I am planning to hike the PCT, or Pacific Crest Trail for long (which makes more sense considering how long the trail is). I have started contacting past thru-hikers for interviews. My favorite interviews include answers but no questions. So does this. This is from Todd. Thanks Todd.
If you are planning a PCT thru-hike, I can assure you it will be one of the most challenging and memorable experiences of your life. I'll also assure you that in the end it probably won't be what you thought it would be. The trail changes you as a person and your visions of what it will be, those expectations will likely fall short in many ways but also be exceeded, too!
To answer your questions and give you my take on things:
1. The essential publications are: yogi's PCT guidebook (google it and buy it online from her). It has excellent recommendations on gear and past hiker's experience. For maps, you need to print halfmile's pct maps (google it, they are free except the cost to print) and bring just the sections you are doing, mailing the rest to your drops spots. I DO NOT recommend Schaffer's PCT guidebooks. The maps are inferior, the text is not something most people read after a while and not worth the weight or expense.
2. Carry as little gear as possible and spend the extra money to purchase ultra-light equipment. Every ounce you place in your pack is an ounce you have to carry. Things that I did not carry and would not carry in the future: camp shoes (flip flops, crocs, etc), a stove (I would go stoveless if I had to do it over), ice axe (only needed in the southern Sierras, if at all).
3. There was nothing that I wish I had brought, only stuff (like my stove) that I wish I would have gotten rid of sooner
4. Echo Chalet--don't have an opinion. In general, I never came across any communities or businesses that weren't hiker friendly. As usual, if you treat people with consideration and respect, they will tend to return that. People are incredibly generous along the trail with rides, putting up hikers, etc and that is one of the best things, the serendipity of the trail and its people.
5. I would not recommend bringing a dog. I never met a thru-hiker who made it with their dog the entire way. The desert and the high mountains can be incredibly vicious places to be and I've seen many dogs suffering in the heat of the desert. I personally don't think dogs should be a part of the trail, and certainly not a thru-hike. In fact the only dangerous animal encounter I had that caused me any direct physical harm was when a dog belonging to a day hiker bit my hand as I walked past it on the trail.
6. Motivation can be a difficult thing. Most people who set out from the Mexican border do not complete their hikes. Most drop out before the Sierras, many within the first couple hundred miles. The trail is incredibly difficult and I sometimes think that suffering is the only constant out there. People's motivation for doing a thru-hike varies a lot. Some hikers just seem at ease out there, like it is no big deal. Others need to force every step and every mile. Both types can be successful and have a great experience. Motivation can come through something deep within yourself or the relationships with other hikers may sustain you when you are feeling down. Having a certain amount of emotional maturity is also helpful; recognizing that things may be bad now but it isn't likely to last. Sometimes just taking a zero day in town can recharge your batteries enough to remove that doubt that was bothering you. I will say that most successful thru-hikers have obsessed about this trail and the hike for years. They have deep seated reasons for wanting to do it and that motivates them to keep moving forward.
7. What to bring in terms of electronics. I brought an SanDisk FM radio/MP3 player--awesome piece of equipment, allows you to pick up radio stations which I often listened to more than my MP3 songs. If you put a AAA lithium battery in it, you'll get 4-5 days use out of it before needing a replacement battery (I usually carried 3-4 batteries with myself between town stops). I would bring an iphone 4 or other smart phone that has internet and GPS function. The GPS will rarely be needed except if you find yourself in the Sierras during a heavy snow year. Finally, I brought a Kindle which was an awesome piece of gear. I would listen to books during the day. The kindle has the only text to speech function of the e-book readers, weighs 8 oz, and has a pretty good battery life. I would usually listen 3-4 hours per day and could use it 3 days or so before it died. I listened to dozens of books over the summer. I carried the charger for my iphone and the kindle (2 cords, 1 common wall plug). Some hikers (actually many) didn't carry any music or electronics beside a cellphone. The cellphone is important because of emergencies but more because of needing to call for rides and coordinate other things on the trail.
8. Food is a tricky subject. People's tastes vary a lot. I personally can't stand trail mix, find Clif bars barely edible. I resupplied by buying my food along the way and this is a very good strategy but expensive. The problem with shipping your food is what you think you'll like to eat now is likely not what you'll find appealing 1, 2 or even 3 months into your trip. Toward the end, tortillas became a staple for me and I would fill them with all sorts of stuff: tuna, salmon, deli meats, pepperoni, etc. Also, buying town food and packing it out for a nice meal for a day or two is a great strategy (i.e. buy some burgers at McDonald's and take them with you, left over pizzas, etc.). If you pack your sleeping bag at the bottom of your pack and then put your cold foods (cheese, meats, etc) on top of that and then place your clothes bag over the food, you create an instant insulated cooler which will keep things (including drinks, water, etc) quite cold even in the heat of the desert.
9. Loneliness wasn't a big issue for me. I did the vast majority of my hike alone. I made friends with many of the hikers but didn't routinely camp or hike with them. I found that having the FM radio helped ward off some loneliness for me because I could keep up on the world events if I wanted to and hear another person's voice talking to me which helped a lot. Some people really need companionship out on the trail and there are plenty of opportunities to find people to hike with that will share your hiking speed/style and likely compliment your personality.
10. I did shave, but not routinely. I had to come off the trail for 2-3 days each month to take care of business at home so I would shave when I came home. I never developed the enormous beard that is the tell-tale sign of a thru-hiker. I didn't need to cut my hair.
Please feel free to ask other questions that come to mind. If I could give you one piece of advise, get Yogi's book, read it carefully and adhere to the recommendations. Less gear and a lighter pack make for a much more enjoyable experience. Life on the trail is hard work, especially if your intention is to make it to Canada in a single season, but well worth the effort.