Every thru-hiker has a war story or two – intense weather, flys turning into kites, bags falling apart. Mine involve midnight bear encounters and the loss of my phone and bank card (which embarrassingly I lost in two separate incidents).
When I tell these stories and mention that I quit, most assume that I quit for these reasons, but it’s more complicated than that. Quite honestly, the 3 reasons why I left the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) are rather pedestrian.
Studying the PCTA’s figures, there has been a massive uptick in approved thru-hike permits in recent years. 2013 saw 1041 thru hike permits issued. By 2017, this number increased almost four times to 3934. Currently, the 2018 figures are not published, but I can imagine that the permits issued this year are in equal if not greater numbers.
I was immediately conscious of the number of hikers on the trail. On my first day, I was surprised to pass and be passed by around 20 different thru-hikers. Turning a corner and seeing a thru-hiker off in the distance, or stopping for a lunch break and watching a train of hikers pass by was a common occurrence in the desert.
I knew that the trail would be well populated, but I imagined meditative walking within a small community of thru-hikers. Instead, I found my meditation being interrupted every half hour by a fresh face.
This wasn’t an enormous issue for me – it’s reassuring to have people around you out in the desert – but I couldn’t keep on pace with any groups.
My gearing was off; I was resupplying in non-resupply towns due to poor planning and other small setbacks meant that I never fell into pace with a specific group.
Every few days a whole new set of faces popped up and it felt like I was starting all over again. Eventually, I found that hikers closed themselves off from new people as connecting with everyone became an impossible task.
My issue with the number of hikers was worsened by a poorly chosen starting point.
My decision to hike the PCT was undoubtedly a last minute one. I applied about two months before my start date and so the permits starting from the border were all booked up.
In turn, I came onto the trail at Mount Laguna. 40 miles up trail, many of the hikers that I was bumping into had already formed tight-knit groups – I was an outsider.
Slightly introverted, I found it difficult to find my place socially and I spent the rest of my hike jumping from group to group and never really forming any strong relationships.
If you are not an extrovert (like me) then you will want to grab a permit starting from the border as soon as permits become available in November. You’ll have to work much harder if you start late and when you do get on trail make an effort to find your group!
Not to make this article an exposé on my lack of organisational skill, but another reason for my quitting the PCT stemmed from poor hiking management.
When hiking every day for weeks, a laissez-faire attitude to food, water, daily mileage and next day planning eventually caught up to me. Quite simply, a hiker has to be disciplined when it comes to miles, methodical when resupplying in town and conservative with those supplies when out on the trail – I was not.
For the first two weeks, I diligently checked the elevation profiles and the next day’s mileage before going to bed. When coming into town in Julian and Idyllwild, I ambled around the grocery store with my notepad calculating calories – I was thorough.
As my confidence grew my planning began to slip. By my third week, between towns, I wasn’t getting enough calories and would find myself either rationing water or carrying too much.
The day I misplaced my phone, I was coming out of Deep Creek after what felt like an eternity. It is one of the tougher stretches of trail and the last 10 miles are exposed and dry. Due to poor planning, I drank my last sip of water about 6 miles away from the next water source.
I was dehydrated and laser-focused on hiking to where the trail comes down from the canyon walls and drops you by the river. In turn, I put my phone in a pocket and failed to zip it up. I lost my phone on just a 1 quarter mile stretch of trail and had to hike back up in the heat. I didn’t find a thing.
Lacking water and food, I was forced to press onto the river and eventually to the next town which was 2 days out.
This was an incredibly frustrating setback – having a phone made hiking extremely easy. I heavily relied on my phone to receive updates on water sources, weather and navigation. Due to my poor management, morale was at an all time low.
Hike management is simply all important. While I could say that being harassed by a bear was unsettling enough to bump me of trail, or even that the unending line of thru-hikers was what ground me down, I have to admit that it was simply poor hike management which ended my hike.