Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail Southbound: What you need to know.
Everyone’s been asking me to write something about going Southbound (SOBO) since there really isn’t much out there on the subject. Keep in mind that everyone’s experiences are different, and every year is different as well. In particular, snow conditions vary from year to year and you should do a lot of your own research on current conditions before heading out. Usually, the beginning of SOBO season is roughly from mid June to mid July or even later depending on snow, and you’ll likely finish your hike anywhere from October to December depending on your speed and start date.
Just to start with, I’ll give you a quick summary of why I think hiking Southbound is awesome and why I think more people should do it with some pros and cons, then I’ll go into the more nitty-gritty of planning a SOBO hike.
So…. WHY SOBO??
Hiking Southbound is great for many reasons:
1. You’re not going to be hiking in huge herd of hikers. During my SOBO hike, I only met 7 other SOBO hikers (as opposed to 78 Northbounders (NOBOs) I met in one day).
2. You’ll start your hike in some of the most beautiful scenery, not in the desert. Let’s face it, more than half of us quit. If you quit as a NOBO, you will have hiked in the desert, and not up in Northern Washington. I’m not trying to dis the desert… the desert is awesome in its own ways but really, Northern Washington is more worth your time.
3. Speaking of the desert. It is much more pleasant to walk through Southern California (“the desert”) in the late fall (late October/ early November) when the days are shorter and cooler. Plus by then you’ll be hiking 25-30 miles a day, so you won’t spend as many days in the desert as NOBOs do.
4. You’ll have much more of a “wilderness” experience going SOBO. None of this fighting over tent space, falling in and out of cliques or worrying about hostels, hotels and trail angels being packed with hikers. You’ll get a much more personal experience with towns and with Trail Angels. You won’t need to worry about someone walking up on you while you’re peeing or whatever else you need to do while there’s no coverage. For those of you East Coast hikers, let me warn you– much of the PCT is pretty “open”. There aren’t many trees or bushes, which is great for views and such, but for finding a spot to dig a hole and minding your business? Not so much. I often times wondered how NOBOs found any privacy.
5. You’ll get bugs in Washington, but not so much in Oregon where they’re supposedly worse. You definitely won’t get bugs in the Sierras, so you’ll be able to enjoy your breaks at the gorgeous lakes up there.
6. You’ll be following leave-no-trace ethics by not hiking the trail during the most high traffic times (which is normal NOBO season and summer holidays). During your hike you’ll realize how much impact hikers have on the trail, especially by talking to locals in town about what it is like during NOBO season.
7. You will always be walking up the northern face (colder and shaded), and down the southern face (hotter, and sunnier). You’ll appreciate this on hot days. Carrying an umbrella is helpful since you’ll be walking into the sun most of the time.
Hiking Southbound may not be for you if:
1. You’re not ready to hit the ground running. Unlike going NOBO where you have the desert to “warm up” with, since there is no real time-frame for hiking in the desert, you’ll need to hit the ground running from day one. Just as it is for Northbounders hiking from the beginning of the Sierras once the snow is manageable until the Canadian border, before the snow hits again in the fall (roughly 2000 miles), you’ll have the same time crunch. You’ll be hiking in Northern Washington just as the snow is melting up there, and trying to make it through the Sierra before the snow hits again in the fall. October 1st is a good date to aim to be at Forester Pass. The only difference is you’ll get to “cool down” with the desert with no real time restraints, rather than having the desert as a “warm-up.”
2. You want to hike with groups of people and make lots of friends. If you’re more into the social aspect of the trail, SOBO may not be for you. You’ll still meet people, but it won’t be the social scene that hiking NOBO probably is. But maybe you’ll spend less time and money in town as a result.
Before you start the trail: check snowtel: http://www.wcc.nrcs.usda.gov/snow/ and pct website: http://www.pcta.org/discover-the-trail/maps-and-guidebooks/ for current snow conditions. I recommend not starting your hike until after the level of snow at Harts Pass has reached 0 inches. I’d even wait a while after that. Don’t think this’ll mean you won’t be hiking on snow. No matter how late you start, you’ll be hiking on snow. If you get going once the level at Harts Pass reaches 0 inches, the passes you’ll be going over for the next several hundred miles will be completely covered in snow, and unless you have some significant snow experience, or you’re simply not afraid of death or heights, you’ll probably have a few “what the fuck am I doing!?” moments. So prepare for it. Also, make sure the road to Harts Pass is open before you drive out there. The people at Mazama at Goats Beard can help you figure that out.
