Soloing the Pacific Crest Trail
Shiloh Binder is not your ordinary teenager.
While many kids his age are hanging out in malls, or playing video games, Shiloh spent much of his spring working to save money for the trip of a lifetime.
That trip — a solo trek along the entire Oregon portion of the Pacific Crest Trail — took months to plan, and more than a month to execute.
At 468 miles (without side trips) with thousands of feet of elevation gain and loss, that trip is daunting even for the most seasoned adults. For a 14-year-old, just starting the trip is an accomplishment.
"Shiloh has been building and growing toward this bigger adventure stuff for years," his mother, Laura, said recently. "I only told a select few what Shiloh was planning on doing and solicited advice from those that I trusted; people experienced in the field: climbers, mountaineers, outdoorsmen. So for this last, grandest adventure, we prepared for the details we could, we prayed him through every step of the way, and then we placed him in God's hands."
Binder's hike did not get off to the best start.
"It was a Sunday, and it was my sister's first swim meet," Shiloh said. "So my parents didn't want to miss that. So we got out of the swim meet at 2 or 3 p.m. and then we drove all the way to Ashland. The Pacific Crest Trail crosses I-5 not very far from there. So my hike started on June 23 about 11 p.m."
Shiloh said that he only hiked maybe 45 minutes the first night before setting up camp in the dark.
"My first full day of hiking I think I passed four people, one hiking the PCT and three day- hikers," he said. "After that, I went four days without seeing another person or car, or even a road. Loneliness was a pretty big issue."
Binder said that not only was the isolation tough, but that the early portions of the hike were also the most difficult.
"I was out of shape," he said. "I had a heavier pack, and there were a lot of ups and downs. You go over a peak and down, up a butte and down. That part was pretty significantly steep. We had other climbs, but that one was a constant up and down, up and down and you did it all day. "
Shiloh said that he started with a backpack that was a little bit too small, and with too much stuff he didn't really need in his pack.
"Having a heavy pack is not good," he said. "It just wears on you and it was digging into my hips, and my shoulders would be really sore at the end of each day."
The first week he had a base weight of 32 pounds in his bag, plus food and water.
Each time he had an opportunity to restock, Shiloh jettisoned some of the nonessentials from his pack. By the time he finished after dark on the evening of July 25, he had managed to get his base weight down to just 19 pounds.
"Because it was my first backpacking trip, I had extra weight," he said. "I kept finding out that I didn't need stuff, so I would ship it home, or give it to my parents when I resupplied, or leave it in hiker boxes. By the time I got done, I was right about 19 pounds base weight, and that was pretty nice."
Binder said that on more than one occasion he considered quitting, but that he was glad he decided to stick it out.
"I was just coming into Sisters about two weeks ago," he said. "And I was thinking, I am about a half hour from home. I could just come home and I would still have an adventure and I could finish it off next year. I also thought about quitting when I got lonely the first couple of days. I thought that I could just hike out and call my mom and finish, but I'm really glad that I did finish. It was really a great experience."
Binder averaged more than 14 miles a day, despite having a few days where he didn't hike at all.
"I think I ended up averaging 18 miles a day, not counting the zero days," he said. "You would find quite a few ultralighters who would go 20 or 25 miles a day and then you would find couples who would do 10 miles a day and everything in between."
He said that the logistics of having to go so far before he could resupply helped push him to walk enough miles each day.
"That's what kept me going," he said. "You knew that you only had so much food and so many days to get to the next resupply location, so you had to keep moving."
Binder started with a seven-day supply of food, picked up 10 more days of food when he got to Highway 138, then got 15 more days of food when he reached Sisters.
His parents also brought him a new pair of hiking boots after he wore the first pair out.
Binder added that, other than the first few days, he didn't have to hike alone all that much.
He regularly met people along the trail, as well as hiking with his dad on a small portion of the trail.
"I would go a day once in a while without seeing anyone," he said. "But you find a good amount of hikers. Most of them are going all the way from Mexico to Canada, but I passed quite a few southbounders as well. I met people from all over the world."
Binder added that one of his favorite parts of the entire experience was the social experience.
"Making friends was pretty easy," he said. "The PCT hikers are all a community. You camp together and a lot of times you would come up on a group of people who have breakfast together or play cards and stuff."
Although it was a fun experience, Binder said that there were also challenges.
It turns out that the reason there were so few people early in his hike is because there was so much snow in the Sierra Nevadas in California that people who were walking north had to wait until some of the snowpack melted.
In addition, some streams were higher than normal, making crossings difficult.
As a result, northbound hikers were later than normal getting to Southern Oregon.
By the time Binder had been on the trail a week, people coming from California started to catch up with him.
He said that he got into quite a bit of snow from the southern end of Crater Lake National Park to Mount Thielsen, and then hit some snow in the Mount Jefferson area, but that it was nothing like what the hikers coming from California described.
Still, he noted that snow made hiking harder because people couldn't walk as fast; it was more tiring, and it got people wet, and then they would get cold.
As for the experience, Shiloh said that there was plenty of adventure.
Perhaps the most exciting, and scary portion of the trip, was traveling down Devil's Peak about two days before he got to Crater Lake.
"We had to glissade down (sliding down a steep slope of snow or ice with the support of an ice axe, or something else to dig into the ice to be able to stop)," Binder said. "There was a couple there that did it with me. It was fun, but at the same time you are sliding down the snow with a pack on, so it was a little scary."
