Lessons from the PCT: Why People Quit

Mauled by bears.  Eaten by mountain lions.  Shot by poachers.  Murdered by a rogue driver whilst hitch-hiking.  These were some of the many fears that accompanied me onto the PCT in 2016.  But you know what?  During my travels through Oregon and Washington I never met a single person who departed the trail for any of the above reasons.

A wealth of information already exists regarding why thru-hikers quit.  I shall not attempt to cover the same ground.  If you want to read more about the PCT specifically, I recommend Halfway Anywhere’s annual thru-hiker survey.  The latest survey for 2017 showed a 52% drop-out rate* – based on 556 thru-hiking hopefuls who responded to the survey.  Of these, the top 3 reasons for an early trail exit were: Injury (29%); Snow (14%), Fires (14%).

*It’s worth noting that the number of people who actually quit is far greater.  Based on the number of thru-hiker permits the PCTA issued in 2017 (3934) versus the number of people reported to have completed the trail (461), the drop-out rate is closer to 88%!  But as a lot of people never report back after receiving their permits and there is no turnstile at the end of the trail, we can’t say for sure what the true success rate really is.  Most guess-timates average between 50-60%. 

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Hard times

Year-after-year the stats identify obvious trends, but from my own trail experience the personal stories of those who didn’t make it to Canada were sometimes surprising.  A lot of this boils down to the diverse range of people hiking the PCT to begin with.  The vast majority of trail stories and images seen on social media are posted by young, fit, thru-hiking hopefuls which makes for a misleading representation.  Not everyone on the trail are thru-hikers.  And many are older, with different backgrounds and motivations for being out walking.  Let’s face it, your average 30-50 year-old with kids can rarely quit their job to go hiking for months on end!  There is also a wide variety in skill levels.  From your TOTAL amateur – such as yours truly – all the way to 80-year olds who have been backpacking and camping in the woods their entire lives.

I only set out to complete a 900-mile section of the northern route, so I mostly met long-distance section hikers on my travels, but there were some encounters with thru hikers who had endured everything that California had to throw at them only to call it a day once conditioned.  Some stories highlight human error or poor preparation, but others prove that not every obstacle can be mitigated against.  I’m a big advocate for believing that while completing a full thru-hike is a highly impressive feat, it’s more about the journey than the destination.  Meaning perhaps the rationale behind a persons decision to join the trail doesn’t actually require the completion of 2650 miles for the experience to be deemed ‘successful’.  Here are a few tales from the people I met who decided to head home short of their original goal.  I have changed or omitted people’s names to protect their dignity…

Our most challenging day: Leaving Crater Lake with a huge water haul and still having to sit besides the road melting snow to get enough hydration. I wanted to go home so bad.

Larry – was a veteran hiker and PCT advocate who spends a large amount of his retirement in the mountains.  Over the years Larry has been gradually completing the PCT in sections – a great idea I thought – and was very close to completing the entire trail when we met one afternoon in central Oregon.  Larry reminded me of a full-grown Boy Scout.  He had all the gear and knew how to use everything, which I found both entertaining and highly informative.  I learnt a lot from Larry from just a single shared camp, and I was sure he was about to smash the few hundred miles he had remaining.  But not everything is a dead-cert.  Within three days of saying our goodbyes I received an email from him confirming he had given up.  He described the ‘negative fun’ of his experience brought on entirely due to those pesky little fuckers: mosquitos.  Yes, their blood-crazed persistent attacks had transformed his solitude into a constant battle, one which he simply wasn’t happy to endure.

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Zoning out from the mozzies

GI Joe was an 18-year old adrenaline junkie hoping to join the marines after completing the PCT.  We met him in Fish Lake Oregon, as he stumbled into the resort with a bleeding head and cut up legs.  Within minutes of his arrival the resort’s owner was on the deck with Joe’s mother on the phone in a frantic state wanting to report her son had an accident nearby and couldn’t be reached on his cell.  After being patched up from the blow to the head he sustained whilst climbing over a fallen tree in a lava field, Joe decided to quit.  Strangely he didn’t attribute his decision to the accident.  Instead he declared he was simply ‘bored’.  I was shocked at the time – his adventure had included ice-climbing summits on the side just for the fun of it, and he was still far ahead of most thru-hikers so he obviously possessed exceptional fitness, but conversely he had underestimated the mental grind.  Maybe Joe’s hike didn’t came with high stakes.  Maybe giving up made no material difference to his life.  Maybe he got a better offer for spending his summer.

‘Ultra-lite’ Lucy was a lady from Alaska with years of hiking under her belt – in fact she had previously hiked the entire trail when I met her travelling south-bound through Washington.  She presumably therefore knew what she was doing.  But after meeting her in 2016 another hiker told me about what happened the year before.  In 2015 Lucy set off her emergency beacon after getting lost in a snow field and had to be airlifted off the mountain.  You see in going ‘ultra-lite’ she had made the mistake of not being adequately prepared for cold temperatures: remember what the Boy Scouts say about being prepared?  She also elected to not carry a GPS which could have been used to navigate her way out of such pickle.  Maybe she was over-confident in her abilities, but hyperthermia actually happens in the wild so it’s best to do whatever you can to protect yourself and carry the necessary provisions.

