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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.

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