FAQs about hiking the PCT

I've had some requests to answer questions about what life will be like on the trail. As my friend Rachel so eloquently puts it, "so are you going to bring all your own food/water with you, or will you Oregon-Trail it up and periodically hunt for bison and forge a river for drinking water?"

(Answer? No to hunting bison. Yes to forging rivers. No to dying of dysentery.)

While I'm sure my own experience will give me better answers to these questions, I thought I would share some of the "how the hell I'm going to do it" responses for those inquiring minds. Feel free to ask more if there's an aspect about thru-hiking that you're curious about.

You're doing.... what, again?

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada. Yes, it's going to be hard. No, I'm not crazy (well, maybe a little). No, I'm not just doing this on a whim. Thru-hiking is something that has always appealed to me, I just never had the time/ability to pull off a long-term trek before. About 500 people hike the PCT every year, so even if you are hiking it alone you're surrounded by other hikers attempting the same thing you are. I'm fortunate in that I have a hiking buddy and a good support team at home.

How much/often are you hiking every day?

Thru-hikers average about 20 miles a day in a five month period. The PCT is fairly well graded (unlike the AT, which tends to go straight up and straight down mountains over and over) so you can cover a lot of ground in a full day of hiking. Obviously to start with, most people hike slower, but once you hit Oregon you can average anywhere from 25-35 miles a day. Harder areas like the Sierra mountains can mean smaller mileage. Some days are longer than others, and some shorter, and sometimes you need to take a "zero" day, which is a day off in town to rest and recuperate before hitting the trail again. PCT thru-hikers generally take 10-30 "zero" days in a five month hike.

Sierra Mountains, John Muir Wilderness {source}

Isn't that expensive?

It can be. They say it costs $2-$3 for every mile you hike, so a full thru-hike can be upwards of $6,000 or more. But that is taking into account a lot of factors: gear, food, mail drops, permits, hostel-stays, and other incidentals like what you spend in town: laundry facilities, a night at a hostel, lunch at McDonald's, etc. I'm fortunate to own a lot of backpacking gear already, so most of that expense is taken care of. My big expense will be food, but hopefully if I get it figured out mostly ahead of time, I won't have to spend too much on the trail. Unfortunately, my other expense will be bills/rent that I still have to pay while I'm gone. It definitely works out in your favor if you are between leases and don't have to manage bills, but I don't have that luxury. To read some more about how to finance a thru-hike, here is a great article.

What gear are you taking?

I promise I'll do a separate post about the gear I'm taking, I just haven't written it all up yet (and it keeps changing day to day - especially after my practice hikes!) I'll update the link here when I get it posted. Until then, keep reading to get more info about the logistics of my gear choices...

Where are you going to sleep?

Unlike the Appalachian Trail, which has volunteer-built shelters every 8-10 miles, the PCT has no such thing. It's imperative to bring your own tent/tarp to camp along the trail. Generally the weather in California/Oregon/Washington is very good during the summer (it rains very little, even in the Pacific Northwest) but storms can crop up quickly, so having some sort of shelter is important. Even so, a lot of hikers enjoy "cowboy camping" (under the stars) on those nicer nights. You'll need a long-distance hiking permit and a fire permit in order to camp and cook, but these are easy to obtain through the PCT website.

How are you going to get enough food along the way?

Food is tricky. The PCT is fairly remote, so it only passes through towns every 4-10 days. You have to be careful about your food and water supplies as you go. You don't want to take too much, because one day of food can weigh up to 2.5 pounds, and a liter of water weighs 2.2 pounds. So for five days of hiking, you could be carrying up to 25 extra pounds on your back. And if your gear already weighs 20 pounds without food and water, that can be quite a burden. But you also don't want to take too little, because hikers burn a lot of calories and you'll need to be adequately hydrated to keep you going.

You have a couple options for food: you can buy a week's worth of food at every town you stop through, or you can "mail drop" yourself pre-prepared meals and food to each town. If you go the mail-drop route, all you have to do is go to the post office, pick up your box of food, and pack it with you. The downside can be timing (what happens if you arrive in town on a Sunday?) or cost (postage rates are quite high these days) or variety (if you pack all your meals early, won't you get sick of them two months in?). If you stop in town to buy your food, you run the risk of paying higher costs for food, or getting limited options in towns with smaller convenience stores. But you're able to buy the foods you crave at the time, and you may save yourself postage and hassle at the post office.

