A Novice’s Path to Preparing for the PCT

Preparation is critical when trying to position yourself for the greatest chance at success in anything. When it comes to a thru-hike, your life depends on it. With that being said, here are some things that I’ve learned while preparing for the PCT as a rookie.

Resources

Throughout this process I have relied heavily on the advice of many voices. YouTube vloggers, bloggers, books, and thru-hikers at my local REI have all played a role in my education and planning. Without all of them, I would be a sitting duck. All I can say is thank you to the people who support the backpacking community. Whether it be information about gear or insightful tips, you all make a difference for the amateurs like me.

I’ve learned that there are multiple areas of focus when developing a preparation program for a thru-hike. On the surface it appears to be extremely physical, but you also have to sharpen your mental game, dial in your gear, acquire necessary skills, develop various strategies, and research the checkpoints. There’s a lot that goes into thru-hiking and these are my notable points of emphasis:

Physical Training

One of the recurring pieces of advice that I receive is to take pre-hike conditioning seriously. This is because it can help prevent injuries and establishes body awareness. I try to run every day, but depending on how much time I have, I’ll substitute a run for hiking with a full pack. Whether it be road, gravel, dirt, mud, sand, valleys, or peaks, I’ve been simulating the terrain of the PCT as much as possible. If I can’t make it outside, I’ll hop on a treadmill at the gym and clock some miles. Regardless of what the day looks like, I try to find a way to get my miles in.

I’ve also been weight training and working on flexibility in an effort to keep my body balanced. My focus is catered toward muscular endurance and elasticity in order to increase the sustainability of my body. Although it’s difficult to simulate the day-to-day rigors of a thru-hike, I operate on the mindset that anything is better than nothing. Not only has following this routine made me feel more confident physically, but mentally as well. At minimum, I’ll believe in my body’s capabilities more than I would have otherwise.

Gear

This is arguably the hottest topic in thru-hiking. I’ll address this subject in greater detail at a later date, but here’s what I’ve learned when it comes to gear selections. There’s so much advice out there, but just because it works for one person doesn’t mean it will work for you. This is a cliche saying, but it couldn’t be more true. The bottom line is that there are many ways to get to the finish line and it’s on you to carve your own path.

The only way to learn what works is by trying it for yourself. Utilize companies with generous return policies so you can test gear and make changes while maintaining financial efficiency. My goal is to keep my pack as lightweight as possible, but I’ll ultimately bring what makes me comfortable out on trail. Find that balance, master the gear that you have, and you’ll be alright. Maintain perspective and remember that the earlier generations walked this trail with far more weight on their backs than we ever will.

Establishing Habits and Techniques

Most thru-hikers advise a pre-trail shakedown hike, but the work/life balance doesn’t always allow for that to happen. As a result, I had to find alternative ways to bridge those gaps. I’ve been doing this by setting up and breaking camp in the backyard every morning, packing and unpacking my pack multiple times per day, testing recipes, and doing mock resupplies.

I’ve also been getting familiar with filtering water, developing recovery routines, tying my bear bag, understanding navigation systems, and practicing first aid. I do all of these things in an effort to create habits and skills that will translate out on trail and minimize mistakes. My biggest takeaway is that there are many ways to sharpen your skills and a shakedown hike is only one of them. Assess your situation and find a way to get those repetitions in.

Mental Game

The majority of the successful thru-hikers who I’ve spoken to expressed that the mental battle is the greatest of them all. The most helpful tool for my mental preparation has been the book Pacific Crest Trials, by Zach Davis and Carly Moree. This is a great guide and breaks down the trail based on the mental shifts that can potentially occur along the way. There is endless advice in this book, but it all begins with your “why.”

Your why is the foundation and it will carry you through the rough patches. A strong why provides a clear purpose and I’ve placed a massive emphasis on understanding mine for this reason. Stating my goals publicly is another tactic that has added further motivation. My plan is to keep one foot in front of the other and favor joy over struggle. Every challenge is an opportunity to rise and change will be constant. All I can do is embrace the cards that I’m dealt and keep playing the game.

Sharpening the tool between the ears could be the biggest difference maker of them all. I’ve taken this part of my preparation very seriously because it’s one of the constant suggestions among all of my resources. I’ve read that book multiple times and have endless notes that’ll serve as reminders while I’m out on trail. If you lose the mental battle, everything else will follow. Therefore losing isn’t an option.

Lower Those Hurdles

There’s a lot more that has gone into my preparation, but these are the areas that have stood out the most. The reality is that I have spent hundreds of hours researching and preparing for the PCT over the past six months. I had to learn everything from the ground up and transform that information into skills. Although a lack of experience will surely present its hurdles, proper preparation can reduce their height. Do yourself a favor and lower those hurdles.

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