Caution: A Thru-Hike is Not for Everyone

by Mr. Clean

It was 8:30pm when Amanda finally limped into the Lake Morena Campground.  Amanda was a cute brunette in her mid-20s.  Most of the PCT hikers were in their shelters as the final light of the day was disappearing.  Amanda was crying softly.  One of the other hikers rolled out of his shelter and asked what was wrong.  Amanda told him she had decided to quit her thru-hike after completing only 20 miles.  That 20 miles had taken her three days that seemed like eternity.  When she told her friends that she had decided to hike the PCT they were excited for her.  Many of her friends had volunteered their latest backpacking equipment so she could avoid the cost of acquiring new equipment.  The trip was going to be expensive enough without having to buy new equipment, especially when her friends were willing to provide her with their best equipment that they had used on recent backpacking trips.  Amanda had quit her job and sold all but her essential possessions.  She had discussed the hike at length with her friends and family.  Although they couldn’t believe that she was going to hike the trail without any companions, they remained supportive of what seemed like a once in a lifetime adventure.  They had watched the movie Wild with her and knew this was going to be the beginning of a new chapter in her life.  Now she had decided to quit.  She couldn’t take it anymore.  In three days she had been drenched with rain, was dehydrated from not drinking enough, had blisters that seemed to develop on top of blisters, had pain that enveloped her knees, and every part of feet that weren’t in pain from blisters were still in pain from too much stress on her feet.  On her second day on the trail the rain started and continued all night.  She set up the tent her friend had provided her, but it leaked from the roof and the floor.  Her sleeping bag was soaked.  What used to weigh three and one-half pounds now weighed at least six pounds.  Today was dry; however, she still couldn’t dry her bag much.  On the evening of the second day she had stopped drinking water.  There was no way she was going to get out of her sleeping bag and tent in the middle of the night to relieve herself.  Stopping any intake seemed like a great idea to avoid any output and sure enough she was correct – no urgency to pee once she stopped drinking water.  Amanda had already called her family from her cell phone and informed them of her decision.  They couldn’t believe she would quit after just three days and encouraged her to continue.  Reminding her that she had quit her job, sold most of her possessions, and told all her friends and family that she was committed to this hike, didn’t do anything but make the pain of quitting worse.  This decision was final.  She told herself that no one in her right mind would continue to endure the pain and risk of this trail.  The hiker who had crawled out of his tent tried to calm and reassure her, but her mind was made up and there was no going back.  She hated disappointing her friends and family.  Even more she hated the thought that she was quitting.

Amanda didn’t know that Evan was also in the PCT camping area at Lake Morena.  Evan took a slow drag on his cigarette.  This was his second pack of the day and his fifth day on the trail.  He had arrived at Lake Morano on his fourth day and decided to spend two nights evaluating his options.  Quitting seemed like his best option.  After all, this was supposed to be fun and in actuality it was anything but fun.  Hiking was work and his smoking habit didn’t help.  He knew he needed to stop smoking and he knew he had to quit smoking before he hit the Sierras.  Leaving his smoking habit in the desert was definitely part of the plan.  What better time and place to quit smoking?  But now smoking the cigarette had a familiarity that was comforting.  Tomorrow he would leave the trail.  Evan was 45 and between jobs.  He had taken a large part of his savings to buy equipment and put together food boxes that his ex-wife was going to send him to be picked up along the trail.  He was a bit frustrated with himself for deciding to hike the PCT, but he wasn’t really that worried about quitting.  His friends called him a survivor and he knew that he would be fine without going further.  Working was a means to an end.  However, the idea of working to finish the PCT didn’t really compute.  This was going to be time away from work, not another form of work.  Getting up early, packing everything you had with you into a pack, hiking all day, cooking all your meals, unpacking, setting up camp, finding water, taking care of your feet, etc. etc., was work and there was no way to get around it.  He hadn’t signed up for work.

My trail name is Mr. Clean.  This is a name I have had since I was 10.  That was 51 years ago.  I have been hiking the PCT in Sections.  With over 1,700 miles of the PCT under my feet in the last five years I continue to find sections in the spring and the fall to complete.  Most of the time I don’t see that many thru hikers, but on some sections my time on the trail coincides with the “herd” of thru hikers finding their way to Canada.  Prior to this year I have spent time talking with at least 100 thru hikers as I hiked or stopped on the trail. This year the snow up north and my decision to hike in May led me to tackle the first 152 miles of the PCT from the Border to Pine to Palms Highway.

