Questions & Answers
I’ve been asked many questions about my upcoming adventure, so I figured I’d provide answers to common queries. If you have any other question, feel free to reach out.
Q. How long does it take to through-hike the PCT?
A. On average, hikers who successfully complete the trail do so in about 5 months. This typically includes a few side trips and a number of zeros. If the stars align in terms of weather and conditions, it is possible, albeit challenging, to complete the trail in just four months.
In 2021, ultrarunner Timothy Olson ran the PCT in 51 days, 16 hours, and 55 minutes, thus beating the supported fastest known time record previously established in 2016. This makes five months look like a paltry endeavor 😉
Q. How did you get five months off?
A. I’m fortunate that the company I work for has a sabbatical program for senior employees. Fundamentally, it means that I can take a few months off while keeping my job and enjoying uninterrupted health insurance benefits. I am extremely privileged.
Q. You love to travel. Why hike?
A. Well, hiking is just a form of slow travel, right? More seriously, it was a complex decision. I was mulling over options for my sabbatical, and traveling around the world was the obvious and default plan. Except, it didn’t quite click. I felt I could do more. Perhaps it wasn’t novel enough—I’ve managed to travel extensively while working full time. Perhaps I was concerned that the experience wouldn’t be as transformative or unique as I’d hope for. Perhaps it would just be exhausting and require too much planning. Plus, COVID.
I ended up coming up with the following three key principles to guide my decision:
- My sabbatical will be a unique experience. The kind that requires extended time off. The type that most people would quit their job for.
- The experience will include a physical component. Ideally something that helps me push my limits.
- I will step out of my comfort zone and accomplish something that I’ll be proud of.
As my interest in hiking grew and I started to gain experience backpacking, I fell in love with the PCT and it dawned on me: I should thru-hike. It’s a unique opportunity, a physically-challenging and mentally-demanding endeavor; and it sure requires a lot of time off, making it a perfect fit. Three months later, I had my permit and sabbatical papers in hand.
Q. Will you really sleep outside five months in a row?
A. Basically, yes. Unlike many long-distance trails in Europe that are dotted with shelters and even the occasional bed-and-breakfast, or the Appalachian Trail in the US which has basic shelters every few miles, the PCT goes through numerous stretches of remote wilderness.
That’s not to say that I’ll never sleep in a bed, though. Every 5-10 days I’ll stop in a town to resupply, eat real food, shower, recharge my electronics, and do laundry. Sometimes I’ll just pop in and get back on trail, but once in a while I’ll stay overnight at a motel or a hostel. I will also naturally take a number of zeros to rest and recover.
Q. How fast can you hike?
A. I don’t know. Okay, I have some data points. I know from experience that I can hike 25-30 miles several days in a row on the PCT, with a full pack. I also hiked 35 miles in a day last summer just for the heck of it, but I had a much lighter pack. That’s quite fast for a section hiker, but it’s a moderate-to-average speed for a thru-hiker.
Hiking over 2,600 miles is a marathon and not a sprint, so starting slowly and building up endurance is the key to success (and I’ll have to exercise discipline in this regard.)
Q. Can I join you for a few days and hike a section with you?
A. Thank you, I really appreciate it! While I’d love that, it’s logistically challenging. I can’t make plans in advance as the weather and my body will dictate how fast I can go. Plus, travel to the trail is quite challenging, unless you’re willing to fly to a minor airport and drive to the nearest trailhead, which could be hours away. Finally, I’ll build up considerable endurance and speed over time, and I’ll need and want to continue to hike at thru-hiker’s pace so I can both make it to Canada in time, and stick with my tramily.
If you live near a trailhead and are flexible, though, I would sure love to say hi, even briefly. Please get in touch!
Q. Where will you be on (insert date here)?
A. I don’t know; see above. But I can tell you I’ll be heading north! Okay, follow my Instagram as that will be the best way to figure out if I’m likely to be in your area soon.
Q. How will you find your way or know how much water to carry?
A. That’s an aspect of long-distance backpacking that has changed dramatically in the last 5-10 years: there’s an app for that. (The other recent notable innovation is ultralight gear.) Sure, using a cell phone is not as sexy as triangulating with a compass or relying on the wisdom of ancient tribes, and it has significant drawbacks (read: batteries can run out) but overall, it’s simple, reliable, effective, and it doesn’t take much away from the wilderness experience in my opinion.
Q. Can I do anything to help?
A. Thank you! 😀 I don’t need anything, but please consider donating to the Pacific Crest Trail Association which helps protect and maintain the trail, or to Protect Our Winters. Both are non-profits and your gift may be tax deductible.
