How to walk the Pacific Crest Trail: Chris Townsend’s tips

Posted by Carey Davies on 04/02/2015
Chris in Northern California, with Mount Shasta behind. Photo: Chris Townsend

Even before it hit the big screen in ‘Wild’, the 2,663 mile-long Pacific Crest Trail was arguably the holy grail of American long-distance hiking. BMC ambassador Chris Townsend looks back on his eventful 1982 hike.

Stretching from the Mexican to the Canadian border, the USA’s Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is 2,663 miles long. To put it into perspective next to Britain’s greatest long-distance walking challenges, that distance is about twelve Cape Wrath Trails, ten Pennine Ways, and three trips from Land’s End to John o’ Groats.

Following the crest of the mountainous corridor that parallels the country’s Pacific coast, it passes through the deserts of southern California, the great mountain wildernesses of the Sierra Nevada popularised by the likes of John Muir and Ansel Adams, and the volcanic terrain and vast forests of the Cascade Range.

The PCT was recently featured on the big screen in Reese Witherspoon’s ‘Wild’, a film based on Cheryl Strayed's account of how a 1995 walk along the trail redeemed her from a life of hollow sexual encounters and drug abuse following the breakup of her marriage and the death of her mother.

But not all who wander the PCT are lost. BMC hill walking ambassador Chris Townsend enjoyed a rather less tempestuous hike back in 1982, when the trail was still being established.  Though its popularity has grown since, the whole length of the route, taking six months to complete on average, has still been completed by less people than have climbed Everest.

For anyone inspired to try the trail themselves after watching Wild, we thought we’d ask Chris for his thoughts and advice. His book about the experience, Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles, was published last year – any Hollywood producers out there?

I don’t remember being daunted by the idea of walking the PCT. I was excited. I had no idea if I could do it or not but I relished the challenge.

In those pre-internet days getting information was very difficult. Also as the trail was not yet very popular there weren’t many books on the PCT available. I’d never done a long walk abroad or been to the USA before so there was a lot for me to learn. Warren Rogers of the Pacific Crest Club (later merged with another body to become the Pacific Crest Trail Association) was a great help with the organisation. Without him it would have been really difficult as opposed to just difficult.

Desert flowers beside the trail in Southern California. Photo: Chris Townsend

I thought I was well-prepared. I wasn’t! I started at the Mexican border in the desert. I had no idea how hot it could be there in early April or how dry it would be. I didn’t carry anything like enough water the first few days.

I don’t remember ever wanting to give up. There were a few short sections I wanted to get through as fast as possible because I hated them – the clear-cut logging area south of Snoqualmie Pass, for example.

The biggest challenge on the walk was the deep snow in the High Sierra. This varies from year to year. 1982 was a big snow year and the High Sierra was completely snowbound. Many hikers skipped this section or walked up the roads below the mountains. I was determined to stick to the trail and joined up with three American hikers who were planning on going through the snow. I already had an ice axe but due to my experience in the snow in the smaller mountain ranges in Southern California I bought crampons and snowshoes as well. I needed both. The longest section took 23 days so I set off with a ridiculously heavy pack that I could barely lift. Once I reached Yosemite National Park the nature of the challenge changed as the snow began to melt, making river crossings very difficult and hazardous.

Larry Lake crossing a swollen river in the Yosemite Wilderness. Photo: Chris Townsend

The whole of the 23 days in the High Sierra was a delight. I couldn’t pick out a single day that stood out. The low point was walking through the clear-cut logging south of Snoqualmie Pass which was really depressing.

I imagine the effect of walking the trail is different for everybody. For me it deepened my love of nature, walking and wild camping and also showed me what real wilderness was like. I came back determined to do many more long wild wilderness walks, a life-long commitment.

The Pacific Crest Trail is my favourite of the long-distance walks I’ve done. Perhaps that’s because it was the first long walk I did abroad in true wilderness but also because of the variety – deserts, forests, the High Sierra, the Cascade volcanoes, the alpine peaks of the North Cascades. Only the Continental Divide Trail compares in variety. I also loved the generally benign climate of the PCT.

The trail is complete now. In 1982 there were unfinished sections with temporary routes. It’s also far more popular with numbers of hikers setting off each year numbering over 1000 rather than over 100. There is also far more information available. However, from talking to some recent hikers such as Colin Ibbotson I don’t think the experience is much different to what it was in 1982. Yes, you can travel with a crowd much of the time now but you don’t have to. And of course the landscape hasn’t changed.

A snowy camp in the High Sierra. Photo: Chris Townsend

My advice for people wanting to walk it? Enjoy yourself! Don’t think of reaching the end, just of enjoying each day. Oh, and join the Pacific Crest Trail Association.

Chris Townsend's Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles: Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is published by Sandstone Press. Buy it on Amazon.

WATCH on BMC TV: Chris in action in 'Backpacking in the Lake District'

Buy the full DVD in the BMC shop

Cairngorms in Winter: Moine Mhor

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