What really happens to you when you spend months trekking the Pacific Crest Trail? Getting tired and filthy is just the start of it. We talked to dozens of PCT thru-hikers during their resupply in Ashland, Oregon—a popular stopover point some 1,500 miles into the 2,665-mile route—about how their really long walk through the mountains had changed them. For some, the journey had been exactly what they imagined. For others, it was full of surprises.
Want to learn more about life on the PCT? Follow reports from the field at backpacker.com/pct2023
Michael Roberts: From Outside magazine, this is the Outside Podcast.
Michael: The idea that grand adventures can be transformative has at this point become a chestnut in outdoor publications. By that I mean it's just been written and talked so many times. And let's be honest here: it's a sentiment that powers a lot of Outside magazine stories.
But so what? It's very often true. So many of our wanderings in the wild are spurred by a search for, well, I think, some better version of ourselves. Perhaps the most famous example of this was Cheryl Strayed's solo hike of 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, which resulted in her bestselling memoir, Wild. As she told us in an interview we published last year, that journey was exactly what she was after, and a lot more.
Cheryl Strayed: When we decide to do something like go on a long hike, we're like, Oh my God, it'll be so beautiful. It'll be so fun. It'll be so glorious. And yes, it will be all of those things. And it will also be miserable and awful and agonizing and tedious and boring and harder than you could ever imagine. And that's the good news because those are the things that teach us who we are.
Michael: That sounds great. But it doesn't always work out that way. For a lot of people, a grueling adventure isn't a path to life-changing self discovery. Instead, the benefits of all the work and suffering are kind of subtle.
This July, longtime Outside contributor Joe Jackson spent several days speaking to dozens of Pacific Crest Trail hikers in Ashland, Oregon, which is a major resupply point on the route. Hikers who were doing the entire trail, from California's border with Mexico to the northern edge of Washington State, had already hoofed some 1,500 miles. The most common refrain Joe heard from them? It's hard.
Roy: It was crazy hot so we got really sweaty and disgusting.
Chia: You're falling every five minutes.
Dovetail: My legs were like as red as a lobster. I am going to be, like, burnt to a crisp.
Tom K: Super steep, high elevation, we were tired.
Dovetail: Do I have enough food to make it to the next town?
Sunflower: You have no free time at all.
Cowboy: After about what, day 13, you start getting trail legs.
Dovetail: It's kind of like when you do mushrooms or something.
Lebouf: Thru-hike is a mission.
Michael: For today's episode, producer Paddy O'Connell talks to Joe about what these ultra-committed adventurers believe a very long walk in the wild actually does for us.
Paddy O’Connell: Okay, Joe, so can you set the scene for us a bit here? Where and how did you find all of these hikers?
Joe: Yeah, absolutely, I live in Ashland, Oregon, in July, it's actually not hard to find them. It's a town of only 20,000 people, and there are literally hundreds of hikers passing through during this six week period in the summer. On any given day, there can be dozens walking around town.
Paddy: So you just look for the folks with like big backpacks who smell like sweaty dirty feet?
Joe: I mean, kind of. There's also spots where you know they're going to be. Most of them hitchhike into Ashland from the trail for specific reasons like to grab drinks, eat prepared food, do laundry, resupply, or honestly just like whatever they need to finish the remaining 965-ish miles into Canada. This year I also found a bunch of them at a hostel that was only a quarter mile from my home.
Paddy: And this isn't the first time you've tracked them down, right? Like this is, you do this, this is your thing?
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. I'm used to it. So I write the gear guy column for outside. And for the last eight years, I've been interviewing PCT hikers about their favorite socks, their favorite trekking poles, water filters, just like all that stuff. And honestly, it's the best part of my job because they're just so much fun to talk to.
Paddy: And as I understand it, there are more of them every year, right?
Joe: Oh yeah, absolutely. In the last decade, there's been a massive increase in PCT hikers. So in like 2011, only 158 people finished the entire hike. And then in 2019, there were nearly 1,200 finishers.
Joe: I know. And then we'll check this out. This year, the PCT Association, which issues permits to long distance hikers, reported 4,125 northbound through hike permits.
