The Unlikeliest Backpacker: What I learned while hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail
Kathryn Barnes, 36, was inspired to follow in the footsteps of Cheryl Strayed, who wrote the book, Wild. Without camping or long-distance walking experience, Kathryn set out with her partner Conrad, to walk 935 miles and 166,000ft of ascent over 10 weeks along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in America. They hiked from San Francisco to Canada.
After the hike in 2016, Kathryn has written her own book, The Unlikeliest Backpacker, which publishes this week.
I asked Kathryn to tell me what she learned while hiking more than 900 miles on the famous PCT.
It’s a brutal challenge
According to a recent Department for Transportation survey, the average UK person walks less than half a mile a day. Now, set that against our relatively-modest (by PCT standards) average 18-mile day, throw in a 30lb pack with countless elevation change and it’s obvious our bodies were under a lot of pressure. Signs of resistance were bound to appear.
The majority of our whining in the wild revolved around the exhaustion of being physically pushed to the brink. I never expected it to be easy, but it was BRUTAL.
And although our fitness improved over the weeks, our bodies becoming conditioned, we were never totally devoid of some degree of pain or affliction. An American walker, Dan, that wet met on the PCT described finishing the hike as his “most difficult physical challenge ever”, and I cannot emphasise this point enough.
It was a game of stamina – and we didn’t even complete half the trail.
For two city-dwellers this challenge was compounded by our lack of specific training. Being fit, it turns out, isn’t enough. We discovered that gruelling gym workouts do little to safeguard the body from the repetitive-strain type injuries most frequently sustained in the mountains.
In his unofficial annual thru-hiker survey, Mac – aka Half Way Anywhere – gathered 381 responses from the PCT Class of 2016. Of the 24 per cent surveyed who left the trail early, the results show that 48 per cent did so due to injury.
Now, these results reflect only a small cohort of hikers, but it’s safe to say that injury can be a major obstacle in the world of long-distance hiking.
With this in mind, and the power of hindsight, we should have completed more training before leaving home, especially carrying weighty packs over elevation.
This may have been inconvenient given our hectic London schedule, but looking back on how beneficial it would have been – by toughening up our feet, or getting our shoulders used to carrying packs – I’m sure we could have found a way.
Packing the right kit
Thru-hikers relish discussing kit. It can feel like a competition when comparing who has the lightest, most cutting-edge and compact gear.
As two novices who did all our research online, it was easy to get tangled up in the popular obsession with base weight (the weight of your pack without consumable goods such as food, water and fuel), as the majority of blogs and vlogs come from young and experienced hikers.
This research implied our starting base weight should be somewhere around 20lbs – and this would hopefully be reduced by a couple of pounds over the course of the hike.
But surprisingly, out on the trail, we met people carrying an enormous range of weight and gear. We saw full-size guitars, large bottles of booze and one instance of what I believe was a stoneware urn but was too polite to ask.
Brandon from Tennessee somehow carried a monster 70lbs. The contents included a bear canister, a folding seat and a crockpot, which all formed key components of his bush-camp. Camping under the stars, he told us, was his very reason for hitting the trail.
Yet on the other end of the weight spectrum we met couples who shared a toothbrush.
From talking to people, I learnt that while it’s important to enjoy the experience, it’s even more vital to strike a balance between lightweight, comfort and being prepared.
Stories of ultra-light hikers being rescued because they didn’t have appropriate protections abound. Dan knew one woman who required a helicopter rescue after catching hypothermia.
Even so, there are a number of studies that prove a linear correlation between pack weight and injuries. As rookies, our biggest fear was getting lost or held up and not having enough provisions to survive.
In the wild, it only takes a spate of bad weather to find yourself in a sticky situation, by taking out a vital river crossing, or throwing up a dangerous storm meaning you need to stay put and hunker down.
From our gear list (outlined in the back of the book), you will see various items that many hikers would deem superfluous, but which formed the cautious ingredients to our safety first approach.
Some of these items we never used – the whistle, compass, emergency matches, iodine pills – but I felt reassured knowing we had them just in case.
We did shed some items – mostly towards the end when we had built up more confidence – but others we added, including some “luxury” objects to improve our comfort.
The blow-up pillows, foam seating pads and an extra thick pair of socks to sleep in each made the weight-vs-pleasure edit, because we valued our rest and I hated being cold.
