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Brawny and I completed the Pacific Crest Trail at the Canadian border on September 17, 2001. We have made this page available to aid others who are planning a thru-hike or other long distance hike on the PCT.
What is the Pacific Crest Trail?
The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is a continuously marked horse and hiker path in the western U.S. that spans the states of California, Oregon and Washington. Its northern terminus is at Manning Park, Canada in British Columbia. Its southern terminus is in Campo, CA, about 50 miles east of San Diego.
How long is the trail?
The trail is approximately 2,658 miles (4,250 kilometers) long.
Is the trail well marked?
Generally, yes. However, at times the route can be very confusing. Trail markers are sometimes removed by hunters, loggers, ATV'ers, bikers, car campers, locals and souvenir hunters. Occasionally, you will come to an intersection where there are trails, jeep roads and logging roads going off in every direction, and the PCT route will not be signed or marked. At other times, the route will be ambiguous, poorly marked and hard to follow. In the Sierra, early in the year and in heavy snow years, the high passes can be impacted with snow. The trail, especially on the north side of these passes, can be very difficult to follow.
Do I need to carry maps?
It is essential to have maps and a compass and know how to use them. If you don't know how to use map and compass, you owe it to yourself (and the people who care about you) to learn. A good publication to use to learn navigation is "Be Expert With Map & Compass" by Bjorn Kjellstrom. The book is also available on CD. It can be purchased at mall-type book stores and Campmor may also have it. PCT Guidebooks contain maps and can be purchased from the PCTA. There are two volumes (California and Oregon / Washington), and the two books sell for $24.95 each. (see "Links" in the navigation box above).
Where can I get information concerning towns close to the trail that can be used as resupply points?
The PCT Town Guide is available from the PCTA. I used this publication on my hike, with mixed results. It provides some good information, but in my opinion (and in the opinion of some others, too), the town maps leave a lot to be desired. The PCT Data Book can be useful, it has a section called "Reupply Data" which provides information concerning trail towns near the PCT. Brawny and I have also done reviews of all trail towns we visited (see "PCT Trail Towns" in the navigation box above).
What precautions should I take while I'm hiking close to the Mexican border?
Until you are at least 50 miles away from the border, it is best to hike with a group and be selective about camping sites. Hauser Creek is not a good place to camp. I camped there in 1999 and there was a lot of activity on the nearby road. I saw 3 different groups of illegal aliens on the road during the night, but they didn't bother me. If possible, try to hike to Lake Morena Campground the first day, which will mean a 20 mile day over fairly easy terrain. There's a large, well lit campground available. If you can do a 23 mile day the second day, you can stay at Mt. Laguna, a small community with a store, post office, hiker friendly motel and restaurant. If you can't do mileages like that so early in your hike, just hike with others and try to stealth camp well off the trail the first few nights.
During my hike, I saw nothing that made me think that the illegal aliens were either violent or dangerous. They probably get blamed for many things that they don't do, however, all of them are very poor and they can desperately use just about everything hikers have (shoes, clothing, water, food, etc.). Except for the slight possibility of the silent theft of gear and clothing in the middle of the night, I don't feel that the illegal aliens are much of a threat to hikers.
How many people have hiked the trail's entire length?
No one is really sure. Some hikers who complete the trail report the fact to the Pacific Crest Trail Association; others don't. A good estimate on the low end is 600. On the high end, perhaps 1,000 - 1,100. Probably more people have climbed Mt. Everest than completed the Pacific Crest Trail.
What is the normal hiking season on the PCT?
Usually, late April to late September, though some hikers finish at Manning Park, Canada in early - mid October.
What is "thru-hiking"?
Thru-Hiking is hiking the entire length of the trail in less than a year (if you don't agree with that explanation, feel free to make up your own).
What is "section-hiking"?
Section-hiking is hiking the trail over a longer period of time, usually 2 or more years.
How do hikers get food while thru-hiking?
Most hikers carry 4 - 10 days worth of food at a time. When they need food, they get off the trail and either walk or hitch-hike into a nearby town. There, they either buy food at a grocery store, or pick up a food box that has been mailed to them.
Is it dangerous to hike the trail?
Statistically, the trail is a very safe place. However, reasonable caution should be exercised, especially when going into towns, and when hiking or camping near roads. Concerning animals, mainly they just want to be left alone. Most hikers will see bears and poisonous snakes at some point, but actual incidents or injuries are rare. Mountain Lions may also be encountered.
Poison Oak is very common, and
hikers should learn how to identify it. Ticks, mosquitoes and biting black files are also common during hot weather. Bees, and bee stings, are fairly common during the summer months. It is highly recommended that you not hike alone. You should also know how to avoid, recognize and treat hypothermia, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Because of the lack of water sources, diarrhea in the desert can be a very serious matter; bringing an anti-diarrhea medication is highly recommended.
