HIKING THE PACIFIC CREST TRAIL AS A WOMAN
The Ultimate Pacific Crest Trail Guide For Females
The thought of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail as woman can be intimidating.
When I first embarked on my solo pacific crest trail hike in 2013, I had hundreds of irrational fears. Many of them revolved around being a solo female on a pacific crest trail hike. However, I learnt a huge amount on that PCT hike.
Fast forward 5 years, and the two of us were researching our own pacific crest trail hike together.
As two women, there were a lot of questions running through our minds at the prospect of hiking the pacific crest trail. However, the things I had learnt on my solo PCT hike helped to put our minds at ease. But, we were still nervous about the prospect of being two women alone on the PCT.
Is it safe? How often will we wash? What about hitchhiking?
Most of the fears that we had were irrational, however others were justified.
Together we have compiled a list of the most useful information for women hiking the pacific crest trail, from hygiene to safety. And, to help you put your mind at ease, we’ve included our own personal stories and recommendations.
So, if you’re a woman (solo or otherwise) thinking of hiking the pacific crest trail, read our tips and information to help your planning.
We put together a list of all the dangers and safety concerns and wrote up an entire post about them.
I highly recommend reading that post to answer some of the questions you might have about pacific crest trail safety in general. It covers everything from altitude to wild animals.
But, for more female-specific safety concerns, read on below.
Hitchhiking on the Pacific Crest Trail
One of our bigger fears at the beginning of our hike was hitchhiking. We were so in the dark about hitchhiking rules and etiquette, that we almost wanted to avoid it altogether. Unfortunately, there’s no way around it. Almost all PCT hikers will find themselves having to hitchhike during their time on trail.
We picked it up pretty quickly though, and found that we never had to wait longer than 10 – 15 minutes for a ride into/out of town. This was probably helped by the fact that we are two women, but we also found it helped to put on a huge smile and look as clean as possible (brushed hair, cleanest ‘town clothes’ on).
In terms of safety, we never found ourselves in a situation that put our safety at risk (except the story below). When hitchhiking from the trail, most people that stopped were hikers/ outdoors people themselves, and knew what we were doing wearing a huge backpack and asking for rides into town.
Getting rides out of town was a little more difficult, particularly in bigger towns. For example, getting a ride out of Wrightwood was easy enough, as most people in the town know about the PCT and thru-hikers. However, getting a ride out of Tehachapi took a long time, because most people didn’t know what we were doing. I think a lot of people just assumed we were homeless.
Our scary story
Our one unsavoury experience with hitchhiking happened away from the trail. We were looking for a ride from Independence to Bishop, along Highway 395. Most traffic that heads through there isn’t local, and we were picked up by a guy from out of town. After we got into his car, it became clear that he had been drinking. That 40 minute ride felt like the longest ride of our lives, and I was convinced that we were going to crash as the driver swerved around bends at over 100 miles an hour, looking over his shoulder to tell us all stories about ‘ghosts stealing his backpack in the hills’.
Although we ended up alive and well (through some very good luck), it was enough to shake us up and leave us panicked about hitchhiking for a while.
Luckily, we had no other experiences like it, and it just reinforces the fact that you should never get into a strangers car if you don’t feel comfortable. We got a weird vibe from the guy right from the start, but one of the other hikers that was hitchhiking with us was unaware, and keen to get in. Our piece of advice from all this is: don’t get in their car if it doesn’t feel right.
Another piece of advice would be to hitchhike with someone else if you’re hiking alone. At most of the trailheads, there was almost always a group of hikers trying to get into town. Also, a lot of towns have wonderful trail angels (you can find their contact numbers online and in Facebook groups) that will pick up/ drop off hikers from trailheads if called beforehand.
Camping solo as a female
For a lot of potential female hikers, the thought of camping alone in the wilderness is what most puts them off wanting to start a long distance hike like the pacific crest trail. Some people have never camped alone before, and doing so can be a daunting prospect.
Even as two females hiking the pacific crest trail, we were wary of wild camping along the trail. However, after our first few nights in the tent, it began to feel much more normal and less scary. We started to get used to it, and the thought no longer terrified us.