A lot of people do a mix of the two, since either route has its pros/cons. I plan to mail myself some dehydrated meals that I'm making (especially to the smaller towns) and then supplement with food in town. Once you leave town, you gotta carry it... all of it... until your next trail town, or until you run out along the way. So plan wisely.

Golden Trout Wilderness, San Jose, CA {source}

What are you going to eat?

Probably a lot of stuff that is light in weight but high in calories. Thru-hikers burn anywhere from 6,000-10,000 calories a day, so even when you're packing in the calories, you're burning them off just as fast. "Hiker hunger" is a phenomenon where thru-hikers can down two entire pizzas in one sitting, order dessert, and still lose five pounds that day. Sounds like the best diet ever, except that you're working your ass off for it. It can be hard to strike a good balance between carrying enough food/water, or carrying too much that it makes your pack too heavy. Most thru-hikers eat a lot of pasta/rice meals for dinner and high protein/fat snacks throughout the day.

How will you cook your meals?

These days, backpacking stoves are quite a wonder. The one I'm carrying only weighs 3 oz and fits in my 0.9 liter pot. It's an isobutane stove, which means I'll need to bring fuel canisters to keep it running. A lot of thru-hikers opt for the lighter-weight alcohol stoves, which can be fashioned out of a coke can in a pinch. Denatured alcohol tends to be an easy fuel source to find in local stores, making it easy to resupply. Paired with a small titanium pot, you can boil two cups of water in just a few minutes, allowing you to make a hot pasta meal for the evening.

What about water?

Finding water can be tricky. The first half of the PCT is through desert, so water sources can be up to 20 miles apart, sometimes. You have to be very careful to carry enough with you so that you don't dehydrate looking for your next water source. Depending on how dry/wet the season is can determine how well the rivers/water sources are flowing, too. You always want to carry a good guide to current water conditions on the trail. Often there will be water caches (stockpiles of water jugs) left out on the trail by volunteers and trail angels to help make up for the lack of water supply. This year looks to be a dry year (bad for water, but good for lack of snowfall in the mountains). You also want to be sure to treat all water you come across - waterborne diseases like giardia and cryptosporidium are no joke. I plan to bring a small water filter and some iodine drops so the water is safe to drink.

Three Sisters Wilderness, Oregon {source}

What's a trail angel?

A trail angel is someone who does thru-hikers a favor out of the goodness of their heart. Perhaps they're a volunteer of the trail, or they hiked the trail themselves way back when, or maybe they just love helping out. Either way, there are some amazing people who sit by the side of the trail and cook free food, leave out free water, give hikers rides into towns, let hikers stay in their homes (or camp in their backyards), to help them through their walk. The goodness of people on the trail is part of what makes the thru-hiker journey so amazing. It's a real community of people helping each other out.

What about trail dangers?

Statistically speaking, you're more likely to get hurt in a car accident than on a thru-hike. That being said, there are some things to be aware of when on a journey through wilderness areas. Wildlife (ie, bears and rattlesnakes), snowfall, dehydration, navigation, river crossings, and illness are some things to be aware of. Generally, the wildlife will leave you alone, but proper food storage is important (hanging/bagging food away from camp and use of bear canisters in Yosemite are required) and being aware of your surroundings keeps you on your toes. Snowfall, river crossings, navigation, and dehydration are a matter of knowledge, research and understanding. Have an ice axe and crampons ready when you hit the Sierras if the snow is high that year (and know how to use them!) and always travel in groups. There is safety in numbers. Fortunately, a great part of the PCT are the friendships you make along the way. Make good decisions as a team and you'll be fine.

What's a trail name?

A trail name is a nickname that a hiker "earns" while on a thru-hike. Generally it has to do with some aspect of your personality, or some little quirk that shines through to the people who hike with you. Most people do not choose their own trail name, but are "christened" by someone else. It's like a rite of passage, a way to redefine yourself on this journey you're taking. It's also a lot of fun to hear the stories behind why someone got the trail name they did. To see some past names of hikers, visit the 2,600 miler list. Some of them are pretty entertaining.

I hope that helps answer some of your questions about my hike! Let me know if you have any others!