Thru-hike Trekking Pole Review: Leki Carbon Titaniums

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Trekking poles have been an indispensable part of my hiking and backpacking gear for over a decade, so when I set off to hike the Appalachian Trail (2013), and then the Pacific Crest Trail (2014) there was never a question… I was going to bring trekking poles with me. I chose the Leki Carbon Titaniums for my adventures:

  • Purchased: Fall 2012
  • Weight: 16.6 oz/pair
  • Length: 62-135 cm
  • MSR: $199.95

I started using the Leki Carbon Ti trekking poles in the fall of 2012 and I am still using them today (two thru-hikes and ~5000 miles later).

  • Functionality (10/10): I use my trekking poles for additional stability (I have a history of spraining my ankles without them) and to reduce the stress on my knees (especially going downhill). During the last 2 years (and ~5000 miles of backpacking through some of the most rugged terrain in the United States) my knees and ankles have remained sprain free! I love my trekking poles and found them to be incredibly useful during both of my thru-hikes… especially in rocky, sandy, and snowy terrain.
  • Fitness (9/10): Most people lose upper body strength during their thru-hikes, but I rely so heavily on my trekking poles that I actually gained upper body strength! I use my trekking poles for more than just passive stabilization, I use them to actively propel myself forward (similar to the way cross-country skiers use their poles), which engages the muscles of my upper body and turns hiking/backpacking into a full-body workout.
  • Comfort (8/10): The grips are comfortable and the adjustable height allows me to set my poles to the length that works best for me (I’m 5’10, have a 35 inch inseam, and have had trouble finding fixed length poles that were long enough for me in the past). During thru-hikes I build up callouses on my palms from heavy trekking pole use, but the poles remain comfortable even in hot, sweaty weather.
    • Note: I get rashes on my hands when I use poles with cork handles, so I stay away from the cork handles!
  • Locking Mechanism (8/10): The clip locks are much easier to deal with, and more convenient than the older twist-style locking mechanisms. I usually use my poles at a fixed length and only collapse them to their minimum size for transportation in cars or when I’m in town (even fully collapsed I wish they were shorter and more stowable than they are). The only time I intentionally adjusted the length of my poles was on the steep, snowy slopes of the High Sierra when I wasn’t using my ice axe. For the most part I didn’t have any trouble with the locks loosening as I hiked, but during the the last ~500 miles of the PCT (after ~4000 miles of use) the lower locks seemed to loosen occasionally. Even then I only needed to re-tighten them once or twice.
    • Pro-tip: Carry a quarter or a dime in your repair/emergency kit so that you can tighten the locks if they loosen over time. It’s much easier/better to mechanically tighten them with a coin than to do it by hand.
    • Pro-tip: When traversing steep snowfields you can shorten the up-slope pole and use both poles in the snow if you don’t have an ice axe or for some reason don’t think an ice axe is necessary.
    • Pro-tip: Your ice axe is only useful if you have it out! When in doubt, take it out!!! Trekking poles are not good ice axe replacements… Having attempted to self-arrest with a trekking pole I can strongly recommend against it (1/10)… Know when to use your ice axe, know how to use it, and take it out of your pack before you need it. Repeat after me, “When in doubt, take it out!!!”

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  • Durability (8/10): I am not gentle with my gear, and that is certainly true when it comes to my trekking poles. I have used my Leki Crabon Ti trekking poles on every hike and backpacking trip that I’ve been on since I purchased them in the fall of 2012 and have been impressed with their overall ruggedness and durability.

Even though I love my trekking poles, over the course of ~5000 miles of use they’ve accumulated some damage…

  • Repairs:
    • Carbon Fiber Shaft (8/10): I didn’t have any trouble with the poles during the ~2200 miles of my 2013 AT thru-hike. However, crossing through the High Sierras (PCT 2014) the middle section of one of my trekking poles sheered in half! I was able to remove that section and fully extend and lock together the remaining sections for a mostly functional pole until Leki sent me a replacement section (no questions asked) in my next mail drop.
      • Leki offers a 1 year warranty on carbon fiber pole segments.
      • Pro tip: Call Leki directly… I had hoped that the folks at Mammoth Mountaineering (4/10) in Mammoth Lakes would help me out, but they don’t help thru-hikers with warranty issues of any kind (I was hoping for Leki and Big Agnes help at the time).pole
    • Carbide Tips (6/10): They are reasonably durable, but replacing them is a challenge. It is hard (as in nearly impossible) to remove the old, overused tips to install the new tips.
      • The original pair of carbide tips saw me through the entire AT (~2200 miles) and the first section of the PCT (from Campo to Idyllwild, CA).
      • I purchased a new pair of tips at Nomad Ventures (10/10), but the old tips were so impacted that I couldn’t remove them. I ended up enlisting the aid of the store owner, a table vice, and some pliers before we finally managed to get them off…
      • The second pair was worn out by the time I got to Ashland, OR. Once again, I needed to enlist a store employee to remove the old tips, which he wasn’t able to do successfully (even using the appropriate tools), so he just fitted the new tips over them.
      • Carbide tips are not covered by Leki’s warranty and they told me on the phone that they expect each pair of tips to last about 500 miles though they were reluctant to give an exact mileage or duration.
      • If I was in the R&D department at Leki I would put a thin silicone or rubber coating over the carbide tips to reduce the noise of the poles on rocky surfaces… Wildlife and other hikers can hear you coming from a mile away as you click across the rocks with your trekking poles.
      • Pro-tip: If you want to see more bears, put your trekking poles away :-P
    • Wrist Strap (8/10): After more than 3000 miles of use, one of the wrist straps broke. The people at the Ashland Outdoor Store (10/10) replaced the wrist strap for me with one they had lying around.
      • If I was in the R&D department at Leki I would add a quick release to the wrist straps. I like hiking with the straps, and it helps make sure I don’t accidentally lose them down steep slopes, but the physics involved in some falls (especially on slippery, muddy down-slopes) mean having your wrists locked into the straps in a way that may contribute to severe wrist injuries or stress fractures (see below).20140507-223445.jpg
  • Injuries:

Despite the damages, I would give the Leki Carbon Titanium trekking polls a very good overall rating (8/10) and would recommend them to other hikers, backpackers, and thru-hikers. If I were to purchase new trekking poles I would get these unless I found something just as rugged and durable, but lighter weight, and with a more packable profile. Please leave a comment below and share your thoughts, questions, and/or trekking pole experiences!

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Even after two thru-hikes and ~5000 miles of heavy use my leki carbon ti trekking poles are my constant companions! (McAffee Knob, VA – AT section hike fall 2014).

 

 

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The Gear That Got Me Thru (PCT Gear List)

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As I tracked down the gear that I actually carried on the PCT to weigh it and write up my final gear list, I tallied up the number of miles I’d carried each item with me… The miles added up quickly… in the last two years I’ve hiked ~5000 miles (AT 2013, PCT 2014 et al.) and some of my gear has been with me that entire time!!!

As my gear list grew, however, I noticed another thing that was quickly adding up… the weight of my pack! My pack was on the heavy side. When I was backpacking on the AT in the early 1990’s carrying a heavy pack was something that people boasted about; it was a point of pride. Back then my pack was lighter than most of my peers, and people gave me sh** about it because a lighter pack meant that I wasn’t working as hard as they were. Since the ’90s, however, there’s been a cultural revolution in the world of backpacking, and the lightest packs are now the packs that people admire and boast about…

“With a pack that small you’ve gotta be ultralight… You must be a PCT thru-hiker!” exclaimed a southbound John Muir Trail (JMT) hiker admiringly.

“Me? Ultralight? I’m a thru-hiker, but I’m definitely not ultralight,” I laughed. Many of the PCT thru-hikers I knew were striving to be ultralight (they’d reduced their packs to a minimum and they used all of the latest, greatest, lightweight gear), but I wasn’t one of them. On the contrary, I had gotten so used to being razzed about my ‘big’ pack that after ~1000 miles of hiking amongst fellow PCT thru-hikers I’d embraced the idea that my pack was ‘big,’ which is why I was surprised when the JMT hiker commented on the petite size of my pack… I was also surprised that he’d picked me out as a PCT thru-hiker since I was on the JMT (headed to Half Dome and Yosemite Valley) and not the PCT at the time. He was partly right though, compared to the JMT hikers I’d seen, my pack was small.