Do I need an ice ax and if so, how do I learn how to use it?
Most hikers (including me) carried an ax in the High Sierra portion of the trail. Even though I hiked the Sierra in a light snow year (1999), I used my ax on several occasions and so did most other hikers. I also wish I'd had my ax near Sonora Pass, the area near the Jefferson Park - Mt. Hood National Forest border and the Packwood Glacier.
I'd never used an ax before I hiked the PCT, but I was able to learn the basics from others I hiked with. If you don't know how to use an ax, it is best to learn before your trip by enrolling in a mountaineering class. If you can't do that, you can probably learn the basics from your fellow hikers. I don't feel that ice ax use is something that can be learned from a book while sitting in your living room.
To keep from impaling yourself if you should slip while carrying your ax on your pack, you'll need a point guard and a head guard. Also, most ice ax functions require that the ax be securely attached to your wrist, so you'll need a wrist leash. Check the wrist leash regularly; a loose knot can mean losing the ax at the exact time you need it most.
Most hikers have their ax (and other cold weather gear) mailed to them at Kennedy Meadows.
Will I need to use crampons?
I saw a few sets of crampons bouncing around on the back of the packs of PCT hikers during the three summers I spent hiking the trail, but I never saw one pair of crampons actually in use. Brawny said she saw no crampons actually being used on the PCT, but a few folks were using them above the Whitney Portal Trail on Mt. Whitney. The general consensus among hikers is that you can get by without them on your PCT hike, providing you make a regular late April to early May start from Campo, and don't get to the High Sierra too early in the season.
How can I avoid problems with bears?
Bears are not interested in you, they are interested only in your food. The areas where you are most likely to have bear problems are the national parks, especially Yosemite. The bears in and around Yosemite have learned to defeat all methods of hanging food in trees. Hanging your food bag in a tree inside the park can earn you a fine. Read and heed all park regulations, which include carrying approved bearproof food containers. If bearproof food storage lockers are available, use them.
In some areas, you may wish to "stealth" camp. This involves cooking the evening meal late in the afternoon, packing up and hiking a few more miles and then camping well off the trail in areas that are not regularly used for camping. The bears that have made the "hiker - food" connection will go where the people are (established campgrounds and other areas that are used for camping on a regular basis).
Also, there is no shortage of rocks in California. If you find yourself in a bad situation with no other way of safeguarding your food, you may wish to locate a suitcase-size rock and stash your food bag beside it. Then, gather up smaller rocks and bury your food bag under the rocks. If you are prepared to defend your food, I'd suggest burying your food bag under rocks about 20 feet from your tent, and placing your cooking pot on top of the rock pile with a few small stones inside it. If anything disturbs the pot, you'll hear it. I'd also gather up some smaller baseball-size rocks (for throwing) and keep them just outside your tent door. This method worked well for me in several areas where bear activity was heavy in California. If you are not willing to defend your food, you may wish to bury your food under rocks about 100 yards downwind of your tent.
There is a healthy Black bear population in most areas along the PCT, but if you are going to have problems with them, most likely the problems will occur between Kennedy Meadows and Sonora Pass in California.
Will I encounter rattlesnakes?
I encountered 8 rattlesnakes in the desert portion of the PCT (from Campo to Kennedy Meadows). I did not encounter any rattlesnakes north of Kennedy Meadows. Brawny didn't keep count, but she probably had more rattlesnake encounters than that. Most hikers will see poisonous snakes, though a few have told me they hiked through the desert without seeing any at all.
Normally the snakes can't be seen until they either move or rattle; their camo is just too good. It took a while, but when I heard the "buzzing" (which is not unlike the sound of frying bacon), I'd immediately stop hiking and move my two hiking poles around my body in a kind of circular motion. I felt this served to distract the snake and give it a target (other than my legs) if it chose to strike. Once I located the snake, I quickly (this is an understatement) moved away from it. I feel that making a mad dash at the first sound of the rattling could get me closer to the snake, instead of farther from it (this actually happened on one occasion). The desert is not the place to hike while using headphones and listening to a radio. The snakes will generally warn you, but they will bite if you step on or close to one. Brawny almost stepped on a large rattlesnake while she was walking and reading her guidebook at the same time; a practice that she promptly gave up.
When you stop for breaks and lunch or to make camp in the desert, I'd suggest checking out your immediate area very closely. Be especially careful in shady areas during the heat of the day; a snake may have found the same shady spot before you did. When you are answering a nature call at night, I'd suggest taking a flashlight and not going any further from camp than is necessary. Because snakes hunt at night, don't see well at night and are more active in the desert in cooler temperatures, I wouldn't recommend night hiking on the desert portion of the trail.