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Photocredit: Marc Fendel

The Drifters.  Trail life seems to attract some transient-types.  Not every person who sets foot on the trail does so for the physical challenge.  Some individuals who are perhaps a bit lost in life turn to the trail for solitude or companionship, uniting with strangers through the common hiking path.  We met one such guy on our second day in Oregon who certainly didn’t resemble your typical hiker.  He stood perhaps 3 stone over-weight – not that I’m judging – and never seemed to be in a rush.  The verbal trail grapevine later reported how the big guy had made it as far as Fish Lake before getting talking to an elderly couple in an RV.  They offered him some casual yard work at their home so he left with them just like that.  Another drifter made it to Crater Lake (where he started from I was always unclear), before getting so smashed on $1 cans of beer that no reports showed he ever re-joined the trail.  We left him in a drunken stupor in the middle of the free PCT campground ranting away incoherently, totally oblivious to the mosquitos.

Nature boy was out section-hiking through Oregon when he stood on a piece of glass in camp and had to hitch-hike out to hospital.  Shame he hadn’t thought to put some shoes on.

Stevo was off to college in the fall.  Beforehand, he and a group of buddies decided to hike through Oregon and Washington, inspired so it seemed by the legalisation of recreational pot in these two states.  But his buddies were not committed.  For them it was one big party which had lost its appeal by the time they reached Timberline Lodge.  They waited until Cascade Locks though to inform Stevo they were not going any further.  Stevo found himself in a dilemma because he, unlike them, was relying on the hiking experience for material inspiration for the college submission essay he still needed to write.  When the others departed for Portland Stevo persevered, crossing the Bridge of Gods into Washington alone.  This was it, he would show them.  But in less than 100 miles he realised camping alone was not for him.  It wasn’t what he had signed up for, in fact it made him very anxious, so he shared camp with us for a few nights before getting a ride back to Seattle.  I hope he managed to write that essay.

We had to get over Devils Peak somehow…

Snow. Those set to hike the full PCT will expect to inevitably encounter snow somewhere along the way, but those on shorter hikes may not.  Surely by late June one can enjoy a hike on the PCT without snow – right?  Well this wasn’t the case in Oregon when we started on 20th June.  An ‘exceptional’ snow year, meant that areas typically snow-free by then were still buried.  This caught a few people out, and not prepared for the white stuff they decided enough was enough.  These included an older otherwise care-free couple, who drew the line when it came to the possibility of loosing their tracking on Devil’s Peak, but also a young and highly experienced hiker.  He lived in Oregon and was familiar with the mountains, but his ‘downfall’ if I can call it that, was over-ambition.  You see, not anticipating how much the snow and tree blow-downs would slow him down, he overestimated his daily mileage and therefore hadn’t packed enough supplies.  This motivated him to walk a 14-hour day to reach the next resupply stop at Crater Lake, which by the time he made it his legs had seized up and he was walking like a robotic Bruce Wayne.  He admitted defeat and called his parents to pick him up.

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Finally – and especially for any thru-hiking hopefuls out there – completing a long-distance hike often requires a large degree of luck.  Take this last hiking year for example.  In August, wild fires began blazing near Mount Rainer National Park closing a 70-mile section of the Washington PCT.  These closures lasted long into winter.  By March 2018 the PCTA still couldn’t comment on the resulting damage or say whether detours would be required in the months to come.  So following miles of pain, sweat, and blisters, one may have to accept the heartbreaking reality: it can all suddenly end thanks to Mother Nature.

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Image credit: tokkoro.com

PCT 2016 Gear List

At the point the decision was made to hike the PCT neither Conrad or I owned a single piece of the kit that we required.  Fully unqualified as backpackers – that none of our family took seriously – we therefore had to discover from Google searches and fellow blogs what lays inside the ‘average’ pack these days.  It wasn’t easy.  As most of the crazy thru-hikers who take on the trail and blog about it do so with far more hiking experience, the trend of research seemed to lean towards the bare necessities and full into the ‘ultralight’ philosophy.  A lightweight backpacker (LW) carries a base weight under 20 pounds (9.1kg). An ultralight backpacker (UL) carries a base weight under 10 pounds (4.5kg).

Conrad and I struggled to find a balance between ‘light-enough’ to carry a long distance, and the ‘comfort’ factor, knowing that we would need to adjust to living night-after-night in the wild.  I knew our bags were never going to fit into any ultra-light range!  The one thing we did have going in our favour was that despite some cold nights, we only hiked during the summer months. Had the hike extended into the fall our weight would have been higher, as our tent and sleeping bags were designed for only 3-seasons.

