So this post has been a long time coming. I have had a lot of messages from people asking me to do this and – for reasons unknown – I have been putting it off*. There are very few people out there who have hiked the whole of the Pacific Crest Trail both northbound and southbound, therefore I feel like I have a duty to write this!

Just a couple of things to remember before we get into it. Your experience will be different to mine. Your experience will be different to everyones. This is just a guide.


My pacific crest trail northbound (nobo) hike – the facts

Start: April 13th 2015
Finish: September 7th 2015
Plus: I went back to hike the closed section between Stevens Pass and Stehekin September 14-18th
Total number of days: 153
Hiking days: 135
Zero days: 18
Nights with trail angels: 20
Nights in paid accommodation: 21
Nights in my tent: 111

Read the whole northbound story

 


My pacific crest trail southbound (sobo) hike – the facts

Start: July 15th 2016
Finish: November 25th 2016
Total number of days: 134
Hiking days: 121
Zero days: 13
Nights with trail angels: 13
Nights in paid accommodation: 26
Nights in my tent: 95

Read the whole southbound story

 


Which direction is best?

If you are wondering which direction to go you probably already know most people attempt the trail heading north, from Mexica to Canada. It is estimated that around 90% of people who attempt a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail go nobo, and around 10% go sobo. There are various reasons for this. As for which is best, well, we’ll get to that…


 

Time

One of the biggest contributing factors on deciding whether to go nobo or sobo is time. Generally speaking you have more time to complete a northbound thru-hike.

A free permit system is in place for people hiking the whole trail, or more than 500 continuous miles. This system has been in place since 2015 and relies on peoples honesty. The PCTA limit permits to 50 people per day so you have to get in early to get the start date you want, especially if you are wanting to start from Mexico in April. This system helps spread the density of hikers on the trail, and helps to minimise the impact on the trail and campsites. It also allows the PCTA to monitor the usage of the trail. All of this stuff is really important to enable future generations to be able to enjoy the trail as much as we do now. You still have to get a permit when you go south, but with no where near 50 people per day starting, the date isn’t so important.

Nobo

When going north you can start any time from March to May. Starting in March can be good if you want to take the first 700 miles of desert very slowly and carefully build up your trail legs. You don’t want to go too fast because you don’t want to reach the Sierra while it’s still covered in deep snow. If you are an average hiker starting mid April is ideal and sets you on a course to complete the trail comfortably in 5 months. If you’re an experienced ultralight kind of hiker then you can start as late as mid May and still make it to Canada before the snow.

You will need to reach the northern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail by the end of September. Getting into October is possible but it’s pushing it, although it will of course vary from year to year depending on when the first snow starts to fall in Washington.

On average it will take you 5 months to complete a northbound thru-hike. The speedy ones do it between 4-5 months and the chill hard tribes do it between 5-6 months.

There are a couple of sayings that develop along the trail which can be dangerous. 1. Canada or bust. 2. Last one to Canada wins. Don’t get caught up with this and put yourself in danger. Remember – the trail will always be there.

Sobo

When you head southbound from Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail you generally have less time to complete the trail. The average time for a sobo hike is 4.5 months. Starting in Washington means waiting for the snow to melt, so unlike when starting nobo where you have a fixed start date, you have to be prepared to be a bit more flexible when you head south. A particularly harsh winter will mean a later start. Going sobo is popular with school / college / university leavers because of the timings.

When it comes to planing, a good date to aim for is July 1st, but be prepared to delay your start. In 2016 I started on July 15th and encountered only a few small patches of snow which were very easy to navigate through. A group of people started on July 6th and the trail was still covered in snow and the lakes were frozen over, it would have benefited them to have waited another week.

It then feels like there is a bit of a race on to get through the Sierra before the first snow falls and everything shuts down for winter. Ideally you want to reach Kennedy Meadows by the third week of October. This then puts you on track to reach the Mexican border some time during the second half of November.

You do feel like you are under more time pressure going south. Several people in my year jumped forwards to get the Sierra done with the intention of going back to Oregon / Northern California to do the section they skipped, only to end up getting caught in heavy snow in those areas. I do not recommend flip-flopping like this.

And another thing:

Remember, the Pacific Crest Trail takes between 4-6 months to complete and the Sierra takes about 2 weeks of that. It is a very beautiful, but relatively small section of the trail. I feel like too much emphasis is put on it which causes unnecessary stress.