For all the snake encounters and snake stories I heard about, in the three summers I spent hiking the PCT, I heard of only one instance where a PCT hiker was bitten by a poisonous snake (and he made a complete recovery). Snakes use their venom for hunting, and they know that we are too large for them to eat. Consquently, they don't want to "waste" perfectly good venom on humans.
Are there shelters on the trail, and can I use them?
There are very few shelters on the trail. When I hiked (1999 - 2001), about half the shelters mentioned in the guildebook no longer existed. On the entire length of the PCT, there are perhaps 6 shelters and they are used on a first come, first served basis. Mostly, a PCT hike is a tent or tarp event.
Do I need permits to hike?
Permits are needed for the national parks, wilderness areas and special use areas that the trail traverses. Thankfully, if you plan to hike over 500 miles, the Pacific Crest Trail Association will issue a "thru-permit" to you. This permit is good for camping while hiking the PCT, but not off the PCT, or in special use areas, such as the Mt. Whitney zone. These "thru-permts" are free to PCTA members; $7 for others.
How far do hikers walk each day?
Most hikers hike 12 - 14 miles each day at the beginning of their hike, then slowly work up to 16 - 22 miles per day. Most hikers will eventually have a few 25 - 30 mile days.
How do hikers get water while hiking?
I'd suggest not trying to hike the PCT without the Data Book. This publication will tell you where the water sources are, and you can calculate the distances between them. Waterless stretches of 15 - 25 miles are common in the desert, and there are a few waterless stretches of that length on the northern portion of the trail as well. The Data Book can be purchased from the PCTA (see "Links" in the navigation box above).
It is highly recommended that all water obtained while on the trail be purified with either chemicals or a water filter.
How much does the average hiker's pack weigh?
For a normal late April to early May start, the average weight of a loaded pack (minus food and water) will usually be in the 12 - 20 pound range.
What kind of weather can I expect on the trail?
On the PCT, you have to be ready for almost anything. Start too early in the spring, and you are likely to run into snow (lots of it) in the desert mountains and you may reach the High Sierra before the snow melts. Start too late, and the temperatures in the desert will be extremely hot, often 110 degrees (F) or above. Further north in the Sierra, snow and hail can be encountered just about anytime and the night time temperatures can be very cold. In Washington and Oregon, rain is common, and both heat and cold should be planned for. In late summer and fall, snow may be encountered. If you try to hike in white-out conditions, it is almost certain that you will become lost. Heat exhaustion, heat stroke and hypothermia are very real threats on the PCT. You need to know how to avoid, recognize and treat all three.
How much does it cost to hike the trail?
The trail is on public property, and there is no actual charge for hiking. However, some state and national parks charge fees for camping (and require hikers to stay in established campgrounds). Concerning expenses while hiking (food, lodging in towns, restaurant meals, etc.), most hikers state that they spent about $1.50 per mile. However, this figure can be substantially reduced if you can eliminate or reduce restaurant meals and overnight motel stays in trail towns.
How do I go about hiking the John Muir Trail at the same time I'm hiking the Pacific Crest Trail?
It's easier than you might think. First, when you request your "thru-permit" from the PCTA, ask for the Mt. Whitney Zone Stamp (in 2001 the stamp cost $15). When you get to Crabtree Meadows on the PCT, take the side trail to the summit of Mt. Whitney, which is the southern terminus of the 211 mile JMT (and at 14,500 ft. the highest point in the Lower 48). You can return to Crabree Meadows the same day. For most of the next 200 miles, the PCT and the JMT are the same trail, parting only for one 10 mile stretch between Red's Meadow and Thousand Island Lake (most folks take the JMT route) and at Tuolumne Meadows. At Tuolumne Meadows (where the JMT and PCT split again), leave the PCT and hike 28 miles to Yosemite Valley and finish the JMT. Take the bus from Yosemite Valley back to Tuolumne Meadows and continue north on the PCT.
Where can I get additional information?
A good place to start is the Pacific Crest Trail Association. Their web site has a lot information, and also contains links to other sites. (See "Links" in the navigation box above).
I don't believe I've ever met a hiker who didn't enjoy talking about gear. However, gear won't take you 2,600 miles. In fact, its just the opposite, you have to take the gear 2,600 miles.
Most outfitters are far more interested in their cash flow (making a profit) than they are in you or your hike. They are "programmed" to offer the most expensive item in their line, and to entice you to buy it. The most expensive item is not always the best choice. When it comes to hiking, less can be better, and often is. This applies to less expense, as well as less weight.
Also, keep in mind that a PCT hike is very rough on gear. You will wear out almost all gear items that you take on a thru-hike. If you have an expensive piece of gear that you really like, you may want to consider leaving it home, and buying something less expensive to take in its place.
