The joy of PCT section hiking

By Tom Bache. This story originally appeared in our member magazine, the PCT Communicator. You too can receive the magazine. Join today.

Many stories about the Pacific Crest Trail experience focus on the thru-hiker. Of course, these are inspiring. But a thru-hike is only a dream for those (like me) unwilling to take a half-year vacation from family obligations, career ambitions and all the little things that fill normal life.

Instead, I enjoyed hiking the entire PCT while sustaining a crowded everyman life. This section-hiking approach has its own advantages, challenges and rewards, but anyone with good health, perseverance and a love for walking all day in beautiful places can do it.

WIth one of my favorite hiking partners at the old southern terminus monument near Campo, California.

With one of my favorite hiking partners at the old southern terminus monument.

Section-hiking can be rigorously planned or (my approach) entirely ad hoc. I hiked when circumstances permitted and never planned beyond the next hike. So my 2,665-mile journey just happened as a small, but important, part of life for more than a decade. I hiked south-to-north, but sometimes I changed the order for convenience or better trail conditions.

Backpacking with kids in southern California on the PCT.

Hiking partners David and Tom on the PCT in SoCal.

I started my PCT journey in 2004 when I was 61. My initial objective was to day-hike the 133 miles through San Diego County. But this only piqued my interest, so I learned lightweight backpacking skills to continue north on weekend trips. I enjoyed those trips, so I continued to Kennedy Meadows (702 PCT miles) by hiking about a weekend every month around the calendar, as winter conditions are excellent in most of this area.

With this experience, I had the confidence to continue through the Sierra Nevada on weeklong hikes in the summer. By the time I reached Tuolumne Meadows, I realized that I could do the entire PCT that way. Only twice did I leave home for longer than a week, and then it was for two weeks or less.

The view from San Jacinto.

The view from San Jacinto.

In total, I section-hiked the PCT in 49 segments spanning 12 years. These ranged from day-hikes of 10 or fewer miles to backpacking trips as long as 160 miles. There were only 13 long hikes of five to 14 days. I had many other priorities, but I worked around them. These details are simply an example. It is mainly a matter of taste and convenience – plus the desire or compulsion to persevere.

It sounds easy and safe. But I shouldn’t minimize the potential for drama and even disaster for the poorly prepared or unlucky. Important skills to have or acquire, especially if you choose to go solo and off-season, as I often did, include:

  1. Keep your sleeping bag and some clothes dry no matter what happens.
  2. Recognize and deal with signs of hypothermia.
  3. Go light, but carry enough to be safe if you are trapped for a few days.
  4. Cross raging rivers safely, or wait for the water to recede.
  5. Know how to self-arrest with hiking poles.
  6. Carry a compass and good maps and know how to use them.

I actually used all these skills. I carried one layer that I never wore because I never had to stay put, and I crossed rivers that approached my safety limit. I once fell when crossing the steep Packwood Glacier in Washington and started an accelerating slide to oblivion but saved myself because I was prepared to self-arrest by using my hiking poles. I almost never carried a GPS because I don’t like trusting my safety to a device that requires batteries and map-and-compass skills deteriorate without constant practice.

Advantages of PCT section-hiking

Beyond its compatibility with normal life, a multi-year PCT hike has many other advantages. A section-hiker can schedule around poor conditions such as heavy snow cover or trail closures. I always arrived at a trailhead excited with anticipation from studying the guidebook and other sources. I never got over the thrill of seeing what was around the next corner or over the next ridge. As the years went by, my sense of achievement grew and the untrodden miles called ever more urgently.

Crossing Mission Creek in southern California.

Crossing Mission Creek in southern California.

I am often asked about my favorite part of the PCT. My answer is always that I have no favorite. I thoroughly enjoyed every step. I started every hike healthy and well fed, and my hikes weren’t long enough to change that. My pack got lighter as I learned what I didn’t need, and I could carry less food without getting hungry enough to be inconvenienced. A period of exercising hard and eating little is good for most, but not all, of us. Know thyself! I lost about 20 excess pounds during my section-hiking years.

The cables on the famed Eagle Creek Trail, a must do alternate for hikers on the PCT.

