As part of the Pacific Crest Trail Hiker Survey, I ask hikers what their lowest moments on the trail were and when, if ever, they encountered a situation where they felt legitimately afraid or in danger (e.g. when you're about to be eaten by a bear).
Sadly, the PCT is more than following a line of dirt filled with trail angels waiting to help you up and along your journey at every moment – a lot of it, if you'll allow me to be a bit crass, sucks.
I hate to say it, but the Pacific Crest Trail could very well be your last adventure on this Earth – you may end up buried in an avalanche, dehydrated in the desert, trapped in a forest fire, or in a car with a drunk driver. Hopefully, none of this happens, but we can't quite rule it out.
WARNING! If you are worried about a loved one hiking the Pacific Crest Trail or you have doubts about whether you want to undertake this journey yourself, you should probably stop reading now (or maybe you should definitely read this).
- During a windstorm where trees were falling all around us.
- Heavy snow before Mount Laguna. Near hypothermic.
- Windstorm with 80+ mph (129 km/h) gusts near the Knife's Edge in Goat Rocks (Washington) that ripped my tent in half.
- I hiked into five days of freezing rain and sprained my knee. I was in “survival mode” with no one but myself to rely upon.
- A record windstorm was uprooting live, healthy trees all around us as we walked the trail that day.
- I had a Duplex failure in a rainstorm outside of Mount Laguna. I tried to move to a more covered position but my tent was defective. I ended up getting soaked through my sleeping bag, and hypothermia. Thank God for the guys at the Lodge in Mount Laguna for warming me up when I made it back to safety.
- In Washington when it was freezing and raining. I thought my feet were getting frostbite/couldn’t get warm.
- Hiking through a rain/snow storm, very cold and caught between two different passes, worried if I'd be able to get over without slipping.
- Straddling a log to cross a raging river in the Sierra.
- Camping in burn areas next to hundreds of dodgy trees that could have fallen.
- Climbing San Jacinto (the first real peak that nobody talks about, wtf) in the setting sun in like 4 feet (1.22 m) of fresh snow and in short shorts.
- Severe altitude sickness going over Mather Pass.
- Traversing a steep-angle, snow-covered pitch near Sonora Pass without microspikes or an ice axe.
- Almost died on Forester during a moderate rock slide. Took cover behind a large boulder and everything rolled over the top of me. Witnessed three potentially lethal rock slides this year.
- I was mainly alone and some of the high alpine trails were unnerving – especially in the North Cascades (Washington).
- I fell on the snow and was hanging off a ledge upside down by my leg.
- We got a hitch to Packwood from someone who, a few minutes into the drive, we realized was very clearly high on stimulants – rambling manically, calling us rattlesnakes, driving with his knees. Scary, but we made it.
- Another hiker/potentially homeless girl having a mental breakdown on the trail. Screaming at other hikers, said she was going to kill someone. No idea if she was a thru-hiker. Unapproachable.
- Just south of Snoqualmie Pass in Washington Section I. We were hiking over the weekend, and there were so many gunshots. We were wandering up this Forest Service road trying to get a view of Mt. Rainier, and we could actually hear people shouting at each other and see their car, but we couldn't see them. At this point, we were only about a mile (1.6 km) off the PCT. I was afraid that they wouldn't be able to see us and we would get hit by a stray bullet! We turned around before the viewpoint because of this.
- Weird locals and being alone with male hikers making comments.
- Camped near a trailhead at a forest service road in Oregon. In the middle of the night, a car stopped and fired gunshots.
- Being around people that were aggressive towards me for being transgender.
- The dark underpasses and tunnels close to populated areas always made me nervous, just like they would in a city or anywhere, I guess.
- At White Pass (Washington), a truck caught on fire and we went to help the driver and get horses out of her trailer. That was the most unsafe.
- Once hitching alone the man who picked me up made some awkward sexist/suggestive comments, and another when the whole tramily got vortexed into staying with an “angel” but soon figured out it was not a great environment (drugs, partying, and domestic situation all not great).
- One hitch was terrifying. The driver was ripping down a crazy mountain highway at an insane speed.
- Right at the start, I was told by a trail angel to have a knife ready in case someone jumped out of the bushes because apparently border patrol found a tunnel and an empty cache nearby.
- Glowing eyes while night hiking and not being able to identify what it was.
- When a mountain lion passed 20 ft / 6 m away from my tent, and I was camping alone.
- In Lassen (Northern California) when I saw three bears in 24 hours. Didn't sleep well after that.
- I was hiking at night in the desert and a mountain lion crossed the trail right in front of me. It paused for a moment but I didn't stop and my movement/headlamp/blasting Metallica from my phone must have scared it because it jumped off the trail into the bushes quickly.
