More people than ever before are walking the Pacific Crest Trail in the eastern part of Kern County, and more people than ever before are running into trouble.
Reese Witherspoon could be partly to blame.
Since the movie, “Wild” premiered in 2014, usage of the trail has exploded according to statistics tracked by the Pacific Crest Trail Association.
In 2010, 206 people told the association they had completed the trail. In 2018, the number had grown to 1,126.
And that’s just the self-reported numbers. The real number could be much higher.
The film, which is based on a memoir of the same name that came out in 2012, depicts a woman’s quest to renew herself after the death of her mother, a divorce and heroin addiction, through hiking the entirety of the Pacific Crest Trail by herself.
She has no prior hiking experience and is arguably unprepared for the challenge — much like many of the new hikers along the trail these days.
“Some people seem to be hiking the PCT and they are not physically able to do it,” said Chris Hogan, executive director of Stewards of Sequoia, a nonprofit group that oversees trail maintenance of the Pacific Crest Trail in Kern County. “Maybe they should require a doctor’s certificate, because this is serious stuff.”
From 2011 to 2014, no rescues occurred on the Pacific Crest Trail, according to the Kern County Sheriff’s Office.
That number has spiked in recent years, though. In the last three years, 18 search-and-rescue missions were conducted on the trail in Kern County, 10 of which occurred in 2018.
“It has not pushed us to the breaking point,” said Sgt. Steve Williams, who coordinates search-and-rescue volunteers. “But I can see that number spiking and it becoming a significant drain on our resources.”
He noted that rescues in other parts of Kern County had remained steady, and the increase along the Pacific Crest Trail had bumped the department's rescue total by more than 10 percent.
Infrequent water sources along the Kern County portion of the trail are one of the main reason hikers get into trouble.
“Trail angels” typically leave gallons of water for hikers to use, Williams said, but with the increase in trail users, those sources have been drying up faster and faster.
“Water is critical in that section of Kern County,” he said. “It is not uncommon for us to go out and render assistance in the case of water.”
In some cases, a hiker will receive several liters of water from a search-and-rescue team, and choose to continue along the trail as if nothing had happened.
“This isn’t room service,” Hogan said. “This is serious.”
But widespread issues related to the increase in hikers have not occurred along the trail, said Pacific Crest Trail Association Associate Director of Communications Mark Larabee.
“We’re not seeing a ton of problems with an exponential growth of people getting hurt or injured,” he said. “There are problems, but they are few and far between.”
He said he hoped more people used the trail in the future, and hoped those people studied the resources available before they began their trek.
“We want people to be safe, but we want them out there, too,” he said referring to the trail. “These are public lands. People have the right to go out and use them. That’s what they’re there for.”