I have not been to the kickoff event at Lake Morena.  But I had the opportunity to spend the afternoon and night before my hike this year at Scout and Frodos’ home (two of the most inspiring trail angels on the PCT) .  What a wonderful thing they do for hikers.  As accomplished thru hikers themselves, they impart as much knowledge as possible during the short time they are able to spend with hikers.  For me it was also a fantastic opportunity to meet thru hikers excited and a bit trepidatious before they hit the trail.  Some were quite experienced having hiked many long trails, but most had limited experience.

In the six and one-half days I spent hiking to Pine to Palms I more than doubled the number of thru hikers I had the chance to talk with.  Of those 100 plus thru hikers that I spoke with this year about half were women and about 80% of the women were solo hiking.  Almost all the women said they were influenced to hike the PCT by watching Wild.  Most of the men admitted to watching Wild, but few admitted that the movie had any effect on their decision to hike.  Permits to hike the PCT jumped 400% after Wild was released so it is likely many hikers were influenced by the movie.  Thru hiking permits now exceed 3,000.  Of those who obtain a permit, some will not start, but even more will not finish after starting.  In fact, only 20% will finish their thru hikes in a year.  I certainly make no judgment about those who leave the trail or those who stay on the trail.  However, what did move me this year were the stories of the hikers leaving the trail.

Hiking the PCT in roughly 150 days on the trail is a huge commitment.  Financially few hikers spend less than $4,000 to complete a thru hike and most spend more.  The vast majority of hikers don’t have the luxury of putting their jobs on hold so they have to leave their present positions.  Some hikers might spend as few as 30 days planning, but they are few and far between.  In talking with hikers the average planning time seems to be at least six months.  Hikers often have to sell some of their possessions, either to avoid storage charges or raise money for the hike.

This year I talked with hikers everyday who were leaving the trail.  They were uniformly distraught about their decision, but nevertheless they were committed to leaving.  Many were in tears.  The stories of Amanda and Evan above are true, but their names were changed.  I am sure you can quickly identify the errors that Amanda and Evan made, but even if you don’t see much of yourself in Amanda or Evan these are just two stories.  I was so moved by their stories and the stories of many others that I wanted to provide some observations from interviewing many thru hikers.

Almost all hikers near the end of the trail in Washington will tell you that there were at least a few times when they were close to quitting their thru hike.  They decided to hike just one more day, and then another, and so on until the desire to quit passed.  I never talked with a hiker near the end of the trail who didn’t describe their hike as the hardest job they have ever had.  This is not to say they didn’t love their thru hiking job, but they found it was a job and those that thought it was anything else, didn’t make it to the end.  It takes incredible discipline to get up everyday and hit the trail.  Most hikers end up off and on hiking with a group and developing lasting friendships.  But that doesn’t mean there is a party moving up the trail.  In fact, I passed many hikers at the beginning of the trail this year smoking a joint at noon (which seemed to end their forward progress for that day).  But not once have I run across hikers near the end of the PCT smoking a joint.  Take it for what it is worth, but my impression was that most of the hikers were just too busy with their job to do much else, but enjoy the spectacular views and revel in rhythm of the trail.  By the time the thru hikers were almost done they had grown so used to being uncomfortable at least once per day that it was just part of the experience.  They had been sunburned, soaked, eaten alive by mosquitoes in Oregon and black flies in Washington, lost, found, hot, cold, wet, dry, sore, homesick, frightened by stream crossings and steep snow fields, and more than anything tired.  And almost universally they would remember the good times and downplay the bad times, but these were the hikers who were almost done.

My advice is to be honest with yourself.  Are you prepared for this experience.  Have you done a few two week hikes where you were hiking at least 15 miles and hopefully 20 miles per day?  Were you uncomfortable?  You should have been because you will be.  When you came back from one of those two week hikes could you easily picture yourself on the trail for 10 times as many days?  For most thru hikers the hike will get easier physically, but harder mentally.  Are you in reasonable shape?  You can certainly carry a few extra pounds (up to 25lbs) to start because you will burn it off over time, but if you are more than 25lbs overweight are you prepared for the stress on your body that will be added to the normal stress everyone experiences?  Can you afford mentally and financially not to finish?  Don’t skimp on the planning.  There are great planning books available from experienced thru hikers.  Read them cover to cover many times.  What does your pack weigh?  I never saw a 35lb pack in Washington, but I saw many in the first 152 miles.  You don’t need to have your gear in final form at the Border, but if you are way off, you are just adding stress to your body.  And above all are you ready for the hardest job you have ever had?

I was going to write that I don’t want to discourage anyone, but that isn’t true.  I actually want to discourage a lot of you.  I know how wonderful the trail is, but I also know the pain most people experience if they decide to quit.  If you are truly ready, go for it!  If you aren’t, get some significant miles under your feet and decide if a thru hike is really for you.

Mr. Clean