Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Thoughts on Southern California Hiking

My planned 3 week odyssey along the PCT in southern California came to a premature end due to a severe shin splint that still has me hobbling about a week and a half later.  But I wanted to give some final thoughts on hiking this section of the trail.  It was really quite a different experience than I had anticipated.

Community
While I sometime hike with a companion, most commonly I hike alone, and enjoy the solitude of the experience.  While I will visit briefly with anyone I meet on the trail, I have never before developed any kind of relationship with someone I met out on the trail.  That changed in the past month.  While I knew that it was likely that I would repeatedly encounter some of the same folks over the course of the hike, I never dreamed that it would be more than a casual howdy here and there.

Throughout the 2 weeks I hiked, I almost always hiked alone.  But after the first few days I found myself a part of an informal group of folks that were covering the same amount of ground each day and frequently camping together.  We were all long distance runners and could easily cover 20 miles a day right out of the gate.  And that was the only real commonality that we shared.  But we did enjoy each others company in the last few hours of each day, and I looked forward to meeting them on the trail at odd times during the day.

I had never before seriously considered doing a single year thru of the PCT, but I began to see the appeal to it when there is an encouraging support network that moves up the trail with you.  Having my wife meet me occasionally to resupply and reconnect is the most important factor for me in having a good hike.  But the gang I traveled with; Martin, Early Bird, Squirrel, Hog and Patrick; definitely made the journey easier this year.  And I am hopefully that I will be able to briefly reconnect with at least some of them when I spend time in the northern Sierra's this summer.

Climate
I live in western Washington, and enjoy the climate here.  For me, a comfortably warm day is up into the 70's; and the upper 80's and beyond is too hot.  Last summer the heat in northern California just about did me in, forcing me to travel slower and break much more often.  So I was very apprehensive about the 'desert' travel in southern California, even in April.  And after flying into Las Vegas and driving across the desert to Campo, all of those apprehensions were only reinforced; I was going to die on this stretch.

Amazingly enough that did not happen.  Yes it was hot a good share of the time.  And yes, it was pretty dry most of the time.  But I was able to carry enough water, and the heat seemed not to impact me nearly as much as last year.  In fact, I wa able to continue walking when others around me were crawling under any available shade to await a cooler time of day to hike.  My biggest problem with the heat was at night because of a much too warm sleeping bag.

Needless to say, because of the climate, the variety of plants and animals in these desert regions is quite different than the areas I usually travel.  I never did walk through an area that was really barren, although much of it does initially appear that way to someone from my neck of the woods.  There really was quite a variety of plants, although most of them seemed thorny.  There were lots of flowers, although many of them were very small.  And I actually saw more animals than I generally do in the lush rain forests of home, although most of them seemed to be lizards of one type or another.  While I am not ready to move to the desert, I did develop a real appreciation for its beauty, and enjoyed the opportunity to experience it.  I still have quite a bit of it to go, but am now looking forward to spending more time out there.

Equipment
For me, the worst part of the backpacking experience has been sleeping.  For years I dreaded nightfall, and yearned for daybreak.  The ground was so hard, and as I aged, it seemed to get nothing but harder.  Then I discovered hammocks, and the sleeping experience was transformed.  For the past 4 years I had gently swung in the trees at night.  And while it still did not compare to a real bed, it was a massive upgrade from sleeping on the ground.  And so it was with real apprehension that I prepared for hiking the desert.  While some areas have tree's, there were long stretches with nothing taller than me.  For this to work I was going to have to be able to get a good night's sleep on the ground.  

So I started by trying out a Neoair; no good.  Next up was a Big Anges Quad Core.  I bought the full length version, and found its 3.5 inches to be satisfactory, especially when coupled with a 3/4 length Thermarest z-lite pad.  I would be able to do this.  Next up I bought a Big Agnes bag with a sleeve in the bottom to hold the Quad Core.  The bag has no insulation on the bottom, using the pad insulation instead.  But the pad stays under the bag all night, which is a big plus for active sleepers like myself.  I sleep pretty cold, so bought a 0 degree bag, which ended up being overkill, but did work.

After spending most of the past 3 weeks on the ground, it is safe to say I am very happy with my ground based sleeping arrangements.  It is heavy, heavier even than my hammock arrangement, but for me it is well worth it.  I got a good nights sleep almost every night, and that is well worth the couple extra pounds I carried compared to those I was with.

While it would have been nice to drop a few pounds from my 15 pound base weight, I found that I frequently carried more weight in water than equipment.  And it would be hard, at least for me, to get much lighter and still be able to enjoy the trip.  The one thing I will forever change concerns shoes.  I wore an old worn out pair of running shoes on the trip.  While I do not know that they were the cause of the shin splint that ended my trip, they were at least a highly likely contributing factor.  The brand of shoes were OK, and I will continue to run in them.  But they will get thrown away now when they hit 500 miles rather than convert them to hiking shoes.

Final Thoughts
Apart from the shin splint, and bruised hips from the pack, it is hard to find a negative about this trip.  I was pleasantly surprised at the sense of community that I was able to participate in.  The trail passed through some hot and dry stretches, sometimes very windy, but throughout it had a beauty that I enjoyed.  I was happy with my own conditioning, being able to keep up with a generally much younger crowd without over-reaching.  And throughout the trip, I marveled at the handiwork of the Creator.  The wide variety in His creation, the awe it inspires, and the time alone with Him were the icing on the cake.

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