Sunday, January 4, 2015

Review of what I did to prepare for the PCT: physical and mental prep and skills

This is the time of year when many of the 2015 hikers are preparing for their long-distance hikes.  Last year, I had a tough time prioritizing my preparations for the PCT.  It was my first long-distance hike, and I was trying to figure out what I needed to do to transition from a weekend backpacker to long-distance hiker.  So much is written about gear and resupply, and I remember I found less information on physical and mental preparations, learning skills, and how to get help.

Here,  I describe what I did to get ready physically and mentally, and how I learned skills, what worked for me, and what I’d do different.
Feeling overwhelmed on a PCT training hike.
Other people did significantly less planning than me and were equally happy with their choice.  It really depends on the type of person you are- I am a Planner.  This article is intended for other planners as well- if that’s not you but you already have significant backpacking experience then don’t worry you’ll be fine when you get out there.

1. Physical preparations

What I did before the PCT:
My goal was to get in the “best shape of my life” before I set out on the PCT.  I’d already built up my fitness by hiking every weekend for about four years, increasing my mileage over that time.  I began more serious physical prep about 6 months prior to the hike.  During the week, I woke up every morning at 5 AM, and I carried my weight-filled backpack around the neighborhood (or local trails) for 1.5 to 3 hours.
Tire chains simulated the weight of extra food in my pack for training hikes.
I also went on weekend trips so I’d know I’d be comfortable doing back to back 20 mile days and 3,000 foot climbs.  Finally I cross trained by practicing aerial dance which strengthens my core and muscles in different ways.  Two weeks before my hike, I tapered my activity to avoid injury and give my body some rest.

What worked:
Hauling my pack around in the dark, cold and rain turned out to be excellent mental training.  My training gave me excellent cardio and leg/back strength.

What I’d do different:
Focus more on training with a heavy pack.  Since I got into lightweight backpacking and only did weekend trips in the southeast, I wasn’t used to the weight of five days of food or carrying more than a liter or two of water.  Even though I did I calculate how heavy my pack would be that first day on the PCT (base weight + food + 6 L water), I only slowly built up to carrying more weight, and I never got to that full amount. 

I’ve wondered if I should have strengthened my feet more, but that problem didn’t manifest until 800 miles into my hike, so I doubt any more training would have prevented the stress fracture.

2. Learning skills

What I did before the PCT:
I wrote out a list of skills I though I would need for the PCT, and developed a plan to learn each of them in turn.  Because most of my backpacking had been in the southeast, the skills had to do with  the conditions I’d encounter on the PCT: snow skills including self arrest with an ice ax, hiking in the desert including carrying lots of water, and packing and carrying a bear canister with 6 days food.  I took a snow skills course with Stacy Boone of Step Outdoors, (read more about that here).  Stacy also included other key topics in the course including foot care, menu planning, and navigation.  Renee “Pathfinder” and I went on a trip to Arizona and Texas (including Guadalupe Mountain) where we practiced long water carries.  We also did a practice trip with our bear canisters.
Practicing self-arrest with an ice ax.  Photo by Stacy.
What worked:
I was so glad I took the time to learn these skills before going on the PCT.  Other people learn as they go, but I am the type of person that feels more safe and have a better time if I know I have the skills and training before I am in a situation.

The snow skills course with Stacy especially provided me with the skills and confidence to enter the High Sierra early, and see the beauty of the snow and experience the satisfaction and thrill of snow traverses.  I was so glad I had experience making kick steps, knew basics of how to read the snow from taking an avalanche awareness course, had discussed safety and decision making, and that I’d developed mental strategies to get over the passes.  Taking this snow course made my experience on the PCT much better (and safer), and Stacy is a positively awesome teacher.

I had a blast doing all my training courses and trips too.  I loved having an excuse to go on our Southwest tour, and I really enjoyed finding new skills to try, and having trips with a goal and purpose made them more challenging in a fun way.  It was also good mental preparation in pushing myself (like on my trip to Canyonlands) and in troubleshooting.  On the PCT, everything constantly changes, and it isn’t the specific skills that were needed so much as a generally being able to cope with being uncomfortable and being adaptable and flexible.

What I’d do different:
In retrospect, I might have learned enough of what I needed to know from more experienced hikers that I met and hiked with on the PCT, and from trial and error.  I hadn’t anticipated that I would find so many experienced backpackers out there who always seemed to show up just at the right time, and were happy to share their knowledge and were also very patient.  For example, MeToo taught me a lot about strategies to do the long water carries in the desert and how to plan for and find water.
In SoCal, MeToo describes a plan for the detour and where we will get water.
Matt "DoubleTap" Parker, who had experience in the Sierra, informally led a group of us over Forester Pass (highest point on the PCT).  He was a wealth of information and I know made it much safer for all of us.
DoubleTap gave a group of us help and encouragement over the snow.
Also, I was really fortunate to hike through the Sierra with Arizona who stuck with me especially through the descents down the passes.  In retrospect, I had no way of knowing I’d meet all these incredible people and I think I ended up being better prepared to learn from them because I had some background knowledge to build upon.  So, I wouldn’t have done any less preparation knowing what I know now.
I still felt scared coming down Glen Pass, but I knew what I needed to do to keep going.
3. Enlisting the help of support people and mentors
What I did before the PCT:
I talked with my resupply people (Still Waters and my parents) about expectations on how to communicate while I was on the trail and what it would be like to meet me on the trail.  I talked to them about how I'd be using my SPOT messenger.  I organized and labeled my gear and made up spreadsheets on how to send me resupply boxes and gave them a rough idea of how my timeline worked (more on that here). 

