Ever had the urge to walk right across America, from Mexico to Canada, all by yourself? These three guys have — on the Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT, a months-long, 2,650-mile hike through California, Oregon and Washington. What’s it like being outside and on the move for several months, with only the stuff on your back and random other hikers for company? And how does it change you? Let’s find out.
“I hated it for a solid 900 miles! I just wanted to get off the trail.”
Tyler “Mac” Fox, 30: I’d met a 60-something guy who’d just retired, and he was going to either hike the Appalachian Trail or the PCT. I’d never heard of either. I saved up a bunch of money working all summer and wanted a way I could basically live off that money for as long as possible — going on a long hike sounded like a great way to really stretch my money, so I decided I’d hike the Appalachian Trail. Then I found out about the PCT and I’m like, “There’s a trail that goes from Mexico to Canada? That sounds really cool, I’m gonna do that!” Still, this was all new to me — I’d never even backpacked overnight before.
To tell you the truth, I didn’t wanna do it by myself in the beginning, but it’s hard to find a friend on short notice who wants to give up five months of their life to go hike from Mexico to Canada. The longest I went was three or four days without seeing anybody. On a trail like the PCT, “solo” is kind of a relative term: You’re constantly in flux, hiking with people or camping with people, whether or not they’re the same people all the time.
I don’t get very lonely either. I’ve done a lot of traveling by myself, and I kind of look forward to being by myself out there. Sometimes it can be more bothersome if there’s more people around actually — it’s nice to feel like you have some of those spaces to yourself sometimes. You roll up to some majestic lake with an amazing view in the mountains, and you’re the only one there; there’s marmots and deer running around and the sun’s shining, it’s like, if there’s a dozen people there it’s okay, but if you’re by yourself, it’s a lot more special.
Being alone really makes you feel like you’re ‘out there’ though. You just have to embrace the fact that whatever happens, happens. It makes you feel self-sufficient. It’s a cool feeling to be like, “I have everything I need to be in the mountains for however many days on my back now.” You can’t get that feeling anywhere else. If you just sat in your apartment for several days and didn’t see anybody, it wouldn’t be the same kind of feeling.
When you’re on a long trail, it’s not like you’re going out for a long weekend and then you’re back to whatever you were doing before. This is your life for months at a time, it’s like studying abroad for a semester. You have to adapt to the idea of, “I live in a new reality now.”
I hated it for a solid 900 miles! I just wanted to get off the trail. But I knew that future me would be so upset with today’s me if I quit, so that’s the only thing that kept me going for a long time. It’s a cliché to say that it becomes more of a mental struggle than a physical struggle, but it definitely does. Because you get to the point where you can hike 30 to 40 miles without even thinking about it, but when you start thinking about what you’re doing, that’s when you get into trouble. Ideally you’re not thinking of this as a five-month hike that’s 2,600 miles long — you’re not even thinking past the next day or next town. It’s like running and thinking about the next telephone pole or block. If you think about everything that’s ahead of you, it becomes overwhelming at times.
By the time I’d hiked about 1,500 miles, I wasn’t enjoying it. I was like, “What am I doing out here? What do I have to prove to anybody? I’ve proven to myself I can do this. What’s another two months out here gonna do for me? Why am I doing this instead of something I could be enjoying every day?” I never experienced depression, but I did feel whatever it is that comes beyond frustration. It’d been raining for three or four days, it was cold and I just had this overwhelming sense of what-the-fuck-am-I-doing?
But if I stopped hiking, I didn’t have the money to do anything else and I’d have to go get a job somewhere. The uncertainty of that sounded like it might be worse than staying on the trail. Also, I’m pretty stubborn, and I made these grand public declarations on the internet before I left, telling all my friends and family. I know if I’d stopped, everybody would have been like, “Oh that’s great, you hiked a thousand miles, good job.” But they’d also be like, “I knew he couldn’t finish.” I couldn’t have anybody saying stuff like that. Whether or not it was in my face or behind my back, I couldn’t give anybody the satisfaction!
Everybody always wants to know about the scary moments on the trail. People always imagine some wild encounter with an animal, but the scariest moment for me was a thunderstorm. It was my first time caught outside in a thunderstorm, and it was literally on top of me — I saw a bolt of lightning hit the ground a couple hundred yards in front of me. People are always like, “Why are you scared of thunderstorms?” Well, they’re fine if you’re inside your house, but in the mountains? It’s a totally different story.
At the end, just south of the border with Canada, we got snowed out at the pass, so I ended up driving into Canada. I missed the last 20 miles of trail in the U.S. so it was an anticlimactic conclusion — it wasn’t what I’d been imagining for four and a half months. I don’t know what I expected the end to be like. I thought about it a lot: How am I going to feel when I get there? Am I going to cry? Am I going to be like, “Whatever?” Would I have a flood of emotion, find enlightenment, figure out what I want to do with my life? But when it was all over, it was like, “Okay, cool. I guess we’re done now.”
Nevertheless, it changed my life in so many ways. When people ask me for advice on hiking the PCT, I say half jokingly, “Don’t do it. It’s gonna ruin you!” Since then, for the last six years, backpacking has pretty much defined my entire life. I make a living from blogging about it. There are so many things I learned, so many people I met who I now stay in touch with and have had big impacts on my life. I have no idea what my life would be like if I hadn’t hiked the PCT. People would say to me on the trail, “You’re gonna get addicted to thru-hiking,” and I’d say, “You people are on drugs. There’s no way I’d ever do this again.” But they were right.
“Out there, every day is the same, but different: Wake up, hike, eat, shit, hike, eat, sleep, rinse and repeat.”
