How to Survive Your First Day on the PCT
People say the first step of any journey is always the hardest. Not for me, the hardest step on my journey was around mile 1016 when I misjudged my footing on a snowdrift and slid 100 metres down the side of a mountain. But for most people … taking that initial step is the hardest part.
Embarking on your first thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail is a daunting prospect. You’re most likely excited and terrified, both itching to begin your adventure yet simultaneously dreading the day it comes around.
I completed my northbound Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike earlier this year, and loved every minute of it. It didn’t feel real until the moment I took my very first step and the enormity of what I was about to do finally sunk in.
In order to help you prepare for this feeling, I want to give you an idea of what to expect on your first day on the PCT.
Your First Day on the PCT
“This isn’t so bad,” you think to yourself as you take your first step into the desert at 5.30 in the morning. The car that dropped you off has disappeared in a cloud of dust and you’ve already taken your obligatory terminus photos. You’ve told everyone back home that you’re walking from Mexico to Canada, because that sounds so much better and so you probably found a hole to stick your finger through so you can legitimately say you started in Mexico.
Your legs are immediately covered in dust, and your shiny new trail runners already turned to a dull shade of brown the second you stepped out of the car. You don’t feel as isolated as you were expecting – you can still see the road and the lights of Campo – but you know that will all change soon.
You reach the Mile One sign and you laugh and say “Only 2649 more miles to go!” But you still don’t understand what that means. That distance is a meaningless number to you. A bunch of random figures thrown together, much like the small gaggle of a group you have somehow become a part of. You all stayed at the same trail angel’s house the night before and you have started hiking at the same pace. This will not last. Some of you will be fast. Some of you will be slow. Some of you will make it to Canada. Some of you will not.
You’re a little bit sweaty and your backpack is rubbing, but it’s fine. You’re having a good time. You know you’re not walking very fast but you have six months to get to Canada. Nothing matters right now because you’re actually doing it. You’re doing the thing you’ve been talking about for years. When you first told your friends and your family about it you knew they didn’t believe you but that only made you want to do it even more. And now here you are.
The sun comes up. The heat starts to get to you. You’re not worried because you have plenty of water. You knew it would be twenty miles until the first reliable source and you knew the desert heat would be bad but even so, this is something else. You slap on the sunscreen as if it’ll make a difference and you push on. In a couple of month’s time you’ll have thrown away your sunscreen to save weight but for now, it’s your lifeline. For a few minutes you start to wonder about heat stroke and as a result you drink more water than you should. But it’s fine. Everything is fine, you reassure yourself.
As the midday heat reaches an intolerable level, you pass a lovely, cool shady area and consider stopping there for a lunch break. You decide it is too early and you’ll stop at the next good spot. It is an hour and a half before you find the next shade. You are lightheaded and ravenous. You eat lunch and rest for a while. You have never felt anything as pleasurable as it feels to take your shoes off. You don’t want to leave but you know you have to keep moving.
You make it the 15 miles to Hauser Creek, which you knew would be dry but you still had a glimmer of hope that there would be water. It’s 3pm and you had planned to stop here for the night. You didn’t want to push yourself by making the twenty miles to Lake Morena campground on your first day. But it’s just five more miles and it’s early and you still feel OK. You can make it. You had heard the climb up from Hauser Creek was tough but it doesn’t look too bad right now. You decide to go for it.
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Five minutes in, you realise it was a mistake. Your pack feels heavier than it did all day, even though you’ve drunk most of your water. You’re crawling along at a snail’s pace, and probably leaving a similar slime trail behind you, you’re sweating that much. Other hikers come up behind you and startle you, asking if they can pass. They make it look so easy. You hate them.
You want to take a break but there’s no shade. You’re drinking water way too fast and you know it but you can’t stop yourself. You find a huge rock with a shady nook to rest in. You sit there for a long time. You know you need to keep hiking but just a few more minutes. You eventually drag yourself out and keep climbing.
An irritatingly cheerful hiker strolls past. “Almost there!” he yells at you jovially. You hope he falls. You then feel bad for thinking that. You can see the top of the climb, it’s so close! You take a grubby Clif bar out of your pocket and inhale it, trying to absorb every last drop of energy you need for this last push. It seems to help.
You make it to the top. It’s over. It wasn’t so bad after all. You collapse by the side of the trail. You drink too much water again. You take some photos. You shout “Almost there!” at the hikers behind you struggling to the top. They hate you.
It’s all downhill from here, you think – easy. You’re wrong. You have four miles left to go, which feels like ten. You go down, you go up, you go down, you go up. You give some water to a struggling hiker who has run out and hope that someone does the same for you if you ever find yourself in that situation.
You expect to see Lake Morena at every turn but it’s not there. You start to think you’ve gone the wrong way. Suddenly out of nowhere the shining blue disk of Lake Morena fills your vision. The sun setting behind the lake casts a supernatural evening glow over the world and it feels incredible. You bound down the mountain, faster than you’ve moved all day. Soon you will be in a comfortable campsite, surrounded by people, with as much water as you could ever need and a nice hot meal – even if it is just instant mashed potato.
You set up your tent for the first time. You eat a grotesque amount of food. You receive your first trail magic from a friendly couple in an RV and tell yourself your faith in humanity has been restored. You haven’t seen anything yet. You flick through your photos from the day and you chat with your new hiker friends. You’re happy.
You consider cowboy camping but decide against it – there will plenty more opportunities. You clamber into your sleeping bag and you fall asleep the second your head hits the pillow you’ve made for yourself out of a bundle of clothes. You feel great. Your first day was everything you hoped it would be and more. You hope all the other days will be as good as this.
Trust me, they won’t. You will have the best days of your life on the trail. But you may also have some of the worst. You’ll get sick, you’ll get bored, you’ll fall out with people and at times you will regret everything. But when you make it to Canada, none of it will matter.
Get through day one, and you can get through anything.
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