April is the Worst Time to Start the Pacific Crest Trail. Here’s Why.

*This article has a new and more beautiful home at HikerBeta! Check it out*

Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017

By Daniel “Beta” Winsor

 

…ok, ok, so maybe it’s not the absolute worst time. December, for instance, probably deserves that title.

I thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail this year, starting on March 26th. But if I did it again, I’d start a week earlier.

Heresy, I know.

Because April 15th, plus or minus a few days, has traditionally been THE time to get on the trail headed north. Last season, those permit dates were the first to go, within minutes of the permits opening up. You ask a group online for their opinion, they’ll tell you mid-April. You read a book on the PCT, you’ll get the same answer.

It’s not a very good answer.

Now I’m not saying it can’t be done, obviously many people have started in April over the years and did just fine. I’m proposing that more people think about starting in March, specifically the last two weeks of March. Here’s a few of the rationales behind starting in April, and why March is almost always a better answer.

1. Snow in Southern California

Specifically Fuller Ridge near Mt. San Jacinto and then Mt. Baden-Powell later on. Honestly, there’s not much too worry about here.

I went through Fuller Ridge on April 5th on one of the highest snow years in recent history… and it was about five miles of low angle snow. People were getting through without any snow gear (not recommended). For me, it was slow, but manageable, in microspikes. Hikers with crampons used words like “cake” and “joke” enough to make me wish I had crampons.

People summit Mt. San Jacinto in the winter. You just hiked over a hundred miles to get to Fuller Ridge. You can most likely handle walking along a peripheral ridge for a few miles in the spring.

Low angle snow on Fuller Ridge in April. Pretty scary, I know.

Mt. Baden-Powell is along the same lines as San Jacinto. The snow is steeper, but only slightly, and longer, about ten miles. Many of us managed just fine with microspikes, but those with crampons ran across with a common theme of “was that it?” once they were off snow again.

If there’s ANY snow in the Sierra you’ll be dealing with (a.k.a. every year that isn’t an extreme drought year), don’t fear the small patches of snow in SoCal. Get your ice axe and crampons out and go boost your confidence. Never used those things before? Go learn! It’s a great opportunity to figure out if you feel ready to tackle Sierra snow or if you need to flip up north to avoid the white stuff.

There is MUCH chatter about those first snowy obstacles. This is the first time you’ll likely see the word “impassible” crop up online…

Low angle snow is never impassible with the right gear.

Moderate angle snow on Baden-Powell. With crampons, this section is a piece of cake.

2. Snow in the Sierra Nevada

If you start the PCT in March, then there will be a ton of snow in the Sierra, right?? Yes and no, it really depends on the snow year.

The steep backside of Glen Pass in May 2017. Definitely a high snow year.
During high snow years:

…such as 2011 and 2017, starting in March puts you in Kennedy Meadows in late April or early May. Most people will need a few days to put their gear together before entering the snow, then you’ll enter into the Sierra in the first or second week of May. At a comfortable pace in the hard, firm snow, you’ll exit the Sierra in the first couple weeks of June.

Does that sound early? It is, BUT you get to leave the Sierra before the melt happens in mid-to-late June when crossing creeks becomes a harrowing, dangerous obstacle. Traveling on snow isn’t (terribly) dangerous, crossing creeks is dangerous. Snow is slow, but you’ll keep moving safely forward. Swollen creeks have the potential to turn you around or even kill you. Many of the creeks, up to 80% of them, are possible to cross on snow bridges during the month of May after heavy winters.

Unfortunately, a well known rule-of-thumb is to leave Kennedy Meadows on “Ray Day”, which is June 15th. Hikers who followed this guidance in 2017 damn near gave themselves a death sentence. Most who went into the Sierra in the month of June were forced to bail. Some even died.

Go when the snow is still snow.

Snowbridges. The gift of the early season.
During low snow years:

…such as the drought years from 2012 to 2016, March is still the better answer. You aren’t racing to get to the Sierra before the melt happens, but seeing the Sierra in at least some snow and solitude before the crowds move in on the John Muir Trail portion of the PCT will be the highlight of your hike.

An earlier start gives you the gift of time also. The Sierra is an incredible place, most hikers consider it their favorite section of the whole trail. Nobody should be running through it. There’s plenty of monotonous hiking in the hundreds of miles ahead to push mileage.

Beautiful, frozen Rae Lakes. Stay here for a mind-blowing zero!