Our initial fears were pretty unfounded. However, when you’re lying awake at 2am, surrounded by empty darkness and protected by nothing more than a thin nylon wall, your brain starts to convince you that there’s something out there to get you.
The more you do it, the better you sleep and the less you worry. Until, eventually, you’re not worried at all.
Now, I know that lots of people aren’t worried about camping alone in the wilderness, but for some people (particularly those that don’t sleep well) it can be really scary. So, here is what I would suggest.
Don’t camp near roads
This is a pretty self explanatory tip. The number one danger when camping alone in the wild is other people. Not that there’s a huge number of people out there looking to do innocent hikers any harm, but the ones that are, are generally opportunists. Being close to the road means that anyone using that road has access to you. If there is someone nearby that wants to do you harm, they’re most likely going to be on that road you’re camped next to. So, always camp at least a 1 mile hike from the nearest road.
Use Guthook Guides
If you haven’t heard of Guthook Guides, it is essentially an offline, interactive map of the Pacific Crest Trail. Along the trail, there are various water sources, information and camping spots.
These camping spots are often used by other hikers. If you don’t want to spend your first few nights camping alone, aim to camp at one of the camping spots on Guthook Guides. That way, you’re much more likely to be camping with at least one other person.
We camped in these locations most nights during our first month on trail, and almost every night we camped with other hikers.
The next biggest concern for females hiking the pacific crest trail is probably hygiene. We had all sorts of questions before our pacific crest trail hike, and struggled to find many answers. Our questions were a little bit specific, but they played on our minds as we scoured the internet to find a pacific crest trail guide for women.
They were questions like: How often will I be able to shower? What should I do with my hair? What happens when it’s my time of the month? How many wet wipes should I pack?
Well, we never did find the answer to many of our questions, but we did work it all out whilst on the trail. So, here are our female PCT hygiene tips/answers:
You can never have too many wet wipes
Okay, so a lot of lightweight fanatics will probably disagree with this statement, but for the most part, I think it’s true. We never felt like we had too many, even when we did.
Wet wipes are literally your best friend on trail, and are one of the only ways to stop yourself from stinking too much.
We used several everyday, and they were honestly worth their weight. We used them to wipe our pits and bits, our faces, and even wipe out our pots after eating. They are pretty much essential when it’s your time of the month, and you’ll end up using even more at this time.
Obviously, all wet wipes (and other sanitary items) should be carried out with you, and never left in the wilderness – in a hole in the ground or otherwise. Don’t be that person.
Tip: For weight-saving purposes, take them out of their bulky pack, cut them in half (essentially doubling the number of wipes), and put the two halves into 2 separate ziploc bags. Take one pack each if there is 2 of you, post one ahead in your resupply box, or put one pack in a hiker box.
Tampons > Pads
On the trail, tampons are far, far superior to sanitary pads. Due to the lack of showering opportunities, you’ll want to keep as clean as possible. Prevention is the best form of cleanliness whilst hiking the pacific crest trail. You’ll want to bring the applicator kind, so you don’t have to use your dirty hands too much. You’ll also want to carry loads of wet wipes for when you need to change a tampon, and they’re also good for wrapping up used tampons before putting them inside your dirty ziploc bag.
Note: Neither of us have ever used a ‘Diva cup’ or similar, so don’t have any experience in the matter. I’m not sure how it would work if you were to use one on trail, due to the cleaning up afterwards. I think you’d perhaps have to bring more wet wipes, toilet paper and hand sanitiser with you if you were to go down that route, but, I’m not sure.
There is a good REI article about the pros and cons of menstrual cups vs tampons here. It covers a lot of the questions that we had before our hike, and I’d recommend giving it a read.
We read a lot of PCT advice that said that deodorant isn’t necessary on trail. However, we strongly disagree. Without deodorant, you will stink. Seriously. I think a lot of people were in denial about just how much they smelled. We read so many pacific crest trail guides that said that you won’t smell without deodorant on, but we could literally smell most hikers before we saw/heard them on trail.
And, it’s not just men that smell. In fact, women were equally as smelly as men. Maybe they had all read the same advice about deodorant being a luxury and not a necessity?
