Blis hiking at sunrise somewhere after Sierra City, CA.

107 Things I Learned While Hiking 1,833.3 Miles of the Pacific Crest Trail

United States Hiking
by Caitlin Olson Oct 23, 2017

This is me and my friend Indigo. On June 6, 2017, we began our journey on the Pacific Crest Trail, a long distance scenic trail that runs from Mexico to Canada. The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is 2,650 miles long -or 4,265 kilometers-, and we covered over 1,800 miles of sandy, rocky, grassy, muddy, snowy trail. We started from Tehachapi, CA at mile 566 and ended our adventure in Manning Park, BC.

Pacific Crest Trail

Indigo and I walked until our feet went numb, and then we walked some more.

The PCT turned out to be more than just a trail. It was our home for 112 days. It gave me a family. It allowed me to grow stronger, more confident, and more appreciative of both the small treasures and vast wonders of life. 2017, when I hiked, turned out to be known as the “Year of Fire and Ice” because of a record high Sierra snowpack and numerous heat waves and wildfires – it was certainly a crazy adventure. The trail was a test for myself, an investment in myself, and a gift to myself.

Here are 106 things, big and small, I learned while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail:

1. Most people won’t answer you honestly when you ask them if you smell bad.

2. Soft cotton, showers, and filtered water should never be taken for granted.

3. A liter of water weighs 2.2 pounds.

1L Smartwater bottles are a popular choice on the PCT because they don’t weigh much and can screw directly on a Sawyer water filter.

4. Your nostrils and lips can get sunburned.

5. Patience, like a muscle, must be exercised to get stronger.

6. Always take more pictures of people than of landscapes.

Trailname, Happy Feet, Indigo, and Blis posing like total goofs in Northern California.

7. ADAPTABILITY — Life on the Pacific Crest Trail is unpredictable at its core. When you go every day unsure of where you’ll sleep that night, you must assume a strong level of adaptability and flexibility for surprises, good and bad. I’m someone who likes to plan out things, and while I feel that characteristic helped me prepare for the trip, it was not particularly useful while hiking. So I learned to be flexible and adapt. Sometimes you find out that there’s a fire closure ahead of you and have to hitch around or do some road walking. Sometimes it’s about physically and mentally adapting to walking over a marathon every single day and learning to walk through the pain. And other times it’s watching everyone come together to help your friend do a video job interview at a small town cafe. It’s not about being ready for everything, it’s about being ready for anything.

8. Women are the more likely than men to break their tailbones. I learned this after flying down a bumpy, icy hill near Forester Pass followed by intensive WebMD research.

9. Your shoes will deteriorate to the point you literally start dreaming for new shoes to aid your aching feet.

Replacing my shoes in Ashland, OR after over 700 miles of use through Northern California.

10. By waving your trekking pole in front of your face, you can create a temporary force field so that little gnats won’t fly into your nose and eyes.

11. Deet can melt the plastic off your watch.

12. Always err on the side of carrying too much food and water.

Four day food resupply that ended up not being enough to fuel me.

13. Baby wipes are worth their weight in gold.

14. Electrolytes are very important.

15. If you ever have the chance to summit Mt. Whitney, do it. And do it at 2:00 am so you get to the peak in time for the sunrise. Trust me.

16. There’s no point in buying a $12 titanium spoon. The long plastic one will do just fine. Also if you lose your spoon, tent stakes can double as a pair of chopsticks.

My tent stakes came in handy on double ramen night during my solo hike in Washington.

17. Cherish every letter, phone call, or message you get from a friend or family member. Remember who is rooting you on when you want to cry because everything hurts and Canada seems so far away.

18. The SaveMart in Tahoe City is surprisingly expensive.

19. Unexpected joy can come from sitting in the parking lot of a Motel 6 eating an entire bag of salad with a spoon.

20. If you play guitar, make sure you know a few songs that everyone can sing along to.

Wilder and Airplane Mode jamming at the Bishop Hostel.

