Monday, August 23, 2010

If I Did the PCT Again...

I think I'd try going south.

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.

Mosquito season
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.

Weight benefits
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).

Gear choices
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.

Final words
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).


  1. My response to the following:

    >> water said...
    sounds good overall, but i do think you'd be highly under-estimating 'not walking on snow' in washington cascades for july 10th. to put it this way, goat rocks was not accessible/navigatable on July 10th of this year. More like start of august for that area. The more north in WA you go, the more snow, so, I honestly think for instance in 2010, this plan would not work at all, due to the snow in northern wa.

    just my 2cents

    The date would have to be flexible to take in consideration the snow conditions for the current year. The part furthest north, the Pasayten, is actually drier than Glacier Peak and south, so I'd be okay for the first week or so.

    I think my start date could be pushed back to as far as July 20 without encountering serious problems in the Sierra, provided I kept my mileage goals.

  2. Eric Bow (PCT 2010) did the SoBo PCT schedule you describe and wrote an excellent Journal:

    A sobo PCT hiker should be familiar with el nino & la nina weather patterns in the Pacifric NW and keep track of spring melting rates.

    The winter of 2010/11 was a strong la nina and the Cascades got hammered with snow (plus the coldest spring on record held that snow into September). Scott Williamson (Bink) did not start his sobo PCT until August 8, 2011 and was almost continuously on snow for two weeks (41 mpd) thru Washington.

    Another 2011 hiker, "Bear Can", started SoBo PCT on June 23, 2011. Read this interesting 50+ day hike thru a snowy Washington at

    The winter of 2004/05 was a strong el nino. The NW ski resorts had little snow and the Cascades could be accessed six weeks earlier than normal (see Splash, 2005 sobo PCT at trailjournals. Many PCT hikers were flipping from CA to WA that year).

    El nino & la nina have the opposite effect on the Sierras, but it is only probability and 2010/11 was a freak la nina winter, bringing the Sierras record snow when they should of had little snow.

    Weather extremes are predicted to be amplified with global warming - so probable outcomes may be off in the future. Washington is currently having late-July-weather in September 2011 and fire season is just beginning.

    See Cliff Mass' weather blog for excellent current commentary on Pacific NW weather.

    Tony Crocker has an excellent blog that tracks weather statistics at dozens of American and Canadian ski resorts ( This may give you some idea as to how much snow will be around the next spring.

    You can also look at local hiking trip reports at, & in the weeks leading up to your start date to see when (& if) local hikers are making it into Cascade Pass, the Kendall Katwalk and Goat Rocks.

  3. Hey, thanks for all that great information. I think an ultralight SoBo hike can be started a bit later than late June to avoid even more of the late-season snow. But yes, it really does vary a great deal from year to year.

  4. Going south on the PCT would be interesting and kind of cool since less people do it. Great information.