The best kind of deodorant to bring is the stick kind; the one that twists at the bottom, and clear gel comes out of the top. It’s lighter and works better. At the end of the day, wipe your pits with your wet wipes, and put some more of your deodorant stick on. Trust me, you’ll thank me for this advice when you’re the best smelling woman on trail.
In general, we found a shower every 5 days or so. Sometimes we would go longer without finding a shower, and other times there would be one every 3 days or less. But, on average, you can count on finding a shower at least once every week.
Showering usually happened in motels, campsites, and at trail angels houses. For the most part, we had to pay to use showers. Sometimes, it was just a couple of dollars (Kennedy Meadows), and other times we would have to pay for a motel room in order to get a shower ($100+).
Also, we both washed our underpants, sports bras and socks in the shower if there were no clothes washing facilities nearby (most campsites).
Some towns have a list of amazing trail angels that allow hikers to use their houses for showering, clothes washing, recovering etc.. You may be able to find a shower here, but do note that it’s common courtesy to leave a donation for trail angels.
Note: We also found clothes washing facilities about as often as showers. Again, for the most part, we washed our clothes in motels, campsites and occasionally trail angels houses. On trail, we would rinse our socks daily (if possible) in streams or rivers.
What to do with all that hair
Both of us have really long hair. When reading various pacific crest trail guides before our hike, we couldn’t find any info on what was the best thing to do with long hair. Neither of us are used to washing our hair just once a week, so we had to find ways to keep it as clean and untangled as possible.
We both found that the best way to keep our hair clean and tidy was to plait / braid it. We would re-braid the hair every evening and every morning to ensure that we didn’t get too many knots (my hair would turn into a giant dreadlock if I didn’t re-braid it every evening before sleeping on it). If we did get any out-of-hand knots in our hair, we would brush them out.
To be honest, there is no real way of avoiding greasy/dirty hair. We tried all sorts of things: wearing hats, wearing buffs, tying it into different styles, wet wiping it at the end of the night… we literally tried it all. However, we still suffered with greasy-hair-embarrassment, and found all sorts of leaves, dirt and crumbs in our scalp daily. Our preferred way of hiding our greasy hair was wearing an elastic buff or a hat.
In the Sierras, we filled water bottles with river water and rinsed our heads with it. However, it’s best to do this in the middle of the day when it’s warmest, and it doesn’t really help as much as you’d think. Unfortunately, the only way to clean it properly is in a shower.
Tip: It sounds obvious, but definitely bring a hair brush. Danielle doesn’t use a brush on her hair day-to-day (she just runs her fingers through it in the shower), but on the trail she needed one to get the knots out. Some small, travel-sized brushes only weigh a few ounces and fold down super small.
How hard you find your hike will depend mostly on your physical fitness, and how capable you are of carrying a heavy bag up and down mountains for 12 hours of the day. Little depends on whether you are a man or a woman.
In general, women will need to carry slightly lighter bags, just because women weigh less. The simplified rule is that your backpack should be no heavier than a third of your body weight. Therefore, as women are usually lighter than men, the weight of a woman’s backpack should be less than that of a mans.
Of course, these are generalisations, and some women will be capable of carrying heavier bags than some men.
It should go without saying that the lighter your backpack, the easier your hike. Therefore, you should aim to carry the lightest backpack possible for your pacific crest trail hike.
However, being a woman means that you’re more likely to have more items in your backpack. Women tend to need to bring more personal hygiene items (tampons, hair brushes, wet wipes). And, as women generally run colder than men, you will probably need to bring more layers of clothing for evenings/sleeping and a better (and potentially heavier) sleeping bag.
We found that our biggest hurdle was our lack of fitness. Initially, we moved very slowly, as we got used to walking 15 miles a day with a heavy backpack. Our backpacks were definitely on the heavier side, but we weren’t interested in being ‘ultra-super-light’.
You can read our thoughts on ‘super-lightweight’ backpacking, and some of our need-to-know facts about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in this post.
It goes without saying that female specific gear is superior (for women) than male specific gear. However, for a lot of gear, there is little to no difference between female gear and general, non-specific gear.
The main items that make a big difference when directly aimed at women are backpacks, sleeping bags and shoes. For most other gear (other than clothing) it doesn’t make too much difference.
