Top 17 Colossal Misconceptions Made When Preparing to Hike the PCT

May 15, 2019 Joe No comments exist

The Pacific Crest Trail or the PCT is intimidating. Over 2,600 miles through three states up the west coast all by foot doesn’t seem like something for the faint of heart. What has been stopping you from preparing to hike the PCT?

There are so many misconceptions about the PCT. For example, only people in the best shape hike the PCT. These people have prepared for YEARS. PCT hikers have years and years of outdoor experience. These misconceptions are completely false. ANYONE can hike the PCT. You don’t have to be in great shape and you don’t have to spend years preparing. I decided to hike the PCT a few months before I got on trail and I did NO hiking to prepare for the trail. Check out the complimentary podcast episode on Zero to Travel! Play below or check out the dedicated page.

The Zero to Travel Podcast on preparing for and hiking the PCT

I made some mistakes when preparing to hike the PCT, but I figured out a lot along the way. I wrote this article to help you get over your fears so you can begin your dream hike. Hiking the PCT was one of the best experiences of my life. This article will help you avoid the misconceptions most people have when preparing for the PCT. You’ll be better prepared and ready to crush your through hike!

Thinking that the Trail isn’t for Everyone When Preparing to Hike the PCT

The PCT is for EVERYONE. That’s right everyone. When I hiked the PCT in 2018 I saw people of all ages, all fitness levels, and all experience levels. Don’t let your physical ability discourage you. Yes, it will be challenging at times, but there are few ways to prepare for the daily pounding of a through hike. Most people who decide to through hike enjoy hiking in some way, but hiking every day is a different experience. The best thing you can do is get out there. You can start by walking 10-15 miles a day or less! This is what everyone does. Don’t go crazy with training when preparing to hike the PCT.

There are shorter trails to practice for a full through hike. This will give you a better idea of what to bring and how much you eat and drink. The more hiking you do with a full pack, the better off you’ll be when you start your through hike. This will help you prepare to hike the PCT.

Don’t let the Instagram and Facebook hiking models discourage you. Most people average 20 miles a day and take their time. You have 13 hours of daylight so an easy pace of 2 mph will make a good day. Age and ability do not matter because you can hike at your own pace. The biggest factor when deciding to through hike is time. You will need at least 3-5 months. It is a huge time commitment, but one that is well worth it. If you don’t have the time, consider section hiking.

Disregarding the Mental Aspect of Hiking When Preparing to Hike the PCT

Most people say on trail that the hardest part about hiking is the mental side. The physical ailments are one thing, but walking every day for 5 months straight is a lot for your mind. You will get bored. Not every part of nature is incredible. There will be times it will feel like a slog. You have to prepare yourself for this by reminding yourself why you decided to hike. Are you hiking for the social aspect or do you want to crush miles? Keep your why in mind on those tough days. The northern terminus is going to feel a long way off when you’re slogging up a huge climb in the desert. Focus on the everyday.

On tough days I would tell myself I only need to hike for another hour and then I can have a break. I only need to get to lunch. Before I knew it, I had put in 25 miles that day. Focus on the day to day and not the end goal. Every little bite you take out of 2,600 miles gets you closer to the end. Don’t overwhelm yourself with the sheer distance when preparing to hike the PCT.

The PCT is the Ultimate Solitude

When I got on the PCT, I didn’t expect to see anyone. I could not have been more wrong. My first day I camped with 20 plus people. If you’re trying to find solitude on trail it’s going to be very difficult. There are countless through hikers, section hikers, and day hikers. It’s common to pass at least 12-20 people per day. Popular campsites are often full. If your goal on the PCT is to be by yourself, I would think of a different adventure. A lot of people quit because they never find the solitude they’re looking for.

There are lesser known trails that will give you more solitude. I would encourage you to hike these trails to find the solitude you desire. Don’t expect solitude when preparing to hike the PCT.

Giving Tree and I

On the other hand, the community on trail is amazing. It’s so easy to connect with other through hikers because everyone has the same goal (get to Canada). Also, it’s easy to relate since everyone has similar ambitions. I found it easy to talk to other hikers and hang out. This is one of the best parts of the trail. You can make friends for life and even find a trail family (more on this later) to hike the whole trail with. I never expected to hike with anyone, but I ended up making an incredible friend who I hiked 1,200 miles with. Check out one of the coolest and most mature 21 year old’s I know on Insta @thedirtlessdirtbag.

Animals are a Huge Issue on Trail

So many people are worried about animals on trail especially bears. In reality, animals want to avoid you more than you want to avoid them. Most of my encounters with animals were fleeting; they ran off as soon as I approached. This doesn’t mean you don’t have to be careful. Watch your step in the desert and northern California because you will see a rattlesnake. You’ll likely see bears as well, but they tend to avoid you. Be sure to be safe with your food at night by either hanging it or keeping it in a smell proof bag (bear cans are required in the Sierras).

All the animal encounters I had were very mild. The most annoying thing on the PCT is the deer. They will bite up your trekking poles and steal things off your clothes if you leave them out. Mice can also be a slight issue in Washington if you leave your food out. I recommend the large Opsack. They aren’t the hardiest bags, but they’re cheap and they get the job done. Animals are one of the last things you have to worry about. Ditch the stress about animals when preparing to hike the PCT.