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My colourful gaiters + useful silver tape & band-aids

Below is our list of kit.  It is a slightly complicated by the fact there were two of us, meaning some items we split between bags, or we decided to share just one collectively.  The overall base weight of our packs fluctuated as some kit was actually added along the way – after deeming the item worth the extra weight trade-off (see green coding).  Every single item was painstakingly researched.  Without the luxury of time to test kit extensively beforehand, we simply went with the reviews on most items, and brought the bulk in our first 2-weeks in the US.  Much of this stuff didn’t come cheap – we spent somewhere in the region of $3500-$3700 US – despite doing everything we could to buy items on sale.

Base Weight (kit without food/ water/ fuel) therefore averaged around:

Me: 9.3 kg (20.5lb)

Conrad: 9.5 kg (21lb)

[Maybe this is obvious – but it wasn’t to us – food and water is very heavy! Water weighs 1kg per litre. Most of the time we carried 2 litres each & started out with 5 days of food after each resupply stop!]

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Kit all laid out in Ashland ready to be packed for the first time!

My Kit List

Shelter + Pack + Sleep System

Item Details Comments Weight (grams)
Tent Big Agnes Fly Creek UL3 3-season, 3-person tent, but really only big enough for 2 people with pads. Lightweight + simple = did the job! [1496g total]

I carried poles & pegs only 574g

Pack Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60 (S with hip belt) Loved this pack for large hip pockets & many external pockets. Comfortable up to 16kg, not really designed to hold more than that! 870g
Sleeping Bag Nemo Nocturne 15 (Reg) Chosen for the spoon-shape design because I’m claustrophobic. It’s a good bag, but I didn’t LOVE it – my feet tended to get a bit cold with so much space, & the ‘blanket fold’ bit stuck to face. Definitely only 3-season! 1060g
Sleeping Pad Nemo Astro Insulated Air Lite (Reg) Good for insulation, & lasted well, but could be less noisy! 590g
Pillow Sea to Summit Aeros Ultralight (Reg) I needed this to support my heavy head! Good non-sticky material. 56g

What I Wore

Item Details Comments Weight (grams)
Hiking Shoes Merrell Moab Ventilators Loved these shoes! I started the hike with La Sportiva trail runners, which were in pieces after less than 400 miles! The Merrells offer good cushioning & breathability. [NOT WATERPROOF] 726g
Insoles Superfeet Orange Replaced standard shoe insoles with these for added support. Highly recommend. 136g
Gaiters Dirty Girl gaiters Great for keeping small stones/ dirt/ sand, out of shoes, & colourful design got lots of compliments! 40g
Trekking Poles Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork Used them everyday – so practically ‘wore’ them. Helped with stability & my back so much. I liked the adjustable flip-clip design & cork handles. 510g
Socks Darn Tough Quarter Cushion Hiker (2 pairs) Great socks & have lasted beyond the hike. 65g (per pair)
Top Nike Dri-Fit Knit short-sleeved top Stayed pretty cool & dry + still looks brand new! 200g
Hiking Skirt Purple Rain Adventure Skirt (black with grey waist-band) I had never hiked in a skirt before, but this was recommended by a friend who hiked the PCT in 2015. I loved it for the practical pockets, light-weight & ease for a quick bush toilet break! Always looked clean too. 127g
Bra Patagonia Barely Sports Bra Super comfy. Non-wired, but sportive. I’m still wearing it! 57g
Undies Exofficio bikini briefs (X2) Tip: Buy black underwear for the trail! Great pants. 35g (per pair)

Clothing I Carried

Item Details Comments Weight (grams)
Camp leggings Patagonia Capilene thermal weight leggings A bit see-through & thin, but warm & light-weight. Put my skirt over the top to walk around if other people were about! 140g
Camp top Icebreaker Oasis long sleeve crewe Great wool top, non-itchy, but has shrunk in the wash. 193g
Warm jacket Rab Alpine microlight down jacket (hoodless) Good choice for weight:warmth. 330g
Waterproof jacket Mammut Methow Jacket Not the lightest waterproof on the market, but I was happy with it for the cost & large hood. 476g
Waterproof trousers Outdoor Research Aspire pants Great product! Not the lightest choice but the Gore-tex fabric is quite tough, & has zippers all the way up leg, making them easy to pull on mid-hike. 277g
Long-sleeved top Nike Element half-zip running top I feel the cold, so had this polyester half-zip as an extra hiking layer. Often wore it first-thing as I preferred to sweat in this than my down jacket. I’ve worn this top so much, on & off the PCT = good value! 198g
Hiking leggings REI base-layer leggings [Not sure about exact details, as emergency end-of-line purchase from REI Medford when I felt cold in Oregon! Kept them until Washington] 200g
Camp shoes Teva Verra sandals Comfortable, great in-town & for water-crossings, but a bit heavy 453g
Camp socks REI Merino Wool Hiking Socks Another ‘luxury’ item, but I especially hate having cold feet! Slept in them too. 85g
Sun hat Brooks Sherpa hat Really great light-weight cap. Have purchased another one since. 25g
Gloves Outdoor Research Outdry mittens Keeps cold wind off & water-proof. 28g
Warm hat Arc’Teryx Rho LTW beanie Love this. Light, warm, & non-itchy wool. 30g

