On-trail issues & challenges

On the following pages we discuss all the issues and challenges that may arise during a thru-hike. Foot care, health issues, and related questions about sanitation aren't too different from what hikers experience on other trails, but intense desert heat, limited water supplies, high altitude, and snow create new problems and complicate familiar ones. We explain the strange weather patterns of the west coast. We review all the dangerous animals, bugs, and plants out there and what to do about them, as well as the dangers from our fellow humankind, including the issue of marijuana.  The biggest challenges — the ones that send people home — are mental and emotional. Every year there seems to be one or two sections of Trail closed due to wildfire, which mean reroutes and detours onto roads. Finally, we discuss what to do in an emergency situation, in case one arises.

Desert Hiking Tips

The first 700 miles — the desert — is not the lousy part of the PCT. It is not something you have to tolerate or endure in order to reach the good parts. The desert is a wild, spectacular, and beautiful place filled with blooming flowers, purple mountains, boulder formations, canyons, and even forests. Just look at the pictures in our gallery. When it's over, you'll miss it.

  • Camel Up.  Never leave a water source without first drinking a liter or more. Leave feeling satiated and with every container full.
  • Keep your water cool.  Your water should be at the top of your pack since it is the heaviest thing you carry, but it will get hot up there. Insulate it with a jacket or space blanket to keep it cool.
  • Don't take chances with water.  It may be super heavy, but never try to save weight by carrying less water. That only works on the AT and can be deadly on the PCT.
  • Clean your feet.  The ultra-fine dust of the desert will get into your shoes, go through your socks, and coat your feet. If allowed to persist, it will cause blisters, so use some of your water to thoroughly clean your feet every night.
  • Siesta.  Wake at first light or earlier and start hiking at dawn. When the heat of the day reaches its peak, find some shade and relax for 3 hours or so. Read, take a nap, chill. Start hiking again when it cools off.
  • Dress like the cowboys did.  Long sleeves, long pants, and big hats prevent sunburn.
  • Expect the cold.  Not only is the desert freezing at night, you should expect snow, hail, and rain more than once. Don't bounce your warm clothes and rain gear forward. Bring a sleeping bag adequate for winter temperatures.

Sierras Hiking Tips

The Sierra Nevada is the most thrilling and romantic part of the Trail — and the most intimidating. Hikers find themselves holding mountaineering gear like crampons and ice axes with no idea how to use them. It infects them with doubt. They start checking snow levels online and watching weather reports. They question if it's a "good year" and whether they should wait until the next. But then they swallow those doubts and push forward, and they love it.

  • The future is unknowable.
  • Ignore hype and gossip.
  • Defend against UV rays.  The sun might have been intense in the desert, but it's worse in the Sierras. UV intensity increases with altitude and snow reflects a great deal of radiation. You can easily get sunburn and snow blindness (a sunburn of your cornea, essentially), even on a cloudy day. Wear SPF 50 sunscreen, SPF 50 lip balm, and polarized sunglasses.
  • Carry the extra gear.  Ice axes and crampons are extra weight but important. Your pack is already gonna heavier because of the bear canister, but
  • Expect to slow down.
  • Tackle passes early, but not too early.
  • Cross creeks safely. 
  • Take your time. 
  • Do Whitney.  It's the tallest mountain the lower 48 states, and most people enter a lottery to get a permit to summit. As a PCT thru-hiker you have a golden ticket to summit Whitney whenever you get there. You will be in the best shape of your life and may never have another opportunity, so don't miss it.
  • Know the symptoms of altitude sickness.
  • Only carry a bear can when you need it.
  • Not everything will fit in your bear can.

Oregon & Washington Hiking Tips

Oregon and Washington are as different from the rest of the Trail as the Sierras are from the desert, but their forested environment is pretty similar to other parts of the country, (with respect to hiking, not ecology). Hikers familiar with the Great Smoky Mountains, Appalachia more generally, or the Ozarks will feel comfortable in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. No special tricks, techniques, or strategies are needed.

  • Mileage picks up in Oregon.  The Trail is comparatively flat through Oregon — its the PCT's Virginia. If you are on a limited timetable add need to make up for low mileage through the Sierras, here's your chance.
  • Don't expect motel stays in Oregon.  The PCT through Oregon is surprisingly remote, with few nearby towns and even fewer motels. Plan to zero in the woods rather than in a motel, and if you went over budget in the Sierras or at Lake Tahoe, you can make up for it here because there is nowhere to spend money.
  • Do expect days of rain.  Washington is typically the wettest section for thru-hikers, with day after day of rain possible. Fortunately it's west coast drizzle and not Florida or mid-west style thunderstorms.
  • Bear bagging is hard, if not impossible.  The conifers of the Pacific Northwest make it near impossible to correctly hang your food out of reach of bears, as we discuss on the food storage and gear page. Consider using an Ursack.