Here’s where I tell you what worked and didn’t work, in my 5 months on the PCT. To see my pre-trail gear list, go here.
Different pieces of gear work radically well or worse for different hikers. The only way to know what you want and like is to try it yourself… obviously. The contents of my pack changed a lot during my trek, and I changed my clothing selection for different sections of the trail as well, which I will review.
I really valued gear reviews from previous hikers as I was preparing for my PCT adventure. Hopefully this will be useful for those preparing to hike next year, or after! Good luck, and please reach out with any questions you may have.
ULA Catalyst Backpack
I loved my pack. A lot. ULA also gave us a sweet discount for being part of a non-profit, but regardless, I unconditionally and very honestly like this pack. I loved the back and hip-belt pockets, the purple color, the roll-top, the size, the accessible side pockets, I could go on. The only adjustments I made to straps and pockets were removing the clipped-on loops on the front chest straps. I often had lots of space to spare, but the roll-top makes it easy to condense the pack. I definitely needed all the space a few times – for instance, hiking out of Kennedy Meadows with a bear canister and 8 days of food. Perhaps a smaller pack (the ULA Circuit, for example) would have worked just as well, but I liked having room for my potato chips on top.
I treated my pack pretty roughly, throwing it around and sliding down rock faces, and it developed two small holes on the bottom near the beginning of the trek. The material is durable, lightweight, but not bulletproof. The small holes did not rip further, thankfully.
My only complaint about the pack was the awkward shape of the bottom. I like a square bottom, so the pack can stand on its own while fully packed. The rounded bottom made the pack tippy when stood on the ground.
Double Rainbow Tarp Tent
I was very happy with our tent. The Double Rainbow proved easy to set up, either free-standing or pegged. In the rain, we learned quickly after a leaking event how to properly stake the tent out to avoid drips. Condensation was never terrible, the inside got a little damp on some nights but that’s pretty unavoidable. The Double Rainbow is a single walled tent, which means you can’t sleep with just a mesh ceiling without a rain-fly. This was not an issue for us. Either you cowboy camp, which we did most nights, or, on a buggy night, leave the doors rolled up so you can still breathe fresh air and see the corner of the starry sky. Even better, just cowboy camp with your mosquito head-net on!
The Double Rainbow is not terribly packable. Dan found it really annoying that the top pole, about a foot long, did not fit horizontally in our ULA packs. That little pole made it difficult to pack into the small stuff sack, especially with freezing morning fingers. The tent held up well, but the stuff sack was shredded by Canada. That top pole also wore away the material holding it in place, so that we had to patch it with duct tape. Not a huge deal.
It weighs almost the same as my Mountain Hardware 4-season 1-person tent, so I’ll probably use the Double Rainbow even for solo trips now.
If I were to thru-hike again, I would probably try out a more minimalist and lighter shelter system, like the Z-Packs Hexamid Twin Tarp. I was reluctant to look at super minimalist tarp tents, but my worries about durability and weather stability were proved null by friends who used minimalist shelters on the trail. Nevertheless, the Double Rainbow proved an excellent choice.
Thermarest Z-Lite Sleeping Pad
The z-lite was definitely adequate for this trek. It was super nice to have a pad to sit on for breaks, and not to worry about puncturing holes with pine needles or cacti. Over time, the z-lite squished down and became less cushy, but it wasn’t really comfortable in the first place. I had the ‘short’ z-lite (even though I’m 6’0″), folded up the bottom to cushion my hips a bit more, and slept with my empty pack under my legs for insulation. This pad serves as insulation, not for comfort. I learned to sleep happily on my stomach, rather than my side, and in the morning was stiff, but developed no severe back or hip pain because of the pad.
For comfort, on shorter trips I would try a Thermarest NeoAir, probably on top of the z-lite for protection against punctures. This was a favorite for hikers who used blow up pads.
Mountain Hardwear Phantasia 15 Long Sleeping Bag
I. Loved. This. Bag. I cannot tell you. It was plenty warm (I only was mildly chilly on a few nights on the PCT, with very low temps), and I often slept with the zipper undone. I loved having a hood (sorry quilts), loved the huge loft, the packability, the color. The material looks incredibly thin, but performed very well. I tore a tiny hole in the outside, patched it with duct tape and the fix held up great. I highly recommend this bag if you can get past the painful price tag.
REI Hiking Poles
I used generic REI hiking poles. I am very very glad I had poles, even though I doubted their usefulness before the trail. The doubt is completely gone. Get poles. They are indispensable for river crossings and snow, at the very least. These were not the best poles, I had to tighten the bottom joint because they collapsed a few times. But they definitely did the trick and worked great once I tightened them with my pocket knife.
