This Queer Fat Femme Is Thru-Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, and You Can Follow Along

The Pacific Crest Trail is “a wild and scenic pathway” spanning from Mexico to Canada. It’s 2,650 miles long and winds through California, Oregon, and Washington. Every year, thousands of people attempt to thru-hike its entire length over the course of about six months. On this very Thursday morning, I will become one of those people! I’m so excited and so nervous I could totally pass out right now, but instead I’m gonna tell you all about the PCT so you can follow along as I embark on the coolest thing I’ve ever done! C’mon, this is gonna be fun (I think?)!

This is my hiking outfit, as seen in the wild aka my backyard in Portland

Thru-hiking 101

Like any community, the hiking community has a specific vocabulary and group understanding of its subject (hiking!), and it can be difficult to follow without some explanations. With that in mind, I’d like to explain a few things about thru-hiking so that everyone can follow along easily. Full disclosure: I am a total beginner when it comes to long distance hiking; this trek will be my very first long trail, and I know I’ll be learning a lot as I go.

Thru-hiking is the act of hiking a long distance trail from end-to-end in one hiking season. This usually entails hiking 15-30 miles a day, camping almost every night, and carrying everything you will need in a pack on your back. The three most commonly hiked long trails in the United States are the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), the Appalachian Trail (AT), and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT); anyone who has hiked all three of these trails is called a Triple Crowner. Some people choose to hike these trails in sections, ranging from 20 miles to 700+ miles; these hikers are called section hikers.

Other important vocabulary to know: base weight refers to how much your fully loaded pack weighs, excluding all consumables (food, water, fuel). Lightweight backpackers aim to have a base weight of 20 lbs or less (that’s me!), and ultralight backpackers aim to have a base weight of 10 lbs or less. Taking a zero means taking a rest day – you hike zero miles (or close to zero) that day and instead relax and recuperate, usually in a trail town. Trail names refer to nicknames hikers receive on the trail. Trail angels are magical human beings who go out of their way to help hikers, either by hosting them, gifting them food or water, or simply offering a ride from the trail to town – the kindness performed by trail angels is often referred to as trail magic. There are many other hiker-specific vocab words, but I think that’s a good beginning.

Oh, and the most important one: HYOH, or Hike Your Own Hike. It’s like You Do You, but for the hiking universe.

Here I am hiking my own hike in Glacier National Park last summer

Preparation and Training

My preparation has taken on a lot of forms. Some people who hike the PCT have a lot of backpacking experience and so there’s less of a learning curve, but I honestly have very little – I just love hiking and became obsessed with the idea of doing a thru-hike, and because I’m a Capricorn sun / Virgo rising, I willed and to-do-listed this whim into reality.

In order to prepare for this trip I put together the best gear kit I could afford, learned as much as I could about backcountry snow safety, and tested out different foods that I may (or may not!) enjoy eating for 5+ months. I talked to other thru-hikers, lurked on Facebook hiking groups (and tried my best to ignore the mansplaining and fearmongering I found there), and read trail journals from 2016 (here’s my favorite: Brown Girl on the PCT). I consulted with friends who had hiked the trail before, most frequently my friend Carrot Quinn who is a fellow queer person who has hiked the PCT twice and even wrote a book about it! I trained by walking 6 miles a day almost every day, to get my feet and my muscles ready for their upcoming challenge. I also hiked on real trails when I could, and aimed to do long routes with large elevation gains to prepare my muscles, my lungs, and my heart.

I basically became obsessed with the PCT and funneled all of my free time and most of my money into this endeavor. While I do believe that anyone who wants to can and should be able to get outside (and I loathe the gatekeeping that happens in the outdoorsy community) I do want to emphasize that taking on a thru-hike is not a low-key scenario. It takes a lot of time, logistical planning, commitment, and money, especially if you have never done one before. Pretending otherwise does future thru-hikers a disservice, in my opinion.

This is most of the gear I will take with me on the PCT

Being a Queer Fat Femme On The Trail

I mentioned gatekeeping in my last paragraph, and how much I hate it. Let’s talk about that for a minute! There’s a long, rich history in the United States of pretending that white cis straight thin athletic men are the only people who enjoy being outdoors. If you flip through an REI catalogue, scroll through popular outdoorsy Instagram accounts, or visit our National Parks, there is an overwhelming lack of representation of anyone who does not fit that mold.

