When I was much younger than I am today, a wise man once told me that there was no such thing as a stupid question. There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions and questions posed after inadequate self-criticism, but no stupid questions. Every inquiry, he proclaimed, was a cry for understanding. Generally I would agree that there is much legitimacy to this popular phrase. However, my experience, when telling folk that I intend to walk 2,660 miles from Mexico to Canada along the Pacific Crest Trail, seems to suggest that in this quest for knowledge there lurks the occasional epic fail! What follows is a brief rundown of the most commonly encountered questions, together with their respective short answers (for the busy and only mildly interested) and long answers (for prospective PCT thru-hikers, the genuinely interested and those with boring office jobs and unsupervised internet access).
The short answer: Because its there.
The long answer: I believe that there comes a critical time in all of our lives when we take stock of our achievements in terms of our goals and ambitions … commonly this period is referred to as the mid-life crisis! However, “crisis” seems to suggest a degree of negativity and although the trigger for such deep self-evaluation is often a traumatic or unwelcome life experience, the end result can be a most divine period of self-discovery and much needed deviation from stagnation. Well, this is pretty much what happened to me. I had been white-knuckling my recovery for about 3 years when I received the heartbreaking news that my mother had terminal cancer. It was the actual day of my 40th birthday and as I saw things, I had two pretty clear choices … I could either go and get absolutely hammered or I could shape up, step up and show up for life on life’s terms. Thankfully I choose the latter path and over the course of the next 18 months everything changed. Before she passed away, my mum urged me to never stop travelling and exploring. She wanted her own adventurous spirit to live on vicariously through me. Thus began a series of exploits that have taken me to many amazing places including; Everest Base Camp, Machu Picchu, the Amazon Rainforest, North Korea, the Sahara Desert, the Tour du Mont Blanc, the Great Wall of China and Petra. Walking the Pacific Crest Trail might just be my tour de force … but to be honest, I think I am only just getting started!
How long will it take?
The short answer: 138 days.
The long answer: For me 138 days is a self-imposed time limit. Ultimately it is possible that I could complete all 2,660 miles in less than 138 days or I may not reach Canada within the time that I have available. There are so many variables that it is almost impossible to predict with any great certainty how long it will take. However, historically it seems that the average length of time needed to complete the entire trail is around 5 months. This schedule equates to walking an average of just over 20 miles a day and taking a zero (day off) roughly once a week. This may seem like a pretty cracking pace and you may well be thinking “why not take your time and enjoy a nice leisurely stroll?”. Well the simple answer is that the weather window doesn’t really allow for this. If I start too early I will have to deal with lots of snow in the Sierras. If I start too late the desert will be hot, dry and deadly. Furthermore, a late start also means that by the time I reach Washington and the Cascades, there will be more snow to deal with. I feel that 138 days is an achievable goal and one that will hopefully keep me focused and motivated. Allowing myself one rest day each week, I will need to walk an average of 22.4 miles per day. If I’m searching for a little extra inspiration then I need look no further than Heather “Anish” Anderson. Anish holds the current unsupported record, having completed the entire Pacific Crest Trail in just 60 days … that’s averaging a whopping 44 miles a day!
Where will you sleep?
The short answer: On the trail in my tent.
The long answer: The PCT thru-hiker permit effectively allows me to wild camp anywhere (with a few minor exceptions) along the trail corridor. Unlike many other long distance trails there are no shelters or huts on the PCT so thru-hikers must bring their own shelter. I will be using a ultra-light single wall tent and this will be my home for the vast majority of my 138 day adventure. Cowboy camping (sleeping out under the stars) is frequently practiced along the trail but given my aversion to creepy crawly things, I think it unlikely that I will become a proponent of this activity. There will also be quite a few nights when I get off the trail to re-supply and rest. On these occasions I plan to indulge myself in the relative opulence of a cheap motel room.
What do you do for a toilet?
The short answer: Same as the bears.
The long answer: All thru-hikers should actively engage in the Leave No Trace (LNT) ideology. This super-duper set of hiking ethics basically requires that I wander just far enough off of the trail that I may never find my way back, dig a big hole, poop in it and then cover it up … if you have a cat you should be fairly familiar with the general concept. Next I will need to securely stash any soiled toilet paper in a little plastic bag and carry it along the trail with me until I find somewhere suitable to dispose of it … Nice! The key to this whole process seems to be timing. I have taken the opportunity to get in a few practice poops while out on my training hikes. So here’s the big news … it takes much, much longer than you can ever imagine to dig a hole 6-8 inches deep and 4-6 inches wide. In fact there seems to be a bizarre correlation between how long it takes to dig the hole and how badly you need to use the hole! Note to self … start digging at the very first hint of danger. Do not delay!
Are you doing it on your own?
The short answer: Yes and no.
The long answer: I have planned and prepared to be 100% self-sufficient on the trail. I will carry everything that I need to live, sleep and eat on the trail. I am fully expecting and prepared to spend a lot of time completely alone and also to camp on my own. However, that is not to say that I wont also be meeting other thru-hikers and probably spending time hiking and/or camping with them. For me, one of the most alluring aspects of this thru-hike is the eclectic mix of people that I am likely to meet along the way. Each year, within a relatively small of about 6-8 week window, a pseudo-squadron of weirdos, whack-jobs and misfits (all just like myself) set off from Campo with the intention of walking all the way to Canada. It seems pretty unlikely that I will be own my own for long!
What will you eat?
