Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017
By Daniel "Beta" Winsor
...ok, ok, so maybe it's not the absolute worst time. December, for instance, probably deserves that title.
I thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2017, starting on March 26th. But if I did it again, I'd start a week earlier.
Heresy, I know.
Because April 15th, plus or minus a few days, has traditionally been THE time to get on the trail headed north. Last season, those permit dates were the first to go, within minutes of the permits opening up. You ask a group online for their opinion, they'll tell you mid-April. You read a book on the PCT, you'll get the same answer.
It's not a very good answer.
Now I'm not saying it can't be done, obviously many people have started in April over the years and did just fine. I'm proposing that more people think about starting in March, specifically the last two weeks of March. Here's a few of the rationales behind starting in April, and why March is almost always a better answer.
**UPDATE** August 27th, 2018
I've received the same comment several times that goes something like: "How could you say March is good time to start when your blog is about you constantly almost dying in the Sierra??"
This article was written to give general starting advice for the average snow year... 2017 was an exception.
There was NO safe time to start the PCT in 2017. Starting in March was dangerous, starting in April was dangerous, starting in May was dangerous. That being said, I stand by the fact that starting in March was still the safest option, even in such a heavy snow year. A March start put me on a thick snow blanket through the Sierra that was easy to walk across and was covering many of the creeks, with a deep freeze every night that kept the postholing to a minimum.
Keep in mind, the two deaths in the Sierra were two hikers that started in April, and they perished in creeks that I had walked over on solid snow bridges.
Was a March start in 2017 perfect? No. Was is the best option for the heavy winter that preceded it? Absolutely.
Read on, my friends.
1. Snow in Southern California
Specifically Fuller Ridge near Mt. San Jacinto and then Mt. Baden-Powell later on. Honestly, there's not much to worry about here.
I went through Fuller Ridge on April 5th on one of the highest snow years in recent history... and it was about five miles of low angle snow. People were getting through without any snow gear (not recommended). For me, it was slow, but manageable, in microspikes. Hikers with crampons used words like "cake" and "joke" enough to make me wish I had crampons.
People summit Mt. San Jacinto in the winter. You just hiked over a hundred miles to get to Fuller Ridge. You can most likely handle walking along a peripheral ridge of San Jacinto for a few miles in the spring.
Mt. Baden-Powell is along the same lines as San Jacinto. The snow is steeper, but only slightly, and longer, about ten miles. Many of us managed just fine with microspikes, but those with crampons ran across with a common theme of "was that it?" once they were off snow again.
If there's ANY snow in the Sierra you'll be dealing with (a.k.a. every year that isn't an extreme drought year), don't fear the small patches of snow in SoCal. Get your ice axe and crampons out and go boost your confidence. Never used those things before? Go learn! It's a great opportunity to figure out if you feel ready to tackle Sierra snow or if you need to flip up north to avoid the white stuff.
There is MUCH chatter about those first snowy obstacles. This is the first time you'll likely see the word "impassible" crop up online...
Low angle snow is never impassible with the right gear.
2. Snow in the Sierra Nevada
If you start the PCT in March, then there will be a ton of snow in the Sierra, right?? Yes and no, it really depends on the snow year.
During high snow years:
...such as 2011 and 2017, starting in March puts you in Kennedy Meadows in late April or early May. Most people will need a few days to put their gear together before entering the snow, then you'll enter into the Sierra in the first or second week of May. At a comfortable pace in the hard, firm snow, you'll exit the Sierra in the first couple weeks of June.
Does that sound early? It is, BUT you get to leave the Sierra before the melt happens in mid-to-late June when crossing creeks becomes a harrowing, dangerous obstacle. Traveling on snow isn't (terribly) dangerous, crossing creeks is dangerous. Snow is slow, but you'll keep moving safely forward. Swollen creeks have the potential to turn you around or even kill you. Many of the creeks, up to 80% of them, are possible to cross on snow bridges during the month of May after heavy winters.
Unfortunately, a well known rule-of-thumb is to leave Kennedy Meadows on "Ray Day," which is June 15th. Hikers who followed this guidance in 2017 damn near gave themselves a death sentence. Most who went into the Sierra in the month of June were forced to bail. Some even died.
Go when the snow is still snow.
During low snow years:
...such as the drought years from 2012 to 2016, March is still the better answer. You aren't racing to get to the Sierra before the melt happens, but seeing the Sierra in at least some snow and solitude before the crowds move in on the John Muir Trail portion of the PCT will be the highlight of your hike.
An earlier start gives you the gift of time also. The Sierra is an incredible place, most hikers consider it their favorite section of the whole trail. Nobody should be running through it. There's plenty of monotonous hiking in the hundreds of miles ahead to push mileage.
There's great trail towns and side trips all along the Sierra also, take more zeros! Like Bishop, California? Stay there a couple extra days. Mammoth is great spot to go skiing in June! You'll hike right by Yosemite Valley, an incredible side trip to go play tourist for a day or two.
3. It's too cold.
I'd actually flip this concern and consider it too hot to start hiking in April.