What gear items to take on a thru-hike of the PCT is a very controversial subject, even among veteran hikers. It is best to do a lot of research, and to gather information from several different sources. What works for one person may not work for another. For example, one person will be happy with a tin can for a pot; another will want only the finest and most expensive titanium pot on the market. Therefore, gear will be discussed here only in general terms and the mention of specific or brand names will be kept at a minimum.
Boots / Shoes:
One thing that most experienced hikers agree on is the fact that boots are THE most important gear item. The average hiker will take about 6 million steps on a thru-hike, and most of the time he / she will be hiking on very rough terrain.
Whatever boots or shoes are selected, care must be taken to insure a proper fit. Also, keep in mind that your feet will swell after you have been on the trail a while, and plan your footwear purchases accordingly. If at all possible, buy your footwear from a reputable outfitter who has the experience and the motivation to ensure that your boots fit properly. If you must buy them on-line or from a catalog, don't be afraid to return them if they don't fit. Just be sure not to wear them outside until you know that you are going to keep them.
Thru-hikers have hiked the PCT in everything from cheap tennis shoes to the finest European leather hiking boots, and everything in between. Whatever you select, it will probably be a mistake to take them out of the box, put them on your feet, and immediately begin your thru-hike. To hike in new boots is to invite misery. Be certain that your boots are properly broken in, and that they are comfortable, before you begin your hike.
The latest trend seems to be toward the lighter, inexpensive and comfortable fabric-type boots. Another consideration is the lightweight trail runner-type shoes. Basically, they are jogging shoes with a Vibram-type lug sole. The New Balance 800-series shoes are very popular. Personally, I wouldn't hike in the desert with leather boots; I've heard too many horror stories and seen too many badly blistered and injured feet.
Like most other gear items on a thru-hike, the suggestion could be made to select the lightest item that you can be comfortable with.
Most hikers also carry a lightweight pair of shoes to wear in camp and while in towns. These can be anything from "water shoes" to tennis shoes to sandals. Brawny bought a light (about two ounces) and inexpensive pair of shower shoes in Mojave and used them as camp and town shoes for the remaining 1,500 miles of her hike.
For the purposes of this page, the "sleeping system" will consist of a sleeping bag, and a sleeping pad.
The Sleeping Bag:
There are two areas that I don't scrimp on concerning backpacking gear. A sleeping bag is one, and clothes are the other. Both can save your life. During a hike of the PCT, most hikers will dance pretty close to hypothermia on more than one occasion, and having the right bag and clothes can make the difference between just being uncomfortable, and being in serious trouble. Beware of any bag containing cotton. Also, this is not the place to try to get by with a $20 sleeping bag bought from a discount department store.
One important fact that is often misunderstood about sleeping bags is this; the bag is not keeping you warm. YOU are keeping the bag warm. The bag cannot generate any heat on its own; it merely traps the body heat that you create. If your body is not generating enough heat by the consumption of calories, you are going to sleep cold; it won't matter what the temperature rating of the bag is.
Whether a down fill bag or a synthetic fill bag is selected is up to each individual hiker; there are advantages and disadvantages to each. If the bag is treated with Dry Loft, or made with a Gore-Tex outer lining (to keep out moisture), all the better. Most PCT hikers try to keep the weight of their sleeping bag at about two pounds or less.
During the 3 summers I spent on the PCT, I used a high quality bag rated to 35 degrees, except in the High Sierra. There, I switched to a bag rated to 20 degrees. Also, in northern Washington, I started using a fleece liner with my 35 degree bag. This added about a pound of weight, but added about 10 degrees of comfort to my sleeping bag.
To help keep your sleeping bag dry, consider putting a plastic garbage bag inside the stuff sack, then stuff the bag inside the garbage bag. Also, use a silicone based waterproofing to coat both sides of the stuff sack (it comes in aerosol spray cans, and costs about $3 at Wal-Mart). Also, I'd seal my pack. In addition, I would use a pack cover, and seal both sides of it, too. This will give you 4 separate layers of supposedly weatherproof material between your precious sleeping bag and the elements. It may sound like overkill, but rain water being pushed by a 30 or 40 mph wind can find its way into some very small places.
The Sleeping Pad:
Most thru-hikers carry a sleeping pad. Usually, its either a closed cell foam pad or a self-inflating air mattress. ("Closed cell" means that the foam material will not admit moisture. Even if the pad becomes wet, it can be dried with a bandana, an article of clothing, or a pack towel, and can be used immediately; the moisture stays on the outside of the pad, it doesn't become saturated.)
