(Lack of) Racial Diversity on the PCT

Hikers enjoy shade and trail magic at Scissors Crossing, San Diego County, California.

The Pacific Crest Trail, I’ve noticed, is very white. And I’m not just talking about how much snow you see on the trail.

Among the hikers who live in the USA or Canada, the vast majority are racially white. After ‘white’ the most common racial category (among hikers who live in the USA or Canada) was Asian American. However, considering that about half of all PCT hikers live in California, Oregon, Washington, or British Columbia, all of which (except Oregon) have large Asian-American (Asian Canadian) populations, there are surprisingly few Asian-American hikers. During my entire hike on the Washington PCT, I met one black hiker (who remembered seeing me at Scissors Crossing in Southern California, though I did not remember seeing him – I’m impressed that he remembered me four months later after such a brief encounter).

This blogger noticed it too.

89% of people who responded to the 2016 PCT Thru-Hiker Survey said they were ‘Caucasian’ (and 5% declined to answer). 74% of the people who responded to the 2017 PCT Thru-Hiker survey said they were ‘Caucasian’ and 20% declined to answer. In both 2016 and 2017, only 6% of thruhikers said that they were a race other than ‘Caucasian’. Though the survey only goes to thruhikers, my experience is that the racial diversity of section hikers is similar to the racial diversity of thruhikers.

Notice how, so far, I’ve only talked about hikers who reside in the USA or Canada, which is the majority of hikers. However, a substantial minority of PCT hikers (especially thru-hikers or hikers doing very long sections) do not live in the USA or Canada.

Most of the non-USA/Canada hikers are from Europe, especially from countries which are dominated by Germanic-language speakers and/or French speakers. However, the PCT is becoming increasingly popular among Eastern European hikers (I met the guy who claims to be the first Bulgarian to thru-hike the entire PCT) so the proportions of European hikers may change.

The PCT is also becoming much more popular among East Asians. This year, I met 7 Taiwanese hikers on the PCT (considering Taiwan’s relatively small population, that is impressive). They told me that more Taiwanese hikers become interested every year as the word spreads in Taiwanese hiking communities (also, the movie Wild – the only hiker I met who admitted to hiking the PCT because he saw that movie was from Taiwan). Japan and South Korea are also well-represented, which does not surprise me since, like Taiwan, Japan and South Korea have very firmly establishing hiking cultures, as well as a substantial middle class which can afford to travel to North America.

(Aside: I notice that the only Asian countries mentioned in Halfmiles 2016 survey are India and Israel, assuming one counts Israel as being part of Asia. I met Japanese and Korean hikers on the PCT in 2016, so I know they were there, but I suspect they are less likely to respond to surveys like this than European hikers.)

In fact, I met a lot more Asians from Asia than Asian Americans (Asian Canadians) on the PCT, and the Asian:European ratio was much higher than the Asian-American(Canadian)/White-American(Canadian) ratio.

It gets even more extreme when it comes to Latinx hikers. I met a few Latinx hikers who reside outside the United States and came to the USA specifically to thru-hike the PCT. The only Latinx hikers I met on the PCT who live in the USA were day hikers who did not even know that the PCT ran outside of Mount Ranier National Park, let alone from Mexico to Canada until I told them (and on the Bay Area Ridge Trail – not on the PCT – I met a Latino PCT hiker who grew up in San Diego, and I later ran into him again in Ashland, Oregon).

The only African hikers I met were white hikers from South Africa.

A sign which informs hikers that they are entering Yakima Reservation.

It’s worth noting that I (usually) see more racial diversity in the trail towns than on the trail itself. I tend to see Latinx people in trail towns (yes, including Snoqualmie Pass in Washington, though this is especially true of the trail towns in California). Some trail towns also have significant populations of American Indians or Canadian First Nations People. For example, Milt Kenney a.k.a. “Mayor of the PCT”, who was the most famous trail angel before Donna Saufley started Hiker Heaven) had Karuk ancestry (the Karuk people are the indigenous people of the Klamath River valley). Heck, the PCT runs through some Indian reservations. One of the trail towns (Julian) was historically a town with a relatively large black population (at one time, half of all of the black people in San Diego County lived in Julian). Trout Lake (Washington) has some residents of Asian descent (for example, the man who kindly let me ride in his vehicle from the Forest Road 23 trailhead into Trout Lake was born in Vietnam).

The hikers from Asia and Latin America prove that some people of Asian and Latin American ancestry have a strong interest in hiking the PCT, so there is clearly nothing intrinsic about being Asian or Latinx which would stop one from wanting to do it (and I strongly doubt that there is anything intrinsic about being black which would stop one from wanting to do it either).

(There are also hikers who primarily use the PCT to enter the United States from Mexico without documents, and they generally only hike the southernmost 40 miles or less. They are more likely to be found dead on the trail than any other type of hiker. I am guessing that most of them are Latinx.)

This is a sign about 15 miles away from the USA/Mexico border written in Spanish, warning people about how life-threatening the trail is.

Why is there so much more racial diversity among the hikers from abroad than from the hikers from USA/Canada?

