Because you will be isolated in remote and unfamiliar places, and be without a vehicle, your interactions with strangers can have an unusually threatening edge to them. While thru-hiking exercise a few common sense precautions such as:
Be rude! The first episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt teaches us the value of being rude. After a religious fundamentalist kidnaps four women and forces them to live in an underground bunker for 15 years, the women are rescued and appear on the Today show. Matt Lauer asks each of them how they were kidnapped. One says. “I had waited on Reverend Richard at a York Steak House I worked at and one night he invited me out to his car to see some baby rabbits, and I didn’t want to be rude, so, here we are.” Lauer deadpans in response, “I’m always amazed at what women will do because they are afraid of being rude.” So be rude!
There are very few, if any. Besides, they aren't dangerous.
We've seen a lot of unsourced claims, speculation, unverified anecdotes, and general fear mongering about unlawful border crossings near the southern terminus. For example, on its website the US Forest Service claims "there is significant illegal border crossing activity near Campo, California and throughout the first 30 or so miles on the PCT," but does not cite a source. Influential guidebook author Yogi claims to have "heard plenty of them" at night, though its not clear how she could discern a night-hiker from an immigrant (page 53, 2014 ed).
Speculation and fear mongering abound in the second edition of The Pacific Crest Trail: A Hiker's Companion, whose authors warn hikers not to spend their first night camped at Hauser Creek because "the combination of water and a nearby road makes it a magnet for illegal immigrants." They also claim hikers have had food and water stolen by illegal immigrants, though admit it is "rare." They cite no source for either claim, which seem to be a combination of conjecture and rumor repeated as fact. We couldn't track down a single report of illegal immigrants at Hauser Creek or theft from hikers, not even an anecdote on a hiker blog.
While the thru-hiking community is largely white, there are American citizens of Hispanic descent who speak Spanish and like the outdoors — and lots of them live near the border. There is also a Native American reservation near Campo. The few hiker blogs we found that mention encountering illegal immigrants appear to be incidents of racial profiling. One 2001 thru-hiker reported he came across five "Mexicans" during the first 20 miles of the Trail. This happened in daylight hours and he admits they were "smiling and waving" at him, so his assumption that they crossed the border illegally seems based entirely on their skin color and "broken English." This hiker claims he saw "three different groups of illegal aliens" but did not speak to them, so it begs the question: How did he know they were illegal? Other blog stories are downright ridiculous, like this one whose author claims he encountered "illegal immigrants ... whose only interest was in killing me and taking all my rations." If true that would be a sensational story and undoubtedly the whole blog would be about his harrowing experience, but that single line is the only mention of his life in peril. It's more likely he saw some Hispanics and in his racist imagination they became murderous illegals.
Obviously, illegal immigration does happen along America's southern border. The question is whether it happens near the southern terminus in significant numbers and whether these people are dangerous to hikers. Some perspective is needed here: there is both a US Border Patrol station and a San Diego Sheriff's office in Campo, literally one mile from the southern terminus. The two offices are largely why Campo exists as a town, and the nearby border is heavily patrolled. For someone to cross the border at Campo and then use the PCT, which goes right past the border patrol station, is so incomprehensibly foolish it's unimaginable. Only the unlucky or uninformed would cross at Campo. Moreover, it's preposterous to assume that someone who has risked a great deal and spent what little money they have to reach the US would then endanger themselves by immediately committing a crime against a hiker.
Hitchhiking is a part of trail culture on the PCT and every other National Scenic Trail. We have hitchhiked into town many times and have yet to be disappointed or scared. Some drivers have turned out to be a little weird at most, but aren’t we all. That said, there is always risk from accepting a ride from a stranger.
If you are uncomfortable hitchhiking, we have bad news for you. The trail is so remote, hitching is necessary to reach towns and resupply locations. Alternatives to hitching are infrequent and unreliable. Taxis are occasionally an option but not often. Uber and similar services have little presence in rural America. There is only one bus that stops at the trail (by our count). Trail angels are the best alternative to hitching, and occasionally they post their phone numbers on trees near road crossings, but this is not the case for every town.
So you will have to stick your thumb out. To hitch safe, follow the general advice for interacting with strangers outlined above (trust your instincts, be rude, et cetera). Additional tips include:
Theft from hikers is a crime of opportunity. No one sets out in the morning with the goal of stealing a digital camera from a hiker's backpack, but if the opportunity arises, unscrupulous people seize it. While hiking the Appalachian Trail we met hikers who were robbed. We even had things stolen from us.
The bottom line is, never leave your backpack out of site and you won't give someone the opportunity to steal from you. We have seen a lot of backpacks left outside storefronts. Don't do it.
You may get pushback from a manager committed to their corporate anti-shoplifting policy who will say something like, "We don't allow backpacks inside the store/restaurant/etc. Would you please leave it outside?" Be rude (see above) and tell them you will not. Explain you are hiking the trail and do not have a car, that your pack doesn't leave your sight, and you absolutely will not leave it outside. Would they ask a woman to leave her large purse outside? Of course not.
The west coast is a 420 friendly place. Marijuana is now legal for recreational use and sales in Oregon & Washington. In California, marijuana is only legal for medical use, but a medical
marijuana card is easily to get. The Trail itself has a 420 friendly culture. Plenty of hikers smoke and those who don't, don't judge. That said, hostels and hotels will often post notices asking
that you do not smoke on their property. And unless a trail angel explicitly says it's okay to smoke, never light up at their house.
If you plan to smoke while on-trail, we recommend getting a medical marijuana card while in San Diego, before leaving for Campo. It will simplify your resupply attempts when in town. We'll let
you figure out how to do that.
However, the PCT goes mostly through federal land, and the federal government does not recognize state marijuana laws. The big question is, will a federal park or forest ranger arrest you for marijuana possession? Do they care? There is a jail and courthouse in Yosemite valley after all. That's a tough question to answer, because if you ask a ranger point-blank, they can't admit to turning a blind eye.
Of course, the only place you are likely to run into a ranger is Yosemite National Park, and they seem mostly interested in seeing your permit and making sure you have a bear canister. It is probably a good idea to avoid smoking when in the park, just to be safe.
No. The risk of accident alone when carrying a gun, to yourself and others, is not worth it. Additionally, all evidence shows that rather than making you safer, the presence of a gun increases the likelihood that you will be killed. Security guards have their guns taken from them at alarming rates, and you run a similar risk of having your own gun turned on you.
Male hikers are not asked if they carry a gun as often as women. Why? Perhaps it is because the NRA and others claim guns are great equalizers between men and women. In a 2013 speech, the NRA's Wayne LaPierre said, “the one thing a violent rapist deserves to face is a good woman with a gun.” It's a powerful soundbite, but no scientific study has ever demonstrated that the risk of becoming victim to a crime, any crime, is decreased by gun ownership. In fact, study after study has shown that owning a gun makes women in particular more likely to become victims of gun violence. The Atlantic examined this unique and overlooked danger to women, and the myth of guns providing self-defense has been covered recently by the Guardian and The Los Angles Times.