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10 Ways “Wild” Rang True and 10 Ways it Strayed

The movie Wild will soon draw many new day hikers, section hikers, and thru hikers to the Pacific Crest Trail. With the release of the movie, we decided to compare Cheryl Strayed’s hike to an actual Pacific Crest Trail thru hike from Mexico to Canada. Here are 10 ways the movie was true to our PCT thru hiking experience, and 10 ways it strayed from the path.

Wild was right about:

Adventure. One reason thru hiking is so great is that it’s a big adventure. Every day on the trail there are unexpected moments, surprising encounters with animals and people, or incredible new landscapes. The movie got this right — a thru hike isn’t always easy, but it’s exciting and new.

Crossing a creek on the PCT

Crossing a creek on the PCT

Trail angels. We’ve never received so much kindness from strangers as we did during our PCT thru hike. Called “trail angels” in the hiking community, these wonderful people offer free food, places to sleep, showers, rides to trailheads, and anything else a hiker might desire.

Timberline Lodge buffet

Hiker hunger. A thru hiker needs to eat about 4000 calories every day, which results in a ravenous appetite. Everything tastes good, and more of everything tastes better. We even started calling peanut M&Ms “magic energy gems”. After eating lots of dehydrated food, fresh fruit is an object of special desire. A ripe peach, as Cheryl was seen eyeing in Wild, will blow your mind.

Trail registers. Thru hikers use trail registers to keep track of each other, share wisdom, and leave a bit of laughter for those who follow on the trail. Some hikers leave quotes like Cheryl did, while others write whatever comes to mind.

Hitchhiking. Thru hikers have to hitchhike occasionally in order to reach towns where they can resupply. When we hitchhiked we met all types of people. As with the Hobo Times scene in Wild, it’s true, people do mistake thru hikers for homeless people.

Wildlife. Spend enough time in the wilderness and you will encounter wild animals. Rattlesnakes are no joke, but their distinctive rattle makes their presence known so you can scoot by at a safe distance, just as Cheryl does in the film. On our thru hike, we also saw several bears, many eagles and hawks, elk, mountain goats, a scorpion, a marten, and much more — but not a single fox, sorry Cheryl.

Marten

Marten

Dirt. Thru hikers are like Pigpen: you can almost see the cloud of dust surrounding each of them. In the movie, Cheryl must wait before sitting down to a meal so the host can protect the chair from dirt with sheets of newspaper. On our thru hike, we avoided sitting on hotel room beds or chairs until we showered. And, as depicted in the movie, showers feel great after a week or more of hiking.

Anna holds up her freshly laundered hiking shirt which was white over 1000 miles ago.

Duct tape. When you’re many miles from civilization and something breaks, it’s time to improvise a fix. Maybe your shoe fell apart, a branch ripped a hole in your pack, or your tent has structural issues. Duct tape fixes everything!

Hiking community. Thru hikers form a tight on-trail community. Shared adversity, adventure, and joy create instant bonds. Hikers help each other in all kinds of ways (in the movie, Cheryl helped bowhunters filter water, and convinced a ranger to keep the post office open late so other hikers could get their packages). The movie also shows the kind of good-natured teasing that thru hikers administer to each other constantly.

Chatting with other PCT thru hikers in the Sierra

Chatting with other PCT thru hikers in the Sierra

Transformation. Time in the wilderness will change you. During a five-month thru hike you have plenty of time to think and reflect on your life, your values, your job, your relationships, and your favorite ice cream flavor. Each person takes their own lessons from the trail, but everyone leaves with something. The movie makes clear what Cheryl learned. We recorded some insights we took from the PCT in our Five Lessons from the Trail post.

Wild went off trail on:

Preparation. We spent about a year of evenings and weekends preparing for our thru hike. This included shakedown hikes where we tested every piece of gear. Cheryl’s prep was minimal: the movie showed her opening packages of unused gear right before her PCT hike began. It’s important to test your gear at home, and then on a short backpacking trip, before setting off on the PCT. If something doesn’t work, or you don’t know how to use it in the desert, the consequences will be unpleasant at best.

Mileage. Cheryl Strayed walked a very respectable distance, but still less than half of the trail’s 2660 miles. A thru hiker must average 20 miles per day in order to complete the trail in a single year due to snow levels at high elevation. Cheryl averaged 5-7 miles per day. Any hiking pace is fine, of course — but Cheryl’s experience was somewhat different from that of a thru hiker.

