Saturday 2 November 2013

Pacific Crest Trail Hike Report

The PCT was aways one of those trails that I knew I just had to hike. It looked spectacular and unlike, say the AT, it has a point. Great long hikes should have a definite start and finish, coast to coast hikes are the ultimate example of this. You just can’t go any further when you hit the sea. Borders give a slightly more diluted experience but there is still a clear purpose to the hike. I had dreamt of hiking the PCT for many years and it had a lot to live up too. Did it? Overall I think it did. As with any long hike it has it's highs and lows but the PCT was great experience. This isn't a day by day account of my time, others do that better, this is just a collection of thoughts that you may find helpful when thinking about, or planning, your PCT hike.

First up if you are not a US resident you are going to need a visa. Most of us Europeans are allowed to stay for up to 90 days under the ESTA visa waver program. That is not going to be long enough for 99.9% of hikers. What you need is a B2 visa which will allow a stay up to 6 months and that will involve a visit to your nearest American embassy. My process started with calling a premium rate number to arrange for an interview, and to pay the admin fees. The fee for processing a visa application is around $160 and the phone call cost another $30. On top of that I had to arrange transport to London for the interview and pay for courier delivery of the completed visa. I would budget $300 for the visa process. This is expensive but it is likely that you will be given a 10 year visa so overall it’s not bad value. Things look like they might have improved recently with most of the process happening on-line rather than by calling a premium number. At the interview expect to be questioned about what you are doing (be able to explain what the PCT is and where it passes through) and how you will pay for the hike. Take bank statements to prove you can pay for your hike. A word of warning - just because you have a B2 visa does not mean that you are entitled to stay in the US for the full 6 months. How long you can stay is up to the person on immigration control on your day of arrival in the US. It is possible that they will give you no more than the 90 days under the ESTA visa waver program. Again being able to explain clearly what you are doing and having proof that you can pay for your stay is advisable. The big difference between the 2 visa’s is that you can’t apply for an extension under the ESTA visa but you can with a B2.

You will also need a permit to hike the PCT, this is free and available from the PCT association website. If you intend to finish your hike in Canada (which is the best option) then you will also need permission from the Canadian authorities to do that. Again this is free and on the website. The PCT association really makes hiking the PCT easy with this single permit system. Hiking in the US can often mean gathering together multiple permits that are only valid for fixed dates which makes a long hike tough to plan and even harder to execute.  Everything you can ever need to plan your PCT hike is readily available on-line. Free maps, try here. Higher quality maps with loads of additional features, here. GPX routes, here. Take the maps of your choice and the GPX route for your GPS/Smartphone but do your self a huge favor and also buy these Apps by Guthook. Money well spent - trust me on that! These Apps use basic maps which aren't great for real navigation, which is why you want good backup maps for an emergency, but you don’t need to do much “real” navigation on the PCT. Generally there is a trail right across the country and the only places you are likely to get lost are at trail junctions, or in bad weather. Washington is also poorly signed compared to the rest of the PCT for some reason. 

The App has the PCT route superimposed over the maps so you can just follow that 99% of the time. What makes this App really special is the additional information it overlays. This includes mile markers, campsites, route profile, water sources, cafes, re-supply, trail junctions, trail towns and much, much more. All this is displayed on the map as clickable icons. Click on an icon and a photo of the feature pops up along with any information, such as how reliable the water source is, how many tents can the campsite hold, facilities in the trail town, opening hours, etc. This information cannot be gathered from any other map, somebody had to actually hike the PCT and physically gather it to create this App. Of course you don’t need Apps to hike the PCT, all this information is already available elsewhere, but what it does is bring it all together, in one device, and then plots your position using the built in GPS. Everything is simplified to an icon that can be easily read on the move. These great Apps are available for IOS and Android and worth every $.

The best airport to fly into is San Diego. From San Diego you have the option of seeing if a Trail Angel can help you with transport to the start or you can get a bus. I was lucky and had a place to stay in San Diego and a lift to the start - thanks Glen!