21. If you tell a little girl that you eat two candy bars a day, her reaction will be priceless. I had this exchange with the daughter of a woman who gave us a ride into Lake Isabella. She was also relieved to finally sit with some hikers who knew the lyrics to her favorite Taylor Swift songs as they blasted on the radio.

22. Towns smell like soap and bacon.

23. A human being can survive solely on instant mashed potatoes and candy.

24. Campho Phenique is the most effective antidote to mosquito bites.

25. Dance a lot. Make it goofy. Use your poles as much as possible.

26. If your gear breaks (like your spikes just as you enter the Sierras), call the company, be courteous, and they might send you a free replacement.

27. If you are offered trail magic, accept it, say thank you, and let the person know they are a trail angel.

28. DISCIPLINE — It’s hard to not hit snooze when your alarm goes off at 5:00am each day. It’s hard to keep walking when your feet have gone numb. This trail can be lovely and wonderful, but it can be really hard at times. There’s a saying on trail, “Smiles not miles,” but honestly sometimes the reality is “Miles not smiles” when you’re trying to make it to Canada before October. Discipline to put in the work each day was fundamental to our success in reaching the border.

29. Riding in the back of a pickup truck is one of the most liberating feelings in the world, especially after you’ve already hiked over 30 miles that day.

30. Women have a much easier time hitching rides than men.

Blis trying to hitch a ride into Seiad Valley, CA.

31. Caffeine is an incredible tool.

32. “That skinny, white guy with a beard” is not an effective description when trying to find your friend on the Pacific Crest Trail.

33. Look at the log, not the rapids, when balancing across a raging creek.

34. There’s no point in washing your cooking pot on trail. It will always be dirty, and you will learn to enjoy the flavor profile of last night’s dinner in your coffee as gross as that sounds.

35. Day hikers smell like laundry.

36. If you have asthma, listen to your mom and your doctor and carry the extra 1.5 ounces so you are equipped with a backup inhaler. As long as you’ve got your inhaler, you’ve got this.

One of the two trusty inhalers I carried with me on the trail. I had to replace one when I dropped it (and myself) in a creek.

37. Gorilla tape is stronger than duct tape.

38. Some hikers like to think of the lightheadedness you get after blowing up your sleeping pad as a “free high.”

39. If you have committed a crime within the past seven years, Canada will not allow you to enter via the Pacific Crest Trail. DUIs are the most common crime based on a non-scientific study run by me.

40. Eat Snickers before 9:00 am for an unmelted chocolate experience.

Time-stamped Snickers break near Walker Pass in Southern California.

41. You can buy raw dough from pizzerias.

42. While difficult, it is possible to sleep next to a highway while 18-wheelers roar by all night.

43. People like to shoot signs in Oregon more so than they do in Washington.

44. Feet swell up when you stop walking.

45. HUMANITY — One of the biggest takeaways from hiking the Pacific Crest Trail was the fundamental goodness of humanity. People from all walks of life wanted to help us along our journey to Canada. I lost track of how many times complete strangers offered me rides, food, beer, water, prayers, hugs, and kind words. Trail magic was truly one of the most memorable parts of this trip. As refreshing as it was to drink a can of soda on trail, what I really appreciated was the energy and morale boost from receiving unconditional kindness from someone who just wanted to help. Paying it forward is more common than you think, and it shines a spotlight on the beauty of humanity.

46. Hot weather makes you lose your appetite.

47. Hiking through smoke for days gives you a sore throat, turns your eyes red, and makes your tent smell like a campfire.

Road walking around Crater Lake with a smoke mask. We didn’t get to see the lake that day because the bowl was completely filled with smoke from nearby wildfires.

48. Afternoon brandy is just like regular brandy except you drink it in the afternoon.

49. If your body needs more calories but you can’t stand the taste of peanut butter any longer, you can swallow a spoonful with water like a pill.