I also enlisted the help of support people.  I made up lists for them of phone numbers and other important information, and put this and my itinerary on a google doc.  I arranged for my friend Brenda to store my car in her garage, and Susan stored my other belongings.  Kellye and Janet took in my mail, and did things like make sure my car registration got renewed. 

I (informally) enlisted a handful of experienced backpacker to act as my mentors, and I identified specialized people to answer particular questions.  It was sort of like how when I was a PhD student, I choose committee members that I respected, looked up to, and trusted to help me in different areas.  For example, my friend JJ (and fellow Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador) helped me with my gear and even subcontracted out to get the help of her friend Amanda to answer questions she didn’t know about the Sierra and desert.  Through Hammock Forums, I found Jim (PITA) who answered my countless email questions about bring a hammock on the PCT and about maps (more on that here).  I found other mentors to help me with food/ resupply planning, electronics, and my physical prep.

What worked:
All my support people were AWESOME!  I had no trouble with resupply boxes or logistics.  My resupply people seemed to enjoy being part of my journey too.

I was so glad I had mentors!  They were helpful because they knew my background and personality, and they were people that I looked up to so I valued their advice and perspective.  When I had the stress fracture or ran into trouble on the trail, they provided incredible support as well.  I got a lot of information about the PCT from blogs, Yogi’s book, facebook, and other websites, but my mentors could help me sort through the information and help me decide what would work for me.  They also helped me realize that I knew way more than I gave myself credit for, and the quality of their knowledge and advice was much higher than any other source.

What I’d do different:
I wish I could figure out how to show the people that helped me out just how much their support meant to me and how wonderful they are.  I cannot thank them enough and should figure out some way to repay them but I have no idea how I could possibly do this.

4. Mental preparation

What I did before the PCT:
I defined my goals and reasons for doing a long distance hike.  I wrote about this in my blog here.  I also read and reflected on my values and put my personal philosophy into words both on this blog and in writings that I will probably never publish.

I got a lot of experience being physically uncomfortable, which turned out to be good mental preparation.  I did trips where I was cold, wet, tired, and sore (like this one).
Getting experience being cold and wet, and still maintaining my positive outlook.
What worked:
I was glad I established my goals and examined my reasons for doing a long distance hike before I got on the trail.  Developing a regular writing practice put me in touch with my priorities.  When I was on the trail, I never wavered in knowing that I was on the right course for me.  My heart was always in it and I could maintain that awareness and appreciation.  There wasn't anywhere I’d rather be than in the trail.

It was great that I never had any expectation that I would be comfortable on the trail.  I already knew that wasn’t what backpacking is about, so that allowed me to maintain my positive outlook during my hike.

What I’d do different:
I wasn't mentally prepared for my injury that would take me off trail- I think that's why I kept hiking on the injury for 100 miles.  I knew how to hike with physical pain but I wasn’t prepared for getting off the trail and I wasn’t prepared for “failure” in not completing a thru hike.  It took me much longer to heal from the stress fracture mentally and to come to terms with my injury.  However, I don't know how I would have prepared for this.
Nothing had prepared me for the mental pain of having to get off the trail due to my injury.
In the end, I learned valuable lessons from my stress fracture, and when I got back on the trail and hiked another 550 miles, I learned so much about life and hiking, and when I look back on the whole thing, I wouldn't change my experience for anything else.

I also could have done more to ask other hikers about their backpacking philosophies and how those influenced their hike, and how they changed over the course of their thrus.  On the other hand, during my hike I was able to ask this of many of the hikers I met, and I feel like I have developed a better understanding through those personal interactions than I ever could have any other way.

I really enjoyed preparing for my trip on the PCT.  I learned nearly as much before my hike as while I was on it.  Having the goal of hiking the PCT allowed me to work harder on many things I’d been wanting to do for a while, and was time very well spent.

If you want to read more about my preparations for the PCT, check out my PCT 2014 page where I have all the links to my posts about "Before the hike."

Good luck to the Class of 2015, and remember to enjoy the time before you hit the trail- it can be a wonderful and fulfilling time in its own right!


  1. Great post. Just curious how did you get the stress fracture? One would think that after 1100 miles or so, you would be in good shape. Did you increase your mileage a lot after the Sierra's. I have had one from running too much and it does take a long time to heal. I'm planning a PCT 2015 hike. Thanks for all the info.

    1. I never have figured out the exact cause of my stress fracture. I think it was a combination of things- I was doing a lot of postholing through the snow (that's when I felt it first), my pack weight had increased due to the bear canister, and I had switched shoes at Kennedy Meadows to one size larger to accommodate thicker socks which I didn't end up using but my feet ended up sliding around a lot in my shoes in the snow.

      Yes, they sure do take a long time to heal, as you know.

      Wonderful that you will be heading out for the PCT in 2015! How exciting and best of luck to you!

  2. Thank you -- you have been so generous in sharing your techniques, planning strategies, and thoughts about backpacking. It shows what a high-quality person you are, and for that, we are grateful.

    1. Glad it was helpful! Thanks for the feedback!

  3. Thank you for sharing your techniques, and insights. I have been learning a lot online from PCT bloggers and have appreciating information from everyone but lately have been focusing specifically on women because we do have unique issues. I learn so much information from everyone who has hiked the PCT and written about it because they have the experience I don't. That will help me in my future backpacking adventures.

    1. Thanks for letting me know this helped you out, Denise! That makes me happy because I learned so much from other backpackers when I was preparing, so glad it's going full circle. Enjoy the learning experiences and preparations--they are rewarding and fun in and of themselves!