Conrad’s Kit List

Shelter + Pack + Sleep System

Item Details Comments Weight (grams)
Tent Big Agnes Fly Creek UL3 [See above] [1496g total]

Conrad carried fly sheet & inner tent parts:

922g

Pack Osprey Exos 58 (size L) Conrad struggled in choosing a backpack. He got on OK with this one, but it frustrated him that the hip belt pockets were so small, & because it was designed to be light-weight like my pack, when fully loaded the bag didn’t offer much in the way of cushioning. 1050g
Sleeping Bag Nemo Salsa 15 (L) Not as warm as the Nocturne. Conrad complained it often felt cold in foot box & got condensation on the material. 1190g
Sleeping Pad Nemo Astro Insulated Air Lite Sleeping Pad (L) [As above] 652g
Pillow Sea to Summit Aeros Ultralight (L) [As above] 74g
Ground Sheet Gossamer Gear polycro footprint (L) Looks & sounds like walking on thin plastic, but didn’t rip! 45g

What Conrad Wore

Item Details Comments Weight (grams)
Hiking Shoes La Sportiva Wildcat Trail-Runners Lasted about 800 miles. Non-waterproof. Not overly cushioned, but wider in the toe-box. Would try another brand next time. 709g
Gaiters Dirty Girl gaiters [As above but more ‘manly’ design!] 42g
Trekking Poles Black Diamond Alpine Ergo Trekking Poles  Would recommend for tall-frames. 567g
Socks Darn Tough Quarter Cushion Hiker (2 pairs) Also liked these socks, but occasionally added a pair of liners for extra comfort under-foot. 70g (per pair)
Toe Liners Injinji Run 2.0 Lightweight no-show socks Conrad used these as a thin liner when we got blisters between 2 toes. 50g
Hiking Trousers Columbia ‘shants’ [Old pair, details unknown]. Light-weight, fast-drying & convenient to have convertible shorts / full length 400g
Top Nike Dri-Fit Knit short-sleeved top Good choice. 200g
Underwear Jockey Microfibre Active Trunk (X2) Switched to these after the ExOfficio Give-N-Go boxers started coming apart. Loved them, but apparently don’t sell same ones anymore?  65g (per pair)

Clothing Conrad Carried

Item Details Comments Weight (grams)
Camp trousers Patagonia Capilene Thermal Weight bottoms Found these warm & light, but they are easy to snag, so not good for sitting along on logs in! 129g
Camp top Patagonia Capilene Thermal Weight Crew Same as above – warm/ light, but see-through & easy to pull. Designed as an under-layer though, so work well to just sleep in, or under a jacket. 129g
Warm jacket Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Down Jacket (hooded) A good choice weight-wise, as very light, but the compromise was a thin filling & a fabric that sounded like garbage bags. Did the job for a long-hike, but haven’t worn since. 221g
Waterproof trousers Outdoor Research Helium Pants Very light-weight, & neatly fold into their own pocket for storage. Good choice. Very thin fabric. 160g
Waterproof jacket

Marmot PreCip Rain Jacket

Not the lightest jacket, but great hood, and under-arm zippers. Stood up well. 312g
Long-sleeved top Nike Element half-zip running top [As above] 226g
Camp shoes Xero Shoes Barefoot-inspired Sport Sandals Light-weight, but fell apart quite quickly. Would not use again. 312g
Gloves Outdoor Research Gripper Gloves Quite thick choice for a thru-hike, but Conrad wanted extra-warm! More wind-stopping, than waterproof though 88g
Sun hat Columbia Bora Bora Hat Wide brim and SPF50 protection, with neck toggle (good in wind). So the sensible choice – as opposed to the stylish one! 80g
Neck Buff Buffwear – original buff Instead of a warm hat Conrad packed this last-minute. Can be used around the neck, or on head. Ended up shedding it from our pack after realising his down jacket hood was sufficient. 35g

Additional Kit We Carried Between Us
Camp Kitchen

Item Details Comments Weight (grams)
Stove MSR Pocket Rocket Replaced our alcohol stove with this one a week into the hike! Compact & easy to use. 85g
Cook Pan Snow Peak Titanium Trek 1400 Good enough size for 2 people. Could have done with rubber gripper as burnt myself on the handles, but otherwise good choice, & lid serves as extra pan. 210g
Spork Snow Peak Titanium Spork Good, but if buying again I would have chosen a longer handle for eating out of foil packets. We started with one each, then ended up sharing as only had one pot anyway! 17g (each)
Mug Snow Peak Titanium Single 450 Cup (X2) Decent mug, with foldable handle so easier to store. [Had one each as made cooking oatmeal easier] 68g (each)
Fire lighting Lighter and waterproof matches Disposable lighter; a few waterproof matches in plastic ziplock (for back-up); some homemade firelighters – cottonwool dipped in Vaseline.
Food Sacks Ursack Minor Critter food bags (X2) Made with Kevlar, so very strong. A bit on the heavy-side, but as we didn’t have bear canisters, used these to carry food & hang from trees, (Had one each – one for camp food, & other for daytime snack food) 150g (each)
Water filter Sawyer Squeeze original (X2) Used standard size (instead of mini) & by far the most popular filter on the trail. Needs looking after, but good choice. Started sharing one, but due to time added another. 85g (each)
[Dirty] Water reservoir Evernew 2L water bladder (X2) Did LOADS of research on this & had to buy online. Great because the threads screw directly onto the Sawyer Squeeze & can be hung up (with help of some cord) to create a drip gravity filter. 42g (each)
[Clean] Water bottles Smartwater 1L plastic bottles  (X4) Added the sports cap push-top lid from smaller Smartwater bottles. Threads also compatible with the Sawyer. Did the job. 42g (each)

