10 PACIFIC CREST TRAIL FACTS YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE YOUR HIKE
10 SURPRISING FACTS THAT YOU’LL WANT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU EMBARK ON YOUR PCT THRU HIKE.
Before we embarked on our 3 month California Pacific Crest Trail hike, we researched a great deal. A lot of the same information came up over and over again. Here are 10 different facts that we genuinely believe people should know before hiking or thru-hiking the PCT.
Scroll to number #6 and #7 for our personal favourite facts.
QUICK PACIFIC CREST TRAIL FACTS
PACIFIC CREST TRAIL LENGTH – 2653 MILES
PACIFIC CREST TRAIL SECTIONS – 5: SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA (THE DESERT), CENTRAL CALIFORNIA (THE SIERRAS), NORTHERN CALIFORNIA, OREGON AND WASHINGTON
BEST SEASON TO THRU HIKE – NORTHBOUND: APRIL – SEPTEMBER, SOUTHBOUND: JUNE – DECEMBER
AVERAGE TIME TO COMPLETE ENTIRE TRAIL – 4 – 6 MONTHS
# 1 : SOMETIMES THE TRAIL ISN’T A TRAIL
The Pacific Crest Trail is one of the best graded long-distance trails in the entire world. The majority of the trail is a true trail: a narrow, dusty, long line from Mexico to Canada. 2600 miles of perfectly graded switchbacks.
Almost. Like everything in life, there are exceptions. The trail crosses numerous rivers in the Sierras and in other areas. It also meanders through fallen trees, and diverts around burn areas and fire closures (wild fire is an inevitable part of summer – and increasingly Spring – in the Western states. The PCT can and often does close in areas due to wild fire).
In high snow years, the section from Kennedy Meadows South, up to Tuolumne Meadows and beyond, can be covered in snow in higher elevations. This makes the trail completely invisible, and forces hikers to use GPS in order to stay on course. The snow levels can change from year to year. In the hiking season of 2017, most hikers were forced off of the trail in the High Sierras in California, due to high snow levels (and dangerous river crossings). In 2018 – the year that we hiked – there was almost no snow at all on any parts of the trail.
High snow years can pose other risks to hikers. The high volumes of snow mean that, once spring comes and the snow starts to melt, rivers and streams become saturated. Even small, unassuming streams can turn into raging rivers in high snowfall years. This can pose a huge risk to those on the trail, as the trail actually crosses many streams in the High Sierra. Therefore, some of the crossings can be almost impossible, and extraordinarily dangerous.
PACIFIC CREST TRAIL DEATHS
There has only been 2 deaths by drowning on the Pacific Crest Trail. They were both in the high snow year of 2017. The 2017 hiking season was plagued by many dangerous river crossings because of the unusually high snowpack from the previous winter.
# 2 : IT CAN BE SCARY
First thing’s first: none of this is meant to discourage you. Our Pacific Crest Trail hike was one of the most amazing things we have ever done (and we’ve done a lot of cool stuff).
However, it can be scary (sometimes). Along with all that was mentioned above, the trail can lead to some pretty terrifying patches. The one that sticks out in our memories is this one:
This was just before Forester Pass (13,200 feet). And, although it may not look particularly menacing, the drop off to the left of Danielle (in the picture) was at least a few hundred feet. It is literally: ice, trail and a 300 feet drop into an abyss of nothingness. Well kind of.
In higher snow years, hikers are encouraged to carry an ice axe in order to self arrest if need be. And whilst an ice axe wouldn’t help in this particular situation, you can see how things can get hairy pretty quickly up there.
There’s no cell phone service up in the mountains. There can be no other hikers around for days in the off season. Coupled with the cost of an air evacuation, and you can see why it’s a little terrifying at times.
