Preparation for the Pacific Crest Trail: let’s take a look
This first blog post elaborates my reason for hiking the PCT as well as some aspects of the necessary preparation for the Pacific Crest Trail.
To start at the beginning, let’s discuss the question where my passion for hiking and backpacking trips comes from. This originated in my childhood and has grown over the years: my parents love being outdoors in nature, hiking and always go on active holidays. My brothers and I have been included in this and I have always greatly enjoyed it. Our spring break for example, was often the period for a backpacking trip, during which we hiked part of a GR trail in the Ardennes or Eifel region over the course of a couple of days. In short, we can say this all was part of my upbringing and despite the fact that I experienced many backpacking trips, cycling holidays and other active holidays (for example in the mountains), I haven’t grown bored of these outdoor-activities and holidays. In fact, when I started going on holidays on my own, without my parents, I still celebrated my vacations in an active manner. For instance, I’ve done a cycling holiday through both Southern Sweden (2014) as well as Central Europe (2017), hiked Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Walk in England in 2015 and the Kungsleden in Swedish Lapland in 2018. This shows that my dream to hike the Pacific Crest Trail doesn’t just come out of nowhere.
Now that we have clarified where my passion and pleasure for hiking and backpacking comes from, the question remains why I dream of the Pacific Crest Trail. After all, there are many long-distance trails to choose from, such as the Appalachian Trail through the eastern states of the US, the Continental Divide Trail from Mexico to Canada and the Te Araroa from the northernmost point of the North Island to the southernmost point of the South Island in New Zealand. While roaming around on the internet, I had learned about the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, but I hadn’t delved deeper into them yet. Five years ago, my attention was again drawn to the PCT, after watching the movie “Wild”, starring Reese Witherspoon. This film is based on Cheryl Strayed’s autobiographical book, which illustrates a woman in depression who, as a therapy to overcome her setbacks, is going to walk the PCT. The images of the film and the idea of walking the length of the US, from Mexico to Canada, appealed to me very much. The seed was planted. Over time, the decision came that I too would walk the PCT one day. I told myself not to wait too long after completing my bachelor and to benefit from and use the freedom that I have in this phase of my life.
Fast forward four years: I finished my studies in June 2017 and started my thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail on March 31, 2019 (a thru-hike means that the whole trail will be completed, end-to-end, within one year). The period between June 2017 and March 2019 were used to earn the necessary money for this dream as well as for reading and preparing it. Additionally, yet another reason for hiking the trail at this time in my life arose: the many long days, only consisting of hiking, eating and sleeping, offer the perfect opportunity for self-reflection. What do I want to do next and how do I want to arrange and organize my life over the course of the next coming years? Do I want to continue travelling a lot and have little commitment or do I rather have a permanent job and generally have a more settled and firm life? Am I going to do a master’s degree after the PCT or am I rather going back to work straight away? There’s plenty of time to think about these questions in the coming months. Let’s see how this will actually go on the trail and whether there will be answers to these questions afterwards.
Ultimately, it took quite a long time before it was 100% sure that I would hike the Pacific Crest Trail this year though: only since February 14, 2019, about a month and a half before my permit’s start date. This had everything to do with the required visa that I had to apply for to visit the US: the B2 tourism visa. Although as a Dutchie, I am eligible for an ESTA, which is reasonably easy to obtain, this is not an option for the PCT, as it only allows you to stay in the US for three consecutive months (90 days). What I needed, is a visa for six months, which is why I applied for the B2-visa. I would advise everyone to apply for this visa in time. Since the visa is valid for 10 years, applying a few months earlier doesn’t matter that much. However, it does save a lot of uncertainty and last minute organizing, which I have experienced now. To put it mildly, applying for the visa didn’t go very smoothly for me: I filled in the necessary form in mid-November and had an interview at the American consulate in Amsterdam at the end of November. Although I had made extensive preparations and brought along a lot of supporting documents, I received the message that I was not eligible for a visa after a short interview. What a disappointment! I really didn’t expect this! According to the letter I received with the bad news, I didn’t have enough evidence to prove that I wouldn’t stay in the US illegally after the valid six months. What was so clear to me – the fact that I didn’t want to stay in the US, certainly not as an illegal immigrant – apparently had remained unclear for the employee at the consulate. My dream trip, which I had been looking forward to for four years, seemed to shatter in pieces out of nowhere.
Now what? That was the only question I had on my mind at the time. I’d been thinking about a master for a while, maybe this was the time to go for it and sign up. Another option was to go for another trail, but I was somehow struggling to put my mind to this. I had set myself up for a really long hike of a few months. I didn’t want to go for a hike that would last me for a month or two. This then didn’t leave me with many options: the Appalachian Trail and Continental Divide Trail are also in the US and the other trail that really appealed to me, the Te Araroa, is in New Zealand. Consequently, this meant that it had to be hiked in our winter; the winter we are already in. My earliest option for this hike was thus the winter of 2019-2020.
