In April of 2019, we (Charisse and Tim) are quitting our jobs to embark on an enormous adventure: we are going to attempt to backpack all 2,650 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. We will be living mostly out of our tent, with occasional stays in towns along the way. Everything we’ll need for day to day living will be in our backpacks.
The following FAQ is roughly in order of frequency of the questions we get asked.
What is the PCT?
According to the Pacific Crest Trail Association, “The PCT spans 2,650 miles (4,265 kilometers) from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon, and Washington. It reveals the beauty of the desert, unfolds the glaciated expanses of the Sierra Nevada, travels deep forests, and provides commanding vistas of volcanic peaks in the Cascade Range. The trail symbolizes everything there is to love—and protect—in the Western United States”.
Is this like that Reese Witherspoon movie?
Yup. The 2014 movie “Wild” (and the 2012 book of the same name) documents the journey of Cheryl Strayed, who hiked 1,100 miles of the trail in the mid ‘90’s. Back then, only a handful of people hiked the trail, and far fewer became “2,600 milers”. The book and movie led to an explosion of interest in the trail, with thousands of people now starting their journey every spring.
Our interest in the trail pre-dates the “Wild” phenomenon, though. From 2006-09 we were stationed in the California desert at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains. There, we discovered the absolute beauty and solitude of hiking in the High Sierra. We made several day hikes, and even a couple short section hikes on or around the PCT.
Aren’t you afraid of…
Bears/Mountain Lions: Not really. The black bears we might encounter are generally docile, and just looking for food. There have been exactly zero cases of a bear mauling on the PCT. (There are no grizzly bears anywhere near the PCT.) Mountain lions are primarily nocturnal. And while scary to imagine, the chances of ever seeing one, let alone being fatally attacked, are unbelievably rare. There have only been four fatal attacks anywhere in the U.S. in the last two decades, with hundreds of thousands of people wandering around in their habitat every year.
Snakes: Yes, to a point. Just have to keep alert to not step on them, give them a wide berth.
Serial Killers/Creepers: No. Again, exactly zero murders on the PCT in all of its history. Statistically, you’re far more likely to be killed in your own home than on a trail in the middle of nowhere.
(For a fun list of things to actually be afraid of: https://www.halfwayanywhere.com/trails/pacific-crest-trail/17-things-scarier-than-bears-on-the-pacific-crest-trail/ )
Are you bringing a gun?
No. See Question #3.
What ARE you afraid of?
The #1 danger to a PCT hiker is probably getting swept away while trying to cross a swollen creek/river. The prior winter’s snow-pack greatly affects how much melt-off will be in the rivers. The key is to look up and down river for the best place to cross. Sometimes it’s best to cross early in the morning, when the flow is much slower.
Of course, there are other things to be concerned about. Dehydration, injury, bad weather, etc., are all very real hazards. But proper planning can mitigate these down to acceptable risks.
What are you doing for food?
This is easily the biggest logistical challenge of the hike. To keep weight down, we will be using primarily dehydrated food, or food that has high calorie content for its weight. We will be re-supplying every 3-8 days. Some of this re-supply will be at trail towns along the way. Some food will come from “mail drops”; boxes of food and supplies that we have mailed to us along the way.
What are you doing about water?
This is also a challenge in some areas. In the Cascades and Sierras, water is plentiful. We’ll just top off our water bladders every time we cross a stream or river. In other areas, particularly the desert of SoCal, the distance between water sources is great. Here, we will have to “camel up”, by carrying extra water. Maybe up to 7 liters each. There is an app that has a Water Report for hikers, but it can be unreliable.
One of the best ways to conserve water in dry stretches is simply not hiking in the hottest part of the day. If you get a real early start and hike until noon, you can possibly find a shady spot to nap all afternoon. Then maybe you can grind out a couple more miles in the evening as it cools off.
What if you have to poop?
We each have a small trowel for digging catholes: 6” deep, and at least 200’ from a water source.
What will you do for insurance?
This is tricky. Obviously, without jobs, we won’t have normal medical coverage. We will be getting traveler’s insurance, which covers any visits to an emergency room or clinic. We’re also front loading our current HSA account for other incidentals. It’s not perfect, and there’s a lot of limitations. Our primary health care plan will be: “Don’t get sick or injured”. Scary, huh?
What about your house/stuff?
We sold our house in 2017, and won’t be maintaining a residence while we’re gone. Over the last couple years, we have REALLY pared down our stuff, so that it will all fit in a storage unit or corner of someone’s basement.
Side note: To see what inspired us to unload all our unnecessary baggage, watch the documentary “Minimalism”. It changed our lives, and liberated us to do this trip.
What are you doing when you come off the trail?
