*NOTE: This post was written in 2011 and much of it is outdated. The general advice still applies, but some things may be outdated as far as specifics or links.
I can remember this time last year when my Pacific Crest Trail planning kicked into panic mode. It was my first thru hike, I was unfamiliar with the west coast, and had no idea where to start. As a planner, this was very anxiety producing. Here are some of my suggestions for those of you planning to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in the near future. I will try to be as quick and to the point as possible. The words in GREEN have links if you click on them to help you more efficiently. I will not be discussing gear in detail here. If you are interested in that, please visit my Gear Review or Gear List.
GET YOGI’S PCT HANDBOOK!!! Order it today! I mean it! Stop reading this, click on the link, and order NOW! When you order, you will get two books. One is a great planning guide to use before the hike that includes anything and everything you would ever want to know about the PCT and how to plan for it. The other is a guide to the trail towns and trail tips (from trusted hikers who hiked the trail) that you will carry in sections as you hike. I cannot say enough about this resource. It was slightly outdated when I used it and Yogi has just revamped it with a new edition that came out in October. Why are you still reading this and not ordering it already!?
I loved using Craig’s PCT Planner. Those of you who saw my elevation charts and maps for each section, they came from Craig’s site. It made the planning so much easier for me. It is especially helpful if you plan to prepacked food drops and send them to yourself. The program allows you to adjust for pace changes in varying conditions or elevations. It also automatically adjusts your whole hike if you enter that you’ve taken and extra day in town or move faster than expected. I always had the chart with me of my whole schedule with the dates I expected to hit trail towns. It was fun to see and easy to adjust if I got off schedule. Definitely check it out.
The PCT-L is is the PCT mailing list through pcta.org. There are pros and cons to being on this this list. The pro is that it can be very helpful in networking and getting the most recent trail news/gossip. You can passively view all the conversations to get information or you can post your own inquiries and get pretty immediate answers or advice. The problem is that you have to weed through what is valuable information and what is just crap…a lot of it is crap. List membership is open to the public, so people who haven’t hiked the trail try to give advice when they really shouldn’t. You can figure it out pretty easily. All the hikers called them “fear mongers” this year because they all told us the Sierra was impassable and that we were hiking to our death in the high Sierra snow. It is nice to have it as a resource for trail updates and gossip. I suggest you go into the settings once you are on the list and select “digest mailing” so that you get one email/day will all the happenings instead of 50 throughout the day. Plus, I suggest that in Feb/Mar you post an invite for all prospective hikers in your area to meet at a local pub. It was great for us Portlanders to already know a whole crew of hikers before even setting foot on the trail.
While you’re at it, become a PCTA Member by donating $35. Pay it forward to a trail that will change your life forever! This trail is all about the generosity of complete strangers and trail magic. I would never think of a thru hike without first donating to the Pacific Crest Trail. This amazing experience is made possible through the PCTA organization. They maintain over 2,600mi of trail which is affected by snow, floods, forest fires, and more every year. If you plan on doing a thru hike without donating, you should be ashamed, and the trail gods will hunt you down! Believe me, I’ve seen it happen.
Start Date & Kick-Off
Choosing a start date depends on many factors. Most hikers start Kick-Off weekend. This year, it is April 27-29. You can go to the website at http://adzpctko.org/. It stands for Annual Day Zero Pacific Crest Trail Kick Off. I definitely recommend attending kick-off. Great atmosphere to meet other thru hikers and attend workshops. I hiked in the Friday of my kick off weekend from Campo, spent Saturday there, and left with most hikers on Sunday. Some hiked in on Thursday and really enjoyed spending all day Fri and Sat at kick-off. All the action is on Fri and Sat, so no need to go earlier.
For those of you looking to ease into the trail and hike slowly the first week or so, I recommend that you leave about a week earlier and leisurely hike to Warner Springs. From there, many trail angels will be giving rides to and from kick-off. It is very common and you won’t have a problem getting a hitch from there or any other main intersection along the trail in S California.
I’ve gone over this topic in more detail in my Gear Review, but I want to give my two cents briefly here. I used Erik the Black’s PCT Atlas Books and DO NOT recommend them. Go with Halfmile’s Maps. I know it looks intimidating at first, but they are simple, and most importantly, reliable. They can be printed and loaded onto smartphones and GPS units. Regardless of if you use Halfmile’s maps, he has a great new app that works wonderfully on the trail. One button locates where you are on trail and lists for you how far you are, north or south, to the next landmark, campsite, or water source. Just magic. In recent years since I have hiked, another app has become popular for the PCT, but I have not used it. It is the Guthook Hikes Apps for the PCT. I’ve heard many people are liking that app, but I do not have direct experience to advise people either way. Many people have asked me which app I used on my iPhone for GPS. I used the Topo Maps App. It will plot the waypoints, but not the tracks. I found that the waypoints were sufficient. In my recent communication with Halfmile, he said that the Topo Maps App is his favorite at the moment. I hiked with someone who used the Android App, BackCountry Navigator PRO GPS and it was great! Plotted tracks and had icons for water and campsites. Recently, Halfmile said they had some changes that may affect their maps, so Android users might want to look into it. Also, Halfmile has his own app that is new in 2012. It will not make sense looking at it from home, but on the trail, it’s magic! It is free and with the push of a button it locates the mile you are at on the trail, tells you what campsites, water, or landmarks are in either direction from you, and how far you are from those landmarks. Hiking gold. Gotta love Halfmile!
