Making a Plan: Mental Preparation for the PCT
My whole life is about to completely change. Think about it. Thru-hiking a long-distance trail is about as far from normal life as you can get. Your food, your routines, your sleeping patterns; it all changes. I’m excited for it. The PCT is still such a dream that every part of it sounds wonderful. Am I looking forward to eating the same backpacking food every day for five months? Yup. Sleeping in a tent instead of in a bed for five months? Sign me up. You know what? My feet look too pristine. Let’s go mess them up. I’m going to make friends with all the bears and mosquitoes and dance my way to Canada. After all, hiking is all butterflies and rainbows right?
A big part of preparing to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail is making sure my head game is right. For me, it needs to go beyond preparing for hard days and days when I will have low motivation. I need to have a game plan for managing my mental health.
The Mental Health Factor
Dealing with my mental health has been a large part of my life since early childhood. As an adult living on my own, I have a newfound sense of ownership and responsibility for my own personal mental wellness. This wasn’t automatic for me. I had to have a serious reality check first.
Early last year, that reality check happened. Out of school and out of work with rent payments looming, I was not doing a good job of taking care of myself physically or mentally. Fearing I was about to be homeless and feeling stuck and helpless, I reached a breaking point. I ended up going to the hospital and went to an inpatient crisis center. A psychiatrist there diagnosed me with bipolar disorder. By the time I was ready to go home again, things were different. On one hand, now I knew one of the reasons things had been so difficult for me lately and I could now do something about it. On the other hand, I felt like I had just added a huge weight to my backpack. It was in those first few days after returning home from the hospital that I discovered my own resilience, and with it, my desire to hike. The PCT will be an opportunity for me to prove this resilience to myself. I can prove to myself that being bipolar doesn’t make me weak.
How I Will Succeed
Checking Up on Myself
A big part of my plan is going to be personal mental health checks. These aren’t too hard. For me, a mental health check is just a series of questions I ask myself. How am I doing right now? What is one thing that I am feeling anxious about? What is one thing I can do to reduce that anxiety? What is one thing I am feeling really good about? Finally, what’s my plan to make tomorrow better than today?
Stopping and doing quick status checks is very helpful to me and will be part of my daily routine while on trail.
The mixture of solitude and companionship that I will experience on the PCT will be important for me as well. Some days you just need to hike alone with nothing but nature to keep you company. I recently took my first solo backpacking trip and enjoyed the peace very much. At the same time, one part of hiking the PCT that I am most looking forward to is meeting a trail family. Forming friendships with people hiking around me will be an important part of maintaining good mental health.
Starting Each Day on the Right Foot
In the months following my hospitalization, I discovered just how important sleep was for my mental health. When planning to hike the PCT, I know that starting off each day on the right foot will be crucial, so getting a good sleep is a must. For this reason I am putting a lot of thought into my sleep system for the trail to ensure I sleep well every night.
Dealing with Daily Frustrations
Life can get frustrating. On the trail, that won’t change. Rather than losing your car keys, maybe you leave your trekking poles at the last water cache and have to go back for them. Maybe you’re standing at the base of the next long climb wondering why the heck you’re doing this in the first place. Was the gas station out of Snickers again? It’s small frustrations like this that have had a tendency to really get to me. They add up and become a cascading series of problems competing to ruin my day. On the PCT, taking deep breaths before facing frustrations head-on will be key. Not letting myself get overwhelmed by little things that don’t go right will help me keep going when things get tough. I need to not let the little things get to me.
Hiking is my favorite form of therapy. A rough day can instantly be improved with a quick five-mile hike around a local park. I’m a little worried about hiking becoming too routine for me. However, I have lots of hope that the constantly shifting terrain and scenery will make every day feel like a new one. I remember hearing that a bad day on trail is better than the best day at work. I’m ready for those good days to start!
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