As I said in yesterday’s blog post, Zach and I had no backpacking experience before we tackled our 2,668-mile trail… but it turned out all right anyway. If you’re thinking of hiking a long-distance trail but you have no experience, there’s hope for you too! Here are seven things we did that really helped us prepare.
1. Read everything you can about backpacking. We read about safety and first aid, hiking techniques, snow-walking, making camp, leaving no trace, using a compass and maps, packing dehydrated food, digging a cat-hole, and so on. The PCTA website has a ton of great articles and resources. So does your local library. There is no excuse for anyone to go into the wilderness unprepared. In fact, let me tangent here for a second: It is not cool or romantic for someone to venture into the wilderness with no preparation. That person will be a danger to himself and will be a burden on other people (hikers who help him, Search and Rescue teams who have to mobilize to save some idiot who doesn’t take the wilderness seriously). The Internet is a wonderful resource that makes it so we don’t have to put ourselves and other people at unnecessary risk! (Okay, rant over.)
2. Walk. Go for 20-mile walks whenever possible, and try to walk 10 miles at least a few times a week. This will help strengthen all those muscles that you’re going to be taxing so heavily. Don’t worry if you don’t live in a place with good hiking trails— I’m from Missouri and only had access to tiny hills and a perfectly-flat bike trail. Your body will become stronger as you backpack; you just need to give it a good head start by being in good shape.
3. Research the specific trail you want to hike. This seems like a no-brainer, but it seems like a lot of people miss this. Don’t just read about backpacking in general— read about the PCT. It’s baffling how many people begin this trail and back out on day one because they didn’t realize it starts with 700 miles of desert! Also, specific trails might have specific requirements: for the PCT we had to apply for a thru-hiking permit, a California fire permit, and an entry into Canada permit.
4. Choose your gear carefully. Again, the Internet is your friend. (And the library. I highly, highly recommend “Lighten Up!” by Don Ladigan.) Everyone has different opinions about gear, so try to cross-reference gear reviews with your own personal preferences. For instance, it was very important to Zach and me that we had a comfortable bed, so we bought air pads, while most other people laid on Z-rest pads. The air pads were a pain to inflate every night, but they were super comfy! It’s even more helpful to talk to someone who’s done the trail. At REI, the little pamphlets about backpacks say that you need an 85+ liter backpack in order to do a long-distance hike. I got nervous about my 65-liter pack. An employee there who’d hiked the PCT assured me that would be fine. In fact, my pack was one of the largest ones I saw on trail. Which leads me to my next point…
5. Don’t use outdated information. On the PCT, it was easy to spot the weekend and short-distance hikers: they had heavy leather boots, heavy wool socks, and massive external-frame backpacks with miscellaneous items clanging on the sides. They often insisted on making fires every night, or sleeping on a cot, and bringing every item they could possibly use, “just in case.” They are casualties of outdated backpacking techniques. Read up (and talk to) people who have backpacked a lot in recent years. Study modern lightweight backpacking technique. The most experienced hikers are the ones with the smallest backpacks.
6. Invest in a good set of maps and a GPS track if possible. We obtained both of these for the PCT from Halfmile, who posts his maps and GPS tracks online for free. (He even hiked the trail this year, so the maps are going to become even more accurate!) These helped us out so much: they told us where the next water and camping were, what elevation we were at, and so on. Whenever we’d get confused at an intersection, we could check the map or GPS track and know exactly where we were going. More experienced hikers don’t necessarily need these aids, but for beginners, they were awesome!
7. Plan to hike your own hike. Only you can decide what kind of hike you want to have. Some people will meticulously chart every mile; others will skip around. You will feel insecure because other people say they’re going much further than you planned today, or they are stopping here and think you’re pushing yourself too hard. You will not have the perfect gear. You will have to readjust. Almost everyone on the PCT changed up their gear at some point. You’ll feel like everyone else has it together while you’re struggling to stay alive. Don’t let that get you down! In the end, if you hike the hike you set out to accomplish, you win. And it’s a pretty amazing feeling.