My generic fleece hat and pink baseball hat worked perfectly, no special brand names necessary. I was a little jealous of Henley’s tiny warm smartwool beanie, but whatever. A Buff as an extra neck/head layer was great, also good hankie when your bandana is really gross. On cold nights I slept with the Buff under my beanie, and that kept the beanie from sliding off my head. I loved having fleece gloves in the Sierras and Washington, they were essential for warmth so you can grip your trekking poles. I brought surgical latex gloves to cover them in rain, but never ended up using them. The gloves dried out really quickly when damp if I stuck them under my clothes. I used one bandana the whole trek, for foot/leg cleaning, snot wiping, pee rag, sun cover for my neck, and wound cleaning. Hygiene!
I wore Columbia thermal (midweight) bottom and (heavyweight) top layers. I slept in these almost every night. The bottoms sometimes were not as warm as I wanted, but I barely used them in Northern CA because nights were too hot. I switched out my warm top layer for a thin, light, longsleeved dri-top in Northern CA and Oregon, because I didn’t need the warmth.
For hiking, I switched out Colombia hiking shorts in favor of colorful Nike running shorts with a spandex bottom layer. Short running shorts on top of compression shorts to reduce chafe is the WAY TO GO. Under, I wore black ExOfficio undies, which are the BEST. I carried 2 pairs, rinsing and drying one pair on the outside of my pack every day. Literally they were perfect, comfortable, didn’t stink, and are in excellent shape still. My friend who wore Icebreakers complained that she got holes within a month of each pair. Or you can go commando, as many hikers do.
A cheap, light colored, button-down long-sleeved top was perfect for sun coverage. I also bought a Nike tank top in Tahoe and switched off between the two shirts, which most hikers would consider blasphemous (heavy and unnecessary) but I loved it. I adored my super supportive Moving Comfort sports bra- it is totally worth it to buy an expensive awesome sports bra for this trek (thank you Haley for convincing me of this fact).
My dear darling puffy was a Sierra Designs DriDown Cloud Puffy. This jacket is not the warmest thing out there, but for its weight it performed beautifully. I also loved that with DriDown, the down actually stays warm when the jacket is damp. Condensation beads off the jacket, which makes it perfect for hiking in misty conditions. It also packs down really small, and I like that it has a hood.
For raingear, I carried a Marmot PreCip. This jacket served as an extra warm layer as well. As far as rain jackets go, this one’s pretty stellar. I loved the pit zips and pockets, the features on the hood (softer material around your mouth, cinch mechanisms), and the bright blue color. It performed very well in the rain and cold. If it was warm and raining, I didn’t bother wearing a jacket.
I carried REI Ultralight Rainpants in the Sierras, Oregon, and Washington. I did not need them for Oregon at all. I never wore them in the rain, but they were great as a warm layer, glissading tool, or bug protection. I used these most when bugs were extremely bad in the Sierras and for the very cold days in Washington. In the rain and snow, I mostly would have overheated while hiking in non-breathable rainpants. I have previously made rain-skirts by cutting out a trash bag, and would do this next time if needed.
Brooks Cascadias were a great shoe choice for me. Most hikers I met wore through 3-5 pairs of shoes on the trail, but I was happy with just 2 pairs (I’m still using the second pair for trail running now). Other than the immense durability, I loved their colors and support. I am usually a women’s 10.5 and I wore men’s 11 then men’s 11.5 (what!) to give extra room. I think the toe box was a bit small for me, and I cut out the back of my pairs to stop rubbing against my ankle bones. Despite this, I had few blisters, neuropathy in my toes and no foot pain until the second half of the trail. I’ve had foot pain on short hikes in the past, and was worried about foot injuries. I believe the neuropathy and pain were inevitable (common among hikers), not because of the shoes.
I supplemented the Cascadias with Superfeet green insoles, which probably helped my feet out.
I brought bright patterned REI fleece socks to sleep in, which was a great choice that I never regretted. I did not wear these in Northern CA because it was too hot at night, but otherwise they were a dream. They kept my sleeping bag clean from my gross feet when I couldn’t wash them at night.
I wrote an entire post about socks here.
I chose not to buy Dirty Girl Gaiters, as many hikers do. I didn’t miss them. I used Ladypants’ old gaiters when he switched to Chacos, and felt neutrally about them. The few times I did get stones and sticks in my shoes, I could often get them out by balancing on one leg and fishing them out. Not a huge deal.
Camp shoes (Crocs) were a mistake. I brought these rather than flip flops so I could wear socks with them. They were nice in towns, but in general I found them unnecessary. They’re a comfort in the beginning, helping you feel clean and civilized, but I started not caring about putting washed feet or sleep socks in dirty hiking shoes pretty fast. I bounced them ahead to towns for most of the trip. If I were to take camp shoes on another (shorter) trip I’d take thin flip flops.
