By Amy Whitley – My son Nate, age seventeen, was 50 miles into his goal of hiking the 457-mile Oregon section of the Pacific Crest Trail when I received his expected nightly text via his Delorme InReach: Camping here for the night. I cross-checked his GPS location with our topographical map, noting that he’d decided to hike three miles farther than we’d discussed earlier. Trusting he had his reasons, I responded, Ok.
It was a routine interaction – hiking the Pacific Crest Trail without his parents, Nate checked in every night – but later, he’d tell us this was the moment he truly felt ownership over his adventure. “Oh man, I thought,” Nate recalled, “I’m really in charge out here!” And indeed he was, a fact that elicited responses from family and friends ranging from ‘You’re letting him do what?’ to ‘That’s so awesome!’
As his parents, we tend to agree with the latter. Nate completed his 457-mile goal in 26 consecutive days, one of the most beautiful hiking places in Oregon, during which he challenged himself physically and mentally, met amazing people, and overcame plenty of opposition: multi-day rainstorms, hiking partners with altitude sickness, and minor injuries.
Despite being joined at various points along the trail by a friend or family member (most of whom were high school-aged like himself), Nate’s PCT hike was in many ways a solo journey. Morphing from a wistful dream of a boy who loved the outdoors, this adventure became a coming of age journey boosting his confidence, competence, and passion for conservation.
Nate began planning his PCT trip a full year before he hit the trail, with 60 ‘practice miles’ through the PCT’s Jefferson Park Wilderness in Central Oregon, where he took the lead on navigation and camping skills (we’d backpacked as a family since he was a toddler). Confident he was capable of hiking across Oregon, we began planning his trip in earnest in the spring of 2016.
Most Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers and section hikers ship re-supply boxes of food to themselves along the trail, but since Nate was underage, his dad and I wanted to meet up with him in person every 3-5 days for re-supplies (and to trade out hiking partners). Meeting up that often in rural regions and total wilderness was not easy, but had a silver lining: driving forest service roads and staying at rustic resorts along the trail, we all felt as though we’d taken a journey across our home state.
Lessons Learned Hiking the PCT (mostly by us, the parents)
During the 26 days Nate spent on the trail, he had six hiking partners, five of whom were in the first half. While we all enjoyed taking turns, by far the better scenario was to have one partner for an extended time period. It takes time to build up the stamina needed for long trail hiking; while Nate was acclimated by day three or so, he had to slow to accommodate well-meaning but ‘green’ partners. When his high school buddy Ben joined him for the ‘last’ 250 miles, they really hit their stride.
For communication, Nate used a Delorme InReach, which tracked his GPS location and sent and received text messages in addition to the peace of mind of an SOS button. We’ve since tested a SPOT GPS device as well; both work, but the ability to have a two-way conversation with the InReach proved priceless.
Mapping Out Pacific Crest Trail Re-supply Stops
We planned Nate’s re-supply stops using a PCT data book, which lists mileage and landmarks of the trail, in addition to established re-supply locations such as mountain lodges, campgrounds, and roads. For his Oregon hike, we re-supplied him at Hyatt Lake, on Highway 138 near Fish Lake, at Crater Lake National Park, at Odell Lake, at McKenzie Pass, at Ollalie Lake, and at Timberline Lodge, Mt. Hood.
In addition to these planned reunions, we ended up meeting Nate in two additional places; once to bring dry clothing after days of rain, and once to switch out a tired partner. These ‘emergency’ meet-ups were harder to orchestrate as we needed a detailed road atlas of Oregon forest service roads, and some faith that they would be marked and open.
Effective communication was key when meeting him along the Pacific Crest Trail or a side trail, just one way the InReach proved a lifesaver. I won’t lie, some hiking trails and locations are hard to get to and stressful to find.
What To Pack in a Pacific Crest Trail Re-supply Box
The answer to this is another article in itself, but in general, each re-supply box contained the next sections’ ration of food, always divided into gallon-sized zip-lock baggies for each breakfast, lunch, and dinner for two people. It was a work in progress; Nate and his partners had changing appetites and tastes, so we adjusted on the fly.
We also changed out some clothing, an extra rain jacket or layer here and there, and supplied new fuel canisters, matches, first-aid supplies, and batteries. We always brought external chargers to re-charge the InReach and his cell phone, which he carried for photos and maps. We also brought back-up gear in the car: an extra tent, pad, sleeping bag, trekking poles, just in case.
Teen Safety Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail
Yes. We had some scary moments (for Mom and Dad), such as when we had trouble finding each other in a rain storm or when his hiking partner got sick, but overall, thanks to Nate’s backpacking experience and the responsibility he showed on the trail, we felt he was safe. He carried his InReach and a canister of bear spray in case of emergencies, and the fellow hikers he met along his epic hiking trip proved to be truly awesome people. In fact, he’s made some long-term friendships with people of all ages.
Would he (you) do it again?
Absolutely! I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Nate tackled the entire Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada in the next few years. In fact, after we greeted him at the Washington border, he said, “Can I please keep going?”
Amy Whitley is a family travel writer, editor, and columnist based in Southern Oregon. An avid traveler, backpacker, skier, and hiker, Amy has written about family and outdoor experiences for local and national publications since 2009, and is founder of family travel site Pit Stops for Kids.