Often considered the testpiece long-distance thru-hiking trail, the Pacific Crest Trail (or PCT, for short), is one of the most well-known thru-hikes in the world. Thanks in part to the popularity of the book, Wild, and it’s associated movie, the PCT is seeing more and more hikers each year.
If you’re considering a thru-hike of the PCT but are newer to the world of long-distance hiking, you might be wondering about specific dangers you may encounter.
Of course, each year, countless thru-hikers experience minor injuries and illnesses on the world’s hiking trails, but if you’re wondering if the PCT is more dangerous than other trails, you’re not alone. The fact of the matter is that nothing in the outdoors is truly “safe,” as there’s always a risk of injury, illness, or death.
As an incredibly popular hiking trail, the PCT has seen its fair share of injuries and even deaths, but, as with most outdoor pursuits, the right knowledge, skills, equipment, experience, and risk management techniques can mitigate most dangers to an acceptable level.
Still not convinced? Coming up, we’ll discuss the ten major hazards of the PCT and give you some statistics to show how dangerous hiking actually is. Let’s get to it!
Is the PCT Dangerous? Here’s 10 hazards to be prepared for:
It turns out that falls are a top cause of both injury and death on the PCT. In fact, at least four PCT thru-hikers have died from falling during their time on the trail. In general, experienced hikers don’t just “fall” from a trail, though. More often than not, hikers are at an exposed part of the trail (perhaps crossing an alpine pass) or underestimate the slipperiness of the terrain after recent rain or snowfall.
When it comes to managing the risk of a fall while thru-hiking the PCT, the onus is on the hiker to understand their abilities in complex, rocky, and exposed terrain and to be conservative when approaching cliff edges, especially in damp and icy conditions.
2. Drowning/River Crossings
Perhaps one of the most underestimated hazards in the mountains, river crossings can pose a huge danger to any thru-hiker, particularly early in the spring or summer seasons during the annual snow melt. During these times, rivers are at their highest flows, which can make them tricky to pass.
Coupled with the fact that many thru-hikers travel solo (which makes big water river crossings much more dangerous and difficult), and the desire to cover as many miles as possible in a day, thus leading to rushed decision making, river crossings have killed at least two PCT thru-hikers in recent years.
Although every river crossing has a risk, it is possible to manage the inherent hazards of river crossings with the right skills and experience. The ability to judge and analyze a river, the ability to choose the right river crossing technique, and the willingness to hike extra miles to find a better crossing location are paramount in minimizing the hazards of a river.
We know, we know – motor vehicles weren’t exactly on the top of your list of major hazards on the PCT. However, since a car crash killed two PCT thru-hikers in 1995, it’s certainly worth a mention.
In fact, if you ask a group of outdoor educators and guides, many of them will probably say that the drive to the trailhead, crag, or river is the most dangerous part of the day. Based on the statistics we talked about from the National Safety Council, we’d have to agree.
It’s important to note that, although only two people have died to date in a car crash while thru-hiking the PCT, getting hit by a car is a real danger for all long-distance hikers. If you’re going to be on a trail for more than a week or so, you’ll likely need to get a resupply of food and fuel from a nearby town, which means crossing highways and walking on roads. Be sure to look both ways when crossing the street!
4. Extreme Heat and Cold
The PCT is 2,650 miles (4,264 km) long and crosses through both deserts and high mountain passes. As you can imagine, PCT thru-hikers face a wide range of different temperature conditions, from extreme heat to extreme cold, which can pose a huge risk to human life.
At least one, if not two, PCT deaths have been attributed to heatstroke over the years, and countless other PCT thru-hikers have likely felt the effects of heat exhaustion and heat stress during the summer months on the southern section of the trail.
Indeed, with more and more hikers on the PCT each year, and with more arriving with less experience and insufficient equipment, we’ll likely see an increase in extreme heat and cold-related injuries and fatalities on the trail. The key here is to understand the risks of hyper- and hypothermia and how to prevent both conditions with proper layering, nutrition, and equipment during difficult conditions.
