NOBO VS. SOBO
Currently about 10% of PCT thru-hikers choose to go southbound, while 90% go northbound. Why the difference? Most of it has to do with the difficulty of starting the trail southbound, both physically and logistically. Though it's a challenging option, with the right preparation most people could probably fair just as well on a southbound thru-hike, and more people are starting to understand this reality. The number of SOBO hikers has grown faster than the number of NOBO hikers, rising from 5% of total thru-hikers in 2013 to 10% in 2016. Author Francis Tapon even argues that going SOBO might be easier overall, but only for hikers who can complete the trail in under 4.5 months. Regardless of which direction you choose, any thru-hike attempt will be a memorable adventure. The guide below will help you find out which adventure is best for you.
Thru-hike timelines vary widely based on each year's weather. In an average year northbound hikers start the trail between late-March and mid-May and have to finish before October 1st. Southbound hikers start around July 1st and need to make it through Forester Pass in the Sierra by, on average, October 11th. See our guide on "The Sierra" for research on southbound snow fall risks.
This timeline means that southbound hikers usually have to go slightly faster than NOBOs. This was true in 2016, when the the average SOBO hiked 21.2 miles per day, and the average NOBO did 18.7 miles per day (Data from SOBO '16 Survey, Halfway Anywhere Survey). SOBOs aren't just faster, they have to be faster. If you assume a fairly reasonable hiking window from the border to Forester Pass (July 1st - October 11th), you need to average 18.2 miles a day to just barely beat the snow. And cutting it this close could be very dangerous. This means a person has to hit at least the average NOBO PCT mileage to have a chance at a successful SOBO thru-hike. Any weather variance will mean an even faster pace is required. If you consider yourself a slower-than-average hiker or your fitness won’t be great in the beginning then you might want to lean towards a NOBO hike. If you're already in good shape, going SOBO might be your best option.
STARTING THE TRAIL
One of the major differences with a SOBO thru-hike is the logistics of starting the hike. Going SOBO you don’t have the desert to “warm up” and you really do have to be prepared and in good shape from the start. Even just getting to the northern terminus of the PCT, as explained in our "Starting the Trail" guide, requires a lot of work. Starting southbound normally takes a four hour drive from Seattle to Harts Pass and then a 30 mile (multi-day) hike north to the border. Starting northbound is as simple as an hour drive from San Diego to the border. You can even pull right up to the Southern Terminus.
The starting environment for a southbound hike creates different constraints on your hike right from the start. Southern California is absolutely littered with civilization. You could very well camp next to roads several nights in a row and have a cell signal almost every day. Hell, you can even see the LA smog from the Angeles Wilderness. Northern Washington is the complete opposite, with no cell service, few roads, and fewer towns. NOBOs start in civilization and finish in the wilderness while SOBOs do the reverse. If you’re looking to get away from civilization, cell service, and amenities, then a SOBO start could be a good thing. If you need time to ease into the trail and want to be connected to the outside world from the outset, starting NOBO in So Cal is your best bet.
Your opportunities to swap out gear after starting southbound are incredibly limited. In general, Washington resupplies are in the middle of nowhere. After 43 miles NOBOs can access one of the best thru-hiker gear shops in the world, Laguna Mountain Sports & Supply. SOBOs can get to a good gear shop with a long hitch from Snoqualmie Pass, WA, which is 250 miles south of the US/Canadian Border. While you can ship gear to more northern resupply points like Skykomish and Stehekin, 2 day shipping is not a viable option so you'd have to order ahead and give the package a long time to actually arrive.
All of this shows that SOBOs need to be very comfortable with their gear choices. So go on a test hike. Use all of your gear together. Camp in the yard. Do whatever it takes to get at least some experience with everything you’ll use in Washington because you'll be using that gear for at least a couple hundred miles.
Both northbound and southbound thru-hikes face their own unique challenges in regards to trail conditions.
For southbounders, a normal weather year will mean dangerous snow crossings and numerous blow downs in Northern Washington. Read our detailed "Northern Washington" guide for more info. But also remember that plenty of other hikers have started southbound. With decent planning and fortitude you’ll be just fine.
On the plus side, southbounders rarely face any difficult stream crossings. For northbounders this can be an extremely dangerous challenge as snow melt makes for very difficult fords in the Sierras. Most crossings for SOBOs (even those in Washington during the melt season) are very manageable.
One downside of going Southbound that has persisted in people’s minds is a perceived navigation difficulty. While some trail junctions are unmarked for SOBOs, in general the PCT is not difficult to follow. And with the combination of smartphones and apps such as Halfmile and Guthook it’s downright easy. While basic navigation skills are still a must, a perceived lack of signage shouldn’t deter anyone against a southbound hike.
