Got my permit. Now what?
Each trail of the Triple Crown is its own unique adventure. The AT is the great granddaddy, a historic trek across Civil War battlefields and the land that inspired the Transcendentalists. The CDT is the wild one, a rugged testament to the self-reliance of the West, snaking its way through grizzly and cowboy country.
But the PCT? Oh, the PCT is the glamorous one. The one Elle Woods hiked, with the dramatic landscapes and post-modern statues for terminus markers. Where you get to dress like Indiana Jones at Burning Man and take mushrooms in the desert.
The PCT mystique is heightened all the more by its exclusivity. No, sir, one does not simply walk onto the PCT, one must be CHOSEN! A permitting system implemented to help protect fragile ecosystems along the trail means that the seeds of PCT dreams cannot take root until the PCTA wills it so.
Procrastinating ’till permit day
Though I have been talking about a 2021 PCT attempt for nearly 2 years, the uncertainty over whether the PCTA would issue permits in a pandemic gave me pause. I didn’t want to invest myself financially or emotionally until I knew that this was a done deal, so I put off figuring out logistics until I actually had a permit in hand.
But, sure enough, the PCTA moved ahead with the permit lottery, and on January 19 I claimed my spot among the NoBo hopefuls.
This. Was. HAPPENING!
With only 10 short weeks until my start date (and absolutely nothing planned out yet), I quickly got to work making up for lost time…
Haha! Just kidding! No! First I spent a few weeks hiding under my blankets, Googling frostbite and worrying myself sick about what the hell I just got myself into.
As it turns out, burying your head under a pillow is a pretty ineffective strategy for planning a thru hike, so with a deep breath and a few positive affirmations, I put on my big-girl pants made my back to my desk.
“So?” I asked myself, finally ready to face this challenge head-on, “Where do we begin?”
The former accountant in me, armed with Google Sheets and some good, old-fashioned type-A neurosis, was ready to shine.
Step 1: Research
Whether you are brand new to backpacking, or a seasoned trekker, researching your expedition is incredibly important.
As a New Englander, I am used to thick forests, cold temperatures, and plenty of water. My backpacking strategy evolved around that landscape; I rarely carry sunscreen, usually camel my water, and NEVER head out without cold weather gear.
Over the years, failing to adapt my setup to new landscapes led me to some pretty questionable decision making, from carrying several pounds of winter gear through the sticky summer heat of southern Appalachia, to forgetting to bring adequate sun protection to the burn areas of the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
Through these mistakes, I learned the hard way: knowing how to handle one type of landscape doesn’t always translate to another. That’s why it’s so important for us to read up on the climate, terrain, and conservation concerns of the places we plan to hike through, even (especially?) if we consider ourselves “expert” backpackers.
Blogs or vlogs of former hikers are a great place to start. Check out old posts here on The Trek or head over to YouTube and search for your trail. I also like to join online communities on Facebook or Reddit to see what other people are talking about.
Step 2: Online Shopping
Like most hiker trash, I try to live a pretty frugal life, so giving myself permission to wild out on backpacking gear makes me feel a little like a 10 year old on a sugar high. (If you’ve never tasted the adrenaline rush of haggling with internet strangers over the price of a used tent, you’re missing out.)
That said, try to keep this in mind: shopping for gear is super fun but it is also very expensive, and you will probably change your entire setup during the course of a thru hike anyway. If you have never backpacked before, get what you need to get started, but give yourself some wiggle room in your budget to make changes as you go. After a few weeks of hiking, you’ll have a much better sense of what you need, and what you can live without.
Step 3: Route Planning
At the risk of sounding a little anal retentive, I recommend making a tentative resupply plan before heading out on a thru. Of course, it’s a bit ridiculous to think that you’ll actually stick to that plan once you are on trail, but having that framework in place is useful for a few reasons.
First of all, the process of making a resupply plan forces you to virtually “walk the trail” in its entirety before actually getting to the trailhead. You get a sense of what towns you’ll be walking through, how far they are from the trail, and what kind of resupply options you’ll have when you get there. This familiarity with the trail and surrounding towns gives you a lot of confidence in making resupply choices, and will be especially useful in a pandemic year when many vendors are closed or limiting their services.
Another benefit of having a tentative resupply plan is having a tentative schedule. This can be useful for all kinds of reasons: making plans for people to visit you on trail, knowing when you’re falling off pace, or deciding whether you have time to complete a side quest.
Step 4: Physical Preparation
I’m not going to sugarcoat it, thru hiking is HARD. Schlepping a heavy pack up (and down!) steep elevation for 8-12 hours a day is unlike any fitness regimen you can train for at the gym. It will get you in the best shape of your life, but can also lead to trip-ending injuries if your body is not prepared for the work.
Backpacking fitness entails both metabolic fitness (endurance, cardio) and your structural fitness (bones, muscles, connective tissue).
I saw a lot of young and healthy people blow themselves up because their metabolic fitness improved faster than structural fitness, causing them to push big miles before their body could handle it. They had the energy, but their tendons and ligaments gave out. Shin splints, plantar fasciitis, and tendonitis were all common.
Cardio training is great, but on its own does not stimulate the connective tissue growth you’ll need to carry a heavy load across mountains. Be sure to supplement any cardio training regimen with weight bearing exercises like squats or step-ups. Gradually exposing your body to this kind of stress, at home where you can take time to recover, will help you to get stronger instead of burning out.
And as reminder for the masochists amongst us, rest and effort are both necessary for a successful thru hike. “Pushing through the pain” is not always the best idea, so practice listening to what your body needs now. Sometimes that answer is as simple as stretching or a foot rub, sometimes it’s not. Learning to tell the difference will help to keep you happy, healthy and on trail!
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