Wisdom from 2018 Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hikers (Pt. I)

As the new thru-hiking season dawns, many people are prepping for the adventure of a lifetime. Shakedown hikes, last-minute gear purchases, and breaking in that first pair of trail runners. However, a common saying in the thru-hiking community is that the trail is the best teacher. That may be true, but that also means we may be able to glean some insight from those who have already completed their thru-hikes.

Let’s take a jump across the country for the second installment in our Wisdom from the (Recent) Past series… over to the PCT!

Samuel “Frick” Martin | May 10 – August 16 NOBO

“…you’re so thankful you took that step of courage”

Favorite trail town and why?
I have great memories in Idyllwild, CA. The trail was still fresh and it was the first town we actually spent some time in.

What did you do to prepare for your hike that you think directly affected the outcome?
I used and become familiar with every piece of gear I chose to carry on trail. Setting out to hike the PCT is no joke and I didn’t want to carry gear that I was unfamiliar with. In the months leading up to the hike I spent a lot of time on overnight trips dialing in my kit and removing gear that I thought was unnecessary—it’s amazing how little you actually need to carry.

What were your luxuries on trail?
My cameras. Yes, that is plural. As a full-time photographer I always knew I was going to carry my camera gear so I made adjustments elsewhere to make that possible while still being weight conscious. I carried the Sony a7 body with a 35mm 2.8 Ziess prime lens as well as an Olympic Stylus Epic 35mm body with around four rolls of film. In Washington I picked up my 85mm lens as well.

What piece of gear did you bring but not need?
I didn’t use my puffy nearly as much as I thought I would. I carried it through the desert into the Sierra but it’s only use was a bit of cushioning beneath my knees at night. I shipped it home in Mammoth and never missed it again—turns out a Patagonia fleece and a rain shell are all I need.

What piece of gear did you wish you had?
Somewhere deep in Yosemite National Park I truly wished I had a tent with bug protection. Up to this point I had gotten away with cowboy camping and pitching my tarp once but Yosemite greeted us with a wall of mosquitoes that was truly unbelievable. I spent a few nights cowboy camping with my head net on before picking up a shelter in Sierra City.

What do you think changed the most about your personality or outlook on life from this experience?
The saying goes that thru-hiking ruins you in the best way possible. Hiking the PCT was a realization of a dream I have had for many years—looking back on it now I see how it gave me a quiet confidence to believe that I can accomplish anything I set my hands too. Standing at the Mexican border looking north you hope against hope that you’ll all the way and when you’re finally able to look south from Canada you’re so thankful you took that step of courage.

Did you hike more in a group or solo? What was your trail family like? What was your favorite part of hiking in a group? Alone?
I set off solo but that changed within the first 15 miles. I picked up with a crew of hikers and we all carried on together through the desert and into the Sierra. That family really set the tone of the hike for me, which I’m incredibly grateful for. We hiked hard but had fun in towns and the dad jokes never stopped. I set out on my own from Mammoth and hiked the next 1,100 miles alone. I caught some old friends in NorCal but was pretty much solo for that period. Near Sisters, OR, I met some folks who were talking about finishing the day I was and so we joined together. I was glad to have had the experience of amazing trail families but also extended solo time—a hike like this needs both, in my opinion. It was, however, nice to finish with friends.

What did you turn to on a rough day to keep yourself motivated and driven?
I reminded myself that I chose to be here and every mile of this trail I get to hike is an unbelievable privilege. It’s easy to lose perspective on day 65 when that NorCal sun is burning through your brain and you have the worst blisters imaginable on that road walk into Seiad Valley. In those moments I chose to step back and look at the situation from the perspective of ten years in the future—suddenly those blisters are a funny story.

What do you miss most about the trail?
The singular focus of hiking north. It’s incredible the focus you can hold when life’s daily distractions are stripped away.

What is one piece of advice you would give to aspiring thru-hikers?
Be stubborn. Not in an unhealthy way but in the knowledge that what is present will pass and what is ahead is worth it.

Aziz “Ramen Shaman”Alnemer | March 21 – September 2 NOBO

“My belief that there is more to life than living a typical life with a 9-5 job.”

Favorite trail town and why?
That’s a tough one, but if I had to choose one it would be Wrightwood, CA. The section between El Cajon to Wrightwood was one of the windiest/coldest sections of the trail for me. The wind never stopped the whole way and it was super cold. When we finally got to Wrightwood, we got this cozy Airbnb cabin and we spent most of our two days in Wrightwood sitting by the fireplace.

What did you do to prepare for your hike that you think directly affected the outcome?
Physically? I did CrossFit for six months before starting my hike. Being somewhat fit from beginning definitely helped me. I started with an average of 15 miles per day. Mentally? I did a monthlong hike in the Himalayas. I experienced all sorts of weather conditions there. I also went for 15 days without showering. My experience in the Himalayas taught me what to expect while hiking the PCT.

What were your luxuries on trail?
My luxury item would be my travel bidet. I love using it. It made me feel clean and I didn’t have to worry about running out of toilet paper.

What piece of gear did you bring but not need?
I carried a small smartphone tripod for the whole duration of my hike but only used it once (at the 500-mile marker).