The PCT passes through 3 states which are California, Oregon and Washington. California is huge, generally dry and very varied, you will be hiking in California for over 50% of your time. Oregon passes quickly and the route that the PCT follows is heavily fire damaged but still has some areas of outstanding beauty. Southern Washington continues where Oregon left off and Northern Washington is simply spectacular. 

The first 700 miles, through southern California, are via hot, dry, dusty terrain with the odd high forested mountain section thrown in. I actually found it a bit dull after a week or 2. I expected it to be similar to what I had experienced on the Arizona Trail (AZT) but it had little of the beauty of that trail. The AZT passes through many deserts and the plant life just happened to have exploded into life after a wet 09/10 winter. That along with many creatures varying from scorpions, snakes, lizards to Coyote’s made for a fascinating and engaging experience. This section of the PCT had little of that. Granted this had been a dry winter and with a May 10th start I could have missed it at its best, but I’m not so sure. 

I would call a lot of southern California as dry, dusty, scrubland, with little life, rather than a desert as it is often described. It’s fine but that’s it. I didn't even see many rattlesnakes, about 4 on the whole hike, I met others that hadn't seen any. In contrast I saw 14 in less than 2 hours on 1 section of the AZT! 

There are of course many areas of outstanding beauty thrown in too, it’s not all dull by a long way, the mountains around Idyllwild were stunningly beautiful and are a real standout of this section, unfortunately I understand a lot of it has since been destroyed by a huge forest fire. Very sad.

Forest fires are probably the most dangerous thing you will encounter out on the trail. They can move with tremendous speed, you cannot. I was caught up in the Powerhouse Fire which was close enough to be dropping ash on me. 

That closed a section of trail and forced a long road walk round. Surprisingly few other hikers road walked, instead choosing to hitch. To me you have to be flexible on a hike like this, if there is an obstruction then you find the best way round it. Hiking the PCT is a walk across the USA and it had to be continuous, if the trail is closed then hiking an alternative route is still hiking the PCT as far as I’m concerned, missing out sections is not. Stay flexible! 

Water can also be a problem in California and some or Oregon but the PCT takes care of that with an extremely useful data-book. This tells you where all the water is and how reliable it is likely to be. Carry that book but the Guthook Apps has most of this info and so much more. Where there is no natural water trail angels takeover and leave caches. These guys are amazing and without them a lot less people would attempt the PCT. They unselfishly stock and maintain water caches in the middle of nowhere so that we, the hikers, don’t have to carry so much. They do this for free and I’m full of respect for the service they provide. The problem is hikers rely on them too much. 

The PCT goes to great lengths to tell you not to rely on water caches and to always carry extra water so you can get to the next real watering hole. So then what is their purpose? If we are doing as told then there is no need for any caches but by having these caches, and advertising them in the water data book, then hikers will obviously use them as primary water stops. And we do. The trail is getting busier each year and with the majority of hikers passing through an area within a week or 2 it’s becoming increasing difficult for these angels to keep up with demand. This is a big problem. Personally I think these caches should be removed from the data-book, forcing hikers to think more about water. This would make life harder for us, but perhaps safer. A number of these angels also open up their houses to hikers, allowing them to stay overnight, shower, wash etc. Some of these guys spend $1000‘s each year offering this service, trucking in water, buying food, doing runs into town. Some of them even have little resupply shops, only basics, but helpful if you are low on supplies. Really amazing people. For many the community is why they hike the PCT, and come back year after year. No other trail I have hiked has anything to match this. 

I personally found the first month on the trail way too busy with other hikers. Selfishly I like the trail to myself when out in the wilds! Starting late I always knew I would pass many during this section, but as a fast hiker I had to think about when I would hit the high mountains of the Sierra’s, and its snows. It’s normal to aim to leave Kennedy Meadows around the 2 week in June so I set my start date to aim for that. That meant there were days when I would pass 30+ other PCT hikers, and being the friendly bunch that they are they all want to stop and chat. That’s fine but you can really waste an awful lot of time talking to 30 hikers! It got to a point were I would just say hello and not stop which was very rude of me. I’m sorry guys! I estimate I passed 600-800 hikers in that first section leading up to the Sierras. 

