Coping with Water Shortages, Heat, and Mileage on a PCT Thru-Hike

Many Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers are veterans of other long-distance hikes, especially the Appalachian Trail. However, the Pacific Crest Trail has some challenges that surprise even experienced hikers.

The same rules that pertain to starting an Appalachian Trail thru-hike apply to starting a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike:

  • Take it easy on the mileage.
  • Be sure boots or trekking shoes fit.
  • Don’t compete with other hikers.
  • Pack as lightly as possible.
  • Be as fit as possible before the start.

Challenges of Starting a Pacific Crest Trail Thru-hike

  • Heat: Most hikers start northbound, hiking in southern California. It takes about two or three weeks for hikers to become acclimated to working hard in hot dry weather. Even fit hikers are subject to dehydration and heat exhaustion (perhaps even more so, because the fitter a hiker is, the less likely he is to admit exhaustion and the need to slow down). The first mistake is starting too hard and too fast. Also, men should wear shirts to help prevent sunburn and dehydration.
  • Blisters: Many PCT hikers find that trekking shoes or other lightweight footwear are perfectly adequate for southern California. However, in hot weather, even sneakers can cause blisters. Trekking shoes should be loose-fitting, because feet swell in hot weather. Wear wicking socks next to the skin (never cotton). In addition, some hikers like the cushioning of light wool socks, which can help prevent blisters. Hikers who choose to wear boots should use lightweight models and be sure they are well-broken in.
  • Mileage: Unfortunately, it’s not easy to take it easy on the first few days of southern California’s Pacific Crest Trail because there are only a couple of seasonal water sources in the 20 miles between the Mexican border and Lake Moreno. The most conveniently located water source is Hauser Creek, 16 miles north of the border, which dries up in late spring. Unfortunately, Hauser Creek is not a safe place to camp, as it is on a route often used by illegal aliens. Hikers often try to hike the entire 20 mile stretch on the first day, but this is a brutal way to start for all but the most fit hikers.
  • Dry Campsites: Another option is to camp without being near a water source, if reliable water sources are farther than a new hiker can comfortably walk in a day. This requires carrying a lot of water (up to two gallons a person). It’s possible to dry camp with less water by cooking and eating at the last known water source, then carrying enough to the campsite to get through the night and the next morning’s mileage. Each hiker has to decide if it is easier to hike longer miles (to get to the next water source) or carry more water weight (in order to camp without water).
  • Snow. Hikers who start their hikes too early (before mid April) may be stuck in snow at higher elevations in the Laguna Mountains, the Jan Jacinto Mountains, the San Gabriel Mountains, or the San Bernardino Mountains.

Conclusion

For the Pacific Crest Trail, the watchword is fitness. While the trail itself is gently graded (and usually passable by stick), the environment is tough. This trail tests hikers with a variety of challenges, including planning an itinerary that avoids the worst of the heat, snow, and river crossings. The ability to hike long miles is an important part of PCT success.