Question for next week: “Do I have to be rich to hike the Pacific Crest Trail? (or the CDT or the AT)

A reader from the Eastern Seaboard emailed me this question a month ago. I’ll have a much more detailed answer next week, but my initial response is “Absolutely not.” I realize that I’m only going on my own very limited experience, which took place quite a while ago, but just about everyone I met out on the trail was not well-off at all (and some were strictly subsistence.) As for me, I left a very low-paying job to do the trek. Also — there are opportunities to save money by preparing your own foods and making at least some of your own gear. More on this later. (by the way, thanks for sending in all these questions over the past few weeks. While I am probably the last person on earth that you should ask for backpacking or survival advice, I can at least refer you to folks who know…

Best American Travel Writing 2009

The best place stories are also human stories. If there are no people in them, no real-life characters, place stories will feel free-floating and listless. That’s why you’ve got to read Best American Travel Writing 2009 with selections by Simon Winchester. There are lots of great stories in there — in particular an essay by Bronwen Dickey about the mighty, 57-mile-long Chattooga, “The Last Wild River.” The essay, which originally appeared in the Oxford American’s Best of the South issue, combines gorgeous landscape description, great characters, humor and ecology, along with reflections about wilderness and wildness.

Question of the week: Backpacking with umbrellas (to keep out the sun)

What a weird coincidence. Today, in my Cactuseaters inbox, I saw a message from someone out in Pennsylvania, asking about the wisdom of hiking with an umbrella to block out the sun and avoid “sliming excessive sunscreen all over the body.” The person was especially interested in the idea of taking an umbrella on long hikes through hot and arid places. How strange; I was just thinking about this very issue. Give me a couple of weeks and I’ll post some thoughts when I return.

Your adventurous lives (formerly known as “Cactuseaters readers in the news”)

Here is a compendium of recent Cactuseaters reader adventures, outside and indoors. Keep in mind that this is only the partial version; I will add to this again when I have more time. Send in if you have an interesting story in the coming weeks, (but keep in mind that this isn’t an advertising site: no used Passats, junky furniture, etc.) Imagine taking a year off and traveling around the world. That is what Asa is doing. This just in from Jorma in Bellingham: Chris Beamish is off sailing around Vancouver Island (BC) right now in his 18′ homemade wooden boat. Beamish, formerly an editor at the Surfer’s Journal, is off on a sailing odyssey. He sailed halfway down Baja and has done a number of other great trips. Stay tuned. Edie, a real-life ‘character’ in the Cactus Eaters, (and my big sister) is having fantastic success with a private-nonprofit…

Hiking poles: yes or no

I am stumped. I just received an emailed question about trekking poles and whether or not hikers should invest in them and take them on long-distance or day hikes. The questioner told me that she has some old crappy ones and never got the utility out of them. I will ask around about this, but meanwhile, if you have any experiences you wish to report about hiking poles — or a particular kind that you like or don’t like — let me know, and I will incorporate your ideas into my answer, which I will post right here on Personally, I’ve never used the retractable, shock-proof, store-bought hiking poles, although I’ve always been curious about them; I usually improvise with ski poles or twigs or something like that. Also — I often hike in forbidding terrain that requires two free hands for scrambling up and down slopes (making it…

Bear in mind

This strange photo is 60 years old. I found it at a vintage paper fair up in San Francisco. Apparently the person who took the photo tried (unsuccessfully) to kill this bear up near Mount Shasta, and then took a potshot at a deer, which he also missed. I find this photo vaguely sinister, though I’m not sure why this is so.

Big hairy bat

This is one of my first wilderness scribbles, dating back more than 10 years ago. I’ve always admired the bats that swept through my campsites at dusk on the PCT. Their quick, jerky movements and darting shadows provided a bit of entertainment while I was setting up the tent. I made this picture in a summer-session wildlife illustration class at UCSC. I thought I’d lost it, but I found it by accident the other day. Now I’m blogging it, mostly to preserve it in case I misplace it again.