My PCT Thru-Hike: By the Numbers
If there’s ever been a thru-hike number or statistic you’ve been curious about, you’ve come to the right place. Every number and calculation from beers per mile to the number of days town food was consumed await you just below.
But why and how did we get here?
When I began researching thru-hiking a couple of years ago, I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information out there. I spent countless hours scavenging YouTube gear videos and hiker blogs. I discovered excellent accounts of trail experiences and thorough gear lists measured to the nearest gram. Through my readings, I felt welcomed into the community. I was inspired to find my own way to contribute.
So, on the night of April 22, 2018, just before settling into a particularly uncomfortable night of sleep at Stover Creek Shelter on the Appalachian Trail, I began a practice that would become an essential element to my thru-hiking routine for thousands of miles to come. I looked back on that first day on trail and recorded every little detail I could think of. That practice took shape as I found myself constantly juggling numbers throughout each day. At night, I’d pull out my journal and dump the day’s stats, clearing my brain to start fresh the next morning. This ultimately resulted in these numbers I collected from my first thru-hike.
The practice I created for myself on the Appalachian Trail was fine-tuned by the time I pulled out an empty notebook at Hauser Creek in early May 2019. That summer I went on to compile another set of obnoxiously specific numbers that now color the canvas of what a thru-hike can look like. I’m not the best photographer and I’m not much for sketching, which leaves my hike to be painted in words and numbers.
Miles and Steps
As this was a hike, I think it’s fitting to start by taking a look at the number of the miles I hiked and the steps it took to hike them. Each day, I recorded my mileage using the Guthook app on my phone. My steps were counted using a Fitbit Zip, a tiny little pocket Fitbit that only records step count but has a battery life of about six months.
In addition to miles and steps, I kept track of zero days I took when I didn’t hike any miles. I also counted the number of nero days I took. These were days I hiked nearly zero miles (for the sake of this article, that’s days I hiked fewer than 10 miles). Finally, each day I kept track of how many bad steps that I took: that is, steps where I slipped, stumbled, or flat out fell. I once heard that in a journey of 5,000,000 steps, even hiking with 99.99% accuracy leaves 500 bad steps, which inspired me to see how I’d hold up myself.
Sections and Mileage
Adding in the bonus miles I hiked (Mount Whitney, Kearsarge Pass, etc.) and subtracting the 22 miles I missed in Washington due to snow, my total PCT mileage was 2,704.9. For the sake of my notes, I am extending the Sierra section from Kennedy Meadows South all the way north to Donner Pass. This is about where I stopped seeing snow, and it also helps balance the miles across the sections. The two times that I crossed into new states, I counted all of the miles I hiked that day toward the previous state.
Every thru-hike comes with its own set of quirks and resulting explanations. In my case, there were a few particularly distinct chunks of time I took off. First, after each of the first two sections I took a multiday break, which I did not count as zeros within either section but did count toward my total zeros. I spent two days at Grumpy Bear’s in Kennedy Meadows South celebrating my completion of the desert and preparing for the Sierra. I also flew home for six days from Donner Pass after completing the Sierra to surprise my entire extended family at our final annual summer beach trip (I was the only one out of 23 who wasn’t going to be there, so I really had to).
In the middle of NorCal I spent four days on a road trip to a concert in Washington. To be fair, when I set out in May I was sure I would have been much closer by the middle of August. Finally, in Oregon my confidence in my immune system got the best of me in a rousing game of “do I really need to filter this water?” and I spent six days recovering from a lovely waterborne illness with a true trail angel in Bend, Oregon.
Mixed in with the zeros taken in virtually every town in the desert, it’s shocking how quickly a full month of off days can add up over a summer thru-hike. Worth noting, I’m happy I took every single one of them.
The next set of numbers that inevitably comes up while talking about a thru-hike has got to be the money necessary to make it happen. I’ll cut right to it and say that my time spent on trail cost me $4,964.57. Of course there are many caveats, explanations, and breakdowns, but we’ll start with an overview of dollars spent by section.
My overall goal with finances was to see how I spent money while on the trail. I included my plane ticket costs in my overall total, but not in any one section. Not included is the purchasing of any gear before I got on trail. Other costs omitted are my bills at home and my surprise flight home in the middle of the trip.
This breakdown absolutely proves how much of a sucker for town I am. Nearly an entire third of my budget went toward eating at restaurants. This number proves how expensive/inexpensive the trail can be depending on how much you like to treat yourself. I felt like I frequently indulged when I had the chance and still managed to only spend ~$1,000 a month. It’s not a stretch to say I could have saved quite a bit if I’d opted for PB&J in town, but man those hot town meals are satisfying.