Electronics

Item Details Comments Weight (grams)
 Headlight (me) Petzl E+Lite headlamp The elastic pinged me in the face a few times as it quickly retracted, but super light & compact. Would not recommend for night hiking, but for getting around camp in the dark/ in the tent it worked fine. 27g
Headlight (Conrad) Black Diamond Storm headlamp Much heavier, but brighter light & more comfortable to wear. We really just relied on this light most of the time. 110g
Camera Canon PowerShot G7 X Digital Camera Really great piece of kit for a compact camera. Large sensor, 4.2X zoom. Spent ages researching a decent camera and glad we chose this one. 278g
Phone (me) iPhone 6S with Lifeproof FRE case This was a newish phone so I wanted to protect it, hence the relatively heavy case. It did keep it protected – both from being dropped & dirt! 143g + 100g
Phone (Conrad) iPhone 5 Old phone, so he didn’t bother with a case! The camera wasn’t so good on it, so Conrad generally used the Canon. 112g
Headphones Bose in-ear (X2) [Just took the headphones we already had.] Wireless would have been better, but due to battery life, probably wouldn’t have practically worked! 18g
Camera Mounting Clip StickPic Nifty piece of kit, that acts like a monopod, by utilising your trekking pole for selfie shots! 18g
Battery Pack Anker PowerCore+ 13400 Provided enough charge for 2 phones & our camera in-between stops. Heavy for 1 person! [Also required a micro USB cable] 306g
Extra Cables Lightening cable + Lightening memory card + Adaptor for camera’s battery (annoying) + USB wall plug Approx 150g

Miscellaneous Kit

Item Details Comments Weight (grams)
Stuff sacks Sea to Summit Ultra Sil Nano Dry Sack (2L) Probably a luxury item, as used to compartmentalise our packs – 1 for clothes & another (below) for sleeping bag. Some hikers just throw everything into pack, but liked to keep things easy to access & ‘clean’ separate from dirty. 16g
Stuff sacks Exped Ultralite Waterproof Compression Bags (13L) Used for our sleeping bags – maybe excessive, but helped create space in our bags! I liked them, & have used them since. 40g
Multi-tool Leatherman Style CS Multi-tool We ended up returning this because the scissors were not very good. 41g
Pocket Knife Gerber STL 2.5 pocket knife I carried this (unnecessarily) as it made me feel safer! Great light-weight, 2-inch knife. Never used it though… 42g
Head Net Coghlan’s Mosquito Head Net (X2) These were relatively cheap, simple nets, that did the job, but did have a habit of sticking to faces because they didn’t have a structure/rim. Still, I’m glad we decided to buy them! 20g
Waterproof Pack Cover Osprey Ultralight Raincover Large & Extra Large. A bit expensive, but good light-weight rain cover, with easy to fit elastic, & most importantly, kept water out. 90g
Paracute Cord REI PMI 3mm Utility Cord (50 ft.) Used this bright orange cord for hanging our food (and a bit for making a gravity water filter). Strong stuff. 113g
Seat pad Therm-a-Rest Z-Seat Pad Totally a luxury item! Added these after finding camping with no seat so uncomfortable! Doubled as a porch mat for the tent, & inside tent when kneeing to do things like get dressed! Not much weight really for the practical uses! 57g
Carabinas Gossamer Gear mini (X2) Small & handy for hanging things (like wet washing) on the outside of my pack.
Shoulder Pouch Zpacks Backpack Shoulder Pouch Added to the shoulder strap of my pack. Very handy for keeping things like phone & sunglasses. Weighed next to nothing.
First Aid Kit Misc. Zip-lock containing selection of dressings, band-aids, antihistamines, ibuprofen, silver tape etc. Approx 80g
Water Purification Katadyn Micropur MP1 Purification Tablets Emergency back-up in case filters failed. Never used these, but last a long time! 20g
Towels  PackTowl Ultralite Towel (L) I added this after realising I had nothing to use when I reached a shower. Luxury item.  99g 
Towel PackTowl Ultralite Towel (S) (X2) Handkerchief-sized. Used as my ‘piss cloth’ & Conrad used his to wash with. Ultra-light & super-super-absorbant. 14g
Soap  Dr Bronner’s Peppermint Liquid Soap (2oz)  Recommended this bio-degradable, natural soap on-trail. Loved the tingling, fresh feeling – only needed a drop to feel ‘clean’ again.  57g 
Hand Sanitiser Purell Advanced Naturals 2oz pump bottle Both carried these in hip pockets & used religiously before eating/ water filtering & after bush toilet duties. Fragrance-free, so bear-friendly! 57g
Moisturiser/ Sunscreen Neutrogena Healthy Defence Daily Moisturiser with SPF 50 Non-greasy & did the job. Decanted into smaller bottles & posted into re-supply packages. 28g
DEET bug spray  Ben’s 100 Max Tick & Insect Repellent 3.4oz  Potent stuff, but much needed. Made plastic & rubber melt, but worth it for any mosquito respite.  96g 
Toilet Paper & Sanitary items [Posted in each box, or whenever needed] 
Pack Liner Waste Compactor Bags [+ lots of Zip-locks for carrying food items] 
Passports/ Permits/ Maps [We carried paper HalfMile maps as back-up, posted for each section]
Credit cards/ cash
Sharpie pen [Useful for writing signs when hitch-hiking] 
Sunglasses Cheap polarised ones! Essential kit. Brought ours from Walmart. Mine unsurprisingly broke towards the end.

