An Irish hiker’s experience hiking a section of the PCT by Eleanor Byrne
Let’s talk section hiking… as women. I recently joined my partner and his friend on a section of the epic Pacific Crest Trail. My entire section hike took me from Cascade Locks in Oregon, right up through Chinook Pass in Washington. Now, I’m not claiming female identifying hikers to be different to any other hikers. Each individual hiker covers different amount of miles & values various gear regardless of gender identity… but I wanted to write this piece merely to share my personal experience of section hiking as a woman.
The lead up… I was setting out to join my partner and his hiking buddy about 3 months into their Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) journey. This meant they had gained their “trail legs” (hiker slang for getting used to walking long distances on the daily) and were hitting 20 mile + days more often than not. They had their food prep down to a T, and for the most part were used to their heavy packs. So needless to say – even though as a keen outdoors nut & Pilates instructor, I have, I would say, an above average level of fitness – I was nervous. I didn’t want to push myself to the point of injury to keep up, but equally I didn’t want to slow them down on their PCT progression towards the Canadian border.
First things first… I created a vision board
I love a colour scheme as much as the next person. And I felt there was no reason why colour coordination & hiking gear couldn’t go hand in hand. Wearing my favourite bright colours on the trail would satisfy my style OCD. Plus, I already had a fair few items of hiking apparel in my fave colours, so why not continue the theme when buying the rest? There’s no reason you can’t mix practicality with cute prints and colours.
Next Priority: Break in the old hiking shoes
I did this by wearing my Brooks Cascadia 16 trail runners (more on these beauties later) on my usual runs. I didn’t wear them out too much, but equally they were comfortable and my feet got used to them before the trip. A friend of mine who is an outdoors lover recommended I go for a brand that I love. and know my feet love already, and search if they have trail shoes. Sure enough, my beloved brand Brooks have a range of trail shoes so it made my decision easy. My advice would be – your brand of hiking shoe is completely personal to you and your foot’s shape and sole type. I also opted for a hiking shoe rather than boot to suit the type of terrain I would be hiking. Hiking shoes dry quicker, perfect for river crossings. Plus, I like the idea of the shoes being flexible & feeling the ground more – less likely to go over on my ankle.
Alright… Let’s talk gear…
Health n Safety, Y’all
When it comes to health and safety, my motto is “prevention over reaction”. This meant taking precautionary methods in an attempt to prevent injury or illness on trail. For me, gut health is tightly interlinked with overall health. As somebody who has suffered quite frequently from kidney infections and UTIs, I was hyper aware that I wanted to avoid getting one of these uncomfortable infections on trail. With all the wild swimming and sweating, my gut health and general hygiene was a big concern of mine. I took probiotic tablets daily. These Boots own brand Live Friendly Bacteria Capsules did the trick. I also took multivitamins daily, as my usual diet consists of lots of fresh fruit and veg – something I knew I’d be lacking on trail.
As a Pilates instructor, I’m very in tune with my body so my next biggest worry would have been getting injured or damaging muscles on trail. I carried a small cork ball to roll out muscles in the evenings. I also doubled up my fold-up Therm-a-rest ground mat as a yoga mat and religiously stretched every evening. It’s not breaking news to hear that a stretch before bed after a long day hiking aids muscle recovery and makes you feel less stiff the next morning. I also wore kinesiology muscle tape as protection around my knees. I felt I was being a bit dramatic wearing this the first day I headed out on trail, but I wanted to use it as prevention. I genuinely think it worked and gave the muscles around my knees significant support.
Before going on trail, I did a fair bit of research into methods to prevent blisters. As I was only joining the lads for roughly 3 weeks of their hike, I didn’t want painful blisters slowing me down. If I was to do the full PCT, blisters would be a right of passage and part of the journey. However, as a section hiker I think I felt more pressure to be fighting fit as any time off trail due to injury would eat into my precious trip – something I definitely wanted to avoid. Toe wraps worked well (wrapping my toes individually). I also wore individual toe socks some of the days. I made sure to change socks regularly, and keep them as clean and dry as I could manage. Lastly, when I did spot the start of a blister or two, I slapped on a blister plaster when hiking and let the air at them at night / days off to prevent them getting any worse. They went away pretty niftily! ChafeGate!
