Physical preparation: How I’m training for 2653 miles
This blog is part 1 of a series of preparation.
You can read part 2 on mental preparation here.
There is a sentiment among some hikers that it isn’t strictly necessary to train for the PCT, and I’m not here to refute that. But everyone would agree that training at least a little beforehand will increase your chances of success, or if anything, make those first few days on the trail at least a bit more enjoyable.
In this post, I’ll be writing about some of the steps I’ve taken to prepare myself physically for hiking the PCT this year. I hope it will be informative to future hikers (read: I hope you avoid my mistakes). This is a long one, but there is a TL;DR at the bottom.
This is probably the first advice that you will read on any physical preparation blog. After a year of shakedown hikes, I definitely understand why.
With a 40+ hour workweek in a very competitive industry, it has been difficult to go on shakedown hikes for longer than 1 or 2 weeks. But even a 1-week shakedown hike can teach you a lot. Below I’ve listed what I learned in the minimum amount of time.
Overnight hike: Testing gear
As soon as I got my new tent, I reserved a spot on a campsite near my house and walked there after work. It was a rainy day, but that is the perfect condition for testing new gear. After an awful night of sleep in a pretty good tent, any insecurities about the new piece of gear were out of my mind. I recommend to use any new gear outside at least once before thru-hiking, even if it’s just for your peace of mind.
1-week hike: Getting the idea for a longer hike
I did my first solo hike in the Eifel National park in Germany in June.
You can’t just set up your tent anywhere in Western Europe, but the Eifelpark has “wild camping sites” that you can reserve.
This hike was the rehearsal for:
- Navigation (getting incomprehensibly lost after walking on a discontinued part of trail)
- Filtering water (and getting sick after returning home anyway)
- Recording my food intake (brought way too much)
- Getting used to bugs (botched tick removal that ended up involving a knife)
- Testing out all my gear (this went well)
I was happy to learn that I like walking alone by myself.
I did some shorter overnight hikes after this one, but none were as informative. All the reading in the world couldn’t have taught me these lessons.
2-week hike: Getting the feeling for a longer hike
This is where the physical discomforts of a longer hike present themselves, at least in my case. The Haddangervidda in Norway is great for:
- Experiencing 8-hour climbs
- Getting absolutely soaked in an all-day storm
- Attempting knee-deep river crossings
- Navigating through snow
This trip came as close to the terrain of the PCT as possible (not including the desert), and I really wish I could have practiced a bit more in difficult environments. It went as well as it could go, as I was much better prepared than during my first hike. But not everything went perfect.
On dealing with injuries
On the last two days of the Norway hike, I was plagued by a sharp pain in my left knee. I’d experienced it before during some consecutive day hikes in Scotland, but I figured it was because my legs were not used to climbing. I went back to the gym after returning home and kept doing light exercise until the pain would disappear.
But that did not happen. Instead, the pain increased up to the point that I couldn’t bend my knee anymore. There was no swelling or discoloration, and Google didn’t tell me anything – so I decided to go to a physiotherapist.
What I assumed was a muscle issue, wasn’t actually a muscle issue at all. My pain was caused by my kneecap shifting during walking, which did a number on my cartilage. This issue is known as PFPS, or patellofemoral pain syndrome.
In my specific situation, the PFPS was partially due to overuse, but mainly due to my build. PFPS is more common in people with X-legs, and the best way to prevent it is to train the muscles around your knee. I also had to rest my leg for multiple weeks, which was the opposite of what I had been doing before the diagnosis.
I wouldn’t have discovered my predisposition for this injury if I hadn’t gone on longer shakedown hikes.
Hiking the PCT without this knowledge, experiencing this pain for the first time and “walking it off” could have ended up in permanent cartilage damage at worst. This is the main reason why I would personally recommend shakedown hikes. Also, if you are in pain, please visit a doctor or physical therapist right away. Please don’t be like me.
Setting a gym routine
I expected the gym to be all about cardio when it comes to preparing for a thru-hike, but I ended up doing mainly heavy weight resistance training per the advice of other thru-hikers (and this podcast of Backpacker Radio). This is because strong muscles are less likely to suffer injury. When it comes to endurance training, I think it’s okay to rely a bit more on the trail. No amount of walking at home will prepare me for consecutive 20-mile days, but being able to walk 20 miles a day is a good start.
I received a workout plan from the physiotherapist who had examined my knee prior, but a customized workout plan isn’t necessary for everyone. There are many great workout plans for thru-hiking online, for example by Blaze Physio. A lot of her material overlaps with the material I have received from my physiotherapist, and it’s been working really well for me. It’s also a good idea to look up exercises that prevent common thru-hiker injuries.
On average, I tried to go to the gym 2-3 times a week from last October onwards. And I only ended up going every other day since January. At first, I focused on light weights and squats/lunges, but I shifted more towards using the leg press and leg extensions later.
I was at a low fitness level after recovery, so please don’t let this be your only guide. I recommend working out as often as feels good, and not to pressure yourself too much.
I’ll be brief, I didn’t do any training (yet). The Netherlands isn’t a place where you can practice self-arresting with an ice axe on actual snowy slopes. I’m going to look into training opportunities once I’m on trail, and I’d encourage everyone who is considering training to go for it. Especially with the record snowfall in the Sierras, now is a good time to be well prepared.
Wilderness First Aid Training
This topic isn’t strictly physical preparation, but it will be a good segue into part 2 of this blog which will be on mental preparation. I suppose a WFA training is a little bit of both. The training consisted of a half-day lecture, followed by multiple days of field training. This included some basic survival. While it’s not mandatory by any means if you want to hike the PCT, I’m glad I took this step. I also met another PCT hiker from the Netherlands there!
An important focus of the WFA training is to learn how to quickly assess if a helicopter is necessary or not. Of course the priority is to learn how to treat others in an emergency, but even the heaviest first aid kit can’t compare to a hospital. There’s only so much you can do, and I wanted to learn what can be done. There was also a lot of opportunity to experience emergency situations in a safe environment, such as mild hypothermia (by going for a nighttime swim in a lake mid-November). I’m also a lot more confident on how to use everything my first aid kit. Glad to know how to apply a tourniquet, praying that I will never need to use that knowledge.
I’ll leave you with a brief summary of my training recommendations. Above all, make your own choices and be safe.
If you have any experience or advice to share in the comments, I’d love to hear it!
- Trying out new gear: At least once.
- Shakedown hikes: As many as possible.
- Visit doctor if you have lasting pain: Go. I am no longer asking.
- Cardio: Not a priority in my opinion. The trail will provide.
- Weight training: Yes, especially if you could use stronger muscles.
- Mountaineering training: Yes, but mainly because of the high snow forecast this year. I would skip this in a low snow year.
- First Aid training: Any kind of basic training, if possible. It doesn’t have to be wilderness first aid, as long as you know how to use whatever is in your first aid kit.
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