It would be like earning the BSA’s 50-Miler Award 53 times — in just four and a half months.
In August, Nolan Ridgeway, an Eagle Scout from the Long Beach Area Council, completed a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. Over the course of 138 days, from April 11 to Aug. 26, Ridgeway hiked the entire 2,653-mile route.
Along the way, he dealt with a broken backpack that prompted an emergency trip to REI, a wildfire near the trail and 48 straight hours of heavy rain. He walked an average of 19 miles a day on an itinerary that including several “zeros,” or rest days, and one grueling day where he hiked 49 miles in 17 hours.
Reflecting on the accomplishment — and becoming one of fewer than 8,000 people who have hiked the Pacific Crest Trail’s entire distance — the 23-year-old sees how Scouting prepared him for this journey.
It takes supreme outdoor confidence to hike from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. Young people learn that in Scouting. It also takes mental fortitude. Young people learn that in Scouting, too.
“This adventure has given me lots of time to reflect back on a lot of fond memories of my Scouting adventures,” he says. “Being an Eagle Scout has given me the confidence to push on, believe in myself, meet other hikers and have fun.”
Bryan on Scouting chatted with Ridgeway to learn more about his epic adventure.
Helping others get started
As a Scout for most of his childhood, Ridgeway says he was comfortable spending long stretches outdoors, away from the comforts of modern life.
“I already knew the basics,” he says. “Being a Scout helped me not have to worry about learning these useful skills.”
But other thru-hikers weren’t quite as prepared. For some, their attempt to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail was their first long backpacking trip.
“They needed to learn how to set up their tent, filter water and cook using a backpacking stove,” Ridgeway says.
As befits an Eagle Scout, Ridgeway was more than happy to share what he knew — while still being courteous, kind and friendly.
“In the hiking community, many people are judgmental about having the best gear or knowing everything about the outdoors,” he says. “But Scouts taught me to be friendly to everyone no matter what gear they have.”
A peek in the pack
And what kind of gear did Ridgeway have?
Each item was carefully chosen based on its weight, usefulness and how much comfort it might provide. His goal base weight — that is, the weight of his pack without food or water — was 15 to 20 pounds.
“Some people have their packs below 10 pounds, which is known as ultralight,” he says. “In my opinion, that takes away valuable items that keep you more comfortable in the outdoors.”
Sleeping: Kids-size Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad, 20-degree Western Mountaineering sleeping bag, single-person GeerTop tent
Drinking: Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter attached to Smartwater bottle — the kind you’d find at a gas station
Daily clothes: REI quick-dry T-shirt, running shorts, Darn Tough socks, wide-brim hat, arm sleeves and Altra trail-running shoes
“As I quickly found out, my feet hurt constantly from walking for nearly 10 hours a day,” he says. “In the end I went through five pairs of Altra trail-running shoes.”
For camp shoes, Ridgeway wore Quiksilver-brand sandals. That wardrobe choice, plus his love of surfing, earned Ridgeway the trail nickname “Silver Surfer.”
Battling the elements: Puffy jacket with hood, beanie, rain pants, rain jacket and pack cover
Toiletries: Ultralight backpacking shovel, first-aid kit, toilet paper and hand sanitizer
Tech: Battery pack, headphones, Garmin inReach Mini satellite communicator and cellphone
“To be completely honest, the thing that I couldn’t live without would be my phone,” he says. “My phone had my maps, a thru-hiking app and GPS (even in airplane mode) to show how far I’ve gone and how far to the next water source.”
Dinner’s still cold
As he was preparing for the hike, Ridgeway attempted to pre-buy all of his food and have it shipped to him on the trail.
“However, as I found out, I got extremely tired of the pre-bought food and wasted a lot of money,” he says. “I found that buying your food as you go is the best method for thru-hiking. This way you can try something new in every town and never get tired of the food you brought.”
Ridgeway brought a stove but never could get a knack for fuel consumption. He’d constantly run out of fuel before making it to the next town where canisters were available.
“I ended up eating crunchy rice, ramen and pasta,” he says. “I gave up my stove and found that cold-soaking is amazing.”
Yes, Ridgeway was what’s known as a cold-soaker. He carried a cleaned-out Talenti ice cream jar (the kind with the screw-on top) filled with a dehydrated meal.
About 45 to 90 minutes before his campsite for the night, Ridgeway poured cold water into the jar and started the rehydrating process. When he got to camp, dinner was ready.
“The science behind it is that the sun warms the jar up slowly,” he says. “Over time, water is soaked in the meal, making it edible and somewhat appetizing.”
The not-so-good times
Never in the history of Scouting has there been a completely flawless Scouting adventure. But as Scouts, we learn to adapt, overcome and make the best of tough situations.
And so when Ridgeway encountered obstacles on the trail, he didn’t panic. He responded.
Leaving the town of Belden, Calif., Ridgeway spotted a wildfire about a mile from the trail. He could see the smoke and heard Cal Fire planes above. He used his Garmin inReach Mini to message his mom and determine that it was safe to proceed.
Later, in Oregon, Ridgeway’s Deuter backpack, which he had purchased three months prior, made a loud pop.
“The frame snapped in two,” he says. “Luckily, I was able to adapt by placing my sleeping pad in between my back and the frame so it wouldn’t hurt my back.”
Ridgeway hiked like that for three days until he reached Cascade Locks, Ore., and took a bus to the REI in Portland to exchange packs.
Also in Oregon, Ridgeway put his rain gear to the test during 48 straight hours of rain.
“Everything got wet,” he says. “I was soaked through and miserable.”
But those difficult days made everything else — like sunsets in the Cascades and hiking through old-growth forests — even sweeter.
“I’m very grateful for all the Scouting experiences I had in my youth,” Ridgeway says. “They led me to make the decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. I hope other Scouts can be inspired to attempt a thru-hike, too.”
Thanks to Marc Bonner of the Long Beach Area Council for the blog post idea.
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