Rookies in the Wild: first-time backpackers on the PCT

For first-time backpackers on the PCT, preparation must substitute for experience.

By John Riha

We were living in Iowa when I first got the notion to go backpacking with my younger son, Nick. He was a high school senior, and I thought we could use a grand adventure before he left the nest for college.

We didn’t know anything about backpacking, but it all sounded exhilarating and life-affirming — being out in the wilds, carrying everything we’d need on our backs, hiking through beautiful, unspoiled country. It had to be someplace special, so we decided on a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail — a six-day stretch through the Trinity Alps Wilderness in northern California. It was going to be epic.

But as we made plans for an August hike I ran across Backpacker magazine’s “Survival Issue” featuring “231 Lifesaving Skills.” I began to have second thoughts. Did I really know what I was getting us into? Could I memorize even a fraction of those 231 pieces of survival advice? Would we remember how to start a fire from a cell phone battery? Splint a broken femur with pine boughs?

Carter Summit Trailhead on the PCT

So I did due diligence. I read some of the excellent guide books available, such as Berger and Smith’s “The Pacific Crest Trail” and Jeffrey Schaffer’s “Northern California Pacific Crest Trail,” carefully studied gear, took Nick on local hikes to break in our boots, and gradually reassured myself we’d be all right.

I’ll never forget the surge of excitement when we finally strode from the Carter Meadows trailhead into the first blush of our PCT adventure. It was a gorgeous summer day, temps in the low 70s, with fat clouds scattered across a pale blue sky. Civilization dropped blissfully away as we hiked among giant firs, our trekking poles chucking softly along the dirt track.

As it turned out, one reason it all felt so glorious is that we were going downhill. When the trail finally turned upward and started to gain elevation, we got a better understanding of backpacking. We leaned into our poles and the sweat flowed. After a couple of hours of steady climbing my backpack felt like it was full of bowling balls. By the end of our trek we’d know if we’d packed too much gear, but for now I was willing to substitute a little overpreparedness for our lack of experience. We stopped often for breathers and drinks of water, and each time the spectacular views of the Marble Mountains to the north renewed our energy.

PCT mountains

By late afternoon we reached our first day’s goal, a small lake nestled in a cirque about a quarter mile off the PCT. There were good spots for our tents amid the big firs near the shore, and we gratefully dropped our packs and set up camp. As the sun drifted toward the horizon we dove into our first wilderness meal – freeze-dried spaghetti with meat sauce. For dessert we had raspberry crumble, a gloppy sweet concoction that we attacked with our sporks, passing the pouch back and forth like two drunks on a bottle. It was heaven.

After supper Nick gathered up wood for a fire while I headed off to find a tree to hang the bear bags. The air was hushed and the shadows were deepening as I moved farther into the forest. Maybe it was the raspberry crumble, but I had a twinge in my gut when I remembered that cougars liked to hunt in the evening. I reviewed advice for cougar encounters: Stand tall, yell, shout, throw things. Don’t run! I took a deep breath and reminded myself that cougars are extremely rare and shy, and that chances of being crushed to death by a vending machine are far greater than those of being attacked by a mountain lion. Cool and rational thinking, I reasoned, was at the heart of any survival story, although I made a mental note to steer clear of vending machines in the future.

Teen hiking the PCT

At last I found a good branch and rigged up the bags. For a first-ever effort, they were textbook. I admired them as much as anyone could admire a bear-bag setup, then hustled back to camp.

We made a fire as the sun disappeared behind the trees on the far shore of the little lake. Stars began to speckle the zenith, and as we chatted back and forth about our hike, Nick got out the knife he’d bought and began to whittle randomly at a piece of pine.

“Careful, that’s really sharp,” I cautioned, with what may be the most overused parenting phrase of all time.

“Dad, I’m not an idiot,” he replied, and immediately stuck the point of the knife into his thumb. Blood squirted onto the dirt at his feet.

Hiking in the mountains

I sprang into action — after all, I’d been hypothesizing misfortune for months and I knew exactly what to do. I dug out the first-aid kit from the readily accessible side pouch of my pack and quickly produced an antiseptic wipe and a wide band-aid. It was a deep cut, but clean and easy to pinch together. I patched him up, and soon he was back to shaving curls of wood from the end of a chunk of wood.

The rest of our hike went along more or less without incident. We filled our water bottles at every creek (Bear Grylls said never pass up the opportunity), kept our eyes on the trail, and each day our packs felt lighter and our legs stronger. I confess a moment of panic when at one point the trail split into two and a wooden sign for the Pacific Crest Trail lay broken in the dirt, its arrow pointing nowhere. But I got out our USGS quad maps, found our location, and soon had us headed in the right direction.

Mavis Lake on the Pacific Crest Trail

We had fantastic days for hiking. The skies were sunny, the air clean and shiny as a newly minted dime. We moved steadily along at 6,000 feet elevation on level tread, following the spine of the Scott Mountains. Views to the south opened, and we could see the jagged ridges of the Trinity Alps, one after the other, marching to the horizon in paling shades of slate blue.

On our last night, we sat by our campfire and watched the sky turn pink and purple, the colors reflecting on the surface of a lake dimpled with the rings of rising trout. Our fire crackled and snapped as we launched twigs and pine cones into the flames. Sparks ran up into the sky, like little spirits unleashed.

A morning campsite on the Pacific Crest Trail

“Pretty nice,” Nick said.

“Yup.” I paused a moment, then said, “So, would you want to come back here, on another PCT hike someday?”

“Definitely,” he said. “It’s been great.”

“Me too.”

Sometime around midnight we climbed into our tents. I shook off my boots, slid into my bag, and listened for a while to the whispering winds. Any anxieties I’d had about backpacking were carried away by the gentle breezes, and I fell asleep, utterly tired and content.

John Riha is the author of “Rookies in the Wild,” a father-and-son misadventure that’s spiced with natural history and tales of the American West and the Pacific Crest Trail. He lives in Ashland, Ore. “Rookies in the Wild” is available at Amazon and Smashwords.

Pacific Crest Trail campfire