This year I’ll be hitting the trail and as with any huge undertaking there are huge fears as well.
Here are my fears about my PCT in no particular order:
Having experienced conditions in Chile where I showing early signs of hypothermia, it’s something that I fear a lot. Hypothermia occurs when you are cold and are losing more heat than you are gaining. Symptoms include uncontrollable shivering and mental confusion. While most people’s perception of California weather is that of sunny and warm, it’s much different on the trail. The trail starts in the desert, but altitude is higher which leads to colder temperatures. It also crosses and follows many mountain ranges and the altitude of the trail can go up to 10000 feet or 3000 meters. My hike will be an early hike (normal PCT thruhikes usually begin around mid-April) and more worryingly, California is having one of its wettest winters (good for California water levels, not good for hikers). So there’s plenty of things that increase the risk of hypothermia which means that I will probably carry a bit more clothing than I planned to.
When researching the PCT, one thing that was scary for me was the wildlife and plants. I’m not a big naturalist, my knowledge of flowers is reduced to naming them by color, so reading about the PCT wildlife and plants are a bit terrifying for me. In Denmark there’s one type of poisonous snake, and you’re never really without cell signal or more than 30 km away from a hospital so the overall risk is low. On the PCT I will be miles and miles, days and days away from a hospital, and everything seems poisonous. There’s rattlesnakes to worry about, there’s poison oak and then there’s the poodle-dog bush. The poodle-dog bush, despite its friendly name, causes extremely painful rashes which I do not intend on trying out.
This may be a fear that can be easily managed however. Not that many people are bitten by rattlesnakes as they usually avoid humans if they sense us coming. As for poison oak and poodle-dog bush, the aim is to not touch them and go around them.
The PCT is famed for the community and the amount of amazing people who help hikers accomplish their goals but recently I’ve heard of thefts from hikers. I travel a lot alone and has never had anything stolen but when your backpack is your lifeline and every single piece of gear is necessary for your survival, having anything stolen from you becomes a bigger threat and a bigger fear. Put it simply, if I lost my backpack, then I most likely have to end my journey right there. While it’s not hard to avoid, I can leave my pack with people I trust or always keep an eye on it, a healthy amount of fear will keep me vigilant about possible theft.
This one is probably the one fear that is justified. There will be lots of river crossings on the way, most are just small streams of water but a few larger river crossings will be there as well. The big risk of river crossings is getting swept away which is dependent on two things: the amount of water and the speed of the water. Both are worse this year due to it being a bigger snow year which means the melt of the snow in spring and summer will cause the rivers and streams to swell up. Currently the snow level is 50-60% higher than an average year which means 50-60% more volume of water has to come down. In 2017, a record year in terms of snow levels, two solo hikers died crossing streams and rivers so this is one of the big considerations for all the 2019 hikers.
I will try and manage this by finding other people to cross streams and rivers with. I’ve studied how to do this safely as well and will definitely take a lot of care. One factor is also my early entrance into the Sierras which poses the biggest and most dangerous crossings. Entering the Sierras early means encountering more snow and this translates to being able to cross rivers and streams safely on top of the snow (if it’s snowed over). Entering early also has an effect on the amount of water as the snow is not melting as fast as later in the season when it’s warmer.
I suffered a mild heatstroke in Nepal when hiking and since then I’ve become very wary of it. In Nepal I was only hiking for 4-5 hours a day but I expect to hike for 12-14 hours a day, leading to more exposure to the sun, especially in the desert sections. One good tip is to take a break at noon to let the worst of the heat pass. This isn’t the biggest of my fears but it will help me to be mindful of the heat and sun exposure.
Overstaying my visa
I’m entering the US on the ESTA visa waiver program that gives me 90 days in the US. Given that I have a lot of friends in the US and really enjoy visiting the US, overstaying my visa and giving me a short-term ban or worse is not something that I would like to have. And it will make my future US visas even harder to get which will be a problem when I inevitably will want to come back to finish the PCT. This is a major fear for me as I already let the fear get the best of me when I decided not to attempt to get the B2 visa which would have given me 6 months in the US to hike the entire trail.
As I get closer to my flight out of the US, that’s definitely going to be on my mind. If I’m in a town I need to ask myself, whether I can make it to the next town in time to get a ride back to San Francisco? I will have to try my best not to worry about this now but later when it’s actually relevant.
Not meeting expectations
The PCT is romanticized so incredibly much. Cheryl Strayed put the expectation to “the trail will change your life” (even if she struggles so much throughout it). Reading the blogs of others only tell the success stories about how great their hike has been. As with many things in life, the PCT is definitely all about survivorship bias. Those who make it through or have the time of their lives are the ones who tell their stories and who you read the most about. But estimates put the actual number of completions to 20%. And in a classic case of the 80⁄20 principle, it’s those 20% that make up for 80% (or more!) of the awareness of the PCT. Although it’s hard to find anything about people who quit (here’s one however) I need to remind myself that the trail has no expectations, that’s something we bring to it.
