Every year, a brave and adventurous group of outdoor enthusiasts set out on a journey that takes them through the unspoiled beauty that lies between Mexico and Canada. The path they follow is known as the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). If this is the first time you’re hearing about the PCT, prepare to have your mind blown at the sheer magnitude of the trail and transformative experience that hikers have on it!
PCT hikers traverse across the National Forests, National Parks, and State Parks that connect California, Oregon, and Washington. While many choose to complete the PCT in one consecutive journey (thru-hike), others break the trail into sections and aim to complete it over a span of time. I caught up with four inspiring people who all set out to traverse the PCT at their own pace, for their own reasons, and they have all become forever changed because of it. They are the ultimate Shoestring Warriors and I am delighted to be able to share their tales from the trail.
Meet The Hikers
Name: Julie Hotz
Trail Name: Rainbow Brite
Current Location: Los Angeles + NYC
Dates hiked the PCT: April 3, 2010 – September 12, 2010 (Mexico to Canada minus 1,000 miles in the middle) + June 23, 2013 – September 7, 2013 (the 1,000 miles in the middle)
Recommended Piece of Gear: Fozzils Bowl – A bowl that doubles as a cutting board when unsnapped. It’s the only item that Julie hasn’t upgraded since she started backpacking.
Name: Jen Marlowe
Trail Name: Mother Fire
Current Location: Brooklyn + Seattle but currently in Gaza City, Palestine
Dates Hiked the PCT: I am section hiking the PCT. I did 900 miles summer 2017, another 200 miles this past summer (2018) and hope to finish the trail in 3 more summers
Recommended Piece of Gear: Microspikes – Jen encountered a lot of snow on the trail that she was unprepared for. Microspikes would have been really useful.
Follow Her Adventures: Facebook
Name: Trey French
Current Location: Brooklyn, NY
Dates Hiked the PCT: May 5, 2018 – August 29, 2018
Recommended Piece of Gear: Katabatic Gear Palisade 30 – Quilted sleeping bag that helped Trey combat hypothermia on the trail.
Follow his adventures: @treytamari (Instagram)
Trail Name: Griz
Current Location: Old station, Northern California
Dates Hiked the PCT: Started July 9th, 2018 (currently on trail)
Recommended Piece of Gear: Vasque Trail Bender II Shoes – They’re really comfortable and durable and have saved Grizel from a lot of pain on the trail.
Follow Her Adventures: @_grizel_ (Instagram)
To truly understand the journey these four humans embarked on, you must become familiar with the facts of the trail, according to the Pacific Crest Trail Association:
Trail Length: 2,650 miles
Trail Start: Near Campo, California
Trail End: On the U.S. border at Manning Provincial Park in British Columbia
Average Time it Takes to Thru-Hike: 5 months
What is a Trail Angel: Someone who provides rides, places to stay, or gives food to people hiking the PCT
What is Trail Magic: A wonderful moment that hikers experience on the trail or an act of goodwill that someone performs for hikers on the PCT
What is a Trail Name: A name given to a hiker by other hikers or friends on the trail
What inspired you to hike the PCT?
Like any grand adventure, people decide to hike the PCT for a variety of reasons. The desire to set foot on a 2,650 mile trail has to come from within but for these Shoestring Warriors, hearing the stories of others doing something similar inspired them to fully commit to the adventure.
In 6th grade, Grizel was already dreaming about doing a thru-hike. She read a book about someone who backpacked the Appalachian Trail and she admired his bravery and wanted to do something similar one day. For two years Trey thought about doing the PCT but was worried that his Celiac Disease would make it really difficult to eat safely along the trail. He read about Shawn Forry who thru-hiked the PCT during the winter all while having Celiac Disease.
I emailed Shawn seeking guidance, and he really pushed me over the edge to commit to the hike. – Trey
Jen was feeling burnt out from an emotionally intense job and felt like she needed to recharge. At the time, her friends were preparing to hike the Washington section of the PCT and as she saw them preparing for their adventure, she decided that hiking the PCT could be just what she needed.
What was/has been the toughest part of the trail for you and why?
Hiking the PCT tests a person’s physical, mental, and emotional strength. A hiker might go days without seeing another person. Often it’s just them and Mother Nature which can consist of large mountain ranges and treacherous river crossings.
Trey had to deal with knee, ankle, and foot issues that made him doubt his body’s resilience and ability to carry him. Julie had originally set out to thru-hike the PCT but it was her first backpacking trip and she quickly realized the learning curve was extremely steep.
I hit my lowest point right around mile 751 as I was so miserable, I could barely keep up with the friends I was hiking with, and I felt all joy had been sucked out of every moment. I felt so sad, and like I was wasting a gift of an opportunity. I got off the trail here and I felt like I’d utterly failed. I was suddenly directionless. But in town I met another hiker, Freebird, who encouraged me to “hike my own hike, go my own pace.” – Julie
Julie ultimately decided to skip a 1,000 mile section and traveled north to get back on the trail in Oregon and hiked to Canada. In 2013 she returned to the trail to hike the section she had bypassed.
Jen ended up on the trail on a year with the 2nd highest snowfall. Having never hiked in the snow before, she ended up hiking about 100 miles in the snow through Oregon. The snow was rapidly melting which created some treacherous river crossings as well.
What was toughest for me was some of the emotional stuff that got kicked up from the physical challenges. It almost felt to me that lots of internal stuff surfaced while I was hiking in Oregon, and I “walked through it” hiking through Washington. – Jen
From emotional roller coasters to mental games, solo hikers experience a lot out on the trail.