We are slowly starting to see a shift in this model, with badass resources and organizations like Big City MountaineersUnlikely Hikers, Melanin Basecamp, Latino Outdoors, Fat Girls HikingOutdoor Afro, and The Venture Out Project, to name a few (and with major brands following suit with campaigns like REI’s Force Of Nature).

However, as we all know, change is a slow game and it can still be really hard to exist in these spaces that are in theory open to everyone but in reality have been framed as a boy’s club. And I say that as a cis white woman, a femme chubby girl who often passes as straight if she just keeps her mouth shut. (And I mean, I never keep my mouth shut, but I know that I could, and honestly that is a privilege even if it’s rooted in femme invisibility, you know?) At most I am fat-shamed or condescended to on the trail – neither is pleasant, but I have rarely been fearful for my safety when I’m hiking. I know that’s not true for all queers.

When planning my hike I decided I didn’t feel comfortable simply showing up on the trail and using my presence as a vehicle for change – I know that in many ways choosing to go on this hike is a luxury, and I wanted to use the opportunity to raise awareness and funds for Big City Mountaineers, the nation’s leading wilderness mentoring organization. Big City Mountaineers partners with community-based youth organizations to send close to 1,000 under-served urban youths per year on backcountry expeditions. This felt like a tangible step I could take to help create an outdoor community that actually fosters inclusivity.

The saying goes, in the long distance hiking community, that you should never discuss religion or politics on the trail. As I set off to hike the PCT in 2017, in Donald Trump’s America, what does that mean for me? I’m preaching to the choir if I begin to explain here that who I am coincides so directly with “religion or politics” that to cheerfully, willfully ignore them on the trail would be to hide my true self from all my potential new life long friends. I think being visible and being open about my who I am is a way to be radical, to resist, to play my part in creating a small bit of change in the outdoor community.

I’m not sure what hiking the PCT as a queer fat femme will feel like, but you can be sure I’ll be reporting back on this particular aspect of my experience.

Just a femme nature diva wearing a tiara on her birthday hike, totally normal

Why The Heck Am I Doing This?

I’ve tried to answer this question a million times in my head, and I’m never satisfied. It was a whim, sort of. But it was also a dream that feels as though it was a long time coming. I want to create the version of myself I would most like to be. I’m going to prove something, to myself and to the world, about what a person who looks and thinks and exists like me is capable of doing. I’m hiking because I can, but also because some people think I can’t. It’s not that I need to prove myself to anyone else, but rather that I’d like to prove myself to me.

You’re supposed to know exactly why you’re hiking the Pacific Crest Trail before you start – you’re less likely to quit when things get hard if you have a concrete list of reasons as to why you’re out there, and anyway, people will inevitably ask why you’re doing it, and it’s awkward to blink at them thoughtfully and say, “that’s a great question,” without really answering, every time.

But I’ve never been great at logic; emotions rule my world. Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is a feeling I have to follow, a love letter I want to write. A friend asked me recently what I’m hoping to accomplish by hiking the PCT. I think he was expecting an introspective reply, something philosophical, maybe spiritual, but I don’t want to burden myself with those ideas just yet. I laughed and said, “I’m hoping to accomplish hiking the PCT!”

I’m not sure exactly why I have to hike this trail, but I think the answers will come to me along the way. For now, I just know I need to get out there and do it. I’ve got a lot of miles ahead of me to figure the rest out.

Thanks for letting me bring you along on my very first thru-hike – I hope you’re ready to hit the desert together bright and early on Thursday! I’ll be back here with an update soon enough. Until then, you can follow my progress on Instagram or at my personal blog – I’ll be updating as much as I can, wi-fi permitting. And if you have any questions, please feel free to ask them in the comments! I would love to help more queer humans feel comfortable and capable of taking on long distance hiking, and the only thing that made me feel confident in myself was asking a million questions and receiving non-judgmental answers. Keep in mind that I’m a beginner, but I’m trying to get over my imposter syndrome feelings too, so maybe we can all learn together. Until next time, I’m off to filter water from tiny streams, dig catholes to poop in, and avoid stepping on any rattlesnakes! Bye!

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Vanessa is a writer, a teacher, and the community editor at Autostraddle. Very hot, very fun, very weird. Find her on twitter and instagram.

Vanessa has written 404 articles for us.


      • Ha. It’d be a bit impractical/unkind for me to take 6 months out now or in the foreseeable future. As my daughter gets older I’m planning on taking her out walking so we can hang out and chat and see the world a bit though.

