Pacific Crest Trail Thru Hike: Nine Tips For Success

What are you waiting for? Get out there and explore!
What are you waiting for? Get out there and explore! All photos by Trail Ambassador Robin Standish.

One-Quarter of Aspiring Pacific Crest Trail Thru Hikes Succeed: These Tips Can Make The Difference

The Westernmost trail in the infamous “Triple Crown” of hiking, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) stretches from the US-Mexico border to the US-Canada border, running through California, Oregon and Washington. According to the 2013 statistics from the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, out of the 1041 people that attempted the PCT, only 273 of them reported completing the trail (26% completion). We talked to Trail Information Specialist Jack Haskel of the PCTA who gave us nine critical PCT tips to help you on your thru hike.

9 Tips To Succeed on a Pacific Crest Trail Thru Hike:

Please help to keep the PCT as pristine as possible.
Please help to keep the PCT as pristine as possible.
  1. Research: Learn from those who have gone before you. Read our entire ‘Discover the Trail’ section of our website.
  2. Train and build experience: Hike often. Test your gear, but primarily toughen your body and learn backcountry skills. You’re on your own out on a Pacific Crest Trail thru hike. Be sure that you’re competent with basic backcountry skills and that your body is prepared to handle endurance hiking.
  3. Get Your Maps: Collect the maps and other trail information that you’ll be using on the trail.
  4. Manage Risk: There is intrinsic risk in the wilderness. Lightning, cold weather, falling rock, wild animals and a long list of other dangers exist. It’s not 100% safe. A twisted ankle can be life threatening if you are alone. Learn first aid. You can minimize most of the risk with knowledge, equipment and planning.
  5. Don’t Love It To Death: There are a lot of us that love the PCT. But we could love it to death if we’re not careful. We share a narrow space – often 18 inches wide – with many others. Thousands, tens of thousands, are following us. If we’re going to continue to have a healthy trail, each of our actions matters, good or bad. Leave no trace.
  6. Understand Long-Distance: There are long waterless stretches on the PCT. Sometimes, you’ll travel around 30 miles between water. Long dry stretches should only be attempted by knowledgeable, physically fit travelers who are carrying large amounts of water. Check the PCT Water Report for the best information available about the current status of water sources.
  7. Watch for Wildfires: Wildfire is an inevitable part of summer in the West. Sections of the PCT can and do close due to fire. If it’s legal and appropriate to have a campfire, please keep it small. Do not build new fire rings or have a fire in a location that has not previously had one. It’s imperative that you fully extinguish your campfire before you go to bed. Many forest fires have been started by backpacker’s campfires.
  8. Potty Training: We’ve got to say it: some of you need potty training. Don’t panic, the PCT is nearly entirely poop free. You can walk miles and miles without coming across someone else’s business. Thank goodness. Keep this trail clean!
  9.  Support The Trail: The Pacific Crest Trail thru hike wouldn’t be possible without the support of thousands of people around the world who love the PCT. Join them.

Pacific Crest Trail Association Q&A

How important is it to prepare mentally for a PCT thru hike?

For any Pacific Crest Trail thru hike or day hike, the most important gear is between your ears. It’s no coincidence that the first principle of Leave No Trace backcountry ethics is “plan ahead and prepare.” Everything about your experience on the PCT is predicated on doing your homework. Know where you’re going, prepare both your body and your equipment appropriately, and most importantly, expect to be challenged and amazed by trail. A PCT thru hike requires great effort. Be ready for that.

What are some of the most common reasons people leave the trail early?

Ahhhh... A Pacific Crest Trail thru hike dream view.
Ahhhh… A Pacific Crest Trail thru hike dream view.

We don’t have a lot of formal research on this topic, but anecdotally, we hear that people run out of money, or that they hiked until they were sidelined with a limb-overuse or repetitive stress injury.

And what are some of the things that help people carry on despite these difficulties?

It is all about determination. One of the most inspiring stories we’ve heard in some time is the story of Andy “Astro” Lyon. Andy was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma when he was 18 years old. For over four years, he had been through chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant to try and stop the disease. But when the cancer came back again in 2012, according to his mother, “Astro said enough was enough.” Instead of more chemo, he decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail starting in April, 2012. He completed the PCT and passed away peacefully in 2013. Andy’s story is a tremendous lesson about the power of human resolve in the face of overwhelming odds.

