7 Reasons to Section Hike the PCT (Instead of Thru-Hiking)
The Pacific Crest Trail has grown in popularity in the past decade. Some attribute this to the popularity of Wild (both the 2012 book and the 2014 movie). Some say it’s because of the rise in popularity of long-distance backpacking in general. Either way, every year, thousands of prospective thru-hikers hit the trail NOBO in March-May, and a few hundred more attempt a SOBO hike beginning in July.
The experience of walking across the country in one go, as opposed to going it in two-week segments over a long period of time can certainly seem more “epic.” It can be logistically easier to make it out to California once, as opposed to every year for a decade. For some people, it can be much more feasible to undertake a goal this size all at once, instead of trying to incorporate it over a longer period of time. The future is unpredictable, and accomplishing an entire goal at once ensures that life won’t get in the way. You also get to experience trail culture at its finest and get the experience of truly living outside for several months at a time.
But none of these hikers will actually hike every mile of the trail. Many will quit due to injury or illness. Others will give up because of financial limitations or family responsibilities. The rest will skip large amounts of the PCT due to fire damage from the previous season, not to mention active wildfires that have been hitting the West coast ferociously over the past several years. For those who want to hike the entire trail, section hiking over a number of years is the way to go. This makes it easier to balance hiking with a job and/or family. It also is easier on your body and may give you a longer opportunity to savor the trail while avoiding the crowds.
7 Reasons to Section Hike the PCT Instead of Thru-Hiking
1. Weather Window
This is possibly the most compelling reason to section-hike the PCT, even for those who have the money, time, and ability to thru-hike. Not only will section-hiking allow you to hit each biome at its peak season, but it may be the only way to hike the whole PCT at all. The PCT is extremely vulnerable to the volatile and unpredictable weather patterns brought on by climate change, and it is becoming increasingly fruitless to try to plan a thru-hike to avoid extreme heat, dangerous snow, and fire closures.
Even in a “normal” (pre-climate change) year, the best time to visit the Mojave desert is between February and April. As the Mojave only begins almost 500 miles into the PCT, most hikers are hitting this section in May or June, when temperatures frequently soar above 90 degrees, with little shade. In 2021 a hiker died in mid-June due to extreme heat. And those beginning early hoping to avoid scalding temperatures encounter dangerously icy conditions on San Jacinto, where another hiker died in 2020.
In addition to high temperatures, thru-hikers can expect long water carries between dry sources. California has been experiencing “severe,” “extreme,” or “exceptional” drought for eight out of the past ten years. As the effects of climate change become more noticeable, we can expect these dry, inhospitable conditions to worsen. For section hikers, it is possible to plan desert hiking to optimize water availability, whether by hiking in the winter or by changing itineraries based on the PCT water report. Continuous thru-hikers don’t have this flexibility, and so must risk dehydration.
A heavy precipitation year is good news for California’s water supply, but often bad news for thru-hikers. Not only do hikers need to know how to use an ice axe and microspikes (and sometimes crampons), but river crossings become extremely dangerous in high snow years. In 2017 two hikers died while fording rivers in the Sierra.
Even in a “normal” year, the optimal date to enter the Sierra is June 15th, and even then, hikers must use microspikes and an ice axe to traverse treacherous passes. Later in the summer, the Sierra becomes much safer, more accessible, and frankly, more enjoyable. That’s why the best season to hike the JMT is late summer.
READ NEXT – How to Navigate the Sierra in a High Snow Year
Snow can also push hikers off trail towards the end of their hike. The conventional wisdom is that NOBO hikers must finish by mid-October and SOBO hikers must finish the Sierra by October 1st, but as weather patterns become increasingly unpredictable, these windows are unreliable. An early-season snowstorm on either end of trail has the potential to threaten hikers’ safety as early as September.
Section hiking, it’s possible to plan to do snowy sections during low snow years, and/or during the late summer or early fall. It also leaves hikers more flexibility, so they can change plans if there’s an unseasonal snowstorm.
Increasingly, fire is just late summer weather in the American West. 60 years of ill-advised wildfire policy that focused on total fire prevention left much of the USA covered in old, dry tinder that threatens to ignite at any moment. Wildfires and wildfire closures are common every year on the PCT, and repairing damaged sections of trail can take years. There are at least two sections of trail still closed due to last year’s fire season. And not only do wildfires close large sections of trail every year, but they also make the surrounding air so smokey it is difficult to breathe. The air quality in August in much of California along the PCT is either “moderate,” “unhealthy,” or “very unhealthy.”
