IDAHO FALLS – Ken Simpson likes adventures.
He’s ridden a bike across the U.S., around Europe and up to Alaska. He’s hiked for weeks on Western trails.
After decades of hiking, backpacking and tour biking, he set his sights on a big prize: hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
The 2,650-mile-long trail stretches from the Mexican border all the way to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington. Along the way, the trail passes through amazing deserts, high mountains, rain forests, national parks and wildernesses. Simpson wanted to experience each zone during its prime season. The 60-year-old Idaho Falls money manager also didn’t have the five or six months at his disposal to hike it nonstop, so he decided to do it in bites.
“I put it on the back burner thinking it would be something I’d do in retirement,” he said. “But if you start putting things off until retirement, pretty soon they’re not going to ever happen. Even though I’d like to have done it all in one season, I decided that I’d go start chunking some of it away.”
With low expectations, he drove to the Mexican border in spring 2019 and started off with the “herd” of other PCT hikers.
“I really enjoyed the desert,” Simpson said. “It was much better than I envisioned. … It was really pretty fun doing that with the herd starting out. You’re hiking with a lot of these people who are so excited. Most of them are out there to do the whole trail in one season. They have their eye on Canada. They are super excited and super friendly. … The social aspect of that last year was fun. I like going out by myself, but it was also fun getting to know a lot of people.”
The Pacific Crest Trail “herd” grew to a flood of hikers after the Reese Witherspoon movie “Wild” came out in 2014. The film depicts a true story of Cheryl Strayed, whose life takes a serious nose dive and she pulls it back together by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. The following year, thousands of people lined up to hike the trail, forcing the institution of a lottery system to limit daily numbers (50 per day) in some sections, particularly the beginning.
“I’ve read the book and watched the movie both,” Simpson said. “She hiked 1,110 miles of the trail. She definitely had a PCT hike. Her experiences are very similar to everybody else’s experiences hiking the trail. She had a ton of drama in her life. … She was trying to hit the reset button in her life. There are definitely people out there like that.”
Unlike Strayed’s monster backpack portrayed in the film, Simpson is a self-professed weight weenie. There’s a room set aside in his basement for all the gear he’s tried, tested and replaced with something lighter weight. His pack’s base weight without food and water comes in at a slender 12 pounds.
“I’ve been really dialing my gear in for several years doing backpacking trips,” Simpson said. “Because of my knees and some back issues too, I go as light as I can get within certain parameters. … That makes a big difference for me. I can go a lot longer in the day, my body holds up better.”
During an interview, he laid out all his gear for a Pacific Crest Trail hike on a small table in his gear room.
“This is my rain poncho,” he said, holding out a small bundle of high-tech material. “I love how I can use it for so many different things.”
To demonstrate how light it was, he placed it on a digital scale.
“About 5 ounces,” he said. “I weigh all my stuff to know what I’m carrying.”
Everything was down-sized – a palm-sized fuel canister, a half-length sleeping pad, a 1.5-pound tent and an ultralight sleeping bag. To allow the tiny canister to cover his needs for up to two weeks at a time, he “cold cooks” most of his meals, soaking dehydrated meals for a couple of hours while he hikes along, then eating it midday without cooking it. “For dinner, I often just eat instant pudding I mix up and maybe some trail mix. I love pudding.”
Simpson said years of backpacking in Idaho and Wyoming has helped him discard unnecessary gear and weight.
“I’ll have my list of what I want, and I’ll pack it and weigh it and take it out again and ask myself if I really need this, yes or no?” he said. “I’d take a weeklong trip into the Wind Rivers, for example, and when I got back I’d look at everything and say, ‘Did I use this anytime on this trip?’ If I didn’t, it would go into a different pile. You just don’t need as much as you think. The lighter stuff is expensive. There’s a cost factor to get the light stuff. With my knees, it’s worth the extra money.”
Going lightweight means covering more ground. For Simpson, that means averaging 20 to 25 miles per day. In 2020, he continued the hike and made it through Yosemite National Park despite interruptions caused by wildfires, injuries, and family and work events.
Before he started the PCT hike, he was told hitchhiking into towns for resupplies was the way to go.
“I did prepare a couple of resupply boxes to send to places, but a lot of it I’d just go into town and resupply at the grocery store,” he said. “Those towns are super friendly to hikers. I haven’t done much hitchhiking since I was in college. They tell you to hitchhike into town. I remember the first place I got to, called Scissors Crossing, (California), going to a little town called Julian, (California). I thought, ‘I guess I’m going to find out if it’s easy to get a ride.’ I came off the trail and walked up onto the highway and was taking my backpack off and leaning it up against a pole there, and before I even got my backpack off, a vehicle pulled up and stopped and said, ‘You need a ride into town? Hop in.’ I didn’t even get my thumb out.”
Occasionally, the elements would challenge you, Simpson said. He recalls one dicey situation being caught in a serious storm in the high Sierras hiking over Muir Pass. At first, the clouds were barely sprinkling, so he decided it would be OK to hike down.
“Then the hail and rain came,” he said. “It was one of those textbook mountain storms that hits. It was crazy. I made a huge mistake. My rain jacket was in my pack as some cushioning where my bear canister was. That was stupid. I knew better. The hail and rain was so thick there was like 4 inches on the ground. The whole hillside was just a torrent of water coming down. I was in water up to my knees in places trying to find the trail.”
Simpson said he could feel himself getting hypothermic, but there was no protection high above the treeline.
“I knew I had to keep going,” he said. “The storm just kept going and going. I had to hike about 5 miles before I finally got down to a spot and the storm still hadn’t let up. I put up my tent there.
“By that time my hands are numb, my legs are going numb. I threw everything inside my tent. I was sopping wet. I got all my clothes off, got in my sleeping bag and I could feel my temperature starting to come back up. … I got my stove turned on and got a hot meal in me. By that time, the storm finally did pass over.”
Simpson said after seeing the younger generation hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, he wishes he’d done it earlier in life, too.
“One of the things that’s really cool to watch,” he said. “I would bet that at least two-thirds of the people hiking this are in their 20s and 30s. … It’s fun to watch these kids and see them form ‘trailmies’ – their trail family. They form these bonds and make lifelong friendships.
“They’re nice to you and say come camp with us, but I recognize that even though I may feel like I’m the same kid when I was 25, when I look in a mirror, I’m fully aware that I’m a 60-year-old man. You guys don’t want a 60-year-old man as part of your trail family.”
Simpson has done 1,016 miles of the trail. This year, he hopes to complete the northern California section, then the Oregon and Washington sections in the following years. He said many people are afraid to start hiking the trail for fear that they won’t do it all and consider themselves a failure.
“You tell everybody, ‘I’m going to hike the PCT,’ and you get out there for a couple of weeks and think, ‘I’m not really enjoying this that much,’ ” he said.
“Just go start and find out and see how you like it. If you like it, keep going. If you decide you don’t, you haven’t set yourself up for failure.”
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