Backpacking the Pacific Crest Trail is a momentous journey. I spent months out there. Much of it alone or nearly so. Just walking through the mountains and the woods. On such a long trip, we have a lot of time to think. About ourselves, as well as the world around us.
Life is full of success and failure, trail and error. Some believe the difference between a successful life and a mediocre one is learning from your experiences. Looking back, there are many things that I learned on the PCT, although many of them were not so obvious at the time. Often when I was walking, I was too busy living in the moment. Looking at all the beautiful scenery, or scouring the maps to plan out the rest of my day. I didn’t spend much time to stop and think. It wasn’t until after the trail that much of these insights have come to me. In this post I will talk about some key takeaways that I learned throughout my adventure.
You Will be Uncomfortable… All Of The Time
I struggle to think of a time on the trail when I wasn’t uncomfortable. One day I may have been hungry or dehydrated. Another day it was intense foot pain. Some days it was way too hot out, others far to cold for my liking… you get the picture. At no time on the trail was I 100% comfortable and happy. You have to be willing to deal with this if you plan on long distance hiking. The trail is about who can outlast the most shit for the longest. There is a certain amount of toughness and persistence that will get you through to the end. You have to be willing to deal with the pain and keep going in spite of it. Expect to be pushed out of your comfort zone. The trail is an assault on all ideas of normality you may have.
Don’t Believe the Hype
Everything that may suck even a minor bit on the trail is hyped to all hell long before you even encounter it. It may be that the next desert section is sooo hot; well not really, it’s doable. Or that the giant burger is sooo good in the next town; well not really, it’s mediocre like most of the trail food. Do not let yourself fall prey to the hype. There is no use worrying about something that hasn’t happened. This isn’t to say you should be cavalier about everything. You still need to evaluate potential risks according to your ability. Hiking the trail is a big game of telephone, and gossip spreads throughout. People will be talking about how horrible is something is days before you get there. If you let that pressure get to your psyche, it can put you out of the game.
Trust in Yourself
From talking to others who had done the AT or CDT, their comment on the PCT was that it is much more about the mental game. To complete it you have to have grit. The reason that I completed the PCT (other than being lucky and not getting bitten by a snake or slipping down a mountain) is because I set out to complete it. I had a positive attitude throughout. Before the trip I spent far too much time doubting myself and my abilities. One of the main reasons I set out to complete the trail was to overcome this feeling. When I was out walking, I had one goal. To keep walking. There was never a moment where I was not dedicated to my goal of continuing all the way to the Canadian border. And that is just what I did. Through self determination and persistence, I stuck it out and made it.
In order to do the PCT you have to have confidence in your abilities. I met people of all fitness levels, and often the difference between the ones who finished and the ones who dropped out were their mental attitudes. There were a few who got caught up in the hype of how difficult going through the Sierras was going to be, and decided to quit. What they weren’t thinking of were the weeks they just spent walking through the desert, which in many ways was more difficult than the mountains.
You can do it!
Stop Planning, Start Researching (and Just Do It)
Planning doesn’t get you very far on the trail. I see lots of talk online about extensive pre-trail preparation. Planning out meals and camping spots day by day. Trying to estimate how many zero days to take, et cetera. Well let me tell you, from my own planning experiences, all that is a waste of time. Stop doing it. The trail is a dynamic experience, you should expect to throw your plans within a week. Unless you have already done the PCT, it will be nothing like you are expecting it to be. The PCT is about flow. Doing certain things at certain times will seem natural. This isn’t to say you can romp around doing low miles and staying in every town for a week, there is still a certain amount of discipline needed to keep going to get your distance in.
Instead of planning, do your research. Become familiar with which towns are where. Become familiar with terrains in various parts of the trail. Become familiar with the weather in certain parts of the country. This research and information can help you make informed decisions when you are on the trail. This is when you should be making them. Trying to make these decisions for yourself before you have even set foot in Campo is pointless.
Also, don’t spend too much time stressing over what gear to get. Some people fret over every last fraction of an ounce when purchasing gear. When you are carrying 15+ lbs of water in the desert, this amount of weight is negligible. When it comes down to it, all the blog reviews and YouTube videos are no substitute for personal experience. You will either love a piece of gear because it works well for you, or you will hate it because it fails in some way. If you love it good job, you got lucky. If you hate it, buy something else. Your opinion won’t be known without extensive on trail experience with the equipment. Sleeping overnight in your backyard is not a substitute for 5 months of daily hardcore use needed to accurately asses the gear.
And as always you should Just Do It
I’ll be honest. When I was on the trail, I did not do this. I went from one location to another. Always looking ahead, sometimes behind, but rarely appreciating where I was. At the time five months seemed like forever. But as my time on the PCT drew to a close I found myself grasping at straws, trying to enjoy it up as much as I could. I knew that I would be getting off of the trail soon, and I would miss it.
For most, doing a thru-hike is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Appreciate it. All of it. Live in the moment and enjoy it. Don’t dwell on the tough climb coming up, or how shitty you thought that last town was. One day you may find yourself looking back, wishing you would have appreciated it more while you were doing it.
It is my hope that these lessons are not only helpful to someone looking to embark on a long trail of their own. In the advice that I have given, you should be able to swap out the PCT with life. The adventure of the PCT is a good substitute for the journey of life.
So in conclusion, what I learned about life:
- You will be uncomfortable all of the time. Life sucks, but if you recognize this, you can deal with it. In The Myth of Sisyphus, the hero pushes a rock up a hill every day, only to have it roll back down, and in spite of this, continues on.
- Don’t fall prey to the hype. The world is full of haters. Full of gossipers. Don’t listen to them. Forge your own path and make your own decisions on what is best to do. Don’t let others instill doubt in yourself.
- Trust yourself. There is one constant in your life, and that is you. You must learn to be confident in yourself, because at the end of the day, you are all that you have.
- Just do it. We live in the information age. With the large amount of shit floating around on the internet, sometimes it is hard to make a decision. Don’t let yourself succumb to decision paralysis. They only way you will succeeded is if you try and find out the right decision for yourself. So stop thinking about doing it and just do it.
- Appreciate It. We only have one life to live, so live it to the fullest.