OTHER PACIFIC CREST TRAIL SECTIONS
The desert can be a little spooky too. Rattlesnakes were our main fear for the first 500 miles. There’s also a whole host of other wildlife that kept us up at night (literally – sometimes one little noise outside our tent could keep us awake for hours): cougars, bobcats, coyotes, spiders and snakes. (Of course, the likelihood of running into any of these – and them causing you any trouble – is very slim)
I should probably mention that nothing bad did ever happen to either of us on our 3 month hike. Whilst we did find ourselves asking “what the heck are we doing?” on more than a few occasions, we didn’t actually run into any trouble at all.
# 3 : YOU’LL HAVE TO HITCH-HIKE
Even though the PCT is essentially one long walk, there will be times that you’ll need the help of a motor vehicle.
The nature of the Pacific Crest Trail means that there is long stretches of trail (potentially hundreds of miles) with no civilisation present. No cities, no towns and (sometimes) no roads. This means carrying up to a weeks worth of food in your backpack, and ‘re-supplying’ at towns.
The idea of the PCT is that it’s a wilderness trail. So it avoids built up areas as much as possible. So, when you do finally reach that road into the nearest town, you’re going to be more than a few miles from it. This means: hitch-hiking.
When we began our PCT hike, we were a little unsure of the idea of hitch-hiking. Having never actually done it before, the thought of jumping in a complete stranger’s car was a little unnerving. As two young women, we didn’t feel comfortable standing at the side of the highway with our thumbs out.
YOU’LL BE FINE
BUT, we shouldn’t have worried. There is a strong culture in the small towns that parallel the Pacific Crest Trail, that picking up hikers is totally a normal thing to do. In most (if not all) of the smaller towns you will pass through, pretty much everyone knows that anyone with a big backpack at the side of the road is hiker-trash. And, subsequently, they are all pretty cool about picking us up and dropping us into town or at the trailhead.
PROCEED WITH CAUTION
Now, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t risks involved of course. As with most things in life, proceed with caution and never get into a strangers car if you don’t feel comfortable.
DISCLAIMER: We hitchhiked from the small town of Independence to Bishop with another hiker, and ended up getting into a car with a VERY upset/angry drunk man (allegedly his wife had just left him). Both myself and Danielle were very wary about getting into the car, but it was a little too late once our hiker friend Daniel (who was blissfully unaware of the drivers inebriated state) had agreed and got in the car. Needless to say, that was a VERY uncomfortable and terrifying 40 miles that we won’t forget in a hurry.
BUT ALSO NOTE: Independence to Bishop is a huge thoroughfare for non-local traffic, so this was a slightly different hitch-hike to every other one. The guy that picked us up was NOT a local, and this was a very isolated incident (and we were also all fine in the end).
# 4 : YOU NEED TO BE PREPARED TO “WASH” YOUR SOCKS IN THE RIVER
Spending weeks at a time in the wilderness can have its perks, of course. But, one major downside is the lack of washing facilities. You’re going to need to be prepared for really (REALLY) dirty clothes. The dirtiest of which will – inevitably – be your socks.
Now, rinsing your socks in the river isn’t mandatory. But, remember, clean socks are important. Clean socks means happy feet, and you need to keep your feet happy. They’re the one thing that carries you all 2600 miles from Mexico to Canada.
But, let’s clear something up: “washing” doesn’t mean washing. It means rinsing. To wash something in the river would imply that you’d be using some kind of soap or detergent. That just isn’t the case.
Remember that every body of water that you stumble across is a water source. Not just for the wildlife, but for you – the hikers – too. Every potential sock-rinsing-spot is also a potential drinking-spot. This means, we can’t put anything in (or near) that water source that’s going to pollute it. It’s simple leave-no-trace principles (and yes, that means “biodegradable” soaps too. They are – almost – just as bad).
So, bring (at least) 2 pairs of socks. One on your feet, and one freshly rinsed pair, hanging off your backpack drying. Clean socks are important.