What piece of gear did you wish you had?
I wish I had snowshoes in the Sierra Nevada. I got into the Sierra early in the season and had to deal with some nasty snowstorms. Having snowshoes would’ve stopped my from postholing every five minutes.

What do you think changed the most about your personality or outlook on life from this experience?
I don’t think it changed me in an obvious way. It just made my beliefs a lot stronger. My belief that there is more to life than living a typical life with a 9-5 job.

Did you hike more in a group or solo?
I hiked most of California with my tramily and hiked most of Oregon and Washington solo.

What was your trail family like?
My tramily had different nationalities and different backgrounds but we got along perfectly and we still keep in touch.

What was your favorite part of hiking in a group?
Having dinner at the end of the day and sitting around a campfire. It was good morale booster for everyone.

Alone?
Hiking at my own pace without worrying about where I will camp or have lunch.

What did you turn to, on a rough day, to keep yourself motivated and driven?
When I have a rough day on trail I usually turn to a playlist that I made. The playlist consist of spiritual music from different religions. If music doesn’t work, I just think of all the ice cream I will be having once I get to town.

What do you miss most about the trail (life)?
Waking up every day with a purpose. A purpose you know you can achieve by the end of the day.

What is one piece of advice you would give aspiring thru-hikers?
This is a once-in-lifetime opportunity to be completely free and do whatever you want to do. Don’t do anything that you don’t feel like doing. Except hiking, of course. Peer pressure exists on trail and I would recommend not giving in to it.

Paige “Spikes” Topole | March 26 – July 31 NOBO

“…this is your hike and your journey, don’t let anyone take that away from you.”

Favorite trail town and why?
Bishop. I liked the size of it—it was really small, so it was easy to walk around. I feel like this town is in a critical place in your hike. You just got your butt kicked from Whitney and Forester and it’s time to prepare yourself mentally and physically for the rest of the High Sierra. Also, delicious food.

What did you do to prepare for your hike that you think directly affected the outcome?
I went on a few 20-mile day hikes with all my gear on in addition to working out slightly more than normal. I think this helped a decent amount for the first few days, but after that you gain all the strength you need on the trail.

What were your luxuries on trail?
Like a lot of people I started out with more luxuries like a microfiber towel, soap for town, camp shoes. I quickly learned that these were all not necessary and that with the miles I was doing that less was more. At the end, my biggest luxury was a bigger med kit than most and I just had that because I have some outdoor medicine training and wanted to make sure I could help others or myself if anything happened.

What piece of gear did you bring but not need?
I didn’t use my knife ever in addition to a lot of my med kit (but that is more like a thankfully I didn’t have to use it).

What piece of gear did you wish you had?
I wish I had a lighter tent; besides that everything was good! Also, I wish I had realized the beauty of a set of sleeping clothes earlier.

What do you think changed the most about your personality or outlook on life from this experience?
I think I am stronger than I originally thought. I also realized how many people love nature and at all ages and nationalities. Two of the most inspiring people I met were a couple from Alaska who must have been in their 60s and they were kicking butt on the trail, which gave me hope that I too can be crushing trail at that age. I also became more minimalistic. I know what I need to survive and how I do not need to fill my life up with useless junk.

Did you hike more in a group or solo?
I started solo, then had a bit of a trail family, and then hiked with just one other person.

What was your trail family like?
The trail family that I had for a 100(?) miles was great. We all hiked alone during the day but in the evening and in towns we would stay together. I like how on the trail age didn’t really matter. We had a 17-year-old and 45-year-old and we all got along.

What was your favorite part of hiking in a group?
Having people to look forward to at the end of the day.

Alone?
Being able to go at your own pace and make calls for yourself. I started this journey alone with the expectation that it would be some self-journey. I realized that mentally I cannot be alone for days on end and that having a group to call my own was what I craved at the end of a long day.

What did you turn to, on a rough day, to keep yourself motivated and driven?
The person that I hiked with would always cheer me on when things got tough. In addition, I would remind myself that I am the only one making myself hike and that I want to be here.

What do you miss most about the trail (life)?
The simplicity of it. I work a 9-5 engineering job that I love but I miss every day being out there in nature being one with the dirt.

What is one piece of advice you would give aspiring thru-hikers?
Do it! You’ll know if it’s for you in the first couple of days. Going on a thru-hike can change your life forever and if it is the correct thing for you to do, and there is nothing worse than looking back on something and thinking how you wish you could have done it. My uncle is in his late 60s right now and has back and knee problems and at this point it would be physically impossible for him to do a thru-hike. Before I started he told me how I was his hero for doing something he has always wanted to do, which made me sad because he knows that he’ll never be able to accomplish this lifetime goal of his. If you are able to have the time, money, and physical ability to do any challenge (thru-hike, traveling) now is the time to do it. Don’t wait to the point where you regret it. Also, remember this is your hike and your journey, don’t let anyone take that away from you.

Huge thanks to everyone who agreed to be interviewed for this series. Getting to chat about thru-hiking is always a joy, especially with those whose thru-hike is freshest in the mind.

We’ve gotten a hold of a ton of 2018 hikers who wanted to share some wisdom with upcoming and potential thru-hikers. So stay tuned, because there will be more to come from the PCT, AT, and CDT Class of 2018!

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Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

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