PCT Resupply Strategy

The very factor that makes the PCT so special, also makes it tricky to hike – the isolation.  Unlike parts of the Appalachian Trail, hiking along the PCT we will go for days without meeting civilization.  This therefore requires some forward-planning regarding food and basic supplies.  People approach resupply strategy differently – some buy everything along the way, some send themselves resupply boxes, and other do a combination of both.  We are mostly sending boxes, as I admit to being a fussy eater, but we will also be picking up certain things.

Research indicated that we should not attempt to carry more than around 5 days of food at any given time due to the weight.  Therefore I used Craig’s PCT Planner website to work out how long it would take us to hike between the potential resupply stops, and then consulted Plan Your Hike for further information.  Note:   It is a good idea to contact any chosen resupply location to confirm their online information is accurate.

Below is a copy of the resupply schedule that I originally left with The Marshmeier’s in order to post our boxes.  A couple of the postal dates changed along the way – including a urgent text request to ‘HOLD ALL BOXES’ sent in our first week after experiencing so much snow we didn’t think we’d last – but generally everything arrived well-ahead of us.

For most thru-hikers who average 25-35 miles a day, our number of resupply stops would seem excessive, but it was designed around our lower mileage expectations.  In a nutshell, we stopped at every possible resupply location in Washington (because the trail is more isolated there), and then selected most, but not all points in Oregon.  The only change I would have made with hindsight?  I would have omitted Timberline Lodge for sending a package to, purely because we could have done a full grocery shop two days later in Cascade Locks.

Word of warning – boxes take A LOT longer to pack than expected! We numbered them and kept open in case we needed extra items added/ removed before posting.

A Week On: Post Hike Reflections

Saturday 3rd September

We finished hiking a week ago today.  It is amazing how quickly the time has passed.  Since then we have been to Vancouver, then south to Portland, and are now on an overnight train back to California.  But not much has happened.  We have mainly eaten, rested and felt, well, just lost.

The city is a world away from the trail.  I can’t believe I’m admitting this, but I miss it.  I miss the daily exhilaration.  Being physically challenged, but then rewarded by nature.  I miss the simplicity of the daily routine.  I miss the fresh air.  We obviously got complacent on the trail.  I also now appreciate how having endless choices (like what to eat) in a city is stressful.  And there are far too many people around!

Having had some time to reflect on the experience, there are some basic things I’m taking away:

  1. There are some very kind people in the world who want nothing in return for their helping hand.
  2. Being fearful is a waste of time.  I learnt this after the first couple of nights sleeping in dark forests fretting every single sound.
  3. Hiking as a couple really tests a relationship to its limits – there are times I could easily have pushed Conrad off a mountain, and I know he felt the same – but I also appreciate what teamwork we achieved and the experience we shared.
  4. Because we survived 48 nights of camping I no longer need to feel like a novice in REI.
  5. I have a new-found appreciation of simple things I used to take for granted, such as: a bed, hot water, and carb-based foods.
  6. Camping for days on end is tiresome, but I do see how it allowed us to discover special places a car wouldn’t allow us to reach.
  7. Modern life has made me too precious.  It is OK to be a bit dirty and to just get on with it.
  8. I really like oatmeal.  Maybe I should eat it in real life?

So who knows what’s next.  I know that this experience has left a lasting impression on us. And I know that when we do return to London the mountains will be calling.  Some images with my partner in crime…

Day 69: Canada

Saturday 27th August

Start: Bushcamp, mile 2635

End: Manning Park, Canada, off mile 2659

Miles: 23.5

We enjoyed our last trail coffee and oatmeal sat in the dark.  Both of us were contemplative.  I am aware that during this trip we have both complained incessantly, but it still felt bittersweet.  We agreed that we will miss being out here.  The sense of freedom, and daily exhilaration cannot be matched.  We have craved amenities like a bed so often, but stripped of modern choices does make life simple.

