Why is your trail name Scrub?

On long-distance trails, almost everyone gets a trail name. Usually trail names are appointed by other people, often for something stupid you did, said, ate, drank or carried at the beginning of your trip, when everyone knew you as Steve or Nancy. Being contrary, at the beginning of the AT in 2011 I started calling myself Scrub Hiker, Scrub for short, because it's an anagram of my real name. Sometimes people (almost always women) unravel the puzzle within a minute or two; some people think on it for days before finally saying, "Aha! Is your name Rich?" (hint: no). Most of the time people just ask for my name. 

Did you hike these trails alone?

I did not see a single human being once on this day, 8 June 2013, in the hottest part of the Mojave Desert in SoCal.

Only sort of. In all cases – starting the AT in 2011, the PCT in 2013, and picking up in the middle of the AT again in 2014 – I started without knowing a single person out there (actually not 100% true, since I surprisingly met Myla of mylahikes.com, whom I knew from college, at Kennedy Meadows on the PCT). Due to the nature of the journey, however, you quickly meet lots and lots of people on both trails. Everyone's heading the same direction (usually north) in the same weather window, and participation numbers are skyrocketing each year. There's always ample time to chat, because what else are you doing out there?

I hiked with newfound friends for most of the Appalachian Trail, but I was more of a loner on the PCT. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Without getting too deep into it:

  • Hiking with a woman makes it infinitely easier to catch rides into towns. (good!)
  • Hiking with other people can get you sucked into town vortexes where you spend all your money. (bad!)
  • Hiking alone can be a powerful, peaceful, and/or revelatory experience. (good!)
  • Hiking alone can cause you to lose your mind. (bad!)
  • Hiking with other people can create best friends for life, marriages, what have you. (good!)
  • Hiking with other people can drag down your mileage so that you'll never finish the trail, or increase it to the point where you injure yourself. (bad!)

How long did it take?

The AT took me for fucking ever because the first time I attempted it, I spent almost a month off the trail on extended breaks, both planned and forced. I started April 3, 2011 and ended for the year (still 400 miles from finishing) on September 16. When I went back to clean up those 400 miles in 2014, it took me only 23 days of hiking. So whatever that averages out to. I don't know. It was really slow. 

It took me 142 days to complete the PCT in 2013, which was a straightforward thru-hike with the exception of 60 miles skipped due to the trail being on fire in SoCal. I averaged 18.76 miles per day, including zero days (rest days), and 20.38 miles per hiking day. I would consider this about average, or maybe slightly faster than average for 2013, which had a very dry spring and hence a longer weather window for completing the trail—thru-hikers could start in early April at the Mexican border and still not have to worry about snow in the Southern and Central California mountains, and as such they could take their time heading north. I started at a more old-school time, on May 5.

Shit. That is a lot of miles each day.

Sometimes people express disbelief at those numbers – one time a grown man yelled, "JESUS CHRIST!" at me when I told him – but consider that I hike 3mph, and so do most people (some are even faster, 3.5 - 4 mph). In the middle of the summer, there are around 16 hours of daylight. Start walking at 7 a.m., stop at 8 p.m. (and those are by no means the earliest/latest I or anyone else could go) and throw in 3 hours of breaks in the middle and I will have walked 30 miles. Once I had my routine down, breaking camp took 20-25 minutes every morning and setting up at the end of the day took 10 without the tent, 20 with it, and I could do all that practically blindfolded. Walking just starts to become the Thing That You Are Doing 80% of your waking hours, without even thinking about it too much.

Which way did you go, north to south or south to north?

23 Sept. 2013, my last day on the PCT and the first day of snow in northern Washington. Just in time.

On both the AT and PCT, I made my thru-hike attempts northbound, or NOBO as they say in the biz. On the AT I ended up finishing a section that I had missed in 2011 by walking it southbound in 2014. Northbound is by far the more common option on both trails, especially PCT, due to the fact that we are in the Northern Hemisphere and walking north gives everyone a longer weather window between when the snows melt and when they come back again.

Have you read that book about the PCT by that lady? What about that one about the AT by that guy?

Yes and yes. The first is called Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed, and the other is A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. Both were bestsellers. I love both books, but woe betide the person who reads them thinking that they are accurate guideposts for a thru-hike in 2017 and beyond. Both hikes took place in the mid-1990s, with vastly fewer hikers and trail-specific resources, and both authors were hilariously, criminally unprepared. You should not do it like they did. You should be smarter than them. You will not solve all the problems in your life by heading out alone onto a long trail with no preparation. Your self-loathing and drug abuse will probably only increase. Adventures have the power to change people, but they aren't a panacea, despite what Cheryl implies.

