could’ve used the same white 3400 Windrider again on the PCT, and it would’ve held up. So why change it other than because it smells like a Thru Hiker? The upgraded larger hip belt pockets were too damn tempting to pass up. I also changed out my white pack for the black. Wait, so I carried a white pack through the green tunnel, and now I’m carrying a black one through the desert? Yes. Why? First of all, if there is any truth to the idea that the contents of the pack get hotter in a black vs. white pack, well, it’s not gonna affect the way I hike. Snickers bars will melt regardless. The reason I went with the black Windrider is that it’s made with a slightly thicker Dyneema® Composite Fabric. With the way I abuse my gear, I thought it might give me a little more peace of mind when I toss my pack on the ground for six months straight.
AT: I started out on the Appalachian Trail with the ZPacks Duplex and used it up until Duncannon, Pennsylvania. The Duplex is basically a two-bedroom apt. with a good size/weight ratio. However, I had some durability issues with it around Virginia. Twenty-two days of rain in VA alone eventually left me with a few wet/sleepless nights. It was just after meeting some of the Hyperlite Mountain Gear folks at Trail Days last year that I had the chance to try out a 1-person prototype they were developing. Coming from the spacious Duplex to a smaller tent was a bit challenging at first. Mainly because I got used to throwing all my gear everywhere once I set up camp. The Hyperlite Mountain Gear tent forced me to be a bit more organized to utilize all the available space. This was a good thing.
PCT: For the PCT, I’ll be using the new Dirigo 2 Backpacking Tent. Why? Because I’m willing to carry a few more ounces if it’s going to allow me the freedom to be a little more relaxed in the way I organize my gear in camp. I can justify the slight increase weight for the space and the comfort it’s going to give me after hiking 20+ miles through the southern California Desert. I still have the prototype tent as a backup if something should happen, or I want to swap it out for shits and giggles.
AT: I jumped on the quilt bandwagon just before the AT. The main reason being weight. I was already carrying a beanie to cover my head in the colder months, so it made sense to eliminate the need for a hood on my sleeping bag. The quilt I used was the Enlightened Equipment 20-degree Revelation. The temperature rating was more than adequate for my thru hike. It did get down below 20 degrees a handful of times, but nothing that a few extra layers couldn’t handle. Because I am a side sleeper, a nice sleeping pad is almost necessary for a decent night sleep. The Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite has served me well.
PCT: Same setup. If it ain't broke, don’t fix it kind of mentality here.
AT: First of all, I’d like to express how damn jealous I am of folks that can go stove-less. Unfortunately, my love for/addiction to hot coffee will forever prohibit me from doing so. I keep my “kitchen” as light as I possibly can. On the AT, I used the good ol’ trusty MSR Pocket Rocket 2. Now, as I mentioned above, I’m rough on my gear, which is probably why I broke two Pocket Rockets in six months by stripping the threads. Shit happens. My pot is a Toaks Ti 750ml. This pot is featherweight and is big enough to cook two packets of ramen no problem. The benefit of using titanium other than the weight savings is the ability to cook over a fire if need be. This saves on fuel as well and makes your pot smell like a campfire. Rounding out my cook kit is an Optimus Titanium Long Spoon. The long handle allows you to get to the bottom of freeze-dried bags and Ziplocks without getting ramen juice all over your fingers.
PCT: The setup remains the same other than the stove. I’m not saying the Pocket Rocket is terrible, but because I happened to break two of them, I decided to change it up. For the PCT, I’ll be using an Optimus Crux Lite stove. The benefit to the Crux compared to the Pocket Rocket is the more even distribution of the flame to the pot which will hopefully result in quicker boil times.
AT: Water is one of those variables that is tricky. How much capacity do you really need? Well in 2018, Mother Nature delivered on the Appalachian Trail. It was one of the wettest years on record, so water never became an issue. I carried two 1 L Smartwater bottles as well as a 2 L Evernew bladder and wide mouth Gatorade bottle to bring my capacity to a total of 5 L. I don’t think I ever needed that much water. I could’ve gotten away with carrying one liter at a time and been fine while I was hiking. In camp, I was usually good with 3 L if I was dry camping. As for filtering, I used the Sawyer Squeeze. With regular back flushing, it proved to be worth its weight compared to the Sawyer Mini. Do yourself a favor and just go with the full-size Sawyer squeeze. The flow rate is much better.
