In 2018, I thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail with my brother, “Shocks”. It was the first thru-hike for either of us. Before the trail, we watched dozens of YouTube videos and read countless gear reviews. In the spirit of giving back—and recording my memories for posterity—here's what we did before either of us set foot on trail.
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From Where to Where?
“The what? The Pacific Crest Highway? Mexico to where? Are you bringing a gun? Walking? The entire thing?” These bombastic questions and more will randomly greet you once you decide to hike. Few will ever understand the power of long distance hiking, but you are different.
You are a dirt-bag vagabond. Hiker trash in the making.
One Year Out
Deciding to Hike
I've always been an outside cat kinda person; living in the great outdoors genuinely appeals to me. Over the years I saw friends of mine set off, posting their progress online. I'm ashamed to admit jealousy was always the first feeling I had.
The spring before we started, Adam approached me and declared his intentions to hike. I remember thinking there wasn't anyway in hell I was going to allow myself to be jealous of my brother. Rather than try and find a way to be proud of him from home like a mature adult would do, I decided it was time to realize my dream and take the leap as well. He welcomed me; I owe him everything.
All you really need is a permit, a backpack, some money saved, and a way to get to the terminus. You probably already have the desire. If you're like me, seeing posts on social media of friends long distance hiking makes you envious. Use those emotions to fuel your hike. This is something you want to do, or you wouldn't be reading this. But the best advice I got was from two Class 2017 hikers; “don't over-plan”. After talking with other hikers on the trail, it became apparent just how much planning a person can do. From planning every meal, to having nights on trail determined, to amount of zeros they were going to take. Nothing against that method, but my motto was, and has always been; “cross that bridge when you come to it”.
I would be remiss to mention Adam did all the work; no hyperbole. I spent my days reading camera reviews and working on old photography projects. Any gear he meticulously researched and bought, I also bought because I valued his reasoning and research.
“Bones or Clams or Whatever You Call Them.”
It's no surprise the Pacific Crest Trail costs money even if you are technically homeless and eating Top Ramen twice a day. And like most things in life, money is usually the prohibitive factor for most people. Not only are you spending for the entire 4-6 months, you're also not earning any money (unless you got mad-hustle and prior investments). Most people I met on trail weren't well-established in the work force, meaning not salaried with no benefits. Those hikers were out there, but in my eyes, weren't the majority. Most had saved up or were already living frugal lives and took it to the next step.
During my three-month summer employment (with free room and board), I hiked a lot more instead of spending time at the St. James (local bar). During the winter, I worked lots of six-day weeks for overtime pay. I went out even less than I normally do. I shared an apartment with Adam and cooked as many cheap meals as possible. Frugal living started well before life on trail.
For my particular situation, I knew I would have to save up close to $8,000. I was expecting to have an 'average' trail experience in terms of spending, but I also knew I had to find a place to live after the trail. I didn't have solid plans to move back to Colorado, but I knew what to expect in the event I should (spoiler: I did).
For more information, here’s an entire blog post on what the PCT actually cost me.
Training to Hike 20 Miles a Day
“What training did you do for the trail?” was a question I received constantly. I'm still not quite sure how to answer. It stands to reason most people mean conditioning when they say training. And in that sense, I didn't do any conditioning. I didn't even buy my shoes until last-minute (would not recommend). Perhaps I walked 10 miles a week to and from work in my ski town. Not exercising wasn't the best idea (duh, hello), but I wasn't completely inactive. I was working 50 hours a week as a lift operator in Breckenridge, Colorado. Six months of shoveling, skiing, and living above 10,000 feet. I was “active” to say the least. No doubt, I could have used a lot more conditioning.
I did, however, have extensive backpacking experiences to draw from. Training is a learned skill or behavior, and by this measure, I was well ahead of the learning curve for most first time thru-hikers. Backpacking wasn't brand new to me. Years of family car-camping and a solid tenure in Boy Scouts was ample training. What essential items to bring, what to leave behind, how much food I needed, how much water I should carry, what to do when it rains all day; all these factors and more weren't troubling me pre-trail.
Transportation To and From the Trail
BEFORE: Arriving at the southern terminus wasn’t difficult. We had a few friends offer to drive us since we are SoCal natives. We ended up taking the train to San Diego and stayed at a friend’s house the night before; he drove us to the terminus in the morning. I don’t think we knew much about Scout and Frodo’s until after the fact. It would have been a cool experience to participate in, but I’m kinda glad we did it our way. Apparently 2019 and 2020 will be their last years hosting hikers.
DURING: One doesn’t just simply walk into Canada. I had my passport at home ready for delivery to the Oregon/Washington border. I found out in Mount Shasta, California that I was going to need an additional Canada Entry Permit (thanks Dad and friends). Dad helped me get it processed while I was hiking.
AFTER: We hiked into Manning Park, Vancouver, Canada in the late afternoon and still had to find a way to get home. With no solid plan, a mind for frugality, and lots of hope and trail experience, we thumbed a ride into Vancouver. The Greyhound bus which ran in prior years wasn’t running in 2018. After a few Google searches we found plane tickets for that next morning and took a metro system to the airport where we spent the night. Less than 24 hours later after becoming PCT thru-hikers, we landed at LAX.
Food and Resupplying
Most likely, you will choose to prepare a portion of food before you leave. Popular advice suggested sending resupply boxes to 10 locations, so we followed suit. Adam calculated the distances between ‘known’ resupply points figuring on 20 miles per day average and came up with an idea for how many total days of food we were going to need.
It should also be mentioned we saved quite a bit of food from our summer employer, Philmont Scout Ranch. To be clear, this was not stolen food. All food came from swap boxes (basically, a hiker box), taken at the end of the day. I think that covers me for possible future employment. What can I say? Kids don’t like Mojo bars.
With that said, we found ourselves in late April at a local Grocery Outlet armed with a shopping cart and only the vaguest of ideas as to how much food we each were going to need for those 10 boxes five months from then.
After amassing all the food we both saved and bought, everything got dumped out onto the living room floor and an inventory list was made. We tested a few methods before finding one which seemed like it was going to work.
We estimated one day's food requirement and then we made dozens of one-day food piles, replicating the 'meal plan' with some slight menu variations. Each of those piles were then packaged into a Ziploc in either one or two day quantities. The reasoning being 1) we roughly know how much we're going to eat each day 2) we knew which towns we wanted delivery to. The biggest variable seemed to be knowing how many days we were going to hike once we got to one of those known resupply towns. Some hikers would buy a lot of food a few towns ahead and mail it to themselves in a known hard spot to find cheap and reliable food.
Our idea was to share resupply boxes to save on shipping and since we planned on hiking together. Our parents graciously offered to cover the postage fees to mail out our resupply boxes; this was a pretty nice windfall. And we could certainly count on them to mail the food.
Saving enough money, buying appropriate gear, and conditioning yourself are the first of many problems you will solve along your journey. Don’t over-plan, it’s easy to get excited and make lists. Save enough money, but have a mind for frugality. Don’t plan every meal, but go on a few hard all-day hikes to see what you consume. Don’t buy top-of-the-line gear for everything, but splurge on a few good items. You can’t plan for everything.
“Sow the seeds of expectation; reap disappointment.”