PCT Training: Preparing Mentally and Physically for the Longest Hike of My Life

I have talked quite a bit about my fears on this website but never about my biggest fear of all: quitting the PCT before I complete it. Full disclosure: I have quit two hikes early before.

The first hike I quit early was the Pennine Way in England. It was my first long hike ever and I didn’t train at all.  The first day on the Pennine Way is quite difficult, with lots of different terrain and technical challenges. On the first day, I did 30 km (18 miles). I wore 50 euro trail runners that I had only walked in once. Achilles tendonitis struck the second day and I quit by the third.

The second hike I quit early was the King’s Trail in the North of Sweden. This hike was definitely a mental challenge: it was cold and rainy, there were clouds of mosquitos and I had no service so I felt very lonely. I was very hard on myself: I wanted to be lightweight so I only packed the bare necessities. And I planned lots of long hiking days in a row, with no zeros. I quit after five days.

Yet, something about that hike really stuck with me. The freedom and self-reliance I felt, the beauty of the landscape. I tried the hike one more time, to learn from my earlier mistakes and to decide once and for all if thru-hiking was for me or not. This time I absolutely loved it and I completed the hike. I decided: I am going to hike the PCT! In this blog, I talk about how I learned from my mistakes and how it helps me prepare for the biggest challenge yet: the 2,650 miles of the PCT.

The Mental Game

I learned four really big lessons about the mental game on that first hike in Sweden, that helped me tremendously on my consecutive hikes:

  • Focus on small goals. As I stated in the introduction, the first days of that hike were incredibly tough: cold, rainy, lonely, mosquitos. Long hiking days. I kept thinking: “I can’t do this for a month.” Of course, what I didn’t realize was that the stops along the way would offer me a little break to recharge. I could have thought of it as four hikes with breaks in between. Unfortunately, I didn’t take that break but I bailed. And I always regretted it.
  • Negative thoughts are often caused by basic needs not being met. I tend to be very tough on myself when I hike solo: I just hike, hike, hike. I don’t take (long) breaks. No stopping to get that fleece out of my bag when I get cold. No time to eat my snacks. And at some moment during the hike, I will think: “I hate this.” By now I’ve learned that moment doesn’t mean I hate hiking. It means that I need to take a break, eat a snack or put on some warmer clothes.
  • This too shall pass. We have to accept that some days are going to be extremely shitty: “embrace the suck.” It is a lot easier to see the fun and the challenge in difficult moments when you know it’s not going to last forever. After that cold night, there might be morning sun to warm you up. After that grueling climb, there is that amazing viewpoint. Difficult moments make for great stories and build character. I have entertained many family members and friends with my “number two on top of a mountain” story. It really sucked in the moment, but now I can laugh about it.
  • Go easy on yourself. To use that old hiker adage: hiking is about “smiles not miles”. Take an hour-long lunch break in the sun, appreciate that viewpoint for a few moments longer, eat, chat with other hikers. It all makes the hike so much better. Go slow when you just start out, take as many zeroes as you need. We don’t have to be so tough. You know yourself and you know what you absolutely need and what you can skip. I like to feel clean, so I will take that extra weight in clothes and soap. But I sleep very easily, so I won’t take a pillow.

More Lessons

When I quit that first hike in Sweden, I felt extremely depressed and disappointed in myself. Something I had been dreaming about for months went up in smoke. Such a waste of time and money. I never want to feel like that again. This was the biggest lesson of all: no day on the trail is going to feel as bad as quitting. Another lesson was not to romanticize the trail: I expected sunshine, to swim in lakes every day, and to make campfires with new friends every night. Now I expect the worst because it can only go up from there.

A lot of the mental game takes place on the trail itself. But I will prepare beforehand: by spending a lot of time thinking about why I’m doing this hike, what I hope to gain from it, and what I will miss out on if I don’t finish.  I think about the tough moments, being tired, the heat, the dirt, the hunger, the insects, cold, danger, instead of just looking forward to the fun. I’ve also written myself a letter for the really tough moments on trail, reminding myself why I’m doing it.

The Physical Challenge

This one is actually a lot easier. I’m not an athlete at all. I have a desk job so I’m on my ass at least eight hours a day. But I do what I can to get fit for the trail. I don’t need to be running up those hills. But I also don’t want to get an injury that forces me to get off trail. Achilles tendonitis was an awful feeling, that I don’t ever want to feel again.

How I Train

So to train, I go on a long hike (+20 km/ 12 miles) with my full pack at least once a week. I go on walks wearing my trail runners after work. And I do barre: exercises that combine ballet and pilates. I once read an article on Backpacker about how practicing ballet is actually really good for hikers. Ballet strengthens your legs, core, and glutes, which is supposed to help with hiking. This made me very happy because I love ballet.

So my advice to you is: do what you love. That is the only way you will stick with your training regime. Now I do barre twice a week, following Youtube videos. This was the workout regime I followed before embarking on my hike in Sweden (the successful time) and it worked out very well.

Climbing Mountains

The one thing that gave me trouble was the down-hills, which hurt my knee. The Netherlands is very flat so practicing climbing and descending mountains is difficult. I now practice on the stairs and seek elevation where I can. On the trail, I will be hiking with trekking poles for the first time and I will wear a knee brace, for extra support. I will also take it very easy in the first weeks, so I can train on trail and get used to the weather and terrain. Lastly, I plan on losing some weight in these last three months, so I will have to carry less weight up those mountains.

Do you have any tips on preparing mentally or physically for the PCT? Please let me know in the comments!