I have seen a lot of people use travel as an escape. And the more outlandish the travel, the bigger the escape. It’s probably been a motivation for me many times. So it’s funny that the travel that changed me the most (my 2 month trip to Nepal in 2015) is also the one which wasn’t about being an escape. That trip I undertook because I wanted to go and explore. I didn’t run away from myself, tried to be someone else when I was there. I was me, but inevitably that “me” ended up changing perhaps because I didn’t have the expectation to change. Two quotes that I think of often when I travel are:
“Do you suppose that you alone have had this experience? Are you surprised, as if it were a novelty, that after such long travel and so many changes of scene you have not been able to shake off the gloom and heaviness of your mind? You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate.” — Seneca
“Socrates made the same remark to one who complained; he said: “Why do you wonder that globe-trotting does not help you, seeing that you always take yourself with you? The reason which set you wandering is ever at your heels.” What pleasure is there in seeing new lands? Or in surveying cities and spots of interest? All your bustle is useless. Do you ask why such flight does not help you? It is because you flee along with yourself. You must lay aside the burdens of the mind; until you do this, no place will satisfy you.” - Seneca
I’m trying to keep my expectations low. I know it’s going to be tough. I know I’m going to see amazing sights. I know I will meet amazing and generous people. I know it’s going to probably be one of the hardest things that I will do, physically and mentally. And that on days when the expectation I had of the trail is so far away from the reality and the hardships I face, I have to remember to have type 2 fun.
What I don’t fear as much
These are the things that I fear more than I really should. There are more things that I fear that is more justified, things that I fear but not unproportionally.
Water and water quality
While water is incredibly important, I’m not that worried about it. Water availability is usually the big topic along hikers as some stretches in the desert requires big water carries but it’s not a huge concern to me. Or rather it’s not an outsized concern for me. First of all there are excellent water reports that I can use to plan how much water to get for each stretch. Then there’s the big snow year that I mentioned earlier which means that streams will be stronger and there will be more water. I will be very mindful of getting enough water, but currently it’s not one of the things that keep me awake at night (although if I get enough water, it will certainly keep me awake at night #peebottle).
Bears are one of the things people mention first when I tell them about the trail. Mostly because they’re big and therefore seem like a bigger threat. I’m not too worried about it though as there are plenty of reasons and precautions that will make bears less of a threat. Bears are actually not people-murdering animals. They generally avoid people so if they hear and sense you coming, they will typically go away. There’s statistically few bad bear encounters on the trail. I will also carry a bear canister to ensure that bears are not attracted to smells when I sleep at night. And I have read up on what to do if I do have a bear encounter. Again, it’s not something that I expect I will have to deal that much with.
Apart from theft I do not think there will be any danger from other people. From all reports and accounts, the people on the trail are amazingly friendly, trail angels will provide trail magic (in fact I will stay with trail angels the night before setting off on the trail) and locals are great about giving hitchhikers rides into the nearest town or out to the trail again. I probably shouldn’t watch movies about hitchhikers in California getting murdered on the flight to the US (come to think of it, I should not read more about the recent Boeing 737 crash either), but then again, it’s not other people I should be worried the most about on the trail.
Lack of food
As someone who ate way too little on Aconcagua for the final summit push, perhaps this should be a bigger concern. But from every single blog I’ve read, nobody is really getting enough food to eat while on the trail. Estimates are 5000-6000 calories a day (about triple the normal expenditure for a sedentary city dweller) and most people struggle getting that while on the trail. I’ve resigned to not getting that and realize that I will lose weight (great!). The trick is of course to prevent it from being dangerous weight loss or lack of food in a place where it’s just not possible to get more food and with previous experience it’s something I will pay extra attention to.
This is a contentious point. I do fear snow but at the same time I don’t fear it that much as many other hikers are right now (facebook and reddit are really anxious about the snow!). My advantage here is that I know how to use an ice axe and self-arresting techniques. I have climbed mountains, including Aconcagua in snow, which might leave me with a distorted view but as long as there’s no avalanche risk (that’s more prevalent in the Cascades early in the season that it is in the Sierras for hikers) or crevasses (not along the trail as far as I know) then I’m good. That doesn’t mean that I won’t be super careful (I will be!), but my fear of snowy conditions match the amount of fear one should have for it I think. For snow, I really cannot get too scared right now either, things can change a lot in the weeks between me sitting at home in Denmark until I’m at a town before a snowy stretch (I believe climate change is to blame for increasing unpredictable weather) so this is something I will definitely monitor closely and adjust my thinking as the facts surface.
These are my fears. Hikers, tell me what your fears are. Non-hikers, what are the fears for you when you think of months of hiking in the wilderness?