Opening Statement

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach
~Henry David Thoreau, Walden


Thursday, September 20, 2018

Straight Talk about PCT Start Dates and Hike Planning


Hiking the PCT in 2018 I met quite a few hikers who had no schedule for their hike, or even a way to realistically assess their chance of finishing--they had never "done the math".  For very-fast hikers this would not usually be a huge problem, but for slower hikers, the schedule for a PCT thru-hike can be tight, and some hikers have to abandon their hike every year due to weather.  This post focuses on the calendar issues around a PCT hike so you can have a better chance of finishing the hike that you want.

In the end, there are four primary actions you can take related to your schedule that will improve your chance of finishing a thru hike:

1)  Increase your Average Hiking Pace:  Get lightweight gear and do some conditioning hikes before your start date.  That will help you to hike longer miles without injuries, and average daily hiking distance turns out to matter a lot.  To comfortably complete a thru-hike, you need to hike 22+ miles on a typical day--conditioning before your start date will get you there faster.

2)  Get an Earlier Start Date:  Get a start date with some wiggle room in it, appropriate to your hiking speed and plans.  If you get a May date, understand that this implies an average pace of 25 miles per day or more, which not everyone is really prepared to do.

3)  Watch your Schedule and Zero's:  Watch your schedule and notice if you are hiking slower than expected or taking more zeros or resupply days.  Balance zeros with your schedule priorities.  If you have to take time off for an injury or personal reason, re-assess your schedule.  It can be hard to fix issues after you are already in Washington and the snow is falling.

4)  Restructure your Hike if Needed:  If you get behind schedule for any reason, and don't think you can catch up, consider doing a temporary skip forward or a flip or converting a thru-hike into a section hike.  I saw a few hikers get off trail in a funk instead of redefining or restructuring their hike.  Remember it's YOUR hike, you can do it however it works for you.  You are the primary person who decides whether your hike was a "success."

Calendar issues for the PCT pivot on the major trail sections and something I'm going to call "average pace."  You can think of your average pace as your typical number of miles hiked per day, and we will discuss the calendar implications of different average pace levels.  For the statistically minded, this isn't exactly your average, it's more of a representative pace.  Of course your actual miles hiked will be affected by the trail conditions in each section.  For example, I've assumed that you will hike at 80% of your average in the Sierras and 120% of your average in Oregon.  These are in the ballpark for most hikers, although everyone has their own experience. To make this more specific, the schedule table below includes slower thru-hikers hikers with an average pace of 17.5 or 20.0 miles per day, moderate hikers at 22.5 miles per day, and fast hikers at 25.0 or 27.5 miles per day.  You should have a good handle on which group you are closest to by the end of the desert section when you will typically have reached or be near your average pace.

The Desert (Campo to Kennedy Meadows):  702 miles, 3,754 ft. of climbing per 20 miles.  NOBO's can start this section as early as mid-March, although early to mid April is fine for most people.  This is the "warm up" section of the hike.  You can actually take as long as you want to hike it as long as you finish by early June.  Most people can finish it in mid-May and take a week or two off without wrecking their schedule.  The reason you can take your time in this section is that you have very limited options for hiking other sections until the second half of May or even into June.  If you are a slower hiker, you might want to add a week or two to your hiking schedule by finishing this section in mid-May and flipping up to Dunsmuir or Ashland rather than sitting in Kennedy Meadows while the snow melts.  Since most people are still getting conditioned, I'm assuming an average hiker does this section at 80% of their average pace.

The Sierras (Kennedy Meadows to Sierra City):  493 miles, 3,632 ft. of climbing per 20 miles.  This is the core of the Sierras, and contains all of the 8,000+ ft. altitude hiking for the entire trail.  The main schedule issue for the Sierras is the snow pack and high water crossings until some point in June, and snow returning again in October.  See www.postholer.com for data on the snow pack and safe entry dates.  In most years, it's feasible for moderate and fast hikers to simply wait for a safe entry date and hike north from Kennedy Meadows into the Sierras and continue with a northbound hike.  In 2017, which was an unusually heavy snow year, many hikers upset their thru-hiking schedule by spending too much time pondering what to do about the Sierras, waiting for conditions to improve, skipping ahead anyway, and then simply not having enough time to finish the trail.  Due to the altitude, steep trail sections, and snow travel, the Sierras slow most hikers down significantly.  I'm assuming an average hiker does this section at 80% of their average pace.

