PCT 2021 SOBO Alternate | Daniel Gerken
What is SOBO?
I want to reiterate my purpose in documenting my research and process in planning a thru-hike. I am writing from my perspective, but I want to remind the reader that my goal is to be of service to fellow hikers (and to friends and family members of hikers). My hope is this information can help others with lofty aspirations of walking for a really long time, a really long way, with really beautiful surroundings.
You may or may not have read my previous post about PCT 2021 Permits. My primary plan is to hike the PCT from south to north. The start of the season peaks around mid-April to early-May for those hikers departing from the US-Mexico border. The US has recently been shattering its own records for daily COVID cases, well in excess of 100,000 everyday. Congratulations. Unsurprisingly, the daily deaths have been increasing as well in the US. The icing on top of this Corona-Cake are devastating wildfires this past summer and autumn that will cause reroutes along the PCT. What will the landscape look like hiking through burned out sections of forest? Creepy at best, and depressing at worst.
The would-be first round of PCT permits at the end of October, came and went, being postponed and possibly cancelled altogether because of COVID. The PCTA delayed possible permits until January 15, 2021. I was much more optimistic when the COVID numbers were on the decline. As the ‘Rona numbers are increasing, my optimism for a PCT 2021 NOBO hike is dropping. Assuming there are no permits issued in January for a NOBO hike, then what are my options?
My first alternative would be a PCT SOBO hike in 2021. SOBO, stands for southbound. This means I would start at, you guessed it, the northern terminus on the border of Washington and Canada, and hike SOBO to the border of California and Mexico.
To give credit to the great SOBO PCT hikers that came before me, and have documented and provided valuable information, I highly recommend you check out the following resources:
In a perfect world I would save a SOBO hike for my second time hiking the PCT. “You would do this again?! On Purpose?!” I’ll let you know after I have the first one under my belt. However, 2020 has been the opposite of perfect, and 2021 has a lot of ground to make up. My unscientific hypothesis is that with the latest talk of a possible COVID vaccine, that a SOBO hike may be possible. The ideal start for a SOBO hike is mid-June to early-July. SOBO hikers can begin their attempts as soon as the snow melts, making Hart’s Pass accessible and the trail navigable. A SOBO hike would allow an additional three months for the pandemic to be managed and/or a vaccine to be distributed, as compared to a NOBO hike beginning in April. Pandemic issues aside, there are numerous pros and cons to a SOBO hike.
How is SOBO better?
This can be subjective, but if you are like me and looking to enjoy some hiking solitude without a parade of other hikers, then a SOBO hike can more easily provide that experience. This also means less crowding at prime camp locations and water sources. I say this now, but most likely after my first moment of panic I’ll wish there were other hikers next to me to share that panic. “What was that noise?!” “Am I lost?!” “What was I thinking?!”
From what I have read, the mosquito season will be shorter lived if you are hiking SOBO. I hate mosquitos. I know, no one likes mosquitos, but there are people that say “They don’t bother me that much.” Well, they bother me. A lot. Rather than hiking with the warming temperatures on a NOBO hike and right alongside the hatching mosquitoes, a SOBO hike lets you charge through it as fast as possible. This is a major pro for a SOBO hike in my opinion.
Better Weather & Hiking Conditions (sort of)
This applies to both the Sierra section and the desert section. On a SOBO hike, you are hiking with the critical purpose of making it south of Forester Pass in the Sierra before the real winter snow hits. History says you need to make it over Forester Pass before October 15th. Given Mother Nature cooperates (she won’t), that means you will have a bug-free and snow-free hike (maybe) through the Sierra. You will experience some sub-freezing temps at night and at higher elevations but all things considered you will have great hiking weather. The opposite is the case on a NOBO hike when you are hoping that the snow has melted by the time you get to the Sierra section (it will not have). I will also have much milder hiking temperatures in the desert section going SOBO as I will be arriving in the fall. On a NOBO hike you will be hit with 100℉ daytime temperatures in April and May.
Well, if SOBO is all rainbows and unicorns why doesn’t everyone do it?