Solo female hikers. Lots of women hike the PCT every year, many of them solo. The female thru hikers we met on the trail were independent, adventurous, athletic, and highly competent. Also, unlike the movie’s portrayal, we didn’t see women getting special treatment or extra food. There are a number of smarmy men in the movie, but on the actual PCT, we didn’t witness any creepy guys hitting on female hikers. We hiked the PCT together, but Anna has solo backpacked in the past and had no issues. Don’t be afraid to get out there and do it!

Locations. The real PCT leads from the Mexican border through California, Oregon, and Washington, all the way to Canada. However, the Wild movie was filmed almost entirely in Oregon, and only two scenes were shot on the actual PCT. The “crest” in Pacific Crest Trail was mostly absent. We missed the dramatic mountains of the California desert and the Sierras and Cascades, as well as deep plunging valleys like the Feather River Canyon near Belden, and PCT touchstones like Goat Rocks.

Hiking early in the mountainous desert

Hiking early in the mountainous desert

Wilderness knowledge. Wild places are beautiful but they can be deadly. Some things to know before attempting a thru hike: how to deal with desert heat, where to find water without relying on water caches, proper stream crossing technique, proper map and compass use, and basic first aid. The Southern California desert, far from civilization, isn’t the right place to learn these crucial skills. And a remote mountain range is the wrong place to learn how to navigate a snow-covered landscape where the trail is completely hidden. Read up, take classes, learn from knowledgeable friends. Wilderness is safe when you’re prepared and make smart decisions.

Crossing snow fields

Crossing snow fields

Pack size. Cheryl’s pack, nicknamed Monster, was notoriously huge, and she only lightened it mid-trip. For an enjoyable, safe, successful thru hike, it’s important to bring only what is truly essential. A light load frees you to enjoy everything the wilderness has to offer. Check out our gear list to see what worked for us.

Trail crew moving downed trees and grading trail

Trail crew moving downed trees and grading trail

Trail maintenance. The movie highlighted trail angels well, but didn’t show any of the people who work tirelessly to keep the trail walkable and protected. Hundreds of volunteers perform trail maintenance every year to repair erosion damage, cut back brush, add steps, divert water, and much more. We chatted with a number of these trail crews during our thru hike, making sure to thank them for their efforts. In addition, the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) supports trail maintenance and fights hard to keep the trail safe from development.  Your wilderness experience on the PCT is only possible because so many gave freely of their time and sweat.

Tiredness. Cheryl struggled with many things in the movie, but being tired didn’t seem to be one of them. During our thru hike we walked all day, every day. When we stopped to camp, we were exhausted!

Leave No Trace. Perhaps the most well-known scene in the film involves Cheryl knocking one boot off a cliff by mistake, then throwing the other down after it in frustration. That may have been cathartic but it’s never appropriate. You may sometimes feel like you’re alone in wild places, but you’re not. Trash accumulates (we picked up other people’s trash during our thru hike). Leave the wilderness pristine. To learn how, read the seven Leave No Trace (LNT) principles, see our Leave No Trace blog post from the PCT, and check out the #ResponsiblyWild hashtag on Twitter.

Beauty. We relished the trail’s sublime beauty. Chris lived up to his trail name of “Shutterbug,” taking 12,000 photos throughout our hike. But there was only one scene in the movie where Cheryl seemed to enjoy her surroundings. The actual PCT passes by hundreds of lakes, bountiful fields of vibrant wildflowers, range after range of snowcapped mountains, otherworldly volcanic rock fields, and endless night skies filled with too many stars to count. But to see those things, you’ll have to hike the trail or page through our book, because they’re missing from the movie.

Larches turning yellow in Northern Washington

Larches turning yellow in Northern Washington

We hope this post was helpful for anyone considering a thru hike of the PCT, and entertaining for the vast majority who are just curious. Whatever your level of interest, we encourage you to get outside, even if that just means a walk around your neighborhood or a day hike on a local trail.

To learn more about our photography book and see some examples of the Pacific Crest Trail’s powerful landscapes, check out our book page. Our book is a good companion to the movie, and a great gift as well (25% off through Friday). Enjoy!

41 Comments Post a comment
  1. Barb B #

    Very interesting! Thanks for both of your lists.

    December 15, 2014
  2. Jan #

    Great post! So interesting to see what the movie got right and what it was a bit off base about. We can’t wait to see the movie and we enjoy your PCT photography book every day as it sits in our living room!

