Thursday 25 July 2019

Thoughts on long-distance hiking and a review of sorts of The Great Alone

Autumn comes to the North Cascades on the Pacific Crest Trail, September 1982

Tim Voors walked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2016. I walked it thirty-four years earlier, in 1982. We’ve both written books about our walks. Tim Voors The Great Alone was published earlier this year. My book, Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles, in 2014. Both books describe a continuous walk of the trail from Mexico to Canada yet they are very different. Partly this is due to the numbers hiking the trail. 120 thru-hike permits were issued in 1982 and 11 hikers finished the trail. In 2016 3493 thru-hike permits were issued and 753 hikers finished. (See the Pacific Crest Trail Associationwebsite for more information like this). These figures make a huge difference to the trail experience, especially for hikers setting off around the same time, as most do to take advantage of the longest weather window between winters. I often went several days without seeing another person. Voors writes ‘there is always someone who will pass you within a few hours if you need help’.  He also writes ‘the PCT is all about community’. The number of other hikers doesn’t explain the big differences between Voors experiences and mine on its own though, or rather what each of use found the most important experiences.

Before I continue I want to make it clear that I enjoyed The Great Alone and think it’s a good book worth reading by anyone interested in long-distance hiking and the effect it has on people. Voors writes well and describes how the trail and the people he met changed him. He also discusses various aspects of PCT life from trail angels to survival skills. Photographs, drawings and paintings by the author conjure up the trail well. The book also stimulated these thoughts, which is what a good book should do.

So this isn’t meant to be a negative review. However, as I read The Great Alone I began to wonder about the title. There are so many people, so many town stops, so little time actually alone with nature. Later in the book it becomes apparent that Voors did feel alone when he only met people at camp and hiked all day by himself. Indeed, he sometimes felt lonely and hurried on to catch people up or reach a road or town. His definition of being alone and mine are very different. I’ve never felt lonely on any long walk. If I meet people during the day and especially if I camp with them I don’t feel alone.  I did hike with others through the snowbound High Sierra on the PCT for security and I did enjoy this but for well over half the trail I was alone and happy to be so. So for me the title of Voors book is a little misleading though maybe others without long-distance hiking experience may well feel the title is right. 

A companion in the High Sierra on the PCT, June, 1982
Much of The Great Alone concentrates on roughly the first thousand miles with the last sixteen hundred passed over quite quickly. I wonder if Voors was losing interest by then – or maybe he was just running close to a word limit for the book. Either way the deserts and High Sierra dominate the book with the Cascades rather rushed through.

As I read I also felt an absence. There’s very little about the actual landscapes, little about natural history, geology, conservation, human history. Because I’ve walked the trail I could envisage where Voors was and fill in many of the missing details. I think if I’d never walked the PCT I’d have felt frustrated. I’d want to know about the forests, the desert ecology, conservation designations, the San Andreas Fault, John Muir, strato-volcanoes, the story of the trail itself, the towns along the way. Instead the book is very much about people and about Voors himself. There’s not actually much about the trail or the land it passes through. 

Mount Adams, a 3743 metre stratovolcano. PCT, August 1982
There is much in The Great Alone about the toughness of the PCT, about the suffering and endurance involved in a thru-hike. Now a 2600 mile desert and mountain backpacking journey is always going to be strenuous and involve some aches and pains but I never went through the physical and mental injury and anguish that Voors and many of the hikers he met did. Partly this is due to individual natures, but I think a fair amount is due to preparation and experience. Many of today’s PCT hikers seem to have little of either. When I hiked the trail I’d done a fair amount of long-distance walking in Britain, including two 500 miles trips in the Scottish Highlands. I had far worse weather and difficult walking conditions on those trips than anywhere on the PCT. I reckon if you can handle long-distance walking in the Highlands you can manage anywhere! A few years ago one very experienced long-distance hiker did some walking in Scotland and announced the country was unsuitable for long-distance walking due to the lack of decent trails and facilities. Scottish walking is tough! The hikers I teamed up with to go through the High Sierra on the PCT had all hiked the 2,000 mile Appalachian Trail in the eastern USA. 

I don’t think there need be a conflict between a trail being about community and nature or about people and solitude. Some people find a few hours alone quite enough while others, like me, are happy with days or weeks on their own. The longest I’ve been without seeing anybody or even any sign of humanity was ten days on my length of the Yukon Territory walk. I wasn’t even aware I’d be alone that long until I worked it out. I never felt lonely though, there was so much to see and do.
Sharing the experience of a long walk is valuable and creates bonds between people, often people from such different backgrounds and places that they would otherwise never meet. On the trail everyone is equal. This year I took part in the 40th TGO Challenge crossing of the Scottish Highlands (see this post). This was my sixteenth crossing and I was also on the first, 39 years ago. Over the decades I’ve watched the event become more popular and much more people-centred. It’s still possible to take part without meeting many other Challengers – just as I’m sure it’s possible to hike the PCT without being part of the crowd (or moving party as I’ve heard it described, a description that fits some TGO Challengers too). I rarely meet any other Challengers until the finish. Once there I do enjoy meeting others and talking about our crossings. 

'Interesting' weather on this year's TGO Challenge

I walk to experience and be in nature. I am happy to be alone. Others find meeting people and even being part of a group important. Both approaches are valid. There is no right or wrong way to do a long-distance walk. All that matter is to leave little trace of your passing. 


  1. Nowadays, the vast majority of the people hiking the PCT is of the "fast and light" type, focused very much on "crushing miles" and the weight of their pack. They are also very much into the whole social thing. Of course most of them enjoy nature too, but it is not their main reason for hiking the PCT.

    The obsession with pack weight also means that most hikers tend to minimise the time on trail and maximise the time in towns. This way they get away with carrying less food. They hike fast with a very light pack and then take zero-days in towns to recover, binge eat and be social with other hikers.

    When I hiked the PCT last year I actually did exactly the opposite. I carried more food so I can hike slower, have more time to enjoy nature and sometimes skip resupply towns. Because of this, I also had only 4 zero-days (3 of which were forced upon me by circumstances) in the whole 151 days journey. If you hike slower, you don't need zero-days. And without zero-days you only have to average 17-18 miles/day to finish within the safe window, which is easy to achieve on the PCT because the trail quality is so good.

    I haven't read the book you reviewed, but the writer comes across as a typical PCT hiker. Most hikers are exited at the start, but I noticed that many hikers lost their interest once they have finished the Sierra. Many hikers found Northern California "boring" (I wholeheartedly disagree) and some lost their motivation and left the trail.

    There is also a surprising amount of people that are not enjoying their hike (anymore) at that point, but simply don't want to give up. For them it is more about the achievement than about enjoying nature. They just look forward to the next town.

    I also recognise the "suffering and endurance" part. HYOH and stuff, but I often felt that some hikers overstretched themselves by hiking too many miles/day in order to keep their pack light (less food carry) and then having to recover in town. Some were going from injury to injury because of this start-stop style of hiking.

    And yes, quite a few people actually feel lonely on the PCT, despite of the crowds nowadays. This happens especially if they get injured and need to take a few days off and because of that lose their "trail family" (as we call that). People who thrive when they are alone, like you and myself, are a small minority.

    I love your Washington pics in this topic! Washington was such a grand finale with the autumn colours, tons of blueberries and the first snow of the season :). For me the attractiveness of a very long thru-hike is the continuity not just in landscape but also through the seasons.

    1. Great comment Birdman. Thanks. I didn't find Northern California or any other part of the trail boring. I enjoyed it all. And like you I loved hiking through the seasons.

  2. Birdman, I agree with your approach to the PCT. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.