Lessons From the PCT

It’s been 184 miles since I started in Campo, and although that isn’t even one tenth of the distance that I hope to be going, a fellow hiker put it in perspective for me. The person who I was three weeks ago can hardly imagine walking 184 miles, so I should feel really proud of this accomplishment. I reached the first major resupply town, picked up boxes I had mailed myself and took a well-deserved extra rest day, or “zero”, to get myself mentally and physically prepared for what lay ahead.

Upon reflection of those 184 miles, I realized that I had been attending a type of “trail school”, learning many lessons along the way. In case you’re interested, here’s some insights I have gained:

Lessons Regarding Water

My water consumption changes dramatically based more on the temperature, elevation changes and time of day, and less on actual mileage I’m hiking. Of course that makes sense, but I really didn’t expect the difference to be so dramatic. This has resulted in me carrying too much water, and not enough water, between sources several times. This is a very big deal considering that water weighs about 2.4 pounds per liter, so miscalculating can add a lot of unnecessary weight to my pack. I still have more to learn in this category.

Lessons Regarding Food

I initially planned and shopped for enough food to have at least a small breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner and snack every day. I had been told that “hiker hunger” does not set in during the first few weeks, but I still drastically overestimated my caloric consumption and carried way too many pounds of food during these first miles. The heat of the desert added to my disinterest in food. Trail lore says that you tend to pack for your “what if” fears. I guess I’m scared of being hungry. I really need to cut out some of that weight in the future. 

Lessons Regarding Camping in the Cold and/ or Snow

I don’t have a lot of experience camping in freezing temperatures, but I knew enough to bring warm equipment and lay out all my extra clothes and raingear underneath my sleeping bag to insulate my body from the cold coming up from the ground. I also knew that electronic devices need to be kept warm overnight in order to protect their batteries. This means that I sleep with my phone, my satellite beacon, my external powerbank, and my headlamp in the sleeping bag with me.

I also had read in my pre-trail prep that water filters cannot freeze, so it comes into the bag with me, too.

Other things that I have learned to put in my sleeping bag with me: my bra, underwear and socks; this makes the early morning clothes change a little more pleasant. One particularly icy night, I forgot and left my damp, sweaty socks outside of my bag and I woke to frozen wool cardboards. I won’t make that mistake again!

Another hiker gave me the tip to also sleep with my shoe insoles. Great idea because my shoes are very cold and stiff in the morning.

A final lesson on snow camping which I learned from another’s pain: Don’t stake your tent in the snow and then put rocks on top to hold the stakes in place. The rocks ended up freezing to his metal stakes and he had to use an ice axe to free his tent in the morning.

Lessons Regarding the Heat

Being from the Pacific Northwest, hiking in extreme heat is also not a common problem. I usually tend to power through the day and just quit early. But this isn’t really possible when you are trying to make lots of miles in a day and the heat is zapping your energy.

Therefore, I have found the brilliance in the mid-day siesta. This is when I have learned to find a flat spot in the shade where I can take my shoes and socks off to dry out and rest my feet. Sitting on a rock or log isn’t good enough, because the blood is still rushing down to my toes. They don’t feel rested. But if my legs and feet are flat, and I take the time to eat something satisfying, I feel much more energetic to tackle late afternoon miles in the cooling part of the day.

Lessons Regarding the Dangers of the Desert

There’s a huge difference between the flora of the desert and the soft green innocuous mosses, ferns and forest flowers of the Pacific Northwest. Everything down here, it seems to the unexperienced like me, is either full of spines or will give me quite a rash. So, I have a rule – Don’t touch anything!

This respect for a healthy distance also applies to the fauna, especially of the rattler variety. I am one of very few hikers who have not seen, or heard, a rattlesnake yet along the trail. I attribute that to the fact that when I hike, I’m always tapping my poles along the rocks to create more vibrations. I want them to know I’m nearby so that if they can’t slip away fast enough, they will warn me, and I will know where to avoid stepping. At least, this method has worked for me so far!

Lessons Regarding Information Sources

All hikers use a common GPS App and can leave comments to explain to others coming later about the conditions of a campsite or flow rate of an important water source. For the most part, these comments can be helpful, but sometimes a bit of exaggerated information can lead to a lot of misinformation and anxiety.

I’ve also learned that locals or day-hikers who don’t have a lot of experience long-trail hiking, or understanding of the conditions we’re prepared to face, can really skew the information regarding the next viable campsite, water-source, ability to get a hitch or resupply food. In other words, their standards are much higher than ours. You’d be amazed at what works just fine for us!

Lessons Regarding Mindset: Backpacker vs Thru-Hiker

Every day, as I’m getting adjusted and conditioned to longer miles, I hike with a fury all morning, and take a lunchtime break to celebrate the big miles I’ve already accomplished. But somehow, my pace always slows in the afternoon heat, and I never seem to score those same big miles before my body calls it quits. I’ve had many nights already where my new trail friends left me behind to hike more miles in the setting sun. I justify that I’m tired, but I think there’s something else at play: I’m still playing “Backpacker”.

For years, I’ve looked forward to hiking to the perfect campsite under the trees or on a ridge with a view. Backpacking in this form means quitting early, having time in camp to enjoy the birdsong and the quiet. This is the reward after a good day of hiking. I love backpacking.

But I was reading something the other day that made me realize that the “Thru-Hiker” has to abandon that mentality. The reward is every step you get to take along the journey and the change of scenery throughout the day.

A Thru-Hiker hikes, all day long, to accomplish as many miles as possible. If I want to get to Oregon, Washington, or even Canada, my sites can’t be set on that pretty campsite only ten miles down the trail. Instead, I need to adopt a more disciplined Thru-Hiker mentality and bust out more miles in the setting sun. Yes, 184 miles is impressive, but in reality, it took me more days than the average beginning hiker to get here. My body is just going to have to adapt.

With that, I’ve got more lessons to learn and more miles of trail to explore! Loving every minute of the PCT!

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