Tips to navigate the start of a thru-hike

Navigating your first few weeks of a thru-hike can be overwhelming as your body and mind adjust to high-mileage days and a new and challenging lifestyle. The first few hundred miles of desert that you’ll encounter when leaving the Mexican border are host to some of the highest volumes of traffic on the PCT. Thousands of people do long-distance trips every year. With up to 50 people starting per day, this can stress and damage the PCT and the sensitive environment through which it passes.

Simply put – the first few weeks will be the busiest of your hike, and the crowds create land management and safety concerns. By following Leave No Trace principles, you can minimize or eliminate potential problems. Here are three steps you can take while enjoying your time in sunny Southern California.

1. Arrive at your campsite with time to spare

Arriving early enough in the evening leaves time to jump ahead to a new camp location or back track to a spot you know isn’t in use for the night. With apps often noting a “small campsite,” keep in mind that with 50 hikers starting per day, the campsite 20 miles away is mighty appealing for many seeking solitude. Squeezing extra tents into a small space will gradually expand the amount of barren ground at small campsites. This damage is tough to repair as plant life is sensitive and soils are compacted. Concentrating impacts in high-use areas is an important tenet of Leave No Trace; by confining our impacts to existing camp locations, without creating new sites or expanding existing sites, we are ensuring that campsites along the PCT stay as they are.

Night hiking on the PCT in the Mojave

In the dark, it can be hard to find a campsite. Even while night-hiking, have enough energy reserves to find a sustainable campsite. Remember, hundreds of thousands of people will hike the trail behind you. Photo by Kevin Parisi

2. Remember the 200-foot rule

Pooping, camping and storing food should all happen at least 200 feet from the trail or water. Impacts associated with human waste disposal and campsite expansion are among the most severe that occur on the PCT. Most of our impacts occur within 200-feet of the trail. With hundreds of thousands of people pooping and camping along the PCT, spreading out and away from resources such as campsites, water sources and the trail itself will help promote natural filtration methods and minimize negative experiences for your fellow outdoor lovers.

The desert in particular hosts many campsites that are near water. You can minimize your impact by filling up and then carrying your water to a campsite away from water sources. Water isn’t just a scarce resource for trail users but for desert wildlife as well. Camping near the only water source in a 20-mile radius can severely disrupt wildlife activity and habituate wild animals to interaction with humans. Respecting wildlife means giving them the space they need to thrive.

Furthermore, the 200 feet around the trail is the area that users spend the vast majority of their time in. Keeping this area clean, undamaged and with a minimum of visual impacts promotes a positive experience for all users.

3. Do not rely on water caches

Although they are sometimes noted as water sources in the water report, never rely solely on a cache for water. Not only are many caches being discontinued, but with the high volume of hikers in Southern California, even a cache that is restocked every day may be empty by the time you arrive. Plan ahead and prepare! Having to carry enough water for a 20- to 30-mile section is common in desert. Being ready to cross these distances unsupported and without caches is a huge part of being ready for your hike. The unreliable nature of water caches can create a life or death situation. Having the necessary gear to haul large quantities of water – up to seven liters (or more) at times – is paramount to your safety.

Trail angels present a similar situation on the southern section of the trail. They are a welcome resource when you are truly in need of help, but it’s hard for trail angels to assist the large volume of hikers. Being as self-sufficient as possible so that these folks can help those who are truly in need is immensely helpful for those who support the trail.

Water Cache

Walk between reliable water sources. A random stranger leaving 30 gallons of water in a remote location should not be relied upon. There are lots of people on the PCT, all taking many liters from each cache. You’ll be in serious trouble if you’re in the middle of nowhere without water. Photo by Caitlin Barale

Long-distance hiking is an incredibly special endeavor and the Pacific Crest Trail provides a truly unique experience. If you’re starting a thru-hike and you’re not an expert backcountry user yet, you certainly will be closer to one by the end of your hike. The responsibility of caring for this special trail falls upon those who are enjoying it. That’s you. You have the responsibility to care for the land as a steward would, with responsibility and gratitude, and as a role model for others. By being mindful of pressing issues that you’ll encountered at the southern end of the trail and by following the seven other Leave No Trace principles, you can help ensure that the Pacific Crest Trail will survive as a high quality experience in perpetuity.

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Photo by: Nathaniel Middleton