  1. Vanessa this is so exciting. I’m obsessive about the outdoors. I used to be into sailing and dreamt of spending a year on a boat sailing across the world, and as I’ve had less opportunities to sail I’ve put my hiking shoes on and gotten back into hiking. And a long hike like the PCT is exactly something I hope I’ll do one day. I’m much more interested in the long distance challenge than I am by a Himalaya Base Camp hike for example.

    Europe doesn’t have that kind of distance in one single trail. We do have some pretty tough hikes (Corsica’s tour is famous for being really demanding physically).

    Anyway. best of luck to you, i can’t wait to get updates. I’m sure your story will be one more that will give me major envy :)

    • You can’t go 2000 miles, but you could go about 500 on the traditional route of the Camino de Santiago. But if you started in Paris I bet you could double it. Get your medieval Europe on. ;)

  2. What made you choose some of your specific equipment? Like if you wanted to go light wasn’t there better options you could have taken with you? Like swapping out the DSLR for a high end light camera like a Olympus E-PL6 Sony(both offering wifi in camera to share with your phone)? How will charging your equipment on the trail work or do have battery packs for your phone?

    • If you click through to the gear list linked above (on her blog), all your questions are answered there!

  3. AH-mazing. I am super excited about this! Followed your IG, and can’t wait to hear more. I’m an east coaster, so the AT has always been somewhere in the back of my brain as a thing-that-would-be-cool if I were thinner/richer/fitter. Thanks for going for it without any of the -er crap I have in my head!

  4. Yes! So happy to see your writing here again Vanessa, and thrilled to follow along with your next chapter!!

  5. This sounds like a very exciting and great trip. I look forward to seeing updates. You have my interest piqued in wanting to do this trail, or at least in the near future(say by June) do the portions near me(been to the nearby trails, but never the main trail). I hope you have a great time, and meet many wonderful people(hopefully queers too).

    N’seea Tova friend.

  6. So exciting! I’ve been following along on your blog, I can’t believe it’s finally time to begin. Good luck, and I’m excited to hear your updates!

  7. Yayy!!!! So happy you are writing about this for Autostraddle! Can’t wait to hear about your travels!!! <3

  8. Aww! Best of luck! It’s a great/hard/exciting/boring/grueling/gorgeous experience! <3 – grit (PCT class of 2012)

  9. I am so pumped to bear witness this great journey through all mediums, possible! this is a dream I have had for awhile for similar uncertain reasons and I am so inspired by your pursuit. goddess blessings, Vanessa!

  10. i’ve secretly always wanted to do a long distance hike since i read Chasing Redbird as a kid…but i’m not outdoorsy at all. i’ve lived in the pnw for almost 3 years and i’m STILL not outdoorsy. i want to be though, and your journey & writing inspires me so much.

  11. I’m excited for you! And I’m so glad you shared all those POC outdoorsy groups, because I hadn’t heard of them before!

  12. This is SO powerful Vanessa. I wish you all the adventure and beautiful moonlit nights in the world.

    The PCT takes me back. I actually helped make/maintain a good portion of it back in my forest service days. I managed back country wilderness conservation teams and lived probably the most rugged lifestyle you can imagine: no showers or trips into town for months on end, seeing how many different ways we could flavor textured vegetable protein, and campfire lit evenings of song and legend.

    Don’t be surprised if after your journey, you are changed forever. That much time in the wilderness is healing and will no doubt help present yourself to yourself.

    In my case, I’ve lately been comparing my now 30 year old self to that decade ago… So much has changed — how the world perceives me, of course. But most of all, the time I spent on the PCT forced me to be honest with myself.

    The person who made those trails is not me. It never was. He was a bearded young man with ripped abs, a dirty face, and hairy arms. Those years seem almost dreamlike. The only evidence of my experience being the faded journals I kept detailing my feelings and internal struggles with gender dypshoria.

    Many trans women had similar experiences. In an attempt to run from our true selves, we surround ourselves with overly masculine experiences and energy, hoping beyond hope that we can hide from the world. Or perhaps I was hoping that my feelings would fade – that I might beat them into submission if I struggled long enough…

    Now, well into transition, and reading your wonderful post, I wonder what returning to the PCT would be like now… In my healing process of loving and accepting myself, I am now realizing how necessary the journey is. I think you’ve inspired me to go back this summer, even if only for a while. Hoping we cross paths ^__^ We can enjoy a moldy peanut butter sandwich and a mountain breeze together.