# 5 : MARMOTS = YOUR NEW FAVOURITE (OR LEAST FAVOURITE) ANIMAL
Wildlife on the Pacific Crest Trail is abundant. We saw more diverse wildlife in three months on the PCT than we ever had done before our hike. For the first time in our lives we saw: coyotes, bobcats, rattlesnakes, hummingbirds, bears… and more!
But for us, there is one particular animal that stands out in our minds: the marmot.
More specifically, these guys are the “Southern Sierra Marmot”. Around the size of a small house-cat, the marmot is the largest member of the squirrel family in the Yosemite region. It is a ground and rock-dwelling species that live between altitudes of 7,500 feet and 11,500 feet, and spends much of it’s time sprawled out on rocks in the sunshine.
This cute, fluffy little guy was a permanent feature from Kennedy Meadows, all the way up to Northern California.
At first, we had no idea what a marmot was. We could hear them whistling as we approached, only to see them disappear into the rocks. We were actually a little scared of them. But, they grew on us. They became a welcome feature of the Sierras for us, and definitely our favourite animal of our entire hike.
# 6 : YOU DON’T NEED THE MOST EXPENSIVE GEAR
This is one that I really wish more people would openly reiterate on the internet. We felt like hiking the PCT was an unachievable goal with our financial situation (we had been backpacking Asia for almost a year, and funds were getting pretty low). We were – thankfully – very wrong.
We felt so strongly about this, that we even wrote an entire post about it.
On much the same point as the one below, you don’t NEED a tiny bag. You don’t NEED a $600 one-man tent. You don’t NEED to spend $25 per day on three Mountain House meals.
No matter what everyone else tells you, you can hike the PCT with a normal-sized backpack and an REI tent. We did it. Others did it. You don’t need to spend $5000 on gear to hike the Pacific Crest Trail.
We are huge believers that you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars in order to have an adventure. In fact, we’ve been having incredible adventures on the cheap for years now. It’s just about mindset.
There’s no reason that you have to spend an extra $250 to shave 1 oz. off of your tent (is that one ounce really going to make a difference anyway?). Some may argue that having a lighter bag makes all the difference – the difference between having a great time on the trail, and having a miserable time. And yes, they are right (to a degree). But, if your financial situation means that you can’t go on the hike because of this, then I say: bring a heavy bag. I would rather hike the Pacific Crest Trail with a heavy, old, tattered backpack than not hike at all (if that’s what it took).
There was a strange culture when we did our PCT hike. Other hikers seemed to rate each other on how light their bag was, and how new and expensive their gear was. At hot spots like Hiker Heaven and Casa De Luna, people would sit around talking non-stop about their gear and how light it was – it almost seemed to be bragging rights – a way to get into the ‘popular’ crowd.
Of course – if your budget allows – go crazy. Buy every new, shiny, light-weight, high-tech piece of gear you can afford (but don’t judge others for not being in the same situation: stay humble). But, if you can’t afford it, don’t worry about it. You’ll have an awesome time regardless. And there will be others in the same boat. I promise.
# 7 : NO MATTER HOW SMALL YOUR BAG IS, SOMEONE WILL BE CARRYING ONE SMALLER THAN YOURS
This is an important Pacific Crest Trail fact that a lot of people need reminding of. There will always be someone with a smaller/ lighter bag than you. Always.
In fact, it even goes the other way too. No matter how big your bag is, someone will have a bigger bag.
Now, obviously someone has to have the smallest bag on the trail. But, that is one person of thousands. So many hikers get so caught up on the parts of thru-hiking that don’t matter, and seem to completely overlook the important things. The things that actually matter. The things that made them want to do this hike in the first place.
The harsh reality is this: nobody cares how much your bag weighs. Seriously. You can go on and on about ounces and grams, but that doesn’t mean you’re having a better hike than everyone else. It doesn’t mean you’re doing it better than everyone else.
As I’ve said in the point above, having a lighter bag can make your hike more enjoyable. It can also make it easier. But, that’s only to a certain point. There comes a point where it no longer makes a difference to your overall experience on the trail. That’s when it no longer matters.
