Redtail's Rules of Thru-Hiking
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Thru-hiking really is its
own little world. When you set foot on that trail at the border, you
enter a zone where your expectations, by and large, need to be chucked out
of the window. (Since you don't even have any windows out there, your
vocabulary and idioms probably need an overhaul, too.)
I learned a lot of things while out on my thru-hike. The following is a
list of nuggets of wisdom that I compiled over the course of the trip.
Some are funny, some are sobering, but all of them try to condense down to
a pearl of profundity one of the many adjusted expectations that helped me
keep hiking with a smile on my face.
(If my explanations are a little too long-winded for your tastes, you
can read the rules by themselves.)
The (Annotated) Rules
More to come ...
- (The Dead Man's Hill Rule): The worst is behind us!
This was the unofficial motto of BaxWalk 2004, in which a group
of friends and I climbed English Mountain (itself only about 10 miles from
the PCT). Although the 10-mile round trip and mere 2,000 feet of climbing
are the work of a few hours for me now, for a bunch of relatively
out-of-shape desk jockeys with huge packs, it was an all-day struggle that
kept coming up with more and more creative ways to pound us. Altitude
sickness and a water shortage were merely the bonus problems after a full
day of exhausting hiking to reach the top. I think I just about got
murdered, Julius Caesar-style, when we reached brutally steep "Dead Man's
Hill" after I kept assuring people we were nearly at the summit. Flash
forward to 2006: After some PCT desert hiking wiped me out nearly as
badly, I knew this had to be added to the Rules.
Any time someone quotes you a distance left to hike, double it.
This is the rule that started it all, and it has proven to be an
uncannily accurate measure. Not only when I'm receiving advice, but when
I'm giving it! I caught myself once telling Chai Guy he was 2/3 done with
the climb back to the trail from Idyllwild, only to discover a few minutes
later that I had passed the 2/3-of-the-way-down mark right after we
- If you're "almost there," you're not.
I will now no longer use this phrase unless I can accompany it
by pointing at the goal in question.
- No amount of preparation, planning and diligence can substitute
for pure dumb luck.
For as much as I fretted about scorching heat making my desert
crossings dangerous ... I've had ridiculous luck with the weather on this
trip. All of the worst of the worst crossings have been (relatively) cool
and windy, or cloudy, or both. I prepared pretty well for the heat, and I
was more than ready to night-hike the worst sections, but pure chance
mostly made that effort irrelevant. Yay!
- The foot pain will be with you, always.
This is from about the time when I gave in and added a "Foot
Problem Du Jour" line to my daily trail statistics in my journal. The
exact nature of the foot problems changed, but there was always
something wrong. That's just the nature of distance
Ten miles of hiking with one landmark is longer than twelve miles
with three landmarks.
Trail conditions ...
- Ten miles of crappy tread is longer than twelve miles of good
... make all the difference in the world ...
- Ten miles of bushwhacking is longer than anything.
... to morale and to progress.
- ... Except for the ten-mile descent from Mather Pass.
Seriously, these 10 miles CRAWLED. The "Golden Staircase" just.
didn't. end. Then, once I was out of it and in the river canyon at the
bottom, the trail was a morass of mud, downed trees, and stream overflows.
I quite literally spent more time off of the trail than on it. Sometimes
the detours had detours.
- Cultivate kindness in the world; sometimes strangers are all that
stand between you and nightmare.
On my way back to the trail from my planned stopover at BayCon,
I was riding a red-eye Greyhound bus. I went inside one of those little
service stations they stop at in order to buy a hot dog and some bottled
water ... and the bus pulled away without me. At 2 AM, in the
middle of nowhere. With my backpack and stuff all still on my seat.
Fortunately, I had just about enough time to freak right the fuck out
before the driver pulled a 180 and came back to pick me up. Why?
Because the passenger sitting next to me noticed my absence and went up to
the driver to let him know. A stranger going above the call of duty for a
small act of kindness saved me from a few days of terror and heartache,
and quite probably from thousands of dollars of stolen gear.
You might be stuck in that position someday, too. So ask yourself: Am I
contributing to the world in such a way as to make that act of kindness
more likely? Or am I doing the opposite?
- "Don't take life for granted."
When I reached the Greyhound terminal in Los Angeles, a homeless
woman cornered me with a sad story of her troubles, an almost offhand plea
for a little assistance, and an insistent request, quoted above. It's
true. We may never fall quite so far as to beg for change at a bus
station, but we never know where the fortunes of life will take us; and we
owe it to ourselves to appreciate all we've got, now, while we have it.
- God, in His infinite wisdom and love, has put upon this green
earth several million insects whose sole purpose in life is to kamikaze
into your eyes, ears, nose or mouth.
Anyone who's hiked the San Gabriels knows exactly what I'm
talking about here.
- Redtail's Rule of Towns: Anyone you say "You probably
recognized me as a hiker ..." to, didn't. But everyone else did.
Along the PCT, the popular resupply stops are getting so used to
thru-hikers that you can pretty much rely on random passers-by and
merchants to recognize you for who you are (and often lend aid
appropriately). Except, of course, for the one time when you're actually
counting on them making the connection.
- "I consider 'on time' to be when I get there."
I bought a sticker on a whim from a vending machine in the
supermarket in Mojave. And struck gold. This motto is just absolutely
the perfect thru-hiker mantra. And it was something I needed to hear,
too, after starting to freak out about my many trip delays.
- Dirt on your body grows exponentially based on proximity to
This is not an exaggeration. It really is an orders-of-magnitude
thing. And you'd think clothing, like socks and shoes, would make a
difference; trust me, it doesn't.
- It's always darkest before the fireworks explode in your face.
This is a fancy way of saying that nature will wait until your
morale is already at its lowest point before choosing to spring the most
ludicrous and exaggerated trip impediments at you. How else to explain my
backpack frame inexplicably snapping while I'm trying to dodge the law(*), or being attacked
by a grouse the morning after my bug repellent and camera both exploded
after I outran a thunderstorm?
- "Waterproof" means water-resistant. "Water-resistant" means
Water in nature is like the Communists in paranoid
right-wing conspiracy theories: It gets into everything.
Double-bag everything important, no matter how awesome your
protective gear claims to be.
- Avoid those restaurant jelly packets. It never ends well.
Thru-hikers often steal the little condiment packets
to spice up their backcountry meals. The sealed ones of the
style used to hold ketchup tend to hold up pretty well. The
square jelly box-things ... not so much. As tempting as it
might be to grab those to turn your PB into a PB&J, the
only thing you'll ever get out of it is a backpack&J.
Moral: There's a limit to clever trekking repurposing of
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