 

As we left camp with Mark the sun had yet to rise and it felt cold in the wind.  For the first time I was hiking in the thermal bottoms I sleep in.  We winded up to Rock Pass with pink hues above us.  After descending down a scree slope we had another longer climb up the valley wall to Woody Pass.  Once we mounted it we stopped and looked out at the new range of mountains ahead.  They must be Canadian!  Our first sight of Canada.  Also visible was an increasing number of clouds; surely it wasn’t going to rain on our last day?!

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We hiked on through a path of noble fir trees, which made me think of Christmas.  A ranger (the only person we had seen on the whole hike), passed and asked to see our wilderness permits.  Luckily Mark had bothered to fill one in!

Conrad, Mark, and Ranger Ian

Woody Pass – Canada is now visible!

From being on a pinnacle with 360 views at Hopkins Pass, we began to descend and enter forest cover.  The next miles felt slow as I was eagerly awaiting arriving at the border.  The closer we got, the more excited I felt.  I thought the forest was rather unremarkable, but Mark pointed out how rare it is to see pine, Douglas Fir, cedar, and blue spruce all growing together.  So I will take his word that it was amazing.  Instead I was caught up dealing with around a dozen blow-downs, one of which scrapped up my knee.  A parting gift from the US.

It’s real windy on Hopkins Pass

Hopkins Lake

Getting even closer
Oh come on guys!!!

Finally, after some switchbacks down, we could hear voices, and as the monument came into sight a small group of hikers were gathered there.  The border was not what I was expecting – where were the Mounties to greet us, or a fence or something?  Instead, a PCT monument stood next to a silver American-Canadian goodwill obelisk called Monument 78.  Probably the most striking part was the impact of a missing row of trees running up the hillside in both directions, enabling the physical border to be seen by air.

No way! KBCN hiked how far?!
The border can be seen in the line of missing trees

We took some photos whilst being awkwardly observed by the other hikers.  They told us that we looked far too clean to have walked all the way from Oregon!  I just smiled, inwardly acknowledging some pride over having personal hygiene standards.  They eventually left, having to turn around and walk back the same way they’d come – I didn’t get the full story, but for whatever reason they didn’t have permission to enter Canada.  If I had to guess, it was probably something to do with the pound of pot in their bags!

I didn’t even have to show my passport!

Reaching the monument – the effective end of the PCT – soon felt anti-climatic.  We had nearly 9 miles further to hike just to get back into the world.  Why couldn’t there be an air-lift service at this point?  We sat and had some food at a nearby river.  It was a beautiful spot.  From there we were on a mission to Manning Park, and didn’t really stop.  The sky had cleared and it now felt hot and humid.  Conrad was popping painkillers for his feet like they were going out of fashion.  I was stumbling a lot due to tree roots, crumbling trail, and mostly because I was tired.  The last 4 miles led us down a stony jeep road.

Two last cookies from the Stehekin bakery to mark the occasion

At around 5:30pm we resurfaced back into civilisation.  Well, it was a paved road at least.  We started walking along the road towards the lodge when a car pulled up with a smiling lady in it.  It took us a few seconds to recognise Roberta sat in the driver’s seat – I think we were all just zoned out.  I have never felt so happy to see someone!  As we piled into the car and finally took a seat it dawned on me that we were done.  The hike was officially over.

Over dinner in the lodge it still hadn’t fully sunk in.  I was grateful for Mark’s company in this last section, it was amazing how our little chance reunion happened.  I also felt a little sad at Dan’s absence from the group.  I had been half expecting to see him sat at the monument waiting for us, our hiking buddy from Kentucky.  Would we ever see him again?  He had kept us entertained with his stories and road-walking escapades since southern Oregon.

Look who we found in the bar! This is Dan smiling
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Yay! Poutine!

Tonight we will get a bed and a shower.  I think I need some time to decompress and to let it all sink in.  I do feel a sense of achievement and triumph, but mostly right now I feel loss.  The trail had become our daily routine, and I will miss the wonderful people out there who enhanced the experience so much.  I am so thankful to the many who supported our efforts along the way.  Oh, and I should probably now think about monitoring what I eat!

Day 68: Nearly there

Friday 26th August

Start: Bushcamp, mile 2613.8

End: Rock Pass bushcamp, mile 2635

Miles: 21.7

As I go to bed tonight I am overwhelmed by the huge day we have had.  We are close to Canada and the end of our journey.  We are exhausted, but exhilarated, and camping-aside I think I will miss being in the wild.

Daybreak
Dan’s tent and Mark’s body-bag/ bivy!

In our meadow camp this morning we woke to a perfectly pink sunrise.  It warmed me and made me think that today would be a good day.  I was happy to finally capture a picture of a pika.  We had completed the hardest part of the climb to Harts Pass yesterday, so the initial miles were largely skimming along a ridge with views of the sun slowly hitting the mountains.

