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

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Definition of a PCT Thru Hike -- Room for Opinion?


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.

    Varying Opinions:
    • 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 and Gaps:

    All of these are avoidable breaks in your connected steps.  Whether they are meaningful to your own goals for the hike varies by individual.
    • 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.
    So, because of trail closures, town stops, alternates, trail dangers, and other factors, what someone means by the term "thru hike" will often vary a little from the simple idea that first pops into our heads when we hear the term.  Most people will say that they did a thru hike if they hiked at least 95% of the trail in one season, but at least got from one monument to the other.  Some people will consider that a failure.  Feel free to have your own opinion.  ^-^

    Sunday, May 21, 2023

    Why I Love Hiking


    This isn't my personal before and after x-ray, but mine looks very similar.  Four days ago I had a partial knee replacement on my right knee.  This is the knee that took me off-trail in 2017, 2019, and 2022.  Basically I had a pretty bad tear in the meniscus, but only in the medial compartment.  My initial recovery is going well, and ideally I should be able to day-hike as early as August, just three months after the surgery.  

    Resting and recovering has given me plenty of time to just sit and think, and with the prospect of a working knee I've started thinking about backpacking again.  I've also watched some PCT thru-hiking videos and I've thought more about the experience of long-distance hiking.

    As context, I hiked the PCT in 2017, but didn't quite finish, partly due to my knee and partly due to the heavy snows that year.  Then in 2018 I did a full-hike of the PCT in one season, aka a thru-hike.  I've chipping away a little at the miles that I missed in 2017 and have about 250 miles to go to finish a "section hike" of the PCT as well, which I hope to be able to conclude in 2024.

    Completing the PCT is a significant accomplishment.  It requires persistence, effort, endurance of discomfort, toleration of risk, and skills, especially during stream crossings and crossing steep snow fields.  Overcoming injuries and pain is almost inevitable during a long hike.  Many hikers will fall at least once during a thru-hike, and many will have to overcome blisters, sunburn and other over-use injuries.  Snow-covered trails, fire closures, difficult weather, and finding water require problem solving.  Conditions sometimes require hiking at night or in very uncomfortable weather.  All together, when a hiker finishes the trail they have achieved something.  

    At the same time, it's possible to develop a grandiose assessment of this attainment.  You can quickly confirm this tendency by watching a few "my PCT hike" videos on YouTube, where hikers conquer "heinous" mountain passes on their "epic" journey.  It is after-all just a lot of hiking on a rather well-maintained trail not too far from civilization.

    Looking back from the age of 66, five months thru-hiking the PCT does not stand out for me as a singularly defining milestone in my life.  Married life, having a career, raising children, and renovating our property all took more time and effort.  Getting up everyday and hiking was easier in many ways than getting up every day and working a corporate job.  So, this is a very roundabout way of saying that the "achievement" aspect of hiking isn't too important or meaningful to me.

    Despite vague expectations that hiking the PCT might be a deeply spiritual and life-altering experience, most hikers find that the changes to their perspective are subtle.  Attitudes toward cleanliness, creature comforts, and food shift, but after a period of readjustment most people get reintegrated into ordinary life within about a month, and this was true for me as well.

    So, what is it about hiking the PCT that is so compelling, so enticing, so invigorating, and so addictive that people will quit their jobs and take six months out of their life to hike the trail?  Here's my own working list of what typically makes the experience worthwhile:

    • The Beauty and Diversity of Nature:  To some degree just the number of hours of walking combined with the many different ecosystems that you will walk through give you opportunities to see nature in more of it's variety and beauty than if you just went to an arboretum or visited the many different viewpoints along the road.  To be sure, there is a lot of repetition, but the constantly changing landscape keeps it interesting.  I have a friend who only wants to see the most spectacular vistas.  If that's you, then you will be disappointed by the PCT.
    • Immersion in Nature:  During a long hike you are immersed in nature far more than on a day or weekend hike.  You aren't even sleeping in campgrounds, just finding a flat spot to throw down your tent at the end of the day.  You are drinking water from streams.  When the sun goes down the air gets cold, and in the afternoon it can be baking hot.  When it rains you are wet, and in a storm sometimes you can't see 100 feet.  Where there is a ridge you hike up and over it, and where there is a valley you hike into it.  That intimacy with the landscape and the realities of nature is uniquely soul satisfying and it really kicks in after weeks rather than days.
    • Constant Awareness and Attention:  Without overstating the risks, when on a long hike you can never forget about water, weather, where you can camp next, your own body, and your very-next step on the trail.  It's not a high level of attention, but it's constant, and this gives it an almost meditative quality.  Your mind can wander, but part of you needs to stay with the hike all the time.  If you snap off a hiking pole by not paying attention, you can't just pop down to the store and get a new one.  If you step on a loose rock and sprain your ankle, you could suffer a lot limping off the mountain.
    • Operating Near your Limits:  The experience of hiking nearly to exhaustion day-after-day is strangely invigorating.  Rather than feeling oppressed, you feel completely vital and alive.  You come close to your limits, ideally without crossing over into over-use injuries.  Some people try to find their limits by doing the "24 Hour Challenge:" trying to cover as many miles as possible in 24 hours.
    • Kinesthetic experience:  I ran into a woman on trail near Big Bear who was about to quit her hike for the reason that "hiking is boring."  If you don't enjoy the movement of your body as you swing down the trail, there can be many miles that will simply seem monotonous.  Hiking through a forest, there isn't a lot of variety visually, but (when I'm not in pain) every step has a kinesthetic pleasure within it.  This feeling often builds as your body gets stronger.
    • Social Experience:  At a minimum, most of us enjoy the simple comradery of a shared experience.  When on trail you feel like you belong to an exclusive club.  Even if you aren't tightly connected to a hiking partner or a "trail family" you will inevitably run into other hikers, make friends, hike together, share life stories and meals together.  It's pleasant and affirming.  Trail angels also create a positive social experience along with snacks and rides into town.  Many people make long-term friends hiking the trail together.
    • A Different World:  In the simplest terms, in long-distance hiking I've gotten used to hitch hiking, night-hiking, USPS general delivery, Amtrak, Greyhound, coin-operated showers, bumming TP from strangers, and the wonderful properties of Ibuprofen.  I've met nurses, pilots, financial wizards, wildlife biologists, baristas, and smoke jumpers.  I've eaten tortillas with peanut butter, ramen with fresh eggs, and way too many kinds of freeze dried dinners.  Variety and change is good for us.
    I'd be interested in other people's experiences and thoughts on hiking or whatever you enjoy.