Paddy: That's a lot of permits.
Joe: That's a lot of permits. Yeah, so needless to say, thru hiking is just exploding in popularity.
So this year I wanted to hear some of their stories and try and understand what makes them want to lug a 20 to 45 pound pack on their back for five to six months.
Paddy: So, what did you find out?
Joe: Well, first off, it is a very special community of very lovable weirdos. For instance, as it's well known, almost nobody goes by their real name. Most of the people, by the time they've reached Ashland, are bestowed a trail nickname, also known as a trail name, and every single one of those has a story behind it.
Half Pint: I'm 5 '2 and our 6' 3 Norwegian friend looked over at me and everyone was two or three beers in and I had drank half of my pint. So he gave me the name Half Pint
Lucky: There would be clear skies, 0% chance of rain, and I woke up getting rained on around 2 or 3 AM at least three times. I've had to run away from two lightning storms caught on a ridge and so that is how I am lucky.
Sorry: My trail name's Sorry because I hit my head on a shelter when people were going to sleep, and it made a really loud noise, so I apologized.
Swamp Witch: My trail name is Swamp Witch, I really like sticking my hands and feet in like gross algae water.
Paddy: Ew, what? That's gross.
Joe: Oh, for sure, there are gross ones, but also there are some common themes that run through it. Like food and drink.
Flamin Hot: My trail name is Flamin Hot, I eat a lot of Flamin Hot Cheetos and chips on the trail.
Shotgun: My buddy diesel behind me goes, Oh, you shot out of there like a shotgun. Shortly after another trail fam of mine hiked out a beer for us and said, Hey man, Own your name. So Shotgun this beer here. So, whipped out my ice axe, shotgun the beer, and here I am.
Joe: And then there are the hikers who get their trail names because of something really bad that happened to them. And those ones really stand out.
Venom: My trail name is Venom. And the reason I got my trail name was because I stood on a rattlesnake and, got bitten by it, which is not that great of a thing to have happen, but I get a cool trail name
Iron Will: Iron Will. I walked 850 miles with a broke femur on my first through hike
Paddy: Okay, this is hilarious. Did these hikers nickname you anything?
Joe: Yes, I could not resist asking for an interview name.
Joe: Yeah, and they actually had some really solid ones for me. like Radio, Mr. Curious, Mike, and one even called me Leg Tickler.
Paddy: Ok, please don't explain that one.
Joe: Okay, I won't. But, honestly though, Patty, more than naming me, what they were really doing was inviting me into their unique world. The more we talked, the more they'd share, and I guess it's not surprising, but a lot of them get songs stuck in their head, and some of them were even so generous that they offered to sing them to me.
Cowboy: You have to be cruel to be kind in the right measure.
Half Pint: I would rather be A functioning cog in some great machinery, searching of things beyond.
Stoat: [Whistle sounds.]
Blood Moon: Bang, bang, he shot me down. Bang, bang.
Tarzan: Nothing can stop me, I'm all the way up.
Joe: PCT hikers also have their own trail language.
Paddy: Um, what do you mean, like Pig Latin?
Joe: No, not exactly, but they do create these goofy terms like bubble, which is a large group of hikers getting stuck in the same spot, or flipping, which means skipping over a section of trail because of something like snow or a wildfire.
And then there's pink blazing and banana blazing, um, which, well, I'm just gonna let a hiker named Trudge explain those.
Trudge: So like Pink Blazing, for example, is when you like, kind of change your schedule because you are romantically interested in someone and want to date them or be with them in a way that's like more than just friends.
And the banana blazing I think is when a girl does it to a guy, but banana blazing is a disgusting word and no one should use it.
Paddy: Ewwy. That is both awful and delightfully outrageous. But a lot of this seems just downright outrageous to me. Like, how in the hell do these people take half a year off of work? How do they afford this?
Joe: I actually got a lot of different answers to that question. Like there was this 19 year old woman named Swamp Witch.
Paddy: Love that name, by the way.