    December 15, 2014
  3. Bernie Banet #

    OK, Shutterbug and North Star, I’m ready to…. open your book again and relive your adventure. Too bad the movie doesn’t capture the vistas that you both experienced and captured in the book, but I’m looking forward to the movie, too.

    === Bernie Banet === Ann Arbor, Michigan

    December 16, 2014
    • Our book is a visual journey while the movie is more of an emotional and internal one. They represent two very different approaches to the same Pacific Crest Trail, but they complement each other well.

      December 16, 2014
  4. Glen Scutt #

    I thought about doing this; however, both as a youth growing up in the country, and during 20 active years in the military, I was able to spent a lot of time in the woods. I do enjoy camping…it can be most relaxing.

    December 16, 2014
    • Absolutely, we love camping for that reason as well. Wild places have a way of making you forget all your cares and obligations, so you can be totally at ease. There’s nothing quite like that feeling.

      December 16, 2014
  5. Giselle #

    You don’t have to prepare a year in advance as the writer of this article states in her “stray” section. Not only did Sheryl not but many people don’t. I’m not saying not to be prepared but a year in advance is not necessary. Also, the writer is false when stating there are many solo female hikers. Maybe today, now, there is but not when Cheryl from Wild was a hiker. It’s her story and her experience was that she did not find a lot of female hikers. The number of solo hikers has been increasing steadily with the AT leading the charge not the PCT. Lastly, mileage, the longer you are out there the stronger you become and ones ability to increase mileage is inevitable. The general person that is in basic good shape, if they are out there long enough, will catch up with the hiker that prepared a year in advance. The article above is quite cheeky. I got news for the writer. Hiking is walking it’s not brain science and most anyone can do it. Be smart and take precaution obviously but to say “Wild” strayed is arrogant because it was a reality for the woman that it actually happened to.

    December 16, 2014
    • Hi Giselle, We very much respect Cheryl Strayed’s accomplishment — but it’s different from a thru hike. And the movie is accurate in some ways, less so in others. We think this post provides a balanced perspective, showing where the movie is stronger and where it’s weaker.

      December 16, 2014
  6. cara_beth10@yahoo.com #

    If ya think the PCT is hard try the AT!

    December 16, 2014
  7. margaret alexander #

    What a great mini-review of your year of pre-during-after trail posts!! And I LOVE seeing you all in the pics once again!! Can’t wait to see the movie, and now you’re saying Bryce has one coming of the AT, too?

    December 16, 2014
    • Thanks Margaret! Yes, there’s a movie out soon based on Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods.” If it’s anything like the book, it should be very amusing.

      December 17, 2014
  8. What a great post, thanks! I’m planning on walking the PCT next year and am in the planning stages now. The movie Wild doesn’t come out here in London until January but I’ll watch it now thinking about this post, cheers!

    December 17, 2014
  9. CVB #

    Solo female hikers: Disagree, that was spot on. As a “Solo female hiker” in 2009, I was subject to both special treatment and special threat. Special treatment included but was not limited to: easier hitches, awe in my physical completion of the trail versus the expected achievement of my fellow male hikers, private quarters at trail angels’ homes away “from the boys”, etc. Special threat varied from mere annoyances of being “pink blazed” and the assumption that, as a young, sweet, thing on my own amidst such manly men that I was “available and interested”, to the very real threat of being a solo, unarmed woman in both town and wilderness (easier hitches, elk hunter camps – one of which in WA I was very glad to be hiking around with a group at the time – though most I’m sure are very safe and normal). The trail I knew was social one – despite my expectations – and with each new interested party I was made aware of the “special” considerations each might have of me, especially in the beginning of the trail when passing the frat-boy-rasta population who party more than anything, and bail early or blue-blaze/pink-blaze considerably. It’s unfortunate, but there will always be differences for single female travelers, no matter the setting. To discount this is – though unintentional perhaps – disrespectful and dangerous. Just because it hasn’t been witnessed personally doesn’t mean it isn’t very, very real.

    December 17, 2014
    • CVB #

      I should clarify: I’m not trying to say that the PCT – or the world at large – is rife with sexual predators that need to be staved off with vigilance, but rather that the same perils that exist for any woman in the world are very much present – and in certain ways amplified via pure exposure – on the PCT. The community formed there is largely a positive one, but it absolutely contained creeps as well. Young women (I was 24 at the time) should not be dissuaded, but rather take the acknowledgement of such dangers as additional impetus to kick ass out there even more. But awareness is crucial.