Female backpacks are designed with female frames in mind. The length of the backpack is usually designed to accommodate smaller torsos. The hip strap is designed to sit more comfortably on a female’s natural hips, with the strap usually positioned slighter higher than that of a male’s. If you are going to buy a male backpack, make sure you try it on beforehand, and refer carefully to the size/measurement guide, to ensure that it will still fit comfortably.
Women-specific sleeping bag shapes reflect the difference in shape and size between men and women. Female sleeping bags are often shorter than men/unisex bags, and are wider around the hips whilst being narrower around the shoulders. This allows more comfort when sleeping and removes any excess space inside the bag, which decreases the amount of time taken to warm the sleeping bag up. Basically, a female sleeping bag will be more comfortable and warmer! Win win!
In general, women have smaller feet than men. However, that doesn’t mean that women should buy small sizes in men’s shoes. Particularly when hiking, the foot is under a lot of stress. And, female-specific shoes support womens feet in a different way to mens. Generally, womens feet are more narrow at the heel and require more support on the arches. Because of the high level of stress from long-distance hiking, it’s advisable to buy female specific shoes.
Having said all of that, I did actually hike almost 1000 miles of the PCT in a smaller pair of mens trail runners. I didn’t have any shoe-related ailments, but maybe it would have been more comfortable for me to wear womens shoes? Who knows!
THE TOILET (POOPING)
When I got home and I talked about hiking the pacific crest trail, this was the question I got asked the most: where did you poop?
And, honestly, when I told people that I pooped in a hole in the dirt, they sort of always freaked out a little bit. It’s just not something that people expect to hear. Most people assume that there’s toilets out in the wilderness.
Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s perfectly normal to poop in the dirt. And, it’s not as overwhelming as you might think it’s going to be. The idea of digging a hole with a little trowel (or stick) and squatting over it to do your business is kind of weird. But, the more you do it, the more normal it feels.
For those people that are apprehensive about the toilet situation, just know that there are dry/compostable toilets at various trailheads and campgrounds along the trail. Particularly in the beginning few weeks. If your movements aren’t very regular, you could probably get away with just using these restrooms for a number two if you’re uncomfortable going in the wilderness.
Obviously, you’ll need to get used to it at some point, as the frequency of these dry restrooms becomes fewer along the trail.
So, if you need a little help in understanding exactly how (and where) to do your business in the wilderness, read this article. And, of course, don’t forget to pack out all toilet paper.
Bring ‘town clothes’
In order to feel a little more human in town, bring a set of lightweight, clean clothes for when you’re not on trail. These clothes come in handy when you’ve got laundry to do too. Just make sure you keep these clothes in a separate ziploc bag, away from all your other stinky, dusty hiking clothes. That way they always stay fresh.
We’d recommend bringing a thin dress, as this folds down small and is super lightweight. Just throw it on on laundry days and when you want to feel on top of the world walking around Lake Tahoe with your freshly washed hair.
I know I covered this in the hygiene section, but it really does need reiterating. I know you want to save weight on everything possible, but please, bring some deodorant. If not for yourself, think of the other hikers around you.
Don’t bother bringing a moisturiser/lotion
I did and I never used it. Not even once. I was so caked in filth most of the time, that it would have just made a smeary, brown mess if I had tried.
DO bring sunscreen
Seriously, your skin will thank you for it. No one wants to look old and haggard at 35. Put it on liberally and often. We found the best one was the ‘sport spray’ kind. The aerosol kind that usually says it’s water resistant. Any brand will do, but we liked Banana Boat.
Don’t bring make up
If you really think you need it, just keep it to a bare minimum. Maybe a mascara or an eyeliner pencil. But, you probably won’t use it. You might use it on one town day, and then decide that there’s no point the next time you get to town. But, even if you’re the kind of person that wears it everyday, you’ll be so used to not wearing it on the trail that you’ll probably forgo it entirely.
That’s it! Our complete guide for women hiking the pacific crest trail.
I hope that we helped any concerned future thru hiking females out there. We loved our Pacific Crest Trail hike so much that it was genuinely one of the most amazing things we’ve ever done. And, we’ve done a lot of cool stuff.
For more reading on hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, check out some of our other hiking posts below!
Happy trails 🙂