When you head north you will get lots of rumours about the amount of snow in the Sierra, and with no internet at Kennedy Meadows the rumour mill goes into overdrive. The best thing to do is to leave Kennedy Meadows and head into the Sierra, if there is too much snow, turn back.

When you head south there is constant talk about whether you are going to make it through the Sierra in time. Don’t spend three quarters of the trail worrying about what’s ahead. f you have to skip it it isn’t the end of the world, the Sierra will always be there.


 

Logistics

The biggest logistical differences are at the start and the end of the trail.

Nobo

Starting the trail going nobo is simple. There are heaps of trail angels in San Diego, the most notable ones are Scout and Frodo – who are amazing. From picking you up at the airport to taking you to the start of the trail, feeding you, running you around to shops and telling you stories and giving you advice, they make everything so easy. If it is your first time long distance hiking then there will be other people starting on the same day as you and you know there will be people behind you. Plus you are only about 45 miles away from Mt Laguna, so if you have any problems with your gear you can get it sorted out easily at the most amazing Aladdins cave of a store. Update April ’18: Ive heard this store has now closed down 🙁

You can buy your food as you go, but you will need to send a resupply box to Kennedy Meadows. This gives you a good 500 miles to see what food you like to eat because your tastes are likely to change throughout the trail.

Finishing the trail you walk straight over the border and into Canada (you have to get an entry permit first), and it’s about 9 miles to reach Manning Park where you can get a greyhound** hitch to Vancouver, and from there you can easily continue your onward journey. (It is worth noting here that if you are a foreigner then you will either have to fly out of America or you will have to make a trip to the USA/Canada border to get your passport stamped to say you have left the country.) I met a few Americans who had either not applied for a permit or were not carrying a passport. So they chose to walk back on themselves for 30 miles to reach Harts Pass, which is the closest road access to the Canadian border.

** Update April ’18:I have recently heard from a good source that the greyhound no longer runs between Manning Park and Vancouver, so you’ll have to hitch a ride. You should be expert at hitching by the time you get here though so no problem!

Sobo

Starting the trail going sobo is a little trickier, but of course not impossible. The biggest problem is that you can’t start in Canada and just walk over the border into the USA, not even if you are an American. Therefore you have to start at Harts pass and walk north for 30 miles to reach the Canadian border before you can really start your sobo journey (those extra 30 miles are totally worth it!).

Getting to Harts Pass can be difficult, it isn’t exactly the road well travelled. Some people I met managed to hitchhike, I got lucky and got a ride with a friend. I was very pleased I wasn’t driving because the road is dodgy! It’ss an off road, very lumpy, slow going experience. You also have to be prepared for that road being closed, the winter often brings with it fallen trees and landslides making the road impassable. Some people have found alternative routes to the border, but from what I have heard, they don’t recommend it because the alternative trails aren’t well maintained.

You will need to send yourself some resupply boxes before you start the trail to some of the more remote locations in Washington.

Finishing the trail is fairly straightforward. I was lucky and I was picked up by friends, but I met a few people as I was hiking who were based in the San Diego area. They gave me their numbers in case I needed help at the end and there are a lot of trail angels in San Diego. If you just pitch up and wait for a ride to come by, you may get lucky, but you may also be disappointed.


People

If you are worried about being out there alone, don’t be. Your most treasured memories will be of all the people you meet along the way.

Nobo

With 90% of people heading to Cadada, going north means you will meet more people. For some people this is a good thing, for some people it isn’t. It depends what you are looking for.

You may think as a nobo that you will be surrounded by people all the time. That’s not the case. The wilderness is a big place and if you are seeking solitude you will be able to find it. If you want to go it alone you can, and if you want to find a ‘trail family’ you can. I have never witnessed overcrowding of a campsite first hand, but it can be a problem with such a high concentration of hikers out there. The permit system was put in place to help this. Saying that, I only camped alone a handful of times.

The social aspect of the hike was probably the most important thing for me when I went north. I loved meeting all the people, making friends and getting to know people from all over the world. Even though you know there are lots of other people out there you can often feel like you are quite alone, but there is something quite comforting about knowing there are always people behind you. And if you lose your trail family you will certainly find a new one!

