Preparing yourself to live for weeks in the dirt without most modern comforts—for maybe the first time in your life—is certainly a daunting task. It’s one of the major draws and most relevant challenges of long-distance hiking. And it’s largely what led me to try my hand at a 455-mile northbound (NOBO) section hike along the Pacific Crest Trail this past summer.
For my first attempt at thru-hiking, I set out to cross the entire state of Oregon by myself. Fifteen days and 260 miles later, wildfires forced an end to my trip. But the lessons learned and experiences experienced during those two weeks alone on the trail will live with me for the rest of my life.
Before setting out, I couldn't have known what I was in for. Sure, I’ve spent a few days in the mountains. I’ve even called a tent on an island home for the weekend. But living for weeks in the woods is simply a different animal.
So, being a virgin rambler, I spent day and night, weekdays and weekends, nose in the many guidebooks and hiking blogs, shaping what I wanted my first section hike experience to be. And in the end, I overplanned.
A detailed day-by-day plan was my first mistake. Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing, as it gave my friends and family an idea of where I intended to camp each night—and me a better understanding of the trail—but after the first few days on trail I almost exclusively used Guthook for daily planning and even navigation.
"Experience taught me to take it slow and enjoy myself, and that the best days on trail are spent with a dead phone, no music, podcast, or audio book, totally disconnected."
Guthook is a smartphone app which provides a GPS-oriented map and trail guide, usable even without cell service. Being on trail I found that things change constantly, and Guthook makes it easy to get up-to-date feedback from fellow hikers about important things like dried-up springs, hidden water caches, even how to get rides into town. With that being said, I’m certainly glad I brought paper maps as well, because as we all know, all technology eventually fails.
As I continued to plan, it quickly became apparent that no matter what you choose to read or watch in preparation for your trip, there’s a consensus that footwear is king in long distance hiking. And I agree, as ill fitting shoes nearly took me off trail, even forcing me to hitchhike with a couple mairjuana farmers to REI for some new boots. While there’s endless opinions on what shoe is best, the blogs are unwavering in strongly advising all long distance hikers take great time and care to ensure their footwear fits well, even with insoles, swollen feet, or wool socks. Going for a few small hikes under full pack weight with prospective on-trail footwear ahead of your real hike may be one of the most critical pieces to planning a long distance section hike.
Now, if footwear is king, then a well-fitting pack must be second-in-line for the throne. Take the time to fit your pack to your body. You’ll save time and your back while on trail. As for the pack itself, I personally scraped by with a 1970’s external frame pack off Ebay, but I can’t say I’d recommend it. A newer internal frame is probably better for many reasons. However, I’d simply advise to focus on pack fit, and make modifications to customize the pack to your needs and budget.
While on trail, my main teacher was experience. I had to learn the value in asking passing hikers for advice on what lies ahead, and a few days on trail made me realize that everyone is interested in hearing your story: day hikers, RV campers, store employees–everyone. So stop and talk, you’ll be glad you did. Experience taught me to take it slow and enjoy myself, and that the best days on trail are spent with a dead phone, no music, podcast, or audio book, totally disconnected. During these days I found a flow state of walking meditation. I became a friend of the sun, fused with the trees.
"A few days on trail made me realize that everyone is interested in hearing your story: day hikers, RV campers, store employees–everyone."
Trying for thirty-mile days taught me that twenty miles is more than enough, and much more enjoyable too. And, when I almost literally and unknowingly walked straight into a blossoming wildfire, I learned the importance of recruiting trustworthy friends or family to be your eyes and ears off-trail. Oh, and when that fire abruptly forced me off the trail, I learned the value of investing in a reliable satellite phone.
At “trail towns”, or resupply points, I had to learn to take advantage of the showers, to even pay for two, and that it’s okay to splurge on a meal if it means a boost in morale. I realized that more experienced hikers are often overflowing with knowledge, and are eager to give advice in exchange for a cold beer. Experience knows best of subjects like when and why you should pop that heel blister or drop your stove and cold soak your food to save weight.
By my third resupply I learned that communal hiker boxes—containers located in trail towns to house donated items specifically left for undersupplied or just generally hungry hikers—are many times filled with a bounty of food and supplies, ripe for the taking. I picked up a harmonica myself. Certainly an item of luxury, but everyone knows that any true rambler needs a harmonica. A moral booster to be sure.
In sum, my first section hike taught me that when it comes to long distance hiking, there is no better way to learn than through experience, and that sometimes it’s best to just surrender to adventure because when you're out there, there's really nowhere to go but everywhere.
10 Items to Bring on Your First PCT Section Hike
Electrolyte Tablets and Vitamin C: Gotta keep that immune system running strong.
A Solar Panel: Not Ultra Light Hiker approved, but great for hanging off your pack while you walk to let the sun charge your devices.
Dry Bags for Foodand Electronics: An essential for rainy days, river crossings, or just to keep things organized.
A Microfiber Towel: An essential tool for wiping dirt from your face, feet, and gear.
Camp Shoes/Sandals: Certainly an optional item, but I think the comfort they bring is far worth the weight.
Moleskin/Foot Care Kit: Foot care is imperative while on trail. Bring more than you think you need.
Insoles: Happy feet = happy hiker.
A Notebook: To write yourself reminders, jot coordinates, or simply journal stories from the trail.
Lightweight Water Container: For those dry stretches when your Smartwater bottle isn't enough.
Backup Water Filter: Water filters can clog, be lost, or simply just fail. A backup is worth its weight in gold.
"Sometimes it’s best to just surrender to adventure because when you're out there, there's really nowhere to go but everywhere."