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).
- I had the scariest night of my life during a four-hour full-on thunderstorm where I could see the lightning zig-zag through my tent. I did not feel safe at all.
- During a heavy blizzard in the Sierra in early May. When we had to go over Kearsarge Pass with zero visibility. It was hard to see more than 3 ft / 1 m ahead of us.
- A storm was rolling in in the desert and I figured “How bad can it be?” and kept hiking up a ridge. When I reached the peak, it was dark and hailing, lightning flashing across the sky and I was soaked and freezing, alone. I haphazardly pitched my tent in a too-small spot and shivered, worrying about lightning and hypothermia until finally falling asleep.
- In Washington in late September when a snowstorm buried us. It was terrifying.
- Outside of Tehachapi, I was solo hiking at night to avoid the heat and there was so much wind I was almost blown off the mountain several times until I found a lone Joshua Tree to set up my tent next to and shelter me from the wind.
- I got caught in a violent rainstorm between Mount Laguna and Pioneer Mail. My “rain gear” was my umbrella which was worthless in the high winds. Got close to hypothermic. I was able to get warmed up in the Pioneer Mail outhouse and then get my tent up, wet clothes off and into my dry sleeping bag.
- Camping up high in Goat Rocks (Washington) during one of the worst lightning storms I’ve ever experienced.
- Walking through Oregon in a thunderstorm we saw the lightning hit the ground in three different places and in each spot a fire started. The nearest was under half a mile away. I called them into the fire service and we ran very fast until we had reached a town.
- The closest I came to unsafe were 3-4 separate days that I approached hypothermia conditions; being willing to stop hiking, pitch my tent, get dry and warm inside, prevented that from rising to unsafe conditions.
- Yes, every day in the Sierra. Rivers were dangerous and the passes were terrifying – steep icy traverses with large cornices and rock scrambles
- Literally every freaking day in the Sierra. Between ridiculous stream crossings and steep, long snow traverses, at least once per day where there was a “Don’t fuck up or you could die” moment.
- My girlfriend fell into a river in the Sierra. I had to pull her out. It was a bit hairy. The passes in the Sierra were pretty scary in the snow.
- Goat Rocks and Knife’s Edge. Shaky terrain/loose scree and shale, steep.
- Crossing Bear Creek. Fast-moving, freezing, waist-deep water, with large rocks on the bottom that made footing very difficult.
- I felt unsafe in the snow. Specifically, on Mount Baden Powell I slid about 30 ft / 10 m straight down a hill and was only able to stop because I hit a tree. I broke my trekking poles trying to stop. I was fine but it scared the shit out of me. It was at the end of the day and the snow was like mashed potatoes so spikes were useless, but a storm was coming the next day so I had to get down in elevation no matter the snow conditions.
- When a tree fell on us – and a hiker died.
- I fell into White Fork during peak melt and thought I was going to die.
- Climbing and descending Mount Whitney in heavy snow was one of the dumbest, most reckless decisions of my life, and led to me getting off-trail and flip-flopping.
- I am terrified of heights, so all the ridges in the desert made me feel as if I was walking on a tightrope.
- Yes, I had an experience with another hiker in which he confronted me and a friend about a previous encounter. He was very aggressive and seemed to threaten us with aggressiveness.
- Yes, as a solo female, Mike’s Place was creepy as fuck. It was basically a frat house that was trying to get women drunk so they could take advantage of them. (Note to future hikers: Mike’s Place is no longer in operation).
- Camped by myself close to a dirt road. A car stopped and an obviously drunk guy got out, started screaming and opening/slamming his car door shut repeatedly.
- Hiked through a conservation area, and met a guy “just out for a hike” with a 6 ft / 2 m bent steel pipe on his back, a little scary, since he was asking questions like are you hiking alone, and do you have an emergency beacon, along with the other standard pct questions. I didn’t ask what the pipe was for, and I told him I was with a group and started hiking faster, keeping more than 6 ft / 2 m distance.
- Guns – as an international hiker, hearing shots fired/seeing people carry guns is very frightening and made me feel very unsafe.
- Yes, another hiker stalked me in the section leading up to Big Bear and I had to get pepper spray.
- I was followed by a male hiker for multiple days who made me feel very uncomfortable.
