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How To Prepare to Hike the Pacific Crest Trail

by Kristy Podruchny
Path along the alpine meadows of the Pacific Crest Trail

Path along the alpine meadows of the Pacific Crest Trail. Stock photo by Mint_Images via Envato Elements.

There’s nothing like a global pandemic to wake up that wanderlust you’ve been suppressing for years. Who’s up for a 2,650-mile trek across the United States?

The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is one of 11 trails in our National Scenic Trail System. It meanders from Mexico to Canada over the crests of several mountain ranges including the Sierra Nevada and the Cascade ranges. The PCT spans three states, 25 national forests, 48 federal wilderness areas, five state parks, and six national parks. Whether you choose to thru-hike or section hike, you’ll be blown away by the scenery from the deserts of southern California to the rugged vistas of northern Washington.

The Pacific Crest Trail became more widely known after Cheryl Strayed’s gorgeous and heart-rending memoir Wild was made into a movie. Cheryl’s story doesn’t romanticize hiking the trail, but fans have inserted their wildest wilderness fantasies nevertheless into their thru-hike attempts. While this memoir has given the trail newfound fame, it is not a PCT handbook.

Do Your Research Before You Attempt to Hike the Pacific Crest Trail

I became an obsessive researcher five years prior to my attempted thru-hike and I still learned a lot on the trail when I hiked it in 2018. I hiked over 1,200 miles total on my attempted thru-hike in 2018. My partner got off trail which nearly took me off trail, but I hiked on with Snake Charmer (@yogi_mama_llama) and Scooter. Our plans were thwarted by fires, and rather than hiking in the smoke, I decided to get off trail. I plan on finishing the rest in sections over the next few years.

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When you’re planning your thru-hike attempt, YouTube is a valuable resource. Check out Darwin on the Trail and Homemade Wanderlust for gear videos and advice. You can also check out the hundreds of vlogs other PCT hikers have shared over the years. These personal accounts show some of the mental preparation, challenges, successes, and mistakes other hikers have experienced.

If you know someone who has hiked the PCT, call them up and ask for advice; chances are they’d love to chat about their experience. I was lucky enough to connect with “Wired,” a professional thru-hiker with over 15,000 miles under her trail runners. Also, check out what I consider the PCT bible: Yogi’s PCT Handbook.

What to expect while hiking the PCT

You can expect hiker hunger, appreciation for all civilization has to offer (creature comforts), miserably sore feet, miserably sore everything, and a connection to nature you’ll never forget. Expect to hike, eat, sleep, and repeat for five months. Regardless of how much you research, you’ll always run into something unexpected.

Tapping out – why hikers quit hiking the PCT

In most cases, your mind will quit long before your body does. The mental game is one of the hardest parts of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. You will miss family, friends, your cat, your feet will feel like they’ve been clubbed, and you’ll soon grow tired of eating powdered mashed potatoes. Reminding yourself why you’re hiking is crucial for getting through the periods where you question your sanity. You’ll need to have an answer ready for the question, “Why am I out here doing this?”

Aside from staying mentally strong, hikers are taken off trail by injury, illness, or an empty bank account. Some events are out of our control, but be sure to filter your water, try not to push yourself to the point of injury, keep a close eye on your finances, and stay out of trail towns.

Whoops, I ran out of money in Mammoth Lakes, California

Money. You’ll need more than you think, so plan on budgeting high. Depending on how you plan on hiking, you’ll want to have at least $1,000 a month to pay for food, transportation (donate to trail angels if you can), hotel stays, shoes, and other possible gear replacements. You’ll notice that most of that money is spent in trail towns. The allure of the comforts in trail towns will keep many hikers stuck in the “vortex” where you can freely drain your bank account. Trust me, pad thai and pizza at the motel is hiker heaven.

Reality check – real and perceived dangers along the PCT

River crossings and exposure (dehydration or hypothermia) are more dangerous than any animal you’ll run into on the trail. Rattlesnakes, cougars, and bears will leave you alone if you learn how to behave around them and don’t provoke them.

Hitchhiking and staying with kind strangers is a part of the trail experience. Most trail towns host a community of well-known trail angels who keep the stranger-danger down to a dull roar. Be smart about who you accept rides from and with whom you stay. But you’ll likely meet many generous people along your trek.

Thru-hiking during a pandemic

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail right now comes with a new set of considerations. Carry a mask with you or use a buff/handkerchief while you’re hitching or hanging out in town. Be mindful of the latest hiker COVID advice. The best resource for guidelines is the Pacific Crest Trail Association’s website.

Learn “leave no trace” principles

As you journey through the wild scenic places of California, Oregon, and Washington, always remember to leave no trace. Learn these “Leave No Trace” guidelines and live by them as best you can.

Happy trails!

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