How far is too far?
The purpose of a hike is ultimately to arrive at a destination. This may be because that is where you need to stop and resupply, or it is the end of the trail, or where you have agreed to meet up.
Even if the purpose of the hike should be the journey and not the destination, reality dictates that it comes to an end. How quickly you complete the journey depends on the time you have available, how much supplies you can carry and the length of the trail. The more miles you can cover in a day, the longer, in distance, your journey can be.
My journey this summer are sections I and J of the PCT through Washington state which total about 170 miles. I figure I can reasonably carry about 8 days worth of food which allows me 8 nights on the trail and a hungry last day for a total of nine days hiking before I’m forced to eat random berries along the trail. Based on my carrying capacity and the length of the trail, I will need to be able to do 19 miles a day to reach my destination before running out of food.
Last year, when I hiked section K of the PCT, I averaged 18.5 miles/day, so I should be able to do slightly more daily miles, over more days, than I did last year. But, as investment prospectus warns us, past performance is not a guarantee of future returns. Last year, by the time I set off on the PCT, I had spent almost 3 weeks doing trail maintenance camped out in the North Cascades, so I was much better shape than I am now.
So in order to see get a baseline reading of my current physical shape, and to do some serious conditioning, I set off on a 2 day, 42 mile hike over the North Cascades down to Stehekin and back out again. Just a day pack with a couple of days worth of food, some extra clothing and a lot of water for a total of about 12 pounds. Not a full pack by any means, but not nothing either.
For those who haven’t been over Cascade Pass and down the Stehekin River valley, you have missed out on some the most beautiful scenery in the North Cascades national park. Sheer cliffs, hanging glaciers and snowfields feeding innumerable waterfalls, and cascades, jagged mountains rising 5000 feet from the valley floor, and wildlife everywhere. After about 16 miles you merge with the PCT and run into small groups of thin, dusty and slightly weary SOBOs, SNOBOs, and Flip-floppers, heading for resupply at the Stehekin post office and carbo loading on cinnamon rolls at the Stehekin Bakery, hustling to get to High Bridge before the last bus leaves. Sticking your feet into the very cold waters of Lake Chelan before you go have dinner at the Lodge makes the whole hike worthwhile. In this case, the destination is the goal. Gimme a cinnamon roll!
Other than the 80+ degree weather (I’m from the PNW, we wilt when it gets over 75), the conditions were perfect. Not many people take this trail, so I had for myself most of the way. Lots and lots of fresh bear scat on the trail, and saw a large cinnamon black bear run across the trail about 100 feet ahead. Pretty much everyone I else I meat on the trail had seen bear. The usual park service chipmunks at Cascade Pass had been swapped out with a curious but shy mountain goat that couldn’t quite figure out if he was hoping for handouts or avoiding people and did circuits of differing diameters around the rock benches. A white tailed deer with fresh velvety antlers by Basin Creek was more direct in his mooching attempts. And finally the six naked dudes sitting on ledge drying off after skinny dipping in Doubtful Creek to round off the wildlife viewing.
Even with the scenery, the lake, and the pastries, two back to back 20+ mile days with 3000 vertical feet was a slog. At the end of the second day my feet were extremely sore, one of my toenails is considering jumping ship, and minor blisters had begun to form.
I am hoping that my feet will recover and toughen up. That new, cushier insoles with reduce the fatigue, and taping the toenail will keep my feet happy and functional.
This does raise the question of how far you can walk each day, before you start down a path of diminishing returns? I was able to walk 42 miles in two days, but I seriously doubt I would have been able to do 10 miles on day three. My daily average would have gone from 21 miles/day to a little over 17 miles/day. If I have done 36 miles in the first two days, would I have been more able to 18 miles on the 3rd? If so my daily average would have been higher. It may be tempting to go for the big miles, but if doing so ends up diminishing the total distance covered, together with significant discomfort, I would say one has gone too far.
Obviously, as you walk farther you toughen up, but if minor injuries crop up before you do, long days could potentially lengthen the duration of the hike, rather than shorten it. The trick will be to find that sweet spot of continuous maximum exertion where comfort and performance is maintained.
The next conditioning hike will be in a couple of weeks with full gear over two nights and 55+ miles. I’ll be curious to see what toughening up this hike has done.
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