There are no two ways about it – the southern California desert and the Sierra Nevada are dry places to be and water sources can be few and far between. Especially in a low snow pack season, natural water sources may unreliable and dry when a hiker needs them most.
Although no deaths have been recorded to date due to dehydration on the PCT, one can only imagine how many people have run out of water during their time of the trail, only to stumble into a camp many hours later on the verge of dehydration.
When it comes to preventing dehydration, a thorough understanding of how much water one needs while hiking is critical. Additionally, all thru-hikers should have a good idea of the water situation during each day’s hike and be prepared to carry excess water over dry sections of the trail.
If you were to ask a non-hiker what the main danger on any hiking trail would be, their answer would likely have something to do with bears. Thankfully, our furry, four-legged friends actually account for very few deaths each year in the mountains (around 30 in the US and Canada since 2000), and have yet to kill anyone on the PCT.
It turns out that black and brown bears (this includes grizzlies) rarely show predatory instincts against humans. Sure, there have been the odd cases of predatory male black bears, but, more often than not, bear attacks are due to defensive reactions when they are in close proximity to humans.
Indeed, the deadliest animal on Earth isn’t the bear, it’s the mosquito, which, thanks to its ability to spread an insane number of deadly diseases, is the critter you should really be watching out for.
Thankfully, there isn’t too terribly much risk of contracting a mosquito-borne illness on the PCT, though cases of malaria, western equine encephalomyelitis (WEE), and West Nile Virus (WNV) have been documented in the state of California, so some bug spray and a bug net can be helpful in keeping the skeeters at bay.
When it comes to PCT thru-hikes, however, for the most part, we wouldn’t let the idea of a negative wildlife encounter keep you from the trail. In the southern part of the trail, you’ll want to keep an eye out for venomous snakes and know what to do if you get bitten.
On the rest of the trail (from the Sierra Nevada to the North Cascades), where bears reside, you’ll want to carry a bear spray (unless it’s not allowed by law – bear spray is illegal in Yosemite National Park) and know how to use it.
Proper bear camping tactics are essential, as is proper food storage (either in a bear hang or bear canister, depending on local regulations). It’s also a good idea to learn a bit about bear behavior and what to do when you encounter a bear as this can prevent a pleasant wildlife sighting from turning into a disaster.
In mountain ranges, such as the Sierra Nevada, lightning is fairly common, which can pose a huge risk to hikers and climbers, alike. However, while lighting is another one of those objective hazards that scare people to no end, it turns out that getting struck by lightning just isn’t that common.
According to the National Weather Service, a subsidiary of NOAA, the odds of being struck by lightning in a given year is 1 out of 1,222,000. To put it simply, it’s just not that likely.
However, while getting struck by lightning isn’t very likely, if you are struck by lightning, it can cause immediate cardiac arrest (i.e. your heart stops), so it’s not an ideal thing to have happen in the mountains.
That being said, while there’s no way to completely protect yourself from getting struck by lightning in the mountains, there are some things you can do to mitigate your risk. Here are a few:
- Avoid ridge lines, peaks, and exposed places in the late afternoon, when lightning storms tend to build
- If a storm approaches, don’t be the tallest thing around. Seeking shelter in a patch of uniform-height trees is ideal, though you have to make do with your surroundings
- Get off of the water and away from a shoreline if you’re swimming during a storm
- Don’t hide in shallow caves or depressions as these can redirect a lightning strike toward you
- If you’re in a group, split up. This way, if part of your group is struck by lightning, the others can administer CPR and other first aid.
Ultimately, the chances of getting struck by lightning aren’t that high, but getting struck by lightning can cause some serious injuries or death. Thankfully, it is possible to survive a lightning strike (only 10% of people die after being struck by lightning), so it’s about being prepared and knowing how to provide first aid in those situations.
On the PCT, the main weather phenomenon (besides extreme heat and cold) that poses a danger to thru-hikers are snow and wildfires.