“Not ultralight?!” he re-iterated with surprise as he shifted his 60+ lb pack around uncomfortably. He eyed my pack, which weighed ~30 lbs less than his, suspiciously. “Nope,” I assured him, “not ultralight.” In the High Sierra I had all of my heaviest gear, but even in the desert when my pack had been at its lightest, with a base weight (the weight of my pack and everything in it except for food and water) of ~17 lbs, my pack was ‘light’ (< 20 lbs) and not ‘ultralight’ (< 10 lbs). “Well,” I conceded, “I have a lot of lightweight gear, and I try lighten my load when I can, but I don’t want to be ultralight. People that are ultralight tend to have different goals than I do… they are usually trying to cover as many miles as they can, as quickly as they can. Me? I’m on Vacation! My goal is to take my time, to relax, and to enjoy my PCT thru-hike… To that end: I started almost a month early, I carry ‘luxury’ items (like my Patches, my camp shoes, and my camera), I go sightseeing, I take a lot of photos, and I hike a lot of side trails… It’s a different backpacking philosophy.”

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As I tallied up the weight of my ‘luxury’ items for my gear list, it was clear that I wouldn’t be winning any ‘ultralight’ backpacking awards. On the trail, people frequently talked about their base weight… bandying around numbers between 12 and 15 pounds, but my cold weather base weight for the North Cascades was going to a lot higher than that… closer to 23 lbs… I carefully scrutinized my gear… I’d love to have a lighter pack, but what was I willing to sacrifice to get there? There were a lot of painless upgrades (except in terms of $$) and small sacrifices that I could (and would) gladly make to decrease my base weight in the future… Changes that would drop my cold weather base weight (to <20 lbs), but that wouldn’t alter the vacation-like nature of my thru-hike.

But what about my camera? That was my biggest luxury item, weighing in at ~ 2 lbs. If I were to do another solo PCT thru-hike would I leave my camera behind? No. Would I be willing to trade it for a point and shoot? No. I loved standing alone in the middle of the trail with my camera capturing bits and pieces of its ephemeral beauty as I hiked… My camera gave me an excuse to linger and interact with the beauty of the trail and its inhabitants… It enhanced my appreciation of my hike, and it was worth it… It was worth the weight… all two pounds of it…

Throughout my 2013 AT thru-hike and my 2014 PCT thru-hike, my gear was constantly evolving as I tried to maximize my enjoyment of the trail and minimize my pack weight. So, what did I have in my pack at the end of the PCT? Was any of it the same as what I started with at the beginning of my 2013 thru-hike? How many miles did my gear last? If I were to do the PCT again, which gear would I change/upgrade? What follows is the answer to these questions and a bit of gear geekery: first my comments on the gear that’s gotten me through between 1000 and 5000 miles of thru-hiking, then a detailed list of all of the gear I carried on my PCT thru-hike and the upgrades that I would make.

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5000 mile club: This is the gear that I carried from start to finish on both my AT and PCT thru-hikes!

  • Patches (3.8 oz.)
    • My patches are the source of my trail name and are full of memories of the people I’ve known and the places I’ve been… I’ve had them for over a decade.
  • Tent (9/10): Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 Tent (1 lb, 15 oz.)
    • I purchased the Fly Creek UL2 in 2013 for my AT thru-hike. I loved the UL2
    • After  ~3000 miles of use, the zipper on the body of my tent ran off of it’s track. I called Big Agnes from Mammoth Lakes (mile 907) and they sent me a replacement tent body in my next mail drop. Check out the full tent review that I did after the AT! The tent fly and stakes are still the originals I started out with in GA.
    • Upgrade: Z Packs Splash Bivy (6.4 oz., $225) with the Hexamid Solo-Plus Tarp w/ beak (7.4 oz, $280). Even though I loved the UL2, I would consider switching to a bivy/tarp setup. I discovered the joy of cowboy camping on the PCT, and cowboy camped whenever I could. This meant that I didn’t use my tent as often on the PCT as I had on the AT, and switching to the lighter weight bivy/tarp combination might better suit my PCT/CDT needs in the future.
  • Spork (10/10): Sea to Summit Titanium Folding Spork (0.8 oz.)
  • Synthetic Insulated Jacket (9/10): MontBel Thermawrap Sports Jacket (10.2 oz.)
    • I love this jacket as a good basic layer that will keep me warm even when wet.
    • Upgrade: If I had it to do over again, I’d switch to the version without pockets to save 1.8 oz: Montbel UL Thermawrap Jacket (8.4 oz., $145).
  • Gloves (8/10): Manzella wind stop gloves (1.4 oz.)
    • The gloves were great, but sometimes I wished I had something a little warmer and that I could leave on while using my phone.
    • Upgrade to: Brooks adapt gloves (2 oz., $20)
  • Headlamp (10/10): Princeton Tec Byte (2.4 oz.)
    • I ended up changing the batteries about once a month.
  • Trowel (9/10): REI Snow Stake (1 oz).
    • My 9.6 inch long snow stake worked as well as any camp trowel I’ve used for digging cat holes.
  • Camera (10/10): Sony NEX-5N (1 lb, 15.8 oz including all lenses, cables, batteries, and chargers)
  • Trekking Poles (9/10): Leki Carbon Titanium Trekking Poles (16.7 oz.)
    • I love hiking with trekking poles… The middle segment of one of the poles sheared as I was coming down Glen Pass in the High Sierra, I called Leki from Mammoth Lakes and they mailed a replacement to Tuolumme Meadows for me.
    • The original trekking pole tips got me from GA to ME, and then from the Mexican Border to Idyllwild. A second pair of tips got me from Idyllwild, CA to Ashland, OR. I’m on the third pair now (I was told to expect ~500 miles per $20 pair of tips).

4000+ mile club:

  • Sleeping Pad (10/10): Thermarest NeoAir Women’s Xlite (12 oz.)
    • ~4400 miles: PCT Thru + 1700 AT miles. It’s made it through with no leaks so far! Blowing it up is currently my least favorite camp chore though.
  • Sleeping bag liner (10/10): Western Mountaineering Whisper (4 oz.)
    • ~4400 miles: PCT Thru + 1700 AT miles. I used my sleeping bag liner as a sheet on hot nights. I also slipped my sleeping pad into it whenever I was cowboy camping (PCT) or sleeping in a shelter (AT) to protect it.
    • Upgrade: If I get the ZPacks bivy I will eliminate my sleeping bag liner.

3000+ mile club:

  • Hydration reservoir (10/10): Hydrapak 3L Hydration System (6.9 oz).
    • ~ 3750 miles: PCT Thru & ½ AT. I borrowed it from my mom when she visited me on the AT in Virginia… I wonder if she wants it back now?
  • Knife (10/10): Randall (10.4 oz. with sheath)
    • ~3750 miles: PCT thru & 1/2 AT. I love having my Randall at my hip. I started the AT with a couple of small, ultralite blades, but I got tired of every single person I met asking me if I was armed. After I started carrying the Randall on my belt people stopped asking me if I was armed. Mission accomplished.
  • Emergency beacon (9/10): Spot Locator Beacon (4.4 oz)
    • ~3700 miles: PCT Thru & ~1000 AT miles. As a solo backpacker, I try not to leave home without it.
  • Synthetic Insulated Pants (9/10): Backpacking Light Pertex Insulated Pants (11.8 oz)
    • ~3000 miles: PCT Thru and ~600AT miles. I’ve had these pants since my Kilimanjaro ascent in 2010… they double as my hiking pillow.
    • Upgrading to the newer version would save 3.5 oz.: Montbel U.L. Thermwrap pants (8.3 oz., $145).