I’ve had a lot of inquiries about my first aid kit. I was a minimalist in this and it’s all a matter of personal preference. I carried my blister care (sports tape, gauze, sewing needle), Ibuprofen, and various sizes of band aids. I just carried it in a Ziploc in my toiletry bag. Other than that, I felt okay knowing I was never more than a couple days from a town if I needed some kind of medication.
Food Drop Boxes & Bounce Boxes
Everyone has their own way of resupplying along the trail. I really liked that I had my food boxes (23 boxes) prepared before the hike, and my step mom sent them to me as I hiked. This strategy doesn’t fit everyone, but I know I’m a pretty routine eater and I had faith that I’d make it pretty far on the trail. It was stressful and tantrum inducing to get them all put together, but I was relieved to have one less thing to worry about on the trail. I didn’t have to do those stressful grocery store trips on tired feet and it was nice to have the bulk of my food expenses out of the way before the hike. As for food, I can’t say I had the best diet, but here’s my PCT menu if you’re interested. I ended up ditching my homemade marinara and eating more Mountain House for dinner, but other than that, I ate pretty much what is on that list.
I also Bounced a box to myself eight times along the trail every couple of weeks when I knew I was taking a zero in a town. I mostly did this because I was bouncing my laptop to myself to upload my photos and videos as I hiked. I also bounced some fresh cotton clothes to wear in town and larger containers of toiletries or first aid to resupply those things. Detailed information on trail towns, addresses, and postal services can be found in Yogi’s PCT Handbook.
If you don’t journal online, I suggest that you at least journal personally each night if you can. It takes commitment, but you will be so thankful you did it after the hike is over. I suggest numbering the days and mentioning who you meet each day. It is amazing who will cross your path multiple times along the trail and you may end up bonding with hikers in Oregon that you never imagined ever seeing again after you left S Cali. It is really great to look back in the journal and remember those chance encounters. Being Wired, I could do many entries solely on journaling and how to do it from the trail. For details on online journaling, I have two lengthy articles coming out this month on pctnews.com that detail how I journaled so consistently online and how I kept myself “wired” on the trail. I will be posting a notice as soon as those articles are posted. My advice for now is to start now with your online journal and work out the kinks by practicing on the device you plan to use. It takes a lot of practice, but it’s worth it!
There is a new app for the PCT that I am very excited about. It is the PCTHYOH App. It is also available for Android users if you Google it. HYOH is a popular saying on the trail, “Hike Your Own Hike.” This app centralizes links to almost every PCT resource you’ll need on the trail. Everything including maps, water reports in S Cali, trail journal links, PCTNews, trail closures, weather forecasts, snow reports, etc. I had each of these bookmarked in my iPhone and it’s great to have them all in one central location on this app.
When I first planned on doing the PCT, I had a hiking partner. When that fell through, I never imagined I would ever hike solo. With encouragement from other solo female hikers, I decided to give it a shot…and it was the best thing that could have ever happened to me! For those of you worried about being alone, don’t worry. You won’t be alone unless you want to be. If you leave from kick-off, you’ll have about 300 other hikers around you and plenty of choices. There was a great deal of pride in knowing I was self sufficient and I found it to be incredibly freeing to make my own schedule and decisions on the trail. So awesome!
I just have to mention this briefly. There were many people early on in the trail who struggled physically and emotionally early on. It was heartbreaking to watch people who put in all the time and energy into planning a five month hike only to have it end in the first two weeks. In order to have a successful hike, you have to be physically ready. The trail is NOT easy. Not even the first day! The PCT is no joke! My advice to anyone planning to hike is that you train consistently and start now. The key is that you train your body to carry pack weight. Walk or hike as much as possible with pack weight on. Start with 10-15lbs and work up to 30-40lbs. Use sand, water, weights, dictionaries, etc. I even wore my pack to the grocery store. You should easily be able to hike at least 14mi with your pack weight and I would even suggest 20+ miles. Even more important is that you should be able to do it back to back days. If you can’t do over 14 miles each day back to back on a Saturday and Sunday from home, then how will it be possible to magically hike the PCT? You have to put in the effort to get results. The main problem that took many hikers off the trail was shin splints. I trained specifically with exercises to prevent shin splints. Also, if you are not used to long distance backpacking, you should do at least a three day trip to test out gear and work out kinks.