What are some of the best ways and workouts to train for endurance hiking?

While there’s no perfect way to prepare the body for hiking all day for weeks on end, maintaining a good general fitness level prior to a hike will prepare the body to absorb the rigors of daily trail travel. When designing a fitness program with hiking preparation in mind, emphasize low-to-medium-load, long-duration strengthening exercises that target the muscles of the hips, thighs and lower leg. Mix in cardiovascular exercises like long walks or light jogging. Consider consulting your physician or an exercise professional who can help you design a program that’s right for you. More information on hiking fitness and avoiding injuries due to limb overuse is here.

We are always looking to cut down our weight, so sometimes carrying a lot of maps and trail info is out of the question. How do you recommend streamlining your maps/info to reduce weight but not give up any usefulness?

Quality PCT maps are essential for anyone who hikes on the trail. Information changes frequently and you should assume that your map isn’t 100% accurate. Guidebooks have the most complete information about the trail, surrounding area and the natural history of the diverse ecosystems the PCT wanders through. They are also the heaviest. Paper maps are lighter, but contain background information and of course, no trail descriptions. Maps can be trimmed slightly to reduce weight, but a more significant weight reduction will be found by including relevant maps in resupply for the sections of PCT you’ll be hiking. Lightest of all are digital maps of the trail. However, smartphones and electronics do fail. They run out of batteries, screens break, or you might fall in a creek. Some PCT apps don’t provide enough information about exit routes either. The PCTA has comprehensive information about maps on the PCTA website.

How can people doing a Pacific Crest Trail thru hike specifically work to leave no trace on the PCT?

Maintaining awareness of all of the “7 principles of Leave No Trace Backcountry” ethics on your Pacific Crest Trail thru hike is important. They each have their place in reducing the impact of all users on the PCT. These are three of most significant we’d like to expand on during this year’s hiking season:

1. Plan Ahead and Prepare

  • Poor advance preparation  can cause damage to the environment. Small impacts repeated by thousands become major impacts.
  • Examine PCTA, U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management websites in advance, and consult bulletin boards for regulations and guidelines. Note that camping and fire restrictions vary. Visit in the smallest possible group size; most campsites can’t handle more than eight people. If day-hiking with a larger group, split up while hiking.
  • Carry a litter bag and use it. Bring a lightweight trowel for burying human waste (feces). Consider minimum impact gear such as a free-standing tent and earth-tone colored gear.
  • Carefully planned meals reduce impacts. Minimize leftovers by repackaging food into portions appropriate for your group.
  • Prepare for extreme weather, hazards and emergencies–especially the cold–to avoid impacts from searches, rescues and campfires.
  • Carry a bear-resistant food container wherever advised for storing food, trash and other scented items. In other areas, a waterproof bag and at least 50 feet of cord can be used to counter-balance your food and garbage from a tree limb.

2. Dispose of Waste Properly

  • Improper disposal of food, trash, urine, feces and wastewater spreads disease, changes the habits of wildlife and spoils the scenery.
  • Pack it in, Pack it out. Don’t burn, bury or leave any litter (which includes food, nut shells, fruit peels, paper or cigarette butts).
  • If an outdoor toilet (privy) is available, use it, but leave only human waste and toilet paper there–nothing else.
  • Pack out disposable wipes and feminine hygiene products.
  • If there is no privy, bury feces in a hole 6 to 8 inches deep and at least 200 feet (80 steps) away from campsites, trails and water. Or better yet, do it miles away from camp and water. Don’t hide your waste under a rock; it won’t decompose quickly there. Pack out your toilet paper; animals may dig it up.
  • In special conditions pack out human waste. This is especially important in certain places such as the Mount Whitney region, or during winter when deep snow prevents digging down to the soil.
  • Disperse urine, toothpaste, cooking water and strained dishwater at least 200 feet away from campsites so the soil is not polluted and so wildlife won’t be attracted by the odors and become pests.
  • Wash dishes, bodies and clothing 200 feet away from water sources. Eliminate or minimize any use of soap. Dishwater can often be avoided by making a drink of the boiled water used to clean out the remnants of your meal from your bowl or cup.

