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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!