Technology & Entertainment
iPhone and iPod (+ headphones) were a lifesaver. Podcasts and Taylor Swift were my dear companions. iPhone is great for the super useful Halfmile app. I used my iPhone as a camera and occasional voice messages while walking (to remind myself of things when I sat down). It’s also really awesome when you reach a summit and you want to cry and get overwhelmed by everything, and then you realize SERVICE and turn on your phone and have MESSAGES from your loved ones! Boost!
I would recommend getting a Lifeproof or Otterbox case for your phone – I cracked my screen pretty badly without one.
To power said electronic devices, we shared a Powertraveller Solar Monkey Adventurer, which performed very well over the trip. Powertraveller gave us a very kind discount for being a charitable organization, and we really appreciate it! Regardless, this is an honest review. I really liked having a solar charger for emergencies, just in case you need to call out or you get lost. The Solar Monkey provided enough juice for three of us to keep devices charged with minimal use. It is a little clunky and big, compared to other people’s solar panels, but it’s a good value for the price. It stood up perfectly to a little rough wear, and some condensation when left open overnight. If I were to hike on my own, I would definitely carry a small USB external battery instead, which you can charge in town, and plug into your iPhone to power up.
I carried various paperbacks, and at the end switched for Dan’s Kindle. I always carried a journal for notes, sketching, and tracking milage. I liked the option, but didn’t find very much time to read or write on trail. This may have been different had I been camping alone: meal-time and bed-time were always pretty social, since I was camping with other people every night. I would usually scratch out a page or read a less than a chapter before passing out or getting distracted by conversation.
For a headlamp, I used the awesome Mammut S Lite. Super tiny, lightweight, and powerful. It does go through batteries very quickly, so I tried to use it minimally and carry an extra AA. I’d love to find a similarly excellent model that charges via outlet or USB.
Titanium spork, Snowpeak pot (shared), bag with lighter and small trimmed scouring pad (a luxury), were great. I used an empty plastic Nutella jar and empty orange Gatorade can to prep/soak food and eat from, also was useful for packing crushable food items (cookies etc). Also good to scoop water from shallow sources. I started the trek with a plastic mug and just the Gatorade can, and quickly realized having a lidded item is better. Just one jar would have been more practical but I really really like yummy breakfast drank with my icky oatmeal (will detail in food post). I used Powerade plastic bottles for water, which worked great.
MSR Pocket Rocket, shared between the three of us, performed very well. It is super tiny and light, and worked well through the whole trek. It’s not very well balanced, and the pot sits rather precariously on top. Regardless, we never spilled. It’s easy to light, and you can adjust the flame to simmer or boil quickly. Not the most fuel efficient- we made a windscreen ourselves but you still lose some heat.
The favorite stove on the trail was clearly the JetBoil. They just came out with a newer, cheaper model that is better balanced and easier to use, so if I were to do the trek again I would use the new JetBoil. The problem with the JetBoil is the inability to simmer – it runs only very hot and fast – but I’ve heard again that the new model simmers as well. I will definitely be checking it out!
Canister fuel was easy to pick up when needed.
The water filter…. We began the trek with a Platypus Gravity 4L Filter. Within a month, it was running very very slowly and poorly. We backflushed constantly, tried adjusting it and playing with the bubble streams, but couldn’t fix it. We ended up sending it home in Portland, and returning it after the trip. We did use the ‘clean’ bag to carry water throughout the trek, and that worked magnificently. Even at full speed, the gravity filter was slow enough that we only used it at night or at lunch, it was frustrating to wait for it to finish while on short breaks.
In the Sierras, none of us filtered anyways and got used to having immediate water. I started using my back-up, bleach drops, once we hit Northern California and continued using them through the whole trip. Bleach, though it has some health concerns if used long-term, is the quickest and cheapest water filtration you can find. I used bleach for most of the trail and was perfectly happy. I would not use it every day for the rest of my life, for health reasons, but it was fine for the trail. For those who don’t want to filter, let me say that I knew several people on the trail who got giardia doing that, and giardia is a VERY nasty bug, and dangerous in the backcountry. If you don’t filter, be prepared to drag yourself several days out with uncontrollable diarrhea and severe stomach cramps, don’t call in a helicopter because you were a dumb asshole and made poor decisions.