One of the main benefits of going southbound is better weather throughout the trail. This is because SOBO and NOBO thru-hikers reach the five sections of the PCT (So Cal, The Sierra, Nor Cal, Oregon, and Washington) at different times.
- Washington - Few rain storms, good weather in July
- Oregon - Moderate heat, same timing as NOBOS in early August
- Northern California - Moderate heat in August/early Sept
- The Sierra - Cold weather, possible snow storms in late Sept/early Oct
- Southern California - Comfortable weather, infrequent rain storms in October
- Southern California - Extreme heat in April/May/June
- The Sierra - Snow on the ground, tough stream crossings, crowds, and bugs in June/July
- Northern California - Extreme heat in July
- Oregon - Moderate heat, same timing as SOBOs in early August
- Washington - Some rain storms in September
Given the usual weather patterns listed above, if you can keep up the SOBO pace you'll likely experience less extreme heat and rain than a NOBO hiker.
To state the obvious, SOBOs will see a lot fewer people on their thru-hike. In fact, as a SOBO you might even be the only person who begins on your particular start date, compared to the 50 hikers who will begin in one day going northbound. SOBOs will probably have most of their campsites to themselves, and seeing four or more SOBOs in one spot will feel like an absolute miracle. On the other hand, NOBOs will have to navigate crowded towns and campsites, especially in Southern California. Either way you go you'll meet fantastic people.
The SOBO community has grown in recent years, and while it may take longer to meet a group of people going southbound, it’s still possible to find a trail family. In 2016 several groups of 4+ hikers joined up at various stages and hiked together for extended periods. What’s great about going southbound is that the hiking community is very close knit. Most SOBOs meet, or hear of, almost every other SOBO. It’s stunning to see how fast news travels on the trail when it moves at a consistent 3 miles per hour. If you’re looking for a trail family then you can probably find one going either direction. The difference is that going southbound, chances are that they’ve already heard about you. The SOBO group also draws fewer of the "party crowd," likely because of the challenges of the start, the required pace, and the fewer number of overall hikers.
Passing THE HERD
One of the stranger experiences on trail is passing "The Herd," as SOBO and NOBO hikers pass each other on their various trail journeys. This passing is experienced very differently by each side. NOBOs sometimes confuse SOBOs for weekend backpackers (they've been seeing a lot of them along the way), or only notice supremely dirty SOBOs or ones they meet in town. On the other hand, SOBOs can't help but notice the oppressive crush of NOBOs spoiling what was until that point a solitary wilderness experience. This will likely happen in Oregon, and campsites will become crowded, town stops will have every available electrical plug taken, and for about 2 weeks SOBOs will get to experience what going northbound would’ve been like. In 2016, Pit Bull, a southbound thru-hiker, kept track of the number of NOBOs he encountered in Oregon. Over the course of five days he saw 50+ NOBOs passing by each day with the largest day being 75. Don't worry SOBOs, it's only temporary.
There are some absolutely incredible trail angels along the PCT. Treat these people with the utmost respect and kindness! Usually they primarily serve NOBO hikers and The Herd, and some of them are completely burnt out by the time SOBOs arrive (who can blame them with so many NOBOs coming through?!). The positive side of this is that most trail angel experiences will be more intimate for SOBOs, as only a few SOBOs are staying with a trail angel at any time. In 2016 Hikertown, Casa de Luna, and Hiker Heaven remained open for SOBO hikers. Others did close for SOBOs, so just keep an eye out, call ahead, and just be aware of this possibility.
Because the vast majority of hikers are going northbound, SOBOs become very familiar with NOBO-bias. This manifests itself in a myriad of ways, including:
- People in town asking questions like “Aren’t you going the wrong way?” and “Why the late start?”
- Signs that say “Congratulations on over halfway!” when you’re still 30 miles from the halfway point.
- A lot less trail magic (except when you’re passing The Herd).
- Surveys from the PCTA asking how your hike was when you still have a month to go.
- Trail angels providing advice about places you passed a week or two ago.
- NOBOs yelling out, “wait, is that a SOBO?!?!”
The worst by far is the first bullet point, where people in town tell SOBOs that they are too late and there will definitely be snow in the Sierra and they won't make it. Both NOBOs and SOBOs should remember that people in town usually don't know much about the trail timeline. Do your research, read our guide on hiking southbound in "The Sierra", and don't pay too much attention to this advice.
Going southbound isn’t nearly as scary or daunting as some would have you believe. If you're in good shape, have the right gear, and are prepared to hike fast, then go for it! It’s a truly incredible experience and one that will easily be set apart from the usual PCT NOBO crowd.
Big thanks for this page goes to Pit Bull - SOBO '16 - PCT Southbound Contributor