Physical, Mental, and Emotional Prep for My PCT Thru-Hike
How do you train for that?
While “Why?” is the first question I get when I tell people I’m attempting to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail, the follow-up is usually a series of questions asking what I’ve done to get ready. This may be another one of those posts that will hold a lot more clout once I complete my hike, but I can safely say, one week out from my first thru-hike, I feel confident, strong, and ready. Coaching/training is my day job, and I did a lot of PCT research. I knew the training would be broken into two parts. The physical, and the mental/emotional. Both of which would knock me right off trail if I wasn’t prepared.
As a first-time hiker, I needed to get used to carrying around my pack. I’m pretty sure I looked like a crazy person walking around the city of Chicago with a full pack, but I have goals. No matter where you live or what your program looks like, log some miles with your pack. If you’re going to hike, hiking should be a part of your training plan. If we can make it work in Chicago, you can make it work wherever you’re at. However, Chicago winters are rough, so I did supplement with gym time too.
To decide on a training plan, I looked at what knocked people off trail and worked backward. Back pain, knee pain, and ankle/feet issues seemed to be the winners. I decided my training would focus on ankle, knee and hip stability, as well as core strength. Think about hiking. We are on one leg the majority of the day just shifting our weight (with and extra 20-30+ lbs on our backs) from one leg to the other. Single leg training is important! One of my favorite sets at the gym is:
Single Leg Deadlifts – 15 Reps Each Side
Front Squats – 15 Reps
Weighted Front Rack Carries – 90 Seconds
For this one I’d do three to five sets, followed by a yoga flow, either on my own or taking a class. Yoga is going to increase flexibility and mobility, improve balance and posture, increase core strength and stability, and work on breath work. Plus you can do it anywhere. I recommend it as part of any program.
Another simple bodyweight set that’s great for all levels and can be done anywhere is:
Single Leg Deadlift – 15 ea side
Plank Toe Taps – 20 total
Single Leg Glute Bridge – 15 ea side
Reverse Snow Angel – 15
Step Ups With a Twist – 12 ea side
Lateral Crawl – 45 seconds
Perform them back to back, rest for 30-60 seconds after the lateral crawl, and repeat. See how many times you can get through! Every body is different, but these are a great place to start. Find me on the Instagram @matt_mods_adventures and I’d be happy to shoot you some ideas and answer questions! At the end of the day, you’re going to grow physically on trail and make it work. I just think my hike will be more enjoyable if my body is ready!
What exactly is the hiking the PCT? What did I just get myself in to? To be perfectly honest, when I committed to doing the PCT, I barely knew more than what Wild, a few blog posts, and some Instagram accounts had told me. I had been talking about it for years, but it was a crazy dream and I hadn’t done much research. I began to read all of the books, and scoured the internet nightly, digesting all of the information I could. My favorite three books were Yogi’s Guidebook, Pacific Crest Trials, and Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart.
As with my physical prep, I took my mental and emotional prep from the lens of “what will knock me off trail?” and then planned to take preventative measures! Let’s break it down.
A few clicks on Facebook and you’ll find that gear is as subjective and contentious as politics or religion. Every hiker has a different opinion as to what you need and what’s useless. In the past six months I’ve purchased, returned, replaced, and re-thought gear so much that the folks at REI know me on a first name basis. Hikers can spend several hundreds, or several thousands of dollars on gear. Do a lot of research, test some gear and start to find your hiker style, and make the right choices for you. You’re the one who has to live with this gear for the next five months. Treat it like you’re looking for your new home… cause you are. Most of all, enjoy it! If you aren’t having fun, you’re doing it wrong. My gear list is linked to my profile and a detailed description HERE
The logistics of the trail can be DAUNTING. Planning to walk 2,650 miles seems impossible. I’m anxious by nature, but breaking it down helped. So I printed out Halfmile’s maps, and paired it with the trail/town guides from Yogi’s Guide Book. This broke the trail down into lots of small manageable sections. This made the trail, and resupply seem doable. I looked through where I wanted to buy, versus where I wanted to mail boxes, made decisions, and I’ll check and adjust on trail. Be sure to eat all the flavors of Talenti to find the right cold soak jar.
Along with planning the gear and the logistics, you also have to plan to leave life for a few months, knowing it will continue while you’re gone. Leave a little buffer, just in case you take longer than expected. Personally, I’m over Chicago winters. I sold everything I owned, told my job I was leaving, and plan to relocate somewhere new when I’m done. This changed the life prep a little, as it eliminated the need to take care of my home, bills, store stuff, etc.
If you have any bills that need to be paid while you’re out, you’ll need to plan for that. Speaking of bills, have a budget! I read about lots of hikers who run out of money. I can’t imagine having put all this effort into planning, and have to get off trail because I ran out of cash. Figure out a budget ahead of time and add a cushion. Then break it down into monthly, and weekly and stick to it. Remember, if you’re hiking slowly, you’ll end up spending more as you’ll be out there longer. Be ready!
This is the most common reason I’ve seen people end their journey on the trail. They hit a point where their journey is simply done. Spending that many hours a day in your head is scary if you don’t know what’s up there! If you haven’t yet picked up Pacific Crest Trials, do it now! It’s an amazing resource, and has some great mental exercises.
Get into the heads of people who have hiked before. Try to get a sense of what feelings might pop up. Thru-hiking Will Break Your Heart by Carrot Quinn, is must read. Find a few people on social media whose journey resonates with you. Not only will seeing their journey give you confidence, most of them are awesome people who will answer some of your questions and make you feel good. Also, ask them about their shittiest days on trail (pun intended). Know what the bad days are going to look like ahead of time. Seeing Twerk’s Hiker Trash Vogue project was a huge motivator for me.
Some other things I did to emotionally prepare for the trail:
Announce it to the world! The accountability and support you’ll get is great.
Mom tracker. Family WILL worry. Find little ways to help put their mind at ease. I made a list of various trail towns with the mileage listed and a couple notes (Starbucks in Tehachapi, cold brew please!) Next to each one is a space to write the date of arrival. This way Mom and Dad have a rough estimate of where I’m at.
As an alcoholic, I wanted to make sure I had support if things get crazy. I found AA meetings in certain towns along the way. Just knowing they’re there is a comfort.
Go through a calendar and make a list of all of the people/places/events you’ll miss while out on the trail. Examples for me were my friends and family, brother’s birthday, the annual 4th of July Party, my softball team going to the Gay World Series, friends birthdays and anniversaries, etc. It’s better to see all of these now than after hiking 30 miles in the heat, hungry and mosquito bitten. I call this my sacrifice calendar. Dreams take sacrifice!
Look at a map and find the places you’re most likely to quit. Read about where other hikers have left trail. Everyone’s journey is different, and quitting isn’t failing, but knowing which sections suck and that everyone knows they suck, might help you push through a hard section and stay on trail.
Write a letter to yourself in various points of your life explaining why you’re hiking this year.
The call list! I have a list of five people to call before I’ll allow myself to come off trail. My mother, my best friend, my sponsor, my brother, and another first time hiker (Marie Draws the PCT!) If I can’t get ahold of them I hole up in a hotel for a night and wait until I can talk to all five. If after that, I STILL want to leave, I will know my journey is really over and leave with my head held high, proud of what I’ve done.
Now I’m ready. Next time I post, I’ll smell rancid, be exhausted, and hopefully the happiest I’ve ever been. See you on the trail!
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