Some hikers carry a full length pad, and others carry a 3/4 length model. The longer ones provide more comfort; the shorter ones weigh less. The foam models are less comfortable than the air mattresses, but the air mattresses are easily punctured. A "Hot Bond" repair kit is available for the air mattresses. The kits work well, but it is often difficult to find a small leak in an air mattress. About the only way to do it is to put the mattress under water (in a creek, pond or bath tub), and watch for escaping air bubbles. The leak can then be marked with a pen or marker and repaired. Concerning foam pads, in my opinion the Z-Rest is the most comfortable and user-friendly (when you roll it up, it doesn't fight back). Also, the little squares in the egg-carton design trap air under you and your body heat warms the air, providing some additional insulating qualities on cold nights.
On a very cold night, there can be nearly 100 degrees difference between your body temperature and the temperature of the ground. In cold weather, it is essential to have a pad under you to insulate your body from the ground.
Like other areas in backpacking, what type pad to choose is a personal one. I'd suggest using the lightest and least expensive model that you can be comfortable with. One well known PCT hiker ridicules the use of self inflating air mattresses on the PCT, claiming that they are so easily punctured that they are useless. However, I carried the same Therma-Rest air mattress the entire length of the trail without puncturing it a single time.
Tents / Tarps:
Most long distance hikers on the PCT carry a lightweight tent or tarp. The type shelter that you decide to carry can be anything from a simple, inexpensive tarp costing $20 to a full size one or two person tent costing several hundred dollars or more. A few hikers carry bivy bags, however, they are too confining for most hikers. Most hikers try to keep the weight of their shelter at 2 -3 pounds or less, though a few heavier tents will be seen.
As usual, it’s a trade off concerning weight, comfort and expense. The trail has been hiked using all kinds of shelters; everything from shower curtains to ponchos to extravagant tents. A high quality one person tent weighing 2 - 3 pounds is probably the "middle ground". However, many hikers choose tarps, and some sleep under the stars on the southern portion of the trail.
Most hikers carry an ice ax in the High Sierra portion of the trail (between Kennedy Meadows and Tuolumne Meadows). If you are thru-hiking, hiking early in the season or hiking in a heavy snow year, you may wish to carry your ax in other areas as well.
Most hikers try to keep the weight of their ax at about a pound or less. However, not all axes are created equal. I'd suggest buying one that has a forged head. Some less expensive axes have heads that are stamped (cut) out of a piece a metal. They are less durable than the forged heads, and the heads may chip when rocks are struck (which is largely unavoidable when cutting steps in ice). My ax has a forged head and has been bounced off many a Sierran rock, however, it is none the worse for wear.
When carrying an ice, I'd suggest using rubber point and head guards. In 1999, I hiked part of the time with an experienced European mountain climber. He once told me that he'd seen what happens when someone falls on an unprotected ax, and that it is not a pretty sight. Another accessory that is highly recommended is a wrist leash. In order to do a self arrest (stop yourself when you are falling down a slope), the ax must be secured to your wrist. The wrist leash is also needed for several other ice ax functions.
Ice axes are not toys. In fact, they are about the most lethal weapon that can legally be carried without a permit. Be extremely careful with them.
Water Filters & Such:
It is highly recommended that all water obtained while on the trail be purified before drinking. Most hikers use a water filter, and some use chemicals such as iodine or bleach.
Water filters are probably the best bet (when they work), but they are heavy (usually 10 - 18 ounces), expensive and problematic. They cost anywhere from $40 to $200, and some common problems include broken pump handles and clogged filters.
The chemical solutions weigh far less and have no filters or moving parts. However, for some, there are health considerations. Many hikers don't trust the chemicals, and don't like the taste that they leave in the water after its been treated. For those who choose to use chemicals, a crushed vitamin C tablet or powdered drink mix added to the treated water can greatly improve the taste.
The two type packs seen on the trail are internal frame and external frame. The internal frame models are, by far, the most popular. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, and what type pack you choose is up to you.
The internal frame models are generally more expensive than the external frame models. Previously, the internals were generally deemed to be the lighter of the two, but that trend seems to be changing. The internals seem to be getting heavier; the less popular externals seem to be staying about the same.
Sales hype aside, you don't need a 7 pound, $300 pack to hike the PCT. If you choose wisely, you can find models that cost half as much, and weigh far less. In fact, some of the ultralight models weigh less than a pound, and cost less than $150.
Some hikers also carry a coated nylon pack cover for use during wet weather. They generally cost $20 - $25.
Whatever pack you buy, make sure it fits your torso, and that it is comfortable. What size pack you need will depend on how much gear you take with you. Try to talk with as many experienced hikers as possible before purchasing a pack. A good pack will make your hike a lot more enjoyable. A bad one can put you off the trail.