Fortunately by the time I left Kennedy Meadows I was ahead of the main pack and things settled down nicely. I’m not completely anti-social on the trail, and I hiked with a couple of people for up to 2 weeks, but I like to pick and choose when to do that. Think carefully about your starting date, early is better than late, this year the Sierras could have been crossed at least a couple of weeks earlier than normal given the low snow levels. But the Sierra’s are not the only area where you will encounter snow, Oregon too has a couple of significant snowfields to cross and I hit those at about the right time. Overall I think my start date (10th May) was right given my hiking speed. Aim to finish your hike by late September if at all possible. I finished on the 25th August and had fantastic weather through Northern Washington. Come September and Washington is likely to be wet with low cloud and you will miss much. The late season hikers also had it tough when the snows arrived early causing a number of rescues.

The Sierra’s and particularly the John Muir Trail are incredible, the jewel of the PCT. Photo’s and words can never do it justice, I’m just going to say if you ever have the opportunity to hike there then do it! If not then make sure you find the time! This section is payback for Southern California so take your time and enjoy it. You will have to go to the hassle of carrying a bear canister but that extra weight is cancelled out by not having to carry much water. 

Water is everywhere.... as are mosquitoes! I picked up the first bugs after leaving Kennedy Meadows and they didn't really ever leave. Right up to, and including, the last day passing into Canada I was bothered by mosquitoes. I am a magnet to biting bugs and others didn't seem to be being bothered so much, but still take good bug protection (Deet and headnet) on this hike. 

As already mentioned this was a low snow year in the Sierra’s but that doesn't mean that there was no snow, the top of the passes were still snow covered but compared to some years we had it easy. 

I didn't take any form of traction devices and only on one occasion did I regret that. And that could have been avoided with a little more thought. I chose to camp near the top of a pass assuming that the early morning sun would have softened the ice up by the time I crossed the next morning. It hadn't and the snow on the slope was pure ice and couldn't be safely crossed, I was lucky that I could climb my way around the ice field on some high surrounding rocks, took 2 hrs to cover 1 mile. Lesson learnt. 

This year no ice axe or crampons were needed, in other years it would be advisable to take, as a minimum, a set of micro-spikes. Expect to encounter significant snow in areas of Oregon and Washington too.

After the snow most hikers main fear appears to be bears, particularly so if you are from an area where there are none. I saw 4 bears on the entire hike and none until northern California. Sightings were brief and as soon as they saw me they took off at olympic speed with a look of sheer panic on their faces. Take basic precautions with your food, and try and not surprise a bear on the trail, and you are unlikely to have a problem. For me these encounters were a highlight and as they were the first wild bears I had seen, unforgettable.

So just how tough is the PCT? Any hike of this length is going to seriously test your stamina and mental strength. Hiking for 12hrs + each day for 4-6months is just tough. However, the hike itself is over well graded terrain, meaning that your rarely go straight up a climb but switchback your way up more gradually. I often found this annoying as some minor climbs can take much longer this way. At other times I was grateful.

Generally there is a clear trail to hike on so covering 20-30mi/day is achievable for a fit hiker. I was able to average 30mi/day throughout my hike. There are times when you will be climbing over blowdowns (fallen trees on the trail), rock fields, soft sand, soft snow, ice and everything in between, but these are generally the exception to the rule. 

I would say the PCT matches a UK national trail in quality but there are other things that make it much harder. Heat will be an issue for most of your hike. California can be unbearably hot at times but so can Oregon and even Washington occasionally. That heat means carrying plenty of heavy water, but even so it still saps your strength. 

You will often be carrying several days of food too. Altitude can also be an issue, the highest point of the PCT is just over 13000ft, but your are often above 7000ft. This would be an problem if you just arrived at that altitude and started hiking, but the PCT eases you into it so your unlikely to notice it much. 

