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6 Items You’ll Start the PCT with That You Shouldn’t

Posted on March 03 2018

Everyone starts the PCT with too much gear, it’s like a right of passage - to carry too much stuff for a day, a week, a month. At some point you, as a thru-hiker, will ditch all the “extra stuff”. It’s understandable why you start with all this extra stuff, but it’s not necessary. Thru-hiking is a learning experience though and for many the PCT is their first long backpacking trip; for others it’s an unknown environment - long waterless stretches, miles upon miles of scorching hot desert, high altitude snowy mountains to cross, and continuous rain up north. The PCT crosses numerous ecosystems and preparing for them all seems daunting. You can't decide what gear to bring for which section, so you bring...everything! And as the old saying goes, you definitely pack your fears. If you worry you’ll be hungry you’ll bring too much food. If you’re afraid of being cold, too many layers; thirsty, too much water; bored, too much entertainment. Backpacking for months requires surprising little gear. Despite this advice, many of you will begin the trail with several items from this list.

1. Excessive Amounts of Food 

Technically when you begin the PCT you only need enough food to hike the 20 miles to Lake Morena. There’s a cafe with a small store where you could grab a burger for lunch/dinner or a breakfast burrito in the morning and enough food for the next 22 miles to Mount Laguna where you’ll find another cafe and another store as well as a post office if you prefer to send yourself a box. Then it’s a little over 40 miles until your next resupply at Stagecoach RV Park or Julian. Warner Springs is 30 more miles. As you can see, these are relatively short walks of 20-40 miles between resupply points.

The majority of hikers have trouble eating very much the first couple of weeks as they adjust to life on trail. Often it’s hot or you’re really tired. You don’t always feel like making food 3 times a day in your first week or two either which results in tons of left over food you wind of carrying. Hiker hunger hasn't yet kicked in so your appetite isn't cranking. That usually takes 2-3 weeks. For all these reasons, hikers end up lugging a ton of extra food on their backs for days upon days for no good reason.

A good strategy is to pack light meals that don’t require cooking for the first few days for the majority of your meals. If you find yourself finishing all your food planned for the first section to Lake Morena, then buy a few extra snacks for the next couple days to Mount Laguna and go from there. It’s actually better to be a little light than way too heavy when starting out on the trail. 

2. Too many shirts/tops 

At most you should have a short sleeve and long sleeve hiking shirt, a long sleeve for sleeping, a layer of good insulation, and a layer to keep you dry. Most hikers choose a down jacket (aka “a puffy”) for their warm/insulating layer and a rain jacket for their dry layer. If you think you will be cold early in the morning when you start hiking, begin the day walking with your rain jacket on instead of an extra insulating layer, such as a fleece, that is strictly used for cold weather hike. If you’re cold at night when you finish hiking and reach for the fleece, try changing into your sleeping shirt, insulating layer, and then add your rain jacket on top. This combo is bomber! Your rain jacket is one of the most versatile pieces of equipment because it can be part of your insulation, it can serve as a windbreaker, and it should obviously keep you dry during the occasional rainstorm. I'll be writing another article in the future about the clothing I recommend for the PCT so keep an eye out for that.

3. Extra batteries

I seriously doubt you’ll show up to start hiking the PCT with a half charged cell phone (if you’re carrying one) or a half charged external battery, so why start with a half charged set of batteries in anything else? Also ask yourself, if your battery powered item died could you survive for 1-2 days until you arrived at the next stop to purchase another set of batteries. I’m sure the answer is yes. So lighten your pack a little and skip the extra AA & AAA batteries. Do some research on your headlamp, most of them have a lock you can activate that will prevent the light from turning on in your pack and draining your batteries. Unless you’re night hiking often, I found that headlamp batteries last a really long time because when the sun goes to sleep each night, thru-hikers quickly follow.

4. A big first aid kit

I always see hikers carrying massive first aid kits. It’s not needed. Keep in mind your first aid kit is for you and you only. You shouldn’t be carrying a kit that’s for every one else on the trail. If that was the case maybe you should carry clothing for everyone, a few extra pair of shoes, several days of extra food, etc. All jokes aside, the majority of the PCT is a nice well-worn dirt path. There are a few rocky portions and such but for the most part, it’s a very tame trail where the most common medical emergencies beyond the typical blisters are scrapes, nicks, sunburn, and bug bites. You won’t be stitching anyone up or performing surgery on the trail. You’ll be evacuated for these kind of real emergencies and no med kit is going to do more than applying a tourniquet out of a bandana or holding direct pressure to a gaping wound. In short, keep your med kit simple. Take a look at my article “PCT First Aid Kit” to see what I recommend.  

