Why millennials are so in love with the Pacific Crest Trail

By Karen K. Wang

The Pacific Crest Trail brings together a diverse group from all ages, backgrounds and experience levels. That is one of my favorite things about the trail. No matter how different you think you are, you are bound to find another like-minded friend on the PCT. So it’s no surprise that 2016 thru-hikers told me that the trail community provided the most memorable experiences.

At first, it’s hard to understand what that actually means. When you start out, you’ve never done anything like this before. You may start the trail not knowing a single person out there.

“I learned what the term trail community means,” said Boy Pockets, 30. “I never really grasped what that meant or how that could improve the experience. But after doing it, I realized how the community is basically the entire experience. Photos and scenery are amazing but the memories you make with the people you meet are the real treasure.”

I would have to agree. I never understood it until I finally experienced it for myself. There are no words to describe the people you meet out there, and you really miss them when you part ways.

Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker Vincent "Snuggles" Ly takes a break and shares some laughs in Etna, California. Photo by Karen Wang

Vincent “Snuggles” Ly takes a break and shares some laughs in Etna, California. Photo by Karen Wang

Millennials, people who are ages 18-34, seem to make up a majority of thru-hikers. They grew up with technology, materialism and the modern-day comforts. Granted, not every millennial is this way, but most experienced this in their childhood. Time Magazine states: “In the U.S., millennials are the children of baby boomers, who are also known as the Me Generation, who then produced the Me Me Me Generation, whose selfishness technology has only exacerbated.”

Sometimes I get really bummed when I hear about how middle and high schoolers are so reliant on social media and technology, to the detriment of many other things. If you’re not on the latest platform and know about the latest trend in culture, you’re going to have problems. But we are so immersed in technology, we’re definitely missing out on what’s truly important in life: real friendships built without influence from the media. And going on a camping trip with friends where we are vulnerable with each other and don’t have outside distractions.

Photo of plants on the Pacific Crest Trail

Photography helped me experience the magic of the PCT and connect with the places and people around me. Photo by Karen Wang

I am starting to see a spark in interest for the outdoors in this generation which makes me so happy. There is something so special about bringing a group of strangers outside, away from technology. There’s nothing to distract you as you immerse yourself in wilderness, the daily challenges and the relationships you might build on the trail. I find it easier to be transparent with others on the trail because everyone is vulnerable out there. We all have the same goal: to walk 2,650 miles with everything we need on our backs. And that’s all that really matters.

I asked a couple of millennial thru-hikers this summer how their perspective about the trail changed post-hike. Most of them experienced an incredible generosity from complete strangers, whether it was from other hikers, trail angels or locals. The trail gives so much. We want to give back in various ways, whether it’s providing trail magic to other hikers, becoming a PCTA member, donating or volunteering on trail maintenance projects.

Joseph “Banjo” Gleiter, age 20

“I didn’t know that communities surrounding the trail were so supportive. I learned that no matter where you are, if you’re in need, you will be helped. The whole time I felt like people were cheering me on. ‘What are you doing? Are you going the whole way? To Canada? That’s crazy! I can’t believe it!’ Those reactions kept me going. At times I was so burnt out and tired, I would forget that I was doing something extraordinary, something that would change me. People helped me so much. It just makes me want to give back. When I can, I want to spend a couple months helping people out on the trail.”

Jeff “Ohm” Johnson, age 24

“After receiving so much generosity, I know I need to find a way to pay it forward. I know at some point I’ll be doing trail magic on the PCT, it’s just a matter of when and how often. In addition, living in the wild places along the crest for months at a time has given me an even stronger connection to them and a desire to protect them.”

Sunset on the Hat Creek Rim in Northern California. It's an infamous, and truly beautiful stretch of the PCT. Photo by Karen Wang

Sunset on the Hat Creek Rim in Northern California. It’s an infamous, and truly beautiful stretch of the PCT. Photo by Karen Wang

Vincent “Snuggles” Ly, age 21

“I really miss the peacefulness and freedom I felt on the trail. Every day was a new adventure. I loved it. Absolutely loved it. I set out to finish the trail and that’s what I did. Sure, some days were really hard, but that is when I felt like I learned and grew the most. Looking back, those bad days were some of the most memorable. After the trail, I feel like I could do anything! And that is the best gift anyone could receive. That is why I want to give back to the trail so others can experience their own versions of the hike. I want to do trail maintenance and trail-angeling around Washington. I want to get back out there! And indirectly connecting the PCT, I want my future career after graduating a university to have a large emphasis on the natural environment.”

And back to me, Wang, age 29

My relationship with the Pacific Crest Trail has been forever changed after attempting a thru-hike. I’ve always loved and supported the trail system. Now, I feel as though part of me will long for the trail for the rest of my life. I feel so connected to it. Additionally, I want to devote even more of my time, energy and effort giving back to the trail and encouraging others to experience something special of their own.

The early days of the PCT. Hiking across Southern California was a new and mind expanding experience. Here I am. Photo by Karen Wang

The early days of the PCT. Hiking across Southern California was a new and mind expanding experience. Here I am. Photo by Karen Wang

But before any of this can happen, it’s important to spread the knowledge about how to preserve, maintain and protect our precious trail. I strongly believe that it’ll be up to our generation to will keep the PCT as wild as it is for many decades to come. I am so encouraged by all the young people who have been forever changed by their experiences. They are the ones who will be the voice and hands of our beloved trail system. My hope is to continue getting my generation out there and educated on the urgency of protecting these precious public landscapes, as we are so privileged to be using them.

Ensure a place for journeys big and small. Help protect and maintain the Pacific Crest Trail by donating to the Pacific Crest Trail Association.

Growing up in Texas, now living in Seattle, I discovered the outdoors only 3 years ago and fell in love. I loved the wilderness so much that I decided to thru-hike the PCT in 2016 but made it only 1,818 miles due to injury. The experience completely changed my life and my relationship with the trail. I have a strong passion for educating the youth and building genuine relationships with the outdoors community. Life is too short to not follow your dreams. I’m a photographer and you can see my PCT blog and photos at http://www.karenkwang.com/ or follow me on Instagram.