So, you think you want to hike the PCT? Awesome! You know it is a really big commitment, but other than that, do you feel like have all the info you need to make that commitment? Here is a very simplified version of what it will take to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. The details will come later. (Please reference my thru hiking glossary for any unfamiliar terms I use here)
The Pacific Crest Trail is a 2,665 mile footpath (mostly well-maintained trail) that traverses the US from Mexico to Canada. As much as possible, it sticks to wilderness, avoids rural areas, and stays up high near the crest of the mountain ranges that run north-south through California, Oregon, and Washington states. There are very few shelters or hostels along the way and water will need to be collected from natural sources, so a thru hiker will need to carry everything that he or she needs with them at all times. Despite its attempt to stay up high, the PCT goes through many varied ecosystems, from desert, to swamp, to alpine, to grassland and more. As it is almost all wilderness, there are no built-in safeguards against falls, wild animals, dehydration, or exposure. The trail is generally well-marked, but map and compass skills are highly recommended.
Here are the 5 things that you really need to be able to make it to Canada (or Mexico):
1. Physical Stamina
This is the obvious one. You will need to be able to carry 10-40 pounds, 8-12 hours per day, 6-7 days per week, for 15-24 weeks, straight. You will be walking on varied terrain, from sand, to hardpack trail, to granite, to mud, to snow, and occasionally pavement. On some days, you will be climbing over 5,000 feet in elevation. You will need to average about 18 miles per day. And, at some points on the PCT, you will be hiking at altitudes above 11,000 feet. If you haven’t thru hiked before (and perhaps even if you have), this is likely to be the biggest endurance event you have ever done.
2. Mental Stamina
While there is no way to measure this figure, there is a saying on the trail that, “thru hiking is 90% mental” and almost no one argues it. I think what people mean when they say it is that: you expect to have to deal with cold, heat, soreness, injury, illness, weight loss, sunburn, blisters, poison oak, cactus spines, chafe, and any myriad other unpleasantness. But, sticking to the hike is a choice. Overcoming all of that physical discomfort and still wanting to continue up the trail can be a day to day (or even minute to minute) battle that follows you the whole way. You really have to want it to complete the whole trail in one season.
It can be hiked north or south, but either way, the hiker needs to take into consideration the weather window within which he or she would like to hike. Most north bounders prefer to be in the desert before it gets too hot and dry, but don’t want to start so early that they make it to the high Sierra Nevada Mountains while people are still skiing at the resorts. Also, most people like to finish the trail before the winter descends on northern Washington. This can begin as early as mid September, but usually starts to happen around the beginning of October. On a typical snow year, you are probably looking at about 5-5.5 months, from mid/late April through the end of September for a northbound hike. South bounders usually wait until winter loosens her grip on Washington. This usually happens around mid June. Note that actual start dates will be greatly affected by the snow pack that falls the previous winter, and the individual hiker’s ability and and affinity for traveling on snow.
(Your next question may be how to take that much time off of work. The short answer is that you just have to make it happen. But, I will try to cover that in another post)
The most expensive part of long distance hiking is not having an income during that time. Money commitments during your hike (a mortgage, insurance, etc.) will greatly increase the amount of money you will need to have saved, and is not included in my calculation of cost here. Other variables will be: how often you have to make gear changes, how often you like to go into town, what towns you chose to go into, whether you eat at restaurants and stay in hotels along the way, how you choose to do your resupply (another blog on planning), how long it takes you to hike, and where your mode of transportation to and from the trail. Some people hike the whole trail as inexpensively as $3000, and I have heard of people spending over $10,000. I would say that it can be very comfortably hiked at about $1000 per month.
You have probably concluded at this point that backpacking and long distance hiking are quite different sports. You will likely want this to translate to your gear selection as well. While much of it can be made to work, the average backpacking gear is not ideal for long distance hiking. Because you will be hiking 8-12 hours per day, your comfort focus will be more on your hiking time than in camp.
What all this means is that you will probably want to get lighter gear and learn to live without certain in-camp items. (I will have many blog postings in the future that focus on gear selection and gear shake down).
Some of the conditions I listed may sound very daunting, and indeed they are. On some years, the success rate of completing the PCT has probably been as low as 30%. But, if this post sounds negative, please re-read it knowing that is not at all what I intended. The above is just a list of the limiting factors you will want to consider before taking on the huge commitment of a thru hike of the PCT. There’s only 5 things! To me, these things are what makes thru hiking the most rewarding and life-changing thing I have ever done.
If you are still intrigued, please watch for my upcoming PCT-related blogs, “A Typical Day”, and “PCT For The Newbie: Telling Your Family“, and “PCT For the Newbie: Planning”. Thanks!