Sie So, 29: I started the PCT solo but hiked off and on with another person. I did it all in one go, in 93 days. I hiked solo because I couldn’t find anyone to do it with me. Hiking with another person is always better — you have someone to talk to and make decisions with. Two minds are better than one. It’s also safer in grizzly country.
I wasn’t getting away from anything, I just like hiking and I had nothing else to do. I don’t have a real job, I’ve been doing dead-end odd jobs to do these hikes. Out there, every day is the same, but different: Wake up, hike, eat, shit, hike, eat, sleep, rinse and repeat. But of course, you’re always moving. It’s pretty cool being out there for months — it feels like the complete opposite of the “real world.”
The worst moment for me was almost getting swept away by a stream in the Sierras. That was scary! I managed to grab some brush that was hanging over the side and pull myself up. It was deeper than it looked, that’s how it got me. It was one of the scariest moments of all the hiking I’ve done.
When I reached Canada after 93 days, I honestly didn’t feel much. I’m just not a very emotional person. But it did change me: I now appreciate nature much more. And I thought one thru-hike would be it for me, but I haven’t stopped since. I also had one more trail left to hike in order to finish the Triple Crown (the Continental Divide Trail, the Appalachian Trail, and the Pacific Crest Trail), so I did the CDT next.
Most people have a hard time reintegrating back into the world when they finish, but I didn’t. It was pretty easy; plus, I was looking forward to it — I personally get burned out mentally and physically after hiking such distances. Mainly, I was looking forward to not hiking 35-plus miles a day! Not to mention, just being out there for three months. I can’t imagine thru-hiking for five or six months, like some people. That’s just too long for me. I was looking forward to showers, beds, football, the gym, real food and lots of other elements of the real world.
That said, back in the real world, I miss the best parts of being on the trail, all of which are basically the opposite of the real world: I’m constantly traveling and meeting people. Every day I feel like I have a purpose. The lack of technology is awesome: You can’t be plastered to your phone on top of a summit like you can be at a restaurant in town. And people you meet hiking are actually having real conversations, which don’t really happen in the real world anymore.
“You sleep like a friggin’ rock because you’re so exhausted every day, which is one of the best parts about it.”
Mike Reardon, 49: In 1995, I did the Washington section of the PCT with a high school buddy of mine, and we took a year off to plan the rest of it. The next year we started by Mexico, but my friend injured his foot a few weeks into it, so I was solo for the next 1,800 miles. I never intended to do it solo: Now, there’s so many people, but in 1996, I think only 50 people a year would start and 40 people would drop out for whatever reason — injury, or because it’s hard-ass work.
It was an interesting thing to do because when you distance hike like that, you’re always in pain, you always have some nagging injuries. But you realize how strong your mind is, being able to overcome pain and injury. You also sleep like a friggin’ rock because you’re so exhausted every day, and how well you sleep is one of the best parts about it.
It was also awesome living outside. You get in a natural rhythm: When it gets dark you lie down and go to bed. When the birds start chirping at four or five in the morning you wake up and start walking, and it’s just what you do all day. You just walk and look forward to where you’re going, pace your day out, where you’re going to go, where you want to be, set goals for yourself about how far you want to get.
I did it pre-internet, so we were using guidebooks. They were excellent books, but I don’t know what it’s like now. I carried a 35mm SLR camera with a lens the whole time. It probably weighed six pounds! That’s probably a third of people’s packs now. When I did it, the older people were better than the younger people, who didn’t have the work ethic, the pain tolerance or mental capacity to handle the pain. The more mature people were definitely better at it.
The mental strength comes in when it’s 105 degrees, you have to carry water on your back and you’re looking at a 4,000-foot climb to get over the top somewhere. Going up a mountain when the sun’s beating on you, you wonder why you’re doing this to yourself, until you get next to a lake, in a high valley or other crazy places you have to hike a day or two to get to. Then you sit down, eat and look around and it’s quite an accomplishment. It’s an addicting feeling.
The scariest moment for me was one night in Sequoia National Park. I was low on food — I was going to hike into town the next morning so I didn’t bear-bag my food. I woke up in the middle of the night and a bear was on top of me as I was in my sleeping bag. I didn’t have a tent set up. Right when I sat up, he batted me back down to the ground. He took off, ripped my sleeping bag and dragged me off my pad, accidentally, I think. He’d gotten into my backpack and found some brownie mix. He’d been licking it and had it all over the place, so his saliva and this dehydrated brownie mix was just stuck everywhere. It was like a muddy, chocolatey mess. When the feathers came out of my sleeping bag, they were stuck all over the place. I packed up my stuff and started hiking out at two in the morning because you can’t really sleep after that.
I did find that a lot of people on those solo journeys are running from something: They’re trying to find themselves, or their life is in transition, or maybe somebody died or they’re trying to figure out their lives. It’s not a bad way to do it, actually, because you’re getting good physical exercise and it’s good for your mind. You can get a clarity when you get your body in good physical condition. I’m half-bummed that I’m 50 years old now and I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it again, because it was so awesome.
It definitely made me realize how little you need in life to be happy and content. You really just need a warm dry place to sleep, a little bit of food and your health. It showed me that less is more in life; you don’t need much to have mental clarity and be happy. The more you have, the more responsibility you have, a lot of times that can add to your stress. The happiest I’ve ever been is when I was out there with the least amount of stuff and in the best condition of my life. It’s kind of a Zen you get in.
Whenever I see PCT stickers, I always go to the person and ask them, “Hey, did you hike the PCT?” And it’s always really cool to talk to them because they get it.