3

I'm planning on hiking the PCT next summer (April 2020-August 2020). I have nearly eleven months to prepare, physically and mentally, and nearly eleven months to read up on the PCT.

I have a lot of backcountry experience, but no thru-hikes. Furthest I've gone is 20 miles in one day, 20 back out the next. Thus I have no experience in hiking long distances day after day after day for several months.

During the next eleven months, I'm planning on doing a lot of conditioning to get my strength and endurance up. I would appreciate suggestions on what to do to prepare physically and mentally for a long through-hike.

I know I also need to read up on the Trail itself and what equipment and foods to pack and how to resupply. When I have done some research on these topics, I will probably have some further questions for TGO.

  • 2
    Someone has flagged this as too broad. Can you possibly narrow the question a little? I assume PCT is the Pacific Crest Trail? – Aravona Jun 3 at 15:46
  • 3
    The triple crown is a lot to bite off for someone with a 40 mile weekend trip under their belt. There is plenty to read, but there is no reason to look to Wild or A Walk in the Woods for advice. – StrongBad Jun 3 at 16:45
  • Read various thru-hiker journals/blogs. Though she has now (at least temporarily) retired from thru-hikes, I'd say Wired has one of the best sites to get a feel for the various trails and how to plan for them. – topshot Jun 3 at 17:42
  • I edited your question to focus on physical strength and endurance and mental preparedness. If you do not think my edit reflects what you want (as a first step), feel free to roll back to your original version. After you have done some reading on the PCT you may want to ask a question(s) about other aspects of your hike. I agree that your draft of your question is too broad, because it asks us to advise you on everything about your hike. – ab2 Jun 3 at 22:54
  • 1
    @LorenPechtel read the original version and not the later edits. – StrongBad Jun 6 at 2:21
3

As a general rule, to develop strength and endurance in doing X, you need to do X. Thus, I suggest that (1) the OP continue to take two day hikes, with a heavier pack than he has in the past; (2) take three or four day hikes on long holiday weekends, of which he has seven between now and April (although he could be snowed out on several of them); and (3) take at least one one-week preparatory trip before next April, and preferably two one week trips or a two week trip.

The Pacific Crest Trail ranges in altitude from sea level to over 13,000 feet, so it would be good if the OP could take one of the preparatory trips at high altitude, to see how he does at high altitude. Depending on where he lives, this could be impractical, however.

Another way to build up endurance is to climb up stairs. In the Introduction to Doctor on Everest by Kenneth Kamler, MD, Kamler says of his training for his Everest climb:

.... every day I climbed up the forty flights to the top [of my building], took the elevator down, and repeated it ten times.

Kamler also swam and took frequent trips to the White Mountains as part of his training.

I'm not going to make suggestions about what to do in the gym, except to consider taking a few sessions with the best instructor you know of, and ask him/her to develop an exercise program for you.

A word of caution: Don't overdo! You need to take rest days, or easy days. Alternate aerobic work days with strength work days. You can't do the Kamler program for eleven months!

You mentioned mental preparation. Even magnificent scenery becomes boring if you have no other mental stimulation. You need books, or photography, or music, or a diary, or whatever suits you to keep mentally fresh. The two week hike, if you can take it, should tell you what you need. Another plan is to cut out all reading, and other mental recreation for a week -- i.e., your life is your job, chores around your apartment, exercise, and bed -- and find out what you really must take with you.

You don't need mental preparation for being alone, because you will meet other hikers. If you need mental preparation for the vastness of your surroundings, you will find this out on your preparatory hike.

  • 1
    No real need for altitude training if you are going northbound - the increase in altitude is gradual and you will acclimatise naturally. If you're going southbound the going is hard from the start, and it would be a good idea to spend 2-3 days acclimatising shortly before you hit the trail. – Tullochgorum Jun 7 at 14:09
1

GENERAL CONDITIONING

As @ap2 has said training is quite task-specific, so the priority for hiking hills with a heavy pack is to get out as much as possible and hike hills with a heavy pack. You want to incrementally increase your speed and the ground you cover - but listen to your body and don't push yourself to the point of injury. Failing that, climb stairs, but this is pretty boring so hit the hills if at all possible.

One way to enjoy the maximum training effect from your hiking is wind-sprints. A couple of times during the day, blast up an ascent as hard as you can for 20-30 secs till you reach your maximum safe heart rate. Then walk on slowly till you catch your breath. Repeat 2-6 times, working up gradually, as this is demanding. Only do this a couple of times a week or you'll overtrain.

A second tactic is bouts of pushing hard with your walking poles to tire your upper body and get some cross-training effect as you would on an elliptical ergo or Nordic ski-trainer.

In terms of general conditioning, a good deal depends on whether you are going northbound (NOBO) or southbound (SOBO). Going NOBO, the start is gentle and most hikers work up their mileage gradually as they find their hiking legs. Going SOBO you're in big hills from the start, and speed is vital if you're going to reach the Sierras before the autumn storms. So it's more important to be in hard condition and ideally, to have spent a couple of days acclimatising to altitude before you hit the terminus.

INJURY PREVENTION

The other physical priority is injury prevention. The issues that are most likely to knock you off the trail are feet, ankles, knees and hips. I'm not going to go into detail here, but there are a lot of good bodyweight progressions on YouTube that will help you injury-proof your power train. Focus on good form. One thing you might miss though - recent research suggests that the best way to protect your ankles is to work on your balance. Search for "sport balance training". You could also take up slacklining. For training your feet (much neglected) search for "Toe-ga exercises".

To harden yourself mentally, be sure to go out in bad weather as well as good. Get used to spending multiple days on the trail in cold, rain and snow. If this puts you off, you'll know that thru-hiking is probably not for you...

SKILL TRAINING

More generally, experienced hikers, Rangers and SAR experts are increasingly concerned about the number of PCT hikers who are woefully underprepared in terms of skills. The trail passes through big, remote mountains. Weather can be savage, and you mustn't underestimate what you're taking on. Hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

You say you have backcountry experience so this may not apply to you. Though if you've mostly been in the woods, you should be aware that life above the treeline involves some additional skills. As this is literally a question of life and death, I'll add a checklist for any hiking newbie who is contemplating any of the big trails.

It's vital that you become competent in:

  • Navigating in bad conditions with map and compass, as well as GPS.
  • Judging snow conditions and moving safely over steep, icy snow.
  • Crossing fast-flowing streams (this is a major cause of fatalities).
  • Staying warm while walking in wet-cold conditions.
  • Camping safely in cold, wet, wind and snow including cooking safely without burning yourself, your shelter or the surrounding forest.
  • Personal hygiene on the trail to avoid gastric infections.
  • Dealing with bears.
  • And of course, a deep understanding of low-impact, leave-no-trace principles, as there are too many PCT hikers who are damaging the trail.

You owe it to yourself, your family and to the SAR personnel to be as safe as possible on the trail. If you are a newbie contemplating one of the Triple Crown trails and don't have the commitment to master these skills before you go, perhaps you should be questioning your motivation.

Hope you find this helpful - and perhaps we'll meet on the trail!

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.