- Waking up to a rustling in the brush, listening to a large animal circle my camp for 30 minutes until it broke a large branch. Got out to see a large cougar 50 feet (15 m) away clearly checking out my camp.
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Low Points on the Trail
As a part of the thru-hiker survey, I also ask hikers, “What (if anything) was your lowest moment on the trail?” We all share and get to see photos of those glorious sunrises, sunsets, and mountain vistas, but the lesser shared (and possibly far-more-frequent) moments of misery and frustration also deserve a look.
In this vein, I wrote a post documenting my 11 Worst Moments On The Pacific Crest Trail. If you go into a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike believing that every step of your hike will be a fabulous journey to finding your soul, you are mistaken, friend.
Read the following knowing that any one of these things could (and very well may) happen to you, should you find yourself on the PCT.
Terrible Moments on the PCT
- My second day. I was alone for the first two days and it wore me down. Solitude challenges even the most courageous person. I didn't want to continue alone and I didn't want to keep camping alone. I was homesick and lonely. I entered a dark place. I was ready to quit.
- Having my quilt be completely soaked and not sleeping for days while temperatures plummeted into the low 30s at night. It was a terrible few days and I could barely hold it together while still making our daily mileage.
- On my fourth night on the trail, I had to hunker down and sleep in a pit toilet to escape an ice/snowstorm.
- Hiking alone, cut off from friends due to fires, with only smoke to see. Kind of took all the joy of hiking out of those areas. Felt like I was walking just to get miles in, which is not why I hike.
- When my bug spray broke in my pack and soaked all my gear.
Sick and injured on the PCT
- Thinking I would die from diarrhea.
- Achilles issues in Tehachapi (Desert) where I thought I might have to end my hike.
- In Southern Washington my foot was stiff, and I couldn't put weight on it. Not fun for 300 mi / 483 km.
- Bad water, diarrhea for three days, hopeless.
- Being very injured and falling behind my tramily because I was in such awful pain.
- Feeling like I had to quit due to injury and having nowhere to go.
Why the Desert was terrible
- Climbing up Mission Creek alone. Hot sweaty and losing the trail constantly. It was hard physically and mentally.
- Getting into Idyllwild and realizing I wasn’t going to continue.
- Horribly close encounter with a rattlesnake on the same day as I faced dozens of blowdowns just north of Walker Pass.
- Lake Isabella – there was a party house that we stayed in. It was really really off-putting and made me feel fairly scummy for the rest of the desert.
- Getting into Wrightwood. I was physically very exhausted after my first marathon the day before and we had to do 20 miles to get into town that day.
- Soaking wet from all-day rain and sleet and temps dropping while hiking into Lake Morena. Store open but couldn't sit down. No place to get out of the rain to eat my food. Finally wandered down and found the shower building open at the campground. Ate my meal alone then was chased out and kept moving so I wouldn't freeze. Finally stopped around 5 pm when it started to thundersnow.
- I hiked many miles through tears, but my lowest was leaving the Acton KOA. My knee was very painful and I was very very homesick and it was blazing hot. I don't have good memories of Vasquez Rocks or Agua Dulce.
- Getting stuck in a snowstorm near Jacinto a few days after getting the email from the PCTA to get off trail. Mentally struggled to try to decide what to do and physically struggled as well.
- Hiking the 4.4 mi / 7.1 km across the desert floor prior to the I-10 overpass during excessive heat warning.
- Just before Walker Pass, I ran out of energy and motivation. I had hit “the wall” by not having proper nutrition. It took 40 trail days but lack of protein, in hindsight, plus more fresh fruit, solved the problem. I came very close to quitting.
Why the Sierra was terrible
- Discouraged with struggles climbing the passes – expected more of myself.
- The third day in the Sierra, with a heavy backpack and being really affected by the elevation.
- Forester Pass where I was so cold I thought I'd lose all my fingers and toes. Oh, and the several pounds of ice I carried because my water bags froze.
- Mosquitos became unbearable after Glen Aulin to about the 1000 mile marker. After two days of being unable to take a break hiking because there were black clouds of mosquitos swarming, I thought Dorothy Lake would be large enough that it would have a breeze and fewer mosquitos. Boy was I wrong! They clung to my tent, buzzed in my ears all night, and when I had to get out to pee they swarmed my butt. I don’t think I’ll ever lose the scars on my legs or butt from all the bites.
- The day we arrived at Mammoth Lakes. We had run out of food, and due to a misunderstanding about where our trail angel was picking us up, we had to do an extra 10 mi / 16 km to get to the road. I had a mini-breakdown and cried a lot, causing my boyfriend to think I must be in some sort of extreme pain.
Why Northern California was terrible
- Bushwhacking through poison oak into Seiad Valley.