There’s great trail towns and side trips all along the Sierra also, take more zeros! Like Bishop, California? Stay there a couple extra days. Mammoth is great spot to go skiing in June! You’ll hike right by Yosemite Valley, an incredible side trip to go play tourist for a day or two.

3. It’s too cold.

I’d actually flip this concern and consider it too hot to start hiking in April.

Even in April, desert sections can be hot.

Starting in late March means you’ll be hiking through Southern California section mostly in April. The hottest and most waterless sections of the PCT happen 3-4 weeks after you start, just before getting to Kennedy Meadows.

Water is a big factor here too. Seasonal water sources in Southern California start dwindling in early May, some even earlier. Without those intermittent water sources, you have to carry more water. Some stretches can be 7-8 liters, even more if you’re hiking slow. The most I had to carry was five liters, which turned out to be excessive.

Water caches are a personal enemy of mine (more on that later), but they are a (wrongly) heavily relied on source through those hottest sections, sometimes getting hikers in trouble. Caches tend to be well stocked very early in the season, even before they’re really necessary, but many run dry as the folks who were maintaining the caches don’t have the time/energy/money to keep them stocked the whole season. Earlier hikers have a better chance coming across water in the water caches.

Kelso Road water cache. Over 30 gallons were there when I passed through, but this went dry at least once later in the season.

TO BE CLEAR: NOBODY SHOULD BE RELYING ON WATER CACHES.

I apologize for all the capitol letters, how annoying. But anyways…

If you start in April, you’ll be walking through 90F days in May with disappearing seasonal water sources and questionable water caches. Starting in March, you’ll be walking through 70F days in April with every seasonal water source flowing and freshly stocked water caches.

One of those sounds a bit better than the other, right?

Oh, but you can just hike through the night to beat the heat? Uh. There’s cool stuff to look at out there. Why would you want to miss it? You could just stick a treadmill in your basement, stop showering, and turn off the lights if that’s all you wanted out of your thru-hike.

…although you’d also have to pencil in some off-treadmill time for the psychiatrist.

As for the cold, if you have a 20F sleeping bag, you’ll be fine. My coldest morning in Southern California was 23F near Big Bear. But then I was sleeping back in the 20’s the last few days in Washington! If I had started later, I’d have been spending the last weeks on the trail even colder, through snow storms and other garbage that NO ONE wants to backpack through in the final weeks of such and long, exhausting trip. The beginning of any thru-hike is the time to be uncomfortable, not the end.

4. There aren’t any trail angels or trail magic around in March.

Wrong. One of the best parts of hiking in the early season is that you’re one of the first PCT faces most people are seeing. You’re ahead of the “herd” of hikers, so businesses are still happy to see you. No asshat thru-hikers (yes, these exist) have come along to put a bad taste in anyone’s mouth yet. You’re still a novelty in trail towns. You’re the ONLY hiker at bars and restaurants. People haven’t seen PCTers in a while, so they want to say hi and buy you beers and give you rides. You know what people want to do when they walk into a bar with 20 thru-hikers? Probably leave after they throw up, because why would a hiker shower first when there’s hot food waiting?!

Big trail angel stops are still psyched on the season starting. You’re in places like Hiker Heaven and Hiker Town with less than 10 other people, not 50 or 60.

Set up at Hiker Heaven for the night with juuuust the right number of hikers…

Just like thru-hikers, trail angels get worn out as the season goes on. By the end of the “herd”, there’s fewer and fewer trail angels around. Earlier season hikers easily have it the best when it comes to trail angels, and this continues all the way up to Canada.

5. I’ll miss the bubble of hikers if I start in March!

Uh. Good.

Not that all thru-hikers aren’t amazing people, I made many incredible friends on my thru, but think about what happens when there’s 50 people starting the trail every day for weeks before you and weeks after…

What are the odds that perfect campsite is free at the end of the day?

When someone leaves a couple six-packs of IPA’s as trail magic, what are the odds there will be one left for you?

Ever tried hitch-hiking along a road with 20 other hitch-hikers?

You like solitude? Hopefully you’ll get over that.

The opposite of solitude in the “bubble”.

I don’t mean to say that a ton of thru-hikers on the trail is a bad thing, but some people like it, some people don’t. I prefer a tight-knit group of hikers I can get to know, but spend as much time alone as I want. That’s what I got by starting in March.