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2000+ mile club:

  • Sleeping bag (10/10): Marmot Lithium Zero Degree Bag (2 lb, 15 oz.)
  • Ground cloth (10/10): Tyvek Sheet (5 oz.)
    • 2665 PCT thru: I absolutely loved cowboy camping on my ground cloth. I also kept the ground cloth handy to sit on during breaks during the day… (If I upgrade to a bivy/tarp combination I would leave out the tyvek sheet).
  • Cook Stove (8/10): Jetboil Sol Titanium (8.5 oz.)
    • ~2665 PCT thru! The only trouble I had with it was that the piezo-starter was unreliable.
  • Raincoat (2/10): Outdoor Research Helium II (6.2 oz.)
    • ~2665 PCT thru: I had a Helium II for the ~2200 miles of the AT, but it wasn’t waterproof so I returned it. They sent me a new one for the PCT, but it wasn’t waterproof either!
    • Upgrade: The ZPacks  Challenger Rain Jacket Large (5.8 oz., $260)
  • External battery (8/10): Anker Astro E5 15000 mAh (11.8 oz with cable)
    • ~2665 miles: PCT thru. It worked great, but it was more than I needed
    • Upgrade to the Anker 2nd Gen Astro E3 10000mAh (8.1 oz).
  • Camp shoes (9/10): New Balance Minimus (9.2 oz)
    • ~2665 miles: PCT thru. I used them for river crossing, and around camp every night.
  • Sun hat (10/10): MontBel Stainless Mesh Desert hat (1.4 oz.)
    • Mt. Laguna to Canada

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1000+ mile club:

  • Backpack (8/10): Osprey Exos 58 Backpack (2 lbs, 8 oz.)
    • ~1700 PCT miles. I used an Osprey Exos 58 on the AT and loved it to pieces, so Osprey replaced it and I started the PCT with a brand new Exos 58. At Kennedy Meadows, I switched to the ULA Catalyst (2 lbs, rating: 4/10) because my bear canister (required for the High Sierras) didn’t fit into the Exos very well. I told myself that I wasn’t allowed to hate the Catalyst until I’d hiked at least 100 miles in it. After hiking ~900 miles in it I was still grumbling, so I switched back to my beloved Exos. My dream pack upgrade would be to a 62L Arc Blast from Z-Packs (1 lb, 4 oz., $320) with a custom torso length (my torso is short: 15.5 inches).
  • Rain Pants (8/10): Go-lite rain pants (5.6 oz.)
    • ~1000 PCT miles: I’ve had them for about 10 years, but they need to be replaced now.
    • Upgrade: ZPacks Challenger Rain Pants (3.8 oz., $165).

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When I finished my PCT thru-hike in the North Cascades, Washington I was carrying most of my cold weather gear and the total base weight for my pack (everything except the loophole weight*, food, and water) was 23.4 lbs. If money were no object, and I could convince myself to leave my ‘good’ camera behind, I would spend $1529 and make all of the upgrades I list above (and in my detailed gear list below), and I’d drop my cold weather base weight down to 16 lbs… But who am I kidding? I wouldn’t leave the camera behind…

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***

Detailed PCT Gear List:

The Big Three (8 lbs, 11 oz):

Cook System (1 lb, 3.5 oz.):

  • Jetboil Sol Titanium (8.5 oz.)
  • Sea to Summit Titanium Folding Spork (0.8 oz.)
  • Mini Bic Lighter (~1 oz, I used 3 on the PCT)
  • Fuel canister (11.8 oz): I cooked 1 hot meal a day and a canister would last me ~3 weeks.

Wearables:

  • Outerwear (2 lb, 4.6 oz.):
    • Raincoat: Outdoor Research Helium II (6.2 oz.)
    • Rain Pants: Go-lite rain pants (5.6 oz.)
      • Upgrade: ZPacks Challenger Rain Pants (3.8 oz., $165).
    • Waterproof gloves: 1 pair vinyl gloves (0.2 oz.)
      • Upgrade? ZPacks™  Challenger Rain Mitts (1 oz., $65)
    • Synthetic Insulated Jacket: MontBel Thermawrap Sports Jacket (10.2 oz.)
    • Synthetic Insulated Pants: Backpacking Light Pertex Insulated Pants (11.8 oz)
      • Upgrade: Montbel U.L. Thermwrap pants (8.3 oz., $145).
    • Rock On Fleece hat (1.4 oz)
    • Manzella wind stop gloves (1.4 oz.)
      • Upgrade: Brooks adapt gloves (2 oz., $20)
  • Camp shoes: New Balance Minimus (9.2 oz) – luxury item
  • Clothing (1 lb, 8.6 oz.):
    • 2 – Ex Officio underwear (2 oz., 1 oz/pair)
    • 2 – Wright Sock Cool Mesh II (3.2 oz., 1.6 oz/pair)
    • Mountain Hardware Hiking Pants (10.4 oz.)
      • Upgrade: Montane Featherweight Wind Pants (3.8oz., $84.95) or Montbel Dynamo Wind Pants (2.6 oz, $69). This is the first pack upgrade that I would make!
    • Women’s Capilene 1 Silkweight Bottoms (5.2 oz.): Pajamas
    • Women’s Capilene 1 Silkweight Long-Sleeve Crew (3.8 oz.): Pajamas

Technology (4 lbs, 10.2 oz):

  • Headlamp: Princeton Tec Byte (2.4 oz.)
    • lighter weight headlamps are an option.
  • Verizon iPhone 5 ( 7.8 oz. with cable and charger)
    • 679 miles: Bend, OR to Canada. My iPhone 4 made it ~4000 miles, through most of the AT and the PCT, before it decided it had had enough rough treatment and took a forbidden swim in Obsidian Creek.
  • Sony NEX-5N (1 lb, 15.8 oz including all lenses, cables, batteries, and chargers) – luxury item
  • External battery: Anker Astro E5 15000 mAh (11.8 oz with cable) – luxury item
  • Spot Locator Beacon ( 4.4 oz)

Extreme Weather Gear:

  • Desert (8 oz.):
    • Chrome Dome (8 oz.): 942.5 miles, I shipped it home with my ice axe. – luxury item
  • High Sierra (5 lbs, 4.8 oz): I wrote a review of my high sierra gear from the trail
    • BV500 Bear Vault (2lbs, 9 oz.): 318.5 miles, Kennedy Meadows South to Kennedy Meadows North
    • Kahtoola Microspikes (13.6 oz.): 318.5 miles, Kennedy Meadows South to Kennedy Meadows North
    • Hanz Waterproof Calf – Length Socks (3.2 oz.): 318.5 miles, Lone Pine to Kennedy Meadows North
    • CAMP Corsa Ice Axe (7.2 oz.): 290 miles, Lone Pine to Tuolumme Meadows
    • Montbel Plasma 1000 Down Jacket (4.8 oz.): 318.5 miles, Kennedy Meadows South to Kennedy Meadows North
      • Upgrade? Montbel XLite Down Anarak (6.2 oz., $219)
    • Sunglasses (?): Necessary in the High Sierra. I went through ~3pair on the PCT because I kept losting them. I’d put them on my hat, forget about them, and then, at some point, I’d take off the hat and I wouldn’t notice that the sunglasses had gone flying until the next time I wanted to use them… I didn’t use any sunglasses in Oregon or Washington.

Health & Hygiene:

  • Water (11.7 oz.):
    • Aquamira (2 oz.). ~5 aquamira kits for total PCT thru.
    • Sawyer Squeeze Mini (2 oz.).
    • Hydrapak 3L Hydration System (6.9 oz).
    • 3 – 1L Water bladders (0.8 oz. each). 6L capacity thru the desert, dropped to five later
  • Trowel: REI Snow Stake (1 oz).
  • First Aid kit (1 lb, 2.4 oz.):
    • includes emergency asthma medications, sunscreen, compass, bear bag rope, 2 epi-pens, 2 spare AAA batteries etc (Most people can drop this down to < 6 oz.).
  • Daily med kit (1 lb, 1.4 oz.):
    • includes one month of daily prescription medications, inhalers, contacts, toothbrush, toothpaste etc. (Most people can drop this down to < 4 oz.)
  • DEET & Headnet (~2 oz.):
    • Critically important during bug season in the High Sierra! Pick them up in Kennedy Meadows if you don’t have them before.

Loophole Weight (3 lbs, 6.6 oz.): *The stuff that didn’t go into my pack (or on it), and isn’t included in the base weight of my pack.

