One of my favorite camp spots and sunsets on trail.
Most aspirational thru-hikers will read all the blogs, relentlessly research gear, and follow the journeys of hikers who have gone before. But, just like most other grand things in life — nothing can quite prepare you for the actual thing. Once on your own long-haul trek, you will experience elation, depletion, pain, euphoria, woe, and if done right, an all-encompassing, maddening love for the wilderness that simply can’t be put into words.
The bottom line: You won’t want to get off trail. When your body and mind are begging you to be finished, you may briefly, genuinely believe that you feel ready to get back home, to family, friends, pets, and walls with running water.
But once you step off trail, in the quickest of moments, I promise that you’ll wish you could have had more time. Heed my advice to make the most of your once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: milk the clock! Stretch your time on trail as much as you can. The benefits are plentiful.
Start Early, Go Slow.
Moonbeam and Squirrel Breath hiking in the March desert. Photo by Old Lady.
Start early if you can. But if that is not in the realm of possibility, regardless, start slow. There is an adjustment period (whether you realize it’s happening or not) that your body and mind go through to get accustomed to trail life.
Historically, the ‘ideal’ start date for the PCT is referenced as sometime around mid April. Personally, l went against the grain with an early season start date simply because I did not want to be in the Southern California desert in high heat. In April and May, hikers can experience consistent daytime temperatures in the triple digits. By starting in early March, I faced colder evenings/mornings, but more comfortable day-time temperatures. Additionally, wildflowers were blooming, and water sources were more plentiful.
The beginning of a thru-hike is filled with an abundance of new and exciting things. I kid you not when I say I stopped to smell every new flower. The sun rises at about 6 am and sets at about 6 pm in the desert in March. I would be packed and hiking to enjoy the glow of sunrise, prance through my day with a solid lunch break, then begin looking for my evening camp by 3 pm. This routine gave me plenty of time to get decent miles in, with comfortable breaks for snacks and pictures, while being settled in the early evening to unwind, reflect, eat and enjoy the nightfall. If I wasn't ready to sleep, I read.
The California desert was the most relaxing portion of the entire trail and one I look back on with great fondness. I felt calm, never rushed, and blissful—which is exactly what I hope for anyone to feel at the start of a thru-hike.
Time to Adapt
Old Lady enjoying a desert sunset.
I credit my shorter days and long night’s sleep at the beginning of the trail as a main reason my body transitioned so well. In my first month, I was regularly getting 8-10 hours of sleep. Going slow and taking long evenings gave my feet (arguably the most important body part on a thru-hike) plenty of time to adapt.
Unless you have thru-hiked recently or very regularly backpack, your feet will be the least conditioned part of your body. Overuse injuries, blisters, and infection can happen quickly and derail a hike or, at the very least, make it incredibly uncomfortable.
The impact of hiking with the weight of a pack is more than people realize. Allow yourself extra time in the beginning to provide your feet proper rest and to be sure your sock/ shoe system is working (I swear by the Injinji liner & Darn Tough sock combo).
Being humble and mindful in the beginning, no matter your level of training, allows for you to dial in your systems and body with relatively low stakes compared to later on in your journey.
It was not until late April that I ticked my first 30 mile day, shortly before Kennedy Meadows South. By waiting, I felt completely ready to do so, and it happened almost accidently. My body and feet were well conditioned, my systems were dialed, and I understood my water needs.
Ahead of ‘The Bubble’ and Wildfires
Bubbles hiking under a full rainbow after an 18 mile bout with quite the rainstorm.
By starting early, there will also be fewer people on trail. You’ll still meet many wonderful hikers. But you’ll also have more solitude and the pick of the best camp spots with little to no company (unless wanted!). I was able to stay ahead of ‘the bubble’ for the majority of trail and virtually never got boxed out of a desired pitch.
The head start also puts you in a better position to be in front of wildfire season. While we can never predict when or if fires will disrupt a thru-hike, planning for a longer hiking window gives you the flexibility and possibility to return to miles that may become unexpectedly restricted due to fires.
May 5th: Summiting Mt. Whitney, arguably the most popular side-hike on the PCT.
You will be equipped with nearly everything you need for almost any adventure — take advantage of your freedom and strength! Add on mini expeditions, peak bagging, an extra town day, or meeting up with family/ friends along the way. Refresh with post-lunch naps. Swim in all the lakes. Explore tempting side trails like The Wonderland Trail in Washington. Some people even tack on other fun adventures, like a day at Six Flags or road tripping to the Grand Canyon. Take the extra time to awe at the beautiful vistas, consider zeroing at a lake or any stunning spot to indulge in the moment.
In general, it’s extremely difficult to coordinate friends and family meeting you on trail and participating in your hike. I got to hike with my dad for two days and I was so grateful to be able to share just a tiny slice of my journey with him. He really got a taste for thru-hiking (literally, he drank decomposing squirrel-tea from a water source in the desert and earned the trail name 'Squirrel Breath’).
Even At The End: Go. Slow.
The simplicity, joy, comradery, and drive you experience near the end of a thru-hike is unrivaled. Your body will be so well conditioned you won't blink at the thought of multi-marathon days.
In Washington, while you will likely be capable of flying through it, savor the trail. In my opinion, it was the most beautiful state of the PCT. You will feel pressure from others around you moving quickly. But remind yourself, most of us only get to be in this place once. You’ve worked so hard to get here. Savor every step of it.
At the end, whether from sheer exhaustion or as a rebuttal to the inevitable re-entry, drag your feet and ground yourself in gratitude for the accomplishments of: your mind and body, the beauty around you, and the people you have met along the way.
‘Milking It’ Trade-Offs
A highlight of the entire trail was immersing myself in the harsh yet beautiful snow-covered glory of the High Sierras in May.
If you’re going to milk your time, you’ll see a greater variety of landscapes and conditions. Do your research, be aware of what you’ll be trekking into, and prepare appropriately — mentally, with functional gear, and the needed safety skill sets. Make informed decisions centered on your own comfort and skill level, knowing when to stop, and also when to indulge in a little suffering (you’ll remember these moments the most).
Hike Your Own Hike
Living life to the fullest with my tramily!
Your experience will be incendiary to your soul. If at all conceivable, barter with yourself and your job to step away from the default world a little longer. You will have spent so much time, energy, and capital throughout your planning process. Trail is your time to be completely selfish. Remember your ‘why’ and get the most out of your experience in whatever way that means for you. I wish you happy (slow) trails.
Continue Hiking with Moonbeam: @bucketsofmoonbeams