Part of the reason we’re doing this hike is to get away from the endless corporate grind. And we’re not real anxious to get back to that. We want to do something that is interesting, and/or important. Life is too short to do otherwise.
Along that line of thinking, we’ve got a plan inspired by a hiker friend of ours. After she hiked the PCT in 2013, she and her husband went to truck driving school, and became a truck driving team. It sounds bonkers, but we’re really excited about it. It fits our sense of adventure and independence, and is actually quite lucrative. Of course, most of truck driving is going over a boring freeway, or stuck in traffic. And we may finally get sick of each other! But we’ll give it a try, and see what comes of it.
What kind of gear are you bringing?
Fortunately, backpacking gear has made quantum leaps in weight savings and functionality in the 20 years since Cheryl Strayed strapped a 60-pound “Monster” on her back. Our “dry” pack weights (without food and water) are at about 13 pounds for Charisse, and 18 pounds for Tim. Considering water weighs about 2 pounds per liter, and we’ll need about 2 pounds of food per day, we will rarely be above a total weight of 30 pounds.
We have a 2-person tent, sleeping bags rated down to about 10 degrees, sleeping pad, and pillow. Our “kitchen” consists of a Jet Boil stove, utensils, and collapsible bowls and cups. We use CamelBak style water bladders with an in-line filtration system.
Clothing consists of moisture wicking base layers, followed by puffys and gloves/hats for colder weather. We will have rain jackets and pants, which also act as our outer shells when it’s cold.
For our feet: Because we’re going so lightweight, we don’t use heavy boots. We use trail running sneakers. The upside is they are comfy, breathe well, and don’t need to be broken in. The downside is that they don’t last long; we’ll probably wear out 3-4 pairs.
Miscellaneous: a first aid kit, repair kit (tent, sleeping pads), headlamps, compass, maps, GPS tracker, trekking poles.
Which direction are you going?
Like the majority of hikers attempting the entire thing, we will be northbound, or “NOBO’s”. We will fly into San Diego, get a ride to the southern terminus on the Mexican border, and start hiking towards Canada.
Why start in April?
The PCT has a narrow window of opportunity to realistically hike the whole thing. You want to be out of the arid sections of Southern California before it gets really hot. But not so early that you’re attempting the High Sierra with lots of snow (and subsequent melt-off) from the previous winter. And you want to be completely done and out of the Cascades before the upcoming winter. This has to be calculated against what you think your average miles per day will be. So, most people start from late March to early May, aim for the Sierras (starting at mile 702) by June 1st, and be done by early October.
Of course, this is all subject to the whims of Mother Nature. During light snow years, you could be in the Sierra’s in May. A heavy snow year could mean you have to skip it altogether. And an early winter snow in the Cascades likely means an early exit, when you’re this close to the end.
How many miles per day?
To do the entire 2650 miles in about 24 weeks, we would need to average 16 miles a day, every day. Of course, that doesn’t take into account any zero days, time we spend resupplying, or the wide range of terrain difficulty. There might be sections in Oregon we breeze along at 25+ miles a day. It’ll be vastly different in the Sierra’s. There, we’ll rarely be below 9000’ of elevation, we’ll be carrying more food weight, and we might be slogging through snow up to our knees. We’ll be lucky to see 10 miles per day then.
Why are you doing this?
We’ve decided on this little mid-career sabbatical because life is short, and it can be cut even shorter. Or altered radically for the worse. We’re tired of being numb inside, stuck in the corporate grind. To us, the time to live our best life is NOW.
Are you guys nuts?
Yes. Wait, no!
Aren’t you too old for this?
Yes. NO!! Stop it!
Do you actually think you can do it all?
How hard can it be? In our minds, we’re going to spend 6 months skipping through mountain meadows, while Eddie Vedder sings “Guaranteed” softly in the background. Sounds awesome!
The reality is, there is an endless array of things that could drive us off the trail, both within and outside of our control. Most of this hike will be a grueling challenge that will leave us utterly exhausted. Mentally and physically. Our bodies will succumb to blisters, aching knees, raw shoulders, and butt chafe. Yes, butt chafe!
We may roll an ankle, be bitten by a snake, or get heat stroke. One bad batch of water will reward us with a weeks’ worth of explosive diarrhea. There could be an emergency back home. The government shutdown may close entire sections of the trail. Mosquitoes might drive us mad. A week of rain in Washington might drive us equally mad. We might drive each other mad.
We may decide it’s just too damn hard.
But we want to experience sunset in the desert. Sunrise at the top of Mount Whitney. Climbing up the back of Half Dome. The blue beauty of Crater Lake. Crossing the Bridge of the Gods. Fog settling around Mount Rainier. And the bittersweet satisfaction of crossing into Canada, touching the monument at the northern terminus, knowing that it’s over.
Yes, we know we can do it.