Joe: It's a good one. And she told me she'd been saving money since she was a tween. And then there were the folks like Cowboy Dave, who's in his 60s and looked at thru-hiking the PCT as the next stage in his life.
Cowboy: I was 30 years in the sheriff's department. I loved my job. My job loved me.And my family really wanted me to retire. And So I told myself, well, if I get the permit, I'll retire. I retired and did the trail.
Paddy: Well, that brings up another question for me. How much does it cost to hike the entire PCT? Like, I know that permits are free, but five months means a lot of food, plus then there's the gear, and I guess hopefully the occasional laundromat?
Joe: Yeah, yeah, totally. People usually budget anywhere between six grand and ten thousand dollars.
Paddy: Okay, so not exactly cheap, but also not all that much considering just how long this adventure really is.
Joe: Yeah, for sure. It's pretty accessible relative to something like mountaineering. And that's a big part of what makes thru hiking so special. There are all kinds of people out there.
But the one thing that they share is this very admirable determination. They just figure out how to make this dream happen. A great example is Shotgun. He told me that he started planning this trip five years ago. I also talk to folks like Green Thunder whose career just allowed for a long break.
Green Thunder: I make art. And as a side job, I teach. And since it's teaching, I have quite a lot of, like, summer holiday. So I just stretch my summer holiday by a bit.
Joe: And just about everybody said that they had to do a lot of belt tightening in the months before the hike to make it happen.
Iron Will: The way I do it is probably the easiest way to do it, you spend all your spare time working, and sitting at home doing nothing. Just don't spend your money. If you really want to do something, you're going to find a way to do it.
Paddy: We'll be right back after a short break.
Paddy: So Joe, what is life like on the trail for PCT hikers? Like what do they struggle with out there?
Joe: Well, Patty, that's interesting because earlier we heard people talking about the physical stuff like sunburn, muscle fatigue, and injuries.
But honestly, it seems like the hardest part is just the ongoing slog of such a long walk. I feel like thru hikers are the unsung endurance superheroes of the outdoor community.
This is how a hiker named Stote described it:
Stoat: It's basically like doing a day hike every day for five, six months. You don't get to go back to your car and drive home or take a shower when you want to. You just basically need the determination to just repeat that day hike over and over and over again.
Joe: And it's the repetition that really seems to get to some people. A hiker named Snapchat described the burden of it all and how it just builds over time.
Snapchat: You start to just deal with, like, is this monotonous? Oh, you have to unpack everything and repack it every night. After a while, just, I could not care less about all of that.
Tall Boy: We're basically just stringing together a whole bunch of three and four day camping trips in a row. Which, in and of itself, isn't that hard.
Joe: This is a hiker named Tallboy, so named because he is a very large Norwegian.
Tall Boy: But, doing it over and over and over. You run into some different things. Like, you get so dirty, so stinky, so hungry.
Paddy: I totally get how people break down physically and mentally over such a long haul. But is this one of those situations where going through this alongside all these other people also leads to a kind of community of shared suffering? Like do people make friends for life out there?
Joe: Yeah, that was really interesting to me too. So I asked folks about it. Most of them described this, like, ethereal kinship that hikers develop along the PCT.
Paddy: Wait, are we talking like crystals and vortexes and like other new age-y stuff?
Joe: No, I mean not really. But what it is is that there's this community of people that are on the PCT and they really look out for each other. And not just when someone gets into trouble, it's also just when somebody needs support. There's this guy named Snack Pack, and he told me that while he decided to do the hike for the adventure, what stood out for him are the people that he's met.
Snack Pack: I was at a point in my life where You know, I'm not sure I'm going to be able to do this in other years, and I've always wanted to, largely for the challenge and the adventure. I wasn't anticipating the friendships, but now that's a big reason I'm hiking.
Joe: A hiker named Trudge told me a story about a group helping out this total trail newbie who had absolutely no idea what he was doing.
Trudge: This person came on the trail and was like, I don't know how to set up my tent. And every single person that was there helped him set up his tent. And they were like, oh, do you have a sleeping pad? And he was like, what is that? And he didn't even know what a sleeping pad was. And they were like, it's the thing that you sleep on top of. He was like, oh, I think I have one of those. And so he pulled it out of his pack and they were like, okay, let's set it up for you. People are so kind. People are going to be there to help you.
