Hiking Faster: Training for the PCT
I hiked the Appalachian Trail in 176 days—almost exactly average. Even though the Pacific Crest Trail is over 450 miles longer, I intend to hike it in around 140 days. According to the PCTA, this is only slightly faster than average.
What accounts for this disparity in pace?
Well, a few reasons. The PCT may reach summits and passes that tower above the heights of the Appalachians, but in terms of elevation gain, the AT actually involves around double the average climbing per mile (235 ft/mi versus 118 ft/mi). So, it’s easier to hike consistent big-mile days on the PCT.
Additionally, the frequent fire closures increase the likelihood that hikers will be forced to skip sections of trail. According to Halfway Anywhere’s 2021 PCT survey, 87% of 2021 thru-hikers reported skipping at least the fire closures. The AT has a sort of “purity culture” that emphasizes hiking past every white blaze, but the PCT community strikes me as more pragmatic. Were water crossings too dangerous in the Sierra? Was most of Oregon on fire? Well, if you hiked from Mexico to Canada on the trail that was open and passable, you’re a thru-hiker. I was proud that the only section I missed on the AT was the quarter mile of underwater trail when Watauga Lake flooded, but I am trying to adjust my expectations for the PCT. As much as I romanticize walking an uninterrupted line from border to border, trail closures might force me to skip miles and revisit them in a safer future season.
Finally, PCT hikers tend to be more experienced than AT hikers on average. This may be changing, as the PCT is increasing in popularity as a first thru-hike, but in 2021, 47% of PCT thru-hikers had previously completed a hike of 100+ miles. In a survey done here by the Trek, only 37% of AT thru-hikers had more than 7 days of backpacking experience ever. In general, the average PCT hiker hits the desert with more miles under their feet than the average AT hiker climbing the steps at Amicalola Falls.
How have I personally prepared to hike faster?
My sub-five-month goal on the PCT requires an average of around 19 miles per day, 50% higher than my pace on the AT. That’s a big jump! Nonetheless, I’m feeling cautiously confident. I have a lot more experience than I did in April of 2018. When I started my AT thru-hike, I had done the 490-mile Camino de Santiago (2015) and 220 miles of AT section hikes in Virginia (2016), as well as a few overnight hikes in the Atlas Mountains when I lived in Morocco (2017). So, I began the Appalachian Trail with some decent mileage under my belt. That said, in the past four years, I’ve completed the AT itself as well as all 48 peaks above 4,000 feet in New Hampshire (2019-2020), nine months of trail work in the conservation corps (20-21), and nine months of guiding with REI (21-22).
I’m also more athletic than when I began the AT. Since the New Year, my PCT preparation (in terms of physical fitness) can be divided into three parts.
- Backpacking regularly for work. From early January to early April, I guided nine trips with REI, all in either Joshua Tree or the Superstition Mountains, plus one training for our Grand Canyon itineraries. Each departure involved 18-23 miles of backpacking over three days/two nights. My guide pack typically weighs around 40lbs, thanks to an extensive first aid kit, extra water for emergencies, a larger gravity filtration system, an insulated lunchbox for cold food, and various personal luxuries that I bring because I know there’s no pressure to hike fast (pillow, string lights, extra clothes, etc).
- Two personal shakedown trips. I wasn’t sure if backpacking heavy and slow for my job would translate to hiking at thru-hiker speed when I shaved my pack down to thru-hiker weight. To test things out, I planned two shakedown trips in March: one on the Trans-Catalina Trail with a friend, and one solo in the Grand Canyon. Both trips involved three days of hiking just under 40 miles. Luckily, I discovered that I could double the distance of my work trips in the same amount of time, and my legs still felt good. I’ve concluded that the amount of time on your feet with a pack on is more important than actual mileage, and I’m well-conditioned to 8-hour days of backpacking at least three days a week.
- Running. I was never much of a runner growing up, but after the AT, I wanted to maintain my thru-hiker fitness. Obviously, I couldn’t exercise 10 hours per day once I found a job, so I began running to pack in the miles more efficiently. To my surprise, I fell in love with it. Running became my main workout when I set a goal of achieving the “perfect” BMI ahead of the kidney transplant (which I interpreted as the exact middle of the “normal” range for my height). I figured I could maximize the chances of a successful outcome for both me and my dad if my kidney and I were in textbook good health.* Post-op, once I could jog without pain, running became the metric of my recovery. When the pandemic hit, running was the only thing I could cling to for a sense of control and progress. I ran less last summer and fall, but over the winter I’ve gotten back into it. Last weekend, I celebrated my birthday by running the Blue Ridge Half Marathon.
*Disclaimer: I’m aware that the BMI is designed for populations and is not necessarily a useful tool for measuring individual health. For me, it served as a helpful– if somewhat arbitrary– benchmark during my transplant preparation.
All in all, I’ve averaged around 22 miles per week of backpacking and 13 miles per week of running in 2022. I’m flaky when it comes to regular physical therapy exercises for my historically troublesome knees, and dedicated strength training has been more or less non-existent, so these are the areas where I expect my preparation could be lacking. Still, I am confident that I can hit the trail averaging around 15 miles per day at first and increase steadily from there.
Why hike faster?
Plenty of folks hike slowly to relish their time in nature. Some even feel that tracking pace or mileage is overly competitive and detrimental to their experience. Others love the challenge of hiking long days and testing their bodies. I don’t think these perspectives are mutually exclusive, and my happy place is somewhere in the middle.
Practically speaking, though, with my late April permit, finishing the trail in less than five months will increase my chance of safe and enjoyable weather in the Northern Cascades.
Possibly the biggest reason I want to hike fast is that ever since I donated a kidney to my dad, I’ve felt an urge to push my body in new ways. Rather than prompting me to shrink away from big physical challenges, living with one kidney has made me wonder, what else can a body do? If you can slice out a major organ and that body keeps working, can you also ask it to hike from Mexico to Canada? In less than 5 months?
I aim to find out.
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