We're confident everyone is already convinced a headlamp is superior to a flashlight, so we won't bother with those arguments. We want to focus on ways headlamp selection for the PCT differs from other trails, mostly due to nighthiking.
On the Appalachian or Florida Trails, you mostly use a headlamp while in your tent, around camp, or when shuffling off at night to pee. In these circumstances the light doesn't have to be terribly bright or have a long range. Meanwhile on the PCT, daytime desert temperatures inspire many people to nighthike, if not for the entire night at least for a few hours before sunrise or after sunset. Trail conditions are also conducive to safe night hiking, like its gentle grade and absence of trip-causing roots. There are also no forests to disorient you (until Oregon) and the footbed is so obvious you aren't hunting for blazes the whole time. On the other hand, night hiking is dangerous and ill-advised on the AT and especially the Florida Trail where it is easy to lose the blazes, become lost, and get injured. PCT nighthiking demands four things from a headlamp:
1) Stronger Beam. Nighthiking means you need to see more than just what's at your feet, so you need a more powerful beam.
brightness for night-hiking
easily replaceable batteries
long battery life
Would Be Nice
models at hardware stores
2) Easily Replaceable Batteries. Trail towns are small towns and battery options are limited. In the interest of shedding every possible gram, some headlamp models use flat watch batteries like the CR2032. The trouble is, these batteries are expensive, hard to find outside pharmacies, and don't last very long. Plus, because the batteries are low-power, a headlamp might need four of them. If you can even find CR2032s, you end up spending a lot of money on batteries for minimal weight savings over AAAs. The easiest batteries to replace on-trail are AAA, plus they are inexpensive. That said, manufacturers are coming out with more USB rechargeable headlamps every year. These are a great choice for PCT hikers doing a lot of night hiking because they can use the light all they want, run down the battery, and then recharge in town without wasting money on batteries.
3) Lightweight. In addition to convenience, saving weight is the other reason to choose a headlamp over a flashlight but often the most powerful beams are on very bulky, heavy models. Lightweight doesn't always mean weak light however, nor does it always imply poor quality. At Home Depot and other big box stores you can find this Energizer headlamp, which is light but poor quality while backpacking brands like Petzl and Black Diamond are of excellent quality.
4) Long Battery Life. Nighthiking demands a headlamp with long battery life — at least 10 hours at full power. Otherwise a single evening hike after sunset will kill your batteries.
Petzl and Black Diamond dominate the backpacking headlamp market with high quality models like the Tikkina and Gizmo that are popular with thru-hikers on the AT. This side-by-side comparison of headlamps from Outdoor Gear Lab provides an excellent overview of current models.
Best Overall Value: The Petzl Tikkina is by far the best value on the market today, with a 14.7 hour battery life, 90ft beam, total weight of 4.2 ounces with batteries, cost of only $20, and it takes three easily replaceable AAA batteries. Its 90ft beam is not optimal for nighthiking, however, because you can't really see objects at the far end of the beam — you need at least double that distance to hike safely at a normal pace. But if you do not plan on nighthiking often, this is a great headlamp.
Best for Nighthiking: If you plan on nighthiking, then the best headlamp is the Black Diamond ReVolt. It has a 10.6 hour battery life at full power, 230ft beam, weight of 3.5 ounces with batteries, and costs between $50-$60.
Considering the reach of its beam, the ReVolt's battery life is fantastic. No other headlamp comes close to matching its beam strength to battery life ratio without being heavy and more expensive. It's rechargeable battery via USB connection is also a fantastic feature for nighthikers, who will run down their batteries between town stops. Instead of wasting money on new batteries each week, plug it in whenever you charge your phone. In time the savings on battery purchases make up for the ReVolt's higher cost over the Tikkina.
Yes, you should use trekking poles! Some hikers might assume that because the Trail is graded for pack animals and lacks the steep ups and downs of the AT, trekking poles aren't necessary. And the while the Trail's grade is more forgiving, you still need poles to push poisonous plants off the Trail, probe snow for hidden holes, steady yourself during stream crossings, and catch yourself from falling due to mud, roots, ice, and rocks.
The problem of choosing the right trekking pole for the PCT is related to the Trail's extraordinary length of 2600 miles, and the footbed's hard surfaces, two conditions that are tough on poles.
1) 2600 Miles is a Long Way. The PCT is 500 miles longer than the AT, which puts 500 more miles of stress on your trekking poles. There are outfitters in trail towns
at the start of the PCT, one even on the PCT itself at Agua Dulce, but in Oregon and Washington the pickings get slimmer. You don't want a pole to break with 700 miles still to go and no easy way
to replace it.
tips that last entire hike
shaft that won't break
won't collapse under your weight
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cheap brands like Swiss Gear, Outdoor Products,
& Sierra Mountain Gear
2) The Footbed is Hard. Compared to the AT or the Florida Trail, the physical surface of the PCT is pretty tough. The desert's hard-packed earth and pebbles and the Sierra's rocky footbed are unforgiving on trekking poles. On the AT we've seen the metal tips of poles worn down to nubs over time, but on the PCT we've seen the tips pounded straight through their plastic mounts before they even had a chance to wear down. Thru-hikers need poles with tips that can withstand the pounding.
Choosing a Trekking Pole
If your not familiar with the differences between poles, this very thorough overview of trekking pole features and types from REI will familiarize you. Generally the two most confusing aspects of shopping for poles are price and the pole's materials/weight.
Swiss Gear, Outdoor Products, and Sierra Mountain Gear offer poles for $15 - $40 a pair, while some Leki and Black Diamond models sell for $200 a pair. That's a giant price range for products with basically identical features.
Also, a brand's marketing will often emphasize pole weight, but there is virtually no weight difference between cheap aluminum and expensive carbon fiber poles. Our survey of the most expensive and the cheapest poles at one online retailer found the $200 carbon fiber model weighed just 3 ounces less than the $65 dollar aluminum model. It is not worth spending the extra money to save such little weight.
Final Verdict = Leki, Black Diamond, and REI Poles in the $100 Range
Our recommendation is to place the overall quality and hence longevity of the pole first and foremost — the tips and their attachment to the pole in particular. The tips on Swiss Gear, Outdoor Products, and Sierra Mountain Gear poles get pushed up into the pole shaft pretty quickly while the tips on Leki, Black Diamond, and even REI poles can last over multiple thru-hikes. After 2400 miles, the tips on our pair of REI poles have worn so little they look brand new.
The best poles are made by Leki, Black Diamond and REI, but stick with the mid-priced models. Higher-end poles that cost $200 don't weigh much less or last longer than models in the $100 range.
The hard-packed desert land that is so brutal on trekking poles also makes it tough to dig a cat hole. The little orange trowel that is so ubiquitous on every other trail has a hard time penetrating the rocky desert soil. Often, hikers who can't get their trowel into the soil have to hunt for another spot until they can.
This is a problem for the environment and hiker health because poop is not getting buried as deep as it needs to go, or buried at all.
Below are all the lightweight backpacking shovels available today and unfortunately, none of them does a great job on the PCT. We would like to see a steel or titanium shovel the same size and shape of the GIS Outdoors trowel, but until then these are your options:
tough enough for desert soil
Would Be Nice
Deuce of Spades
Sea to Summit
It gets cold at night in the desert. It's cold in the Sierras. It rains in Oregon and Washington. There will be times when you need to pee in the middle of the night but won't want to get out of the tent. The solution? Carry an empty 32oz Gatorade bottle. If you need to pee, just pee in the bottle. Gatorade bottles have wide mouths that make it easy and 32oz is a good size in case you need to go again later. Women can even do this if they use the pStyle.