In the Sierras you need a bear canister. Don’t be an asshole. Get the damn bear can. We all used the Bear Vault BV500, the most popular by far. Everyone gripes that they are difficult to open, but I had no trouble at all as long as my fingers weren’t freezing. Which happens. We all purchased our canisters from the Kennedy Meadows general store, most people did, but if you never plan on using one again it might be worth renting one. Or you can sell it after. Or use it as a beer cooler, goldfish bowl, flower vase, bongo drum, whatever strikes your fancy. They are heavy but it’s worth it to keep bears safe and wild. AND your pop-tarts, veggies, granola bars and cookies will be uncrushed through the Sierras, which is fabulous. Dan even carried a small bear can all the way to Canada.
The little stuff
Here’s what I carried in my hip belt pockets… On the left: iPhone, iPod, headphones, spork, clip-on sunglasses, chapstick, map bits, mini-knife. On the right: small toothbrush, Dr. Bronners, hand sanitizer, medications, pen, vaseline, headlamp. The Catalyst’s hip belt pockets were HUGE and so awesome.
My mosquito headnet worked fine, next time I would go with the simpler frameless one. I had a metal strip that supposedly keeps the netting off your face, but the metal-free versions worked fine for others, weighed a bit less, were less bulky, and could be used as a bag in your pack, or as a pillow with your puffy stuffed inside.
I used a Leatherman CS (1.5oz) and loved it. I lost this knife somewhere in Northern CA, however, and bought a similar model Swiss Army knife. I prefer the Leatherman for the small but useful extra features. The most useful tools for me were scissors to cut bandages out of gauze (for my toes), tweezers, and the knife. The knife on this is too small to cut big items- it just manages to work for avocados and apples, but that was fine for me!
Dry-bags are awesome and made me feel safe in wet conditions. I used 15L and 10L Outdoor Reasearch Ultralight dry-sacks. I think a better system would have been a fully waterproof sleeping bag compression sack, combined with a 10L dry-bag. I really like having my pack organized – clothes all in a dry sack, little stuff together, tent in its stuff sack. See packing, below. I also used a garbage bag pack liner, which is really the only thing you need if you don’t care about organizing.
In my med kit: paper tape, tylenol, safety pin, neosporin, hydrocortisone cream, benadryl, imodium, duct tape, dental floss, gauze pads, a few alcohol wipes. Instead of bandaids I recommend creating them from duct tape (or paper tape for small things like blisters) and gauze pads so you can adjust size accordingly. Of all these things, I did not use neosporin, benadryl, immodium or paper tape, but other people on trail with medical emergencies used my paper tape and immodium. I am glad I brought all of it, though hand sanitizer could have doubled to replace the neosporin. I did not need anything else.
I picked up some vaseline from a hiker box to help with chafe, and ended up carrying it to the end. It was great for any skin issue that came up, and hikers love you when you can offer them something to soothe their butt chafe (true story).
Dr. Bronner’s is great for the trail. I used just over one 3-oz bottle for the entire trek. It works for toothpaste on trail (it ain’t Crest but it works), and washing dishes and clothes in town.
We were lucky enough to hike in a very low snow year, and did not need crampons or ice axes. There were a couple sketchy bits where one would have been nice, but definitely not worth carrying for a whole section.
Finally, tips on packing your pack! Main points: you want to keep the heaviest gear close to your back, and the things you need during the day on the outside and top of your pack. Of course you will adjust for things like extra water, major food resupply, or a bear can.
I kept snacks, my sleeping pad for sitting, layers, water, rain gear if needed, on the outside of my pack. I kept safety pins on my pack for drying socks and underwear during the day, after washing them in a stream. Make sure you strap them down as well, as safety pins can slip! Once I found a friend’s damp underwear and socks on the trail, her safety pin had broken!
I packed my pack like so (you will get really, really good at your own version of this): 1) Food bag (heaviest item) in the middle, close to my back, 2) tent on one side, close to my back, 3) sleeping/rain clothes in a dry sack on the other side of my food bag, close to my back, 4) sleeping bag, loose without a stuff sack, packed in the empty space around these things, away from my back, 5) on top, dry sack with book/journal/medkit/money/little things, 6) snacks or breakfast items. On the outside: 1) sleeping pad and bandana/pee rag on top, 2) camp shoes (if I was carrying them) strapped onto velcro, 3) water in side pockets, 4) shit kit (TP and trash ziplock), sun hat and buff in side pockets, 5) snacks, maps and layers in big mesh pocket. Again: you will get really, really, good at this.
Things I would bring next time: A great camera. A more minimalist tent (though I loved the one we used). A better iPhone case. An external USB battery instead of solar charger.
Things I would drop next time: Rain pants (you carry your fear [hypothermia]) – would use a garbage bag rain skirt instead, just for Sierras and Washington. Camp shoes. The Nutella jar for food. The solar charger. The gravity water filter (use just bleach instead.)
Please feel free to leave comments or questions for me here. Thanks for reading!