Joe: There are also the non hikers who provide all kinds of support.
Paddy: Oh, you're talking about the so-called trail angels, right? The people who leave like food and cold beverages along the trail or even invite people into their homes for a meal.
Joe: Yeah, and it's a really amazing piece of all this. Tallboy said they were one of his favorite parts of the hike.
Tall Boy: And there is a, there's a great saying that the trail provides, and I think that's true in every kind of way,
Paddy: Can you imagine what it would be like to have been out on the PCT for months and then stumble upon some ice cold bubble waters and a bag of donuts? Like, that would be magical.
Joe: Right? And it's all part of what happens out there. You've got this incredibly supportive community, which is essential, because you're constantly problem solving while pushing your body at the same time. A hiker named Dovetail explained that there's just something really special about your existence when you're on trail.
Dovetail: Maybe I'm just one of those adventure addicts, you know, but there's just a certain way of life that comes with thru-hiking that you really can't find any other way.
Paddy: So, Joe, is this the point then? That the shorter adventures most of us take just don't give us the chance to step far enough outside of normal life?
Joe: That's a big part of it. I think that deep down, thru-hiking creates a singular opportunity to escape all the noise and the worries of our modern existence. Listen to how Half Pint describes her trail time.
Half Pint: Thru-hiking is the only way I've found that I can reduce my needs in life and my worries and concerns to very basic human primal needs, where I feel like there is an actual barrier between me and all of these concerns that really don't mean anything.
Paddy: What she says there, to me, it feels very different from the “I figured out my whole life” narratives we often hear from people who undertake these giant trips, right? Like, this, to me, sounds more like I found a way to get out of my own head, and that was really nice.
Joe: Yeah, and for a lot of PCT hikers, taking six months off work to walk from Mexico to Canada, it might start off as this lofty dream. You know, they're gonna finish totally transformed.
But ultimately, what many of them end up taking away from the experience is the simple joy of just not having to think all the time.
Half Pint: Most of the time my brain is blank. And I think maybe that's okay because it means that being outside has given us space to not think and not be distracted and just breathe and live in the moment. I've been kind of blindsided by my lack of thought about anything and how we can go an entire day, every single day, hiking for twelve hours a day and really not think about much at all.
Paddy: Okay, Joe, I gotta ask. Did talking to all these hikers make you want to hike the PCT?
Joe: It's funny you ask that, Paddy. And the short answer is, maybe.
Joe Jackson: There are all kinds of reasons why it's just not reasonable for me to do this at this moment in my life, but I have to say, the hikers did their best to try and convince me.
Chia: I'd say if anybody wants to hike the PCT or thinks they do, they should just do it.
Iron Will: Do it. Just do it
Lebouf: If you want to do it, you should do it.
Sorry: Just do it, don't stress about the details too much. Just like, figure out the first week and go.
Green Thunder: I think in the end everybody can do it.
Lucky: Go for it. Just see what happens.
Mike: This episode was reported by Joe Jackson, trail name Leg Tickler. You can find his many, many outdoor gear reviews, and a lot of other great gear advice, at outsideonline.com/gear.
And if you want to read more about what's been happening on the Pacific Crest Trail lately, our colleagues at Backpacker have been publishing reports from the field at backpacker.com/pct2023
This episode was scripted and produced by Paddy O'Connell, trail name Mustache a-Go-Go. It was edited by me, Michael Roberts, and I'm not gonna say the trail name Paddy tried to give me.
Our music is by Robbie Carver, trail name Maestro.
The Outside Podcast is made possible by Outside+ subscribers. Learn about the many benefits of a subscription, like access to Gaia GPS premium–which is a great app for short hikes,very long hikes, and everything between, at outsideonline.com/podplus.
Follow the Outside Podcast
Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, and have since expanded our show to offer a range of story formats, including reports from our correspondents in the field and interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and the outdoors.