5. GPS

I purposefully put the word “start” in the article title. I think a GPS could be very helpful if it’s a high snow year like 2017 in the Sierra or even Northern California. However, unless you are hiking in the dead of winter in a high snow year you absolutely don’t need a GPS in the first 700 miles of the trail. Instead of lugging this extra weight for those miles while you are adjusting to the rigors of thru-hiking, have your GPS in a box with a good friend or family member who can send it to you IF you happen to be entering the Sierra early, in a high snow, and need this. The vast majority of thru-hikers in a typical snow year will NOT need a GPS on the PCT at all.

6. Bear canister

More and more people are beginning the PCT with bear canisters and I’m not sure why. They are bulky and heavy and not needed until passed Kennedy Meadows (Mile 702). I know many people think they will carry them the whole way. However, the majority of those people will send them forward at the first opportunity (in Mount Laguna) after hauling them up thousands of feet of elevation during their first week on trail. Save yourself the stress and hassle and skip the bear canister until you really need it. If you really want to carry an animal proof bag consider purchasing an Ursack Major or Ursack Minor. These are excellent at keeping the rodents at bay. Another good alternative is the Opsak, an odor barrier bag that prevents the animals from smelling all your yummy food to start with.

I've heard every single argument for carrying a bear canister - it's a great chair, trash storage, washing bin, etc. You're thru-hiking, and it's a very strenuous activity as it is. 20-30% of hikers don't make it past the first 100 miles. A huge contributor to this is the excessive weight in their backpack be it food, bear canisters, too many clothes, etc. It ALL adds up. Every little tiny thing in your backpack has weight and all those little things add up to extra pounds that create extra stress on an already stressed body that's adjusting to the rigors of thru-hiking. 

I made this list in the hope that you won’t start the trail with these items or any items on the “5 Items NOT to Bring on the PCT” (list coming soon!). While some of the items may seem insignificant now, realize that small changes can have big impacts on your hike. The fewer items in your backpack the less it weighs, the fewer items you have to keep up with, the easier it is to find what you did bring, and the less likely you are to get injured from the weight of your pack. You can save yourself some pain and suffering and start the PCT with only the essentials knowing can add items if you really find you need them up the trail. Another article you might be interested in is “8 Tips for Preventing Injury & Making the First 100 Miles of the PCT a Success". 

Leave the stuff behind and enjoy the trail more!




  • Charlie Brown (2 Foot Adventures co-partner): January 01, 2024

    Clearing up a mis-understanding here, responding to “PlusOne”: Mary was not referring to a GPS handheld communication device such as a Garmin InReach. She was referring to an 8 ounce Garmin Explorer utilized as map device. The first 700 miles of the PCT are already rich in word of mouth information, directions, opinions, hotel/motels, pizza shops, and trail angels…. you do not need a computerized hand held device showing you the trail, where you are on the trail, and so forth. The southern end of trail is hiker dense, that in itself is a safety net for most concerns. Once you get more into the mountains further North, well, different story.

  • Allan "PlusOne" Zacho: January 01, 2024

    I would highly recommend no. “5. GPS” instantly got removed from this list – I hope noone follows this advice. I’ve heard of multiple people getting saved because of their GPS within the first few hundred miles going NOBO on the PCT, where there was otherwise no signal. Injuries like twisting angles, breaking a leg, etc. and mostly dehydration and lack of water(Greater research and planning would indeed reduce the chances of this). But alot of people hiking the PCT are not use to the effects of the desert heat!
    Please don’t ever recommend people not bring a GPS on a backcountry hiking trip. Worst advice i’ve seen arround – The rest i love!
    A GPS is the thing you hope you’ll never need in your life, but you never know when or where you might end up needing it!
    Happy trails – PlusOne
    - 2022 PCT Hiker – and Soon 2024 aswell – From Denmark

  • Catherine: February 15, 2023

    great tips, I’m so glad I found this website. Thank you.

  • Scott S: December 21, 2020

    When I started hiking, GPS was only a glimmer in Arthur C. Clarke’s eye. Map and compass is all you need. And a survival whistle.

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