OUR FEARS: DANGERS AND SAFETY CONCERNS ON A PACIFIC CREST TRAIL HIKE
When planning and researching our pacific crest trail hike, our biggest safety concerns could be whittled down to just a handful of things:
Hitchhiking, wild camping, wild animals and other people.
Incredibly, we had almost nothing to worry about. As most ex-thru-hikers will tell you, these dangers are almost always over exaggerated in our minds, and the reality is that it’s most likely going to be absolutely fine. Of course, there are exceptions to this.
As we completed our hike during the summer of 2018, we had no weather concerns. Therefore, we have not included snow and river crossings to this list, but for a lot of hikers, they are potentially the biggest danger on their pacific crest trail hike.
When you take a step back and think about it, hitchhiking can be a terrifying concept. Getting into a complete strangers car and hoping they take you to where you want to go, is completely crazy. However, on a pacific crest trail hike, it’s an unfortunate necessity.
When we first hitchhiked into Wrightwood, we were instantly put at ease by the lovely gentleman that picked us up. The 10 minute ride into town was filled with stories and facts about Wrightwood and the ‘Raccoon Saloon’. We felt very at ease.
From then on, every hitchhike experience felt a little more comfortable, until it almost felt normal to get into a strangers car. Hitchhiking felt like a part of the pacifc crest trail experience.
However, we did have one bad experience with hitchhiking (see number #3 on this post). Although, technically we weren’t hitchhiking to or from the trail, and we were actually getting a ride from Independence to Bishop, so that could definitely have been avoided.
Don’t hitchhike alone
If possible, get a ride into town with another hiker. Although this might not always be an option, we found that most popular hitchhike spots (most trailheads and main roads out of town), almost always had other hikers waiting around for rides. Many hostels and trail-angels offer rides to and from trailheads if you give them a call. This eliminates much of the risk, as they’ve probably given hundreds of other hikers rides.
If it feels weird, don’t get in their car
This one relies heavily upon personal intuition, but it really does work wonders. If you’re getting a weird vibe from the person that pulls up to give you a ride, don’t get in their car. Make an excuse like “oh my boyfriend/brother/male friend has just gone off to pee, he’ll be a while”. Our technique was to ask them where they were headed, before letting them know where we were going. That way, if you get a weird feeling from them, you can just tell them you’re headed some other direction.
Another big fear for the two of us, wild camping on the pacific crest trail was something that made us nervous during our planning stages. When we did finally get on the PCT, it turned out to be nothing to worry about.
Our first day on the trail, we worried about where we were going to camp for the whole day. It worried us for hours and hours. Personally, it was probably my biggest fear before leaving to embark on our pacific crest trail hike. By far, it was the thing that made me the most nervous.
For a lot of people, the idea of camping in a small, nylon tent in the middle of the wilderness, is a terrifying concept. I know it was for me. However, the more you do it, the more normal it feels.
Even the idea of finding a camping spot made me nervous. How was I supposed to find an isolated and hidden camping patch in all those trees? And what if there was no flat patch?
I think the most nerve wracking thought was that those thin tent walls wouldn’t keep us ‘safe’. If anything – or anyone – wanted to get us, they could. What if there was a murdering madman out there looking for defenseless hikers?
However, the truth is, no one – or no thing – wants to ‘get you’. It took me a while to understand that, but once I did, I slept soundly. We spent every night of our hike undisturbed.
With the exception of small mammals and bears in the High Sierra, nothing out there wants anything you’ve got to offer. In the Sierras, you’ll have to carry a bear canister to protect your food from bears, but aside from that, nothing will be interested in you.
Get an app like ‘Guthook Guides‘
I’m sure you’ve heard about the Guthook Guides app, but if you haven’t, it is essentially a completely offline guide to the pacific crest trail, all on an interactive map. I would genuinely consider this an essential piece of equipment to bring along on a pacific crest trail hike, because it’s that good.
The interactive map works offline, and includes things like water sources and camping locations. If you’re at all nervous about wild camping, this app takes all of the pressure off of finding a camp location. Hikers can even comment on and take photos of the camping locations. Each spot will have a number to indicate the amount of tent spaces available too, so you can work out how likely it is to be full before you commit. With hundreds of these camp spots along the trail, you’re pretty much guaranteed to find one that suits your plan.
And, if you’re nervous about camping alone, you’re more likely to find other hikers to camp with in these locations, as almost all hikers are using the app.
Don’t camp near roads
I’m sure that if you look into it hard enough, you’ll find some horror stories out there. Of course, the truth is that these are very isolated and rare instances. The horror stories you will find are one of a kind, literally. For every troubling tale that I’ve read or heard, the victim has been camped very close to a road. From the moment I began researching my pacific crest trail hike, I found loads of information from people saying that you should never camp near a road. And, I agree. On other long distance trails, that might be a more difficult rule to follow, but particularly on the pacific crest trail, we never found it hard to camp away from roads.
There was one night that we camped near to a main road, and neither of us slept well all night. We were very on-edge. Luckily, nothing happened and we remained undisturbed all night. However, camping within close proximity of a road means that there is easy access (and vehicle access) to anyone that wants to do you harm. Not that I think there are many people out there looking to do hikers harm, but you really do never know. So, keep yourself as safe as possible and camp at least a mile hike from any main roads.
