The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) spans 2,650 miles from California’s border with Mexico to Boundary Monument 78 on the U.S./Canada border in Washington state. The Pacific Crest Trail Association noted that in 2017, nearly 4,000 long-distance permits were issued to thru-hikers and horseback riders from all 50 states and 46 countries and territories.
One of those thru-hikers came from Australia. Rachel Coffey, the daughter of 2 schoolteachers who took her camping and bushwalking on holidays, grew up in a small coastal town south of Melbourne. In 2016, Coffey was “searching for direction, challenge and inspiration,” which led her to fly to the U.S. on a whim and hike the John Muir Trail (JMT). The beauty and happiness she experienced on that adventure led her to commit to hiking the PCT the following year.
Coffey spent 5 intense months hiking the PCT in a year that presented extraordinary challenges due to record-breaking snowpack in the mountains and raging wildfires. Coffey shared with Garmin the details of her experience and advice for hikers considering the PCT.
What planning is essential for the PCT? What were the gear choices you made? And what proved to be essential?
I spent so many sleepless nights researching gear and trying to find the best utility-to-weight ratio for me. I absolutely loved my sleep system. I was freezing on the JMT, so I learned from that and invested in a cozy sleeping bag, a really comfortable and warm inflatable mattress and a small inflatable pillow. There wasn’t a single night that I didn’t crawl into bed and feel thankful to be warm, dry and comfortable.
It was a constant battle to keep my pack as light as possible, so with every item I chose to add, I had to sacrifice something else. For the first 2 months, I went without my stove so that I could carry an extra piece of camera gear. I managed to convince myself that drinking cold instant coffee dissolved in an ice-cream container was an acceptable way to live. Let me assure you, it is not! I’ll never hike stove-less again!
Was safety ever a concern for you, being solo to begin?
It was a pretty intense year on the PCT, and 2017 came to be known as the “Year of Fire and Ice,” with record-breaking snow in the Sierra and wildfires ravaging many parts of the trail in late summer. Because of this, I ended up doing a flip-flop hike, where I was trying to puzzle together different sections of the trail to avoid fire. This meant I was completely alone more often than I anticipated.
I spent the last 2 months hiking alone and, to be completely honest, was pretty terrified for a lot of it. There were a few weeks where the only other footprints I saw on the trail were bear prints, and I didn’t see another human for days on end. The season was changing, and days were getting shorter, which meant I often had to walk at night to make my miles for the day. One night, my headlamp caught the eyes of what I’m certain was a mountain lion watching me in the darkness. I yelled and banged my trekking poles, but it didn’t budge and just kept on watching me. I had to just keep walking, singing loudly and trying to sound loud and large. I stopped periodically to turn 360 degrees to see if it was following me. I never did see it again, but I felt pretty alone and vulnerable with no other humans for hundreds of miles.
What was the beginning of the hike like? Were you well prepared for what you encountered?
The PCT begins with 700 miles of desert. I was fit and strong, but I don’t think anything could prepare me for walking in that sun for 12 hours a day. It took me a few days of mild dehydration and heat rash to embrace the concept of night-hiking — crowding with other hikers under sparse shade for the hottest part of the day, then hiking until midnight (or occasionally all night) to avoid the worst of the heat.
How did you use your inReach satellite communication device during the hike?
Initially, I decided to carry an inReach® to appease my parents. I thought my mum would like to know that I had a means of emergency communication. While having MapShare™ and the tracking capabilities of the inReach device was comforting, it ended up being the ability to text back and forth with people at home that was an emotional savior for me. In the weeks of feeling very lonely and isolated, knowing that I could send a tearful text to my family and get a supportive reply really helped me feel less alone.
I set up an emergency plan with my dad before I left. It was my nightmare to look up to see a helicopter needlessly descending to rescue me, just because my battery had died or because I’d left the inReach on a log somewhere. I wanted to make sure I had backup plans to avoid that. Dad knew when I expected to be in a town and tracked me religiously [via MapShare]from home. It was actually very sweet. In the mornings, Mum said Dad would wake her up with a report of how many miles I’d walked and where I’d camped for the night. Once I’d finished hiking, Dad was devastated when I told him I was cutting him off and that he no longer had permission to track my every move.
Hiking the PCT (or any popular thru-hike) appears to be a mixture of a sometimes solitary and sometimes social adventure. People acquire trail names, join up with others and are sometimes solitary for long stretches. What was your experience like?