Not quite a town meal, not quite a resupply, snacks are somewhere in between. Snacks would be passing through town and grabbing a cold drink and ice cream from a store in the middle of a day, or taking a relaxing sit to down an entire family size bag of chips outside a grocery store.
I managed to go to the movies no fewer than five times over the course of my thru-hike. Sitting still in a cool, dark room with a pocket full of buffet food is seriously heaven on a thru-hike. This number also includes concert tickets to see The Avett Brothers at the Gorge in Washington and neat little town things like the History of Western Film Museum in Lone Pine, California.
This section is exclusively reserved for the gear I bought/updated during my thru-hike. I had two extra pairs of shoes already purchased ahead of time, but I had to buy two more while on trail. I also picked up a pretty good haul in Kennedy Meadows going into the Sierra Range. This included my ice axe, micro spikes, and sleeping bag liner.
The odds and ends that fit in here are laundry, a haircut, and mailing a few things to myself back home.
Here I attempted to capture the unique statistics that most define thru-hiking.
All of these numbers are pretty self-explanatory, but I’ll elaborate on this hiker count. I wanted to keep track of how many other thru-hikers I met along the trail. So every time I introduced myself and actually learned another hiker’s trail or real name, I counted a tally. Therefore this number does not include countless hikers I passed heading south, saw in town, or stayed in a hostel with.
I’m really not much of a smoker in my regular life. I purchased marijuana in some form exactly twice along the PCT. All other 110 times I partook came from the generosity of fellow hikers and an aversion to saying no to pretty much anything while on trail.
Beer is one of my favorite treats to look forward to in town. I enjoy it so much I have three separate categories for its consumption. In the desert especially, my trail family and I took full advantage of the many towns and their subsequent breweries. I’ll also admit that the desert hotel nights tended to include quite a few 12 and 24 packs.
The various climates on the PCT piqued my interest in tracking my water consumption and output. So I tracked my daily pees and liters consumed. It’s interesting to see how that played out. My body seemed to be soaking up water and sweating it out all the way through sunny California. It then seemed to stop absorbing as much as I got farther north into colder and rainier weather. In Washington my body barely seemed to hold in water as I hiked in the cold snow and rain.
Stats Per Mile
In order to fairly compare numbers across the different sections, it’s helpful and just cool to look at how all of these numbers break down by the mile.
Even in the bigger picture, the desert is still a stand-out. It was such an ordeal to roll into a town that we just had to celebrate. I didn’t even manage eight miles on average between beers. There I also enjoyed the luxuries of frequents privies, hitches, and town meals.
Another neat number here is looking at how often I was able to meet other thru-hikers. Of course as I got farther north there were fewer people to meet. I had already met many of the people I was running into, and I was seeing fewer people in general. Even so, I met a steady number of new hikers all the way until Washington.
Another interesting trend I was happy to see was the frequency of trail magic all the way across the trail. Again, the desert proved to be the most fruitful, but I was happy to see a steady amount of magic all the way through Washington. One of my best and most memorable instances was the day before I finished at the very last road crossing. On a chilly October afternoon, the Mad Baker was running a Keurig off a generator to serve up hot coffee and fresh baked cookies to excited hikers.
Of the 156 nights I spent on trail, only 107 of those were actually out on the PCT. That equates to roughly an entire third of my time on the trail sleeping in town. Again, the trend is that my hike changed as I hiked north. I became more separate from town and more intimate with the trail the farther into my journey I trekked. And fun fact: those “other” nights were spent in a church by Mount Laguna, in a privy with five other hikers just before Julian, in a huge shelter on trail just before Big Bear, and in a cabin at Big Lake Youth Camp during a thunderstorm.
Other than my intimate obsession with ramen bombs, what’s interesting is noticing how often my time was spent enjoying towns. Over HALF of my days on trail I was able to eat at a restaurant. I showered once every six days and laundered every seven days. Yes, the thru-hike is fundamentally about hiking. However, some of my most stand-out experiences were exploring towns and being welcomed into communities. My longest stretch without going into town by far was an eight-day stretch in the Sierra Range. Typically it was only three to four days and often a restaurant stop in the middle.
Hopefully you’re still reading this because you enjoyed the fruits of a hiker’s obsessive labor. Believe it or not, I seriously enjoyed marking every single tally in my journal for five months straight. Those journals and the memories they describe are truly my most prized possessions to this day. The beauty of my experiences on the long trails is found largely in the community that exists out there. Staying in touch with that community in whatever way possible is especially important during such a strange time. I would love for this to be an engaging piece that just may help color the dreams for the next wave of those fortunate enough to step away from life as they know it and experience the great community that is thru-hiking.
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