When I talk about water in the wilderness, I’m really talk about not having water. Water, when plentiful, is boring. It’s obvious, assumed – even taken as a right. And as such we assume that being a functional human, a thin bag covering a series of furiously pumping hydraulics, is a given. But as any veteran hiker knows from being caught without water in midday heat, the loan of life that we live is extended every couple of hours only thanks to that polymath of substances we call water.
The first leg of the Pacific Crest Trail stretches for nearly 700 miles through scorched desert rock and sun-baked sand. There will be days where I will have access to water only at the start and end of the day, 30-plus miles in between. Underestimating the distance or water needed to cover these stretches presents a real risk of death – a risk far higher than that posed by bears, rattlesnakes, scorpions, or any other animal I might encounter.
Sedona desert, where Alissa and I had to make a liter of water last two hours between the two of us
I know the specter of dehydration well. Most of my more uncomfortable moments while hiking – hell, in life – have been when I have the realization that the amount of water I’m carrying is not enough to both stay hydrated and finish my hike. And in most of those cases, not finishing the hike meant staying out in a desert in perpetuity, which – as romantic as the notion of becoming a desert hermit might be – is not really a viable life choice. In each case, I started rationing water, hoping that a little dehydration immediately would save a lot of dehydration later.
The marathon I forgot
My dehydration wake-up call came not out in the desert, but in a developed metropolitan area. It was of the 2012 Boston Marathon and, with less than a mile to go, I made the decision to stop running. I can’t remember having run miles 19-25, and I still don’t know why or how my heat-addled mind gained enough lucidity to drive me to walk over to a paramedic and, against all my competitive instincts, argue with him that I should not finish the race. (To be clear: Yes, I had to persuade an EMT that I should be treated, not the other way around.) In the end, I wound up at the hospital with a diagnosis of acute dehydration and an intravenous drip to replenish my fluids.
This was the first time in 20+ years of athletics where I had objectively pushed myself too far, and it shook my confidence to the core. In high school, I ran myself into dehydration (and brought on the predictable headache and churning stomach and … I’ll stop there) too many times to recall. I competed in wrestling tournaments with torn tendons. I even choked back vomit a few times on the soccer field just to make it to the last whistle.
But with each of those instances, my body held up. My mind pushed. My body relented. I stood standing. It lulled me into a sense that this was a system in balance, of natural checks to prevent me from being so stupid that I might kill myself. This was a message loud and clear: You could kill yourself quite easily, stupid.
As much as this was a hit to my pride (and officially ended the invincible young adult phase of Christopher Quirk), what scared me was how it was the accretion of small, stupid – and not-so-stupid – decisions that led to my eventual dehydration.
It was that decision on mile 11 not to pick up an extra cup of water. But it was also the decision to stop drinking water an hour before the race because there was nowhere to pee once I was slotted into a corral full of runners. (Should I have taken a cue from the some of the other runners who simply peed down their leg right where they stood?) But it was also the decision not to bring an extra layer for the four-hour pre-race wait in 50-degree weather. Or maybe it was the decision to fly to the East Coast only a couple days before the race, meaning that I never adjusted my sleep schedule and only got 4 hours of sleep the night before the marathon.
It’s the same story for the time Alissa and I decided to take just enough water into the Arizona desert, then took a wrong turn. And the time Ryan, Jesse and I stayed out an hour longer than planned, unable to give up our goal of getting to the end of a canyon in Death Valley. For me, dehydration is often less the result of poor planning and more the result of not being able to let go of a goal.
The Grand Canyon, where Steve D., Steve E., Li, Alissa and I had a 15-mile day that ended in a campsite with no access to water; good water management here made this perfectly comfortable
It is with this sense of humility and self-preservation that I purposefully set off on the Pacific Crest Trail not with a goal to complete it, but simply a goal to walk every day. This is difficult for me, as goals have long provided the incentive for doing things, the motivation to continue despite pain or setback. Philosophically, it’s hard for me to imagine that I would not slide toward hedonism, toward quitting, without a goal to accomplish. But thankfully I am not a philosophy, I’m a bundle of electric circuits and hydraulic pumps. And I’ve spent 20 years rewiring my brain so that the pain and pleasure of physical exhaustion blend together into one, completely different sensation: aliveness.
Not preparing guarantees stupidity
As much as dehydration – and injury or other avoidable risks – can be the result of the failure to balance the tension between persistence and humility, dehydration is all but assured with improper preparation.
Thankfully, I am the beneficiary of the wisdom of those who have walked before me as previous PCT hikers have identified particularly dry stretches. Notably, the trail description prepared by Halfmile and the PCT water report are crucial resources without which I would be lost (and quite likely parched). The trail description from Halfmile was my starting point as it calls out the problem areas and errs on the side of pessimism (always a good idea when talking life risks). Thus, I based my daily schedule on the worst-case water scenario.
Ryan and Jesse tromp off across Death Valley in mile one of a long, hot 25-mile day exploring slot canyons
Some of the worst stretches include:
- 33 miles between mile markers 68 and 101 (Southern California)
- 44 miles between mile markers 620 and 664 (Southern California)
- 29 miles between mile markers 1375 and 1404 (Northern California)
- 26 miles between mile markers 1819 and 1853 (Oregon)
For each mile in exposed sun, I will drink about one-third of a liter. And one liter of water weighs about 2.2 pounds. That means that there will be points where – without alternative plans – I will carry 20+ pounds of water. (On my first day, I have a 19-mile stretch without water, and I’ll be carrying nearly 14 pounds of water.)
While out on the trail, I will be downloading and referencing the PCT water report, a crowdsourced list of common places to replenish water along the trail, and trying to get as much information as I can from passing hikers. While the water report is remarkable in that it relies and succeeds on the generosity of hikers taking the time to update it, nothing beats the immediacy of talking to people on the trail.
Perhaps the most surprising piece of information I received, however, is that some of the longest stretches without water are not in the desert of southern California. Instead, they come in the volcanic landscape that dominates northern California and southern Oregon. These landscapes, so geologically new that they still have stone too porous to support the collection of rainfall, will be my greatest challenges. In the meantime, I will be drinking all the ice water I can stomach.