The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is a single national scenic route that spans 2,650 miles across the U.S. from Mexico to Canada. In April, Quinn Coyle ʼ14 left his robotics engineering job and set out with two college friends to experience the journey. The three started at the U.S./Mexico border—hiking across California, Oregon and Washington through mountains, deserts, forests and fields—and completed the trip in September when they arrived at the border of Canada in the North Cascades of Washington.
In this Q&A, Quinn talks about preparing for the trip, the memorable moments and biggest challenges and his advice for those considering hitting the trail.
Q: What prompted you to leave your job to undertake this adventure?
A: I thoroughly enjoyed the robotics engineering job I had been working for nearly three years since graduating college. However, I thought hiking the PCT would be a formative learning experience and something an older version of myself would regret not taking the opportunity to do. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to undertake such an adventure.
Q: Had you been an avid hiker before this experience?
A: Not at all! The longest backpacking trip I had done prior was two nights. A big concern I had was that after the first week of camping I would realize I didn’t like it (which fortunately turned out not to be the case).
Q: How did you prepare for the hike?
A: I consistently ran to train for the hike. Ever since my freshman year on Blake’s cross country team, running has been a regular part of my life. I am incredibly grateful for Blake’s cross country and track programs for creating that passion.
Q: How structured was your trip? Did you have a consistent daily routine or a set number of miles you were scheduled to hike each day?
A: We had a permit with a start date at the Mexican border in late April and a goal to reach Canada before snow begins to fall. Otherwise there was no set schedule other than to hike as many miles every day as we felt comfortable doing. We would set mini schedules in between resupply towns on trail to make sure we packed enough days’ worth of food. There were also many memorable unplanned experiences. In one town, a woman in line at the post office asked if we were PCT hikers. She then invited us over to have an incredible BBQ with her family and spend the night.
Q: What were the most memorable moments from the experience?
A: Mount Whitney in California is the tallest mountain in the continental U.S. and only a day’s hike off the trail. Climbing it and watching the sun rise from its snowy peak was a euphoric experience. Many other memorable moments were conversations I had with other hikers on trail. They were often had while walking through endless woods or while laying under a sky filled with stars. The trail provided a great environment to dive into deep topics and learn from others.
Q: What were the biggest challenges?
A: Logistics and wildfires. Getting enough food on the trail could be difficult. Before beginning the hike I packed boxes of dry food and then coordinated with my family who kindly sent them to post offices along the trail. Often there were days without cell service. In addition, gear would break and need to be fixed or replaced, which could be difficult to do in remote sections of the trail. Since wildfires have become so common, we were constantly checking for nearby fires and had to hike through smoke several times. Fortunately we were never in the immediate danger of one.
Q: What did you learn about yourself in the process of achieving your goal?
A: I crave Sour Patch Kids when hungry! More seriously, that consistency is key. Early on in Southern California, my two friends and I were hiking huge days but then would have to take a day or more off to rest. We weren’t making good progress. Then we began going steadier. By hiking roughly the same amount of miles every day and gradually increasing, we were making better time and having more fun. As such, I learned that you can be more effective (and less tired) by doing consistent good effort instead of irregular extreme effort. I think that goes for being consistent with sleep, relationships and our jobs as well. It has been rewarding to apply that takeaway after the trail.
Q: Would you recommend others try this hike? If so, what advice would you give them?
A: If you enjoy walking and being outdoors, absolutely. It is often said about the hike that the hardest part is making the decision to do it. With that said, I would also warn them to be prepared for difficult days—mentally and physically. From hiking in 110 degree desert heat to feeling lonely because you miss your family and comforts of everyday life, everybody (myself included) experienced ups and downs. However memory has had a funny way of wiping away most of those lows, and I am incredibly glad to have done the hike.
Oh and one other thing: your money will go faster than you plan. The lightweight gear used by hikers is expensive. (They say “every ounce counts.”) Food and restaurants in trail towns could also be expensive. I felt fortunate to have been able to save some money from having worked several years, whereas many recent college grads had to be more frugal. On the other hand, many well-funded retirees hiking the trail lived much more lavishly than we did. For instance, they stayed at cozy lodges when in towns.
Q: What's next?
A: Upon getting back home I have been working remotely on a part-time basis for the East Coast based company I left last April. After spending time in the Twin Cities with family, I plan to begin looking for full-time engineering jobs in California and then work there for the foreseeable future. No new adventures planned for the time being. I would love to do another big hike but wish it didn’t require being away from “normal life” for so long!