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It’s safe to say that no piece of media has ever changed how the public views the Pacific Crest Trail the way Wild did. First released in March 2012, Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir detailed her three-month journey on the PCT through California and Oregon, as she grappled with the aftermath of her divorce, a heroin addiction, and the loss of her mother. Her raw, honest portrayal of a formative experience didn’t just leave its mark on readers: It helped make one of the country’s premiere long trails a household name even for people who have never shouldered a pack. Here’s how the PCT has changed in the decade since Wild hit shelves.
Thru-Hiking Has Boomed
Over the past decade, thru-hike attempts have exploded along the PCT. While that’s certainly not all inspired by Wild, the last ten years account for the fastest increase in traffic since the Pacific Crest’s completion in 1993.
In 2012, the year that Wild was published, there were fewer than 200 reported thru-hikes. The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) estimates that an average of 700 people have completed the PCT each year since 2012. That number has only continued to grow: In 2018 alone, 1,600 hikers reported completing a thru-hike.
“Without a doubt, the popularity of the PCT has soared—beginning with the Wild years, 2013 to 14,” says Scott Wilkinson, Content Development Director of the PCTA. “The Cheryl Strayed book and subsequent movie put the PCT in the social consciousness of the nation. We only keep track of numbers for long-distance permits (anyone traveling 500 miles or more on the trail), but in the period of 2013-2019, those numbers went from 1,879 permits to 7,888 permits—a 320% increase.”
Although the pandemic disrupted PCT thru-hikers in 2020 and 2021, the average season is still nearly triple the size that it was a decade ago. But as the PCT becomes more popular, completion rates are also declining.
More Women Are Thru-Hiking
Female PCT hikers like Strayed have only become more common over the past decade. Halfway Anywhere’s first Annual Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hiker Survey in 2013 showed that 34.2% of hikers identified as female, while 65.8% of hikers identified as male. In 2021, the same survey found that 56.8% of hikers identified as male, 42.6% of hikers identified as female, and 0.5% of hikers identified as non-binary.
Did Wild’s impact on the literary world encourage more women to hit the trail? It’s a fair question. While she may have started the trail as a novice, Strayed’s memoir made her probably the best-known long-distance hiker among the non-hiking public. In a world where the popular image of a capable outdoors person is still overwhelmingly male, as a 2021 study of female PCT hikers published in the Journal of Outdoor Recreation, Education, and Leadership noted, it’s hard to discount the impact of that kind of representation.
Still, as Wilkinson points out, the PCT has a long way to go before we can credibly call it “diverse.”
“In the past decade (and particularly in the past two years) there has been a dramatic shift towards greater awareness of the relative lack of diversity (as represented by Black, Indigenous, Asian American, Pacific Islander, LGBTQ+ and other marginalized peoples) in the PCT community,” Wilkinson says. “It’s important to focus on the word “awareness” of this lack of diversity—because the situation has only improved slightly and we have much work remaining.”
The PCT is Seeing More Natural Disasters
Unfortunately, in many ways, the Pacific Crest Trail Strayed hiked in 1995 no longer exists. Since the publication of Wild, wildfires, extreme heat, and other side effects of climate change have hit the PCT hard. California, Oregon, and Washington have all experienced droughts, with California’s current drought affecting 98% of the state. Statewide droughts can contribute to a reduction in water sources for hikers, ultimately making them more or reliant on trail angels for water than they were in the past.
Major fires are now a yearly occurrence on the PCT as well. Since 2012, about 12.7 million acres of California have been impacted by fires, roughly 1 out of 8 acres statewide. In the past 5 years alone, the state has seen some of its largest wildfires in history. Researchers warn that wildfires will likely continue to grow in size and frequency. Annual closures are now so ubiquitous, it’s easy to imagine a future where it’s not possible to hike the trail end to end in a single season.
There’s a Higher Level of Human Impact on the Trail
A decade ago, the PCT was out of the public eye – a trail that only really serious backpackers might’ve recognized. But as the trail has grown in popularity, so has human impact. Although the Pacific Crest Trail Association is working diligently to educate hikers and the community at large about Leave No Trace practices, Wilkinson admits that it’s just not enough.
“With the increase in popularity came an increase in the impacts all those people had on the trail—particularly in the first 600-700 miles, because the majority of long-distance journeys still begin at the border with Mexico,” he says. “When we say ‘impacts’, we refer to a range of things—from overused campsites (plants are beaten down and human waste is up) and less solitude on the trail for those who seek it…to a greater risk of polluted water sources and human-caused wildfires.”
Cheryl Strayed Has Continued to Succeed
Wild saw almost immediate success after Oprah Winfrey chose it as a selection for her book club, contributing to a 220% jump in sales. Just under three years after the book’s release, a film based on the book earned a nomination for an Oscar Award. Cheryl Strayed’s success helped her to climb out of $85,000 of debt with her husband.
Today, Cheryl Strayed is based out of Portland, where she continues to impact readers around the globe. Her work has been published in over 40 different languages. Shortly after the publication of Wild, Strayed also published Tiny Beautiful Things, which is a book that features a series of essays from an advice column that she wrote anonymously. Tiny Beautiful Things became a bestseller, and it was eventually adapted into a play. One of Strayed’s most recent projects is a podcast by the name of Sugar Calling, where she continues to offer advice on a range of different topics.