Drought on the Pacific Crest Trail offers harsh lessons

If you couldn’t carry enough water to make it 20 miles, should you be out here? California is in the grips of a severe drought. Creeks that Flash remembered soaking her feet in years before were just rivers of sand now. How long before sections of the Pacific Crest Trail were basically unhikeable?

Coming up were 40-mile dry stretches, with handfuls of volunteer caches to punctuate the barren desert. Unlike the ones we had seen today, plenty of hikers were prepared, loading up their packs with seven liters of water – over 15 pounds added to the necessities they already hauled. In the early 1990s, as a wilderness ranger and burdened with survival gear and trail maintenance tools, I carried 70-pound loads and thought little of it, though my knees took a beating. How much is too much weight when you need water to survive?

Of course, the hikers we started out with at the border didn’t remember the old days, a time when we carried maps and compasses and still got lost before we found our way again. We discovered campsites instead of having them displayed on our phones, and we carried food for long stretches without hitching into towns. Our gear was enormous and heavy. We didn’t know the weather forecasts. There were no satellite beacons to call for help; you made it out, or you didn’t. All of these things taught us resilience and how to survive. I wouldn’t trade those days for the way it is now, even though I’ve learned to appreciate having a lighter pack and trip reports posted on the Internet.

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