As a solo hiker, I’ve been alone for the majority of the time. Dealing with loneliness is really scary. You have to learn to like yourself and embrace the tough, sad moments as well as the high moments. – Grizel
Who is the most interesting character you met on the trail?
With so many people hiking the PCT through the summer, hikers inevitably end up sharing the trail with others. The PCT community is full of all types of characters.
Trey met someone who didn’t carry a shelter. If the weather got bad in the middle of the night he’d just pack up his stuff and hit the trail. Grizel crossed paths with a trail angel and philosopher named Broken Toe who shares his unique outlook on life while living out of his van and performing trail magic for hikers going southbound.
What was the scariest or most exciting animal sighting?
When you’re spending endless hours on a daily basis on trails, you’re bound to spot a variety of animals. Tales of animal encounters on the trail are always entertaining…
- Porcupine – “It was so unexpected and so cute, just munching on late summer greens! And when it noticed me, it looked up for a minute, and then turned around and waddled off.” – Julie
- Rattlesnake – “I was really glad I didn’t have any headphones in when I saw it 5 feet away from me! It’s my first and I hope it will be my last! (But probably not :P)” – Grizel
- Coyotes – “ I was always enamored with the coyotes. Apparently it’s somewhat rare to see them, but I saw five or six along the trail from the border of Mexico until I got to Oregon. They all acted indifferent to my presence.” – Trey
- Cougar – “I was camping by Reflection Pond in the Glacier Peak wilderness and soon after it turned pitch dark I had to relieve myself. I went into the tall grasses away from my tent, did my business and then, on my way back to the tent, I heard a rustling where I had just been. I turned to look and a pair of glowing yellow eyes met my gaze. Based on the height of the eyes and the color, I believe it was a cougar, though I don’t know for sure. Time was suspended in that moment; we stared at each other for anywhere between 2 seconds and 2 minutes. Then, it turned and silently ducked back into the grasses. I had a sense of complete awe.” – Jen
What advice do you have for someone planning to thru-hike the PCT?
Trey (thru-hiker who just finished), Jen (section hiker hoping to finish in three more summers), Julie (hiked it in two sections), and Grizel (still thru-hiking) all approached the trail with a different plan and all have wonderful wisdom to share with those of you thinking of setting off on a similar adventure!
- “Have an idea of why you’re going out there, or at least know your goals, because it’s a long trail and if it’s only a vacation for you, you’ll probably get tired of it. If you’ve done your homework, everything will fall into place once you start walking. Walking is the easy part.” – Trey
- “Actually, my advice would be not to thru-hike but to do the trail in 3 or 4 long sections. From my observations, the necessity of “making miles” as a thru-hiker impacts your ability to actually enjoy the experience. I would definitely suggest sections that are substantial enough to get your trail legs and drop into the rhythm of long distance hiking but not trying to do the entire trail in one season. I would say that between 500-1,000 miles/summer is the sweet spot!” – Jen
- “1) Do it! 2) Train more than I did, not because you have to be super fit to do this trail, but because you’ll be less miserable than I was when I first started. 3) Carry as light of a pack as you can. Not that you’re not strong and can’t carry a lot, but I have found that the lighter my pack the less burdened I feel. And, the more I pack, that I truly don’t need, is really representative of the fear I am holding inside. 4) Hike your own hike. Everyone says it, but really there is no one template that works for everyone.” – Julie
- “This may be too obvious, but my advice would be to just do it. There are always going to be a million reasons why this isn’t the right year for you, but ultimately the sacrifice will be worth it. Also, I would say that expect it to be really hard. I’m not just talking about on your body, but it’s a very very challenging mental game. But again, embracing every day and every step is key.” – Grizel
How has your life changed since setting out on/completing the trail?
As you can imagine, hiking the PCT is an incredible experience for those who set foot on the trail. Regardless of why a person chooses to do it and how they do it, the experience transforms them.
The obvious change is the physical one. Julie has become more active and doing long distance hiking encouraged her to try out new sports she hadn’t considered before. Jen became physically fit for the first time in her life and had a desire to retain her fitness level. Trey, having recently completed the hike, is physically tired but he is re-energized to take on new challenges. He’s actually already on to his next adventure and is hiking Vermont’s Long Trail!
The experience is often described as transformative. Transformative in the sense that it has a lasting impact mentally and emotionally.
I failed and became a better person for it, and I learned so many life lessons. – Julie
Sometimes the changes are evident immediately and sometimes they develop over time. For Jen, she began to see changes a few months after completing her long section last summer.
I began to confront things in myself and in my life that I had always avoided. I think the changes will continue to play out over time, and as I continue the trail. – Jen
Although she’s just over halfway through the experience, Grizel has learned to fully embrace her emotions, her body, and the mental game.
I’m by myself nearly all of the time, so learning to love myself in the midst of the highs and the lows has been one of the most beautiful and transformative experiences. – Grizel
If you could sum up your experience in three words, what would they be?
Finally, I asked Julie, Jen, Trey, and Grizel the toughest question of them all. How can someone attempt to sum up such a transformative experience in only three words? I’ll leave you with their admirable attempt at doing just that!
- “Exquisite, Hard, and a Privilege” – Julie
- “New life passion” – Jen
- “Probars (yum). Podcasts. Sunshine.” – Trey
- “Growth. Adventure. Empowerment.” – Grizel