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Comments 16

  • Smitty : Jan 6th

    You can’t prepare just start and you’ll find out. 100 miles is commendable and if you give up there you’ve done something noteworthy finishing is unlikely but I don’t know you. out of shape people finish sometimes and athletes crap out in a day sometimes I don’t say good luck to thru hkrs I say good resolve

    Reply
    • Kelly Groen : Jan 7th

      Good resolve, I like that!

      Reply
      • Lon may : Jan 10th

        Welcome to America.
        I am going to be cheering you on.
        You are a great role model for we Americans to follow.

        Reply
  • Martina : Jan 6th

    Hi Kelly
    Reading your last post about the training made me relive my experience on my pct! 🙂 And you seem like a really nice person.
    I would love to give you some tips if you’de like. Just write me an e-mail so I can tell you everything! 😉
    Anyhow, I’m very very excited for you, that you’ll go hike that beeaauutiful trail!

    Reply
    • Kelly Groen : Jan 7th

      Hi Martina,

      Glad to hear my blog made you relive your experience! Thank you so much for offering to give me advice, I’ll take all the advice I can get 🙂 My email is [email protected].

      Reply
  • Brad : Jan 7th

    You quit your first hike on the third day.

    Reply
  • Kelly Groen : Jan 7th

    Hi Martina,

    Glad to hear my blog made you relive your experience! Thank you so much for offering to give me advice, I’ll take all the advice I can get 🙂 My email is [email protected].

    Reply
  • David : Jan 7th

    Your blog is excellent. Sounds like you’re on a hike through life and learning as you go. Good for you. We all make errors of judgement… and it sounds like you’re growing from yours. Give yourself a high five… your doing well. Me and my wife after many years out of backpacking, due to illness, are now in our mature years, and returning to backpacking, go for it.
    ” Better get busy living ” before we get busy dying

    Reply
  • Just Bob : Jan 7th

    One of the best posts I have read on this site. While the physical is important, I believe the mental and emotional preparation is often overlooked or just taken for granted. (BTW- Mayonnaise on fries???? Here in California you will find Katsup is the way to go) LOL!!!

    Good luck !!!

    Reply
  • Fireboss6159 : Jan 7th

    Have fun.
    Listen to your body and all will be well. Include more rest days than you think you need. Try not to ask too much of your mind and body beyond the day’s miles.
    Good luck? You are already hiking the Pacific Crest Trail! How much more luck could you possibly want?
    Have fun. ✌😎

    Reply
  • Pat Pat : Jan 7th

    Kelly,
    I look forward to reading your blog & hearing of your PCT adventures. My daughter starts the hike in April!
    Mayonnaise is amazing on French fries. I was skeptical when I saw people eating the fries like that in Amsterdam. Once I tried it, I was hooked!

    Reply
  • Jeff w : Jan 8th

    Sure you can do this. I did about 2000 miles in ’15 at the age of 58. I did many miles out of sequence and skipped a bunch in the Sierra Nevada. I finished Washington State in September, then went to Ashland, Oregon and hiked Northbound until I arrived at the Oregon-Washington border (the Columbia River) on October 6. Definitely think about finishing Washington first if you’re going to hike past the middle of September, so you can avoid snow. I found the most northerly segment a little cold in September. October can be deadly with snowstorms.
    I got altitude sickness at 10,000′. I acclimated on the trail, but took a few zeros in Lone Pine, CA and failed to re-acclimate, requiring an evacuation 4 days after reascending.
    Take a personal locator beacon. It could save you or another hiker.
    It’s a beautiful way to spend 4-6 months.
    Good luck!

    Reply
  • Tim Hogeboom : Jan 8th

    Here’s wishing you the best of luck in the adventure that lies ahead! A few tips: Most hikers carry too much food and too much water in the first few weeks. That mistake is motivated by fear, not rational planning. The “hiker hunger” generally doesn’t ramp up until about week 3. Keep your meals on the small to medium size until then. There are also opportunities to grab a restaurant meal in the first few days (at Lake Morena and Mount Laguna for example). Subtract two dinners from your pack and plan to eat restaurant meals at those locations. Pay strict attention to the water report and carry only as much water as you need. Most PCT hikers carry way too much H2O and weigh themselves down unnecessarily. The year I hiked “the desert” was a low snow year and there was still plenty of water available here and there. By the way, everyone says the first 700 miles are desert. Not true. There are patches of desert for sure, but as the PCT rises and falls in elevation, the desert comes and goes. Enjoy your hike, take plenty of zero days at the best trail towns (like Idyllwild). If you need to quit for some reason – and there are many good reasons – look at it this way. You’re no longer a thru hiker, you’re now a section hiker. There’s no shame in being a section hiker. Thru/LASH/section, it’s all good!

    Reply
  • Michael : Jan 8th

    Kelly, loved this insight to handling the highs and lows of distance hiking. Facing mental and physical challenges alone in foul weather can be daunting, your determination is strong. The Swedish Kings Trail is my list!.

    Veel geluk op de PCT.

    Michael (Ireland, presently in Brussels)

    Reply
    • Josh Hunter : Jan 10th

      Ok for some reason unbeknownst to me I’m seeing this at 11:54 pm Pacific time on January 9th. I live in Big bear California wich is a stop along the PCT so when you make it this far let’s have a beer.

      With all the best wishes,

      Josh Hunter

      Reply
  • Lon may : Jan 10th

    Welcome to America.
    I am going to be cheering you on.
    You are a great role model for we Americans to follow.

    Reply

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