Home / Advanced Backpacking Skills / Water Caches, Trail Magic and Trash on the PCT by Mike Henrick

Water Caches, Trail Magic and Trash on the PCT by Mike Henrick

Water Cache at the Third Gate - just north of the cache at Scissors Crossing.
Water Cache at the Third Gate – just north of the cache at Scissors Crossing.

For most hikers, the Pacific Crest Trail begins in a blazing desert without encountering a sure water source for just over twenty miles. The trend continues – for the first 700 miles there is little shade, temperatures often reach over 100 degrees and water is infrequent or several miles off trail, downhill.

In a dry year through and section hikers will not encounter natural water bigger than a tiny stream for the first two hundred miles, instead relying on cattle troughs and campground spigots. Here and there are water caches but never enough, stocked by unimaginably generous locals.

Trail Angels

I met one woman who would drive to the top of a mountain pass with 100 gallons in the back of her ancient, underpowered Ford ranger to restock a well-known cache in the middle of a 34 mile dry stretch. She told me she couldn’t sleep at night if she hasn’t checked on the cache and has had to replace her water pump twice from overuse. She is over 70 years old, stocking water like that for hundreds of fit 20-somethings hiking and partying their way to Canada, often alone if no hikers are around to help. She has since given up stocking the cache as the demands of thirsty hikers relying too heavily the cache exceeded her ability to restock it.

A typical unlisted cache - sure to brighten any desert hikers day!
A typical unlisted cache – sure to brighten any desert hikers day!

Another similar water cache once existed 77 miles from the trails southern terminus in the shade of the bridge at Scissors Crossing – where the trail crosses Highway 78. Enough hikers failed to clean up after themselves, leaving enough trash behind that the trail angel stocking the cache gave up.

PCT Hikers sometimes come across well-intentioned temporary caches called trail magic – coolers left full of drinks and snacks by trail angels that sometimes end up as trash heaps if they are forgotten by those who left them. The generous support early in the trail encourages a sense of entitlement to special treatment and invulnerability in through hikers when they run out of water, only to be “surprised” at the next road crossing by a cooler or trail magic.

Pacific Crest Trail Water Report
Pacific Crest Trail Water Report

Water Cache Information

At first glance it seems obvious that in a hot, sun exposed and mountainous desert the risk of severe dehydration or death is high, but it is only as risky as we hikers make it. There has never been more information on water availability than today.

Hikers can check www.pctwater.org in town or often from their smart phones where cell reception is available on trail, there is even a map of cell reception on the PCT and see the status of water sources ahead of them. The information is supplied by other hikers ahead texting updates to the volunteer running the website, possibly the most important trail angel on the PCT, but least mentioned on the trail. Without this information hikers wouldn’t know whether upcoming springs were dry or caches were stocked. With it and against warnings they rely on the caches, claiming hardship if they are found empty.

A Natural Water Source on the PCT.
A Natural Water Source on the PCT.

What Happened to Self Reliance?

When I through-hiked the PCT in 2013, I once came across an empty cache as a dozen panicking hikers showed up; they had only carried only enough water to get to the cache and then made phone calls to a local trail angel begging for help. The response of some hikers to this kind of situation can be seen on each year’s Facebook group from entitled proclamations that the forest service or PCT Association should establish and stock water caches just for through hikers.

That is not a responsible way to hike. The PCT trail was hiked well before caches and trail magic, in the same weather and worse trail conditions, with less information and little technology. The 20 and 30 mile dry stretches always have water: it’s just 2 downhill miles off trail or a hitch to town and hikers don’t want to be bothered.

We all love finding small coolers full of fruit or treats in the middle of a hot day but trail angels should keep it that way – small, and realize that not all hikers are responsible enough to clean up after themselves.

View of the water less low-desert towards Cajon Pass.
View of the water less low-desert towards Cajon Pass.

Hikers quickly figure out how to hike in hot exposed conditions – siesta the hottest part of the day away, use electrolyte additives, avoid long climbs in the heat, hike well into the night, start early in morning and carry extra water in case something goes wrong. It is not complicated and running out of water is not an instantaneous death sentence.

The responsibility to ensure a safe hike across 700 miles of desert does not come from trail angels stocking water caches, the trails organizers at the PCTA or the local forest service– it comes from us.

In the end, as wilderness users we should always be responsible for ourselves. Outside help should only be relied on in dire emergencies, not as a protection from thirst. If we want hikers to rely on themselves, no caches should even be listed on the PCT water report. Without up to date information on the caches, few hikers would rely on them and simply carry more water – filling up only if needed at a stocked cache.