  • Daily Clothing (1 lb, 1.6 oz):
    • MontBel Stainless Mesh Desert hat (1.4 oz.)
    • Long-sleeve yellow Saucony shirt (4.8 oz.)
    • Rab t-shirt (2.4 oz.)
    • Arc Teryx hiking skirt (4.4 oz.)
    • Ex Officio sports bra (1.8 oz.) – doubled as bathing suit top.
    • Ex Officio underwear (1 oz.)
    • Wright Sock Cool Mesh II (1.6 oz.)
  • Shoes: Altra Lone Peak 1.5 ( 9.9 oz.). 4 pair of shoes total for PCT:
    • Altra ~850 miles. Truckee, CA – Bend, OR
    • Altra ~600 miles. Bend, Or to Canada
    • Check out my AT shoe review and my thoughts on shoes from the PCT!
    • Other  PCT Shoes:
      • Merril Moab Ventilator’s (1 lb, 8 oz.): ~700 miles, Campo – Kennedy Meadows, CA
      • Oboz Traverse Low (16.6 oz.). ~450 miles, Kennedy Meadows – Truckee, CA
  • Randall Knife (10.4 oz. with sheath) – luxury item
  • Leki Carbon Titanium Trekking Poles (16.7 oz.)

Questions about my PCT gear? Leave a comment below. I’m hoping to write full gear reviews for some of the things I carried in the upcoming weeks.

Thru-hikers: What was your favorite luxury item on the trail?

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2014 Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hike Photos

On my 2014 thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail I was amazed by how dramatically and how beautifully the land (and everything on it) changed as I hiked from Mexico to Canada! Though I posted some of the photos I took with my iPhone to Instagram (patchesthru) along the way, I also took thousands of photos with my ‘good’ camera (a Sony Nex 5N with two lenses:16 mm f/2.8 and 55-210mm, f/4.5-6.3). Now that I’m home, I’ve started going through my pictures and am falling in love with the trail all over again! The photos below (and those on this 2015 calender) are amongst my favorites so far:

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Canada! (PCT Day 167)

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For weeks, if not months, I’d been dreaming about what I was going to do when I got off of the trail… Most of those dreams involved food… My mouth watered as I imagined the amazing cuisine that awaited me in civilization… milkshakes, hamburgers, fries, filet mignon, eggs benedict, salmon, creme brulee, cupcakes, cookies, pies… Mmmm… pies.

Even though I kept dreaming about food, a new dream started to creep in with surprising urgency… A dream of going to the Ocean. After five months of hiking along what I think of as the west coast (California, Oregon, and Washington) without catching even a glimpse of the ocean, I felt an overwhelming urge to go and see the Pacific Ocean after I finished my hike… I dreamed about wriggling my toes in the soft, cold sand. I dreamed about the sound of crashing waves. I dreamed about cowboy camping on the beach… As I hiked I realized that it was a dream, but it was also more than that… I needed to see water… big water… I needed to see water stretching out in front of me as far as the eye could see… Water so big that it felt like it must go on forever… After hiking through so much desert and fire, I just needed to see the water… The ocean would be the yin to the mountains yang… It was what I needed to round out my trip.

When the Canadian border finally came into view, however, all of my dreams about food and the ocean instantly disappeared. Canada?! Canada! Canada! That one word eclipsed all thoughts. There was no past, there was no future, there was no present, there was just one word… Canada!

I stood a stone’s throw away from the Canadian Border, staring at the PCT terminus and monument 78 in shock with the word Canada stuck on repeat in my brain… I stopped moving and I tried to make sense of that word… Canada… It just didn’t seem possible.Walking from Mexico to Canada isn’t something that people actually do. It’s just a dream, right? Yet here I was… Canada!

I thought back to the start, to the Mexican border, with all of its barbed wire and corrugated steel… to the clean-shaven border patrol officers warning us about the armed and dangerous illegals in the area… I thought back to the desert, to the cacti, to the drought, and to the heat… Even though I was facing the unknown, I hadn’t hesitated when I stepped away from that corrugated steel wall (under the careful watch of the border patrol officers) and headed off on my hike.

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However, everything about the Canadian border was different… there was no barbed wire, there was no fence, there was no border guard (no mountie waiting to check my permit for “entry into Canada via the Pacific Crest Trail”)… Instead, there was a clear-cut gap in the forest, about 2o feet wide, that extended to the East and to the West as far as the eye could see… That gap was the border between the US and Canada and there were just three things in that gap: the PCT terminus monument, monument 78, and my mom.

Here, at the Canadian border, I was hesitating… For the last five months the trail had been my world, my life, my everything… so much had happened since I left the Mexican border… I wanted all of the memories and adventures from the last 2660 miles to flash in front of my eyes before I crossed over… I wanted to have that perfect moment of clarity, of understanding, of bliss, that would neatly sum up the meaning of life, the trail, and everything before I crossed into Canada… I wanted some kind of closure.

In the story of my life the PCT was huge! It felt like it should end with a big, powerful reveal after the resolution of all of the plot-lines of my life. Unfortunately, the closure I was looking for refused to emerge from the chaos of my thoughts and memories… I couldn’t force the PCT into one simple, powerful, universal statement… it remained fractured into thousands of little stories of transformation and transcendence…

The PCT wasn’t the story of my life, but it had been an amazing chapter… A chapter that I loved so dearly that I didn’t want it to end… a chapter so powerful that it seemed like it couldn’t possible end… that it would never end… I fell into denial as soon as I put the word end into the same thought as PCT. I glanced behind me with defiance and muttered, “It doesn’t have to be over, I could just turn around and walk back to Mexico.” It was an incredibly tempting thought…

I was stuck there, within sight of the the border, my mind racing, trying to come to terms with the reality that this was it… this was the end of the PCT for me, and it wasn’t ending with a nice, clean resolution of everything, it was ending with a cliff-hanger… It was an ending that begged just one question…

“What next?” It was the question that had been nagging at me… everyone (including me) seemed sure that after 5000 miles of hiking, after countless hours of solitude with nothing but my thoughts for company, that I would have discovered the answer to that one, simple question… “What Next?”…. but I didn’t have the answer… not a real answer… not the answer that everyone was looking for, not the answer that I was looking for, so I was hesitating there at the border… The word Canada no longer eclipsed everything… I was miles and miles away, lost in thoughts of the past, the trail, endings, beginnings, and the infinite possible futures ahead of me.

As I stood there lost in contemplation my mom gently reached out and grabbed my hand, “Come on,” she said, “you can do this!” My mom had flown from Boston, MA to Vancouver, B.C., and then had hiked 8 miles from Manning Park to the Canadian border (my dad, just out of surgery, was not far behind her) to meet me, to celebrate with me, and to support me. I let her guide me over to the monument, and laughed when I thought that maybe this was the whole reason my parents had come out here… to make sure that I didn’t just turn around and disappear back into the woods… They were there to provide me with the anchor and the support that I needed… to remind me that even though the trail was my home, there was still another home out there waiting for me, a home full of family and friends that loved me and missed me… As my mom pulled me into the clearing marking the transition from the United States into Canada, she pulled me back into the now, back to that word, that place… back to Canada…

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“I’m in Canada!” I exclaimed triumphantly as I reached out and touched the monument.  I had hiked myself into a foreign country… I had hiked the entire length of the USA, from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, and beyond… I was finally in Canada! It was time for hugs, for celebrations, for champagne, for huckleberry wine, and for the pastries that my mom had hiked out to me… This was it… Canada! I stood there in awe of the monument… in awe of my journey… in awe of the PCT!

I felt like I had just won the Super Bowl of hiking, which brought me back to that question, “Patches, you’ve just completed the PCT, what are you going to do next?” I had to laugh, my answer to that definitely wasn’t, “I’m going to Disney World.” Disney World was the last place on earth that I wanted to go… There were infinite possible futures ahead of me, but the bigger questions of what I was going to do with my life could wait…  Right now it was time for vacation, celebration, and recovery. “I’m going to eat all of the food and I’m going to go to the Ocean!” I was going to make the little dreams come true before delving back into the bigger dreams… I was going to eat hamburgers, fries, filet mignon, eggs benedict, salmon, creme brulee, cupcakes, cookies, and pies… I was going to drink milkshakes… and I was going to go to the Ocean!

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No One Left Behind…

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Over the course of the last two years I have had the privilege of hiking 5000 miles on two of our National Scenic Trails (the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails), and I’ve gotten to know veterans from all across the country… They don’t always share my politics (my facebook feeds can attest to that!), but I’ve learned that we have one very important thing in common, our willingness to drop everything and go the the aid of a fellow in need… We strive to leave no one behind… Growing up I associated this “leave no man behind” ethos with one of my heroes, my dad, a Vietnam combat veteran, but it wasn’t until my AT and PCT thru-hikes that I began to associate it with the military and with other veterans.