Sobo

Going sobo means you will meet fewer people. But the people you do meet are pretty awesome. I know lots of people grouped up at the start, so if you are worried about hiking alone you will find people to hike with, even of it’s just for a couple of weeks. It can be hard to find someone who is going at the same pace as you though, and if you do team up with another person or a group then you have to be prepared to adjust and compromise – but that’s a whole blog post in itself!

You will spend a couple of weeks passing all the north bounders (which will really slow you down then you have to stop and chat to 70 hikers a day!) and after that the people really start to thin out. When hiking through the Sierra the only other person I only saw for 4 days was Catwater, my hiking partner. Unless you have a hiking partner you will camp alone more often.


Weather

This of course depends on so many things and varies from year to year. You should really be prepared for all of the weather, all of the time, but there are some generalisations that can be made.

Nobo

The desert is likely to be hot to very hot. A little cooler if you start in March, really hot in April and horribly hot in May. Remember though that the desert can get very cold at night and it definitely isn’t immune to storms. I had snow around San Jacinto, and heavy rain and strong wind through the wind farms.

The Sierra will have snow. How much will depend on how harsh the winter was. A good time to arrive is the beginning of June, and the later you arrive the more snow will have melted. It’s best to try and hit the north sides of the passes in the morning when the snow is still frozen, not in the afternoon – like I did on every pass!

Northern California and Oregon will be hotter than hell and really buggy. Also prone to thunder storms. I got quite a few days of rain on my northbound hike, but I met people in 2016 heading north who had hiked California and Oregon without seeing a single drop of rain. I also met a guy in the middle of Washington, on a very rainy day, who sent all his rain gear home because he hadn’t seen any rain. Always be prepared for rain. In all sections.

Washington will rain on you, I will be surprised if it doesn’t. They don’t rename the Pacific North West the Pacific North Wet for no reason. But it will be beautiful and all the autumn / fall colours will be on display, the bugs disappear and it gets cold. In September you might get a bit of snow. Visually, Washington was the surprising jewel in the crown.

On my northbound hike the temperatures ranged from about -2ºC / 18ºF to 45ºC /112ºF

Sobo

Starting in Washington you can expect varied weather and high humidity. Lots of lush greenery and beautiful wildflowers. Generally where you get lush and green you get lots of rain!

Oregon and Northern California will be mainly hot, dry and dusty. Going south will not mean you escape the mosquitos, and don’t get me started on the biting flies! There’s no getting away from them, ever. Of course there will be, you guessed it, the chance of rain and thunderstorms

The Seirra will be completely snow free, providing you get there before the first snow falls of course. And it will be spectacularly glorious and a pleasure to hike through. It will be absolutely bloody freezing at night though. My one litre water bottle froze solid.

The desert will be a very nice temperature, much cooler that it is when you head north. A much more pleasant experience.

Even though I probably experienced equal highs and lows in temperature as I did going north, overall the temperatures are more stable when you go south, and it is generally slightly cooler on average.


Trail magic and trail angels

One of the most amazing things about the trail is the community of people that surrounds it. It will restore your faith in humanity when you experience so many pure acts of kindness from complete strangers. It is part of the magic of the trail.

Nobo

There is a lot of trail magic as you head north. Water caches, random coolers on the side of the road filled with cold soda of beer, cookies and fruit and all sorts of goodies. Some people wait at trail heads on the off chance that they will meet hikers who are looking for a ride into town. Some people set up a barbecue and provide hotdog and burgers for a whole weekend. There are established trail angels who open their homes and have incredible set ups just for hikers. One day I got three lots of trail magic in one day, I didn’t have to open my own food bag all day!

Sobo

You get far fewer of these experiences when you head south but it makes the ones you do get all the sweeter. In 2016 a PCT veteran called Coppertone was traveling around in his motor home and providing trail magic in the form of root beer floats. After a very hot slog through the lava fields in Oregon, Coppertone gave me my first, and only, root beer float I have ever had. It was incredible to get ice cream, a chair to sit in and some shade in what felt like the middle of nowhere. Some of the nobos were following Coppertone up the trail and were getting root beer floats every few days.

The major trail angels – Hiker Town, Hiker Heaven, Casa de Luna, Scout and Frodo (if they aren’t off doing something awesome, but even then they will try their best to help you) – stay open for sobos. A lot of people are very fond of sobos because there aren’t so many of them.

