The most difficult thing about through-hiking the PCT is making the decision to attempt it. The idea of a 2650-mile continuous hike sounds like such a daunting expedition that many people assume it is only for the super-fit and young. 20-30% of through-hikers give up in the first week. Many of them are ill-prepared ordinary hikers and a good number succumb to injury.
How long do you need for a through-hike?
The length of time you need will obviously depend on how many miles you hike each day and how many zero (rest) days you take. If you average 15 miles per day, you should complete the trail in 176 days. Upping your daily mileage by two miles will bring the number of days needed to reach Canada down to 154. Averaging 20 miles per day would take you 132 days and if hitting 25 miles per day, you should be able to cover the entire distance in 106 days.
It is possible to hike the PCT without a plan but you are more likely to succeed if you have a strategy to complete it and a detailed plan to fall back on in times of difficulty. The main benefits of a detailed schedule are that it will help you organize your food supplies and it will ensure that you neither reach the High Sierra too soon, nor Washington too late.
Zero day is the term used on the trail for a rest day. Simply, you cover zero trail miles that day. Avoiding too many zero days is key to a low daily mileage hike.
Only a few hikers attempt to through-hike from north to south each year. In an average snow year the PCT in Washington won’t be free of snow until late June, even later in a high snow year. If you are considering hiking south, therefore, you should consider starting about July 1 so that you finish by the end of November.
The first week
It is estimated that 20-30% of through-hikers give up in the first week. How can you avoid becoming one of them? When you stand on the Mexican border it’s no good thinking about the 2650 miles that lie ahead, it’s much too great a distance to contemplate. Instead, focus on the things that you can achieve in the first week on the trail.
The rule of 11 and 13
You can expect to spend 11 hours in camp: an hour in the morning, two hours at night and eight hours asleep. This leaves 13 hours for hiking and resting during the day. If you are going to be hiking for eight hours, that leaves five hours of breaks to scatter through the day. If you spend more than 11 hours in camp you probably aren’t making the best use of the day.
Supplies along the trail
How you organize your supplies will vary depending on your personal circumstances, but you need to carefully plan in advance what you are going to do. Poor organization of supplies is a major cause of hikers failing on the PCT.
A lucky few hikers have a supporter who will meet them at road crossings with supplies. An increasing number are re-supplying completely from stores on or near the trail. Be aware, however, that the selection of food may be limited, as the main business of such stores is supplying snacks to tourists traveling through in cars.
Other hikers organize their supplies in advance for the whole route and have a friend or relative post them out a couple of weeks before they are needed. You could call your helper to ask them to add anything you are missing or to send replacement equipment. This system is only really feasible if your helper lives in the US, as sending packages with food into the country is fraught with US customs difficulties.
Training for the PCT
How do you get fit for the PCT? The only effective way to train for hiking with a heavy pack is to hike with a heavy pack. Work in the gym, running or cycling might give you the idea that you are getting fit but, when you start hiking with a pack, you will find that you use different muscles. You will have gained cardio-vascular fitness, but that won’t stop you getting blisters or repetitive strain injuries. You can manage the PCT without any training – I certainly did – but you must be aware of your lack of fitness while planning the early stages of your hike.
All the official information will tell you to treat all water you find in the wilderness and recommend that you carry a water filter. If you are going to carry a water filter make sure it will be effective against giardiasis, a diarrheal infection caused by an organism called giardia lamblia. Some cheaper filters do little more than make the water look clean and won’t filter out the micro-organisms that can make you ill.