Food vs weight
Some people go to great lengths to calculate what food to pack on hikes using a combination of caloric density, mileage and body weight. But their calculations hinge upon a degree of guess-work because there is no definitive consensus about what calculation to use in the first place – amount of calories per pound being just one – and the optimal values of each.
This is probably because the physical demands on your body change over time, and nutrition varies so much from person to person.
We certainly could have coped with less food for the first couple of weeks while slowly increasing our mileage. Hiker hunger didn’t really hit us until then anyway, but Conrad’s body needed more after that, though his weight has well and truly recovered since.
On shorter hikes, of up to a week or two, people can probably survive on consuming their recommended daily calorie intake – 2,500kcl for men and 2,000kcl for women – knowing that if they lose a pound or two they can replenish any deficit soon enough.
But on a prolonged hike where the average hiker burns more than 3,000 calories a day, food becomes a vital energy source to sustain the body, so it’s worth considering the nutritional value of the foodstuffs you carry to some extent.
This might be controversial, but I believe it’s possible to take a pragmatic approach to diet by monitoring your body (something we should have done more effectively with Conrad’s weight), and using trial and error to fill nutritional gaps if they arise.
Set realistic goals
Your body doesn’t just feel tired on the trail, it gets repetitively hammered. Fortunately, a simple piece of advice was bestowed on us just before we set out, which I believe proved key to our success.
Shroomer, the friendly hiker we met half-way up Mount Diablo, left us with a simple, but invaluable piece of advice. To paraphrase, it went something like: “If you want to be hiking 20-milers, don’t go in guns blazing with 20s, try beginning with 10.
“No matter how tempted you may feel to go further, don’t. Give your body a chance to adapt. Maybe do 10 miles for the first week, then build up slowly from there.”
These words make a lot of sense, especially for people who, like ourselves, intend to do most of their physical training on the trail. While we didn’t strictly stick to 10-mile days for the first week, Shroomer’s advice was at the heart of the low expectations embedded in our sensible hiking schedule and motivated us to call it a night in the mid-afternoon on more than one occasion.
Gradual progression is probably what helped give our bodies some sort of fighting chance to acclimatise – that and having the ability to take regular zero days to recover
Make sure you enjoy the hike
This brings me on to my last point, the keystone I wish I could have grasped before it all began: Appreciate it!
I shake my head in shame thinking just how much I focused my attention while hiking on the difficulties I faced, when I should have slapped myself into the reality of the experience.
I may hate camping, but there I was in the great Wild West living out a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that many will only ever dream of.
Ordinary life can get very routine, but on the trail each day is an adventure, maybe not always a rosy one, but never are two days the same, and you know what?: It feels pretty damn wild to let things be, topped off with an unexplainable, intoxicating feeling of personal triumph upon crossing the finish line.
It may have initially taken us time to disconnect from the city, unscrambling the brain noise, but once we did, the tranquillity was exhilarating.
I enjoyed the quiet. America’s wilderness, so impossibly vast, constantly exceeded our expectations. Ingrained into memory is a slide-show of fantastic marvels, mountains higher, lakes clearer, canyons deeper and tree canopies denser than I ever could have imagined.
I close my eyes and I feel invigorated by the majestic images, even while packed like sardines into the London Underground. My imagination has been sparked.
Back home, I now look up at the stars and sunsets, and although they are not as glorious as those illuminating the Cascades, they offer me hope.
All those hours, days, weeks on the trail are now wound together in an irrevocable memory. The people, the views, the agony and the laughter, all held in a place that will stay with me forever.
I hope to one day return to complete some of the remaining 1,700 miles. The mountains are calling.
But until then, I share excitement for, and wish safe passage to anyone embarking on their own outdoor adventure.
Who is the author?
Kathryn was born and grew up in London. She studied Economic History at the London School of Economics and took a management consultant job after university.
Kathryn’s riveting and accessible memoir, The Unlikeliest Backpacker, proves that you don’t have to be an experienced adventure junkie to play out the adventure of a lifetime. She decided one day to break from the routine, quit her office job and flew to America to begin living life in the wild, walking hundreds of miles along the Pacific Crest Trail.
The book is published by Hornet Books in paperback priced £9.99. YOU can buy at Amazon.