Hiking Travel

5 things you might not expect when thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail

Planning your thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is serious business. Here are 5 important and possibly unexpected tips to help you prepare for a thru-hike of the West Coast’s great long-distance trail.

Expect to be bored

2600 miles is a long way and eventually, you are going to be bored hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. The views are beautiful, but just like earning more money, you eventually get used to it. Not to say that you won’t be blown away by the Sierras, the Cascades or the San Jacinto Mountains, but in between these special parts of the PCT, there are long stretches of generic wilderness. Here’s how you can spice those moments up:

  • Podcasts – download as many when in town as possible. They are lifesavers and help you zone out while hiking.
  • Books – the hiking isn’t the only boring part. Sometimes sitting in camp after a long day can get stale too. A good book will supplement the quiet camp nights. Go with a kindle to shave weight.
  • Play games – word games like solving riddles with your group, naming States and even I Spy are, while a little basic, fun distractions which break through the monotony of putting one foot in front of another for 8 hours a day.

Expect to make friends

First things first: the Pacific Crest Trail is an incredible trail and one thing that sets it out from the rest is its community. Expect to meet new people daily on the trail, especially in the first month of hiking. Trail angels, day hikers, other thru-hikers – if you are on the PCT you are going to bump into people as enthusiastic about the trail as you are.

If you have watched Wild and expect to be met with lonesome stretches of wilderness interrupted by the occasional hiker, you are mistaken. In fact, the PCT is a thru-hike defined by long stretches of hikers with the occasional interruption of wilderness.

Expect to get sunburnt

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The PCT’s first 700 miles are in the desert

The sun is a cruel, ever-present beast in the desert sections, so its recommended that your gear, clothing and supplies offer as much UV protection as possible. The basic things you need to protect yourself include:

  • Long sleeve shirt and pants.
  • Sun hat.
  • Sunblock (apply daily).
  • Sunglasses.

For the more sun conscious and less weight conscious hikers, consider a hiking umbrella. UV umbrellas are fantastic for the low desert valley sections of the first 702 miles before Kennedy Meadows. Benefits include:

  • Looking cool.
  • Not having to search for a tree to eat lunch under.
  • Mary Poppins related trail names.

Expect to hitchhike

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For the first time thru-hiker, planning mostly goes into the hike itself. Food plans, gear issues, what shoes to bring and daily mileage. More logistical things like getting from the trail into town or even making it to the starting line in Campo often fall by the weigh side. You should know that the hiking is often the simple part and getting into (and out of) town can be tricky.

If, like many thru-hikers, you are on a budget, expect to hitchhike and learn to do it well. At many of the popular pickup location these days you might be lucky to find trail angels shuttling people back and forth. A great example of this in 2018 was under the train tracks at Cabazon. Not only where there literal bin bags full of goodies, but trail angels were kind enough to offer rides into town throughout the peak of the season.

Now, for less busy areas you will find it far harder to get a ride. Here are a few basic tips on how to hitchhike on the PCT:

  • Hitchhike in a small group (no more than 4). If a someone drives by 10 thru-hikers looking for a ride they are not going to stop. Etiquette usually dictates that other hikers should wait out of sight of the road.
  • Hitchhiking with a girl increases your chances of getting a ride massively. Half the battle in getting a car to stop is looking trustworthy – having a girl with you helps.
  • Smile and be grateful. Again, this is a trust thing. No one wants to pick up a grumpy hiker.

Hitchhiking might be the most dangerous part of a thru-hike. Don’t do it alone and be very careful about whose car you choose to enter. If you don’t feel safe, be patient and wait for the next car.

Expect to be surprised

Yes, it’s cliched to essentially say “expect the unexpected”, but if I had a penny for every horror story a thru-hiker has regaled me with, I would be a rich man. Things go wrong when you least expect them to on a thru-hike. Be ready for your fly to be sucked into the sky by high winds in the middle of the night, or a hungry bear to come into camp looking for leftovers. These are things difficult to prepare for so expect to be surprised by the situations you have to dig yourself out of and you’ll be mentally prepared to tackle anything the trail throws at you.

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