If I walked fast enough and started late enough, I could eliminate most of the particular seasonal challenges of the PCT: excessive heat, snow, full creeks, and mosquitos.
The other day I did an analysis of my mileage on the PCT. I took 131 days and had 13 zeros (all but two in the first half of the hike). It took about 3 weeks to build up my mileage to an average of about 22 miles a day, then it took a drop to about 15 in the Sierra before rising to nearly 24 through northern California and Oregon. It dropped slightly to 23 miles/day in Washington.
What I think I can do
If I repeat the PCT, I don't think I can expect to do far better than my last hike. I was already pretty lightweight and may be able to shave off 1-2 lbs from my pack. My food was close to optimal as well. What I could improve, however, is time management.
High-mileage days (>32 miles) tended to be followed by days with under 10 miles due to exhaustion and loss of energy. Instead, I should stay within a comfortable range of 25-30 miles a day whenever possible and avoid overworking my body.
Town stops were not optimal. In the hot season, I really should try more to reach towns early in the morning and get out as quickly as possible. Town stops were draining on my morale.
I could get rid of most or even all zeros by not staying in town with relatives and friends (yes, I know, that's part of the adventure), by entering towns earlier in the day, by keeping my mileage to under 33 miles per day, and by starting my hike doing 15 miles a day instead of 20.
My plan for a PCT Sobo hike
So, here's my plan:
July 10: Manning Park
August 3: Cascade Locks
August 23: CA-OR border
September 10: Sierra City
September 30: Kennedy Meadows
October 21: San Jacinto Peak
October 28: Mexican border
Social needs are not to be underestimated. Walking in complete solitude for more than 2 days at a time is not for me! According to this plan, I figure I would meet Nobos roughly Aug. 5-23 and Sobos during the months of September and October. Most Sobos would start a lot earlier than I, so it would take some time to catch up.
With a schedule like this, I think I would probably get enough social interaction to keep me going. In the early part of the hike I would not be so early in Washington that the seasonal backpackers would not be out, so I'd have them to talk to. In Oregon I'd have numerous but -- unfortunately -- brief conversations with all the Nobos. In California I might have caught up with the Sobos (which seem to clump into just a couple groups because there are so few of them) and would probably be able to spend a lot of time with them. If I eventually passed them by southern California, I would probably still meet backpackers hiking along the PCT and nearby trails since that's perfect hiking season there.
Is roughly from June 15 to August 7, with isolated pockets hanging on for a couple more weeks. By starting on July 10, I'd miss half the season and would also have little snow to cross in the Washington Cascades.
My plan involves starting at 15 miles per day and gradually building up to 25 miles per day by day 20. From there on I could expect to average 25 miles a day regardless of the location, because:
- by the time I got to the Sierras there would be no snow and no rushing creeks to cross, just beautiful empty terrain, fall colors, and almost no backpackers
- by the time I got to the southern California semidesert, it would be October, with much lower temperatures and more tolerable sun
I'm pretty certain I can reach 25 miles per day just by being slightly more efficient with town stops and avoiding 33+ mile days. On my Nobo hike in 2009, 24 miles a day was a sustainable pace for me, with zeros and town stops included.
No ice-axe would be needed for mid July in Washington. No trekking poles would be needed for crossing Sierra streams. And no bear canister either, since the bears and the rangers would have (I think!) moved lower by the time I got there. With a faster pace through the Sierras, I wouldn't have to restock in Independence and could carry fewer days of food between town stops.
But there are some slight weight penalties. I would need a warmer sleeping bag (quilt) starting in the northern Sierras, as well as a base layer, jacket, gloves, etc. This could add 2 lbs. of weight (less than what I save by not taking a bear canister).
Most of my gear would be the same or very similar. I'd probably get a new pack for the trip, though. I'd probably consider a Zpacks Blast 32 with stiffening rods and other accessories.
This schedule, I think, would allow me to avoid much of the most unpleasant aspects of my Nobo hike: the heat (esp. during town stops down below) and mosquitos (northern Sierra and southern Oregon).