Q. Why thru-hike in 2022?
A. Unfortunately, the best years to hike the PCT are behind us. Climate change, forest fires, COVID- and budget-related trail maintenance issues have taken a toll on the trail. 2021 has been an especially challenging year, with extensive fire damage along the entire West coast and unprecedented trail closures in CA and WA. Some experts believe that through-hiking is bound to become impossible in a matter of years. Here are a few recent news stories that shed light on the issue:
- Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is ‘almost impossible’ due to climate change
- The climate crisis is changing the PCT experience
- Can Thru-Hiking Survive in the Age of Megafires?
There used to be a saying, “the trail will always be there.” That’s not so sure anymore, and I’d like to embark on this adventure before it’s too late.
Q. What are the risks?
A. No physical activity, especially a strenuous and sustained one, is risk free. However, through-hiking is not inherently dangerous when practiced with caution. Tales of bear attacks and encounters with dangerous wildlife are mostly legends (the last fatal bear attack in WA was over 10 years ago, and hiker traffic has substantially increased since.) Minor injuries (falls, strained tendons, heat exhaustion, etc.) are unfortunately quite common, and one of the main reasons many hikers are unable to complete their journey. But these accidents are relatively minor and typically just require rest.
I have consulted with medical professionals and trained extensively. While it would be presumptuous to rule out the possibility of injuries, I feel that a through hike is well within my abilities.
Q. How much have you prepared?
A. I’ve hiked extensively two summers in a row, I am going on weekly training hikes with a full backpack, and I’ve talked to plenty of through-hikers and probably spent hundreds of hours geeking out on r/ultralight. I’ve read a few books so I could wrap my mind around the psychological and mental components of the challenge, which are often vastly underestimated. I’ve even done PT and x-rays to check on a few potential conditions—all signals are green.
Other than that, I don’t have a day-by-day plan. Or week-by-week. Or, month-by-month. Or anything, really. I can’t control or foresee the weather, conditions, injuries, fire closures, or anything that might happen on the way. I’ll just walk, eat, sleep, and repeat. Playing it by ear is both extremely challenging for me and truly liberating.
Q. Are you going on your own?
A. Yes, and so is virtually everybody else. All permits are individual, and the PCTA does not even have a provision for friends, couples, or groups who want to hike together.
Practically speaking, thru-hiking with friends isn’t easy anyway. Besides the fact that not everybody can take five months off from work, there’s zero guarantees that friends will be willing or able to hike at the same pace, which can be frustrating for all parties.
It’s very easy to meet folks on the trail. Pretty much everybody is looking for company, and many hikers end up forming lifetime bonds. Through-hikers have a mutual interest, share a common goal, build shared experiences on the trail, and they’re basically all equally nuts. To paraphrase triple-crowner Jackie “Yogi” McDonnell, “I can’t wait to go hiking with people I’ve never met.”
Q. How did you choose your start date?
A. There is only a small window during which a PCT through-hike is possible. Assuming northbound travel, there may still be snow in the desert until February/early March, and the Sierras are typically impassable before May. Starting late presents different challenges: the desert heat becomes excessively dangerous, and travel at higher elevations in WA becomes problematic as early as September.
That’s why most northbound hikers want to start in April. I have picked early April to (hopefully) beat forest fires which are bound to close sections of the trail at one point or another. I’m also fortunate that I was able to get the exact date that I wanted as there was record interest this year.
Q. How many hikers complete the trail? Will you actually make it to Canada?
A. Many hikers drop off early due to lack of motivation, willpower, or endurance. Some quit later for various reasons: financial challenges (it’s actually quite expensive to be homeless), personal or family issues, injuries, or a plethora of other reasons. It’s estimated that 40% of hikers who attempt to thru-hike the PCT quit eventually, but there are no official stats.
It would be presumptuous to state unequivocally that I will succeed, but I sure am planning on gettin’ it done.
Q. What will you eat?
A. Trail food! Calories, protein, calories, and more protein. Oh, and fat too. Lots of it. More seriously, breakfast will typically be oatmeal and coffee; lunch, tuna or chicken wrapped in a tortilla (hmm, super quick and filling!). Dinner will be whatever I can cobble and warm up together—think ramen (hmm, cheap and fast!), couscous with spam (hmm, klassy!), Knorr’s rice or pasta sides (hmm, easy and filling!), mashed potatoes and bacon bits (hmm, fat!) doused in olive oil (hmm, calories!). Plus there will be snacks galore. I’ll get tired of it real quick and pig out in towns, but I know from experience that when hiking, food always hits the spot at the end of the day.
I’m planning on buying food as I go and only mailing myself resupplies to a few remote locations. I’ll have a stove so I can make hot meals. Many hikers dump the stove eventually and cold soak in order to save weight. I’ll find out what works best for me.