Hike the whole PCT in a single season and you have completed a thru hike. That's simple, but on a 2,650 mile trail there are a lot of little variations that can cause heated debates about whether someone is TRULY a thru hiker. In my experience this debate reaches a peak on trail in the first few hundred miles, and then gradually people get a bit less stringent in their thinking. By Washington most people aren't obsessing about it much anymore. Your friends at home don't care at all.
My purpose here is just to highlight some of the most common variations on a strict thru hike. Language flexes to fit reality, so I won't try to force my opinion as to what is really a thru hike. If you have an opinion, feel free to share it in the comments. In my experience, as with many topics, people with strong opinions on this are often vocal without representing a majority view.
As a starting point, some people who identify as "purists" define an unsupported PCT thru-hike as follows:
Starting at either the southern or northern monument, hike in a single direction, on all of the available PCT track, with connected steps, with no break of more than one day at a time, and without support to the other monument.
When there is a closure, hike to the closure sign and then backtrack to get off the trail. Then get back on trail and hike to the opposite closure sign and then reverse direction and continue your hike.
Sometimes instead of "no breaks" it will be "in a single season." Either way, obviously that's a thru hike. However, I'll describe some of the 14 variations that I have seen that in practice, on the trail, many people still consider a thru hike:
- Connected-steps resupply detours. This would be, for example, departing from the PCT track on foot at Mt. Laguna to resupply and then returning to the PCT track on foot a little farther on, rather than backtracking to where you left the PCT and restarting from that point. Typically these detours add a little distance rather than being shortcuts.
- Hiking Popular Alternates. The Crater Lake alternate and the Tunnel Falls alternate, for example, are not official PCT routes, but many, many hikers take them, and they are more interesting than the PCT track. Detouring to summit Mt. San Jacinto, Mt, Baden Powell, or Mt. Whitney also typically involves detouring around a bit of PCT track, and no one blinks at these choices. Getting to and from campgrounds also can involve short missed sections of PCT track.
- Taking personal days off: Taking a few days off in town to recover from an injury is necessary for many hikers and really not controversial. I had to do this in both 2017 and 2018. People also sometimes take time off for weddings or other family events. I've seldom heard this questioned, even though it's technically a break in your hike.
- Tiny Gaps in Connected Steps: This usually means something like getting picked up for a resupply stop on one side of a road and getting dropped off on the other side. You miss something like 25 steps. I did this at Big Bear, for example. Very few people care about these micro breaks in your connected steps, but some people do. When you are actually out on trail, crossing a busy road on foot in both direction just to connect your steps across that short distance might seem like lunacy ... or not. It depends on the person.
- Closure Alternates and skipping open PCT track. A fire closure might typically be a few miles past the closest trail or road crossing that would allow detouring around the fire closure. The PCTA will usually publish an official alternate route, which is then considered to temporarily be the official PCT track. Some people think you should still do an out-and-back to the actual closure, AND hike the alternate. Most people, like me, just hike the alternate.
- Hiking Through Closures: This means ignoring the closure signs and just hiking through a closed section. This is illegal and disrespectful toward the people who built and maintain the trail. It often adds additional work for people repairing that trail section. Don't get me wound up. I never do this, but it doesn't seem to bother some people.
- Getting off Trail to Avoid Bad Weather: Some ultralight hikers really aren't carrying adequate gear for cold, wet weather. In some cases hikers will get off trail and check into a hotel to wait out the weather. I avoid this, but I was already checked into a hotel at Snoqualmie pass for a resupply stop and did stay an extra day to avoid a full-day of hiking in the rain. This borders on supported hiking.
- Slack Packing: This means hiking with an almost empty (aka slack) pack or just a day pack while someone else drops you off in the morning and meets you in the afternoon. It's a form of supported hiking. It's not a big deal to me, but opinions vary.
- Personal Trail Angels: Enjoying a soda from a cooler left by a trail angel is uncontroversial, but if you have someone meet you at almost every road crossing that becomes a supported thru hike. The same would be true of having someone routinely meet you with a resupply. Still a great hike, but now a supported hike.
- Temporary Skips and Flip Flops: Fire closures can sometimes halt forward progress, and snow and dangerous stream crossings can make a straight-through hike more-than-usually risky some years. In 2017, which was a high snow year, two hikers drowned on stream crossings and many others had close calls. To reduce risks, some hikers will rearrange the order of their hike by skipping ahead and changing direction, or skipping a section and coming back to hike it later. I've done both.
- Intentional Skips at Town Stops: There are a few town stops, such as Idyllwild, Wrightwood, Big Bear, South Lake Tahoe, Sierra City, Seiad Valley, and Crater Lake where you can hike in or get a ride in at one point and hike out or get a ride out to a point further along the trail. This usually results in skipping at least a few miles of trail. Other than getting around the closure south of Idyllwild, I did not do any of these skips, but I met many people who did them. When I hiked the steep five miles from Mazama Campground to the Crater Lake Rim, I would estimate that at least 80% of PCT thru hikers took the Crater Lake shuttle bus instead.
- Catch up to Tramily Skips: Many hikers get into a trail family that is socially very close and improves their safety. When an injury or equipment failure causes one hiker to need a few days in town, they sometimes skip ahead to the next town stop to rejoin their trail family. Keep in mind that for women, persons of color, and LGBTQ hikers safety is often a bigger concern than for white cisgender men. To me these skips seem like smart hiking and a reasonable tradeoff against a connected-steps goal.
- Closure skips that don't get made up: Sometimes a closure is so awkwardly placed that the official alternate is a 40 mile road walk. Often hikers will just skip ahead when faced with this type of closure. Sometimes the closure opens, and sometimes it stays closed the whole season. In the end your hike might have a 40-mile gap in it. How big a gap you can have and still consider it a thru hike is kind-of up to you. On a 2,650 mile trail missing 40 miles would not stop most people from considering themselves to have finished the trail. I did not have to deal with this personally, although I did bounce around a lot to get all my miles done.
- Rides at Road Walks: There are some places where the PCT or an alternate is on a paved road. Hiking on pavement is hard on your feet and knees, as well as contradictory to the whole point of the hike, but even so, usually I walk these. Once at Castella I felt awkward when a Sherriff's Deputy offered me a ride so I got in and skipped a mile of pavement that way. Another ride I took that resulted in a break in steps was in Washington when a fire-closure put me on a trail that ended at a busy road with no good shoulder to walk on safely. I got a ride up to White Pass in a jeep, which was fun.