- Whenever hunters or other enthusiasts were shooting guns nearby. Mostly Oregon and Washington but some around LA.
- Got charged by an angry cow near Warner Springs.
- Ran into bears while night hiking on back to back nights just south of Lake Tahoe.
- I was charged by a black bear mother when I got between her and her cub. That was terrifying. She was about 15 ft / 5 m from me.
- I came within feet of a very angry rattlesnake.
- I saw six rattlesnakes in one day south of Vasquez Rocks and I was almost trampled by stampeding elk in southern Washington.
- Had a bear hang around my camp for about 20 minutes north of Truckee. Food was hung about 200 feet away, but the bear ignored me even though I was making as much noise as possible. It ate berries and left when it felt like it.
- I was attacked and bitten by a day hiker’s dog near Elk Lake and they tried to tell me their dog did not do it even though everyone saw it. They refused to give my contact information and I had to file a police report in Ashland.
- Encountered an adult mountain lion while night hiking solo several times.
- Hikertown, as the owner took me and my friend to a different location than asked for during a hitch.
- Feral pitbull pack and meth heads in a tunnel under a highway.
- A drunk driver hitch from Highway 138 north of Crater Lake into Chemult. I didn’t really know what to do, the situation was getting worse quickly.
- Getting a hitch with a very aggressive driver in a sports car on the way into Etna.
- We camped beside a road near one of the water caches before Walker Pass and a carload of men stopped and approached our tents. They called us green loving hippies and discussed pissing on our tents but thankfully left.
- One trail angel made me feel uncomfortable at Callahan’s Lodge (Ashland, Oregon).
- A mentally unstable individual in Etna unbeknownst to me observed me put a jar of peanut butter in the hiker box at the park and hours later walked up to me on the other side of town while I was trying to hitch and said: “hey you forgot your peanut butter.” He proceeded to talk gibberish about how his Smokey the Bear shirt prevented him from being killed by the mob, and then put on a pink women’s t-shirt he stole from a fellow thru-hiker across town. He said he knew it was a hiker bitch’s shirt by the way it smelled. He tried to ride up the mountain with us when we got a hitch, and I asked the driver to kick him out.
- When hitching out of Julian, the driver decided that taking off his jacket while driving would be a great idea, resulting in us swerving over both sides of the road and even a couple of times nearly driving off the cliff.
- I encountered a crazy person in Lake Morena who accused us of a government conspiracy to take over public lands.
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.
Why the first week was terrible
- Coming to terms with the family situation back home requiring us to quit the trail after only five days, just as the family was forming and bonds being made. Very sad, and resented the loss of control.
- Getting horrible blisters on the second day, being unable to walk and questioning if I would even be able to do the trail.
- Coming down into Scissors Crossing it was really hot and I found a boulder to lay under for shade and I immediately realized I was covered in stinging nettles. I cried on day three and that was the only time I ever cried on the trail. I had to go into Julian for laundry and a shower.
- Day two when every muscle in my body was cramping, and I thought I would have to quit because my body wouldn’t be able to handle the physical aspect.
- The first day when I got quarter-sized blisters on my heels three hours after starting.
- Day five of the hike, finding out I had gotten tendinitis and might have to end the whole hike when I had just started.
Sick and injured on the PCT
- Getting a 103°F/39.4°C fever with 30 mi / 48 km left to get to Ashland.
- Got really sick at Tylerhorse Canyon on a very very stormy night, puking and diarrhea all night.
- My filter broke at Mt Whitney and I got giardia on the trail. Vomiting, dry heaving, and diarrhea all at the same time are no fun anywhere, but really miserable on the trail.
- Mental health got me unexpectedly in the beginning. You plan so much for it and it’s amazing but it’s just hiking.
- Eighty miles (130 km) in, wearing the wrong shoes, in terrible pain.
- Got giardia. It sucked. It made me depressed. I didn’t know I had giardia so I just thought I was depressed and was tempted to end the hike early.
Why the Desert was terrible
- The first experience in the snow on San Jacinto – was extremely wet and nearing hypothermia and could barely navigate.
- There was a day where I was hiking and camping alone, my group had kept hiking to Kennedy Meadows after I took some time off the trail. It rained all day when I was completely alone and I kept wondering why the fuck I was out there. I was freezing and soaking wet wondering why I decided to walk this trail.
