Anyone wanting to hike a long distance trail- or torture themselves for no good reason- are bound to have plenty of questions. And while we could answer questions all day long, we thought we’d bypass the whole process and distill what we’ve learned this summer into bite-sized pieces of general advice.
We feel it’s important to mention that we didn’t complete our Pacific Crest Trail thruhike. We stopped at about 1,500 miles after jumping around a bit after the halfway point. If you’d prefer to follow the advice of someone who did walk the whole way, we won’t be offended. That said, we still had plenty of experiences that anyone looking to attempt a thruhike could benefit from.
Here are our top Pacific Crest Trail tips and general advice for anyone considering the hike:
Don’t push too hard in the beginning.
Perhaps its the excitement of beginning the trail, a simmering sense of competitiveness, the philosophy of needing to break your body like a riding horse, or some other reason, but hikers fly out of Campo like bats out of hell. Never mind that this is an endurance trail that takes months to finish.
It took some time to start to see that maybe this wasn’t the best strategy. Hundreds of miles later, we started to see people dropping out from injury: stress fractures, broken feet, knee troubles, infected blood blisters. They had pushed too hard, didn’t give those little nagging pains a chance to heal and now they were in a world of hurt and forced to give into what they were running away from the whole time: falling behind. The worst part was that they hadn’t even made it to the Sierras yet. They were waiting it out in the desert. Some never made it- their injuries were too significant to continue hiking.
I still pushed myself, even though I was hurting. But where I was in pain and didn’t want to walk at all, I forced myself to go 10 or 15 miles per day, not 20 or 25 like many hikers were doing. And though the constant foot pain that every hiker knows didn’t ever fade for me, my blisters toughened, my ankle pain subsided and I never had to visit a doctor or wait for an injury to heal. By the time I got out of the Sierras I was doing high mileage days with no problem.
Listen to your own body and don’t try to race along at the beginning to keep up with hikers who are going too fast for you. It’s easier to take the time to build up your strength at a healthy pace than risk injury and have to stop.
Make Sure You Have Health Insurance
We met quite a few hikers who sustained injuries that forced them to quit the trail by mile 500. To their credit, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Many had multiple hospital visits in an attempt to diagnose the problem so that they could treat and heal the injury properly.
While you should always take care of your health, thruhiking is not a normal human activity, and it changes (see damages) the body in ways that most health professionals have no experience with. This means they will most likely run a bunch of expensive tests, whether or not the tests can actually help them come to a conclusive diagnosis.
This treatment methodology is expensive and we have seen it bankrupt hikers. Why? Because they overextended their devil-may-care attitude about life and decided to hike without health insurance.
Is hiking the Pacific Crest Trail an experience of a life time? Yes! Is it worth tens of thousands of dollars in medical debt? Hell no! It’s not a degree that can help you make money- it’s a recreational vacation for a few months. Get health insurance before you go. You may feel healthy now, but a lot can happen to you out on the trail, and if you don’t want to simply quit and wait it out, injuries can get much worse.
ABC- Always Be Cheesin’.
Or peanut butterin’. I just think cheese tastes way better. Either way, it’s easy to only buy simple carbs and sugars because they’re so readily available, convenient, cheap and delicious. Nuts and cheese? They’re expensive compared to all the calories you get from instant mashed potatoes and Pop Tarts, but not all calories are created equal.
Our solution to hunger and fatigue and general tiredness? ABC- Always Be Cheesin’. And having a tortilla to wrap it up in doesn’t hurt.
Mo’ money, less problems.
If your goal is to save money on the PCT, you should just quit right now. Money is one of the main reasons many people don’t finish- they run out of it. While you won’t be paying rent while you’re living outside, there are tons of unforseen expenses on the trail. To name a few:
- Gear. This is a huge expense. It costs a lot to get everything up front and then it’s likely that you’ll be buying more in the very beginning when something isn’t working as well as you’d hoped. And of course, plenty of things will break- more often than you’d like. You won’t be paying for repairs (you don’t have time for that!) you’ll be buying replacements.
- Postage. if you send any gear home, there will be postage for that. If you have a bounce box, there’s postage for that. And of course, if you’re shipping yourself food boxes, factor in the postage for that.
- Eating out. You will do this every time you get in town. My only advice is to try and limit yourself to not eating at restaurants for every meal, or to limit the amount of time you spend in town.
- Lodging. We were awful with this one. We thought more time had elapsed on the trail than it did, and every time we staggered into town we were so washed up that we thought we deserved a cheap motel for everything we’d been through. While sometimes a shower and a bed is in order, without a car your options are limited and trail towns are expensive. Avoid motels at all costs (even though this is impossible without an iron will) and your bank account won’t get sucker punched.
- Trailcations. Yes, this exists. When the trail starts to feel more like the daily grind than they had expected, some hikers take a vacation from it. You’re in luck if you have roots somewhere close to the trail, otherwise these vacations from your vacation are coming out of your pocket.
So… save up a lot of money- much more than you think you’ll need.
Don’t plan too much in advance.
Get there when you get there. Enjoy the journey. All that stuff.
You’ll be dealing with much different factors and circumstances on the trail than in everyday life; weather is a big one, but injury, social engagement and even just doing what you feel like can get in the way of plans. You really don’t know what the experience will be like until you’re doing it.
Just don’t make plans and you’re free to enjoy things as they come. You can always push harder when there isn’t something else going on that you want to slow down for.
Don’t skip the sites!
Unless you’re from Central Califorina, be honest with yourself, when are you going to make another trip to the Sierras to hike Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the 48 states? You probably won’t!
People get so caught up in finishing on time or getting left behind by the group that they skip cool side quests like Mount Whitney and San Jacinto. Should you be worried about finishing on time when you’re in the Sierras? No- you’ll be almost 2,000 miles away and 2 more states from the finish line, you can worry about blazing through everything when you get to Oregon.
Hiking the PCT offers opportunities to see parts of the wilderness that you never would otherwise. Make sure you’re enjoying what you’re seeing while you’re out there, because you never know when you’ll get the chance again.
When you pack too much you’re wasting your money and your time. You’re wasting your money because you’ll inevitably get rid of stuff you’re not using and probably never use it again. You’re wasting time by rationalizing that you need it, slowing down on the trail carrying too much weight, and by having to pack it up and ship it home.
It’s hard to come from the average lifestyle and accept that you can get by on 15 lbs of gear or less, but you absolutely can.
Follow guidelines from other thruhikers on gear and base weight and you should be good. You really only need the bare minimum and if you find yourself wanting something on the trail, you can just buy it in town.
When it comes to luxury items, those things you’re willing to carry not because you need, but because you want, leave them at home at first! If, after a few weeks hiking the trail, you realize you really do want to go through the effort of carrying them, you can alway have it shipped in from home.
Little Pieces of Advice
- Don’t worry about training. I got a blister within the first three miles, even though I’d broken in my shoes and socks with my backpack. Training doesn’t always prevent problems like these because it’s so difficult to recreate the conditions of the actual trail.
- Don’t worry about getting a trail name. Also- don’t settle for a trail name too early. Or assign yourself a trail name!! Your trail name will come.
- Don’t pack band-aids. Just get a roll of cloth medical tape, it works best for blisters and any cut you need to keep covered.
Anyone have more Pacific Crest Trail tips, wisdom nuggets, or questions? We know you do! Please share with us in the comments