When shall I start?
Tackling the High Sierra
If you want to remain in the field of hiking and not go into mountaineering territories, you MUST start the Sierra after snowmelt. Typically, it is considered that hikers should leave Kennedy Meadows around June 15, not before. Of course the exact date when you can start hiking the Sierra depends on the actual snow pack, that’s why you’ll need to keep a close eye on weather reports in real-time. On years with heavy snow falls, passing thru the Sierra is impossible even at the heart of summer when it’s the warmest (that was the case in 2017 and again in 2019, where many thru-hikers had to skip that section). On a regular year, if you start at the right time, the only places where you’ll walk through snow will be mountain passes – there are 12 in total in the High Sierra – and you’ll be safe as long as you take your time, take careful steps and pass when the snow is still hard. As a general rule, this means that you’ll be better off tackling passes as early as you can in the morning. As snow gets softer, you’ll start sliding and post-holing and, depending on what lies underneath the snow pack, you might get injured. Sleeping as close as possible to the pass on the previous night and starting the ascent around 4:30 or 5am is a fairly good tactic that has proven efficient for me.
Starting in Campo
The day you leave Kennedy Meadows dictates the day you start in Campo, it’s as simple as that!
Let’s say that winter has seen normal snow falls. You’ll plan to leave Kennedy Meadows for the High Sierra on the morning of June 15. Kennedy Meadows is usually a good place for a break, there’s no need to depart as soon as you’ve arrived. You wanna rest from the desert and gather your strength for the peaks of the High Sierra, you need time to resupply and shove your food into your bear can, maybe buy some specific gear for the mountain, and maybe you’ll also want to take the time to find friends you’ll team up with for the section to come… so let’s say you’re taking 2 full days of rest. That means you’ll plan to arrive at Kennedy Meadows on June 12, any time in the afternoon (be prepared for the applause and cheering as you arrive at the General Store!)
To know your starting date in Campo, all you need to do is make a retro-planning from there. There are 702 miles between Campo and Kennedy Meadows. By approximating your walking pace and daily mileage, you’ll know when you need to start to be in Kennedy Meadows by June 12. Keep in mind that you need to start VERY slow and that you won’t reach your actual cruising pace before the end of week 1 (there’s a full page on this topic, it’s in the process of being translated), and don’t forget to factor in your days of rest (zeros and neros). Of course this method is somewhat approximative, but that’s not an issue. On a long hike such as the PCT, 3-4 days more or 3-4 days less don’t make much difference. Just keep in mind that you’re better off leaving Kennedy Meadows later than sooner.
On the year I hiked the PCT (2018) snowfalls were exceptionally small: about 60% of the seasonal norms.
I started in Campo on May 1st in the morning and arrived at Kennedy Meadows by mid-morning on June 9, that is 40 days after my start, with 2 zeros in Warner Springs (I’m soon translating the page where I explain why I stopped there for 2 days), 1 nero in Idyllwild, 1 zero in Big Bear Lake and 1 nero in Wrightwood (soon translating the page on resting time management for more information on zeros and neros).
A snow storm hit the doors of the Sierra around mid-May but it was short lived and didn’t radically change the snow pack nor the hiking conditions in the mountain.
Hence I was able to leave Kennedy Meadows on June 11 around 1pm, which means I had one full day’s rest plus 2 long half-days. As expected from the weather reports, I only found snow on the mountain passes during my crossing of the High Sierra.
Arriving in Canada
Just as you avoided snow in the Sierra, you’ll want to avoid it in the Cascade Mountains. For that, you need to plan on finishing your thru-hike before the end of September. On some years there is no snow before mid-October, but on other years full-size snow storms hit the Cascades at the beginning of fall. In 2018, there were mild snow falls as early as September 20. Not enough to stop hikers from hiking this time, but there have been years where several inches of snow would fall overnight, covering the land and completely hiding the trail from other landmarks. When this happens there is only one solution: call S&R.