I sometimes called the PCT a spoon-fed adventure... Just as things looked like they would be getting a little too tough something will be there to help you out, in the desert you have the marvellous trail angels to see you right, in the mountains there’s the switchbacks to easy you up the climbs, across the snow fields the route has been carefully thought-out to be, generally, safe. Most of the streams/rivers are bridged even if that just means a well place log to balance over. 

Trail crews were out in force pruning and removing fallen trees, and the trail marking is really good for most of the route. Weather is also likely to be favourable but watch out as it can, and will, get nasty occasionally. I remember one hiker that sent their waterproofs ahead as it hadn't rained in weeks... the rains came and an emergency waterproof was built out of a pack liner. They carried waterproofs from then on!

Everything you could ever need to make planning and hiking the PCT is easily available. But even taking all this into account I found the PCT to be a real and worthy challenge. I would class it as easier than the Arizona Trail but on par with the Colorado Trail and tougher than my Coast & Moor hike.

The PCT ends at the US/Canadian border in the middle of nowhere which makes returning to civilisation a bit of a problem. You could turn round and walk 3 days back the way you have already hiked and, hopefully, hitch from one of the passes. The best way though is to get clearance to hike into Canada and finish at Manning Park from where you can catch the Greyhound bus

Greyhound don’t make this easy for foreigners as they don’t allow you to buy a ticket on-line with a none US/Canadian credit-card. You also can’t buy a ticket from the driver. This is increasingly a problem in the US, I know of people that had problems buying gear on-line from REI and purchasing tickets for airlines with foreign credit cards. 

The airlines and REI will ask for further identification, such as a photocopy of your passport, but Greyhound simply refuses to sell you a ticket! You are supposed to buy, in person, from a ticket office and you can use that foreign credit card as long as you have additional ID. Problem is there are none near the trail in those last few weeks. The rumour was that the driver of the Greyhound bus from Manning Park would allow hikers to travel, ticket-free, to the next town with a ticket office where you would then purchase your ticket. This turned out to be the case but can you book flights home on the strength of a rumour and the kindness of a driver? Not very helpful Greyhound! 

I do understand the reasons why there are checks but I have not been to any other country where you are assumed to be a criminal just because you are foreign. If you can get a ticket for Greyhound then they will take you directly to Vancouver where you have the option of flying home, or you can get another Greyhound back over the border to Seattle, and fly from there.

I needed to go home via San Diego so took the Seattle route. The problem I see with flying directly from Vancouver is that you would not have officially ever left the USA, as you crossed into Canada at an uncontrolled entry point, so when your visa expires they will assume you are still in the country somewhere. When you come to enter the US in the future that might cause trouble. Don’t know if this really is a issue but with other long US hikes on my "too do" list I didn't want to risk it.

Take whatever hiking kit you are happy with but lightweight gear is particularly suited to most of the PCT. Tarps, tents, tarptents all work well. Most carried lightweight tents by Big Agnes with a lot of tarptents by Henryshires or Zpacks, only a few carried a simple tarp. 

Pegs or stakes were a problem and I found the blue easton pegs I took not much use in the soft dry ground on most nights. They just wouldn't hold. I ended up buying a set Coleman 9” heavy-duty stakes that were much better, the X shaped pegs were a better a shape for gripping than round pegs. Whatever you choose do take good bug protection for your sanity! A mesh inner of some sorts is essential, as is a head-net and some Deet. Most nights there is no need to pitch the outer, it's unlikely to rain, just the inner for bug protection will do.

Don’t skimp on waterproofs, you won't need them often but when you do you will regret bringing something that’s barely waterproof. I wore my rain jacket only around 4 times but 2 of those days were the wettest I had ever hiked in. My super light jacket and rain skirt were overwhelmed but the umbrella I carried was very useful. 

