If you're interested in the logistics of my thru-hike of the Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne, this is the post for you! My (annotated) packing list and some general comments are below. I have a total weight for my pack, but unfortunately I didn't have a scale accurate enough to weigh each item. I've decided not to use brand names as I don't want it to turn into a gear obsession list. If you have any questions about my general approach or about specifics, send me a message (however you won't get a response for quite some time, as I'm currently hiking and this is a timed post).
Things Worn/Used [Not included in the base pack weight]
-Full grain leather waterproof boots
-Wool hiking socks
-Softshell hiking shorts
-Synthetic boxer briefs
-Synthetic button-up t-shirt
-Waterproof map case
-55 liter internal frame backpack
-Ultralight 20 liter day pack
-Waterproof bivy bag [I am not bringing a tent]
-Tarp and cord [I can set up a shelter with this and my trekking poles if weather gets really bad, but it will otherwise serve as a ground sheet]
-Stakes [So my bivy doesn't blow away]
-Closed-cell foam sleeping pad
-Down sleeping bag and waterproof compression sack [Bag rated for 0 C/32 F]
-Sleeping bag liner [To add warmth when it's cold, function as an ultralight bag when it's hot, and keep my bag cleaner]
-Inflatable pillow [Okay this is a bit of a vice, but it weighs almost nothing and it’s worth the extra comfort and convenience to me. Most hikers use a sack of their clothes as a pillow]
-Instep crampons [There will probably be snow in some parts of the mountains, and the security is worth hauling them all the way across]
-Snow attachment for trekking poles
-Waterproof hardshell jacket
-Waterproof hardshell pants
-Light synthetic gloves
-Synthetic fleece cap
-Synthetic/wool base layer upper
-Synthetic base layer lower
-One extra pair of underwear
-Two extra pairs of hiking socks
-Synthetic hat [To add some extra sun protection]
-Flip-flops [As camp shoes]
-Small microfiber towel
-All purpose biodegradable soap
-Floss [Also useful for repairs]
-Tongue scraper [I know it’s weird but for me a fresh mouth is a real morale booster, and it weighs almost nothing. Especially when it's also cut in half]
-Small nail clippers
-Foot powder [Not for feet]
-Drugs [Antihistamine, anti-inflammatory, anti-diarrheal, a few strong pain killers in case something goes very, very wrong]
-EpiPen [Most people don't know, but I'm actually allergic to beef now]
-Biodegradable toilet paper
-Water purification droplets
-3 liter hydration system
-3 liter dromedary [Primarily as a second container to hold water while it’s purifying. I won't be lugging around six liters of water everywhere]
-Empty peanut butter jar [I’m going no-cook. That means no stove and no hot food. This peanut butter jar will be where I soak my dinners to life in cold water]
-Various spices [How I'll keep my sanity]
-Stainless steal multitool [On the heavy side, but I'm still willing to take the weight for a sturdy companion. I also keep it in the waist belt pocket of my pack, so the weight goes directly to my hips]
-Duct tape [Rolled around a plastic straw to save space]
-Repair kit [Nylon patches, thread and needle, safety pin]
-Stormproof matches [Backup]
-Aluminum space blanket
-Maps [Number will vary according to where I am on the trail]
-Cheap, light cellphone [For calling emergency services if needed]
-Electronic tablet in waterproof case [See comments below]
-Universal USB charger
-Wallet [Well, a ziplock bag that contains things that wallets do]
-Extra ziplock bags
-Earplugs [For cowbells and snorers]
The total base weight of my pack is just at 12 kilograms, or about 26 pounds (the final weight will fluctuate drastically based on how much food and water I'm carrying at any moment). That's heavier than I wanted, but much of that comes with the territory of solo hiking: I can't split gear with other people. In a group of three, for example, there would be one first aid kit, one repair kit, one tent, etc. Well I still need all of those things but there's only me to carry them.
In other ways I want to be conservative with my gear selection, because the consequences of an accident are amplified when hiking alone. I have an EpiPen, extra matches, and a space blanket even though I am almost certain I will never touch them, because they could mean the difference between life and death in an emergency.
As I'm a little early in the hiking season, I want to be on the safe side with protection from the elements. The weather in the Pyrenees is notoriously unpredictable and temperamental. Maybe I could make it without a down vest and a sleeping bag liner, but I don't want to push my luck—especially because I'm not bringing a stove and can't easily warm myself if needed.
On that note, I decided after careful consideration to make it a no-cook hike. Even among hikers it's often considered an odd choice, but eventually I became convinced of its merits. I save a fair amount of weight by not bringing a stove or fuel. I don't have to hassle with cooking when I'm tired and hungry. What’s most appealing to me, however, is the time saved—depending on how many meals I would normally cook a day, up to two hours including cleanup. It means I can get going quickly in the morning and get to bed quickly at night. Plus, I can probably get a hot meal every once in a while when I go through a village to resupply.
The question of technology was for me one of the most difficult when considering what to bring on my hike. Would bringing an iPad inhibit my ability to connect with my environment and live in the moment? Would it over complicate the trip? Is it cheating?
It quickly became clear that it was a going to save me weight. The iPad alone weighs less than the HRP guidebook, which I downloaded instead of bringing a hard copy. It's also functioning as a journal, reading material, a camera, and a video recorder. I could theoretically use it for GPS as well, but I don't think I'll have the need and it drains the battery.