Though different branches of the service phrase it differently, “I will never leave a fallen comrade”– US Soldiers Creed, “I will never leave an Airman behind”-Airman’s Creed, “I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy -Ranger Creed, the basic idea remains the same… No man left behind… To me, it is a dedication to our humanity even in the most inhuman of circumstances… It is a way of life… It is a willingness to make sacrifices in honor of a commitment to your comrades, a commitment to your family, to your friends, to your community, and even to the stranger that reaches out to you… To me it is an acknowledgment of, and a dedication to, our shared humanity and it transcends politics and religion… It is a sentiment that makes you a part of my family, whether you know it or not.

Saying thank you to our veterans feels like a start, one step towards acknowledging the sacrifices made by our servicemen and women, one step towards welcoming our veterans back into the civilian world, but it is just a beginning. I want to do more than just say thank you… I want to recognize all of my friends and family that have served… I want to remind them that I am interested in their stories… I am interested in their lives… I want to take the time to recognize our shared humanity, and I want to grow our relationship based on that humanity, as perfect or as flawed as that may be… I want to hear the stories that you want to share, I want to respect your right to silence… I believe that no one should be left behind (in any sense), and I will strive, today and everyday, to renew that commitment to my friends, my family, my community, and to the veterans that I have had the privilege and honor of knowing.

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For other posts I’ve written about veterans: Getting Thru and The Silence.

The End is Nigh (PCT Days 165-166)

The End is Nigh (PCT Days 165-166)

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I’ve stopped, in the middle of the trail, and am bursting into tears. I’m not ready for it to be over… I don’t think that I will ever be ready for it to be over. I’m just 25 miles from the end. I’ll be at the border within days, but my legs have turned into lead weights. Each step is a struggle. I don’t want to hike. The scenery is absolutely stunning, the trail is amazingly beautiful, and there is no where that I’d rather be… I just want to stay here in these mountains, savoring every sunrise, every sunset, every songbird, every tree, and every blade of grass, forever.

This isn’t how I felt at the end of the AT, but I was in a very different place then… Both emotionally and physically. The AT had been a dream, but it was also more of a struggle, more of a required transition period… This has been more of a vacation, a brutal vacation at times, but a vacation none the less. Unsurprisingly, I don’t want my vacation to be over… Especially since I’ll be stepping off of the trail and into an uncertain future.

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I sit down in the dry grass beside the trail and try to collect my thoughts… On the trail I live in the now… I am supremely present, and I can give my full attention to the butterfly that lands beside me, to the bird calling from a nearby tree, to the subtle variations in how the light filters through the trees as the day progresses from dawn to dusk… I get to experience the joy of living in the moment and I love it… Both the past and the future are worlds away and feel almost irrelevant… I am here. I am exactly where I want to be. I am exactly where I need to be. Though life on the trail is fraught with hardships, the challenges tend to be very tangible and immediate. Where am I going to sleep? How am I going to stay warm? Where am I going to get water? How much food do I need? Why am I so hungry? Where am I going to get more food? When can I get more food? Can I have more food now? Is it going to rain? What kind of bird is that? Where am I going? Is there food there? (Yeah, I may be more than a little hungry.)

As I approach the end of the trail, the past and the future encroach upon my now and the questions are getting more complicated… What am I going to do when I get off of the trail? Where am I going to go? How am I going to reconnect to all the people and places that I care about? What do I need to do to find a job? These questions feel big and complicated and don’t have easy answers… The future is coming for me! I am both excited and terrified at the thought.

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The trail has been all consuming, it has been my everything for months (though it feels like an eternity), and I’m grieving for it… It has shaped me in ways that I didn’t know were possible, it has forged me into the person I am now… I have fallen in love with it, but in two short days it will no longer be my now, it will be my past… Another swell of tears burbles up to the surface as I think that thought… The PCT is going to be in my past… I’m going to have to leave it… I take a deep breath and I give myself permission to cry, to grieve, to worry… I also give myself permission to eat a snack… I’m hungry. Oh so hungry.

With that thought, I remember that there are lots of amazing things that will come with civilization and the end of the trail too, like food! As I eat my protein bar, I daydream about filet mignon, milkshakes, fish and chips, root beer floats, soft beds with pillows, warm showers, and the friends and family I’ve been away from for so long… There are definitely a lot of positives that will come with the end of the trail.

As the last of my tears begin to dry, I resolve to enjoy the remaining time I have on the trail… and to stay here, in the now, as much as possible, for as long as possible. There’s a mountain with incredible views about a mile away from the trail, that’s where I’ll head for tonight… another sunset, another sunrise, another day on the PCT!

I get two more nights on the trail… Two more nights of vacation… Two more days to luxuriate in the now! The trail still stretches out in front of me, and I look forward to the adventures that await me!

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Thru-Hiker Power! (PCT Days 163-165)

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Little white plumes of moisture puff up into the air in front of me as I hike… It makes me think that I’m like a train, like the little engine that could, as I hike through the mountains of the North Cascades in Washington.

It’s the first hard frost that we’ve had since June, a clear indicator that fall is on its way… Before long, snow will blanket these mountains, but I’ll be gone by then… I’m less than 70 miles away from the Canadian border… I’m almost there!

I take a big sip of water, but the water feels thick as it hits my tongue and it crunches as I roll it around in my mouth… It isn’t until that crunch that I figure it out… The water in my water hose is beginning to freeze! The last time this happened was when I was on top of Mount Whitney!

Despite the cold, or perhaps because of it, I feel great. I have always loved the fall… the crisp, cool air… the changing colors of the leaves… the art that Jack Frost leaves behind… every step I take this morning reminds me of how much I love this life!

After hiking 2600 miles, I am in the best shape of my life… The trails from Stehekin to Hart’s Pass are well designed and graded, so I lengthen my stride on the uphills and the downhills and the miles just fly by… I feel powerful, I feel strong, and I feel like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be… Here, in the mountains, on the trail, where my body and my mind are at peace with each other and with the rest of the world. It’s an absolutely amazing feeling…

I remember feeling this same way at the end of my AT thru-hike… A kind of thru-hiker confidence… Knowing that your body can just do it… You look at a trail, you look at a mountain, and there is never a doubt… your body will allow you to do amazing things and to go to amazing places! It has been a miraculous transformation for me… a transformation that was more than I’d dared to imagine when I set out for my first thru-hike in the spring of 2013.

At the beginning of my AT thru-hike I’d been sick for so long that I’d stopped trusting my body, and my body had stopped trusting me… Asthma had slowly, insidiously, crept into my world, and over the course of five years it felt like it had stolen my body and my life away from me. I fought it every step of the way, but my body and my lungs wouldn’t let me do the things that I wanted to do anymore. When I discovered that the job I loved was the source of the problem, that I had occupational asthma, I was heartbroken. I knew that I had to leave my job, but I just couldn’t do it… It had been my dream for so long, and I’d invested so much into it… how could I just leave? Besides, I wasn’t a quitter! Every fiber of my body rebelled against the inevitable truth… I was going to have to walk away from everything if I wanted to get my health back… Was I strong enough to do that?

Eventually, I figured out a way… I would exchange the old dream for a new dream. I’d always wanted to do a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail… Sure, it was a non-traditional approach for dealing with asthma, but I was confident that I could make it work. Knowing that I was going to live my dream of hiking the AT gave me the strength to do the impossible, to leave my job and my old life behind. My doctors had been skeptical (and so had everyone else), but I had faith… I had faith that I could do it… I had faith that I would get better… I had to!

I had started slowly, but over time my lungs had gotten stronger, and a new relationship was forged between my body and my mind as they learned to operate as one… It was the best feeling in the world! Standing on top of Katahdin last October I was filled with elation, it had worked! I’d let go of the fear that had consumed me for so long, the fear that my body, my lungs, and my asthma would prevent me from living my dreams. I thought that I had vanquished asthma from my life. I was powerful! I was strong! I was a thru-hiker!

Here, on the PCT, I had to come to terms with the fact that my asthma wasn’t completely gone, that I was an asthmatic. It was a rude awakening at first, but I gained a new respect for my body… I learned that I could manage my asthma, and that when I did, I could still trust my body to do amazing things and to take me to amazing places. I could be an asthmatic and still live my dreams!