That night was the first of many nights that Binder was able to camp with someone else, as he and the couple camped together.
In addition to that adventure, there were also wildlife encounters.
Early in the trip, he was cooking oatmeal for breakfast when he saw a bobcat on a boulder above his camp. The bobcat jumped down onto the trail and eventually ran off.
Binder said that he saw lots of bald eagles, a few deer and late in the trip he was walking through an alpine meadow filled with knee high white flowers when he saw a herd of elk bedded down in the field.
One other animal encounter was of some note.
Binder said that he decided to camp in a valley with a small creek. He had reached the area earlier than expected, so had set up his tent and crawled in to take a short nap.
Sometime later he woke to a black bear about 10 feet from his tent pawing at his backpack.
"I had to get up because it was all of my food for the next section so I had to get up with my trekking poles and yell and hit them together and wave my arms and stuff and I kind of scared him off," Binder said.
Binder noted that sometimes the most difficult portions of the trip were also the most rewarding.
For example, one night he was camping by a small lake and was caught in a downpour.
By morning, there were two inches of water around his tend and everything he owned was wet.
Hiking that day was difficult. Still, it also made for a memorable experience.
"Everything was pretty soaked, but I was able to hike through it," Binder said. "I got to this one camp and I looked out and there was a creek down in the middle of this big open valley and just the most beautiful sky you could ever see. There was this little butte up there and the sun was just coming down over it and there were clouds that were really pretty. I got to camp and had a big fire and I had a big group of friends that came in that night that I had met on the trail and we played cards until midnight or something like that. That night was really fun."
Binder said that one of the keys to being safe was the equipment that he took with him.
In addition to an ultralight two-person tent, he had a camping quilt, a change of clothes, a small camp stove, several water bottles, bug spray, sunscreen and other essentials.
However, possibly the most important thing he had was a GPS that had a satellite communication system.
Binder had a Garmin inReach, although there are several other brands that have the same functions.
Each night he could text his family and give them news, such as how his day had gone, whether or not he was on schedule, and if there was anything that he might need at the next resupply location.
In addition, the device allowed his family to track his progress each day from home.
Binder also took a GoPro, which allowed him to take photos and video of his trip.
"I'm younger and have family and friends that really want to see all of this," he said. "So I took a good amount of photos on both the GoPro and my phone and I took videos of things, like sliding down Devils Peak, and I was able to video things like the creeks I crossed and little time lapse videos of me hiking and stuff."
He added that some people he met on the trail never took any photos, while others stopped at every turn to take another photo of the scenery.
Binder said that he is now in the best shape of his life. He lost 21 pounds on the trip and all of the hiking has made him very fit.
Although he had enough to eat, he said that hunger was a constant part of the journey.
"After you hike for a while, your body uses up your fat reserves and you start to get extremely hungry," he said. "This happened for me at week three. It's not uncommon to eat 6,000 calories a day. I was always hungry because hiker hunger kicked in."
However, that was also one of the best parts of the trip for Binder.
One of the biggest things he took away from the trip was the generosity of strangers.
Several times over the course of the trip, strangers met hikers on the trail and provided them with food.
"On the trail, there is something called trail magic," he said. "This is where people come onto the trail and do something kind of wonderful or surprising for the hikers. Once it was a father and his two young sons who brought dozens of freshly made chocolate chip cookies to a trail junction and shared with everyone who walked past. Another time it was a man who set up at a trail head and was making pancakes for everyone. I ate a dozen. People are very generous to share what they have with you, whether that is a solar charger or trekking poles. Five days into the trip, I entered some snow fields and there was a long fence post with a pair of brand new trekking polls waiting for someone who needed them. That someone was me and I had trekking poles the entire trip. They were life-saving over the lava fields and when ascending and descending the snow fields. I would have been lost without them."
Binder added that at many of the PCT campgrounds there were hiker boxes that were filled with items that people had left for others on the trail to use. Things like tarps, hats, food, gators, clothing items. People could take what they needed and leave things that they no longer needed.
Late in the trip, while crossing over Mount Hood, Binder said that he was also provided a meal from a group of snowboarders who were having a camp.
Although there were times when they worried, Shiloh's parents aren't surprised that he was able to complete the trip.
"We are very proud of Shiloh for completing this," his mom said. "My husband and I have both hiked throughout our state, and we know what is involved in this endeavor. We know the highs of a mountain and the crevasses that are below. We know the steep hills and the long stretches of hot and dry land. We know the fear that comes from walking across an ice field or a river crossing. And we are so proud of him for his perseverance, enduring through the pain and loneliness and pushing himself when he was cramping and truly tired. We aren't surprised he attempted this and succeeded. But we aren't giving him the sole credit. This was God's strength and creativity through Shiloh. We simply didn't get in the way. I think that's the majority of it."
She added that in many cultures there is a coming-of-age event, but not in our culture.
"The Jewish have the bar mitzvah and Native Americans have their vision quest," she said. "Cultures past and present have had an event that tells you when you become a man. We are missing that here. We view this as a growing period for a young man."
Shiloh is already planning his next big adventure.
"Next year I'm going to try to hike the Washington portion of the PCT," he said. "And this time, I think I'm going to take someone with me to share it. If you are just doing this as an accomplishment and you don't really want to be in the outdoors this is going to be way harder. It was a really cool experience and it was a once in a lifetime chance and I'm really glad that I got to do it, But now, I'm going to try to duplicate it."
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