  13. Excited to follow you along!

    I’m just dipping my toe in and doing Katahdin, and a 5 day hike here in Canada.

    It’s so nice to have some fat girl representation. I still feel like I have to convince people that I am outdoorsy even though I hike like a beast and suffer through strength training for the sole purpose of being outside more.

    Yeah I’m chubby, but just watch me keep up.

  14. This is awesome!! I’ve done week-long backpacking trips but never anything this ambitious. Really looking forward to your updates.

  15. Inspired to follow your progress. I live in NZ and this year’s overseas trip is to Oregon for beer, coffee, cycling, volcanoes and last, but not least….Day hikes on the PCT. Can’t believe I’ll actually see the Bridge of the Gods up close and personal. Am well jel of your trip, really want to do the PCT one day. Good luck!

  16. Good luck!!!! So excited for you, will be cheering you on from the sidelines /comment section. I was a trail angel once ?

  17. I thru-hiked the AT in 2016 simply because I felt I needed to. No real reason. I finished it bc I said I would. As a bonus I found a wonderful group of queer women that I hiked with for 3 months of it. They were and still are my world.
    I hope you find as much joy, love, and struggle as I did. And remember slow becomes steady and steady becomes fast.
    All the love!

  18. Good luck, and may you be awarded a good trail name. I envy you, being too enmeshed in a demanding job to be able to take vacation in more than 1 week chunks. So, in theory, I could start section hiking the Ozark Trail (local).

    As for fat, not fat, queer, straight – every single hiker is going to smell rank after a few days…

    Through-hiker tips are always good to hear.

  19. I love this! Good luck and I hope you have an amazing time. I can’t wait to live vicariously through your updates.

  20. OH MY GOD so I stopped reading just to come here and post that I’m also a Capricorn Sun Virgo Rising so I really identify with the way this article is written and also the idea of becoming obsessed with making something happen and listing your way to success. I’m gonna go back to reading the article now but want to ask what your Moon is? Mine is Libra.

    Would totally go hiking like this if it was a thing in the UK, and tbh it probably is, so I’m gonna do some research and see if I can in fact do a really long hike sometime. Thanks in advance for being so comprehensive with your account about how you’ve prepared for this!

    • Less specific long trails that I’m aware of but soooo many walking trails criss cross the whole country you can easily set a route from one end to the other. Have you read any Bill Bryson? His book The Road to Little Dribbling follows his walk from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath.

  21. Omfg this is so great!! Can’t wait to follow along with you <3 I grew up hiking in New Zealand and would love to do the PCT myself :)

  22. This looks super cool! I’ve never hiked in my life but I’m super interested in the logistics of it all. And the financial aspect! Like, how much do you need to save to be able to go and not work for 6 months? (This might just be that other people are better at saving than me)

  23. I’ve never been in the least bit sporty but have always thought that, as I’ve walked my legs off all my life, I’d be able to do a long walk like this.
    Not going to happen now, too much physical damage to the aging bod,but I’ll follow your trek with admiration, awe and much envy.

    Have the best time ever and I hope you make all the “discoveries”.

  24. Hi, I’m planning my walk of Te Araroa. New Zealands long trail! Here the out door community doesn’t so much have “gatekeeping” but it’s a growing problem instead of shrinking.
    The logistics planning has me really worried! We don’t have trail towns in a large number of places, and often go longer without resupply, up to 9 days, and then it’s only access to a postal drop for the next section!
    I’m no writer, but I’m using my hike to raise awareness for men’s mental health. And have attached my burgeoning blog below!
    Walk your own walk!
    (Trail name TBC)

  25. So excited for you! Will love to follow you journey. I’m so inspired by girls like you that don’t let anything get in their way of their dreams.
    Happy Trails!?

  26. This is so cool Vanessa! I’ve lived in the pnw for a decade (live in PDX now!), and hiking the PCT has been a small desire in the back of my mind for years. I’ve always felt like I would need to dedicate way more training for a long while before I started though. I hope this doesn’t sound snarky, bc I mean it with sincere curiosity: do you really think walking 6 miles a day is enough training? Like moving from 6 miles to 15-30 miles per day is a huge leap, plus doing it with an extra 20-50 pounds on your back is a huge change. It’s just way less training than Ive been psyching myself up for, so I’m curious to hear what your reasons are behind it (I’m sure you have them as a cap/virgo! Also, fellow Virgo rising here! ?)

  27. I’m southbound on the CDT this year – I’ll be following along for sure as i start my own adventure!

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