Stretching hiker space

Camped with other hikers at Cascade Locks, Oregon

“I’m not sure where to camp,” Jake said.

We we standing in the dark, staring down a dilemma. We had just hiked five miles in the dark to get to a campsite. The campsite was full. The next site was five miles on. The previous site was five miles back. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to camp.

A rare night with a campfire

Before the PCT, this would have been an impossible situation. Five weeks on trail have redefined my sense of what’s possible.

In outdoor activities, there’s a sense of personal space that I will call “hiker space” in this post. Hiker space defines how far you pitch your tent from another hiker you don’t know. It defines with whom you eat your dinner and with whom you hike. Before this trail, if I had a choice, I would set up my tent as far away from other campers as possible. I would eat dinner with people whose names I knew. I would walk with hiking partners. It’s only polite.

We’re hiking the PCT. The rules of etiquette are different. On this trip, my sense of hiker space has morphed and changed more than I expected.

It started the first night on trail.

That night, Jake and I camped at a spot 11 miles from Harts Pass. Two guys were already there, awkwardly chatting and eating dinner at a campfire pit.

We arrived and set up our tent within view of the trail and within spitting distance of the other tents. We took a spot at the campfire pit, started making dinner and joined the conversation.

Twenty minutes later, another guy showed up. He joined the circle after setting up his tent at the last visible tentsite.

Tentsites are flat spots with space for one tent. They are cleared of debris. They’re in greater demand than you might expect along this trail. In any given space in the forest, you might find trees, flowers, downed logs, ferns and other undergrowth. Making a tentsite involves clearing downed trees, branches, and other debris. In most places along the trail, you’re not allowed to camp anywhere near the trail. Even if allowed, it takes a lot of energy to make a tentsite and it can damage the fragile ecosystem. In other words, it’s mostly out of the question.

With the addition of the last hiker. We thought the campsite was full. We were wrong.

All through dinner, more hikers showed up. Some kept hiking, but many squeezed in. They found spaces between tents. They found tentsites we hadn’t noticed. One group of four somehow found space off in the woods somewhere.

The five of us around the campfire pit stared in awe.

During a momentary lull in the conversation, one guy turned to the four of us and said, “This is the biggest social gathering I’ve been to in the last six months.”

At least I wasn’t the only one feeling awkward about the amount of people on trail!

A visitor to our campsite

Last week, when Jake and I showed up after night hiking to a full campsite, we knew it wasn’t full. We found a spot next to the trail across from a tent with a snorer. Hoping the snoring camper would be least likely to be disturbed, we set up our tent as quietly as possible.

And it worked! The snorer droned right through. When we left in the morning, the snorer, who turned out to be a fellow PCT hiker, was just waking up.

“I didn’t even hear you get in,” he said.

We breathed a sigh of relief. Hiker space, such that it is, had been maintained.

Cooking dinner at a campsite south of Stevens Pass

Author: jenonthetrail

Jen is from Washington state between Seattle and the Canadian border. She grew up hiking in the North Cascades with her family. She went on her first backpacking trip at about 12 years old with her dad and brother. Jen is returning after seven years in Mexico City to the US to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. She’s looking forward to mountain meadows and Cheez-it crackers.

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