So you know what a “thru-hike” is, you know that it's the Pacific Crest Trail (not the Pacific Coast Trail), and think you have what it takes to tackle the 2,650 mi / 4,265 km without dying. Good for you.
But if you really want to be a thru-hiker, there's one thing you need above all else – a trail name.
So what the hell is a trail name? Simply put, it's the name you assume to be reborn with on the trail. Thru-hikers do not answer to the arbitrary labels bestowed upon them at their birth without their input or consent. The subtle power exerted by your parent(s) or guardian(s) over you during the course of your life holds no weight on the trail. The trail is a place of freedom and liberation from the shackles of societal norms. The trail is a place for you to find yourself, to become Hummingbird, to become Bearclaw, to become Appa, to become Moist.
If you want the full PCT experience, then you need a trail name. You can't call yourself a thru-hiker without one.
Rules Governing Trail Names
Now that you're familiar with the concept of a trail name, you're ready to take the first step towards getting your own. First, and perhaps most importantly, you need to decide what your trail name will be. Do not take this decision lightly as changing your trail name is nearly impossible once it's been approved and you've started your thru-hike. There are strict guidelines governing trail name selection. Be sure that your proposed trail name adheres to all the following before submitting it for review.
- Trail names may be a maximum of five syllables (exceptions are possible for acronyms and initialisms).
- Trail names may contain numbers, but only if said numbers represent entire words and not sounds (i.e. Comet 5 is okay, Sk8ing Bro is not okay).
- Trail names may be acronyms of up to five letters.
- Trail names may be initialisms of up to four letters (an initialism is an acronym that you say the letters of instead of pronounce as a word, e.g. FBI).
- Trail names may not contain punctuation in place of letters; however, proper punctuation is permitted (i.e. F!reman is not okay, Fireman! is okay).
Finally, note that only one thru-hiker will be granted any given trail name per year per trail. In other words, if two people submit an application for the same trail name, only one (if either) will be assigned said name. It is wise to have a backup trail name in mind should your first not be accepted. If your request is denied, it's probably due to a weak application. More on this below.
How To Get Your Trail Name
Once you've come up with a trail name, how do you go about actually receiving it? Well, my friend, obtaining a trail name is no simple task. One does not simply walk out onto the trail and declare oneself to be Bear Fucker henceforth. No, there are strict and serious guidelines in place for thru-hikers wishing to obtain an officially recognized trail name.
There are four things you will need to do before submitting your Official Trail Name Request. The most up-to-date iteration of the Official Trail Name Guidelines dictate that every would-be thru-hiker compile and submit the following:
- A hand-written statement (no fewer than 1,000 words) explaining why your proposed trail name suits you specifically and how you intend to express yourself via said name whilst hiking the trail.
- A 4 x 6 in (102 x 152 mm) photograph of yourself in your intended hiking outfit and with your (fully loaded) pack.
- A US-letter sized (8.5 x 11 in) sheet of paper with the names and phone numbers of five friends whom can be contacted should there be any question as to the deservingness of your trail name.
- A completed trail name application form.
You are required to sign the letter and the reverse side of the photograph. Trail name applications should be submitted to the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA). Please write “TRAIL NAME APPLICATION” in cursive on the back of your submission's envelope using a “National Park Blue” colored glitter pen. The PCTA's mailing address is:
Pacific Crest Trail Association
1331 Garden Highway
Sacramento, CA 95833
If you are hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (and especially if you want a trail name), then you are encouraged (though not required) to donate to the PCTA to assist in the continued maintenance of one of the greatest features of the American landscape. Donate here.
Rules Governing Use of Trail Names
Trail name processing times can vary greatly depending on the time of year (fall and winter generally have the shortest processing times, while things can get backed up for weeks during spring and summer). Once you've received your Letter of Trail Name Recognition, you are required to adhere to the Trail Name Code of Conduct. These guidelines, reviewed annually by the Trail Guardian Association of America, dictate what you can and can't do with regard to your new trail name.
A complete list of regulations will arrive with your Trail Name Welcome Packet, but here are some of the more important ones (and the ones that oftentimes give hikers the most trouble):
- During the course of a thru-hike, if you are asked your name, you respond with your trail name. This includes, but is not limited to, fellow thru-hikers, day hikers, and people you may come across in town during a break or resupply.
- Trail names are non-transferable and immutable, if you wish to make any changes to your trail name, you must submit a Trail Name Alteration Request.
- Tattooing your trail name on yourself without submitting a Request For Permanent Stay will result in the invalidation of your trail name.
- Should a hiker's trail name be found unsuitable by their fellow thru-hikers, a Petition for Trail Name Revocation may be submitted if signed by at least five other trail name holders hiking the same trail during the same calendar year as the trail name holder in question.
Finally, a word of warning to you would-be rule breakers. If you are found to be using an unsanctioned trail name and are reported by no fewer than three other hikers, your Pacific Crest Trail Permit (and, in extreme cases, your Entry To Canada Permit) may be permanently revoked.
It might seem like a lot, but applying for, receiving, and using a trail name really is that complicated. Once you're out on the trail things generally fall into place and strict adherence to the sometimes convoluted Trail Name Code of Ethics quickly becomes second nature.
If you have any questions, comments, or concerns about trail names, please leave a comment and let me know.