From the Mexican border to the vast expanse of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range to snow-capped Mt. Rainer and beyond, there is truly nothing like leaving everything behind to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Each year, around 300 brave souls attempt to “thru hike” the entire 2,650-mile trek, experiencing six of the seven North American ecozones in the process.
As I experienced firsthand, adventure awaits along every step of the PCT, as you wake to the sun and lay your head to rest at dusk at the end of each demanding day. Over the course of 4-6 months, everyday life revolves around your forward progress along the trail. This is back-to-basics, rugged living at its finest.
There are some obvious abilities that must be mastered before setting forth on an ultra-backpacking adventure, such as carrying a heavy load on your back, way-finding, and fire starting. In fact, much of the time spent hiking can seem a bit mundane.
However, there are some much more unusual skills that will be needed to survive a trek of this nature and return a better man.
It is common when hiking a long trail to have to hitchhike into towns to resupply. These can be a short 5-mile hitch or as long as 30-plus miles. The simple thing to do is put your thumb up and get a ride. Unfortunately, in this day and age, it’s not usually that easy. Even though you may look like a thru-hiker, which is not an uncommon sight along major trails, there is still an unknown element about you, especially when you start to look like the Unabomber between resupply stops.
Over the course of 138 days of hiking, I learned several strategies that saved me hours of sitting by the road. It got me to my resupply towns quickly and effectively so that I could eat, shop, drink beer, and relax for a while.
- Freshen up before you step out near the road. Get out a towel and some water, and clean off your face, arms and legs. Presentation is everything in the business world, and it makes a big difference when you are seeking a ride in remote areas as well.
- Make sure you smile when you put your thumb up. You’d be surprised how many times drivers shared that they picked me up because I had a smile on my face and looked clean.
- Position yourself where a vehicle can pull over. If there is no convenient place to pick you up, most drivers will zoom by without a second thought. Would you pick up a hitchhiker if you couldn’t pull over safely? The optimal spot may not be where the trail crosses the road; it’s worth a short additional walk to find a prime pick-up location.
- Humanize yourself even more and lighten the mood by holding a candy bar or something fun. I witnessed another hiker grabbing attention by holding a blow-up pink flamingo. After sitting at one location for a bit longer than I wanted, I held up a Snickers bar and the next car that passed stopped to pick me up for a lift into town.
2. Sleeping Under the Stars
Don’t be afraid of the night. There is much to see and enjoy as the sun sets and the moon and stars shine in ways you can’t experience in suburbia. Connecting with your surroundings each evening provides a greater sense of what’s around you, and I found that sleeping without a tent as much as possible was really enjoyable. Putting up a tent requires work and a specific amount of flat area to set up, but you can sleep almost anywhere you want when you lay beneath the stars.
During the early sections of the PCT, the heat is a major factor that you must contend with each day until you arrive at the gateway to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Until then, you must hike very early in the morning before the heat of the day pushes you to cool places for rest. Once the mid-day heat has subsided, it’s time to hike well into the evening as the temperatures begin to fall. It is during this time that sleeping under the stars is the most easy and enjoyable.
When it is dark out and you are weary from the long day, the last thing you want to do is mess with preparing a tent. Instead, I followed this simple process for setting up camp in just a few minutes.
- Put down a cut-to-size ground cloth made of Tyvek, place your sleeping pad on top of the ground cloth, and then put your sleeping bag on top of your sleeping pad.
- Grab your unused clothes, stuff them into a stuff sack, and use this as your pillow.
- Enjoy the evening air before you fade away into a restful sleep.