When it comes to snow, often early-season hikers and late-season hikers get caught out in more snow than they’re anticipating, which can lead to difficult travel, wet boots and gear, and the possibility of developing frostbite, a non-freezing cold injury (i.e. trench foot), or hypothermia. In these situations, a good understanding of winter camping principles and techniques, as well as the proper gear, is essential.
Alternatively, wildfires are posing more and more of a danger to thru-hikers each year, especially in the Sierra Nevada. Whether naturally or human-caused, wildfires can start and spread incredibly quickly, meaning an unsuspecting thru-hiker can easily get trapped in the mountains with little notice. If you’re out hiking the PCT in California during wildfire season, check CalFire’s maps as frequently as possible and be ready to self-evacuate quickly if you smell and see lots of smoke.
9. Poor Personal Hygiene
While many people blame their gastrointestinal problems on trail on the water they’re drinking, if you ask an outdoor educator (like myself) that’s spent a whole lot of time outdoors, it turns out that poor personal hygiene is more likely to give you the runs than anything else.
There seems to be a trend in thinking that being outside means you can slack off on your hygiene. Sure, when you’re outside, you might be covered in dirt, but that doesn’t mean you have to be dirty. Thoroughly washing one’s hands (yes, with soap and water – NOT just hand sanitizer) both after using the loo and before cooking is critical in the outdoors.
Does this mean you don’t have to treat your water on the PCT? Well, it’s probably best to do so, too, but don’t shirk off your personal hygiene responsibilities if you want to avoid a bout of digestive purgatory during your thru-hike.
10. Rock and Tree Fall
Last, but not least, is the always-present hazard of rock and tree fall. Anyone that’s lived through a storm with high winds knows that even the sturdiest-looking tree out there can fall without a moment’s notice. If that wasn’t bad enough, even the largest pieces of rock can catastrophically collapse without warning (see El Cap’s rockfall incidents of 2017 and 2019), destroying everything in its wake.
For anyone outdoors, this is a nearly omnipresent hazard, however, there are ways in which we can mitigate the risk of rock and tree fall. When setting up camp, we can be sure not to do so anywhere where there are obviously dead trees (known as widow makers) hanging overhead and anywhere that’s not in the direct line of rockfall.
Additionally, whenever we’re travelling in the mountains, we need to be cognizant of the risk of rockfall and understand the likelihood and consequence of rockfall in that terrain so we can make a decision as to whether or not we’re comfortable moving through that area. This is a skill that takes time and practice to develop but is essential for all outdoor enthusiasts.
So, just how dangerous is hiking in general?
When it comes to outdoor pursuits, the general public has a pretty skewed perception of how dangerous hiking (or any outdoor pursuit, for that matter) actually is. Indeed, many people believe that hiking is very dangerous, but when we look at the statistics, you’re much more likely to die while taking part in some banal daily task, like driving, than you ever are while hiking.
Don’t believe us? According to the CDC, the leading causes of death in adults are:
- Heart disease
- Chronic lower respiratory diseases
- Alzheimer’s disease
According to the National Safety Council, your lifetime odds of dying of heart disease are 1 in 6 and your odds of dying of cancer are 1 out of 7 in the US. Additionally, your lifetime odds of dying in a motor vehicle crash are 1 in 103 – that’s 1% of all deaths in the United States!
Alternatively, the annual mortality risk of hiking is estimated at 1 in 15,700. We like those odds quite a bit better.
Of course, no one wants to die or get injured while hiking. Thankfully, hiking the PCT is relatively “safe”, especially when compared with other activities, like driving. However, nothing is truly 100% “safe” as everything we do has some inherent risk.
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David is an accomplished mountain endurance athlete who has completed over 25 ultra marathon races (follow on Strava). He is most proud of his finish at The Drift 100 – a high elevation, 100 mile winter foot race that zigzags along the Continental Divide in Wyoming. In the future he hopes to compete in the ITI 350 and ultimately the full 1,000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational that follows the same path as the historic dog sled race.