I definitely didn’t factor in chafing as being a potential problem… But lo and behold, I chafed! I was wearing quite short shorts to cope with the high temperatures. However, the lads I was with lent me a vaseline-type rub to put on my inner upper thighs and it did the trick (apologies, I don’t remember the name of it…) That, as well as wearing my slightly longer skort, helped the chafegate and it didn’t hassle me at all again. Another plus, the rub smelt lovely so that doubled up as trail perfume.
Minding my weight…
But not in that way! Backpack weight is everything when section hiking! I was definitely not used to a heavy pack. It wasn’t the walking that bothered me so much but the load of my pack. At the end of my first day, I’m embarrassed to say, I cried because my pack just felt so heavy. I felt like a turtle! Again, if I was doing the full trail I’m sure I would’ve gotten used to my pack weight. I saw so many women slighter than me absolutely smashing miles with hefty enough packs. But with only 3 weeks on the trail, I didn’t feel that would give me apt time to get used to a really heavy weight. I may just have gotten used to it at the end of the 3 weeks… and they’d be flying home! So alas, I came up with some coping mechanisms I found… (as well as my partner carrying our tent and letting us use the food I was carrying first. Thank you!)
Filtering and drinking as much water as I could at a water source and carrying maybe only one litre at a time in between sources.
Packing out half full toiletries such as toothpaste, and dispensing toiletries into portable, smaller bottles and only taking as much as I need per section. Also, if I purchased a fun-sized moisturiser on a town day, I would use up maybe half the bottle in town and bring the remainder with me on trail. Every ounce saved helps. Trust me
Hard to predict the weather… but if you have some idea, only bring clothing that’s necessary to suit the temperature. You can always pack out one warm layer as an emergency – an ultra light down jacket was my favourite. See the link to my brand of down jacket in Top Picks.
If possible, make use of a bounce box. This is something the lads did – we sent certain items ahead via post to towns further on the trail. This way, I didn’t have to carry everything all at once.
Planning ahead = saving weight.
As above: Weight is important. And you certainly only pack the essentials. However… I have to admit I did have a few teeny little luxuries on trail. I’m definitely not a die-hard thru-hiker, but I see no reason why you can’t have a lil luxury on trail…
I wore jewellery, lots of silver / rose gold rings, lil necklace & small gold hoop earrings (cos I feel naked without hoops). These made me feel cuter on trail and no need to worry about them adding weight! TOP TIP: I also made a small little pine cone necklace when my own necklace broke. Would recommend it.
Still Cute Tho…
My beauty tips on trail… I packed out any mini moisturisers from motel rooms, really light and easy to squeeze in. I also packed an eyebrow pencil – super light and small, for those days I wanted to feel a bit more myself on trail. As much as I could, my bedtime routine included washing in the last source of water (a swim was always a bonus if I could!), then I would use a baby wipe (or three) to get rid of surface dirt, then lastly… moisturise! I packed a small eye cream with retinol. This cream had much the same ingredients as a normal facial night cream with retinol, but much tinier. A little beauty hack! I invested a bit more money in good sun protection so it could double up as my day facial moisturiser. See below in my Top Picks section…
All this being said, I actually found the time away from mirrors and makeup really liberating. It made me appreciate inner beauty more, and made me less self-conscious or worried about how I looked. Everybody was filthy on the trail, but really beautiful at the same time!
I would recommend embracing the dirt! It’s kind of a lewk. My trail beauty tips lead me nicely along to…
Town Day Tips
Overdose on toiletries! (Sorry, I’m a lil obsessed with all things hair and skin… I am also an actress). For curly haired ladies (or gents) like me, you will appreciate this tip: After any shower in town, I would leave the conditioner in my hair for ages, using it almost as a hair mask. Just to give it an extra bit of TLC after all the fresh water & sun exposure on trail. Same goes for moisturiser, I would lather on as much as my skin could take to give it some much needed nourishment post trail. After using as much as my skin / hair could handle from the full sized bottles, I left them in a hiker box for other hikers at the end of my stay. This way it’s not wasteful, something I wanted to avoid.