A few thru-hikers try to subsist on cold food, but most carry something to cook with. Basically, there are 3 different kinds of stoves commonly seen on the PCT; simple, alcohol burning stoves (some homemade), fuel tablet stoves, and the more expensive and heavier white gas / unleaded gasoline "flame jet" models. Also, a few propane / butane canister stoves are seen, but most hikers don't like carrying the metal fuel canisters . Also, the canisters are expensive and hard to find.
Before selecting a stove, consider the availability of fuel and exactly what kind of food that you will be cooking. Some hardware stores near the PCT carry denatured alcohol and Coleman-type fuel (white gas). Also, unleaded gasoline can be purchased at gas stations.
Neither Esbit or hexamine fuel tablets can generally be purchased along the way. The most popular way to obtain them is to buy a large amount before beginning the hike, and have them sent to post offices near the trail.
Whatever stove you select, remember that they can be dangerous. Be very careful with them, and NEVER cook inside your tent.
Most hikers also carry a small pot, lid, cup or mug, a couple of spoons, matches and a few Bic-type lighters.
First Aid / Hygiene Kits:
To aid in personal hygiene on the trail, I carried a small bandana and a small container cut from a gallon size milk jug. My clothes bag fit into the milk jug, so I was able to carry it inside my pack. I used the bandana as a wash cloth and the milk jug as a sink, and (weather permitting) took a sponge bath when we reached camp each day. After my sponge bath, I'd use alcohol soaked cotton balls on the "obvious areas" of my body before putting on my sleeping / lounging clothes. I recycled the cotton ball by using it next to a hexamine cooking tablet on my stove when I cooked supper. I'd hang up the bandana and leave it outside each night. Usually, it was dry the next morning. I wore out or lost several bandanas, but the milk jug made it all the way from South Lake Tahoe in California to the Canadian border, and I'm still using it.
Most hikers carry just the basics concerning first aid and personl hygiene items, though some get really extravagant. First Aid / Hygiene kits can weigh an ounce or two, or over a pound. It depends on the needs and experience level of each individual hiker.
Some items commonly seen on the trail are:
Tooth brush & paste
Isopropyl alcohol (two ounce bottle)
Small wash cloth
Small sterile bandages
It is imperative that each person properly dispose of body waste. Most hikers carry a plastic trowel for digging small holes, toilet paper and soap or pre-moistened towelettes for hand washing.
Some hikers don’t carry a trowel, and try to "kick in" a hole with their boot heel. This may work in certain areas where the soil is soft, but generally it is ineffective. In my opinion, it is the hikers who don't carry a trowel that contribute greatly to visual pollution and poor sanitation on the trail. Body waste that has been improperly disposed of is one of the most disgusting sights on the trail.
Select a spot well away from the trail and water sources. Use the trowel to dig a small hole 4 - 6 inches deep. (Used toilet paper should go into the hole that was dug, along with body waste.) After use, re-cover the hole and "naturalize" the area with leaves and forest debris so that there is no trace that you were ever there.
PCT hikers can burn over 6,000 calories per day. Since most of us cannot carry enough food to produce 6,000 calories per day, we lose weight on the trail. Men seem to lose more weight than women.
When selecting food for the trail, try to find the foods with the highest calories and fat content, while keeping in mind how much it weighs. Vegetable oil and peanut butter are among the best foods concerning the "calorie-to-weight" ratio.
Most hikers select foods that prepare easily and quickly with a minimum of cooking time. On the trail, quantity is far more important than quality. Don't expect gourmet meals. Most hikers just want reasonably priced, easily prepared, hot and filling food.
Most thru-hikers find that commercially prepared freeze dried foods do not contain enough calories and fat to sustain them. In addition, this type food is very expensive.
More and more hikers seem to be dehydrating large quantities of food at home, and having it sent to their post office stops along the trail. Also, many hikers are finding that they can resupply at supermarkets in trail towns.
Previously, many hikers would buy large quantities of food before they left home, and have heavy food boxes mailed to them. This can be expensive, and many people have found that it is difficult to know 4 or 5 months in advance what they will want to eat.
On a thru-hike, there are really only 2 "set" meals; breakfast and supper. Lunches and snacks kind of run together. Most hikers will find that it is necessary to eat something every hour or so while they are actively hiking.
The following food items represent some of the things that I like to eat while I'm on the trail, and I'm listing them just as examples. Its important for each person to determine their own food needs.