If more people continue hike the PCT each year, eventually none of the caches will be reliable anyway and not worth listing. Better to start now and instill a sense of responsibility in future hikers than lose more trail angels to over use.

About Mike Henrick

Mike Henrick
Mike Henrick

MIKE HENRICK grew up on the east coast and fell in love with through hiking across the west coast on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2013.  Rather than hike for a worthy but external cause, he is raising money for the trail associations that help make the Arizona Trail, Te Araroa and Continental Divide trail possible by hiking each trail over the next year.  Please make a donation or share the fundraiser on facebook here: https://apps.facebook.com/fundrazr/campaigns/fmYf1

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  1. Good article on an issue that will only get worse. While everyone needs a little help from time to time a big part of hiking for me is self reliance and overcoming obsticals to achieve a goal. One of these days I want to get out wear and hike the in the desert.

  2. “Entitlement” about says it all. I like your quote—

    “The 20 and 30 mile dry stretches always have water: it’s just 2 downhill miles off trail or a hitch to town and hikers don’t want to be bothered.”

    • Thanks, it’s tough at the beginning when you hurt the most and the trail seems so impossibly long. Adding 2 or 3 or 4 more miles just to get water seems a lot worse than it really is so people will always complain the most in SoCal.

      • This is an oversimplification.

        Once you make people desperate, sitting ducks, you have a public-safety issue.

        The PCTA was supposed to put wells in its route-plan and they did not build them.

        Ergo, the problem.

        If you have hikers pull out 10,000 liters from the local spring is this a better solution?

        Hitch Hiking 1,000 people into town doesn’t seem like it either.

        Life was simpler when this was 1/3 of the people.

        Its (was) easier to patch over one mistake with a make-shift fix.

        Life is now not so easy.

      • I don’t know everything the PCT was supposed to do and didn’t but if they did put wells in so there was always reliable water every 15 miles, the same people would complain that 15 miles is too long and why not 12, or 10 or whatever. It also costs a hell of a lot to bring a drill rig, hundreds of feet of casing and install the pump way out in the middle of nowhere. Ironically you need water to drill so they’d probably haul a 5,000 gallon water truck to each well too. What happens when the trail inevitably burns and the wells are destroyed? Who pays for the new ones? Or what if they drill and the water’s bad? You’re talking some serious money.

        All a hiker has to do is check the water report (which doesn’t exist for plenty of other less popular desert trails btw), do some basic math and figure out how much to carry. If the cache’s aren’t listed or their status isn’t shown hikers won’t rely on them as heavily. When they do get there the water is more likely to be there if it’s needed. If we have to assume hikers are too dumb to figure this out you might as well just pave over it and put a McDonald’s down every other exit.

      • Again, its a bit much to be brandishing this type of opinion without doing some research. There are several specific places where water caches are not trivially there for “spoiled” hikers. m77 at julian is just one example.

        There is a historical reason that the cache is there.

        If you step back you’ll remember that there are no natural sources of water from mile 38 in long canyon to the stream at mile 105. So for 67 miles there is only man-made water sources, and from m68 to m101 there is nothing.

        My understanding is they earmarked funds for a man-made water source at m91 (where there is now a cache). The PCT orginally was designed/ architected actually to avoid the entire ridge it now navigates there.

        This is why hikers have been caching water (for themselves or others) since the inception of the trail in this region.

        Again, 10 years ago this was a non-issue with 300 people hiking a year.

        But its a real problem to put people (themselves or others) into this section without any safety net. The problems are too predictable.

        And the cost of picking people off that ridge by helicopter are not worth the hundreds of $1,000s or bad publicity it would cost.

      • You’re right, there are no natural sources between mile 37 and 101 but there are man made sources at mile 42, 47, 48, 52, 59, and 68 within a mile of the trail. You can also hitch at mile 77 or walk several miles down to a campground. That makes a 24 mile dry stretch from Scissor’s to Barrel Spring. It’s great that there’s a cache at 3rd gate (mile 91) and a well would be wonderful but listing the source on the water report just makes people take 14 miles of water, then fill up 3 or 4 liters to camp and make it to Barrel Spring. I’m not saying get rid of the cache, I’m saying either don’t list it on the water report or remove the status so it isn’t relied on. Imagine of the 1,000 through hikers now taking 3+ liters only took 1 liter or less since they weren’t sure and played it safe. That’s a lot of pressure off the cache and it still serves the same purpose to prevent rescue calls.