A cold wind brings me back to the present as I climb the next hill. Thinking about how my thru-hikes have transformed my body and my life brings tears to my eyes. It’s been an incredible journey. Even though I feel great, I don’t want the miles to fly by… I want time to slow down… I want to take it all in, to savor it all, to catalog these happy thoughts, these happy moments… I want to stay here forever… I’m like Peter Pan, I don’t want to grow up, I don’t want to leave the tail!

When I get to the top of the hill I stop and look around. It’s beautiful here in the Cascades. I take a deep breath of the cold morning air and smile as I let it out. Even though I’m asthmatic, even though I’ve been hiking uphill all morning and it’s cold, I can still take a full, chest-expanding breath of the fresh air! I can breath! I can hike! I can dream! These are the memories that I’ll keep for the rest of my life… 10 years from now, 30 years from now, 60 years from now, I’ll be able to come back here… to these powerful and happy memories… These happy thoughts, they’re going to help me to fly, and to keep flying, as I head into an uncertain future!

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Part 2: I’m Your Huckleberry

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One of the joys of hiking in the late summer and early fall is feasting on wild blueberries and huckleberries. Towards the end of my Appalachian trail thru-hike I feasted on the wild blueberries in Maine, and now that I was nearing the end of my Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike I was feasting on the wild huckleberries in Washington. In the Northeast we take pride in our wild blueberries, and often snub the obviously inferior commercial blueberries. In the Northwest people seemed to take pride in their huckleberries, but they categorically snubbed all blueberries… including the wild Maine blueberries that I thought so highly of. “Are you sure that you’re picking huckleberries and not blueberries,” was a constant, condescending refrain that I’d heard over and over again, and it rankled every time. Though I’d learned how to recognize one species of western huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum) and was confident that I was picking huckleberries and not blueberries, there was another question that I wasn’t so sure about: “What is the difference between a huckleberry and a blueberry?” None of the people I talked to really seemed to know. If they didn’t know the difference between a blueberry and a huckleberry, how could they assert the superiority of one over the other?

“What is the difference between a huckleberry and a blueberry?” The question ate at me as I hiked through Washington… I needed the internet… I needed to do some research… I wanted a scientifically rigorous end to the debate of huckleberry versus blueberry… When I finally got wifi, I started by looking up the definitions of the berries in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

That seemed simple enough, right? Huckleberries are from the genus Gaylussacia and blueberries are from the genus Vaccinium… (Let’s ignore that the second definition of huckleberry is blueberry for now). This definition was consistent with the berries I’d seen on the Appalachian trail, and the colloquial definitions of blueberries and huckleberries that I’d grown up with on the east coast. It also provided the key to telling eastern huckleberries from blueberries while hiking on the Appalachian trail: when you break open an eastern huckleberry, it has 10 chambers and 10 big seeds in it, but when you break open a blueberry it only has five chambers and is full of lots and lots of tiny little seeds.

If I was only concerned about the east coast and the AT I’d be done, but what about the berries on the west coast, the berries on the PCT? Do they fit into those same simple definitions? No.  According to the united states forest service there are twelve species of huckleberry in Oregon and Washington and they all belong to the genus Vaccinium! That means that by east coast standards (and according to the dictionary definition), all of the western huckleberries are actually blueberries.

My initial reaction was to laugh. No wonder why people on the west coast were so confused about the difference between huckleberries and blueberries. I briefly thought about invoking the classic east coast/west coast rivalry, and dismissing all western huckleberries as blueberries, but that didn’t appease my intellectual curiosity… there was definitely something different about western huckleberries… They weren’t the same berries that I’d grown up calling blueberries on the east coast, I needed to learn more.

I went searching for a better definition huckleberries and was surprised to find that in at least one state there is a legal definition of a huckleberry! In 2013 the Montana state legislature defined a “huckleberry” as: a berry referring to various wild species of the Vaccinium genus, commonly referred to in this state as a huckleberry or Montana huckleberry. Among these species are Vaccinium membranaceum and Vaccinium globulare. The legal definition gave merit to 2 of the 12 huckleberry species that I’d heard of, and listed four species that were not huckleberries, but it didn’t help me understand the difference between huckleberries and blueberries. I shouldn’t have been surprised that lawmakers didn’t have the definitive answer I was looking for, the definition of a huckleberry is really a question for scientists, not lawmakers.

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I returned to the literature and to the genus Vaccinium, which includes all of the blueberries, cranberries, and western huckleberries. Since the genus was the same for all of them, I looked to the next level of differentiation, the subgenera. Vaccinium is divided into two subgenera: Oxycoccus (cranberries), and Vaccinium (blueberries and western huckleberries). The subgenera are then further divided into sections. Four of those sections include the berries we call blueberries and western huckleberries: Cyanococcus (blueberries), Myrtillus (bilberries/western huckleberries), Vaccinium, and Pyxothamnus. The majority of western huckleberries are in sec. Myrtillus. I’d finally figured out how to separate the western huckleberries from the blueberry!. I also discovered that in the field (on the PCT) the berry organization can be used to distinguish between the sections: most western huckleberries (sec. Myrtillus) produce single berries on new shoots, the rest of the western huckleberries (sec. Vaccinium and sec. Pyxothamnus) produce small clusters of berries, and the blueberries (sec. Cyanococcus) produce larger clusters of berries on one year old growth.

Based on my new understanding of the differences between blueberries and huckleberries I revised the Merriam-Webster definitions to include the berries from both the east coast (AT) and the west coast (PCT):

Using these new definitions, could I separate all of the North American huckleberries from the North American blueberries? To figure that out, I investigated the taxonomy of huckleberries and blueberries, focusing on the differences between the species on the east coast (AT) and the west coast (PCT). The naming and separation of species is constantly changing as our understanding of plant genetics evolves, which means that the species definitions for huckleberries and blueberries are constantly changing. Although I used the initial list of huckleberries of the northwest (1972) as a guide, I used the USDA plants database and/or the GRIN Taxonomy for Plants to determine a more current list of species (click on the links to see maps of their growing regions):

Family Ericaceaethe heath family, includes all of the huckleberries and blueberries
Genus Gaylussacia – Eastern (AT) Huckleberries (10 chambered ovary)

 Genus Vaccinium – Blueberries and Western Huckleberries (5 chambered ovary)

Finally, after spending way too much time online, I’d convinced myself that I knew the difference between blueberries and huckleberries both taxonomically and functionally. On paper it was easy, the eastern (AT) huckleberries were the ones in subgenus Gaylussacia, the blueberries (AT & PCT) were the ones in sec. Cyanococcus, and the western (PCT) huckleberries were still trying to sort themselves out, but were mostly from sec. Myrtillus. On the trail, the eastern huckleberries were the ones with 10 large seeds in them that you find in the eastern part of the country, the blueberries were the ones with big clusters of fruit with lightish colored innards, and western huckleberries were the ones the brothers on the reservation had described to me (with bright purple innards and typically single berries).

One of the interesting things I learned was that blueberries on the PCT are the same species as the blueberries on the AT.  I rarely saw anything resembling an east coast blueberry as I hiked through Washington. Though there are always exceptions, it seemed like all of the know-it-alls that were so adamantly reprimanding people for picking blueberries on the trail were wrong. Up on the mountain hillsides of the PCT, almost everyone was picking huckleberries… they weren’t always picking what Montana legally defines as a huckleberry, but they were picking Washington huckleberries (huckleberries of Washington (2007)).

If you are a professional huckleberry picker getting an estimated $40 a gallon for huckleberries, you should probably restrict your definition of huckleberry to Vaccinium membranaceum. However, if you are out there hiking in the mountains, with the sunshine on your back, why not enjoy all of the edible berries that sec. Myrtillus has to offer?

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Interesting huckleberry links if you are still thirsting for more information:

Part 1: I’m Your Huckleberry (PCT Days 162-164)

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“You’ve been picking berries haven’t you!” exclaimed a passing hiker. I was in northern Washington and my hands were stained a dark pinkish-purple from picking and eating huckleberries. The sweet perfume of berries filled the late-afternoon air. I grinned ear-to-ear, popping yet another warm, juicy berry into my mouth before replying, “Yeah, I’ve been picking huckleberries. My mom’s going to hike in to meet me at the border, so I’m making huckleberry wine for her!”

“Are you sure that you’re picking huckleberries and not just blueberries?” The hiker asked, looking at me skeptically. “Yes, I’m sure,” I replied, still smiling and picking my berries… One for me… One for the wine… One for me… One for the wine… I popped another one into my mouth, “Definitely huckleberries.”