Final Consideration: Permits

This upcoming year is the first time permits will be given out in November, before anyone has any idea what will happen during the upcoming winter! This is understandably frustrating for 2018 thru-hikers.

So what’s the safe bet if you’re not particularly good at telling the future? Once again: March.

If you go with an April permit and we have a dry winter, you’re in for a hot, waterless desert section. If we see another high snow year, an April permit will put you in the Sierra right when the rivers get dangerous.

If you go with a March permit and we have a dry winter, you’re in for a pleasant desert hike with decent water sources. If we see another high snow year, a March permit will give you choices: head straight through the Sierra on hard snow before the melt, flip up to Hat Creek Rim while it’s still pleasant, or drink beer in Bishop hoping it all melts (which this year, it oddly did).

The earlier permit thing sucks. No way around that. But if you’d like to play it safe, March is the way to go. The beautiful advantage to starting early is that you can always take more zeros. If you start too late, you can’t insert time into your hike if you need more.

All considered, you have to choose your starting date based around many more factors. Time off from work, time away from loved ones, financial limitations etc. The most important thing about choosing a start date is to allow as much time as possible for your journey. Nobody wants to death march through such an amazing trail. Take your time, stay uninjured, and go camp next to that gorgeous lake! A core regret of many thru-hikers is not allowing themselves time to thoroughly enjoy the trail.

Starting in March will give you that time.

The author cruising through the solitary glory of the JMT in May.

 

 

 

20 Replies to “April is the Worst Time to Start the Pacific Crest Trail. Here’s Why.”

  1. I love this idea, but am concerned that if you go too early, the resupply places in the Sierra won’t be open yet…like VVR, etc. How did you do your resupplies?

    1. It actually wasn’t terrible. At about 11 miles/day, started at Kennedy Meadows, then 6/7 days to Kearsarge Pass (Independence), then 9(ish) days to Mammoth, then 8/9 days to Sonora Pass. Not the lightest food carries, but not impossible either. I always had a couple extra days of food on top of those supplies, just in case I couldn’t get past a creek/pass and had to backtrack to get out safely.

  2. Great piece Daniel! Was the snow firm enough that you didn’t post-hole much? Would snowshoes be a good option that early in the season? Thanks

    1. Hey Luke! The snow would start turning into mushy, post-holing garbage around 11 a.m., so we ended up hiking early each day. From about 3 to 11 a.m. to ensure we had perfect snow to walk on. Snowshoes were incredible. I ended up in them probably 70% of the time, but they aren’t 100% necessary. Just crampons will also work.

      1. Daniel, which brand/ style of snowshoes would you recommend? I’ve never hiked in the snow before, but am headed to Central Oregon to begin my prep throughout this winter. TIA 🙂

        1. Well, the cheapest/lightest/durable-enough option is the MSR Lightening Ascent series. This is what my parter in the Sierra (Amped) used. I used Tubbs Flex ALP. They’re more aggressive (bigger teeth), easier to strap on, less clumsy, and more durable BUT they’re quite a bit more expensive. You can’t really go wrong with either choice. I wish I had more experience with more brands, but for what it’s worth, I’ll never stray from Tubbs for the rest of my damn life, lol. Those things made the Sierra feel doable and stayed on my feet 70% of the time.

  3. Excellent piece Daniel! You have convinced me to start in March. I was originally shooting for April 8thish but am moving it up to March. You have made so many good points; especially about
    being ahead of the heard. Based on all the horror stories about Fuller Ridge etc, I was reluctant to start too early but you have made me feel much more at ease about dealing with the snow. Because of your insights, I will be carrying crampons instead of microspikes if it’s a high snow year. Love your point about night hiking through the desert sections. I want to actually see all that the trail has to offer and not just get through it.
    Thank you so much for your very clear-headed and rational insights and advice!

    1. Thanks, Dennis! You’ll be happy with the early start, I promise. Rest assured that with a little care and crampons on your feet, Fuller Ridge and Baden Powell will go down easy. Night hiking has never appealed to me. The landscapes are why I’m out there. I’ve never understood how people can enjoy missing out on seeing what they’re working hard to walk through… I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

  4. I hiked the AT twenty years ago and pretty much rushed through it (4/4/97-8/13/97). Next year
    I plan on not doing what I had done on the AT; manically hiking from sunrise to sunset putting
    in a lot of high-mileage days just to get to the finish line…and over with. This time, I’m going to force myself to slow down and enjoy all that the PCT has to offer. I think a lot of us get caught up in the end goal without learning to relax, enjoy the ride and take it all in.