      • I think people need to respect these resournces. Not try to hide them or lie about them. Those are very different things, and I don’t think the latter begets the former.

        There are some resources more critical than outher out there.

        In So Cal, there are maybe 2 or 3 places like this.

        It seems that the deeper issue you article raises is that media-exposure.

        I’d rather have the media message be: no trail majik. water for emergency use only. please respect the land and other people.

        Anything else borders on irresponsible.

        And yet i agree we need to face up to the fact that the “trail angels” (overzealous ones) are as much of the problem as the hikers.

        There needs to be a clear communication to people who get a kick out of “feeding the bears” (so to speak) to get a new hobby.

        In any event, I’m sure we see 90% of this from a similar perspective.

        There are many many places where what is out there is not needed, and is ultimartely disfunctional for everyone.

      • This is why you go to the RV park and load up on water, then hike from 5pm to midnight+. Then you don’t need the cache at Scissors nor the 3rd gate. Same process for the Hat Creek Rim. It is part of the adventure.

        Although more annoying, the whole trail can be done without caches and just relying on natural and giant man-made sources (eg Rodriguez Water tank).

        I didn’t have caches in 1996, so hiking in 2013 they were a bit of a luxury. Sure, I used water from them (eg Kelso Valley Road) to avoid the frustration of hiking a few miles off trail, but it would not have been the end of the world if they were not there.

        I grew to dislike the caches over the course of my hike last year. The turning point was seeing a note in Oregon from a non-PCT aware tourist. The person had brought up a few gallons of water because they had heard from a hiker named _______ that the cache at Windigo Pass was EMPTY! The hiker was a bit shocked that there was no water and they had to hike a long way without it, plus other hikers behind them ended up in the same situation. The good Samaritan hoped that they could alleviate the “crisis” a little bit.

        The crisis was not that the cache was empty, the crisis was that hikers had planned on water magically appearing there as if it were some power-up in a video game.

      • OTC

        Good points about the RV park now available at m77.

        There are only a couple areas where the combination of fragile water sources, objective distance/exposure risk, and remote emergency access routing really support caching for safety.

        The other issue is that the PCT cuture will need to adapt as the numbers scale. This is true for both supporters and hikers. There needs to be a distinction drawn between proper logistical support and “enabling” of bad habits and “behavirous that don’t scale”.

  3. Excellent article. I hiked the PCT in 1982. No water caches then.

    • Sorry Chris, but they “were” there but probably stolen. My first time doing a “Section” was in 1978 and they were there then. But when you went through they were probably stolen by Illegal Mexicans who also were using the trail quite heavily during those years.. Each time I went through I would only find empty gallon jugs thrown into the bushes that is why I made my own Cache’s when planning to hike a Section. At one time, I do not know the name of the Horse Group but in 2001 they brought gallons in on Horse Back and would run a quarter inch cable through the handles of the jugs at the Third Gate with a padlock so they could not walk off with them..That is until the Border Patrol “discovered’ the PCT in 2002 and began to intercept them at Lake Morena, The I-8 Underpass, Kitchen Creek, Laguna, Scissors Crossing and Warner Springs. I spoke with one Agent who told me an average of 100 illegals hiked the trail every night between the Border and Warner Springs.

      • I didn’t know that. There was certainly no sign of them in 1982 and no-one mentioned their existence.

      • Eddie that explains all the warnings through hikers get about illegal immigrants and the complete lack of any sign of them when I hiked last year. There were a ton of border patrol agents though. Another hiker who works on a ranch was fascinated by one of their cattle gates. She kept opening and closing it to see how it worked and a little while later the border patrol stopped her and asked if she had seen a large crowd of illegal’s in the area – the sensor in the gate made them suspicious!

        Also you should get a hold of Jack Haskel at the PCTA – he would love to hear some of your stories about the PCT.

      • Mr. Haskel should be well aware of Mr. Fish and the Trail Angels in that section. Mr. Fish was the Project Coordinator for the area….Another example of the problem with Illegals and why a Ranger told me to be careful of notifying the BP which could backfire back on me, especailly in these times…In 1988 I came back from a nice swim in Kitchen Creek to the campground, I was camped in the last unti in the Circular turn around under the big oaks, to find 5 Mexicans going through my gear and walking off with my Backpack. I yelled for them to stop, they turned around, one flipped me the finger, two others picked up a stick from my woodpile and made some threatening gestures.. I put one round from my 22 Cal. Derringer with Snake shot into the ground, (I do have a concealed carry permit). they Froze, dropped everything and ran up the old fire road towards the trail. For a period of time, they made their own trail upon reaching Kitchen Creek Road, instead of going through the Gate, they crossed the road and followed Kitchen Creek along it’s meandering path right through the access road to the campground and then onto the Ranch adjacent to the Kitchen Creek Road behind the Campground. They stopped since it was so obvious and easy for the PB to see them there…Where I live now, we have no problems with them in our National Forests, just the Chicken Plants…and I still carry the Derringer for there are some 60 type of Snakes indiegeous to the area and most are nasty. I wear either Snake Proof Chaps or Gaiters on my hikes here…