Waste not, want not.
When you have access to a mirror… Floss! Floss! And floss some more… Even if you mind your diet on trail, your dental hygiene regime isn’t going to be as good as at home. Add that with some of the more high sugar snacks you may be having on trail, dried fruits etc, flossing becomes essential to maintain good dental hygiene.
Stock up on fresh fruit and veg! Even as simple as ordering a large side salad if you are eating out. The local fruit in season is tasty as well. Big up Packwood peaches, and Trout Lake nectarines!
It’s also a good idea to stock up on what your body is craving / food you can’t bring on trail. For me that was natural yoghurt. Also, think about getting some good probiotics into you, a refreshing way to do that is grabbing a bottle of kombucha.
Trail Food Prep
One of my favourite things to do was to mix and match my own trail mix in towns. For example, I chose my favourite nuts (almonds & salted peanuts), seeds, & added my fave dried fruit (cranberries, for gut health), and broken up pieces of 88% dark choc. Pop all this in a ziplock bag and mix it up and you have your own personalised trail mix! The ultimate snack.
I think no hiking blog would be complete without touching on trail food… I won’t harp too much on about it, but I will share my top picks and tips of things I enjoyed on trail (without labouring on about the obvious staples such as cous-cous, instant mash and chicken alfredo… all of which I thoroughly enjoyed for my short stint. A perk of being a section hiker I guess – trail food is a bit of a novelty!).
We started to pick huckleberries / blueberries towards the end of the day’s hiking – and we’d have these as toppings on our breakfast bagels in the morning. On top of almond butter. LOTS of it. Would 10/10 recommend and a great way to get vitamins into you on trail.
Other Fave Foodie Bits include:
– Coffee sachets – great treat with elevenses!
– Green tea – perfect to warm up during the colder evenings, with great health benefits to keep your immune system ticking over.
– Outdoor Provisions nut butter sachets. Check em out here. My fave flavours were defo almond, date and sea salt; hazelnut and cacao; and coffee, almond, cashew. These were perfect as on-the-go snacks or as a cheeky little dessert.
– Läba bars – no added sugar and natural ingredients. I only discovered these on my last stint on trail, but I will be stocking up on these for my next section hike!
I must give a special mention to Trail Angels’ food… We bumped into two gorgeous trail Angels called Mr & Mrs. Cowboy who fed us a lunch of fruit, hot dogs and coffee one afternoon. It was heavenly and such a highlight of the trip. Food on trail just hits different.
Lululemon Metal Vent Tech Headband – perfect for any girlos (or guys!) with big manes of hair like mine. Hiking is super sweaty. Long hair makes it even sweatier. Give yourself a hand. I even sometimes wore my hair down with the sweatband and it still helped.
Kinesiology muscle tape. Not as glam as some of my other top picks, but it will make your knees feel a LOT cuter when going downhill. I found this tape really protected my knees, teamed with hiking poles, and smaller steps when descending. I wore it as an injury preventative measure rather than reactive, as I know my knees are prone to aches & pains. You can get cute colours too, mine were bright blue & pink!
Cork ball – super light, small to fit in the pack, and a lifesaver to roll out and relieve sore muscles.
Probiotics – purely for the fact I’m prone to UTIs / kidney infections & I didn’t have one the whole time I was section hiking, something I really wanted to avoid as they are uncomfortable enough in normal life, never mind while hiking 20 mile days.
Vichy factor 50 solar protective water with beta-carotene – a bit of luxury and protection on trail. Left skin feeling dewy, not greasy. + No7 factor 30 lip protection, kept my lips feeling soft on trail. (Also sometimes doubled this on my cheeks & lids as it had a nice shimmery finish. Beauty hack.)
Therm-a-rest ground mat- kept me warm at night (placed underneath my blow up mat), doubled up as a seating pad for breaks, and I could do yoga/ Pilates on it! Super light to carry as well.