- My lowest point on the trail was at Paradise Valley Cafe when my anxiety took a hold on me because of the forecasted five days of freezing cold rain and snow. I nearly quit and spent hours crying to myself. The next day, walking out, I quit on the trail and spent the next 10 mi / 16 km walk-crying to myself, feeling like a failure, not a true outdoorsman, and a weak human being. Luckily, I was able to pull myself together and walk another 450 mi / 724 km on the PCT before injury took me off. I learned to be resilient, to push through, and that rain and snow—although they suck—do not last forever.
- When my backpack got eaten by wild rabbits at mile 644.
- Between Walker Pass and Kennedy Meadows in crazy heat with huge uphill/downhill mileage in between water sources.
- Eating too much McDonald’s at Cajon Pass.
- Heatstroke in the desert with a really annoying section hiker following me and making comments about my weight.
- In Agua Dulce (SOBO), I got a massive blister and shin splints from crossing the aqueduct area and I really missed my wife and dog and wanted to just quit and go home.
Why the Sierra was terrible
- Attempted to Ford Kerrick Creek solo four times unsuccessfully. Very cold, very demotivated. Found log after an hour of scouting the creek.
- Hiking out of Mammoth Lakes, hurt from an injury and limping my way back into the snow hell and sliding down into a tree after 30 minutes.
- The stress of being in a big group in the Sierra created a lot of anxiety and unhappiness that was very hard to deal with.
- The Sierra. The rivers. The snow. I didn’t have enough calories. So with nerves, snow, altitude, wet peeling feet and lack of energy, I struggled immensely in the Sierra.
- Learning a fellow died on the trail a couple of hours before I reached him by Mather Pass, and seeing his body being recovered by search and rescue.
- When I realized I was now scared of the snow.
- This year was cold, snowy, and difficult so there were several tough moments. I ran low on food a couple of times, but once I had to spread a day’s food over 3 days (brutal), while hiking alone, over days of snow, with cold rain and hail, with post-surgery knee pain. I remember waking up to a miserably cold morning, nothing to eat, everything soaking wet, with 25 mi / 40 km of foodless steep snow to cover, with my knee throbbing in pain. I remember thinking “I know why people quit“.
- The Yosemite section. I only cried twice on the trail, both were in that god-forsaken park.
- Being attacked by mosquitos while hiking all day around mile 1000 and having a panic attack because of it. The only time I seriously considered quitting.
- Coming out of the Sierra and realizing I’m not even halfway there. I had never been that close to quitting.
Why Northern California was terrible
- The road walk into Seiad Valley. I was having major problems with my feet, and I was super lethargic. It took me until 2 pm to do 14 mi / 23 km into town, and I had to take two naps on the way. The last 6 mi / 10 km of road walking was just the worst.
- After we flipped to avoid snow I was with one group (and almost never saw other hikers) for the rest of California. I was the slowest and it was really challenging to always be pushing myself to do bigger miles or hike alone when I didn’t want to.
- NorCal, I had left my groups behind, I wasn’t leapfrogging with anyone, and the trail was unremarkable, you could go an entire day just on autopilot.
- When I was with my trail family in NorCal, we pushed bigger days even though the terrain was challenging. One day, someone who had a big influence in my group suggested a bigger number of miles for that day, and my opinion about it was invalidated. I was told that if I disagreed, then I should just not say anything. I felt that I had no value amongst the people with whom I was traveling with.
- Probably on the climb up out of Seiad Valley. Had a bad experience in town, expensive as shit and I was already mad at NorCal in general. The steep climb with it being hot got me frustrated.
- I live in Truckee. When I was four days away from home I woke up to a call telling me that my dog, who was supposed to be dropped off with me to do the last three days with me, had died in a really bad accident the previous night. I was camped alone and completely falling apart. That was my lowest moment.
- Somewhere in Northern California on a 110°F/43°C day with gnats in my eyes.
- I hiked with a trail friend in NorCal and we started fighting and disagreeing a lot. By the time we got to Etna I was miserable around him. I ended up skipping to get away from him.
- Northern California blues are real. I felt really homesick and hitting the halfway point was more disheartening than anything.
Why Oregon was terrible
- Just dealing with the constant swarm of mosquitoes in Oregon was a really low point.
