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  • Emily Hayes

PCT Gear Review - Snow Equipment

So here it is, finally, a new collection of blogs reviewing my extensive list of EVERYTHING I had in my backpack for thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 2022.

I’m not considered “ultra light” but I do opt for the lightest version I can find without compromising on comfort. I started the trek with quite a few things that I ditched or switched along the way. Overall, my bag weight and size was about average amongst the hikers that i’ve physically compared with. I’m not a number cruncher, so I’ve never weighed my bag or submitted stats to a website, I take what I need, try to make it light, and just get on with enjoying the hike. Having said that, I have removed a lot of weight for some hikes to enable bigger mileage in a day, that’s going to be another blog....

Before I'd left the UK to start the PCT I couldn't get my head around how it was possible to complete a thru-hike through snow without much specialist equipment. I'd experienced harsh winters in Scotland where crampons and mountaineering boots were required with storms and whiteouts. Meanwhile I had been told that there would be more snow in the San Jacinto mountains and the Sierra Nevada Mountains than the UK so I was a little unsure how to pack particularly as most people wear trainers on the PCT.

It was a low snow year in the Sierra in 2022 and by the time I left Kennedy Meadows to start this section it was late May. I'd planned on entering the Sierra section in early May and had all sorts of equipment on standby depending on the snow situation. Turns out the kit list I ended up with was more basic and somehow I was never cold or experienced much discomfort (apart from fatigue and the effects of altitude).

Start of the ascent to Muir Pass

1. Clothes

I didn't change anything from the desert section for the Sierra section, I actually mailed some items to a friends because I was carrying a few too many layers. Temperatures in San Jacinto Mountains were cold (near freezing at night when in the mountains) and I'd felt fine with less layers so I mailed my thicker base layer at Kennedy meadows, leaving me with just a thin merino hoody and a thin merino sleeping top plus my down puffy and waterproof layers. My clothes list can be found here which changed very little over the whole PCT. I also shipped my leggings back from Mammoth Lakes, towards the end of the Sierra section, as I found I was only wearing my shorts.

2. Waterproof layers

I will talk more about waterproof layers in another blog but waterproof trousers, jacket and socks were great to protect from the wind and later biting insects. My waterproof socks (Sealskins) I tucked into my waterproof trousers when I was going to be walking through snow with post hole potential. I found this was very effective at protecting me from both sharp icey snow scratches on my legs and kept my feet dry.

There were plenty of opportunity to glissade down a mountain, waterproof trousers helped protect my bare skin from the hard icey snow although I did make a few small rips in the trousers instead!

It snowed and rained once in the Sierra section, first rain in the valley and as I ascended Sonora Pass this became snow with some patches of complete white out. By this time on trail I'd already replaced my waterproof jacket for a windshell so I was left hiking in the snow with my thin merino layer, shorts, waterproof trousers and my beloved poncho. It was a little uncomfortable if I stopped walking but it did the job to stop snow absorbing into my pack and clothes.

Sonora Pass after a storm

3. Ice Axe

Some people hike with just hiking poles, some have an ice axe and poles, some have nothing. I chose a 59cm length Petzl Sumnit Evo ice axe to be able to use it as a hiking pole when I was on steep snow covered trails like switch backs. An ice axe is stronger than using a hiking pole (I know someone's snapped in the snow), you can put a lot of pressure on an ice axe when climbing steep trails, having a longer one supports your weight as you go up or down hill. Learning how to use one is the first step, it's fun once you know how! Then of course an ice axe is used for self rescue, if you fall down you can stop yourself safely. If it's on the back of your pack it's not going to be any help for self rescue, this is why I chose a longer (and heavier) ice axe to make sure it had multiple functions and would be in my hand when I would be hiking in that terrain.

I did however carry my ice axe for far too long (from Campo) due to my own poor planning and reluctance to mail a strange shaped item in a postal system that was alien to me. I learnt you can mail an ice axe through USPS if you fit 2 boxes together and use a lot of tape. That took me about 3 months to discover. Then of course there was the story of my missing ice axe in San Jacinto which was later returned to me.

I enjoyed hiking with my ice axe, although with caution, it would have been possible to pass through the Sierra at the time I was there without an ice axe and just used hiking poles.

All the gear... some idea!

4. Micro Spikes

I took Kahtoola microspike for my late March start date in Campo for the San Jacinto Mountains. They did get used, although only once. I then mailed them to Kennedy Meadows but felt like they would have been good to use for Baden Powel mountain ascent, which still had a high level of snow coverage. During the Sierra section, I used my micro spikes twice and would have been fine not carrying them. My confidence had grown, and I wasn't so scared of falling. There were not many parts of the trail in the Sierra that I encountered that would have caused severe harm from falling if microspikes had not been used. But bear in mind it was a low snow year and early June. Microspikes help with traction, and I used them for sections where the snow was hard and icey, allowing me to traverse over/up/down/through the passes quicker than if I was just in trainers.

Forrester pass with friends

5. Hand warmers

I've got to look after my raynaud hands! I carried a few single use packets that gave me a little bit of heat in the evenings or mornings. Would take again.

6. Bear canister

I'm adding this to the list as everyone is required to carry a bear canister in the Sierra section. Something to bear in mind as your pack will be heavy! I carried a BV450 and had no plans to be hiking more than 4.5 days in-between resupply towns. I know I didn't eat enough during this section but take what you will from that. Not everything fitted in my BV but you can manage what you eat on the first day and find ways to make things fit/choose different foods.

7. Gloves

I have a huge selection of gloves for any type of weather or activity, because I have raynauds condition, I need to protect my hands from the wet and cold. For the Southern California and Sierra sections I carried winter mountaineering gloves (Mountain Equipment Coulier gloves) and thin merino wool liners. Both were great but in hindsight I would probably downgrade my gloves to just 1 pair of fleece lined waterproof gloves and not heavy winter ones. In the UK I hike with 2 pairs of waterproof gloves because 1 pair saturates in a day from snow or rain so the other pair is to keep dry and rotate. This was completely unnecessary when I hiked the PCT as it's sunny and dry even when you are hiking on snow.

Wearing all my clothes for Mount Whitney ascent

8. Sleep system

For much of the Sierra I continued my cowboy camping streak and eventually stopped due to the growing population of mosquitos wanting to drink my blood. My bag, liner, sleep clothes and foam pad combo kept me warm every night even when my bottle was freezing next to me.

Cow boy camping in the Sierra early June

Hiking through snowy mountain ranges can be dangerous if not adequately prepared. However everyone's abilities and perception of danger is hugely variable. There is sadly a culture on trail of shaming people on their decisions and approaches to handling snow or other aspects of hiking the PCT. One person may find the experience super easy and need little to no equipment traversing snow capped mountains while another person could find the same experience extremely daunting as they have never hiked in snow before. What may be a lot of snow to someone may be a small dusting to another. Please asses your own capability and comfort zones when planning your Sierra PCT hike.

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