Most hikers carried an umbrella for protection against the sun, up to Kennedy Meadows, and then sent it home. I didn't find the umbrella that much use against the sun and only used it a handful of times. They do keep you cooler, my guess is by around 5deg, and you also don’t need to wear a sunhat which increased ventilation around the head, which might make another 5deg or so difference. Problem is they really are a pain in anything more than a light breeze, so much so I preferred to take the heat. Where I did find an umbrella useful was when it rained, then I found being able to hike with your hood down made such a difference that I will take it again on similar hikes. Take a good sun hat but also warm gloves and hat too, you will use the sunhat everyday but rarely the other two. Again when needed you will be glad you carried them though. I also had a set of fingerless gloves to protect my hands from the intense sun when using hiking poles.

Meths or alcohol was the fuel of choice and readily available in all trail towns, esbit was hard to find but gas was reasonably easy. Be aware though that when a fire ban is in force, and it is likely that it will be for much of California, that you are NOT allowed to use esbit or alcohol stoves. Almost everybody ignored this but you should be aware. Forget about taking a wood-burner with these fire bans, the risk is just not worth it. I carried gas through California and switched to alcohol from then on. 

Take a bag rated down to 0C and you should be fine outside of the shoulder seasons, normally you will be way too warm with such a bag but there are times when 0C will be barely adequate. Unless you can swap bags as you go along then this is a good compromise. Trail shoes were the norm but some hiked in sandals and others in boots, go with whatever works for you. Fabric rather than mesh would offer some protection from the dust and grit, as would ankle gaiters. I had neither but would consider them for future hikes. 

I chose to filter all my water and used a Sawyer squeeze filter, as did 90% of other hikers. Forget the bags that come with it they are just too flimsy for the job. I attached it to a 1ltr soda bottle and drunk directly from there. Take the back flushing syringe as the weakness with the Sawyer filter is its lack of pre-filter so it does clog quickly. I back-flushed in every trail town and it remained useable on the trail, but the flow did drop off noticeably after a couple of days.

How much it costs to hike a long trail is something I'm often asked and it's very hard to give a real answer. We are all different and have different needs. Hiking the PCT cost me $4618.59 made up of $2585.14 on food, $1480.91 accommodation, $46.25 on batteries for my SPOT, $12.87 fuel and the remainder of $493.42 on extras such as replacement kit, taxis, bus etc. Not included here is flights from the UK or the cost of kit I already had. Before I hiked the PCT a few people had said around $5000 was right and I'm very close to that amount. You could save a lot of money on accommodation if you are prepared to share rooms or use hostels more often. I like my space so always got my own room. Motels varied massively in price but not so much in quality. They ranged from $42/night in Mojave up to $130/night in Cascade Locks with prices steadily increasing as I headed north. I stayed in Motel 6 whenever possible as they are cheap but have all a hiker needs. They all have laundry facilities, which are always just behind reception, and it's worth paying the extra $3 for a room with a fridge and microwave. They also charge an additional $3 for a 24hr wifi pass so add these extras into the price as some others offer them as standard.

The choice of resupplying comes down to buying as you go along, or bulk buying before the hike and then posting them ahead. I always buy food as I go along and just send food parcels ahead when that is not possible. This worked well and I probably sent ahead around 4 food parcels the entire hike. Bulk buying runs the risk of getting sick of a certain food after a while and having to throw it away. This happens all the time and is why I don't do it anymore. It doesn't save money either as by the time you add postage costs into the equation there is nothing in it. The only advantage of bulk buying is that one of the biggest expenditures on the trail is taken care of before you start your hike. It makes budgeting easier. If you choose this method then try and add as much variety as possible as I can guarantee you will get sick of something on a long hike. Most trail towns (often the post office) have a hiker box which is usually bursting with food that the owner cannot stomach anymore. You can exchange food here.

I hope you find something useful here and if there is something you think I've left out then let me know and I will add it. The PCT was a rewarding hike that I'm glad I was able to do before the trail gets even more busy, and perhaps ruined, because of its fame in the book "Wild" and the upcoming movie. On the strength of this I'm looking forward to tackling the other 2 big US trails very soon.