Before Mac of Halfway Anywhere thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2013, he struggled to find useful information about the trail. Sure, he read anecdotal thru-hiking accounts. But what worked one for one person might not work for him. He wanted data. So after completing the trail that year, Mac started a PCT survey to gather that data for himself.
The results somewhat dismayed him.
“I’m a very good representation of just the average hiker,” Mac (whose “real” name is Tyler Fox) says. “I thought I was doing something cool. But I was actually just doing something that all the people who are just like me are also doing.”
In 2019, the last year of robust data from the trail, 60 percent of respondents identified as male. Nearly a whopping third (30 percent) were in their mid to late 20’s. And over a third (37 percent) of PCT hikers did not train before their hike — just like Mac.
But as Mac surmised, the data also proved useful. Mac’s findings suggest hikers wildly underestimate how much a thru-hike costs. The average amount spent on a successful 2020 PCT thru-hike was $8,059 or $58.79 a day.
In fact, underestimating thru-hike finances proves to be one of the primary reasons people abandon the trail.
“Money is a big factor that sneaks up on people,” Mac says. “They don’t realize it is going to be as big of an issue as it ends up being. Before I headed onto the trail, I was like, ‘I’m going to be out there just like five months in the wilderness, whatever. I’m not going to stay in hotels. I’m not going to hang out in town.’ And then in reality you’re out there for like 10 days and it’s been raining for five and all your stuff’s covered in mud and you’re like, ‘Whatever, I’m definitely going to go stay in a hotel.’”
After Mac thru-hiked the Continental Divide Trail in 2017, he started a survey for that thru-hike as well. Surprising to many, the CDT mostly sticks to well-defined trail. But unlike other long trails, the CDT provides numerous “alternates” hikers can take to supplement or supplant the official route. Mac found that the majority of thru-hikers take many of the same alternates, including the Gila River alt in New Mexico (96 percent), the Cirque of the Towers alt in Wyoming (84 percent), and the Spotted Bear Pass alt in Montana (82 percent).
A self-proclaimed random guy on the internet, Mac has no proven validity to his findings. But he’s here to help prospective thru-hikers actually glean information that will be useful in their monumental undertaking. Mac may not be a scientist, he thinks with the precision of one, constantly trying to refine and improve the surveys with each iteration.
Half the challenge with these surveys is simply finding people to take them. The key is to loop people in before they start hiking, otherwise Mac ends up with a skewed sample of finishers and doesn’t get that critical data from people who quit the trail along the way. If you’re planning on thru-hiking the PCT or the CDT next year, sign up to take the survey when it becomes available.
You may have noticed the elephant in the room: Mac has not thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and does not conduct an AT survey. In fact, Mac swears he will never hike the east’s longest trail. Tune in to the Out and Back podcast to hear AT thru-hike veteran Shanty try and change his mind.
In this episode of Out and Back, Mac weaves his eight years of survey data together with his first hand observations to illuminate how the PCT has evolved over the past decade. Hint: he doesn’t think it’s all been for the better. Mac dishes his controversial view of trail angels and trail magic. Plus, Mac explains why he hates the word “tramly” (aka “trail family”).
Comb through the vast PCT and CDT survey data on Mac’s website, Halfway Anywhere. You’ll also find all types of useful insight and analysis, including gear guides for both the PCT and CDT. Sign up for Mac’s newsletter, and follow Mac’s adventures on Instagram.
Last episode: A Definitive Guide to the Best Camp Coffee
Brewing the perfect cup of coffee in the backcountry can be complicated. A pour-over leaves you with messy grounds to haul out, and instant coffee often falls short on taste. In the last episode of Out and Back, we turned to some of our favorite professional hikers — Heather “Anish” Anderson, the Hiking Viking, Adventure Alan Dixon, and Liz “Snorkel” Thomas — to unmask the secrets to brewing the best cup of coffee in camp.
Learn Anish’s hack to getting in coffee-flavored caffeine and lots of sustaining calories without actually brewing a cup of joe. Get Viking’s hilarious take on why coffee is an essential backcountry tool, even though he doesn’t really care about the taste. A trained barista, Alan provides his meticulously researched lightest and best tasting backcountry coffee setup. And last but not least, Snorkel shares the findings from her scientific, blind study on 14 brands of instant coffee. The testers: a panel of professional coffee connoisseurs.
Follow these four thru-hikers on Instagram: @anishhikes, @therealhikingviking, @1adventurealan,@lizthomashiking.