The Road goes ever on and on; Down from the door where it began;
Now far ahead the Road has gone; And I must follow, if I can;
Pursuing it with eager feet; Until it joins some larger way;
Where many paths and errands met; And whither then? I cannot say.

[JRR Tolkien, Lord of the Rings]

Thursday, 19 July 2012

PCT: The Size of the ‘Herd’

Conrad is doing a good job of giving me subjects to write about! In his last comment he asked “about frequency of meeting others, and whether you thought the trail was overpopulated or not”.

I don’t like to feel like I’m walking in a long line of people. I also don’t like the game of constant leap-frog that tends to occur on over-populated trails. Equally (or, perhaps, perversely) I’m quite fond of having a sociable time on a walk (not usually walking with other people, but having others to talk to either in passing, or at rest stops), so it’s a delicate balancing act of finding a route that’s sociable, without it being overcrowded. As it goes, our routes are usually so under-crowded that there’s no social side at all!

In opting to go and walk a chunk of the PCT at exactly the time when the ‘herd’ of thru-hikers would be passing through, I did give thought as to how that would tie in with my ideals of having a sociable time, without feeling hemmed in by other people, but didn’t really know how often and how many people we would encounter.

Depending on which reports you trust, somewhere between 900 and 1300 people were issued with permits by the PCT Association this year, which will include both thru-hikers and people section-hiking 500 miles or more. Of course, some of those people, for one reason or another, won’t have even made it to the start line. Rumour has it that as many as 40% of people drop out of the walk before Agua Dulce (450 miles in), where we started.

So, there were likely somewhere between 500 and 800 people on the trail when we joined and although the peak of the ‘herd’ had passed through by the time we started, we were definitely in still well within ‘thru-hiker season’ (there were over 30 people in Agua Dulce the night we were there).

Perhaps a better indication of the number of people on the trail were the trail registers which appeared often during the desert section. Usually when we found a register, between one and two dozen people had signed the previous day. IMG_4432

Mick scrutinises the trail register just before Kennedy Meadow. Most of the trail registers are contained in metal, hinged-lidded boxes atop a metal pole, like this one.

Yet, because of the different hiking habits of individuals (people couldn’t believe that we were setting out at 4am; we couldn’t understand how some people never got out of camp before 9am), and the way we were all spread out due to the number of options for campsites, only on a small handful of days did we see anywhere near that number of people.

Mainly when we did see people it was at water sources, which were natural gathering places. Sometimes we passed people who were having a break, and sometimes we passed people who were camped (either in the evening or at early in the morning). I can only think of a couple of occasions when we overtook someone, although there were a few occasions when we were overtaken. Only twice did we walk a few miles with someone else.


A great bunch of people! This was the second day after Kennedy Meadows, when we were still bunched up. There were a few more people behind me and thus out of shot.

All of those times were good opportunities for a chat (plus there were all the hikers coming the other way once we got into the High Sierra; oddly we only once met some non-PCT hikers in the desert, and even they were out trying to meet a PCTer), but as soon as we were out walking again we were by ourselves.

Some days, even when trail registers told us there were plenty of other people around, we didn’t see anyone at all.

There were a few exceptions to the solitude. There was a big bunching of people who left Kennedy Meadows on the same morning, and for the next few days we had more people encounters, and more leap-frogging, than before, but by three days out we had all spread out again. Likewise, we met a lot of people when we left the trail to go into Independence, but in that case they were all heading in the opposite direction (so on the way into town we gleaned their top tips on where to go, and on the way out we imparted our knowledge).

So (to answer your question, Conrad), it didn’t feel over-populated at all, but we still had the opportunity of conversation most days; it was definitely on the right side of the balance for us. Whether it will remain that way is in question. According to the trail angel who gave us a lift from the train station to Agua Dulce, there was a book in the best seller list last year about a woman who ‘found herself’ on the PCT and it is feared that there will be a sudden rush of people on the trail next year. However, it will take quite a lot more people before it starts to feel as crowded as the West Highland Way!


  1. The last sentence says it all!
    Here on E5 we really don't expect to see another English person, but Sue seems to manage chat up lines in most languages!

  2. Before opening the comments box I had Phreerunners first sentence in my mind, word for word.

    When I plotted my LEJOG trip I purposely avoided the WHW.

    Thanks for taking the trouble to make well considered and comprehensive answers to my questions.