I was quickly dubbed “Pony Express” because of my knack for finding, carrying and returning missing belongings to other hikers. I also carry a very well-stocked first aid kit, so my friend Otter gave me the trail name because “I deliver.”
Within the first 2 miles of the Mexican border, I already had some awesome friends — some of whom I walked with for hundreds of miles. At one point, my group of walking buddies ballooned to 12, then contracted down eventually to just me.
I didn’t expect to enjoy the social aspect of thru-hiking as much as I did. I often find it tiring to be in a group environment, but it was different on the PCT. After walking all day, no one has the energy to pretend to be anything other than their true selves. When you find a group of people who love you for exactly who you are (filthy, sweaty, smelly and exhausted), it’s an incredible feeling.
I felt that I learned a lot about myself from the time I did spend in solitude, and while there was sometimes beauty and power in tackling the trail alone, I would prefer to share it with others.
As the peak season to begin hiking the PCT is approaching, what advice would you give to someone planning to hike the PCT?
In the weeks leading up to my start date, I was plagued by self-doubt and fear. You can and probably will find almost anything to worry about before a thru-hike. And for good reason — the stakes are high. You’ve put aside 5 or 6 months of your life and probably put a few big things in motion: quit your job, given up your place to live, got rid of your car, spent lots of money on gear and made a very public commitment to attempt something extraordinary. There is pressure. But with risk comes reward, and it is oh so worth it.
The saying “the trail provides” is so appropriate. Never in my life have I encountered as much kindness and generosity as when hiking the PCT. Hikers shared medication and cups of hot tea when I was in need, and trail angels opened their homes and their hearts to me, making me feel like family. Facing and overcoming all of those fears, discovering the good in people and the strength inside yourself is what makes hiking a long trail so transformative.
We saw a number of SOS incidents from inReach users on the PCT this year. Some were due to the heavy snow pack in the north, and others were from fires, dehydration or even robberies. You mentioned the specific challenge of having to avoid areas due to fires. Could you tell us more about the challenges or if you encountered emergencies?
2017 was pretty gnarly. The Sierra experienced incredibly heavy snowfall, which was still thick on the ground when “the bubble” of hikers began to hit the mountains in May and June. My friends and I entered the Sierra around “peak melt,” when overnight temperatures were staying pretty high, snow was melting rapidly and the rivers were raging. I’ve never crossed a dangerous river, and I’ve barely spent any time in the snow before hiking the PCT, so it was a pretty steep learning curve. I hiked this section with an awesome group of people who taught me how to glissade, minimize post-holing and most importantly, self-arrest with my ice axe (a skill that saved my life). We got through the Sierra safely, but tragically, 2 other solo hikers drowned trying to cross the swollen rivers — 1 on the same day we crossed. Hearing of people losing their lives on the trail was devastating. The cohort of hikers is very interconnected. We share information about water sources, passes and rivers, and there is a genuine sense that we are all in it together.
Later in the hike, plumes of smoke from surrounding wildfires became a common sight. Often, I’d wake up with ash on my sleeping bag. My dad was keeping a keen eye on wind direction and wildfire activity back home in Australia, often sending updates to my inReach about trail closures or reassuring me that the smoke I could see was more distant than it appeared. I never had an immediate emergency but often felt that the risks were pretty real. Because of fire closures in 2017, I still have about 500 miles to hike in Oregon and Northern California.
When you first reached out to us, you shared that you were planning a documentary film about your hike. Is that still in the works?
As a filmmaker and storyteller, documenting the adventure felt really important. Feeling creative on the trail also brought me a lot of joy. I filmed the ups and downs of my personal journey and with the footage will create a feature-length documentary aimed at adventure film festivals. The film uses diary-style video entries as well as interviews with other women on the trail to share the physical and emotional experience of thru-hiking.
I want the film to inspire women and girls to strive toward epic outdoor adventures. Many women are thriving in the outdoor adventure space, but we don’t often see them on screens. I’m sharing my story to encourage people to question what truly makes them happy and have the confidence to go and find it.
The film is called “The Mountains Are Calling,” and you can see a couple of short videos on my website: themountainsarecalling.org.
Rachel Coffey is a television producer/director and a hiking guide in Grampians National Park. You can follow her on Instagram® @hiker_rach as she completes her hike of the PCT this year.