  4. Oh yes the memories.. The Trail Angels used to bring gallon jugs in by Horseback for that Third gate Cache, as well as strategically placed jugs along that long climb from Scissors Crossing…So someone must have repaired the fire road off to the east. Probably Mr. Fish, if he is still alive. Mr. Fish was instrumental in creating the Trail and the Trail route for the PCT up to Cajon Pass.. Just a tip for futrure hikers, in the Picture Labeled a “Natural Water Source” those white rocks, though I believe they are sun blasted granite,, white rocks also tend to indicate a lot of Minerals, like gypsum in the water, so it is best to Filter and treat that water and not drink it straight out of the stream. That picture is a good Desert Picture, the rest is still Chapparel and there are hidden Tinajas in the Chapparel but unless you know where they are I would not spend my time looking for them especially in huge Boulder Country.. Topographical Maps printed before 1970 are treasured as they provided information on those natural tanks and during WWII the Federal Government built hundreds of rain collecting tarmacs and water tanks should the people have to escape to the hills from a Japanese invasion, so if you come across one that is what they are and who made them..Thanks for sharing, another good helpful article,,thank you…

    • Yup! Mr. Fish is still alive and well. I talked to him on the phone a couple months back. He still goes out on the trail crews and whatnot. I met him in 1994 during my section hike of WA and we hiked from Stehekin to Canada together.

      • PCT Hikers just do not know how much they owe Mr. Fish for making their trip possible..The accolades that could be sung for this man could go on for hours on end…I am glad to hear he is still with us…

  5. Hello, thanks for the great article.

    I had never run into a place that had water caches until I went to Big Bend recently. I was a bit confused on how they are supposed to function, and the information for the trail didn’t really make it very clear. The trail I was looking at doing had two water caches on it, and it said “this is a great way to store water and not carry it the entire way!”. Are you just supposed to drop a few bottles at one cache, then pray that another hiker did the same at the other cache? It seems like risky business to me.

    Being from Texas has taught me that conserving your water is one of the most important skills a backpacker needs to learn. The only water I don’t consume when backpacking is the water I use to brush my teeth, which is probably about 3 tablespoons.

    • You use water to brush your teeth? I don’t bother when I’m backpacking, but maybe that’s just because I’m lazy.

      • Ha.. now I feel like a waster. Yea, I use tooth paste and water, and to rinse the tooth brush i put a little water in my mouth and swish it with the tooth brush in my mouth.

      • If you come across a Willow Tree, fray a small twig from the tree and use that instead of a Toothbrush. This is what the native Americans used most frequently..The bitter taste is the same chemical used in Aspirin.

  6. Great article Mike, “In the end, as wilderness users we should always be responsible for ourselves. Outside help should only be relied on in dire emergencies, not as a protection from thirst.” I think this sums it up. Thanks.

  7. Well put Mike,
    I think the character of the typical thru-hiker has dramatically shifted in the last decade or so. Far less often is a hiker challenged by (and prepared for…) the technical difficulties of the trail than by a sense of just “punching their ticket”. So the ever present sense of entitlement that you mention is just an outgrowth of that.

    • Thanks Sydney. I think we’re seeing the AT-ification of the PCT. My perspective is very limited, but based on conversations I’ve had with older thru’s it seems to be that way. There’s definitely more information and technology on the PCT than ever before and that brings a lot of people who either wouldn’t try it or would never have heard of it. That said, 2,668 miles will always be a very long walk and I never met anyone with the “punching their ticket” attitude, everyone was either elated to be out there or struggling but enjoying the community. The entitlement seems to come from a combination of feeling superior to others for hiking so much and all the special treatment from trail angels and others. Most thru-hikers aren’t very entitled but you do run into groups of them, usually younger and rowdier ones who end up giving everyone else a bad reputation – just like the AT.