50. If a stranger finds you crouched in the candy aisle calculating on your phone to make sure you have enough calories for the next section, they will offer to buy you a six-pack.

51. Marmots exist, and they are wonderful.

A marmot at the approach of Donohue Pass. I literally didn’t know about the existence of marmots until this hike, and they quickly became my favorite wild, furry friends.

52. You should keep putting on sunscreen at least once a day even if your hiking buds tease you.

53. People can talk about their gear forever. Seriously. It never stops.

54. Even if you have zero mountaineering and river fording experience, you can cross the Sierras in the second highest ever recorded snow pack.

Me and my trusty ice axe at the top of Pinchot Pass celebrating another successful climb.

55. Apple Maps is currently mapping forest service roads. The irony is there is usually no cell service to use Apple Maps to navigate forest service roads. Also the drivers of the mapping vans don’t give rides to road-walking hikers.

56. Insects like some people more than others. I am the Snow White of insects.

57. When estimating one’s pack weight, some choose to not include the weight of beer.

58. People will lie and tell you Northern California is flat. Don’t believe them.

59. Steep ridge walks present an interesting challenge to female hikers who would like to pee but would rather not fall off a cliff in the process.

Pacific Crest Trail

Indigo hiking a particularly steep ridge walk in Northern California. The intense smoke is coming from a wildfire in the valley below. We heard that they closed the trail the next day.

60. When backflushing your Sawyer water filter, tap it firmly on the edge of the sink. Learn to do this before Washington or else you will be disgusted with the quantity of black gunk coming out of your filter.

61. LAUGHTER — No amount of pain meds can make it as easy to get through the toughest of times as laughter. When it seems that just about everything has gone wrong, your best move is to laugh. Fortunately, I got to share these moments with the silliest, funniest people I know. When Indigo and I shared a tent in North Yosemite, we would make each other laugh at 4:00 am. To get through the pain that comes with increased mileage in Northern California, we’d crack jokes about how our bodies might completely shut down in protest if we told them we had 30 miles to do the next day. We made it through a snow storm in Washington by laughing over how deliriously cold we were, struggling to flick a lighter on because we couldn’t feel our hands. Laughter is absolutely essential to make it on the PCT.

62. Mice will eat your hat. Your favorite hat. Bastards.

63. On the official Dreamgirls soundtrack, there is a dance remix of “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” and it’s just as ridiculous as you think it is.

64. If given the opportunity, your body can surprise you with how much it can do.

65. Never rely on water caches.

Despite what we heard from others, this water cache in Oregon turned up empty. For the next ten miles of exposed lava fields, I had only a 0.5 liter of water and learned a very valuable lesson that day.

66. To some, trail mix is simply various sour candies mixed in a bag.

67. Hanging your food to keep it safe from bears always takes longer than you anticipate.

68. TEAMWORK — While hiking in a group is not necessary, we felt that it was critical to our safety and success through the Sierras. Indigo and I lucked out with our team and first trail family, Blis, Airplane Mode, and Happy Feet. Together, we strategized our mileages, worked together to cross rivers and make it over mountain passes, and stuck with each other, never leaving someone behind. We communicated clearly with each other and made decisions as a group. We made each other laugh, jumped into action if someone got hurt, and learned how to work as a team. I felt safe with my trail family which in turn helped me grow to be a more confident hiker and believe in myself when presented with tough challenges.

69. Seeing a dog provides you with a boost of energy.

Kora, Steel’s doggy hiking partner, enjoying a shady lunch break in Northern California.

70. If you’re lucky, you’ll only use your first aid alcohol wipes when fixing your gear.

71. The 2:00 am Greyhound bus ride from Manning Park to Vancouver is laughably terrible.

72. Deer react to humans like humans react to rattlesnakes — slowly walking around the other with a wide radius while holding a look of terror and shock in their eyes.

73. Glissading is the act of sliding on your butt down a snowy mountain face to descend in a faster and more exciting fashion.