Huckleberries seemed to be a hot topic here in the Pacific Northwest. I’d learned that huckleberries were to be prized, and that blueberries were to be shunned… The superiority of huckleberries over blueberries was uncontested, uncontestable… there was just one little problem… Which ones were the huckleberries? None of the huckleberries I saw on the west coast looked like east coast huckleberries (gaylussacia baccata) to me, so I’d started asking my west coast peers to show me which berries were the huckleberries. It quickly became apparent to me that the term “huckleberry” was being applied to multiple species of plants. There was, however, one species that everyone on the west coast seemed to agree was definitely a huckleberry, the vaccinium membranaceum, and that was the one that I was picking…

“Well, most people think they’re picking huckleberries but they’re actually picking blueberries,” he replied undeterred. I paused from my berry picking to look around me. Was there something that made him think that I was standing in a thicket of blueberries instead of huckleberries? No, there wasn’t. I was surrounded by big, juicy (unambiguous by west coast standards) huckleberries. This was the third person that had felt the need to stop me while I was berry picking to inform me that I couldn’t possibly know the difference between huckleberries and blueberries. None of them seemed to notice or care that I was surrounded by huckleberries and huckleberry bushes… There were lots of things about huckleberries that I was still curious about and wanted to learn, but I was getting tired of these conversations… the unsolicited conversations which started with the assumption that I didn’t know what I was doing, and was followed by their display of superior huckleberry knowledge (which was usually even less complete than my mine).

“I’m confident that the berries I’m picking are considered huckleberries here on the west coast,” I assured the hiker. “When I was hiking through the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon I ran into two brothers from the reservation that were professional huckleberry pickers. I asked them a few questions and they were kind enough to give me a comprehensive tutorial on west coast huckleberries. It was absolutely incredible and I’ve been picking huckleberries ever since!” I smiled again, and pointedly turned away from him and resumed my huckleberry picking. He took the not so subtle hint, and moved on.

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Unlike the more recent conversations I’d been having about huckleberries, the conversation I’d had with the two brothers back on the reservation had been really informative. “There are a dozen different varieties of huckleberry out here,” the brothers had explained, “but the best huckleberries are the ones with the dark, almost black fruit. We only pick the ones that are big, single berries on the top of the leaf clusters like these,” said one of the brothers as he pointed to, and then picked, a big, plump huckleberry. “If the berries are underneath the leaf clusters, or if there is more than one berry in the same cluster, it’s probably a blueberry and not a huckleberry. Even though the huckleberries can be lots of different colors and sizes, you can always tell if it’s a true huckleberry because the pulp inside the huckleberries is this deep red or purple color,” he continued, popping the berry between his fingers to demonstrate. “The blueberries have much lighter colored guts.” His brother then added, “the best huckleberries, the ones that we pick, are the ones with pointy leaves like these,” he said, stroking one of the leaves almost lovingly. By the end of their tutorial I was 100% confident that I could identify the best huckleberries (vaccinium membranaceum), the ones their family had been picking for generations, and the huckleberries they sold commercially.

After the brothers taught me how to identify the huckleberries, they taught me how to pick them without bruising them, how to transport them, and how to store them. They proudly explained that the way they transported and stored the huckleberries now was the same way their family had been doing it for generations. As evidence, they showed me the huckleberry picking baskets they had tied to their waists. “These baskets are nearly 100 years old,” said one of the brothers, untying it from his waist so I could get a better look at it. It was a smallish (probably quart-sized) basket, stained purple with the juices of thousands of huckleberries, but otherwise it showed very little wear. “They’re beautiful,” I said as I looked at the weave of the basket. “They’re made from the bark of the cedar trees,” he continued. I looked at him questioningly, how could something this fine be made from cedar bark? Anticipating my question he continued, “if you look closely you can see the fine strands and the way they are coiled and tied together.” I was definitely impressed. He then showed me the loops across the top that allowed it to be tied to his belt. “After we fill these baskets, we empty them into the big basket,” he said bringing out a much larger basket with a different weave (twined instead of coiled if I remember correctly). “We line it with leaves to protect the berries. This one holds about seven gallons of huckleberries. We should have it filled by noontime,” he said and looked on, smiling, as I examined the basket. “This one’s 80 years old! Do you see the little loops at the top? They’re for tying a cover onto the basket for storing the berries.”

The baskets were amazing… steeped as they were in both huckleberry juice and history. We talked about some of that history, about the way of life of the Wasco and Tenino people before the reservation was formed… about fishing, hunting, and huckleberry picking… and about how things have changed. When the US government created the Bonneville dam, they flooded the traditional fishing grounds for the Warm Springs tribes, and altered their way of life. They said that the tribes still fish salmon, hunt, and pick huckleberries, but that isn’t enough to sustain their economy. Even in the world of huckleberry picking there are issues. “They forget whose land they’re on,” mumbled one of the brothers when talking about commercial berry pickers. “We usually pick up near Mount Hood at this time of the year, but they’ve been forcing us out.” The politics of huckleberry picking were entirely new to me, who was forcing them out? “Huckleberry picking is big business. They bring in lots of cheap labor from overseas, they don’t respect us and they don’t respect the land. The pickers from Vietnam and Laos are the worst. They’ll form a circle around us and pick all of the berries so there’s no where left for us to go. They make it so we can’t pick,” they said sadly. “That’s why we decided to come back down here. Usually this time of year its too early to pick here, but with the crazy weather this season we thought we’d check it out.”

“How are the huckleberries along the PCT on the other side of the road?” they asked. “They were pretty amazing! So plentiful that I stopped to take some pictures of them,” I replied and showed them some pictures I’d taken of berry-laden branches. “Good to hear, we were thinking about bringing our sisters out to pick with us tomorrow, sounds like there’ll be plenty of berries for all of us.” I nodded, and we wrapped up our conversation. I would have kept talking to them all day (and did in fact have more long conversations with them about the PCT and tribal lands), but I knew that they had 7 gallons of huckleberries to pick by noon, and I didn’t want to distract them too much.

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It was now a month later, but the conversation I’d had with the two brothers was still fresh in my mind. Every conversation I’d had about huckleberries since then reminded me of them and of the first mouthful of warm, black huckleberries that I’d eaten just moments later. The west coast huckleberries (Vaccinium membranaceum) reminded me of wild maine blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium), but they weren’t quite as sweet, and they had a slightly spicier flavor.

Regardless of whether people were calling them blueberries or huckleberries, everyone seemed to enjoy feasting on the fruits produced by the plants of genus Vaccinium. However, people weren’t the only ones feasting on huckleberries in Washington. The bears were were out in force! Going through Washington I saw five different bears feasting on huckleberries/blueberries (mile 2377- small brown bear, mile 2445- big black bear, mile 2491- small black bear, mile 2507- black bear, mile 2512- black bear). A couple of those times I only noticed the bears because I’d stopped at the same field planning to pick huckleberries too! If I was a safe distance away, I would just sit and watch them graze on those tiny little berries. It was fascinating and it was very different than watching them try to dig grubs. As I watched them pick huckleberries straight from the bushes with their mouths, I tried to imagine having to get all of my calories on the trail from huckleberries. At just 37 calories per 100 g, it would take a lot of huckleberries to fuel a human or a bear… we’d be better off eating the sweeter blueberries at 57 calories per 100g, but only slightly!

Even though I’d learned how to recognize one species of huckleberry on the west coast (Vaccinium membranaceum), I still couldn’t fully answer the question, “What’s the difference between a huckleberry and a blueberry?” Stay tuned for “Part 2: I’m your huckleberry,” where I’ll answer that question and more!

Moms (PCT Days 156-161)

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“If you remember, when you get up to Fire Creek Pass, say hi to my mom for me,” said the day hiker I’d just met. “My brother and I spread her ashes there 25 years ago. It’s on the west side of Glacier Peak, up passed Pumice creek, but before Mica Lake.”

“It’s really beautiful up there,” he continued wistfully, “the trail follows the ridge, and is mostly above treeline.” He then told me that he’d met another thru-hiker about a week ago and gave her the same message to deliver, but he seemed rather convinced that neither one of us would actually remember to do it.

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“Have you been able to make the trip into the pass to visit very often?” I asked.

