The “Wild” effect is in full swing. Popularity has surged on the Pacific Crest Trail over the past few years and the trend seems like it will continue invariably into the future. There is now a permit process dictating start dates from the southern terminus at the Mexican border that limits the number of people starting on any given day to 50 people. The goal is to try to space people out and spread out “the herd” given the relatively small starting window for a PCT thru-hike. However, leaving during prime time can lead to shortages on campsites throughout Southern California. Here are some tips to try to help alleviate these issues.
Leave Early or Leave Late
Peak times can feel like rush hour heading into New York City. Historically most people have tried to time their start coinciding with the ADZPCTKO (Annual Day Zero Pacific Crest Trail Kick Off), or more familiarly referred to as “the Kick Off.” The Kick Off takes place in Lake Morena State Park, roughly 20 trail miles from the southern terminus. Some people would leave a day or two before and hike into the Kick Off. Others would start and then hike into and out of the kick off. The trail got very congested around Lake Morena at this time and the high volume would often remain together for hundreds of miles until they began to disperse. The permit system attempts to spread this out. But if you truly want a more solitary experience, then leave weeks earlier or later than the Kick Off. Try to start ahead of the herd or well behind. The permitting sign-up system online allows you to see the number of people signed up for any given day in the spring. Use that knowledge and transparency to your advantage.
Adjust Your Hiking Schedule
If you are surrounded by groups of people and have been having trouble finding a decent campsite, you can always adjust your hiking schedule. Shift your schedule up a few hours by waking up earlier. Then you’ll get your miles in earlier and be able to stop earlier, allowing you to have first choice of sites.
Another option would be to wake up earlier and then take a long siesta at a shady spot or water source in the middle of the day. It can be very hot during portions of the trail in Southern California so this can help to minimize your water carries and exposure to the heat as well. After the siesta when it begins to cool back down, hike a few more hours into the evening and darkness. This will give you enough flexibility to find a campsite even if many of the areas are occupied.
Go Ultralight and LNT
Many people underestimate the weather in Southern California. The trail through this region is commonly referred to as “the desert section.” This is not entirely accurate. There are places of desert, but much of the trail sections are actually “islands in the sky” that rise above 10,000 feet. Storms can hit. It can snow through April and it can also get VERY windy. However you can also have beautiful days and unrelenting heat. Be prepared for all, while still maintaining an ultralight mindset. If you are comfortable cowboy camping in good weather, that will help minimize the area you’ll need to squeeze into at the end of the day. Just about every saddle and every water source has a camping option. Also don’t be hesitant to walk a bit off the trail to find a place to camp. Most people will not walk over 25 feet to find a campsite. If you get a little more creative by seeking something out, you’ll likely find opportunity.