Part of the answer is probably related to finances. It generally costs roughly $6000 to thru-hike the PCT, though some people can get the cost below $1000 if they are lucky/clever/willing to make a lot of sacrifices to reduce cost, and some people end up spending a lot more than $6000. Section hiking (which is what I do) is cheaper-per-trip, though hiking the entire PCT by section is more expensive in the long run than a thru-hike. However, even the thruhikers who can squeeze the costs down to $1000 still need to have that thousand dollars available (and people doing section hikes – unless they already live in or near a trail town or are able to obtain decent gear for free – will generally need to get at least a few hundred dollars together if they are backpacking for multiple days). According to data from the Federal Reserve, 47% of Americans can’t pay a surprise bill of $400 without selling something or taking out a loan. That means that at least 47% of Americans cannot financially afford to go on a long hike of the PCT without sponsorship (and most hikers cannot get sponsorship). And the Americans who cannot pay that $400 surprise bill are disproportionately ‘Hispanic’ and black (I do not know the data on Asian Americans).

Keep in mind that, so far, I’ve only mentioned funding the direct expenses of PCT hiking. I haven’t even touched issues such as how going away on long hiking trips would affect one’s employment/income situation.

However, while I think finances are a partial explanation, it does not entirely explain the disparity. For example, though Warrior Expeditions sponsors PCT thru-hikes for veterans (so the veterans do not have to spend any of their own money for their hike), every veteran I’ve met hiking on the PCT was white. If finances were the only major barrier, then wouldn’t the sponsored veterans who hike the PCT reflect the racial diversity of the veteran community? The Warrior Expeditions website does feature a few Latinx hikers and one Asian-American hiker, but the vast majority of hikers they show are non-Latinx white.

What do American long-distance hikers of color say about all this? Here is an interview with Robert Taylor, who claims to be the first African American to thruhike both the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. Here is an interview with Rahawa Haile interview, who thruhiked the Appalachian Trail (no, it’s not the PCT, but since it’s a long American hiking trail I think it’s still relevant). The blog Brown Girl on the (P)CT only occasionally discusses race explicitly (as opposed to implicitly), so it’s hard to point to a specific link where she discusses race explicitly for people who don’t want to read the entire archive, but here is a post with more explicit discussion than most. As it so happens, I met Zuul in Etna in 2016. And here is a very interesting interview with Double Sprainbow, the Japanese-American PCT hiker who founded the ‘Hikers of Color’ group on Facebook.

Yes, about the ‘drama llama’ which surrounded the Hikers of Color group.

First of all, I don’t use Facebook, and I don’t even know how Facebook discussion groups work. My own reaction to learning that there is a ‘Hikers of Color’ online group is ‘Hike Your Own Hike’. If hikers of color want there own discussion group – and it’s clear that some do – why not? While I have never seen anything of the PCT group(s) on Facebook, I did see the comment thread to that podcast, and I am rather struck by comments such as this one:

The trail has got to harbor the most inclusive, most accepting population this side of tall ship sailing.

To claim there are special needs based on skin color is simply absurd. Claiming to have special knowledge of this due to skin color still makes it absurd. The rain, blisters, wild life, rangers and fellow hikers don’t care who you are.

First of all, I think saying that the ‘special needs’ of hikers of color are ‘absurd’ is not an effective way to support one’s claim that the trail has a very inclusive and accepting population. Though I am not a hiker of color, if someone approached me saying that they belonged to an ‘inclusive’ and ‘accepting’ population and that my claim that I have ‘special needs’ is absurd, I would not be convinced that they want to include and accept me – quite the opposite. I think a better way to demonstrate inclusivity and acceptance is to try to understand and acknowledge the concerns of hikers of color.

Second, I completely agree that the rain, blisters, and wild life do not care about human racial categories at all. I disagree about the rangers and hikers. Humans (including rangers and hikers) sometimes do care, and even dogs sometimes care. Heck, I care. If I were indifferent to human racial categories, then I wouldn’t be writing this long post. I can tell you that, when I was backpacking in East Asia, and I encountered another backpacker who was non-Asian, I would care that they were non-Asian like me (I admit that I cared more about their non-Asianness than whether they were Guatamalan, Québécois, Turkish, etc.)

For example, people who might offer rides to hikers hitchhiking between the trail and town sometimes care about race. One of the concerns I’ve seen PCT hikers of color express is that someone who would offer a ride to a white person might not offer a ride to a person of color because the driver thinks people of color are scary. Thus, the hikers of color are afraid that it will be harder for them to get rides. When drivers pass them by, they wonder if they would have gotten a ride if they were white. Since male hikers of all colors are also concerned that people who would have given rides to female hikers may not offer them rides, I would think this would be an easy problem for them to understand (as a white female hiker, I generally never wonder whether someone is not offering me a ride because I am white or female).

***

The Pacific Crest Trail is my first, and so far only, exposure to outdoor culture in North America (excluding various school trips, such as the time my entire middle school history class camped on Angel Island, and my hikes in Marin County). Before I started hiking the PCT, I would have expected that the racial diversity of American hikers on the PCT would have roughly correlated to the racial diversity of the United States California. It was a surprise for me that this is not the case.

As some of you know, I got started on hiking/backpacking when I was living in Taiwan, and I’ve also done a fair bit of hiking/backpacking in Japan/South Korea/Hong Kong, so I was introduced to East Asian hiking culture before I got to know North American hiking culture. When I started hiking on the PCT, I had to culturally adjust (thinking about miles instead of kilometers while hiking? weird!) In the beginning, even the fact that English was the primary language on the PCT was weird, though I got over that very quickly.

In the backcountry of East Asia, I was used to being the 洋妹 (non-Asian young woman) and having my race be one of my outstanding/memorable features (it usually wasn’t a big deal, it was more of a background thing). The exception was Hong Kong, where there are just enough white hikers/backpackers around that my whiteness was not remarkable. So being on the PCT, where my whiteness is generally not going to be considered my distinguishing feature, feels different. Of course, even if only 30% of PCT hikers were white, I would still not stand out as a white person.

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