“No, I haven’t been back,” he explained. “I love to hike, but I have back issues, so I can’t carry heavy loads anymore.” I sensed a complicated milieu of feelings; regret, frustration, and acceptance, in his tone of voice and in his body language. It reminded me of when my asthma was really bad and I couldn’t even walk, never mind hike… There’s a grieving process that you go through if/when your health deteriorates and you lose the ability to do some of the things that you love. I couldn’t imagine how hard that must be when it interfered with the grieving process of a loved one as well.

“Maybe we should get some llamas,” his wife suggested, “they could carry the load for you!” I have to admit, this was the first time that the thought of pack animals on the trail seemed like a good idea, and didn’t just make me grumpy…

Usually I just see the negative impacts of the stock animals… Their sh** in steaming piles in the middle of the trail that I need to either step into or veer of into the bushes to avoid… The uneven, eroded sections of trail as their hooves punch through the wet or muddy ground, accelerating the deterioration of the trail… Their sh** in the middle of the spot where I’d like to camp… Yeah, horses on the trail occasional hit the top of my list of pet peeves. All other trail users are required to clean up after their own sh**. Why are horses exempt from that rule? I’m pretty sure that in the parades in the city the horses have little sh** bags that get emptied later… Why can’t the horses on trail use those and toss their sh** into the bushes instead of leaving it in the middle of the trail? But I digress…

I forgot about all of that sh** for a moment, and was suddenly glad that the PCT allowed pack animals… Allowing people that couldn’t otherwise access the wilderness a way to continue going to the places they love, to continue doing the things that they love… That’s worth putting up with some sh** every now and then. I hoped that this couple would someday look into that option so that he might get the chance to visit his mom himself someday.

As I continued my hike northwards I realized that delivering his message was actually really important to me… I would take the time, find the spot, deliver his message, and reflect on all the mothers that I have known… My amazing mother, the grandmother I have, the grandmother I’ve lost, the expectant mothers I know (congratulations again!), and the expectant mother that we lost… When I got to that spot I was going to celebrate a Mother’s Day of sorts… Besides, any mother that raises backpackers is a mother to all of the backpackers… Being a thru-hiker you live that over and over again… All the mom’s that visit their children on the trail becomes mom’s to us all!

Now, what were those directions again? Doh! He was right, I’d already forgotten the name of the pass where he’d scattered his mom’s ashes, but I remembered the rest of the directions… I quickly jotted them down. I would find the spot!

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A couple of days later I came to Pumice Creek, the first place that he’d mentioned. It was in the middle of one of the most challenging, hardest to access portions of the trail. No wonder why he hadn’t been able to get back there. I pulled out my maps and sure enough, there was a big pass coming up… If I hiked the way I normally did I would cross it during the late afternoon and end up camping at the bottom of the next valley…

As I continued hiking northwards I started wondering if there might be a camping spot at the top of the pass… I was willing to bet there were stunning views from the pass… And in general I love camping at the top of things… Campsites where you can watch both the sunrise and the sunset are my absolute favorites… I hate it when I have to camp in the deep dark valleys.

There wasn’t a campsite listed up there in any of my guidebooks, but I was cautiously optimistic… I don’t need much space to cowboy camp (roll my sleeping bag out under the stars). When I got to Fire Creek I stopped and ate my dinner… It was only 4:30 pm, but if I camped up at the pass there wouldn’t be any water there… And water is heavy… If I camped in the next valley there would be plenty of water, but just in case I ended up camping in the pass I didn’t want to carry the extra water I would need for dinner up the mountain! Besides I was already hungry… I was always hungry… an early dinner sounded like a great idea.

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One of the things I love about climbing up to the passes is that you never know what you’re going to find on the other side… It’s almost always a completely new landscape that you’ve never seen before. This time was no different. As I climbed towards the pass, the scenery got more and more impressive until I finally reached the top… And there they were, stretched out in front of me, the North Cascades.

It was an absolutely beautiful place, and as I looked around I realized that the best views were to the east, and to the west, which meant I’d be able to see both the sunrise and sunset from this pass !!! My absolute favorite places to camp are the places with amazing sunrise and sunset views!

Even though it was still early, I found a nice little spot among the rocks, inflated my sleeping pad, rolled out my sleeping bag and prepared to spend the night there. It was an incredibly peaceful spot and I had it all to myself. Here, so close to the end of the trail, lots of people were hurrying up, racing to the finish, but me, I was slowing down… trying to savor every moment I had left. I couldn’t remember the last time I stopped so early in the day and hiked so few miles, but I was determined to make the most of the remaining days of this amazing journey.

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It seemed fitting to slow down and to really take the time to enjoy this place in particular because I knew that this was the place where the brothers had spread their mother’s ashes… It felt like a sacred place to me… As I thought about the son that couldn’t make it out to this pass anymore, I decided that I wanted to capture some of it on film for him… I was guessing that he didn’t have any good pictures of the pass, and I was going to be there for sunset and the sunrise… The lighting should be amazing, and I had my good camera (Sony NEX-5N)… I didn’t know his address or even his name, but I wanted to let him know that I had said hi, and I wanted to give him pictures of the pass (if you are the brother I talked to, please contact me at Patches or Patchesthru on Facebook or leave an email address in the comments)…

After taking some pictures I crawled into my sleeping bag and watched the sky shift through a rainbow of colors as the sun set and the moon rose. It was absolutely magnificent.

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As I drew my mummy bag around me something started to swoop in low just a few feet over my head… What was it?! It was after dark, but this thing was way too big to be a bat… It was also very light colored… It flew off and then swooped low over my head again… Definitely a bird, but what kind of bird waits until dark to come out, and it was huge! A wingspan of around four or five feet… It swooped low a third time, clearing me by maybe two feet, and I got an even better look at it… The head was too big to be any of the birds of prey I was used to seeing…

Suddenly it dawned on me, big head, the size of a raptor, waiting until dusk before coming out… It was an owl!!! I laughed at myself… I’d never actually seen an owl swooping around at night before, but it shouldn’t have taken me that long to figure it out. It did another circle around me and swooped down even closer… Wow! I wondered if I’d somehow invaded it’s territory and in a moment of panic was afraid that it was going to swoop down and peck my eyes out while I was sleeping… Having a bird that big dive bombing you while you’re getting ready to fall asleep is a bit disconcerting, but I reminded myself that I like owls, and that it likely had little to no interest in me… Also, I sleep with my glasses on, so my eyes at least would be protected.

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The next time it swooped low I just watched it. Owls are incredibly beautiful birds, and to get to watch one fly like this, in the fading colors of the sunset, less than three feet away from me… it felt like an honor. I also realized that regardless of whether or not it was intentional, the owl was going to protect me as I slept… Like most thru-hikers, I sleep with my food, and mice are a constant concern… An owl swooping this low, this often, meant that anything that tried to go after my dinner would become the owl’s dinner! I definitely didn’t have to worry about mice running around me tonight :)

Secure in the knowledge that I had an ever vigilant protector, I drifted off to sleep… I didn’t wake again until moonset, which was around 5 am. Whenever it is close to the full moon I wake up around moonset because it suddenly gets much darker and I’m very sensitive to changes in light. As I looked, I saw my owl still swooping nearby and smiled. It was getting much darker, but the stars weren’t out, so I looked around to see where the moon was… It was behind me, towards the west, and was a brilliant orangey-red as it began it’s descent into the horizon. I watched it, in awe of its beauty, until it completely disappeared from sight. From this amazing place I’d gotten to watch the moon rise, the sun set, the moon set, and I still had the sunrise to look forward to! I felt incredibly lucky to be where I was.

When I looked up half an hour later I was surprised to see the Milky Way stretched out above me… I didn’t think it would get dark enough to see it so close to the full moon! Apparently, however, there is a small window of time between moonset and sunrise when the night sky is truly dark and all the stars come out to shine.

Still smiling I drifted off for one last time, but awoke in the predawn light… I luxuriated in the warmth of my sleeping bag as I watched the eastern horizon waiting for the sun to rise with the excitement and anticipation of a child on Christmas Eve. Slowly, ever so slowly, the sky turned colors and brightened as the sun prepared to rise… After almost 5000 miles of hiking in the last two years, my appreciation for the wonder and majesty of the rising sun still hadn’t faded!

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My night at Fire Creek Pass had been one of those perfect nights… The kind of nights that make me wish that I could keep doing this forever…

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