Brooks trail runners – purely because they gave me 0 hassle and lasted well in harsh terrain. I think I only had 1 or 2 blisters, more due to long days hiking than the shoes, and they weren’t bad at all.
Colourful Hiking Skort – a cute, practical, girly touch on trail. I advise getting them in your favourite colours. Brighter the better! This one from Sweaty Betty was my fave. Excellent quality, a perfect length and really comfortable. Washes well too.
Mitchum 24hr natural bamboo powder deo – kept me feeling less smelly on trail, and had a lovely fresh scent. Lasted for a fair whack of the day too.
Columbia Hiking shirt – I have to say, wearing a shirt made me feel like a true thru-hiker. Whatever Columbia put into their material too, it worked! No matter how much I sweated, the shirt still had a pretty fresh scent! Magic (as there were times I was verrrrry sweaty). I loved the colour too, and they have a really good summer sale.
Not so hot…
I guess it’s only fair to share with you my small “not-so-hot” list… This includes:
1. My pee rag – I got mine as a novelty during Trail Days … but I found myself opting to “shake dry” a lot more often (maybe because it was handy, maybe I’m lazy…) Don’t think they are necessary for female hikers, but personal preference I guess!
2. Sawyer insect repellent. I still got bitten like a mofo during my first few days. It seemed futile to me, but maybe I was just fresh blood…
From my time researching thru-hiking and equipment, it quickly became apparent that gear is quite expensive. In Ireland especially, hiking and outdoor sports can seem like quite elitist, expensive past-times. One way I saved some dollars, whilst not forsaking quality, was shopping from better value retailers. I would compare top equipment and their features and try and find a similar model somewhere else. Of course, the best way to save dollars, especially if you are hiking in the US, is to pre-order gear from the extremely reasonably priced REI and pick it up when you are over in the States. But again, because I was only joining for a section of the trail and was strapped for time, I didn’t know for sure if I could logistically make it to a store before I headed out on trail. So, here are just some of the retailers which I bought good quality gear for a fraction of the price…
I found the Decathlon gear passed the quality test on trail!
I opted to buy kids socks from Decathlon, same quality and a fraction of the price of womens’!
I also would recommend the sunglasses I got here, 100% UV protection, they were perfect on trail, and were under a tenner. I got my head torch (with USB charge) here as well, and it worked & lasted perfectly on trail. It too was a fraction of the price of what other outdoors stores in Ireland were selling theirs at. Decathlon, I love your work hun – making the outdoors more accessible to everybody. I salute you.
Also, if you can swallow it, most regular fast fashion retailers have a huge selection of skorts in their sports sections. And a huge range of colour options too!
I think my biggest steals were my sleeping bag (only €205 from Decathlon) and my Ultralight Down jacket from Uniqlo – only €69.90. I also have to give an honorary mention to a local Irish sustainable brand, Cois Farraige, who gifted me with a gorgeous fleece for the trail. Check it out and their other outdoor gear here.
All of these items kept me super cosy during the odd cold days in Washington.
That doesn’t leave me with much else to say… other than: if you’re a lady thinking about doing a section hike – do it. The majority of hikers I saw on the PCT were female, which was amazing to see. I have to admit, I’m not sure I would fancy heading off on a section hike or thru hike solo; and in that sense I was so grateful to be able to hike with the lads. I have heard stories of women on trail who didn’t feel comfortable, so the trail may have been a different experience for me if I was on my own. That being said, given my circumstances and company, I never felt safer than when I was tucked away from society on trail – amongst the trees, lakes and mountains.
Oh and ladies, don’t be afraid to hike in just a sports bra! If you have sun protection on, and your bag doesn’t stick into your skin, then save yourself the sweat and ditch the top layer. I found this the most comfortable as the SWEAT. WAS. REAL. on trail. Give your armpits the air they deserve!Oh and lastly, a tip for when hiking up inclines, shout: “DO IT FOR THE BOOTY!” whilst simultaneously channelling your inner Gal Gadot or Lara Croft. (Honestly, this technique shot me up plenty of inclines). Learn to love inclines. Your booty loves them. Namaste.