Keep in mind that every year is different when it comes to snow, and a low snow year in the Sierra often times means a high year in the Cascades and visa verse. It helps to talk to locals- preferably hikers. Ranger stations have limited knowledge for some reason, and we’ve gotten some bad advice. Talk to Andrea Dinsmore, the Trail Angel in Northern Washington. She’s not a hiker, but she’ll know if it’s a high snow year or a low one. From her experience hosting hikers, and being involved in search and rescue she’ll be able to give you some basic advise.
In a normal or high snow year, I would recommend the following gear: ice axe, crampons or microspikes (don’t go with yak-tracks or anything else that’s only really for walking on icy sidewalks), GPS, compass, map, and personal locator beacon. If you want specific recommendations, let me know, but any and all of these could save your life on the snow. Also, learn some snow skills before you get out there. There is no use having an ice axe if you have no idea how to use it. Google “self arrest” and watch some videos then go out and practice on a snowy slope. You will need the skills before you have a good chance to practice them on trail. The Northern Cascades are very rugged and actually quite different from the Sierra, and you’ll want to have practiced in a safe environment before you show up. Here’s a good learning video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=94QFImjdEAo. Learn to walk in crampons or microspikes- in particular, learn to kick steps. Learn to self belay. There are great videos on all these techniques. Learn about cornices, snow/ice bridges and post-holing. As you gain experience on snow, you’ll slowly learn how different snow feels beneath you. The snow will be harder in the morning and softer in the afternoon. You’re more likely to post-hole through soft snow, and you can injure yourself on rocks, sticks, etc that are under the snow.
In Northern Washington you’ll spend a significant amount of time traversing steep slopes and avalanche chutes covered in snow. You’ll be looking hundreds and sometimes almost a thousand feet down on one side and kicking steps into the mountain and you’ll be holding your ice axe in your uphill hand and your trekking pole in your downhill hand. Estimate that hiking in snow will take you twice as long as normal hiking. If you’re walking on 50-100% snow, you should plan for 10 to 15 mile days. Best to plan for 10 miles a day when it comes to food. The one thing in your favor here is the sunlight. You’ll be starting your hike at the peak of the summer with the most amount of daylight, and you’ll need it! Luckily your appetite won’t kick in for the first week or two, so you’ll get away with carrying a little less than you would otherwise, but nonetheless, you should over-pack on food, because that will be your limiting factor. Many people going southbound in 2014 had to push hard to make it through the Glacier Peak Wilderness before they ran out of food. We just underestimated the snow. I never thought it could take me 15 or 16 hours to go 11 miles. Kicking steps takes time, and navigating takes time too. Once you get past the snow, you will be done with the hardest part of the trail. Once you hit solid ground, it’ll feel like you’re floating along watching the beautiful scenery go by and you’ll be loving your thru-hike.
Starting the trail:
First of all you’ll need to get to the beginning of the trail, which is at the Canadian border. There are practically speaking two ways of doing this, but legally speaking only one. You can either hike north from Harts Pass or Route 20 (Rainy Pass) to the border to start your southbound hike, or enter from Manning Park in Canada. It it illegal to enter into the United States from Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail, and at least one hiker has wound up in jail for attempting this… not a great way to start your hike. For that reason I recommend starting at Harts Pass. To start your hike, go to Seattle, and find someone willing to drive you to Hart’s Pass, then hike north to the border. If it’s a high snow year consider alternatives. Hiking on the PCT isn’t the only way to hike from Canada to Mexico. A great low elevation alternative is to hike along Ross Lake to reach the Canadian Border. Then you can follow Panther Creek Trail and Thunder Creek Trail going over Park Creek Pass, which will have snow on it. A map will be your friend here. Get permits with the local ranger stations here because you’ll be in a National Park, and you’re required to have them. Stash food at route 20 (we did so in a bear canister), then your next resupply will be in Stehekin. It’s a short distance from route 20 to Stehekin (2-3 days at most), and if you used one, you can mail your bear canister home at Stehekin.
Bugs and rodents:
The worst bugs you’ll encounter on the PCT are mosquitoes. There are many types along the PCT, and you’ll slowly learn their behaviors as you move from one type of mosquitoes territory to another. The clouds of mosquitoes will start with you in Northern Washington. They basically hatch right out of the snow. You’ll be concentrating on kicking a step and not falling several hundred feet to your death, and suddenly you’ll hear “bzzzzzzz….” in your ear. If you have a bug phobia now’s probably the time to start practicing meditation. At least the mosquitoes in Washington are relatively slow compared to the ones in Oregon. You have a chance in outrunning them, particularly once you hit solid ground. The ones in Oregon can land on you while you’re at a dead out sprint, I’m not kidding you. And wind? No problem. They’ll find you in 50 mph gusts. Then in Southern Oregon you’ll meet another bread that aren’t as fast as their Central Oregon relatives, but for what they lack in speed, they make up for in size. You’ll be slightly afraid of squishing these pterodactyl-like mosquitoes for the mess that they will leave behind. Luckily by the time you hit the Sierra, there will be not a mosquito in sight, and you can dilly-dally at lakes taking thousands of pictures.