Northern California (Sierra City to Ashland):  514 miles, 3597 ft. of climbing per 20 miles.  This is a lower-elevation portion of the trail that is often hikeable two or more weeks before the Sierras, and is usually hikeable at least through the end of October.  So, whether hiking north from Sierra City, or south from Ashland or Dunsmuir, this trail section is a popular and usually accessible one to skip up to after finishing the Desert section.  It's also a section that you can "bank" for later if you want to do Washington earlier in the hike and finish with this section, although you may get some rain in October.  If you are a slower hiker, or run into schedule issues, a flip or skip can make a thru-hike feasible when a straight-thru hike isn't in the cards.  I'm assuming that the average hiker does this section at 100% of their average pace.

Oregon (Ashland to Cascade Locks):  435 miles, 2,707 ft. of climbing per 20 miles.  When people say that Oregon is "flat," they really just mean that is is a bit flatter than the rest of the trail.  However, most of the trail is gently sloped and is comparatively easy to hike.  In addition, the resupply locations are convenient, and most hikers find that they move through Oregon at a much faster pace than other trail sections.  While this section is hikeable through October, you can expect to get some rain during that month.  Again, this section can be "banked" until you finish Washington if you get behind schedule.  I'm assuming that the average hiker does this section at 120% of their average pace.

Washington (Cascade Locks to Manning Park):  515 miles, 4,319 ft. of climbing per 20 miles.  This section has the most climbing per day by a big margin, but it's also the last section for most hikers, and with 2,000+ miles already hiked, many hikers just motor up the hills.  Most of the trail is also very well built and switchbacked, so it's not as hard to hike as you might expect.  The big issue with this section is weather from about mid-September on.  In the North Cascades, the last two weeks of September often include cold rain and light snow.  By early October, heavy snowfall usually closes the northernmost section, and some hikers miss finishing due to these snows.  If you can make it work, this is a wonderful section to hike in August.  I'm assuming that the average hiker does this section at 100% of their average pace.

So, now let's bring the two ideas together along with start and finishing dates.  In addition to hiking days based on the average pace, I've added one zero/resupply day for every seven days of hiking, and set all of the hiking speeds so that the hiker arrives at Kennedy Meadows on June 5th, which would be a day that a hiker could get up into the Sierras if the snow was fairly light, or get on trail in another section.

Average Pace in miles per day
NOBO Milestones 17.5 20.0 22.5 25.0 27.5
Campo (start) 8-Apr 15-Apr 21-Apr 25-Apr 29-Apr
Kennedy Meadows 5-Jun 5-Jun 5-Jun 5-Jun 5-Jun
Sierra City 15-Jul 10-Jul 6-Jul 3-Jul 30-Jun
Ashland 17-Aug 8-Aug 1-Aug 26-Jul 21-Jul
Cascade Locks 10-Sep 29-Aug 19-Aug 12-Aug 6-Aug
Manning Park (finish) 14-Oct 27-Sep 14-Sep 4-Sep 27-Aug

These dates are unlikely to exactly match up to your hike, but they should give you a good idea of how hiking pace maps back to your schedule and how tight or comfortable your schedule will be.

An average pace of 17.5 miles per day would result in an October 14th finish in Manning Park, which isn't feasible due to snow.  If you expect to be hiking at that average pace, you could skip ahead and hike Washington earlier and finish with Oregon or Northern California.  Or, get an earlier start date, get to Kennedy Meadows earlier, and flip up to Ashland or Dunsmuir and hike Northern California and the Sierras southbound, for example.

If you are hiking at an average pace of 20.0 miles per day, your schedule for a straight-thru hike is extremely tight.  If you get off schedule, or want to hike up into the Sierras and wait a week to do that, you will need to either pick up your hiking pace, or tighten up your resupply and zero days.  Again, some form of skip or flip could make sense for you.  

At an average pace of 22.5 miles per day, you have a very realistic chance of finishing the trail in a straight-thru hike, even if you have a schedule slip of a few days, but if an injury takes you off trail for a bit, take a close look at your schedule.  Getting off schedule by more than a week will put finishing a straight-thru hike at risk.

Faster hikers won't have any problem finishing the trail in an average snow year, but watch out if we have a repeat of the high snows that we had in 2017.

As a general suggestion, it makes sense to get an earlier start date than shown above so that you have a buffer for recovering from a minor injury, for a home visit at the end of the desert section, for dealing with fire closures, or simply for taking some zero days.  I had an April 2nd start date in both 2017 and 2018.  In 2017 I finished 2,000 miles, and I completed a full thru-hike in 2018.  The main difference for me was having a higher average pace in 2018.

If you have questions about this "calendar math," please let me know.  Good luck on your hike!

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