    I’m very much enjoying your blog updates. I admire your determination (and stubborness) to complete a true thru-hike without skipping sections. And I can totally relate to “I wanted to perfect the art of smiling through suffering”. It is one of my goals on the PCT next year; even before reading it on your blog. Thanks!

  5. Thanks for great article. It is persuasive.
    Do you ski? If so, what do you think of an idea to bring lightweight cross-country skis for Sierra?

    1. Hello Gehn, thank you for the kind words. I actually don’t ski, always been a snowboarder-type. I think skis would be a great way to move through the backcountry if you had the expertise to stay safe. One of the few “thru-skiers” this year ended up in an avalanche near Glen Pass…

  6. Hi Daniel! I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions via email or your chosen form of communication. I just got a March 22 start date for 2018 and thought you might have a bit of advice. I assume you can see my email here, but others can’t?

    1. Hello Ali! I actually can’t see your email address… but if you find me on Facebook Messenger, I’d be glad to answer some questions.

    1. With the right methods, it’s not very difficult. Tedious, yes. But we got really good at navigation over the snow. Take a look at my blogs on Hikerbeta.com if you get the chance! That would give you a good idea of the day-to-day challenges of the snowy Sierra.

  7. Hello Sir!

    I should be hiking the PCT this year. My permit begins March 15th. I gotta ask about temps you experienced (this is the main thing Im concerned about) on postholer.com https://www.postholer.com/databook/Pacific-Crest-Trail/1/942.16 it says that the average low is in the teens in certain parts of the Sierra around April. Should I be expecting to wake up to temps in the teens every morning?

    Also what time does the sun rise/set?

    Lastly Id like to know what major towns/resupplies are closed around April (when you thru hiked) if you know it at the top of your head.

  8. Hello Sir!

    I love the material you put up. I should be hiking the PCT this year. My permit begins March 15th. I gotta ask about temps you experienced (this is the main thing Im concerned about) on postholer.com https://www.postholer.com/databook/Pacific-Crest-Trail/1/942.16 it says that the average low is in the teens in certain parts of the Sierra around April. Should I be expecting to wake up to temps in the teens every morning?

    Also what time does the sun rise/set?

    Lastly Id like to know what major towns/resupplies are closed around April (when you thru hiked) if you know it at the top of your head.

    1. Hello Jean Paul!

      Starting in mid-March is a great time for the southern 700 miles (before entering the Sierra), but I wouldn’t recommend entering the Sierra before May 1st, so my advice would be to take your time building your hiking strength and endurance for the first couple months.

      If you 100% are dedicated to entering the Sierra before May 1st, just be aware that snow storms will happen. Almost guaranteed. They’re no joke, temps down to the single digits, crazy winds, sometimes days long… not a comfortable place to be, but also not impossible for the well-prepared.

      If I was heading past Kennedy Meadows in April, I’d pack for temps as low as 0 degrees. In May, I was waking up anywhere from 10F to 25F each morning. I also had to work through three separate snow storms. Not impossible, but in April you’d be in lower temps and possibly more/more severe storms.

      Postholer is an interesting source of data… but the Sierra is a notoriously unruley mountain range. Averages are almost meaningless. The owner of Postholer is an outspoken fear monger against anyone entering the Sierra before mid-June. He’s also never been back there in April/May. Take what you find on that site with a grain of salt.

      Sunrise/Sunset was maybe 530 a.m. till around 830 p.m.? Very long days. I spent most of my days waking up at 2 or 3 a.m. and quitting by 11 a.m. to stay on perfect, hard snow.

      Resupply is easy enough in the early season. Kennedy Meadows, Independence via Kearsarge Pass, Mammoth, then Sonora Pass. Max carry would be maybe 11 days at a reasonable pace. VVR, Red’s, and Tuolumne Meadows would all be potentially still closed. Although if this winter remains mild, they’ll all be open in late-May.

      Hopefully this is helpful. I don’t know if you’ve seen the blogs I’ve written covering my time in the Sierra, but check them out for a realistic look into the early season Sierra. Hikerbeta.com is where I post all my newest ones. I’m currently working on a book, so I stopped publicly posting my writing once I hit Mammoth, but there’s plenty to learn from up until then.

      Best of luck!

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