Bears & other wild animals
During our hike, we made our way into many of the towns and cities that ran parallel to the PCT. The most common question we were asked by each towns’ residents was about the wildlife. Typically, we were asked about bears.
In truth, we only saw one bear on our entire 3 month hike. And, that bear was in the Toulumne Meadows campground in Yosemite. The small bear was searching for food amongst the tents and RVs whilst being chased away by rangers and campers.
Up until that moment, neither of us had seen a wild bear. It put our mind at ease to see how skittish and unthreatening they were. Coming from the UK, we weren’t exactly sure what to expect.
Despite being unsure on what to expect, we were both nervous about the idea of running into a bear. We had heard that the parks in the Sierra Nevada were full of wild black bears, and we worried about potential encounters until our hike was over. We needn’t have worried though, as we didn’t run into any bears on trail.
Bear-proof containers, or bear canisters, are required throughout much of the Sierra. In many of the parks, it is compulsory for a hiker to carry one when hiking through the backcountry where there is no bear locker available. We carried ours from Kennedy Meadows (south) until Lake Tahoe.
When camping overnight, any food or hygiene items (deodorant, wet wipes, sunscreen, anything scented) must be stored in the bear-proof container, and placed at least 100 feet downwind from your tent. This means that the bears can’t access your food, and thus wont associate humans with a food source. In turn, this essentially keeps wild bears wild, and directly saves them from becoming a nuisance and being put down.
For us, having the bear canister put our minds at ease. When camping at night, instead of sleeping with our food (and other scented items), it was all 100 feet away, tucked behind a rock or a bush. This meant that we had no fear of anything disturbing us – bear or otherwise. Personally, I found that it helped me sleep much better, as I knew that there was nothing inside the tent that could attract the wildlife.
Another creature that we were apprehensive about was snakes. Particularly rattlesnakes.
In the desert section of our hike, we ran into a handful of rattlesnakes, and at first we were terrified. However, after the first encounter our fears basically disappeared. For the most part, if you give them a wide enough birth, they won’t bother you. In our experience, so long as you don’t disturb them, they won’t come near you.
Of course, you do have to be cautious: getting bitten by a rattlesnake is a life threatening experience. But, my advice is to just not overthink it. Some of the other hikers that we spoke to hadn’t spotted a single snake on the trail. Others had seen dozens. All of them were respectfully cautious, and none had been bitten.
The last of our biggest fears on our Pacific Crest Trail hike was other people. Not particularly other PCT hikers, but day hikers and people at trailheads and in towns.
To some people, that might seem like a strange fear. But for us, we weren’t sure what kind of people we were going to run into on trail. We were also aware that there would be no where to run to if we did happen upon some unsavoury characters on trail.
Before I go any further, I should say that we didn’t run into anyone that we deemed unsavoury. However, we were aware of the possibility the entire time.
For the most part, the other people that we met along the trail were some of the kindest and most genuine people that we have ever met. We hiked along side some incredible people on our pacific crest trail hike, and received some of the most amazing hospitality from the people that we met on and off the trail. We were blown away by people’s generosity each and every day.
Obviously, there are a lot of horror stories out there. Horror stories about hikers running into unpleasant people on the pct. We never once felt uncomfortable on our 3 month hike, and as 2 women alone on the pacific crest trail, we felt welcomed by other hikers. We found there was no reason to feel overly cautious around other pct hikers. But, just be safe and remember, there’s assholes everywhere.
If you do feel that weird vibe from someone on trail, hike a little further and camp in an isolated spot on your own. You’re under no obligation to hike or camp with any one that you don’t want to. Alternatively, buddy up with someone that you are comfortable around, and always try to stick to the same hiking schedule as them, and camp in the same locations.
Spend an extra day in town
If there is someone that’s bothering you or making you feel uncomfortable, when you get into town, spend an extra day so as to not be hiking with them. Or alternatively, don’t spend the night, and head straight back out on trail the same day.
For most of your Pacific Crest Trail hike, you won’t have to worry at all about altitude. However, for a few hundred miles in the Sierras, there are multiple days hiking & camping at over 10,000 feet. For some people, this is nothing to worry about at all, but for those of us that live at sea level it can be a bit of a concern.
If you’re hiking northbound, like us, you’ll have a slow and steady climb up past Kennedy Meadows. During these days, you’ll find yourself acclimatising to hiking at altitude nicely. It’s recommended to stay overnight at Kennedy Meadows to help with this acclimatisation.
By the time you get to 10,000 feet, your body should have gotten used to hiking at altitude. However, altitude sickness (and more seriously Acute Mountain Sickness) occurs at altitudes over 8000 feet. Usually, it occurs when someone travels to high altitudes too quickly. Therefore, it’s important to be aware of the symptoms, preventions and treatment of altitude sickness and AMS.
For more information on altitude sickness and AMS/HAPE, read this article.
So there you have it: our biggest fears and safety concerns during our Pacific Crest Trail hike. Obviously, there are many more PCT dangers that we have not included in this post, as this list is potentially exhaustive.
The biggest safety concern for most potential thru-hikers is snow and river crossings. As we completed our hike in the summer of 2018 (a very, very low snow year), we did not included this in our list.
For more PCT reading, check out some of the posts below!
Happy trails 🙂