Pop-Tarts, Instant Oatmeal, Instant Grits, Breakfast Cereals, With Sweetener And Powdered Milk (Grape Nuts, Cracklin Oat Bran, Granola, Shredded Wheat)
Instant Rice, Cous-Cous, Knorr-Type Soup / Bean Mixes, Ramen (Cooked), Ramen (Instant), Stove Top Dressing, Canned Chicken, Sardines, Tuna, Instant Mashed Potatoes, Pasta, Lipton Noodle or Rice Dinners
Bagels, English Muffins, Pitas, Flour Tortillas
Lunches, Snacks & Desserts:
Granola Bars, Toaster Pastries, Cookies, Trail Mix, Fudge Cakes, Peanuts, Dried Fruit, Peanut Butter, Instant Pudding, Fig Newtons, M&M’s, Sunflower Seeds, Hard Candy, Crackers, Candy Bars, Cheese
Coffee, Kool-Aid, Instant Juices, Instant Hot Chocolate
Sweetener, Vegetable Oil, Butter Buds, Lipton Instant Soup, Bouillon
Cubes, Hot Sauce, Soy Sauce, Parmesan Cheese, Powdered Milk
Salt, Pepper, Lemon / Pepper, Italian Seasoning, Minced Onion, Cinnamon, Garlic Salt
Most hikers use what is called the layering system. The 3 layers used are called the wicking layer, the insulating layer and the windproof / weatherproof layer. The wicking layer is usually some type of long underwear made of 90% - 100% polyester. The wicking layer will transport moisture (perspiration and rain) away from the skin, where it will evaporate. Moisture held close to the skin (for instance, with cotton fabrics) can cause hypothermia, which can be deadly. Deaths from hypothermia occur occasionally among hikers; it is a very real threat. The next layer is the insulating layer, and it traps body heat. The insulating layer is usually polar fleece, or a similar material. On the outside is the weatherproof / windproof layer, usually nylon. This keeps wind and rain out. Of course, staying warm also depends upon having warm socks, gloves and headwear.
Almost all hikers wear one set of clothing during the day, and have another set to change into at the end of the hiking day. I call these the "sleeping / lounging" clothes. The clothes that are hiked in are usually damp and dirty, and most hikers choose not to wear them in camp, or in their sleeping bag.
What follows is a list of the clothing items I had with me when I reached the northern terminus of the PCT in Canada in mid-September 2001. Actually, the list varied very little from the time I left the Mexican border. I opted for an expedition weight Thermax top instead of a fleece jacket, and this worked well. This produced a weight savings of about 6 ounces, and saved some space inside my pack.
1 coated nylon parka
1 coated nylon rain pants
1 Lycra "biker" shorts
1 nylon shorts (worn with parka in town when washing other clothes)
1 expedition weight Thermax top
1 mid-weight Thermax bottom
2 pair Thermax glove liners
1 pair Wind-Stopper fleece mittens
1 pair Trail Runner shoes (worn while hiking)
1 pair Wal-Mart sandals
1 long sleeve Cool-Max T-shirt
1 short sleeve Cool-Max T-shirt
1 lightweight Thermax balaclava
1 polar fleece "watch" cap
1 pair Smart Wool socks
2 pair Wal-Mart men's dress socks (similar to liner socks)
1 mesh baseball cap
How To Prepare
Preparing for a thru-hike of the PCT is quite an undertaking. To begin with, the PCT is over 2,600 miles long, and most hikers state that their expenses while on the trail amount to at least $1.50 per mile. Therefore, most of us have to come up with about $4,000 to hike the trail. However, this figure can be substantially reduced if you can eliminate or reduce the number of restaurant meals and overnight motel stays in trail towns. Secondly, we all have homes and property that must be looked after while we are gone. We have to get into hiking shape. Gear must be bought, food must be planned for, travel arrangements must be made, and an itinerary must be prepared so that we can receive mail from those at home.
One should also prepare for the changes that come with a long distance hike. Basically, we must be prepared to give up, for a while, everything and everyone that we care about in order to hike the trail. Hiking the PCT is not just a long backpacking trip; it is a change in lifestyle. We have to say good-bye to our home, our loved ones, our friends, our routine and basically everything that is familiar to us.
Do you really want to hike the PCT badly enough to give up your present lifestyle, only to endure day after day of heat, cold, snow and wind? Can you stand to go for a week or more without a bath, wearing the same damp, filthy clothes day after day? Can you endure hiking 15 - 25 miles per day on steep terrain, in the mud and over rocks, with raw blisters on your feet while carrying a fully loaded backpack? Can you give up your friends and loved ones for months at a time? This is not meant to discourage anyone from hiking the PCT. However, these type things must be considered if you are going to enter the world of long distance hiking.
If you decide to go ahead with your hike, I'd suggest getting the Data Book, and the PCT Guidebooks from the Pacific Crest Trail Association. These publications will aid you in planning an itinerary and your mail drops ("mail drops" are post offices along the way where you will receive mail and CARE packages from family and friends).
After that, you will need to make decisions concerning your gear. If money is a problem, check the classified ads in your local newspaper for used hiking equipment. Check out some yard sales and stores that sell used items. If you want, place some "want to buy" ads in newpapers and on outdoor oriented websites.
