I spent 149 days thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 2016, walking over mountain passes and through river valleys on a schedule of my own making.
Public lands abound in the western United States, with ecosystems like vast deserts, jagged mountain chains, and lakes that stretch nearly to the horizon just waiting to be explored by the intrepid traveler. They can be reached by car, but with a little effort – and a lot of patience – you can explore further on foot, seeing even more of the wild spaces that belong to all of us. The Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail winds through these landscapes and more as it travels from Mexico to Canada over the course of 2,650 miles in California, Oregon, and Washington. For those with an adventurous streak who love being outside, a backpacking trip that spans the length of the trail might be the challenge you’re looking for.
Every adventure has to start somewhere, and an adventure of this magnitude starts well before the actual walking. Everyone prepares differently, but most aspiring thru-hikers – a term used for people who complete a long-distance trail from end to end in a single hiking season – begin by hearing about someone who has done it before. Through other hikers, a blog, or a book like Liz Thomas’s Backpacker Long Trails: Mastering the Art of the Thru-Hike, you can better discover what it’s like to live a thru-hiker’s life. Most people spend about two dollars a mile on the trip itself, without gear, so saving for a thru-hike takes time – time you can use to read gear reviews on pages like Outdoor Gear Lab, and outfit yourself according to your skills and need for comfort. Once you’ve gathered your gear, take it for test hikes and overnight trips, to make sure it works and to winnow out any unnecessary items – a lighter pack makes for a happier hike. More technically, you’ll need to consult maps, figure out your food resupply strategy, and maybe even download apps like Guthook’s PCT Guide, which can help you find the trail if you lose it. From there, all that’s left to do is the walking.
And what a walk it is.
I spent 149 days thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 2016, walking over mountain passes and through river valleys on a schedule of my own making. Over the course of my trek, I averaged a little over 18 miles a day, including rest days, and climbed 489,418 feet – over 16 times the height of Mount Everest. In a single day, I pushed myself up 7,000 feet of elevation gain, and on another, I managed over 33 miles before night fell. I saw sights that moved me near to tears, and just when I thought it couldn’t get any more beautiful, I’d round a corner to an even more stunning view. I took short side treks to iconic places like the top of Mount Whitney and Half Dome, Crater Lake with its deep blue hues, the blissful waterfalls of Eagle Creek. Every day held something different, something challenging, something magical, or showed off some change in the landscape – or in myself – brought on just by walking.
It’s not all walking, though. It’s remembering to feed yourself before hiker hunger kicks in, and giving your body up to 6000 calories a day once it does. It’s gauging the weather, deciding whether to put on your rain jacket in iffy weather, or whether to make camp because of the wet or the cold or the dark. It’s arranging rides or hitchhiking into town, dealing with questions like, “Are you really hiking alone?” and “You’re carrying a gun, right?” when of course you are, and of course you’re not because you don’t need the extra weight. It’s finding camaraderie in other hikers, former strangers that come to know you better than your family at times, because they see you at your truly highest highs and lowest lows, and they are present in those moments with you – and you, when it’s their turn, with them. It’s also escaping the extra that burdens everyday life, paring living down to the bare essentials until you see that life can be simpler than what we make of it in the wider world.
But that escape from everyday life to the Pacific Crest Trail depends on the continued existence of public lands. According to the US Forest Service, all but 300 of the Pacific Crest Trail’s 2,650 miles are on federally-managed lands. Extraction industries like oil, natural gas, and mining continue to threaten the lands that the trail passes through. So if you’re dreaming of a thru-hike, protect that hike by protecting the land – consider donating to organizations like the Pacific Crest Trail Association and making your voice heard at the local, state, and federal levels.
Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, whether for a few miles or a few months, is for anyone who wants to experience the outdoors in a slower, deeper, more personally-challenging way. For me, the hike served as a change in perspective – even terms like walking distance have taken on a new meaning. It made daily life simpler in some ways and oh-so-much-harder in others, but I feel better prepared to take on whatever comes my way. After all, anything is walking distance – even an entire country – if you take it one step at a time.