The short answer: Food … Lots of it!
The long answer: One of the major challenges that I will face is keeping myself adequately nourished during my 20 weeks on the trail. Walking an average of 22 miles a day quickly gives rise to an acute calorific deficit and an insatiable, bottomless hunger that is known as Hiker Hunger. These cravings torment thru-hikers and inspire legendary food binges in trail towns and at re-supply points. On the trail, pack weight is always a primary consideration and so dehydrated calorie dense foods will be pretty much my staple diet. I certainly don’t expect to be winning any healthy eating awards and although it has taken me some time to come to terms with my dietary doom, secretly I am quite looking forward to all of that refined sugar and processed junk food. Lets face it, being able to gorge on America’s finest delicacies without any shame or remorse and still lose weight does hold a certain delightful appeal!
How will you carry all your food?
The short answer: I wont.
The long answer: I have already touched upon what a typical trail side diet might look like … in short pretty unhealthy! Of course it is not humanly possible to carry enough food for the entire hike. In fact, given that the average weight of a day’s worth food is in the region of 750-1,000 grams, even a week’s worth of food becomes a bit of a struggle. So how do we do it? The answer is re-supply. There are about as many strategies for re-supply on the trail as there are quirky characters, but basically you have 3 choices; mail yourself packages to post offices along the trail, buy from stores as you go or raid Hiker Boxes. For most thru-hikers, including myself, it will be a mishmash of all three. In Southern California its pretty easy to re-supply in towns, many of which are not much more than 4-5 days apart. In the Sierras the trail is more remote and there will be some pretty tough carries of 8 days or more! In Washington, sizeable towns are few and far between so mail drops become almost essential. Some thru-hikers plan this part of their hike down to the last minute detail, spending months dehydrating food and shipping it out to dozens of points along the trail. Firstly, as an overseas hiker this isn’t really an option for me and secondly I simply can’t be bothered. In my experience, over planning can seriously jeopardise the potential for freedom and spontaneity. I am confident that the trail will provide, I just need to show up and start walking!
Will you be carrying a gun or some sort of weapon?
The short answer: No!
The long answer: Does this question really require a long answer? I am genuinely surprised by how many people ask me if I will be taking a gun. There will be no gun … a gun is simply right out! I would have absolutely no clue what to do with one and I also have a sneaking suspicion that they are incredibly heavy. There will be no big knife either. I have a tiny Leatherman Micra that can do some serious damage to sweaty cheese, but that’s about it. There has already been much talk about bears on my blog and I did look into the efficacy of bear spray. However, proficient use requires a degree of proximity that is far too close for my liking. On balance I feel that the probability of me panicking and macing myself is unreasonably high and anyway bear spray is only really meant for Grizzlies and they don’t really exist, right?
Aren’t you scared?
The short answer: Yes
The long answer: I am scared of lots of things .. bears, snakes, the snow, the desert, the boogeyman, getting lost, Lyme disease, injuries, not finishing and most of all finishing! For a full run down check out my blog post Fear and Loathing on the Pacific Crest Trail.
What about the bears?
The short answer: They shit in the woods! … What else do you need to know?
The long answer: Yes there will almost certainly be bears but apparently the bears on the PCT are the nice bears rather than the nasty bears. This fact does not diminish my trepidation. I have researched what I need to do in the event of a bear encounter, I have invested in a bear proof food canister and I have a cunning plan in place to ensure that I don’t smell like bear food. I don’t really know how else to prepare for the inevitable rendezvous but I suspect that when the time comes, the bear wont be the only one shitting in the woods!
How much does it cost?
The short answer: Its free.
The long answer: One of the many joys of hiking is its cost effectiveness. Putting one foot in front of the other is by far the cheapest way to get from A to B and given enough time we can walk just about anywhere … in my case all the way from Mexico to Canada! To walk the Pacific Crest Trail in its entirety thru-hikers are required to obtain a long distance permit from the PCTA (Pacific Crest Trail Association) these permits are completely free of charge however there are a limited number issued for each start date and it can be a bit of a bun fight to secure one for the most popular days (typically mid to late April). So far, so good. However don’t be lulled into a false sense of monetary security, walking the PCT is not cheap! First off, if like me you are coming at this from outside of the US then you have airfares, insurance and visa costs. Next up comes the gear and equipment. The super lightweight stuff that makes a walk of this duration doable is not cheap and I have dropped some serious cheddar on a dazzling array or Cuben Fiber extravagances. Once on the trail I will of course need to eat and cover other basic living expenses, a typical budget is around $1,000 a month. By the time I get done, I would estimate that the total cost of my thru-hike will be fairly close to $10,000! I my mind, a small price to pay for what is sure to be a truly epic adventure.
Didn’t Reese “Whatshername” do it in that film?
The short answer: Yes … its called Wild.
The long answer: Undoubtedly both the book and subsequent film have brought a lot of attention to the Pacific Crest Trail and the number of people attempting to thru-hike has surged in the last few years. I have read the book and watched the film … needless to say the book was better. Cheryl Strayed’s story is by no means unique but ultimately she had the courage to tell it and she certainly deserves praise for that. Although she only walked a fraction of the trail (less than half), her achievement should not be understated. She set off with zero experience and no real idea of what she was getting herself into. Tenacity, grit and sheer bloodymindedness saw her through. Did Wild inspire me to thru-hike the PCT? … No, but that’s not to say it isn’t and inspiring story. I hope that my Pacific Crest Trail story is equally inspiring!