74. When you can’t afford to lose a single feather of down from your jacket, duct tape can patch up a hole.

75. Plastic food service gloves can provide a much needed waterproof layer to your gloves.

76. The “I” formation is a group technique used to cross high, fast moving rivers safely.

77. There’s no place on Earth where you are safe from being scolded for not watching Game of Thrones, including the Pacific Crest Trail.

78. Eventually, you’ll get to the point at which it’s easier to sleep in your sweaty, dirty hiking clothes than it is to put on sweaty, dirty hiking clothes in the morning.

79. Ranger gossip is a popular topic of conversation. (Shoutout to Rangers Victor, Dario, and Marcel)

Pacific Crest Trail, top of Glen Pass

Ranger Victor at the top of Glen Pass giving us an impromptu self-arresting lesson.

80. The scars you got in the Sierras will stay with you all the way to the Canadian border.

81. If you announce that this hour is Honesty Hour, people will become surprisingly open about their lives.

82. Trail names like Sultry Bear, Fat and Sassy, and Stupid Fucking Mustache are easier to recall than normal names.

83. A large flat rate USPS box costs $18.85 to send.

A productive trip to the Tahoe City post office.

84. It’s possible to both burn and undercook a Knorr’s rice side.

85. Never assume you are at the top of a climb.

86. The golden trifecta of a good lunch spot is shade, water, and sunlight.

87. It’s possible to listen to an entire season of Serial in under two days.

88. Always bring paper maps of the Pacific Crest Trail.

map of the Pacific Crest Trail

Indigo and Airplane Mode navigating the Sierras in a definitely not staged picture.

89. When hiking with a group, it’s a good idea to develop a recognizable call such as a “woot woot.” This is easier than yelling, “Hey! Where are you guys?”

90. Mice are more attracted to trash than packaged food.

91. You’re less likely to wake up to condensation on your tent and sleeping bag if you camp underneath trees. #SpotSelection

92. LifeProof phone cases work really, really well.

93. It’s impossible to plan your food resupply when you’re hungry.

My first attempt at resupplying on trail in Lake Isabella, CA.

94. If you don’t eat enough food, you will feel sluggish and terrible.

95. Sometimes it’s better to have one in the hand than two in the bush.

96. A thruhiker’s treat-yourself-day includes painkillers and coffee.

97. A bear canister can double as a beer cooler.

Chilling some beers in Mammoth Lakes, CA.

98. The “frontcountry” is the opposite of the backcountry.

99. Crying is sometimes your body’s natural response to freezing cold temperatures.

100. Coffee Break is the classiest break of the day.

101. Early morning miles are the best miles.

Blis hiking at sunrise somewhere after Sierra City, CA.

102. If you live in the woods for long enough, you eventually become what is called “hiker trash” and slowly forget about societal norms. For instance, you might forget that it’s not normal to clip your nails in public or become frustrated that you have to wait in line to use the restroom.

103. Civilization is white wine and fleeces.

104. If you’re desperate for new insoles, duct taping paper napkins for extra cushion can provide you with brief comfort until you reach a town.

My DIY insole repair next to my sore, numb feet in Old Station, CA.

105. If you hike long enough with someone, you will eventually be able to track their footprints.

106. The trail is magical and just might reunite you with most of your original trail family so you can all finish together.

Blis, Happy Feet, Trailname, Indigo, and me at the Northern Terminus (beautifully edited picture courtesy of Happy Feet).

107. FAITH — Years ago, a friend of mine shared a quote with me when I was going through a rough time: “Things work out in the end. If things aren’t working out, then it’s not the end.” I thought of this quote often while on the trail. I can’t think of a better place to believe in this sentiment than on the PCT. I can sometimes be an anxious person, but on the trail I gained faith that things work out. You’ll find the trail. You’ll get a hitch. You’ll make it across the river. You’ll ration your food out well. You’ll get new shoes soon. You’ll make it to Canada. You just have to have faith that it will happen.

This article originally appeared on Future Travel and is republished here with permission.

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