PCT: My water capacity for the PCT will probably change depending on which section I’m currently in. Obviously, the desert is a bit different. I will continue to use the same basic setup to start and adjust accordingly as I see necessary. To carry the weight of the water more efficiently, I’ve swapped out two of the one-liter bottles for two 1.5 L bottles. I’ll also be bringing two 1 L bottles. All four of those bottles will easily fit in the water bottle pockets of my pack. In the front mesh pocket, I’ve swapped out my 2 L Evernew bag for a 1 L bag which I will store in the outer mesh of my pack. The capacity I’ll be starting out with in the desert section will be 6 L. All of my bottles are for dirty water except one, which will be used for drink mixes because let’s be honest, water get old after a while.
AT: What’s funny about the AT, is that it honestly doesn’t matter what you wear. I saw hikers wearing the best technical clothing money could buy. I also saw hikers dressed like they just came from Burning Man. I wore simple Dri-FIT shirt/shorts, buff, trucker hat, Darn Tuff Point 6 socks. Boxers, Altra Lone Peaks, a puffy, and some sleeping layers. This setup served me just fine in the Green Tunnel.
PCT: Yes, I am pasty white, and the desert heat is going to make me suffer for it. However, that’s not really going to change my clothing setup for the PCT too much. The major change this year is the shirt. I’m swapping out the Dri-FIT short sleeve for a long sleeve button down. Reason being, aside from preventing sunburn, it’s going to hopefully prevent me from being checked into a loony bin from mosquito bites. I also found that an extra pair of underwear was unnecessary weight for a simple piece of hikertrash like me. If there is anything hygienic-wise that I care about it’s my feet. Therefore, I’ll still be carrying three pairs of socks: two for hiking in and one for sleeping. Sleeping clothes include Patagonia leggings and an Odlo hooded base layer. Cold weather layers include Patagonia UL down hoody, beanie, and North Face liner cloves. My rain gear is used more for a warmth layer than anything else, and this includes an Outdoor Research Helium II jacket and Marmot Precip Pants.
AT: Up until this point, I sort of resemble an Ultralighter. Not anymore. Being a vlogger on Youtube, and a huge fan of photography, here’s where the significant weight for me lies. My main shooter, until it broke, was a Sony RX100V. By the end of the trail I was filming/photographing with my iPhone 8 plus for convenience. I also edited video every night in my tent. To do this efficiently, I carried a full-size iPad. Yes, I could've edited on my phone, but I found it’s just much easier to do it on the iPad. Along with carrying all this extra filming equipment, comes the necessary charging cords/accessories. Among other things, this included charging cables, headphones, battery banks, small tripod, etc. This stuff adds up, and fast.
PCT: Even after hauling all this extra “unnecessary” weight over 2,000 miles, I’m willing to do it again. On top of that, it's going to be heavier than before. I agree that today's smartphones take pretty damn good photos, but not quite good enough. The new camera is mirrorless, which will allow me to shoot full-frame, but still keep the weight reasonable compared to a DSLR. When I carried my RX100, I was limited to the one lens it came with. The new setup will allow me to swap lenses along my hike if I choose to. I understand this gear is heavy, but remember earlier when I mentioned getting your “Big Three” dialed in because of luxury items? This is why, and the reason I will never be a “true” Ultralighter. Do I care? Not really. Hike Your Own Hike! Carry Your Own Weight!
If I learned anything on my first thru hike it’s this; gear will change throughout the course of six-months. Weather conditions, water availability, malfunctions, hiking style, comfort – all of these factors play a role in which gear you decide to haul. The gear I’ve chosen to start with may or may not be the gear I finish with. That being said, I know the gear I’ve chosen works and works well.
Only thing left to do is lace ‘em up and get to walking.
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