Difficult from the Start
Similar to coping with winter snow in the Sierra on a NOBO hike, you are faced with snow in the North Cascades on a SOBO hike. The starting window for SOBO hikers is limited by the snow melt which usually doesn’t happen until mid-June at best, or early-July more likely. The questionable trail conditions makes navigation more difficult as well. There has likely been no trail maintenance this early in the season and it’s difficult to follow a trail covered in snow, blow downs, and overgrown flora. You better be prepared to read a topographical map and follow a compass heading. The elevation change also makes this one of the most physically demanding sections of the entire PCT. Your initial physical conditioning is more important than beginning a NOBO hike. When you start in the desert, it’s definitely not flat, but there is less elevation change, relatively speaking, so you have some time to become acclimated to trail life.
Beginning a SOBO hike there will be fewer hikers. This means there will be fewer people to ask dumb questions and share those moments of uncertainty.
- “Is this a good campsite?”
- “Am I carrying enough water?”
- “Am I hiking the right direction?” even though you just checked your map ten minutes ago.
I think those freeing moments of solidarity can work against you in certain situations. It will be a mental challenge like most of a thru-hike. Along with this, the culture of the PCT is to hike it NOBO and can be a memorable part of the experience. Hence 50 permits per day for NOBO hikers, but only 15 permits per day for SOBO.
Hiking later into the wildfire season means greater opportunity to be rerouted by wildfires. Best case is that my hike goes unaffected by wildfires. Worst case is that my hike gets cancelled altogether by an apocalyptic inferno. That would suck. Hiking NOBO you can finish as early as August or September. SOBO will mean completing my hike by October or November.
Changes to the PCT permits went into effect in 2020. For SOBO hikers this means there are now 15 permits issued per day from June 15th through July 31st. This makes selecting a start date a serious crap shoot. The lingering winter snow determines when you can safely begin your hike. You also are hiking against the clock to get through the Sierra before October 15 and it starts snowing again. For now, I’ll assume the first week of July would be a reasonable start date, fingers crossed.
Some other considerations going SOBO are getting to the PCT, resupply logistics in the Sierra and total time frame to complete the trail.
The best bet seems to be starting from Hart’s Pass in Washington, since Americans are not allowed into Canada right now. This is a task in itself but with a combination of flights, buses and hitches, it’s manageable. There I can cache a food resupply for the return trip. “Return trip, you say?” Yes, I’ll hike 30 miles north from Hart’s Pass to reach PCT monument 78 on the border. Then I’ll turn around and hike the same 30 miles back. I can pick up my food cache and continue on my way. The good news is this is supposed to be a stunning section of the trail. In the grand scheme of hiking 2,650 miles, what’s another 30 miles?
I’ll also need to keep tabs on the resupply locations in the Sierra once I get closer. It will be nearing the end of the hiking season and some services will be closed. This will affect where I can resupply and how much food I’ll have to carry. Having hiked the JMT in 2018, spending two days hiking out of the mountains, going to town to get resupplied and then hiking back into the mountains is both a blessing and a curse (I’m looking at you, Kearsarge Pass). The Sierra is one of the most remote sections of the PCT. The temptation of a trip into town for conveniences like a hot shower, clean clothes and fresh food will be heavenly. The addition of dozens of miles and thousands of feet in elevation change will be the hefty price tag.
It is often mentioned that hiking SOBO limits your time frame. I think that depends. If I look at a NOBO hiking schedule, I could start in early April and finish in late September. I could stretch this to almost 6 months of hiking. I wouldn’t plan on it taking me 6 months, but if for unforeseeable reasons I am delayed (like consuming town-pizza and imbibing craft beer), I have the time to make it up. If I go SOBO and begin the first week of July, then I have 3 months to make it to Forester Pass, in hopes of staying ahead of the first consequential snowfall. This gives me about 90 days to hike 1900 miles from the Canadian border to Forester Pass. My daily average would be 21 miles per day with no days off. This is the same average mileage I was anticipating going NOBO, to finish in about 5 months with one zero day per week. Going SOBO means fewer rest days. Also, for every nero or zero day I will have to make it up to keep my average at 21 miles per day. More hiking, less lollygagging.
Plan A: Obtain NOBO permit and begin in April.
Plan B: Obtain SOBO permit and begin in July.
Plan C: Next article, coming soon…
Originally published at https://www.danielgerken.org.