Preparing for The Walk

Three weeks ago, I knew next to nothing about how one walks across America. Today, I'm about ready to light out of here. Here's what I've learned:

Winter has dominated my thought process, shaping my gear and route. I'm starting in California and heading East but the more straightforward mountain passes through the Sierra Nevadas are not options; the snow I would encounter is not something I'm prepared to handle. This means I have to swing South and skirt above Los Angeles for a desert march through the vast, barren Southwest. One advantage of crossing the desert this time of year is the heat will not be damning. However, because the air is so thin and dry in places like Joshua Tree National Park, most of the heat the land absorbs during the day will radiate back through the atmosphere without interference, meaning it will be bitterly cold once the sun sinks. In response, I'm toting a lot of serious cold weather gear.

My gear choices have been influenced enormously by the book Trail Tested: A Thru-Hiker's Guide to Ultralight Hiking and Backpacking by Justin Lichter, alias Trauma. Trauma is a badass who's hiked more than 35,000 miles all over the world and challenged every climate imaginable. If anyone knows what gear is appropriate for a trip, I figure he does. In his book, Trauma goes through each category of gear: sleeping bags, rain gear, tents, stoves, etc. Once he's talked through the available options, he identifies his gear of choice under the name "The Trauma Pick." I've essentially acquired whatever he recommends to stop up the gaps in my gear because I'm a scrub and he's not.

Water is another major concern in the desert, particularly because of the long distances between resupply points (I'm seriously hoping the heat isn't obnoxious in the middle of winter). If my map is accurate, some stretches between towns would take me 3-4 days to traverse. Nate Damm, a hiker who's completed a walk across the US, writes that he was consuming approximately 2 gallons a day and using an umbrella to fend off the sun. Of course, he was walking through in late spring/summer, so it was significantly warmer. Either way, in case no one's noticed, I'll point out that water is heavy. Most people who've done this walk use a push cart (a used baby stroller, in Andrew Forsthoefel's case) in order to carry extra provisions and to increase their mileage on the road. So, in light of this fact, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you: The Rig.

The Rig, aka travois, aka rickshaw, aka oversized handcart.

With an exorbitant amount of help from Rickie Bedard, a close family friend who's much handier and cleverer than I, here's how we built my rig. The frame is comprised of PVC pipe with each segment measuring in at 2 feet, except for one piece we later lopped a foot off of in order to size it appropriately. For movement, Rick had two big lawnmower wheels lying around so we scavenged those and slapped them onto a 1/2 inch axle.

Me arranging parts in the War Room for a different photo.
We modeled our design off the Native American travois, but with wheels. I needed something built of parts that could be easily replaced and an overall structure that could be easy to repair. The whole piece is technically capable of disassembly in case I need to throw it all into a box and hop on a bus somewhere.
In order to meet these requirements, we cut the pipe into the lengths we needed with a backsaw and began fitting them together with connectors. We installed cross sections between the two bars and glued the connectors only to these cross sections, which would simplify reassembly. A simple U-bar serves to prevent my belongings from sliding out the back and another one loop at the front of the rig locks me into place.

Gluing pipe together behind the shed.
Once we'd established a rough first draft of the rig, there were a number of issues to address. For one, there was a good deal of sag when we put weight on the skeleton. This had to be addressed smartly because the whole point of building this cart was to bear a load. Rick devised a very simple answer. We slid metal electrical conduit inside the hollow PVC, thus fortifying the structure by giving it some real backbone. Shortening the whole rig also helped but Rick's insight probably reduced 90% of the sag.

The hitching mechanism also took a few times to get right. We had to figure out where exactly we wanted to tie ropes, where on the belt we would secure everything, how long the rope should be, which sorts of knots would allow me to release quickly, and most importantly how to get the damn thing from bouncing into me as I walk. Trial and error solved most of these problems, but we also made metal hooks that could clip to my belt or metal rings which we later sewed in.
An early prototype of the rig.

Storing my gear was the last question we had to answer. Lashing everything on was the first reaction. Rick ran me through a tutorial of knot-tying, which should still come in handy, but the lashing idea seemed particularly vulnerable to knot failure and bad weather. Rick came through with another breakthrough: a plastic bin! (By now it's clear Rick has all the brilliant ideas) Not only would this provide ample storage space but it would also protect everything from the rain. To secure it, we heated up a metal rod with a blowtorch and melted holes into the plastic wall. Ropes could then be threaded through to lash the bin to the rig's frame.

The very first testrun!
Finally, I could take it for a spin. I made three testruns, each one bigger than the next. The final one ran 18 miles to the next town, King City, which will be my first stop on the real walk. Everything went smoothly, except for a few blisters and aches. I was pretty exhausted after the last testrun, so I'm not sure how buttery the first two weeks will be, but I refuse to acknowledge the actual difficulty of this journey. I've prepared for its challenges and that has to be enough. It's time to roll out.

Special thanks to Nate Damm and Andrew Forsthoefel. They are forerunners to me. Without their voices, I would still be clueless instead of on the verge of embarking.


  1. In 1975-76, when I was 20 I set up to cross the country by foot, with 2 burros and a cart. The cart was made of Reynolds 6061T6 Aluminum tubing, and was designed with quick release pins to be taken part and back packed by the burros over narrow trails and passes. We departed from Carmel, Calif. and took the southern route over the sierras at Kearsarge pass in the Kings Canyon area, to Independance Nevada. We didn't go as far as we had hoped...but what we did amazed us and changed our lives. I am sure your trip will do the same. Best wished for safe travel. Doug

  2. Hi Sam, congrats on your amazing accomplishments so far! You are a true inspiration to all and your insight on life reminds us all to keep life as real and simple as possible. Keep up your hard work and keep those pictures coming, they are mesmerizing!