Starting in March means you'll be hiking through the Southern California section mostly in April. The hottest and most waterless sections of the PCT happen 3-4 weeks after you start, just before getting to Kennedy Meadows.
Water is a big factor here too. Seasonal water sources in Southern California start dwindling in late April, some even earlier. Without those intermittent water sources, you have to carry more water. Some stretches can be 7-8 liters, even more if you're hiking slow. The most I had to carry was five liters, which turned out to be excessive.
Water caches are a personal enemy of mine (more on that later), but they are a (wrongly) heavily relied on source through those hottest sections, sometimes getting hikers in trouble. Caches tend to be well stocked very early in the season, even before they're really necessary, but many run dry as the folks who were voluntarily maintaining the caches don't have the time/energy/money to keep them stocked the whole season. Earlier hikers have a better chance coming across water in the water caches.
TO BE CLEAR: NOBODY SHOULD BE RELYING ON WATER CACHES.
I apologize for all the capitol letters, how annoying. But anyways...
If you start in April, you'll be walking through 90F days in May with disappearing seasonal water sources and questionable water caches. Starting in March, you'll be walking through 70F days in April with every seasonal water source flowing and freshly stocked water caches.
One of those sounds a bit better than the other, right?
Oh, but you can just hike through the night to beat the heat? Uh. There's cool stuff to look at out there. Why would you want to miss it? You could just stick a treadmill in your basement, stop showering, and turn off the lights if that's all you wanted out of your thru-hike.
...although you'd also have to pencil in some off-treadmill time for the psychiatrist.
As for the cold, if you have a 20F sleeping bag, you'll be fine. My coldest morning in Southern California was 23F near Big Bear. But then I was sleeping back in the 20's the last few days in Washington! If I had started later, I'd have been spending the last weeks on the trail even colder, through snow storms and other garbage that NO ONE wants to backpack through in the final weeks of such and long, exhausting trip. The beginning of any thru-hike is the time to be uncomfortable, not the end.
4. There aren't any trail angels or trail magic around in March.
Wrong. One of the best parts of hiking in the early season is that you're one of the first PCT faces most people are seeing. You're ahead of the "herd" of hikers, so businesses are still happy to see you. No asshat thru-hikers (yes, these exist) have come along to put a bad taste in anyone's mouth yet. You're still a novelty in trail towns. You're the ONLY hiker at bars and restaurants. People haven't seen PCTers in a while, so they want to say hi and buy you beers and give you rides. You know what people want to do when they walk into a bar with 20 thru-hikers? Probably leave after they throw up, because why would a hiker shower first when there's hot food waiting?!
Big trail angel stops are still psyched on the season starting. You're in places like Hiker Heaven with less than 10 other people, not 50 or 60.
Just like thru-hikers, trail angels get worn out as the season goes on. By the end of the "herd," there's fewer and fewer trail angels around. Earlier season hikers easily have it the best when it comes to trail angels, and this continues all the way up to Canada.
5. I'll miss the bubble of hikers if I start in March!
Not that all thru-hikers aren't amazing people, I made many incredible friends on my thru, but think about what happens when there's 50 people starting the trail every day for weeks before you and weeks after...
What are the odds that perfect campsite is free at the end of the day?
When someone leaves a couple six-packs of IPA's as trail magic, what are the odds there will be one left for you?
Ever tried hitch-hiking along a road with 20 other hitch-hikers?
You like solitude? Hopefully you'll get over that.
I don't mean to say that a ton of thru-hikers on the trail is a bad thing, but some people like it, some people don't. I prefer a tight-knit group of hikers I can get to know, but spend as much time alone as I want. That's what I got by starting in March.
Final Consideration: Permits
2018 was the first time permits were given out in November, before anyone has any idea what will happen during the upcoming winter! This is understandably frustrating for 2018 (and future) thru-hikers.
So what's the safe bet if you're not particularly good at telling the future? Once again: March.
If you go with an April permit and we have a dry winter, you're in for a hot, waterless desert section. If we see another high snow year, an April permit will put you in the Sierra right when the rivers get dangerous.
If you go with a March permit and we have a dry winter, you're in for a pleasant desert hike with decent water sources. If we see another high snow year, a March permit will give you choices: head straight through the Sierra on hard snow before the melt, flip up to Hat Creek Rim while it's still pleasant, or drink beer in Bishop hoping it all melts (which this year, it oddly did).
The earlier permit thing sucks. No way around that. But if you'd like to play it safe, March is the way to go. The beautiful advantage to starting early is that you can always take more zeros. If you start too late, you can't insert time into your hike if you need more.
All considered, you have to choose your starting date based around many more factors. Time off from work, time away from loved ones, financial limitations etc. The most important thing about choosing a start date is to allow as much time as possible for your journey. Nobody wants to death march through such an amazing trail. Take your time, stay uninjured, and go camp next to that gorgeous lake! A core regret of many thru-hikers is not allowing themselves time to thoroughly enjoy the trail.
Starting in March will give you that time.