The PCT Hikers Handbook

Ray Jardine's Lightweght Backpacking

Ray's book #1, 1991

Ray Jardine

Scott Williamson comments on The PCT Hiker's Handbook


"We talked constantly about various aspects of The Ray Way, as we called it. In the early stages a few hikers criticized the book's more "radical" techniques. Later in the summer, though, I was amused to see these same people not only using the very techniques they had condemned, but praising them . . . after they saw how well they were working for the rest of us."

Scott Williamson, 1994

"In the early spring of 1992 I was preparing to hike the PCT through California. I considered myself very experienced, having taken many weekend trips, a few week-long ones, and a couple of 100 milers. So I thought I knew all about hiking, and felt confident I was making the right decisions.

I started by buying the "best", and most heavy-duty equipment I could afford. After all, this was going to be a long, difficult hike. The equipment had to hold up. Next came food. Since my pack was going to be heavily loaded with equipment I decided that freeze dried dinners, two servings per meal, would be best. I knew these were designed for backpacking, took little fuel to prepare, and were light in weight. The next question was daily mileage. I had never hiked more than seven miles in one day, but to complete the 1,702 miles from Mexico to Oregon in my planned four months I would have to hike twice that far each day. I figured if I started slowly from the Mexican border I would gradually get into shape in the first week, and after that the hike would be a breeze. Next came my resupply planning. I decided to use as many food drops as possible. Some were more than five miles off the trail, but I would be in top shape after the first week so a few extra miles would be no problem. In the end, my 65 pound load felt heavy, but I was confident in being able to carry it, since the pack had a state-of-the-art suspension system that was supposed to carry the load comfortably.

When I took my first few steps from Campo the weight wasn't too bad, but as I progressed it felt heavier and heavier, and of course the high temperatures were not helping matters. Before long I found myself taking breaks every five minutes, and by the end of the first day I had only done eight miles in ten hours. The next morning I felt very stiff (mainly from dehydration I later learned) and I had no energy (from eating freeze dried dinners the night before). The end of the third day found me only thirty miles from the start, with a painful tendon and with the shoulder strap on my expensive pack ripped out. Discouraged, I left the trail and returned home. The doctor said my foot pain was the result of using boots that were not heavy and sturdy enough. To my knowledge, my boots were among the heaviest available. After staying off my foot for a week it felt much better, so I returned to the trail. From then on I made slow but steady progress, and reached the California/Oregon border in 4 1/2 months.

In a register along the way I read of a new book, The PCT Hiker's Handbook. The fact that the author and his wife had hiked the entire PCT in less time than I had hiked California amazed me, and when I returned home I bought a copy. The first time I read the book I was really surprised by some of the author's techniques. Prior to my California hike I would have dismissed them as the writing of an extremist. But in light of my recent "summer of struggles," I began to realize that many of Ray's methods would probably work much better than mine had. I read the chapters over and over, and began to experiment with some of the ideas. I was hooked on distance hiking, and decided to thru-hike the entire PCT the following summer, using as many of the Handbook's techniques as I could.

The PCT Hiker's Handbook
See Trail Life, the updated version.

As the book recommends, I started by training. It was tough at first, but it showed how fast I had gotten out of shape. And I actually started looking forward to them. I retired my big, heavy pack and searched out a much smaller one. And although I would have originally considered it almost unthinkable, I modified it, along with most of the rest of my gear, to make it work better and weigh less. As the weeks went by I became very anxious to begin, so I moved my starting date ahead. This was a mistake.

I started from the Mexican border with a much lighter pack, and even though I started fairly late that day I hiked 20.5 miles. On my second day, after having a "Ray recommended" dinner of corn spaghetti the night before, I felt energetic with no soreness. After hiking even farther the second day I reflected that with my lighter load, the running shoes, the improved nourishment and increased hydration I was enjoying the hiking so much more, instead of dragging along, concentrating on carrying a heavy load as I did the previous year. The miles went by easily.

"Along the way I met other thru-hikers, and was surprised to find most of them were also following many, if not all, of the Handbook's methods. What a change from the previous year when everyone had heavy packs and boots."
- Scott Williamson, 1994

After the first week my feet were blistered, probably because of an athlete's foot infection. By following the Handbook's advice to treat my feet with disinfectants, cutting the tongues out of my shoes for more ventilation, and changing to a different kind of shoe, I was able to carry on. The blisters soon healed and gave me no more trouble.

Along the way I met other thru-hikers, and was surprised to find most of them were also following many, if not all, of the Handbook's methods. What a change from the previous year when everyone had heavy packs and boots. Now, all but a very few carried much lighter packs and wore running shoes. We talked constantly about various aspects of "the Ray Way," as we called it. In the early stages a few hikers criticized the book's more "radical" techniques." Later in the summer, though, I was amused to see these same people not only using the very techniques they had condemned, but praising them...after they saw how well they were working for the rest of us.

At Kennedy Meadows I joined forces with five other thru-hikers for the push through the Sierra mountains. And it was here that we had to face our mistakes of starting too early - 450 miles of deep snow and swollen creeks. These not only slowed us down, but they made a few dangers,like on Mather Pass and in Bear Creek. The strange part was that hikers one week behind us reported bare ground in many places where we had searched for the trail buried under five feet of snow. Had we followed the Handbook's suggested starting dates, we, too, would have seen much less snow and dangerous runoff.

I reached Canada in four months and twenty days. Overall, I feel I put out less effort to hike the entire trail than when I had hiked only California the year before. On that hike I lost fifteen pounds, while this summer I lost none. The previous year my highest daily mileage was less than my average daily mileage this time. It had been a good summer, and I had enjoyed my hike so much more.

The techniques in the Handbook may seem extreme, but hiking over 2,600 rugged miles in one summer is a major undertaking, and should never be compared to what most people think of as normal backpacking. If you are considering hiking all or part of the PCT, I recommend you forget all that you know about hiking, especially if it is based on conventional backpacking knowledge. Study Ray's advice and you will learn things the easy way, rather than having to learn from your struggles like I did my first year on the trail.

There is no right or wrong way to accomplish a PCT thru-hike, because in the end the only thing that will get you there is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. But I firmly believe that if you adopt the principles in the Handbook your wilderness travels will become much more enjoyable."

Scott Williamson, 1994

The story has 2 pages. This is page 2.
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