Also a note on mice – we were told by locals that mice would be a big problem in the Cascades of Washington. For the most part, they weren’t since we were on snow, but when we got to lower elevation, Dirt Stew was kept up by them running on the tent netting above his head. There is dense vegetation here, so tent sites are quite established. Some people have had mice chew through their tents and/or food bags.
Although you’ll be starting with snow on the ground, it won’t be as cold as winter hiking. In late June early July up in Washington it could get down to roughly freezing, but that’s about as low as it will get. You may wind up camping on snow, and my recommendation is to cut a few small pieces of blue foam (the kind you find at Walmart), and put those pieces under your butt and shoulders to insulate you from the snow. Use these in conjunction with your normal sleeping pad. You can also use these pieces to wrap your crampons in during the day. Most likely it will be fairly warm during the day, and as a result you’ll be watching the snow melt. We had a week or more in the 90’s and got completely sun burnt by hiking on the snow in bright sunshine. Beware of this! Sunscreen SPF 50 was not even enough. Sunglasses, sunscreen, and eventually covering every square inch in clothing became absolutely necessary.
Through Central Oregon and Northern California our 10 and 20 degree sleeping bags were too warm, and if we had decided to switch to lighter ones, this would have been the right time to do so. If I had done this, I would maybe have sent my lighter sleeping bag to Crater Lake, and then sent it back in favor of the warmer one at Truckee or Sierra City.
If you’re a normal hiker, I think you’ll do fine with a 20 degree bag for the whole trail. The coldest temperatures for our hike happened in the High Sierra in mid to late September. It went below freezing almost every night, probably into the low 20’s (just a guess, I didn’t have a thermometer). I’m always cold, so I choose a 10 degree bag, and I know some who sleep more on the warm side who got away with a 30 degree bag. I would send any extra warm clothing to Tuolumne Meadows, and then send it home again at Kennedy Meadows South. I was happy to have an extra down jacket for this section.
We wound up keeping our warmer clothing through the desert because we did not know what to expect, but it did not get below freezing for us in the desert. We were slightly ahead of the southbound “herd” and for some behind us, it did get slightly cooler, and in some of the higher mountains of the desert it could easily snow in late October or early November. We finished our hike in early November, and never saw snow in the desert. You can expect some hot sections where the trail is low in elevation (e.g Cajon Pass, and hiking along the Aquaduct), but there is also plenty of high elevation hiking in the desert which doesn’t really feel like desert at all and will be a refreshing change.
All PCT hikers worry about water. For Southbounders, water starts becoming an issue in Oregon and continues through parts of Northern California, and then again in Southern California. Water sources during the summer of 2014 were particularly unpredictable because of the drought conditions. Data seemed often times unreliable, and “seasonal” water was sometimes running while rivers and streams were not. My suggestion is to try to carry enough water to make it two water sources away, although this isn’t always feasible, and many UL hikers resent carrying too much water. But I have to say, it really sucks when you run out of water and then you reach a dry water source. After the Sierra, the Water Report becomes your bible. Print out the latest version in each town you get to. The website is www.pctwater.com. Once you get to the desert, you’ll find water relatively easy to deal with because of the Water Report, having already done 30 mile water-less stretches. I seriously think water is more of an issue for NOBO’s because they’re starting their hike in the desert and fighting for resources.
On your South Bound hike, depending on your hiking speed, some places in the Sierras may close down before you reach them. Definitely call in advance to find out the closing dates of Kennedy Meadows North, Tuolumne Meadows, Vermillion Valley Resort, Muir Ranch, and Kennedy Meadows South. The closing dates vary from year to year, and also are affected by snow. An early snow storm may cause them to close early. It is not impossible to through-hike without these resupply stops. You can hike out at Mammoth/ Reds Meadow, Whitney Portal (you need a permit), and Independence/Kearsarge Pass regardless of time of year.
If you have any questions or suggestions, please let me know. I’m going to convert this blog post into a page on this website, and the more information the better. When we did research for our hike, information was very limited. We had no idea where we’d find the mosquitoes, and so we sent bug netting to Oregon. Thank goodness for Andrea Dinsmore and her collection of old gear. We also surveyed the Southbounders we met along the way to try to determine what the desert would be like. We had imagined that it would get very very cold at night, but in fact it never did. I really hope that more people decide to go Southbound. With increasing numbers of hikers on the trail, it only makes sense to spread ourselves out and minimize our impact on the trail.
Here is another resource for Southbounders made by 2016 hikers: https://www.pctsouthbound.com/