- My lowest point was during Oregon. When we had to do a certain mileage every day in order to make our finish date, it started to feel more like a job than a trip.
- My wallet went “missing” from Mazama Village in Crater Lake. I had left it behind and a friend mailed it to me. The village had a record of them picking it up, but the employee “misplaced” the one package that contained valuables. Dealing with trying to get money, cards, and ID was a huge pain and very difficult.
- The mosquitos in Oregon drove me to the point of being insane. I had to take multiple zeros in bend to escape the scratching of the bites.
- Southern Oregon was tough as a lot of interpersonal issues were being worked out in my massive trail family, lots of drama and feelings being hurt which caused some depression and anxiety.
- Walking in Oregon in trees wondering “Why?”
Why Washington was terrible
- The first day of rain in Washington. Cold, wet, and miserable. I wanted to quit right then.
- Reaching the Northern Terminus without any of my trail friends. Standing there alone was a sad moment, rather than the joy I had expected.
- We left Skykomish heading south knowing that there was rain in the forecast. Two days in, it poured rain all day and my rain gear wetted out within an hour. I was dealing with ankle pain that necessitated a break every few hours, but I would get hypothermic as soon as I sat down. My partner was upset with my hiking speed. Our friends had just quit and the monotony was getting to me. If I had been close to town, I probably would have quit at that point.
- The fourth day of constant rain in Washington. Everything I had was soaked through, and there was no way to dry it out as there had not been any sunshine for days. My feet were getting macerated and the weather was getting colder. It was the only day I really did not want to be on the trail.
- The first day out of Snoqualmie Pass, it was cold and raining for the whole day. It got to me, and I had a minor mental breakdown because of it.
- The only moment on the trail when I questioned my life choices was before I had to bail out to Trout Lake because of bad weather. During a very cold, rainy and windy morning when I was near hypothermic, the muscles in my back were cramping from the shivering, and I couldn’t even undo my hip belt buckle because I had lost feeling in my hands. I was horribly uncomfortable and terrified that I wouldn’t deal well (mentally) with these conditions and I would quit.
- That and some moments in Washington due to all the stress of fear mongers talking about the snow and every single town person telling us we’d die out there, combined with the weather. It felt like it wasn’t worth hiking in miserable weather when everyone told us we wouldn’t finish anyway. I wish people trying to keep hikers safe would just help give advice on what we need for the conditions and the tools to assess when to know when the conditions are unsafe, rather than just fear-mongering.
On quitting the trail
- Deciding to end the hike in NorCal due to tendonitis in an ankle that was getting progressively worse. Hurt like hell, physically and emotionally.
- I quit while on the trail, so when I decided to quit was my lowest. I was having problems with anxiety and homesickness. It got in my head and I regret coming home.
- I really struggled with mental health during my last month on the trail and, ultimately, it led to me ending my hike early (which was absolutely the right choice for me). I hiked with a friend for the entire hike, but not having regular access to be able to talk to family and close friends was incredibly challenging.
- We tried to do Oregon in 17 days (fast for us) and kept falling behind in our goal and trying to push ahead the next day. I was so tired and frustrated that I simply sat down and sobbed in the middle of the trail. I got a hitch out of Olallie Lake and my hike was done for good. I had gotten too far into my head and stopped enjoying things. I did get back on but ultimately got off trail 140 mi / 225 km later.
- Making the decision to end the hike due to knee injury.
- Realizing I’d have to get off trail because of the lack of money.
- When I realized my options were to get off trail or irreparably damage my foot and knee that I had to choose the former.
- My lowest point was dealing with the fact that I was not going to make it out of the hike physically well if I continued to Canada. I had been dealing with hip issues for quite some time and they were progressively getting worse. I had to leave without accomplishing my goal and rearrange my aspirations for styles of backpacking that work with my body.
- Getting to Red’s Meadow and needing to go to Mammoth Hospital, and then getting diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis and not being able to return to the trail.
- The loss of momentum post flip flop to North California, and the loneliness associated with losing everyone who you saw in the desert. Everything changed after Kennedy Meadows. Then the slow realization and acceptance that it was time to go home.
- The day I reached 1,000 mi / 1,600 km, which was the same day I realized I wasn’t going to be able to finish the trail.
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.