Some people will entertain this kind of talk. But, this isn’t because these people care about how many grams your bag weighs, it’s because these people want to brag to you about how much their bag weighs.
Don’t get caught up in an unimportant competition you won’t win. Enjoy your hike. Stop talking about the weight of your backpack.
# 8 : YOU WONT SEE A BEAR – BUT IF YOU DO, YOU’RE ONE OF THE LUCKY ONES
One of our biggest fears on the trail was bears.
Coming from England, we had no clue about bears. We read a lot of information online about dealing with wild bears, but in reality, we had no idea what we would actually do if we came across one. We heard all sorts of horror stories about bears charging people, and bears crashing into camp at night.
Turns out, bear sightings are pretty rare. If you do run into one on the trail, you’re kind of really lucky. Most people do the entire trail without even laying eyes on a bear.
We saw one bear in Yosemite. We were in the Tuolumne Meadows campground, and a bear came into camp that afternoon. We were a little terrified. He was scared off by a ranger, and that was the end of that (until the next morning, when he came back and got chased right back out again).
The rangers told us about how some bears become a problem. About how bears like this one become accustomed to people and the food that they bring with them, leading to a 3 strike tagging system that ends in the bear being put down. It’s sad. But, it is also a now a reality.
If you do see a bear, it will probably be in a similar situation to the one that we saw. If it is in the wild – you’re one of the lucky ones.
# 9 : YOU’LL CHANGE
The Pacific Crest Trail was the first long-distance hike we had ever embarked upon together. It was also the first big adventure we had ever undertaken. It was the first time we had spent a prolonged period of time away from home comforts like electricity and running water, and the first time we had ever had to physically propel ourselves for hundreds of miles at a time.
Initially we were worried. Worried about having: no wifi, no cell service, no TV and no YouTube. We were worried about being bored. About having no distractions and having to live in the dust. About needing to sleep on the ground in a tent every night and not washing our clothes for a week at a time. Basically, we were nervous about living the simple life.
But, we needn’t have worried. We absolutely loved it. Everything about the simple life was so refreshing and relaxing that we didn’t want it to end. We were so sad for it to be over. We didn’t want to go back home.
HOW IT CHANGED US
Hiking for long periods of time cleared our minds; being in the wilderness kept life simple – it gave us nothing to worry and stress over. It gave us a passion for the outdoors and adventure – a passion we now pursue.
The fact is: the PCT ignited a passion for adventure travel in the both of us. A passion we had no idea existed until we spent three months in the wilderness of California.
We’ve undertaken dozens of adventures together since then, from cycling the Pacific Coast Highway, to trekking to Everest Base Camp. Adventure travel is now one of our favourite things, and I genuinely believe it is all because of our 1000 mile Pacific Crest Trail hike.
Our three month hike not only changed the way we looked, but it also change the way we feel about travel and adventure. It changed us for the better.
# 10 : YOU’LL BE THE HAPPIEST YOU’VE EVER BEEN
This is just a quick fact.
When you begin you PCT hike, it will be hard. Your feet will hurt, your back will hurt, you’ll be more tired than you knew was possible. BUT, it gets so much easier, and so much better.
Before you know it, the simple and freeing lifestyle of the a Pacific Crest Trail thru hike will make you happier than you’ve ever been before. You’ll spend the months after your hike scrolling through old photos, and reminiscing about the trail. You’ll probably even go back and do it again, because, why not?
OUR PHOTOGRAPHY GEAR
LAPTOP – Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch
SMALL CAMERA – Olympus OMD- E-M10 Mark II
ZOOM LENS – Olympus M.Zuiko 40-150mm Lens
DSLR BODY – Canon 60D
WIDE ANGLE LENS – Sigma 10-20mm Lens
DRONE – DJI Mavic Pro
ACTION CAMERA – GoPro Hero 7 Black Edition
MICROPHONE – Rode VideoMicro
CAMERA BAG – Lowepro Fastpack 250 AW II