So if you're so much smarter than Cheryl, what gear did you carry?

Funny you should ask!

How much food do you carry at once?

On the AT, anywhere from 1 to 6 days' worth at a time, usually around 2 or 3. On the PCT, up to 6+ but usually 3 or 4. You get the food either from grocery stores in towns along the way, or from maildrops. The pros and cons of both strategies can be debated ad nauseam (the link is to, all things considered, a concise discussion of the topic). "Towns along the way" means you can either walk to the town from the trail (rare), or hitch a ride where the trail crosses a road/highway (more common). Hitching is accepted and easy near most of the major trail towns. It is especially easy if there is a female in your party. Post offices and businesses like hostels and motels will hold parcels for hikers if you write "general delivery" and an ETA with the address. 

What did you eat?

That's a tricky one, Bill. I answer it in depth elsewhere. Caveat: most people would not enjoy my trail diet.

Did you filter your water?

Barrel Spring, a very important, erm, water source on the southern PCT. 

At first on the AT yes, then pretty much no, never. Old School Boy Scout Backpacking 101 says you have to filter water from all natural sources, but some people who purify their water religiously still end up with giardiasis, and some people who dip straight from cow ponds without treating stay healthy. It's a crapshoot, pun intended. I have carried Aqua Mira most of the way on both trails, but used it maybe 6 times total in the last 3500 miles.

You dumb-dumb. So have you gotten sick?

Yes, but not too bad. In southern Oregon on the PCT, I developed a stomach ailment which turned out, after some lab tests, to be giardiasis. Note that a) it took me 1800 miles of drinking straight from streams and springs to get sick, and b) my symptoms, personally, were so mild that I wasn't even sure I was sick for the first week. I will probably continue not to treat my water hiking in the U.S. in the future. The simplicity of drinking straight from the natural sources is so refreshing that I find it worth the (minuscule) risk.

Is the PCT harder than the AT?

I don't like this question. It's different for each person; here are some of the reasons why. Beyond that, who cares? A great way to announce yourself as a total douchenozzle is to belittle someone's accomplishments on one trail or another because you think one is easier.

For the record, I found my PCT experience easier than the AT. The PCT trail itself is certainly nicer and gentler, that's something everyone can agree on. But categorically, statements of overall relative difficulty should mean nothing to anyone else, past present or future.

What was the coolest animal you saw?

Undoubtedly (and I was only told what it was later by a naturalist friend), a ring-tailed cat. It was having a poke at my food bag outside my tent one night in Northern California on the PCT. Seeing a family of wild hogs on the AT with good old A-GAME would be a close second. In neither case was I able to get a picture.

I've seen surprisingly few bears (only one on the whole PCT, probably like five on the AT), no cougars as far as I know, and only three rattlesnakes (PCT) and two copperheads (AT). I got stung by a scorpion, which is more boring than it sounds. I saw one moose on the AT but it doesn't count because it basically lived at the Madison Springs Hut.

Definitely the lamest animal sightings are cows. They're never up to any good. And I haven't even hiked the CDT (aka the Cow Dung Trail) yet.

What maps did you use?

On the AT, none. You don't need them. If anyone tries to tell you otherwise, you should be questioning everything else they're telling you too because it's probably bullshit. They're probably old and/or a Boy Scout troop leader.

On the PCT, Halfmile's maps. They are free to download, and printing is up to the individual. They are up-to-date, and become even more so with Halfmile's comprehensive updates every winter. If you don't trust putting the PDFs on your smartphone for free (which is what I did), Yogi can print them for you at an excellent rate. Speaking of Yogi ...

Is there like a guidebook for the PCT?

If you are planning on hiking the PCT, a good idea would be to Yogi's PCT Handbook. Do not balk at the price. The Planning Guide is full of exceptionally good information, and you ought to be thinking about the quality of your preparedness as inversely proportional to the quantity of money you're going to spend down the road. (e.g. fuck up a gear choice or a maildrop now, because you weren't using a top-class resource to prepare for your hike, and it will lead to days and lots of money – more than the $40 the book costs – spent in town later dealing with the consequences).

You may notice a familiar voice in the book, namely mine. I thought it was such a good planning and on-trail resource that I spent at least a dozen hours contributing to it. In fact, this FAQ is over now. Pool's closed. If you want more answers from me – not to mention a half-dozen other hikers with much, much more experience than me – about the PCT, you should order Yogi's book. Or contact me in the form on the right-hand sidebar, or via a comment.