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.