      December 17, 2014
      • We absolutely recognize that people’s hikes vary, and we appreciate that you took the time to share your experience here. We do feel that the movie could push some women away from hiking the trail, thinking that they’d be fending off creepy guys around every bend — and that wasn’t our experience at all. We agree with you that the best approach is to get out on the trail and go for it!

        December 17, 2014
  10. Nicely balanced article. We could nitpick a bit about some statements (my husband carries more than I do so we can both enjoy our hikes), but I think most of what the author says is important to say. For anyone wanting a good picture (no pun intended) of the trail, ‘Wild’ won’t provide it because it doesn’t show the high Sierra or the Cascades in Washington (because Strayed didn’t do them). And because most was shot in Oregon, it didn’t show the California deserts, so it missed that beauty too.

    -backpack45, who has section hiked the entire PCT.

    December 17, 2014
    • Thanks very much Susan, and congrats on your section hike! We worked hard to give the movie credit for what it did well, but also to critique it as fairly as we could. All the PCT’s incredible beauty could never fit into a movie, but like you, we wished we could have seen more of those powerful landscapes included. In particular, we knew even before the hike that the Sierras and Cascades would be awesome, but we didn’t realize how stunning the Southern California desert can be until we walked through it.

      December 17, 2014
  11. Ron #

    First, “Wild” the book and the movie was about one woman’s experience as she grappled with her life as she walked along the PCT. It wasn’t a book about thru-hikers and the PCT. If you want that movie, write your own book that a lot of people will want to read and someone will want to make into a movie. Don’t expect someone else to write what you want.

    As to the rest, it’s about what happened not what you want to happen or think should happen. It’s not about trail maintenance, she was no more or less prepared than lots of people who show up to walk, her pack weight was paired down pretty quickly (ie <10% of her hike), it was not all that different than many packs people carried at the time. Also her initial mileage was pretty typical of many AT hikers at the start and increased overtime.

    Cheryl also never intended to hike the entire PCT or do a thru-hike. She was walking between Tehachapi and the OR/CA border. Upon skipping the Sierra (which most hikers also did), she made up the lost miles by hiking to the OR/WA border.

    In other words, she made a plan. Adjusted it when needed and in the end completed it. I sincerely doubt that either the book or movie would be altered much had she started and completed a thru-hike. It was just not relevant to the story line.

    December 17, 2014
    • Hi Ron, thanks for leaving us a note. When we tell people about our thru hike, most people compare it to Wild, since the entirety of their knowledge about the PCT (and long distance backpacking in general) comes from either the book or the movie. This post is an attempt to communicate in a clear way how there are some similarities between Wild and a normal thru hike, but a variety of differences as well. We think it’s fair to give the movie credit where credit is due, but also to critique the movie when it doesn’t match our experience (or that of most thru hikers).

      December 17, 2014
  12. I think the point is that everyone ‘hikes their own hike’.
    Cheryl hiked her own hike with no knowledge and no preparation and survived a changed and arguably better person for it. She has also made a successful career from her journey.
    There is no ‘right’ way to hike only ‘your’ way.
    Whilst the movie might have filmed in certain locations for logistical purposes it was still faithful to Cheryl’s experiences… even if those experiences are different to the authors of this blog post.

    Hike Your Own Hike and respect those who hike theirs

    December 17, 2014
    • Hi there Chris, we absolutely agree that each person should hike their own hike. However, we don’t want to see people getting rescued in the desert, or dying there, as occurred just this year on the PCT. And we want the trail we love to be taken care of, not strewn with trash. Hike Your Own Hike is a powerful and important idea, but preparation, knowledge, and respect for wilderness are still key.

      December 17, 2014
  13. Bernard #

    1100 miles in 94 – 100 days. Not sure where you are getting the 5-7 miles/day hiking average, since Strayed writes about 20 miles days in Oregon in the book.

    December 18, 2014
    • Hi Bernard, in the movie, Cheryl discusses mileage with another hiker and says she walks “5 to 7 miles each day”. Based on your numbers, she would average about 11 miles per day over her whole hike. As we wrote in the post, that’s different from thru hikers, who average 20 miles per day for the entire trail. In flatter areas like most of Oregon, 25 or 30 miles per day is the norm for thru hikers.

