I hiked the first 700 miles of the PCT without trekking poles. I’d read that they were heavy, unnecessary things, like weights that you carried in your hands. Although I am a naturally talented walker, load-hauling has never been my strong suit, and I was certain that my chances of completing the PCT hinged on me being as ultralight as possible. And by the time I’d bought my tent, sleeping bag and water purifier, I was out of money, so not buying trekking poles was a no-brainer for me.
I’d never done a long hike before the PCT, and besides one four-day backpacking trip on the Olympic Peninsula, I’d mostly read about ultralight backpacking in books. Mike Clelland’s Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips is a good one, and I learned a lot from his funny cartoons, most notably the weight of an empty emergen-c packet and how to turn my arm into a sluice with which to wash my ass.
Mike’s book eschews trekking poles, claiming that they’re unnecessary hindrances which bump up your base weight and keep you from being able to carry a water bottle in your hand, which he likes to do. While preparing for the PCT I followed much of Mike’s advice to the letter- buying the thinnest ziploc bags available, sending myself lots of cheap socks, not packing any toilet paper. I stopped short of wrapping a razor blade in a piece of cardboard from a cereal box (a cereal box because that cardboard is, you know, lighter than regular cardboard) and packing it as my only cutting implement, as he recommends.
I imagined myself hunched over a package of salami in the desert, attempting to slice a hunk of meat and slicing off my finger instead. No bueno. So I bought a tiny swiss army knife for my hike, the little classic one. It has a blade, a file, a pair of scissors, a plastic toothpick and a tweezers. I found it cheap on ebay, and it has the name of an insurance company on one side.
As I packed up my kit in the weeks before the trail, obsessively weighing and re-weighing every little plastic thing, I thought excitedly about the other ultralight hikers I would meet. What would they be like? What would they be wearing? And would their ziploc bags be as thin as mine? I imagined us laughing and eating gummi peach rings as we practically floated down the trail, our packs like helium balloons. We would step casually over the bodies of the regular hikers who had collapsed in the desert sand, crushed beneath the weight of their packs, which were strapped all over with camp shoes, paperback books and inflatable pillows.
Then I actually started my thru-hike, and in the first weeks of the trail I had these realizations-
-All the other ultralight hikers are faster than me
-I am the only one without trekking poles.
I was awed by the sight of these trekking poles. Hadn’t these other ultralight hikers read the same books I had, scrolled endlessly through the same internet forums? Actually, it turned out, no. They hadn’t. Mostly these ultralight hikers had learned to be ultralight by thru-hiking another trail, like the AT, and since they were seasoned thru-hikers that also explained why they were so fast.
So I hiked the first 500 miles with a group of other first-timers from Portland, their packs strapped all over with camp shoes and inflatable pillows, watching the ultralight hikers blow by me. I would look longingly after them as they disappeared, trekking poles clacking, and wonder how anyone could hike so fast for so long without getting tired. But I figured I would never get the chance to ask them how they did it, because they were all way too fast for me.
Then two things happened: I became slightly faster than the group I was hiking with and the straight girl I was wooing left me for an Australian pothead with a passion for video games. And so I hiked alone through the Mojave, in a windstorm of such intensity that, down in the valley, they had rerouted the interstate. I stumbled over the mountain in my own personal hell, nostrils smashed to my face so that I could barely breathe, the storm gods one puff away from blowing me off the mountain to my death. When at last I reached the town of Mojave and checked into the motel 6, I was exhausted, dehydrated, and mildly hypothermic. And I had caught up with the ultralighters.
I began to hike with a big, unwieldy group of them, and it was just as fun as I had thought it would be. We ate melted snickers bars, played word games, made up new names for the constellations, and laughed until we felt we would asphyxiate. And we pushed each other to see just how much we could Go Without- could you get by without enough water in the desert? Without a warm enough sleeping bag? With no bug net when the mosquitoes were bad? When your clothes were torn to shreds?
While almost all of these hikers were faster than I was, a few of them were lazy enough to wait for me when I fell behind, and three of us became fast friends, sticking together through the Sierras, Northern California, Oregon and then Washington, all the way to that unassuming clearcut that is the Canadian border.
But back to the trekking poles. All of my hiking friends had them, and none of these speedy badasses included the poles in their base weight. Trekking poles make you faster, said one friend, who was very fast. And so if the poles made you faster, and hiking easier, then they didn’t really weigh anything at all, right? At least, like, philosophically?
So I ordered a pair and had them sent to me at Kennedy Meadows, right before the Sierras. Up to Kennedy Meadows the trail had been mostly flat, sandy, and gently graded; I had plodded along, arms hanging by my sides, hands occasionally going numb. Sometimes I would play “imaginary trekking poles”, swinging my arms back and forth just to have something to do. This game was almost as fun as “fiddle with your pack straps until you go insane”, which is what I played during the long boring walk along the Los Angeles aquaduct.
Now, sitting on the wooden deck of the Kennedy Meadows store, I unfolded my new trekking poles, a pair of Black Diamond Ultra-Distance poles, and watched them glint in the sunlight. They were very light- only 9 ounces for the pair- much lighter than all my friends’ poles.
“Look at these poles!” I said to Mehap. “Hold them!”
Mehap hefted the poles and frowned.
“Yeah those’ll snap.” he said. “On a rock. I seen it on the AT.”
“Don’t be jealous,” I said. “Veggie! Hold these poles!”
My poles never broke on a rock. Which is good, because after Kennedy Meadows, the trail turned to… rocks. Big jumbled rocks that you had to pick your way through, stepping carefully, focusing your full attention on the trail. Up these rocks, over these rocks, down these rocks. Trying not to break your foot, your leg, your face. And added to this was my altitude sickness, which kicks in, pathetically, at nine thousand feet, and makes me feel as though I am on a tilt-a-whirl.
In the Sierras my new trekking poles were my magic spider arms, my balancing sticks, my salvation, and, on the worst sections, my crutches. They completely saved my ass, over and over and over, and continued to do so all the way to the Canadian border. I got so used to holding them that it felt strange to walk without them (and it still does, sometimes) and I would fumble a little when reaching for things, as though my arms were three feet shorter than they should be. And they took some of the impact off my knees and feet, making me a little less sore at the end of the day, able to walk a little farther, a little more likely to be able to keep up with my friends.
The trekking poles were, in effect, awesome. And I never added them to my base weight. If anything, the poles made my whole outfit lighter- like magic.
And a few other things I learned on my thru-hike that were contrary to the ultralight hiking tips I read- the thinnest ziploc bags are no bueno. They break within the first couple of days. And cheap socks, at least for me, were awful. Instead I picked up an expensive Injinji toe sock habit. Injinjis make it so you can’t feel the grit between your toes, which is very addicting. And toilet paper. In the desert I carried a big fat roll of it- because it turns out there is nothing, anywhere in the desert, that doesn’t have spines or thorns. But later on there are mule’s ears, and then the lush moss beds of the Pacific Northwest. Plenty with which to wipe one’s ass.
And don’t worry about carrying a special trowel just to dig your cat holes. You can use the tip of your trekking pole for that.
Trail Ambassador Carrot Quinn lives in a tiny cabin in the oak savannahs of Southern Oregon. Her book about the PCT, Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart, will hopefully be out sometime in the next hundred years. You can read all 156 blog posts from her 2013 thru-hike at http://carrotquinn.wordpress.