Once you decide you’re going to spend five full months on the trail, covering over 2,650 miles of rugged wilderness terrain, then what? How do you plan for something like that? Where do you even start?
Fortunately, I’ve been wanting to do this for a LONG time, so I’ve had a pretty good idea about at least the basics of planning. You need to obtain permits, purchase gear, decide what you’re going to eat and how to get it, figure out how to get TO the trail (and eventually home again), and figure out how to pay for it all, since no one is going to pay you to get lost in the woods. The Pacific Crest Trail Association’s website has an incredible amount of information for thru-hikers, so that is where I started.
The trail runs approximately 2,650 miles from the border with Mexico southeast of San Diego, California to the Canadian border northeast of Seattle, Washington. For a variety of reasons, I chose to start at the southern terminus and hike northbound (“NOBO”, southbound is known as “SOBO”). Heading this direction, I have about a two-month window from mid-March through mid-May in which I can begin and have any realistic hope of completing the hike in one hiking season (the generally accepted definition of a thru-hike). Begin too early, get locked out of the Sierra Mountains of California by high snow pack. Begin too late, be forced to endure 100+ degree temperatures in California’s deserts and get locked out of Washington’s Cascade Mountains by early snowstorms. Personal commitments made me decide that early May would be the best time for me to start.
The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is one of many national scenic trails, and is one of the most popular (the Appalachian Trail is similarly well-known). The PCT’s popularity steeply increased after the release of the book Wild and the subsequent movie with Reese Witherspoon. With heightened popularity comes heightened damage to the trail and surrounding wildlife, so aspiring thru-hikers are now required to obtain a permit before they are allowed to begin their trek. The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) issues up to 50 per start date, and you are required to start on the date printed on your permit. To obtain a permit, you must access their “lottery” on November 15th or January 15th.
After not-so-patiently waiting for quite a while, I was able to obtain a permit to begin my hike on May 4th, 2019! Many people were not so lucky and didn’t get a start date that fit their schedules or didn’t get one that would allow them a chance at completion. I will also have to obtain a California Fire Permit so that I can use my camp stove and a Canada PCT Entry Permit, which will allow me enter into Canada on foot via the trail. Fortunately, those could wait until later. From this point, I could begin all the necessary planning.
The best way to get to the southern terminus is to fly to San Diego, then either take a bus or utilize the extensive network of volunteers to get to the terminus. After booking my flight, I reached out to a couple who gives rides and opens their home to hundreds of hikers every year. Known by their trail names (nicknames dubbed on the trail), Scout and Frodo pick up hikers at the San Diego airport and bring them back to their home.
Here, hikers can meet others who are starting on the same date, organize their gear, charge their devices, do any necessary shopping in town, and finalize any last-minute changes. Scout and Frodo provide dinner and space on their lawn to camp, followed by an early breakfast and a ride to the trailhead. They do not accept donations, doing all of this out of the kindness of their hearts. I am looking forward to meeting these generous individuals before starting my hike! Their home will be the last taste of civilization I will get for quite a while.