      December 18, 2014
  14. Bev #

    I liked the book and hiked right along with Cheryl. I am very unhappy that the script writers made sex a big part of the movie. That ruined it for me and I am telling friends to avoid the movie and just read the book. It was not necessary to show fairly explicit sex when implied would have done the trick. I think most viewers are more interested in the emotional duress and the “finding of oneself” a better following/understanding of the book. As an armchair backpacker I was more interested in her day to day hiking and what she went through.

    December 21, 2014
    • Hi Bev, thanks for sharing your thoughts on the movie. We would also enjoy seeing a Hollywood movie that focuses more on the hike itself. Most likely they chose the scenes they did in order to market Wild to a mass audience. We’re curious to see the more humorous take that “A Walk in the Woods” will provide.

      December 22, 2014
  15. Anna and Chris, with your permission, I would love to repost your “10 Ways Wild Rang True and 10 Ways it Strayed” on the pcttrailsidereader. I would give you full credit and also link to your site. I think that you have written a thoughtful and balanced perspective on the movie. I hope that your photo book is selling well. I loved the photos from your trip that we posted on the website some time ago.

    December 22, 2014
    • Thank you, Rees. Yes, you may repost it. Please make sure that all links, such as to the “Five Lessons from the Trail” post, Pacific Crest Trail Association, our book page, Leave No Trace, etc. are preserved.

      Our book is doing well, thanks. Glad you enjoyed the photos we shared mid-hike with your site. People who like our blog photos will love the book, since we saved the best photos from the whole hike to print only in the book, at the highest quality.

      December 22, 2014
  16. That seems very reasonable. . . good reminder about the links. I will post your review on December 30th. Happy holidays.

    December 23, 2014
  17. Rosanna #

    Hi, thank you for your information. And, yes, sometimes movies are a summary of the actual book. The book has a lot more to say of the wonderful landscapes and kindness in people

    February 24, 2015
    • You’re welcome! One reason we made this post was to report that the PCT community is awesome and the trail stunningly beautiful. We hear there are record numbers of hikers prepping to hike the PCT this year. We’re excited for them!

      February 25, 2015
  18. catepickens #

    Just came across your blog while prepping for my first AT hike next week. So wonderful, inspiring and informative – I’m glad I found you. Thanks, and keep it up!

    May 28, 2015
  19. anis1701 #

    Seeing that the movie came from a book, surely it would be fairer to compare her experiences in the book instead of what’s shown in the movie. The movie is just an adaptation of the book, which clearly was more from the heart.

    Read the book. To say that she wasn’t tired or overcome by the beauty on the PCT based on what you saw in a movie? Come on, guys. Cheryl Strayed wrote about a lot of things you said weren’t depicted in the movie- she mentions being exhausted every single day and being awed by the PCT countless times.

    June 28, 2015
    • Wild (the movie, not the book) is now most people’s starting point when they ask us about our own PCT thru hike. Everything they know about the PCT and long distance hiking, they learned from the movie. We end up telling them the ways the movie was true to our experience and the ways it was different, just as we do in this post. Since most people who watch the movie will never read the book, we think it’s fair to review the movie on its own terms, which we’ve done here.

      June 28, 2015
  20. Lorraine #

    I agree with last commenter. Cheryl repeatedly wrote of her exhaustion on trail. I also understand that many people will only see the movie and thus, gain their perceptions of the PCT from that so it is important to point out those inconsistencies. However, this article really needed to make the differences between the book and film clearer. I had the feeling that perhaps you hadn’t read the book.

    August 11, 2015
    • Hi Lorraine, as we state in the first paragraph, this post is about “10 ways the movie was true to our PCT thru hiking experience, and 10 ways it strayed from the path.” We’re quite clear up front that we’re only discussing the movie, not the book. People seeking book reviews have plenty to choose from across the web.

      August 11, 2015
      • Lorraine #

        My bad! Yes, I apologize because I do see very clearly that you are comparing truths with the movie. I think I’d been hoping around a few different sites and got off track, not realizing I was on your movie vs truth. Yesterday my bookclub discussed Wild and a few people thought Cheryl S wasn’t truthful about her experiences (I disagreed) so I think I was overly sensitive to what I perceived to be criticism. I’m in the process of checking out your website, which is beautiful and informative. What a great life you lead!

        August 11, 2015

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