It is certainly practical to have some contact, at least intermittently, with the outside world. I'm not certain how often I'll be able to find internet access, but I estimate about once a week. I can find weather forecasts and prepare accordingly. I can update my itinerary with the people I've entrusted it to, which is important because I'm solo hiking. In case of an emergency I would be able to contact family and change plans.
I could also check my email, Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram at every chance I get. I could theoretically download a ton of movies and entertain myself every night. I could play video games alone in the woods until my heart was content. But instead I intend to abstain from social media, games, surfing the web, etc. I feel like those could indeed become a distraction, and I relish the opportunity to let go of them and have some mental peace for a time.
But I think this touches on a deeper philosophical issue: the relationship between humankind and nature. Firstly, this is a false opposition: humans are nature, but we separate ourselves from the rest of nature. That didn't start with the iPad. If I wanted to have a “pure connection” or “true encounter” with nature I would ditch my boots, all of my gear, my food, and instead dance around naked in the mountains foraging for plants. Then I would die, because our ability as humans to manipulate and insulate ourselves from the wild is the only reason we've survived and thrived. Ultimately, wise usage of gizmos on my hike will require personal responsibility and self-discipline—qualities that everyone in the 21st century needs to cultivate in relationships with technology in order to live healthy and fulfilled lives.
What's in my pack will no doubt change as the hike goes on. I suspect that, no matter what, it will gradually become lighter. Some things will work well, some things won't. Some things I'll really need, some things I won't. If there's an interest, maybe I'll post an analysis of my equipment afterwards!
I awoke in the cold mountain hut the same way I went to bed—alone. It was the second day of my hike through the Parc National des Pyrénées in October 2012. The day before, I had slowly ascended the Gaube Valley towards the Pic de Vignemale, the highest peak in the French Pyrenees. But as I had drawn closer, the weather had worsened. From my map I could tell that I was close to the base of the mountain, but I hadn't actually seen it yet due to the thick gray mist. As I stirred some nuts into my oatmeal, I glanced outside to see the clouds retreat for an instant, revealing a dramatic wall of granite right before my eyes. The rush of perspective overwhelmed me with awe, and then the valley was veiled again with clouds just as quickly as it had been uncovered.
Nevertheless, I set off and hiked for the entire morning without seeing more than fifty feet through the fog. It was a grueling path, working up to the highest point I would reach in my entire trip. The air became thinner: I made a push, paused, and restarted without any proof of progress from my surroundings. Then, suddenly, the sun burst over the ridge-line to my left, immediately banishing the mist. Everything around me glistened with dew, and directly in front of me—close—the spire of Vignemale shone brilliantly.
I think that moment of rapture, when both the light and the jagged mountains pierced through the clouds, was when I first sensed I would return to the Pyrenees. It was a slow realization that I wasn't anywhere near done here. In the months following my trip, the sense turned into an idea: to traverse the entire range from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. In the months following my return to America, the idea turned into a dream. Then over time the dream intensified and crystallized into a plan—the Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne.
The Pyrenean Haute Route, as it's called in English (or even more commonly just the HRP), is just one of several ways to hike across the Pyrenees. The GR 10 runs all the way across on the French side. It has a twin on the Spanish side, the GR 11. Both of these trails are well-developed and well-traveled, often providing a mountain refuge for the hiker each night. The HRP, on the other hand, is more of an idea than an actual trail. It attempts the follow the highest walkable path all the way across the Pyrenees, frequently crossing the border while linking together bits of the GR 10 and GR 11 with local trails, livestock paths, and bushwhacking. Over the course of 45 days the HRP thru-hiker travels almost 500 miles with 140,000 feet of elevation change. Quite the ambition.
Yet even though I've had this dream for so long, it's often proven difficult to communicate—most of all to a close friend whose wedding I'm missing, to parents concerned for my safety and unclear future, and to a woman I love dearly but from whom I'm voluntarily prolonging separation. When I tell people I'm going on a 45-day hike alone in the mountains, the nearly unanimous response is, “You're crazy.” The rest say, “Be careful.”
Part of what draws me is the challenge. I’m guessing the HRP will be the most physically demanding thing I've ever done, and that's very appealing. It will also be a test of my wilderness skills—most of all, navigation. There will certainly be a mental challenge as well, which I've heard can often be the most taxing part of a thru-hike. I crave the feeling of success and accomplishment that can only come from pushing oneself to the absolute limit and overcoming.
A few people expressed interest in doing the hike with me, but an essential part of my dream has always been solitude. This of course amplifies the challenge and raises the stakes, but I feel that solitude has inherent value, especially when interacting with the natural world. Being alone enables deeper introspection and reflection—maybe even making them necessities. Of course it'd be nice to experience some self-discovery or revelation along the way, but you can never expect these things.
I think it'll be good for my health. I'm not in peak physical condition at the moment, and that's not a great feeling. I’ve known the vitality that comes from having a fit mind and body and I wouldn't mind returning to that level of fitness. Also, as a sort of experiment, I'm abstaining from caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol for the duration of the hike. It's not that I consume any of these in excess, but they are easy things to cut out and I'm curious to see if it will have any effect on me. Finally, and possibly most importantly, I want to look tan and lean for all those pool parties I'll attend when I get back to the U.S. in August.
So here I am, about to start this hike. I’m about to begin what I’ve dreamt of for more than two years. After spending so much time gathering information, reflecting, and planning, the moment has finally arrived. Just like any other major event, it doesn’t seem real now that it’s here. Whether it feels real or not, tomorrow morning I'm going to walk down to the beach in Hendaye, touch the water, and turn to walk east. Wish me luck.