I feel like you also get a more quality experience with them. For example in Kennedy Meadows, going north there at least 50 or more hikers there and Scott – the owner of the general store – can come across as a bit grumpy. But when I went south I was the only one there and he invited me into the store before it opened, made me a hot chocolate, let me have a shower inside and chatted to me as we stayed warm around the wood burner.


Conditions

The conditions of the trail will change every year. Wild fires especially can affect any part of the trail at almost any time. Both my nobo and sobo hikes were affected by fires, but for me going south was a bit worse than going north.

It is of course the same trail so for the most part the conditions of the trail are the same in both directions. There will be some closed parts, some overgrown parts, some damaged parts.

Overall the conditions of the trail are incredible. It takes a battering every year with snow, storms and fire damaging the trail and causing huge amounts of erosion. It is maintained every year by groups of volunteers who rebuild the damaged parts, strengthen the weaker parts, clear away fallen trees and overgrown vegetation. It is a mammoth task and it still blows my mind that there is a trail you can follow all the way through America.

Nobo

Honestly the trail is incredible. I have been on trails which aren’t as well established and don’t have the same kind of infrastructure surrounding them and it really makes you realise how awesome the PCT is.

Through the desert you may encounter the dreaded Poodle Dog Bush, make sure you know what to look out for and avoid coming into contact with it. Tip: you’ll smell it before you see it.

In the Sierra the snow melt will cause swollen rivers making some of them difficult to cross. River crossings are the most dangerous part of the trail. Rivers are not to be messed with and practicing safe and educated crossings is extremely important. There have been a few deaths on the PCT and they are mostly associated with being swept away by fast flowing water. Another reason you have to be careful in the snow is because you don’t know what’s underneath it. You can easily break through the snow and start postholing, smacking you ankles / shins onto rocks and potentially breaking through to water. Try to hike with another person and be careful!

Hiking in June / July / August means you will have maximum daylight and the sun will be high in the sky so it won’t be in your eyes too much.

Sobo

Starting in Washington means you start before the trail crews have had a chance to get in and clear away all the fallen trees – also known as blow downs.

Unlike old blow downs that have been there for years and are nice and smooth and have had notches and grips cut into them, these trees are fresh and covered in branches and twigs and leaves. The pine needles. They are the worst. There will be stacks of trees piled on top of each other which you have to climb over, or under, or go the long way around them. It is hard work and slow going. (All these trees will have been cleared by the time the north bounders start coming through.)

Water will be plentiful in Washington and there will be some intense water crossings – same caution applies here as above. But as you head further south the water sources become a lot less reliable and some of them will have dried up completely. Thankfully some of the desert caches are still maintained for the sobo hikers because it would be a lot harder without them, although not unachievable. It would mean you would have to do longer water carries. Never rely on a water cache, only take what you need and never leave your trash there. If the caches are not treated properly then they will be removed.

Starting in July means you are constantly losing daylight so the days feel very short. By the time you’re in the desert it will be dark by 5pm. Depending on your preferences and time schedule you may find yourself doing a lot of night hiking – although I managed to get away with doing almost no night hiking on my southbound hike!

The sun is also a lot lower in the sky so it sometimes feels like it’s always in your face, but I never found this to be a real problem – it’s not like the trail is a straight line!

HOT TIP

In the past most of the guidebooks were written for northbounders and it was difficult for a sobo to have to translate it, but now there are awesome smartphone apps out there – the leader being Guthook/Atlas guides – which easily change the direction of travel. The really great thing about Guthook app is the comment section which allows hikers to leave real time updates on any waypoint. Dry water sources, closed sections, stocks at a cache, info on trail angels. It is pricey but worth every penny.


Physical

This is an enormous physical challenge in either direction. Whether your a FLASH and MYTH or a thru-hiker. Whether you do it in 4 or 6 months, it’s a long time to be out there walking all day every day. You also do the equivalent of climbing Mt Everest from sea to summit and back again 16 times over. And this is the same both northbound and southbound – going south is not ‘all downhill‘!

Nobo

That first day of my northbound hike was probably the hardest day I have ever had on any trail. It was definitely a shock to the system. I felt like I was scaling Everest every single day. Sections of the desert go up to 11,000ft so be prepared! But you have the time to start slow and build up the miles

Going into the Sierra you start with the highest passes and you climb Mt Whitney (if you choose to) on the second day.