At least 3 - 4 months prior to your hike, I'd suggest starting the physical conditioning aspect of preparation. If you possibly can, put on a loaded backpack and head for some mountain trails. If you have to work, and live in a city, there are still some things you can do. Train with a daypack full of books in a city park. Later, try to find some stairs to use. These could be in a stadium or perhaps the fire escape stairs in a tall building.
I'd also talk with as many 2,600 milers as I possibly could. Most of them will be happy to talk about their hike, and their input can be invaluable. Get as many viewpoints as possible concerning gear, dealing with loneliness and the weather, how to treat blisters, what each person would do differently if he or she hiked again, etc.
As the time draws near for you to hike, expect to get "antsy". By the time your departure date rolls around, you will probably be bursting with anticipation and excitement.
As difficult as hiking the PCT is, keep in mind that it is more than worth it. Be prepared for changes. You will find that there are still a lot of decent folks in the world. You'll see that more is not always better. Concerning material wealth and possessions, you may be amazed at how very little it takes to make you happy. You will probably gain a new respect for the natural world. And as someone once said, "I'll never trust anything again that travels more than 3 miles per hour". In short, the trail will repay many times over the pain and discomfort that is required in order to hike it. Hang on to your dream.
What To Expect
Changing from the world of schedules, thermastats, public transportation, clean clothes, indoor plumbing, electricity and locked doors to the PCT can take some getting used to. Also, while you are emotionally adjusting to these changes, you will be punishing your body by carrying a fully loaded backpack through the desert and up and down mountains in all kinds of different weather.
Some hikers seem to underestimate the difficulty of the trail and the terrain it traverses. They think the PCT will resemble a nature trail in a municipal park, or that it is some kind of glorified golf cart path. It is neither. It is a very rugged mountain trail which traverses some of the most beautiful scenery in the western U.S. However, it is VERY rough and rocky in places. Occasionally, it is level and lined with leaves and soft pine needles. But not very often.
In many places, the route traverses large areas of wilderness. The trail goes through some very remote places. Especially on the middle portion of the trail, you can go for days without seeing other hikers. It is not a good idea to hike alone, though a lot of hikers do. Sometimes, the solitude is comforting and enjoyable. It can also be unsettling and stress provoking; I think it depends on your mental and emotional outlook at the time.
If you hike alone (and even if you don't) help can be a great distance away in the event of a medical emergency. Some hikers carry cell phones, however, there are many areas where the phones won't work.
Expect to be discouraged occasionally. Expect to hear yourself asking the "why" question, as in, "Why am I doing this?" When you start to ask yourself the "why" question, it is best to have answers. Before you ever take the first step on the trail, I suggest writing down your reasons for hiking. When the "why" question hits, and it will, hopefully you will already have your answers. The "why" question has put many a hiker off the trail. When the hike stopped being fun, they started asking themselves why they were hiking, and they had no satisfactory answer. A few days later, they were home.
A well known long distance hiker and author, Colin Fletcher, once said that there is a predictable sequence of events whenever we enter the outdoor world for long periods of time. He said that first we examine our surroundings. After that, we examine our pack and its contents (as in "what to leave in / what to leave out"). Then we examine ourselves. I believe he is correct. Expect to do some soul searching. Most likely, you will find out some things about yourself that you didn't know before. By the time you finish your hike, it is possible that you will be a different person, and your value system may be altered dramatically.
Concerning weather on the trail, expect heat in the desert and cold and snow in the desert mountains at the beginning. Later on in the High Sierra, expect the most beautiful summer you've ever experienced, with clear blue skies, cool air, warm sunshine and occasional afternoon hail storms. From northern California to the Canadian border, you have to be ready for almost anything, from heat to cold to drought to days of rain and snow.
Don't expect anyone out there to actively be in the business of saving you from yourself. If you have selected the wrong gear, or made mistakes concerning food or clothing, you will have to endure the consequences until you get to civilization again. Everyone else will be hurting, hungry and struggling to stay on the trail, too. You may get a sympathetic ear, but no one is going to offer to carry any gear for you, loan you any additional clothing, or give you any food or money. Basically, everyone has to make it on their own.
However, the trail has a way of bringing out the best in people. Most likely, you will make some friends that you will stay in touch with the rest of your life. After you have hiked with someone for a while, you probably will consider them a friend. There is a "hiker bond" on the trail that seems to bring folks together.
The PCT traverses some of the most beautiful scenery on the planet. There are spectacular views almost every day. However, expect it to be one of the hardest things that you have ever done. It is not "fun" in the same way that going out to dinner and a movie with a friend is fun. Its far too difficult for that. However, it is true wilderness adventure and a spiritually enlightening experience that will be with you for the rest of your life.