A pika

At Harts Pass Conrad and I took a wrong turn and hiked the wrong way for 10 minutes (uphill) before realising.  Thanks goes out to the GPS for that mishap.  This meant that we were separated from Mark, who probably thought that we had ditched him.  It took us a long time to catch up with him, but the trail on that section was incredible – skirting along and over a number of passes, and a section called the Devils Backbone.  We could see for miles, wide valleys below and changing foliage with the elevations.

For most of the afternoon we have been inside the Pasayten Wilderness area.  Each time we went over another pass I half expected to ‘see Canada’.  Will it have a giant maple leaf flag to welcome us?  The hike got tougher in the afternoon due to tiredness and another late climb to camp.  This one was only about 2.5 miles long from Holman Pass, but felt much steeper than yesterday.  Mark has been suffering with his back, and Conrad with his toe blisters.  I popped some ibuprofen to feel part of their gang – that and because my feet were cramping up.

Because of the miles we have made today and yesterday, it should be possible to finish tomorrow, half a day ahead of schedule.  And more importantly with one less night in a tent!  I am trying to keep cautiously optimistic though, as to achieve this will mean a near-record day.


Our (hopefully) last camp is situated near a small spring surrounded by a large open meadow.  We are sandwiched by Holman Peak and Powder Mountain towering above us.  I am disappointed that Dan didn’t join us here for a final campfire, instead deciding to hike on.  Mark lit the fire which had a mesmerizing effect on all around.  He then generously proceeded to give away his camp stove to a couple of [not entirely friendly] south-bound hikers.


It’s surreal that this would be our last night out here.  I was emotional as the sky illuminated into an epic rose light show.  Looking around at the expansive grandeur of nature surrounding us all I could think was: How does one come back to real life from this?

Miles to Canada: 14.7

Miles to Finish: 23.5

Day 67: Baked Goods Thursday

Thursday 25th August

Start: Rainy Pass, mile 2589

End: Tatie Peak Bushcamp, mile 2613.8

Miles: 24.85

This morning I was sitting on a wall in the trailhead car park cooking oatmeal when a white car pulled up.  I felt conscious as I probably resembled a hobo trying to keep warm in front of a stove.  It was only 6am.  The car window went down and our old friend Mark who we’d last seen in Trout Lake appeared!  I do love a trail reunion.

First light

Mark was dropped off by his friend Roberta to join us for this section.  He came bearing the gift of raspberry pie, so he was instantly in!  It was good to have some fresh blood with us today, even if Mark was carrying a new ridiculous ultra lightweight kit – his bag is only 15 pounds with food and water.  My bag must currently be at least double that.

Cutthroat Pass


We timed it well because the early morning hours took us up to Cutthroat Pass.  The views were expansive and incredible, with dramatic sculpted peak surrounding us.  I love mounting a pass, because not only does it mean it’s finally time for some down-hill action, but once at the top a whole new set of mountains and vistas appear.  On the other side we descended down briefly through Granite Pass, then was on a steady climb once again to Methow Pass.  The trail was visible for a long way in front of us as we could trace it skirting up and around the mountain.


Not long before we stopped in a shaded forested area for lunch we passed a 2600 PCT sign.  OK, so we haven’t personally completed 2600 miles from Mexico, but it reminded me that we are on the final countdown.  The lunch of cinnamon rolls (ridiculously heavy but impossible to resist) was one of my trail favourites.  Less than a mile after we continued on and a frightened-looking French guy hurried past us.  He said a bear had caught him by surprise right next to the trail a few minutes ago.  I wonder if it was the cinnamon rolls that attracted it?!

I kept my eyes peeled but was glad not to see any bears.  By early afternoon some clouds had come over, providing the perfect hiking weather – warm but overcast.  Unfortunately, and what we in England would call ‘sod’s law’, by the time we started our long afternoon ascent the sun was beaming.  At already 18 miles in, we commenced a big 13-mile climb up towards Harts Pass.

Harts Pass is the last road that we will cross before Canada.  It is unpaved, but for many PCT hikers unable to cross the border, it is the exit point from the trail. We made it 7 miles up the mountain in the strong afternoon sun.  I don’t know how I made it, because with the exposure and the constant uphill I was really struggling.  It felt like it took an eternity to reach camp.  It was particularly tough because we had been told conflicting information about the reliability of the stream there, so was hauling litres of extra water.  It turned out the stream was flowing fine.

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Tonight Conrad and I are camped in a meadow at 6500 feet, with imposing cliffs above us.  Both Dan and Mark are nearby.  We are surrounded by a landscape of scree and rocks, so the stream and small meadow is a little oasis.  The local deer are rather put out by our presence here, as they nervously watched us whilst trying to graze.  There is also a flurry of noisy critters in the rocks right behind us.  I saw a number of pika, which are a rare tiny mammal with round ears and no tail.  For the first time on the trail we rewarded a massive days hiking effort with 2 dinners – mac’n’cheese followed by chocolate oatmeal.  Well why not?!

Miles to Canada: 36.3

Miles to Finish: 45