By the time you hit NorCal and Oregon you will have really found your trail legs and you can pick up the pace if you want to. You will hear a lot of people say that Oregon is flat. Don’t listen to them. It isn’t flat. It is flatter than the rest of the trail, but what is nice about Oregon is what’s under your feet. For the most part it is a nice smooth trail cushioned with pine needles and with few trip hazards (not including the lava fields of course!).

Washington then kicks your ass a bit physically as you are thrown back into a lot of up and down through the North Cascades. You can either feel really strong, or really tired and broken by the time you reach Washington.

Sobo

Starting in Washington is definitely harder. The large climbs and descents and the humidity make it harder than starting in the desert. It is advisable to do a bit more physical preparation for a southbound hike then you would need to do for a northbound one.

The Sierra is easier because you start with the smallest passes and build up to the big ones, and you don’t get slowed down by the snow.

The last 700 miles of desert is a real treat and it feels so flat! (With the exception of going up Fuller Ridge – I honestly don’t whether going up is worse than going down Fuller Ridge, they are both horrible!) With your legs of steel, the favourable temperatures and the flatter trail you really can cruise through the desert.

HOT TIP:

Both directions are hard, and unless you have come straight from another trail or you are at peak physical fitness, then it is best to start slow and work up to bigger miles. It may feel l like it’s too hard to start with but your body will adapt. Pushing too hard at the start often causes injuries like shin splints or plantar fasciitis, which will take you off the trail for days or even weeks.

I always think that going uphill is harder on your internal organs – your lungs and your heart .- and going downhill is harder on your body, more specifically you joints – your ankles, knees and hips.


conclusion

Conclusion

If I were to do the trail again – and this is likely to happen one day – then I would choose to go southbound. Or maybe I would go northbound. Ugh. I really can’t decide.

I loved both. But would I have loved going southbound so much if it had been my first experience on the trail? If I hadn’t felt so comfortable with all it’s ups and downs and twists and turns? That is a question I will never be able to answer but I often wonder about.

One other thing I think is worth mentioning is that I feel when you head north you are walking away from civilisation and into the wilderness, and I can only say this with hindsight because I didn’t actually feel that way on my northbound hike – I always felt like I was in the middle of nowhere and a very long way away from home. But when I went south, I felt like the glory of the wilderness was over by the time you hit the desert and you start to realise that you really aren’t that far away from civilisation in that last 700 miles of desert. While you get a huge sense of achievement from finishing the trail in either direction, finishing in Canada is wrapped up in a little bit more magic.

I think people are scared of going south because it is perceived as harder and lonelier, but don’t let either of those things put you off doing a southbound hike. Your body will adapt and you will meet people. Plus, you’ll be a southbounder!

Ultimately your decision on direction will come down to what time of year you are able to start, how long you have to do it and when you have to be finished by. And there is absolutely no doubt that you will have the time of your life in whichever direction you choose.


resources

Resources.

If you are confused by some of the terms in this post you can check out my Hiker Dictionary.

Absolutely everything you need to know about the PCT can be found on the Pacific Crest Trail Association website.

There is tonnes of northbound advice out there, all you need to do is a quick google search, but if you are looking for a thorough southbound guide visit pctsouthbound, a website developed by my fellow southbound hikers from 2016.

GPS guide is availabe as a app from Atlas Guides. Real maps available from Halfmile.

There are hundreds of blogs out there, and the great thing is that they are all different because we all have a different story to tell. You can read my northbound story and my southbound story, and these are some of my hiking friends who have awesome blogs…

PCT blogs

Hiking Life – Catwater’s blog. She is a bit of a badass, has also hiked the PCT in both directions.
The Connor Chronicles – One Of Us has the triple crown. He is awesome. He is funny. Really funny. (PCT NoBo)
BikeHikeSafari – Shepherd, an Aussie, also has the triple crown. Lots of great stuff on his site. (PCT NoBo)
Halfway Anywhere – Mac has hiked the PCT Nobo, he is also well known for putting together the annual thru-hiker survey. With 5 years of data it is a very useful resource for anyone planning a hike.


*At least I now know why I have been putting off this blog post – it took such a long time to write!!

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