In 2021, no thru-hiker hiked every mile of the PCT. Not only were there still fire closures from the 2020 season, but many NOBOs had to skip much of Northern California due to fires. SOBO hikers had it even worse, as the PCT closed in all National Forests in California on September 1st, 2021. This was after many SOBOs spent much of Oregon and NorCal skipping around various other fire closures. In 2020, over 1,800 miles of the PCT in California and Oregon also closed due to wildfires, and dozens of hikers had to be evacuated in helicopters by the National Guard.
Wildfires will only get worse over the next few years. If you want to make sure you hike every mile of the PCT, or even if you just want to establish a continuous footpath from Canada to Mexico, the only way to do that will be by section hiking. Otherwise, hikers will have to navigate the previous year’s fire closures, in addition to active wildfires. Even the burn areas that reopen are covered in ash, soot, and the skeletons of charred trees. By section hiking, you can delay hiking these sections of trail until they regrow.
The PCT Long-distance Permit can be very competitive to acquire, and you can end up with a start date that is either dangerously early or dangerously late. Many local permits are non-quota, depending on your start and endpoint, even in competitive areas like the High Sierra. You also have the flexibility to change your itinerary based on permit availability, and you can prioritize season and conditions when deciding which permit to try to get. For those curious about which permits you need where, see here.
Carn Stanfield hikes next to Crater Lake. Photo via Carl Stanfield.
3. Leaving Life Behind
Not everyone can take half a year off of their lives to thru-hike in a single season. And not everyone should quit their jobs, sell their homes, or leave their families to hike from Mexico to Canada. Section hiking makes the trail much more accessible to people who have logistical or financial considerations. Section hiking is often more sustainably affordable than thru-hiking, as you don’t have to quit your job. Sections can be as short as a weekend, or as long as a summer. And section hiking makes it easier to bring along partners, children, or other relatives who may not be able to hike the whole trail.
4. Trail Impact
The current PCT permit system was implemented in 2015 due to concerns about high hiker traffic damaging local ecosystems, especially the fragile desert ecosystem that dominates the first ~700 miles of the PCT. By spreading out hiker impact over a longer period of time, the trail sustains less damage. And if you choose your sections intentionally to avoid peak hiker season, you can even further lessen your impact on the trail. Remember, whether you are the only one on trail or one of thousands, to always follow the 7 principles of LNT, especially in the dry desert.
5. Your Body May Thank You
A 2013 survey of 123 PCT thru-hikers found that 45% of them sustained some kind of overuse injury on trail. The lucky ones could hike through it, the less lucky ones could go home to recuperate, the even less lucky ones had to shell out for a place to stay while they rested, and for the unlucky ones, it was hike-ending. In fact, 69% of thru-hiker dropouts report that they did so because of a major or minor injury. It is important to note that mental resolve may play a part in dropouts due to injury.
Regular outdoor recreation is a great way to attain long-term mental and physical health. Section hiking is much less likely to lead to injury or illness and can help incorporate backpacking into the regular rhythms of daily life.
6. Savor It
I, like many, am the type to eat an entire box of chocolates in one sitting, even though I know I would enjoy it more if I gave myself just one chocolate every day for a month. Afterward, I am left sick to my stomach, and sad that I don’t have any more chocolate left for the coming days and weeks.
Similarly, you might enjoy the PCT more if you extend your experience across years or even decades. Instead of battling injury and burnout for half a year, the PCT gets to be a special vacation treat. Instead of having dramatic distinctions between your “real life” and “hiking life,” which can lead to burnout or post-trail depression, incorporating the trail into your normal rhythms can make hiking more sustainable, and help stretch out the joy of completing the PCT over a much longer period of time. And it is just as meaningful, if not more so, to finish the PCT after 20 years as it is to finish in four months.
7. Just You and the Trail
As mentioned above, hiking with the “bubble” can get crowded. Over 4,000 NOBO long-distance permits are issued every year. If what you’re looking for is a solitary connection with nature, you’re not going to get it starting at Campo in April. Every year there are more and more SOBOs as well, so in either direction, you’re sure to run into a number of people every day. If you chose to section hike, you can create much more privacy and serenity, by picking sections away from either the NOBO or SOBO bubble.
While thru-hiking is undeniably the adventure of a lifetime, section hiking isn’t only for those who can’t commit to the whole trial at once. For anyone who wants to hike every mile of the PCT, section hiking is the only realistic way. And it’s also a fantastic option for people who want to savor the trail or who don’t want to risk injury or deal with the long-distance permit system. So, for anyone considering trying to do the whole PCT in a season—maybe think about doing a section instead.
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