5. Minimize Campfire Impacts

  • Campfires burn wood that would otherwise provides wildlife habitat and replenishes the soil. Trash burned in campfires attracts animals, (skunks, bears and mice) creates an eyesore and releases toxic fumes.
  • Use stoves for cooking. If you must build a fire, build one only where it’s legal, use an existing fire ring (don’t create a new one) and keep your fire small. Alcohol and wood burning stoves may be prohibited if campfires are banned.
  • Leave hatchets and saws at home. Collect dead and downed wood you can break by hand, no bigger than your wrist.
  • Do not burn trash. This includes foil, plastic, glass, cans, tea bags, food or anything with food on it. Leave fire rings clean.

What gear is required for safe campfire creation?

Thankfully there isn't much that could burn down here!
Thankfully there isn’t much that could burn down here!

Campfires are generally not allowed on the PCT in Southern California at all. Down there, only the rare developed car-camping campground, with official fire amenities, allow fires. The fire danger is too extreme, and population centers too at-risk, to allow fires. In fact, during periods of high fire danger, much of the Pacific Crest Trail can be placed under strong fire restrictions. Many long-distance hikers don’t rely on campfires for cooking, and don’t prioritize the time that it takes to build, maintain and safely extinguish a fire. But, if hikers chose to build a fire in the backcountry, they should know the current fire restrictions, have a campfire permit (if necessary) and follow all of the generally accepted best practices like not building new fire rings, using only dead, down, detached and small diameter wood, and extinguishing the fire with water, then stirring it, and feeling it with their hands for hot coals.

What’s the biggest difference between how PCT hikers deal with water versus hikers on the CDT or AT?

Generally speaking, abundant water on the Appalachian Trail and a relatively constant climate over it’s length reduces the need to carry large quantities of water and adopt different strategies for water supply. The PCT is different. Over the length of the Pacific Crest trail thru hike, explorers journey through a wide range of environments, each of which presents unique water-related challenges. We have some very detailed information about water issues on the PCT on our website. Perhaps the most significant, especially to hikers from the East Coast, is the relative scarcity of water on southern sections of the PCT. You’ll find long waterless stretches on your Pacific Crest Trail thru hike. Sometimes, you’ll travel around 30 miles between water. Long dry stretches should only be attempted by knowledgeable, physically fit travelers who are carrying large amounts of water. Seasonal water sources, faucets and water tanks run dry. Water caches should never be depended upon. Dehydration, heat illness and hyponatremia are real threats on the PCT. Your safety is your responsibility. Dry stretches are not for everyone. In Southern California, always carry the latest PCT Water Report. It’s a pretty similar situation on the CDT. But out there, you’ll be sharing more water sources with cows.

Why should people support the PCTA?

Your gifts to conserve the PCT are not just about the trail itself. They are about protecting and caring for the health and beauty of lands that provide clean air and water and a place for people and wildlife to thrive. After all, this is your public land. The PCT belongs to all of us. Your support matters. You are defending an authentic, wild experience.

What are some ways people can volunteer to help the PCTA?

Volunteers are the lifeblood of the Pacific Crest Trail. Each year, dedicated PCTA volunteers and staff flock to the woods with picks, shovels, saws and spirit to rebuild washed-out bridges, cut away fallen trees and restore eroded portions of the trail. As a result, hikers and equestrians alike will tell you that the PCT is one of the finest trail experiences in existence. Joining a trail crew to volunteer on the PCT is free and simple. We maintain a list of volunteer projects and frequently asked questions on the PCTA website.

 

You'll explore widely varied terrain on your Pacific Crest Trail thru hike. Be prepared for anything.
You’ll explore widely varied terrain on your Pacific Crest Trail thru hike. Be prepared for anything. You can read more about PCT thru hikes on our Long Distance + Thru Hiking page. If you have any PCT tips of your own, please share them on the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Facebook page.

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