  8. Interesting article with some valid points. I think there is a larger issue regarding what the PCT thru-hiking experience is becoming. My experience thru-hiking in the late 1990s was that PCT thru-hikers were well prepared despite a lack of detailed information about the trail. Water caches and trail angels were rare or non-existant, and the number of thrus in a season could be counted by the dozens. Those days are gone, without judgement.

    These days I volunteer at trail angel locations and I see the hikers come through. I note that there are a larger number of hikers, and a similar increase in the number of rescues from the backcountry. Overall I don’t see anything different about the current class of hikers from the classes of 20 years ago. There has always been social groups on the trail, young people trying to figure things out and oldsters trying to recapture a bit of their youth.

    Is there a sense of entitlement among hikers? Not so much entitlement as a ‘special feeling’ when a hiker considers his/her situation. At day 0 hikers are sent off with great fanfare by friends and family, so they do feel a little special. Then they are offered assistance by strangers (aka trail angels) that they have never experienced back home. Some fall into an insular group where feeling special is encouraged via a kind of group-think that occurs any where you look (school, work, religion, etc.). Some of it is social, some of it a way to justify what is a very difficult physical effort. When a hiker hears the common adoration of non-hikers after saying they are “walking to Canada” feeling special starts to feel normal. Feeling special is short step to feeling entitled. And I think some observers get confused between the two.

    So, what sort of experience is a PCT thru-hike supposed to be? To me I think two terms come to mind immediately: “self reliance” and “wilderness”. I come to the wilderness prepared to be self-reliant. That is my goal and my standard, and it dictates both my expectations and my behaviors. I am self-reliant in that I carry what I need and want. I rely on nothing but nature to sustain my hike. Sure, I break my thru-hike into sections to enjoy the comforts and resources of civilization, but I permit only minor and unimposed intrusions by civilization. For example, I may listen to an electronic device on my hike, and I enjoy signs at trail junctions. I don’t cary a boombox or build fires that threaten the wilderness.

    But defining wilderness is much trickier. The building of a trail is not wilderness preservation, but without the trail I am a hopeless and hapless hiker. A footbridge across a raging river is not wilderness. Yet I accept and enjoy these improvements that make my hike possible.

    But where is the line? Do wells or developed springs add or detract from my hike? How about privies and picnic tables? Detailed mileage signs? Water caches? Food caches? Cell phone access? Campgrounds? Shelters? All of these things are nice to have, and could even be considered a safety improvement to the trail, but should they be part of the PCT?

    Me, I have no idea what is right in this regard. Maybe this is something the PCTA thinks about. I have no plans to mourn the present or regret the past. Rather, I plan to celebrate what is right with the PCT and try to help with the obvious wrongs (trash on the trail, trail maintenance, protecting and expanding right of way)

  9. I believe this is close to the right track. CBS is completely wrong. There is far more water sources than they are claiming. The hardest part of the entire PCT to hike with out caches is not even in So Cal. It is the Hat Creak Rim. The PCT was hiked efficiently by hundreds of hikers with heavier packs, heavier gear, less info, and less company. I would like to see the PCT remain wild and I would like the people to leave the city comforts at home. The hard is what makes it real.

  10. This article prompted me to finish something I’ve had in my draft folder for a week now. :) http://www.pmags.com/trail-magic-sodas-water-caches-and-trash-oh-my

  11. Really enjoying your PCT related articles, Mike – keep them coming. Cheers.

  12. Mike, I agree with your article. As someone who hiked the trail in the early 1970’s I’m amazed at what the trail has become. With all the modern technology, guide books, food choices, trail angels, etc. I think it has become too easy for people to plan for their hike and as a result they don’t plan enough. I read all the time of people being rescued because they hadn’t plan properly. Two women were rescued in Oregon this year because they were only using GPS from their phones and couldn’t recharge the batteries. They were not carrying any maps.

    Back in the early 70’s there was no guide books, no internet, no trail angels, no water caches, no GPS or cell phones. We used forest service and USGS maps. To find the distance of the route we took string and followed along the trail or dirt road and used the map mileage index to figure the miles. You can guess we were way off sometimes. We had no way of knowing if the creeks or springs had water. We carried all our gear, a month worth of food, plus 2 ½ gallons of water. Yes, our packs were heavy; however we were prepared for just about anything. My point is at the age of 15 and 16 we planned for over a year for the hike and had no problems with water sources as long as we carried 2 ½ gallons of water each. I understand the need to hike light but when people try to hike light with a minimum amount of water trouble will always be around the corner. I’m sure it won’t be too long before people hire sherpas to carry their pack.

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