The cables on the famed Eagle Creek Trail, a must do alternate for hikers on the PCT.

You can start section hiking with little or no previous backpacking experience and, like I did, learn as you go. Over time, your expertise will grow and you can optimize your gear selection. Fitness for trail rigors will grow too. So a section hiker needn’t confront most of the fears and worries facing a thru-hiker. Just start in easier places, and make corrections for next time.

One of many memorable campsites from my time on the Pacific Crest Trail.

One of many memorable campsites from my time on the Pacific Crest Trail.

I did some hiking with family. My son started when he was 6 years old, and over the years he did about 500 miles with me. But mostly I was alone. I discovered the joys of solo hiking by accident. You hear more, see more and smell more without distractions from others. I came to prefer it. It was easy to schedule my trips to indulge this preference. I noticed that most thru-hikers liked to socialize, as is natural in their situation. But as an occasional trail visitor, I treasured my alone time. Others may want the safety of company and opportunities to socialize with other hikers, and that too is easy to schedule.

Section-hikers face unique challenges

I am often asked about the “gap-closing” challenge facing a section hiker. A lone hiker can leave a car at the beginning or end of a hike but then must find a way to close the gap. I used almost every possibility. My wife provided the transportation several times, and I did a lot of hitchhiking. I also used taxis, rental cars, public transportation and trail angel assistance. A few times I did a car exchange with a hiker traveling in the opposite direction. In one such exchange, the only time I met the other hiker was to hand him my car keys when we met on the trail. As expected, my car was parked at my exit point when I arrived.

Crossing a downed tree. There were many! Thanks to all of you who go out and clear them.

Crossing a downed tree. There were many! Thanks to all of you who go out and clear them.

Hitchhiking is easy if you can find a way to make eye contact and engage a ride prospect in conversation. I try to present myself as a mature and responsible person, and nobody ever said no when I looked them in the eye and started a conversation with: “I am hiking the PCT, and I am often dependent on the kindness of strangers.” On rare occasions, I paid people to take me out of their way. People are kind and generous and want to help others if they think it is safe.

Rewards of being a section-hiker

All backpackers know the rewards of time spent enjoying the beauty and serenity of the natural world encountered on its own terms. A long hike on the PCT adds immersion in a vast diversity of climate and geology, and a multi-year trip provides the time to appreciate and reflect on these experiences. This enhances life in a deep and lasting way.

At Stevens Pass with some of the best people on Earth.

At Stevens Pass with some of the best people on Earth.

Conflicting priorities may inhibit much sharing with family and friends, as it did for me. But as my journey neared completion, I saved 100 miles, from Stevens Pass to Stehekin, for a family trek. The trip included three of my four children, three of my four grandchildren (the youngest was 10), my son-in-law and a brother-in-law. That weeklong hike in August 2015 provides profound memories for all nine of us. Most had never been backpacking, but they are all eager to go again. Priceless!

Gathering water at Mica Lake in the North Cascades.

Gathering water at Mica Lake in the North Cascades.

The marvelous generosity of trail angels is well-known, and they are all great people that it is an honor to meet. I visited most of the best-known trail angel hiker hosts, and I am also deeply grateful to the pop-up angels who seemed to appear with hot food and cold drinks when they were most needed.

bingham-ridge-pct

Running into a whole lot of snow on one of my section hikes.

Perhaps the greatest reward is especially precious because it was unexpected. I needed transportation help from local people, and I also met many hunters, motorcyclists, mountain bikers and horseback riders on or near the trail. Some were familiar with the PCT, while others were not. But I received nothing but friendliness, kindness and generosity from everyone I met. We live in a cynical age, and this affirmation of the basic human decency of our fellow Americans may be my greatest gift from this experience.

The achivement of a lifetime. Sitting at the northern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail. Thinking about section-hiking? Do it!

The achievement of a lifetime. Sitting at the northern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail. Thinking about section-hiking? Do it!

Thanks to Tom Bache for sharing his story! Ensure a place for journeys big and small. Help protect and maintain the Pacific Crest Trail bydonating to the Pacific Crest Trail Association.