By Mary Anne Chute Lynch
(Reprinted with permission from the Pacific Crest Trail Association, www.pcta.org)
If you do not want to be one of those first-time thru-hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail who quits or must be rescued within the first 20 miles, talk to Thomas Claiborne at the southern terminus.
A 2014 thru-hiker—trail name “Dr. Camel”—Thomas will be a trailhead host at the southern terminus from March 24 to June 2 to advise you about how much water to carry and to provide survival tips. There’s been a spike in interest in long-distance hiking, but many people are unprepared for what they are getting into, which has led to an increase in rescue calls and damage to sensitive ecosystems, says Lindsey Steinwachs, Recreation and Lands Officer for the U.S. Forest Service.
“People just don’t know,” she said, which is why the Forest Service and the Pacific Crest Trail Association are, for the first time, hosting an experienced thru-hiker at the Southern Terminus to answer questions and help hikers avoid problems for themselves and the environment.
“The desert tested me physically,” said Thomas, who had been backpacking for eight years and rock climbing five years before he took on the PCT. “The solitude can be unnerving.”
Here are a few key items to talk to him about before you start:
It can be fatal to underestimate the amount of water needed to cross the desert. Dehydration is the major cause of rescues. “A lot of people drop out after the first 100 miles,” Steinwachs says. First-time thru-hikers especially are encouraged to talk to Thomas about how much water they are carrying. “Remember, there’s not a lot of water in the desert. We want people to be safe out there and to understand the risks,” said Mark Larabee, the PCTA’s Associate Director of Communications and Marketing.
Translation, creeks and streams. PCT hikers often do not know to protect rare species in highly-sensitive creeks and streams. Steer clear of them, especially when going to the bathroom and camping. They are not bathtubs or laundromats!
Properly burying your poop is crucial along the entire trail. It’s also considerate. Check with Thomas on how to pick the proper location to go to the bathroom, how far down to dig to dispose of fecal matter, and the absolute need to pack out your toilet paper. There is no Roomba vacuuming the trail behind you!
The best way to preserve the trail. “The trail is sustainably built,” Steinwachs, said. With the increase from 1,041 attempting a thru-hike in 2013 to 3,498 in 2016, and a leap in section hikers from 834 to 2,159 over that same period, some hikers have begun camping in groups. “An area that once was a meadow is now bare ground. What used to be one tent site is now being used by 20. These aren’t official campgrounds” and are not sustainable, Steinwachs says. “After you leave your campsite, no one should know anyone was there.” Thomas can advise you on where and how to camp to avoid damaging the land.
LEAVE NO TRACE
Pack out all your garbage, including toilet paper. That’s just the beginning. Follow the practices above, and learn more from Thomas about food waste, cooking, fire safety, not attracting animals and other ways to preserve the trail for everyone.
Thomas, officially known as the terminus host, is camping at the Campo monument during the most highly-trafficked weeks for the trail in Southern California. Two Forest Service “crest runners,” who will be day-hiking on the first 100 miles every day, will join Thomas in advising hikers and collecting data on trail use.
Through the PCT’s Long-distance Permit process, 50 hikers and horseback riders per day are allotted designated start dates during the peak season. Day-hikers and weekend backpackers also frequent the trail in this area, which is only 60 miles from San Diego. Through the terminus host and crest runners, the Forest Service aims to enable people to backpack safely and successfully while maintaining the natural environment.
Thomas is taking a break from teaching software programming to fill the volunteer positon.
“I see this as a way of giving back to the trail,” said Thomas, who hikes sections of it on weekend getaways from his home in Oakland, Calif. “I am very much attached to the trail. I’m really excited to be outside and to be working with thru-hikers, especially having had that experience.
“You don’t really know what you’re getting yourself into. The only way to know is to do it,” Thomas said. The PCTA and Forest Service hope all hikers will get to know and love the trail in safety for themselves and the environment.