Friday, April 11, 2014

The PCT Class of 2021

The class of 2014 has begun hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). With the success of Cheryl Strayed's book on hiking the PCT, "Wild", there are more and more people attempting to "Thru Hike" it. Next year there will be even more hikers as a Hollywood film version of Strayed's book will be out later this year. In case you don't know, a "Thru Hike" is when you hike the entire 2,650 miles of the PCT in one hiking season. The hiking season generally starts in April and lasts until late September/early October.

It is very popular to document your "Thru Hike" on Facebook, Twitter and in blogs. Over the last several weeks, I've been reading quite a few from last year. And this year I've been following six or seven people as they attempt the trail.

You have to put a whole lot of miles in everyday to Thru Hike the PCT in one season. I think the average day is something like 18 miles. Hikers become obsessed with miles. They talk of "Zero" days and "Nero" days. Zero days are days that you rest and hike zero miles. Nero days are days when you just do a few miles, generally to a town to take a zero day.

Most of the people who I've read that attempt these hikes are young people. But there are a few exceptions. I've seen people in their late 50's and even early 60's who are out on the trail this year. And they aren't in as good of shape as you would expect a person to be in order to attempt such a hike. Of course, many people drop out when reality hits the fan. There is no shame in that. I've had to bail on a hike before when conditions were too extreme and dry. And also because I wasn't in the proper condition to attempt such a hike. Still, any effort is admirable.

There also is a page on Facebook devoted to this year's class. It is a very active page, as most people on the trail travel with Smart phones. In fact, it is amazing how much technology a hiker brings with them on their back-to-nature hikes. Most carry a Smart phone, in addition they usually carry a GPS locator (the most popular being "Spot"). Others carry GPS guidance devices that tell you exactly where you are at all times. These devices also beam to Facebook and other programs exactly where  you are on the trail so that loved ones (and total strangers) can monitor your progress.

The art of trail writing is alive and well on these blogs that document the attempts. Some are better than others. Some have great photography. Very few actually write about "nature". A common denominator in all of these blogs is that the hikers love to get to town to eat burgers and drink beer.

Of course it is admirable for all these people (probably over a thousand this year) to attempt such an endeavor. It makes me green with envy to imagine attempting such a hike. To actually take that much time out of your life to do this. Dreams die slow deaths as we age. We come to accept that maybe we won't ride a bike across the United States and we probably will never hike the PCT or the Appalachian Trail. I haven't totally let go of an attempt of the PCT; I'd like to be a member of the class of 2021.

But back to today's bloggers. Hiking the PCT has become an endurance event. An adrenaline event. Reading the blogs, I started noticing a pattern where hikers race through 25 and 30 mile days in order to get to the next town. They travel light, so that they can race quickly. They carry ultralight tents and sleeping bags. Backpacks are commonly under 25 pounds including food and water; some weigh as little as 18 pounds. You tank up in town and your trail time is mostly spent walking fast. The pattern seems to be that very few will spend more than 5 or 6 days (max) on the trail at a time. The norm seems to be 3 or 4. Essentially, these hikes are just races to the next motel room where you will find WiFi and beer.

The trail record was broken by a young woman last year who completed all 2,650 miles in 59 days. This is quite a feat to have accomplished, but something about this type of Thru Hiking just irritates me. I'm attached to the idea that a person should actually spend a majority of the time on the trail. Camping. Enjoying the solitude. But that's another thing: there is very little solitude for the Thru Hiker. They all start together and there is a constant stream of them starting for two months. One blog I read said that she didn't have her first night at a camp site solo until she was 1,400 miles into the trail!

Nobody who Thru Hikes would consider packing two weeks worth of food in their packs. Four days is about the max they will carry. Most won't even cook (except coffee for breakfast). Trail food is snickers bars and nuts and jerky. That's what towns are for: indulging in an orgy of food. And beer.

"Hike your own hike" is a common Hiker expression. It means you set your own rules and nobody else makes those rules for you. But from reading all of these blogs, very few are actually hiking their own hike. But I'm in danger of becoming a little too cynical towards these courageous beings who are out there attempting to hike the whole PCT in one season.

What can you possibly see when you are hiking 30 miles a day? Should I ever attempt to do the PCT, I'd hike my own hike by: 1. cooking both breakfast and dinner (this should be a camping experience and cooking is a big part of that); 2. No more than 20 miles in a day except for long, hot, dry sections; 3. At least half of my "zero" days would be spent on the trial--in a beautiful location; not in a bar or a hotel room; 4. Seems to me 8 nights in a hotel room would be more than enough plushiness for one Thru Hike experience.

That'd be my plan if I joined the Class of 2021.


  1. Kia ora Allan,
    I can't see the point in rushing through these places. Go slow and experience it...or as Abbey wrote, "crawl on your hands and knees and then, if you are lucky, you might see something", paraphrased.
    Here in New Zealand I don't think anymore in terms of miles, or kilometres but rather hours on the go per day. Being as so much of the terrain I am in is trackless, very steep, or simply in a river, I find measuring by hours works better. These days I find 4-5 hours is a "comfortable" day, any more than that gets long. My last trip I was on the go for 9 hours the final day and was absolutely rooted after, for several days. I think being relatively walking fit to start is crucial as well. In any case best wishes this summer for a wilderness wonderful experience.

  2. Ah yes. You get out the maps and study them. You pack ever so carefully, planning every meal. You evaluate the gear. You iron-out all the logistics. Maybe you tell everyone you know what you are doing so you can strut a little bit; then you get there and try to get done as fast you freaking can so you can get home again (George Carlin said this best). They say, "how was it?" and you answer with how you slept, the mosquitoes, maybe a problem with your tent...the sunsets were nice, but nothing about the dogwood in bloom on the creek (because you don't know what the hell dogwood is--was it that white stuff?), the wild California azalea and rhododendron, the Pioneer's violet, the Clintonia tucked under the Lady didn't see any of that because there was just no time; after all, you were cranking on 30 miles a day and, uhm, what was the point of the trip again because I hate to tell you but you missed it. Sure you went but you missed the trip.

    Great post Allan. Agreed.