Beyond the Gear: Building My Physical and Mental Resilience for the PCT
What am I doing? Have I made the right decision? Of course I have. But everybody knows those feelings of angst before a trip. There are so many questions that surface when you walk into a journey this big. What if I don’t have enough food? Are you going to be mentally capable of making friends and meeting people everyday? What about the highest snow year ever recorded? Will my gear hold up as I expect? But I know these questions will go on the back burner as soon as I start walking. All this too shall pass.
Where do I even start?
The last 7 months have been all about preparation. Most people plan a trip like this for years and years, figuring out logistics and planning how to go about it; where to stop for resupplies, the best places to get a slice of pie, and where they’ll be on a given day during their months on the trail. Unlike most of those people, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail wasn’t on my radar 2 years ago. I had only a brief knowledge on the whole idea 12 months ago. Sure, I had heard of people hiking from Mexico to Canada, especially as someone who enjoyed the outdoors born and raised in Washington but had never quite entertained the idea of what that would look like. Over the past 4 years, I had gradually fallen into a close relationship with hiking and the peace it gave being on trail. Fast forward to fall of 2022, and I had grown obsessed. After meeting a hiker on a backpacking trip who had hiked the trail a year prior, we talked about his experience and how realistic it could be for just about anybody to accomplish. By this point, I had some understanding of what that would look like after being on solo backpacking trips whenever I had the opportunity. It was that little conversation, meeting that hiker as we watched the sunrise together, that ignited the confidence and desire to pursue the life of living on trail. I want to hike the PCT.
Finding the “Why”
I started with the basics. I had already watched plenty of self-filmed videos of people hiking the pct on YouTube, (which is probably the real start to all of this. And I’m also looking at you, Kraig Adams…) but knew that if I wanted to calm the nerves then seeing what I was getting into from other’s experiences would be a good start. But obviously, that wasn’t me, and that would only help so far. The best tool I used was a book called Pacific Crest Trials by Zach Davis. In the book, he talks about people’s “why” for their hike. Why are you putting yourself through this? Is the reason good enough to keep you pushing forward? Are you prepared to fail, and if so, how? Hey, are you even prepared to be successful? What happens after you’re back to real life after living out in the woods for 6 months?
As I read this book, all I can think of is “shit, maybe I don’t know why.” I know that I want to hike this because I like hiking and backpacking. I know there isn’t a better time to do this in my life than now, and that an opportunity to freely walk across the country as I please with nothing but a simple paper permit won’t be around forever. Will my kids have this same opportunity and freedom, say in 20 years? Hard telling at this point. But is that enough? It seems like everybody makes such a dramatic “why”, such as they’re doing it for their family member who’s passed, for a charity or to bring awareness to some cause. I don’t have any of that. And after months of trying to make up some dramatic “why”, I’ve realized it’s okay to want to do it because I want the experience. But, here’s some others:
- To build my confidence through doing the thing I already love: being outside and following my own route.
- Because I want to join a sense of community.
- To see the beauty and landscape the trail has to offer. (especially with the opportunity to end in my home state)
- Because I doubt the opportunity will be around forever, and why waste it.
- Because people ask “why would you want to do that? I could never”
- To embrace the introspection and push myself towards a more clear path in life
- Because Im ready to physically and mentally challenge myself
The gym: a love/hate relationship
How do you prepare? Without having any friends with backpacking experience like this, who do you go to for help? I would start with the physical aspect. I’m already confident in my physical abilities and know that with a winter of hard training in the gym, I’ll be that much better. Hours and hours spent climbing stairs on the stair master, lifting weights to bulk up my shoulders and legs, practicing stretches I’ll utilize on the trail to help muscles recover, and strengthening my core to handle caring a heavy load for miles and miles. Once the snow had melted around my hometown, I could start hiking every day to build cardio strength and confidence. 5-6 times a week I would have the opportunity to hike a few miles practically out of my back door, which as I think writing this, was probably the most important part of all this training.
There’s plenty of information on strength training, gym equipment, and how to prepare your body for almost any physical endeavor, but what about the mental aspect? How do you deal with loneliness on trail? When your feeling like shit and there’s nobody around you, how do you keep on pushing forward? Is there a way to brace yourself and prepare for the mental challenge of a 2650-mile hike?
You can’t really NOT mention a little about the gear…
Spread throughout the winter was dialing in gear. When I first had the idea of doing the hike, I thought “I won’t have to spend any money on gear since I already have everything!” Man, that ended up being far from the truth. I realized that sure, my almost 30-pound (base weight, without food or water) backpack would work, but if I wanted to hike thousands of miles, things were going to have to get lighter and more efficient. I started with swapping out the heavy, 0-degree mummy sleeping bag for a quilt made from down, switching out any heaving clothes or any clothes made from cotton to synthetic materials, and bringing in a new freestanding tent that would be half the weight and use the trekking poles I already have in my pack. These were the easy things. You can dive down deep rabbit hole on Reddit and realize there’s a lot of money to be spent and a lot of prestige in having the “ultralight” backpack. Although I’m too heavy to be ultralight, I was able to cut my base weight in half to 14 pounds. Hopefully, this will get lighter as I find out what I don’t use and discard as I go.
And of course, what about resupplying?
To finish up my preparations, I needed to have some resupply boxes ready to ship to myself in places I knew wouldn’t have sufficient resupply. Some websites such as Halfway Anywhere claim that hikers ended up realizing that their boxes were unnecessary and buying groceries along the trail in the small towns scattered throughout would be enough. With a past of whole food, “healthier” diet, I knew I wasn’t going to enjoy living off of the typical hiker diet of tortillas, cheese, and snicker bars. I started dehydrating foods and assembled meals from pasta, vegetables, beans, potatoes, and chicken. This would be much cheaper than buying premade backpacker meals and healthier than living off of gas stations. I won’t be solely using my boxes, but they will be nice to look forward to. I stocked up on electrolytes, researched the best meal recipes for dehydrated foods with what I had, and assembled 8 boxes ready to go. Being a high snow year, this will be a huge piece of mind.
With the support of family and friends, the process has been pretty straightforward and seamless so far. My body is as prepared as it can be. The permit system was good to me, the shakedown hikes were successful, and the resupply boxes are packed. I’ve looked at my gear spread out on my bed for long enough, bringing in things and taking things out to be as light as possible. I’ve figured out the first months’ logistics and planned my bail-out point for the Sierras in this record-breaking snow year. Let’s get through the first 700 miles before I worry too much about that…
So here we are. Sitting on a shuttle bus to the big city where I can catch my flight to San Diego. This is it. This is what I’ve been waiting for. The journey begins today.
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