nobo, sobo, flip-flop?

More than 95% of PCT thru-hikers start at the Mexican border and walk north to Canada. Here’s the lowdown on the directions:

Northbound

You will be referred to as a NoBo. In 2014 there was an estimated 1500-2000 NoBos.

There will be many people around you, especially in the beginning before the pack starts to spread and some people quit. This will have social implications: You will make many friends and maybe even a partner, there will be options to party and you’ll have people around you if you’re a bit scared of walking alone in the wilderness. It will also cause some trail-gossip to develop, and some of your wilderness-experience will be diluted.

You will likely be starting between March 20 and May 1, depending on the snowpack that year and on your estimated walking speed. You should aim at finishing before September 20, in order to avoid snow in the Cascades.

You will have a little more time to complete the hike than the SoBos. You’re probably looking at 20 miles per day once you get in shape and 1-2 rest days per week. Physically, this is doable for most normally fit people. Your mind is the challenge, here.

You will encounter some local resistance when 100 hikers take over a gas station. Practically, it will also add some problems, as camping space and water cache volume might prove too small. Some resupply shops will have empty shelves.

You, generally, have less snow-risk than a south-bounder. You will likely encounter some pack snow in the south of California and likely also some pack snow around the passes in the Sierras. Oregon and Washington should be free of snow, but no guarantee, especially as the calender ticks deeper into September. Cold rain for days could become an issue in the Cascades, so consider raingear.

You will have more access to water in the South of California as more creeks are running in the spring and more water caches are maintained for the “main pack” of hikers, the nobo’s. However, remember that Southern California is drought-prone and keep yourself updated on the water report at http://www.pctwater.com.

Rattlesnakes are around in Southern California, but might be scared away by the hiker who is 10 minutes ahead of you. But look out.

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Southbound

You’ll be referred to as a SoBo.

You will have far less people around you and need to trust yourself from day one. That said, you will meet some other sobo’s and develop friendships. In 2014 there was an estimated 40 SoBos.

You will likely be starting in the first week of July and should aim at getting through the Sierras of California before October 20. The Sierras within snow in November could prove outright dangerous, unless you’re mountaineer and its not entirely risk-free in October either. Once you’re through the Sierras, you’re not in any specific rush; but lack of water, a desire to finish and your fitness means that you’ll probably finish in mid-late November. You shouldn’t linger in the high San Bernandino mountains of Southern California deep into December.

You will likely have to walk 25 miles per day and reach this mileage within 10 days of your start. You can allow yourself 1 rest day per week. Relax, it’s much easier than it sounds and the mental challenge will prove to be larger than the physical.

Local resorts and gas stations might welcome you slightly more generous as you are not part of a large pack of dirty daily hikers. Sure, you can charge your phone and get an extra cup of coffee. Drink beer? Wanna pie?

You will be facing more snow, especially in the beginning of your hike. The first two weeks will involve crossing a long series of white, lonely mountain passes in the Cascades, far far away from everything. You will need to know how to navigate through pack snow and know how to self-arrest in case you start to slide on a steep slope. You will likely not encounter much new fallen snow in the Cascades. If you lack experience and are scared of this snow, you should consider looking for a buddy to start your hike with (try the facebook group). You will have to deal with the risk of newfallen snow in the Sierras, which could prove dangerous unless you know what you’re doing. The deeper the calender ticks into October, the bigger the risk of a serious white-out, at 11000+ feet, that is. However, when you reach the Sierras, you have 2,5 months of hiking and hence some outdoor experience with you.

You will face a shortage of water, once you leave the Sierras: Most creeks in Southern California are dry by fall and many water caches are only maintained for the NoBo’s. During this period, the trail will be empty, so you need to know what you’re doing and exercise correct water management. Miscalculate your water supply and things could get very hairy in the lonely desert. Stay updated and report at pctwater.com

Most of the rattlesnakes have sought shelter for the season when you arrive in Southern California. An experience, and a worry, less.

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Flipflopping

You will hike some of the trail in a northbounding direction and some in a southbounding direction.

You will have optimal chances of “playing out” the weather and avoid risky snowstorms and long dry desert sections.

You will face an annoying, and likely a little expensive, process of transporting yourself to a new section of trail each time you flip-flop.

You can choose to socialize and party for some of your hike and then flop over to an empty section once the trail-gossip starts to bother you.

You will belong to a group of limited size, though you might feel that you’re not really part of any group.

You can absolutely call yourself a thru-hiker, as you’re walking the entire trail in one season.
Maybe you’ll find it a bit confusing and will miss the continuity when you’re not walking in one consistent direction but instead go from desert to high granite mountains on a … bus?!

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