‘America’s Wild Spaces’ Rules of the Trail

The Pacific Crest Trail is full of ever-changing obstacles— from some of the highest mountain passes in the west to the hottest desert in the country. The two to three hundred thru-hikers who attempt the PCT each year find out quickly if they have what it takes for the journey ahead. If you’re thinking about hitting the trail for the first time, or even if you’re a seasoned veteran, follow the America’s Wild Spaces Rules of the Trail to become a true trail master:

Rule #1: Lighten Up
That nifty self-inflating sleeping mat might be easier on your back while you’re asleep, but carrying the extra six pounds all day might make a big difference miles down the trail. When you’re packing, stop and think: Do I really need this? Chances are you don’t.

 Rule #2: Some Things Are Worth the Weight
Of course there are some things you can’t live without— and we’re not talking about a utility knife. You’re more likely to make it to the end of the trail if you enjoy the journey. So pack that banjo if that’s your thing! Just be sure it’s worth the weight.

 Rule #3: Carry Enough Water
The Pacific Crest trail winds through approximately 700 miles of desert, including the hottest desert in America: the Mojave Desert. Water sources will often determine how long and how far you hike each day, and different people consume and lose water at different rates. It’s recommended that hikers carry and drink a gallon (4 liters) every day. The PCT Wiki is a great resource for all the trail information you may want, including water locations.

Rule #4: Believe in Magic
It’s called ‘trail magic’, or the unexpected appearance of what a hiker needs right when they need it. But while an unexpected gallon of water for a thirsty hiker on the Pacific Crest Trail can feel magical, the person who placed it there is very real. ‘Trail Angels‘ are volunteers who take the time to help out hikers by providing them with random acts of awesome— a gallon of water, extra food or even transportation.

Rule #5: Know Your Map
Being a successful hiker also means being like the mountain lion, one of the most elusive animals one can find on the PCT. She knows every watering hole, where to find every meal and where to sleep. Knowing how to judge distance on your map, as well as the location of potential camping spots and provision stores will keep you on track. It’s not enough to have direction, you need to have a plan.

Rule #6: Avoid the Heat
Something else the mountain lion knows: When it gets too hot, do the majority of your hiking in the mornings and evenings and rest during the hottest part of the day.

Rule #7: Adapt to Your Surroundings
The PCT winds through extremes of both heat and cold. If you are thru-hiking the trail, it will be necessary to swap out warm weather gear for cold as you make your way higher in elevation and lower in temperature. For two months every year, Kennedy Meadows General Store becomes a makeshift post office where hikers pick up new gear and send some home. If you can’t carry your cold weather gear, swap it out.

Rule #8: Pack Calories for the Cold
Moving in cold weather means using more calories, which you’ll have to make up in order to keep going. Eating also generates heat, which warms your body. So be sure to pack more food and ration your meals in colder climates.

Rule #9: Beware of Bears

Around 10,000 black bears live in the Sierras. Those bears usually stay below 6,000 feet- well below the trail and far away from hikers, but that’s been changing. Bears now follow the PCT to well above 10,000 feet. They do it to get to hikers, but not to eat them. They’re after the food those hikers carry. But the hikers who caused this shift can also fix the problem. The key is proper food storage. The first bear-proof canister was designed in 1984, and now hikers are required to carry them.

Rule #10: Keep It Fun
Remember rule #2? Here’s where that banjo comes in handy. Thru-hiking a trail like the PCT is about the journey. And while the ultimate goal is to reach the end of the trail at the Canadian border, the memories you make along the way are what will stay with you for a lifetime.

Rule #11: Take Care of Your Legs (And Your Feet!)
Your legs are what’s going to get you there, so don’t sell them short. Take off your shoes every once in a while and swish your feet in a stream or elevate them to reduce swelling. And be sure to pack clean socks and wash and change them regularly.


Now you’re ready to hit the trail. Put on your hiking boots and don’t forget to tune in to America’s Wild Spaces: Pacific Crest Trail tonight, August 8th at 7P et/pt on Nat Geo WILD.