One of my pet peeves are the constant questions about footwear in the Sierra snow. Take it from me, I hiked in highest snow year on record, and low top trail runners were just fine. I didn’t even wear waterproof shoes. What people don’t realize is that, although you will be in snow, it will be very hot outside. Your shoes will dry quickly and you will be in so much snow and water that water proof shoes won’t stay dry anyway. Also, DO NOT use crampons! Microspikes are just the right thing. You will be hiking through conditions that change from rock, to snow, to trail and you do not want to be wearing huge crampons that you have to keep taking on an off. Also, good luck with Yaktrax if you’re trying to cut corners and save ounces. You will slip and slide and take some painful (and possibly hike ending) falls. So, in summary, non-waterproof trail runners and microspikes.
The whole trail is just magical, but there are a few things that some hikers tend to miss out on and I want to mention them so you know. At about mile 300, you will reach the Deep Creek Detour. That detour is there because there is a washout that was completely passable. Most hikers did not take the detour and the ones that did, regretted it. You will experience much more harrowing traverses in the Sierra, so just consider this practice. It really was one of my favorite sections. Around mile 760, you’ll come to the side trail to do Mt. Whitney. When will you get the chance again to summit the highest mountain in the contiguous US? Go for it! Yosemite and Half Dome are right around mile 940. You can choose to hike into Yosemite on the JMT or you can hitch. Either way, I recommend doing Half Dome if you can. I knew I might not ever get the chance again, so I took it and loved it! Don’t worry about all the warnings for permits. As a thru hiker, you won’t have a problem if you get to the ranger station early before the daily ones run out and show them your thru hiker permit. Finally, there is Eagle Creek. This is the alternate route into Cascade Locks and the Oregon/Washington border. I was a purist and still did Eagle Creek even though I live in Portland and hike it all the time. It is that good. It is assumed that this is the PCT route to take even though it isn’t the official route. It’s photographed on both the PCT calendar and official pcta.org map. Definitely do it.
-HYOH(Hike Your Own Hike). This is your hike, so go with your gut. If you need to take an extra day off, don’t feel pressure to move on. If you want to move on and not camp where the group is, people will understand. Everyone’s hiking style is different and everyone respects it along the trail. You are working your butt off and deserve to do it the way your body and mind needs to do it.
|My best motivator was envisioning this!|
-Stay Motivated! Find ways to keep things fresh and motivating. Five months is a long time and after hikers leave the excitement of the Sierra, there are many who decide to leave the trail. Bodies are tired and hurt, stomachs are hungry, and thoughts of home creep into minds. I had many motivators. I loved my MP3 player, which also played the radio and had audiobooks that kept me entertained. I had rewards of friends and family to see in Oregon and that was a great motivator! S Oregon is a great spot to have a friend jump in if you don’t mind slowing down and they don’t mind mosquitoes. Treat yourself to good meals or treats (like movies) in town. I thought about the Harry Potter movie for a solid week as I hiked into Tahoe! Milkshakes at the end of a trail can do wonders! Tell family that the second half will be the most important for care packages! Looking forward to those are really motivating. My biggest motivator and quick fix…envisioning Monument 78 in Canada. Just the thought of it would send adrenaline like no other through me and I was recharged and ready to hike!
-Networking-Get phone numbers and contact info from hikers you enjoy and trust. It was great to text at night with other hikers when I was solo. Also, it was great to share trail information and advice with hikers ahead/behind you. I recommend that you get on your PCT Class of 2012 Facebook Page. It’s a great way to meet hikers in your area and keep in touch during and after the trail.
-Make your own decisions and find out for yourself. As I mentioned earlier, there will be tons of “talk” as you hike the trail from people who have sometimes never even set foot on the trail. We all called them fear mongers and some of the hikers this year took their bait of an impassible Sierra and left the trail. Other hikers got so psyched out, that they chose to skip or flip flop. Many ended up not finishing the trail. This will happen with detours, possible snow in Washington, and countless other things. Don’t let others dictate your hike. If you aren’t sure, just find out for yourself. That is what I chose to do in the Sierra and I knew I could always turn around if things were too challenging. Before I knew it, we had tackled each impassible pass and high water ford. Just find out for yourself or make sure your sources are reliable before making any major hike-altering decisions.
-Take photos and try to upload them as you hike. It takes hikers months to get through them if they wait until after the trail. Most of us only hike the trail once and you will want those photos to relive it the rest of your life! I suggest making a Shutterfly Book after the trail. I love mine!
-Just enjoy it! Take it in while you can. As soon as it’s over, you’ll daydream about it constantly.