Plan Ahead And Prepare For Your PCT Thru-Hike
The first principle of Leave No Trace is plan ahead and prepare. It’s also a great rule to start your journey with. In case you’re wondering, the chart up top is a famous drawing made by Charles Joseph Minard, and it shows Napoleon’s march into and retreat from Russia. On only one page, it captures troop strength at various dates, troop movements, river crossings, and temperature. A good PCT plan can be similar.
The seven principles of Leave No Trace are:
- Plan ahead and prepare
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces
- Dispose of waste properly
- Leave what you find
- Minimize campfire impacts
- Respect wildlife
- Be considerate of other visitors
At first these seem like things that only benefit others or the environment, but the more I experience, and the more I think about them, they’re really for you. You can be completely selfish and be a great LNT advocate. I’ll save numbers two through seven for another day, but the gist of all of these is this – you’re an outdoorsy person; by sticking to these principles and keeping them in mind, you’re investing in your own future enjoyment. Being a good example and advocate is like compound interest – you tell two friends, who tell two friends, etc. If you act like an ass and ruin things, that spreads, and the next time you go somewhere it might be trashed.
You need three permits – the PCTA permit, the California fire permit, and the Canada entry permit. The best resource is the PCTA website. They are all easy to obtain, although the last might be trickier for non-U.S. citizens, and/or people who’ve been naughty in the past. Get the permits, don’t be That Guy.
Logistics, Practical And Physical
The corporate phrase is “set yourself up for success” – and here it applies, but without snark. Many people will argue that you can overplan something. I get it, you don’t want to reduce everything to a rigid schedule that might prevent you from enjoying an otherwise unplanned event. However, I’m a planner, always have been, and I think always will be. Free resources to help you plan your hike are all over the web. You can also pay for some. They range from primary materials you will use while underway like the PCT Water Report, to secondary tools like the various planning pages, and of course articles like this. Personally, I like to use my own skills and knowledge of how I hike, combined with primary sources. Others might prefer a more all-in-one approach, where you work off someone else’s plan.
Good Primary Sources
Halfmile (maps and phone app) – free topo maps of the entire PCT, and the app has some great additional features. I cannot recommend these maps enough. You can easily download them all to your smartphone, but be sure to print them as well – no point in staring at a dead battery or a mobile screen under full sun. Just print them; they’re not that heavy.
- CA water report showing water equivalent snow levels
- The Postholer snowpack report
- Yogi’s PCT Planner and Resupply List
- Craig’s PCT Planner
- Hikerbot (free) or Guthook (pay) smartphone apps
Note that I do not endorse a specific source or set of sources. I had good luck with Yogi’s book and Hikerbot, but they have their critics as well.
Based on these, mostly the Halfmile maps, you could calculate out ahead where you’ll be, and plan your shopping, maildrops and equipment drops. What I did with this information is put together a list of my likely stops for the first couple of weeks, factoring in distance and elevation gain, the notion that on Day1 I might not be strong, and where I might need water. From there I figured out how many days of food I’ll need to maildrop to the first few places, where there aren’t big grocery stores. It’s important to know if you’re getting to a mail drop on Saturday afternoon or on a Sunday – the post office will be closed!
As a joke to myself I predicted it out all the way to Whitney, to see when I’d get there. I don’t believe much of the list since it’s a 40-plus day walk, but it was an interesting exercise to familiarize myself with the terrain, the distances, towns, peaks, etc.
That is the kind of planning you need to do. It’s not a mile-by-mile schedule, but a general awareness of the scale of things, rough times to certain landmarks, etc.
Good Secondary Sources
Find someone who has hiked the PCT before, and get a feel for the weather, terrain, etc. The planning books like Yogi’s PCT Planner, and even books like “Wild,” can give you a feel for what’s needed – equipment, money, attitude, tips on packing your pack, boot choice, etc. Ultimately, you are your own best source for what you’ll need to pack. Sleep cold? Bring a heavier bag. Like to party in towns? Plan for more zeroes. Not sure about gear? Head to an outfitter; tell them you’re hiking the PCT and they’ll be all over you, just remember, they’re in the equipment business. All the guides out there, including this one, are just that – guides. Other websites that ought to be checked out:
- Facebook groups (if you’re into that sort of thing)
- Reddit r/pacificcresttrail and r/ultralight
Got suggestions for other sources? Send them over!
Logistically, I think anyone with backpacking experience can hike the PCT. Based on my other trips, I think the most important thing you can do is prepare physically and mentally. Hike with your backpack on. Hike with your backpack loaded, and for five to ten miles at a time, along paved roads. Bring your loaded backpack to the gym with you and do the Stairmaster for an hour. Try to beat up your legs and feet, and work on your core back and stomach muscles. I was in pretty good shape when I started in 2017, but my feet took a beating on the gravelly, sandy trail. There’s less shock absorption than you’d get in a wetter place like the East. Even though I had broken in my shoes, I still got blisters; your feet react differently under load.
Do a lot of stretching; stretching your calf muscles helps prevent plantar fasciitis, even though that’s in your feet – because it’s all the same set of tendons. Prior to your hike (not forever, I’m no saint) cut down on the junk food, coffee, booze, or anything else you’re into. You want your body to become a lean, high-efficiency, fuel-burning machine.
For those of you older hikers, as you know, this kind of thing gets harder and harder. You will have more prep work to do ahead of time. The younger folks just bounce back faster.
Improvise, Adapt, Overcome
I heard this in a movie once.
People were swapping gear like mad in the first few hundred miles – shoes, tents, packs, bags. I got a new tent in Big Bear, because I saw how sweet other people’s two-man tents were, and REI was having a sale. Many people swapped shoes, sometimes multiple times. Your feet will stretch. Some people charged out of the gate doing 20-mile days, got bleeding blisters and ended up staying in Julian (mile 77) for a week to heal. The point is to be aware of your surroundings, your own abilities, and be willing to admit that maybe you don’t know it all. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and taking a couple of short days or a zero upfront might get you to Canada faster in the long run.
Plan ahead and prepare!
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