Eventually I decided to go for a second attempt for the B2 visa as well as signing up for a master’s degree, starting in September 2019. Ultimately, the Pacific Crest Trail is something I have had on my bucket list for a long time and I was not planning on giving up or postponing this dream just because of a rejected visa. Besides that, I had nothing left to lose, except for another payment for the visa process: the possibility to travel on an ESTA for a shorter trip had already been lost due to the rejection. Furthermore, the number of applications for a visa doesn’t have any future consequences for whether or not you receive a visa; you just have to go through the whole procedure again and again.
So the decision was made: I applied again for the B2 tourism-visa. I learned that it is important to show how your situation changed compared to the previous application to have a chance of approval. In my case, I had signed up for a master’s degree, which I hoped would show my future plans in the Netherlands and so prove I didn’t want to stay in the US as an illegal immigrant. Moreover, I had saved up quite some extra money by living even more frugally during the two months between the applications to convince the consulate’s employee that money wouldn’t be a problem during my time in the US.
And indeed, the first question I received during the conversation with the consulate’s employee was: “I see that you are here for the second time. What has changed since your last visit here?” So I told about the changes: that I had been thinking about doing a master’s degree for a while now and I had finally signed up for it, starting in September 2019, right after I was planning to come back from the trail. I also showed my bank statement and explained that a considerable amount had been added to my savings account. After these answers and some quick additional questions, the conversation was basically over. It was even shorter than the last application two months earlier. I was told by the employee that his supervisor would be consulted and that I would receive a message within a week whether or not the visa had been granted. Of course, there was no certainty yet, but this gave me hope, as I had not been rejected immediately. It now depended on what the supervisor thought of my personal situation and whether or not I had sufficiently demonstrated that I had the financial means and the reasons to return to the Netherlands.
Exactly one week later, I received an email with the following message: “Mr. Stroeks, please send in your passport to the U.S. Consulate in Amsterdam at your earliest convenience, your visa has been approved.” The same day the passport was in the mail on its way to the consulate and I finally bought a plane ticket to Los Angeles for March 27, 2019. I am hiking the PCT in 2019!
Another part of the preparation for the Pacific Crest Trail, is the PCT long-distance permit. Firstly, this permit makes it easier for a thru-hiker to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. With the PCTA’s long-distance permit, a separate permit for each national park, forest or wilderness area is not required to be arranged. The permit allows you to go anywhere on the PCT and its diversions, spend the night around the trail and sometimes even gives you discounts at restaurants, etc. Secondly, the permit is important to reduce the impact on the environment and the degradation of the trail. The Pacific Crest Trail has become very popular in recent years and, as there is a relatively tight time schedule (due to the weather window of the Sierra section and the Northern Washington section), everyone aims for a start between mid-March and the end of April. However, only 50 permits are released per day to avoid sending hordes of people onto the path at once. Since people are also allowed to arrange all the necessary permits individually for every national park, forest or wilderness area (the long-distance permit is not mandatory), the environmental impact cannot be controlled completely, but it is definitely a good foundation. The last remark with regards to the permit is that it is not issued to individuals who are hiking less than 500 miles on the PCT. For more information on the long-distance permit, you can check the PCTA’s website here.
There are two rounds in which to apply for the permit: on November 14 (so before I applied for my visa) the portal opened for the first time and 35 permits per day were released. All dates for the year were then available to be chosen as the desired start date. I logged in a few minutes before the portal would open and ended up in an online waiting room at a random place in the queue. Since I was about the 2000th person in the queue, it took about an hour and a half before it was my turn. After this long wait, I could finally choose my desired start date and location. I also indicated whether I was going to do the PCT on horseback or on foot and filled in the required additional information. Despite this large number of people that were in front of me in the queue, my desired start date, March 31, was still available. Two weeks later, I received confirmation that my permit had been approved.
Finally, I’d like to provide you with some information about the Canada PCT entry permit as another form that needs to be considered during the preparation for the Pacific Crest Trail. Officially, the PCT runs from the Mexican border to the Canadian border (or vice versa): it is an American project. On completion of the trail by tagging the monument on the US/Canadian border, there are two options for ending the trail. The first option is to walk the PCT 30 miles (48 km) back south to Harts pass, from where you can hitchhike to civilization. The other option is to walk 8 miles further, into Canada, and end up in Manning Park. However, the Pacific Crest Trail is not an official border crossing, which means you would enter Canada illegally. To solve this, the Canadian government has created a form to allow PCT hikers to enter the country via the trail. The form consists of two pages and is filled out in an instant. However, make sure you allow some time for the form to be processed.
In spite of the fact that this trail is all about getting back to nature and acting on one’s basic needs for a period of a couple of months, the preparation for the Pacific Crest Trail is not that simple and basic, but needs some time and effort. My aim for this blog post was to share my own experiences regarding the necessities that need to be dealt with in preparation for the Pacific Crest Trail and hopefully provide you with some tips and tricks to simplify this somehow. Apart from these necessary, more bureaucratic aspects, the preparation of such an endeavor comprises more aspects, such as reading about the trail, informing yourself about food resupplies along the way and my personal favorite: gear. I have written a separate blog post about lightweight hiking and my gear choices for the Pacific Crest Trail, which you can read here.