- Northern California. I was two weeks behind schedule and feeling pressure to make miles. Meanwhile, California just won't end, it's hot, there's little water, and exposed climbs that just leave you wondering why you took on this hike.
- Echo Lake – I was tired and got dropped off by a trail angel during a thunderstorm. I didn't want to hike anymore.
- Going through Northern California in tons of smoke, 90°F+ / 32°C+ degree heat, doing 30+ miles (48+ km) every day, and my friend had died the week prior.
- Sierra City: resupply costs and hotels booked/no camping.
- Heat exhaustion after Lassen/Old Station. I was vomiting when heading up to Hat Creek Rim and decided to get off the trail.
- Northern California, hiked and camped solo the entire section. 100°F / 38°C temperatures, smoke, hail/lightning storms. Really tough mental stretch. Boring scenery.
- Somewhere north of Sonora Pass. A freak snowstorm blew in. I had been postholing for miles and was constantly losing the trail.
Why Oregon was terrible
- Somewhere in the middle of Oregon I literally started crying because I was so bored. I thought the boring was behind me when we finished Northern California. And my hiking partner (my husband) and I were trying to go too fast to make a deadline, which made the boring stretches unendurable because we couldn't even really stop and just mentally unwind.
- Being over the fun of hiking in Oregon and Washington was tough still having a lot of miles left to go and little motivation.
- Walking for days and days through the annoying forest in Oregon.
- Nearing Olallie Lake and having such ankle/foot pain and trying to untie my pants to pee. The tie knotted and I cut the tie, which kept my pants up but allowed me to pee. I threw my pack in the bushes and began to cry.
- Sitting on the rim of Crater Lake. I had done 24 days with no zero and 27-32 mi / 43-51.5 km per day. I was ready to give up, not having fun anymore. I needed to slow down.
- This year was about connecting a 750-mile chunk of the trail in Oregon and Washington up to where I got hurt last year on my thru-hike attempt and had to get off the trail after I flipped last year and was heading south and ended at Stevens Pass. I was crushing miles in Oregon and suddenly when I got to Sisters to resupply I had had enough. I realized I wanted to do an entire thru-hike and wasn’t enjoying just the section (LASH) so I flew home. Was surprised I reacted that way through the Cascades with fires and trail conditions.
- Windigo Pass in Oregon. Tried for the two-week Oregon challenge and became so incredibly exhausted trying to keep up with the miles. So exhausted and then that took a toll on me mentally.
Why Washington was terrible
- Crossing Knife’s Edge gave me major anxiety that persisted for the next 4-5 days every time I crossed a sketchy narrow trail. The tension and fear built up so much in my body that I couldn’t shake it and had a small breakdown.
- Trying to get a hitch out of Leavenworth. Taxi wanted $150, KOA was full, hotels were overbooked, and I thought I'd never get picked up.
- Getting pinned down in my tent by rain and snow for five straight days.
- Snows in Washington toward the end of September, and thinking this is the beginning of winter and I won't be able to finish.
- Fatigued, sore, and defeated. We turned back two days north of Stevens Pass, bailing out during a rain/snowstorm. We were worried that we'd made a bad call and screwed ourselves so close to the border. However, hikers who pushed through or tent-zeroed said they were extremely miserable. Some quit after zeroing for multiple days.
- Hiking back from the Canadian border and all the smoke in Central Washington.
- In Section K there were some horrible bushwhacking areas paired with extreme elevation gain/loss, bugs, heat, 0.25 mi / 400 m of trail underwater, a confusing creek crossing for SOBOs over Baezos Creek which left us clambering over logs and boulders. This all occurred within the span of 1-2 days, and it was very overwhelming.
On quitting the trail
- Admitting to myself and tramily that I was too injured to reasonably continue on.
- Having to get off trail due to partner injury.
- The day I realized it was overdue to my injury and I couldn't push any further or ignore the pain.
- Having to leave due to the PCTA request due to COVID-19.
- When I realized I had to get off trail (for health reasons) after pushing through insane pain for the past ten days.
- Leaving trail due to cracked ribs.
- Making the decision to get off trail due to the worsening COVID-19 situation. I realized that it would be selfish of me to hike on (your post had a lot to do with this). I sat on a rock and cried for over an hour. It felt almost like someone had died, but even worse than that was the “now what” feeling I was left with. For months afterward my life felt so aimless, having had such a specific goal for so long. Everything I had done for the last 1.5 years had been leading up to my hike, for it to not even last a week.
- The point we decided to fly back due to COVID-19.
- The week before I decided to quit. Actually wasn’t quitting but was going back home for a wedding and then the Sierra which then closed due to fires and smoke.
Have your own tale of woe from a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike? Leave a comment below and warn future PCT classes of the awfulness that awaits them on their thru-hikes.
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