I Don’t know what Gear to Buy

This was intimidating for me. I had no idea what to buy. There’s so much out there, but the simpler the better. I ditched my stove because I found cold soaking to be just as good (more on this later). I only wore one shirt and shorts on trail, and shipped extra warm clothes for the Sierras. Darn Tough socks have a lifetime warranty (you can ship worn out pairs in for new ones) and Ex Officio underwear hold up in all conditions. A Merino Wool base layer is your best bet for staying dry and less smelly if you afford it.

I would recommend going as light as possible. This will make your hike easier and packing and unpacking far easier. The less stuff you have, the less weight on your body. This strategy is definitely not for everyone, but it will make it much more likely you complete your through hike. I highly recommend my friend “Hard Time’s” gear list. He has five years of through-hiking experience and has nailed down an incredible packing list. He uses a 40-degree bag, but I would recommend a 20-degree Enlightened Equipment bag. Get the right gear so preparing to hike the PCT is easy.

I Don’t Know What Gear Will Work When Preparing to Hike the PCT

Gear is very subjective. Your best bet is to test it on day hikes or weekend trips. Your feet will swell on the PCT, so testing shoes with a full pack is a great way to see what works for you. Keep in mind that your shoe size will increase on your through hike, so be prepared to buy a size up later down the trail. Everyone uses trail runners on the PCT since the terrain is mild.

I could talk about gear all day, but that’s an article in itself. If you’re really interested in going down the gear rabbit hole please email me. Everyone’s situation is different and some people like more comfort than others and that’s fine. Find gear that fits your hiking style. If you want to go faster, a lighter weight pack will help a lot. A lighter pack help when preparing to hike the PCT.

I Don’t Have Enough Money to Afford a Through Hike

A through hike can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. After buying all your gear you can spend very little on trail. After all, you’ll be sleeping outside for free every night. I had a friend who hiked the trail for under $500. His trail name was “Cheap”, but he hiked the way he wanted to.

The most money you’re going to spend is in town. If you want to save money nero (do low miles as in less than 10) into town and nero out. This will save you the cost of lodging, many beers, and some meals. Do what you need to do in town and get back on trail. It’s very easy to eat well and have a few nice nights in town and spend $2,000 on the whole through hiking. Obviously, some will spend more, but avoiding too many town days will always save you money. Hiker boxes in town are great resources for free food especially in a town where people send a lot of packages. The hiker box will usually be at the local grocery store or hang out. Feel free to raid it!

Hiker trash burger

You do need some money to hike, but don’t let that limit you. People of all budgets have completed the PCT. Don’t let money stop you from preparing to hike the PCT.

I Don’t Know What to Expect on Trail

People are afraid of the unknown. Rightfully so. We are afraid of what lies ahead. Everything on the PCT is new. You never know who or what you’ll see around the corner. This is part of the intrigue, but it is also very intimidating. Luckily there is technology to help. If you’re really worried about being stranded in the middle of nowhere buy a spot. People will always know where you are and you can SOS at any time. It’s good piece of mind and helpful for any novice.

The most important thing you can do before hiking the PCT is to download the app Guthook. It is your ultimate guide to the trail. It will tell you where water sources are, good camping, stream crossings, difficult sections, and general warnings. The GPS function works on airplane mode making it impossible to get lost. People comment on water sources and campsites, so you always know what’s coming up. You can also see the upcoming elevation gain and loss allowing you to better plan your day. I highly recommend this app. It will make preparing to hike the PCT so much easier.

If you don’t want to spend money on buying an app, the Half Mile app is free and it will tell you how far out you are from the next checkpoint and if you’re off trail. You won’t know the quality of water sources or camping spots, however. I recommend supplementing with the free PCTA water report. Technology makes the trail much easier. Make sure you use it if you want to! Maps are a thing of the past.

I Have no Idea When to Start

Starting the PCT at the Southern Terminus requires a permit, so it requires a bit of planning. The best start dates are mid to late April. This gives you enough time to make it to the Sierras after the snow melts, but you should get through Washington before the snow gets bad. You have to get a permit through the PCTA, and you should since its free. Only 50 people can start a day, but this isn’t monitored. Yet, I would encourage you to get your permit on the date you actually start since it puts a lot of stress on the trail. You can apply for a permit as early as November for the next year.

If you want to start on another date other than your start date it will be very hard for trail angels to accommodate you. You’ll need a ride to the trail and a place to stay before heading out. Trail angels have a limited capacity to handle an influx of people. Please be considerate.

A fire permit is also required if you have a stove, but everything is on the permit site. If you have no experience through hiking, sometime in April is a great time to start. If you’re fast you may want to consider starting later to avoid having to wait out snow melt. You can always take a bit of time off if you’re too fast getting to Kennedy Meadows and the start of the Sierras. Don’t let start time limit you when preparing to hike the PCT.

Preparing to the Hike PCT: I’m going to Run Out of Water on Trail

So many people are worried about getting through the desert and running out of water. As a result, most hikers load up on too much water. This isn’t a bad thing, but having too much weight in your pack doesn’t help. With the development of the trail, you won’t walk more than 20 miles without water. Trail angels (more on these guys later) will replace water caches in dry areas quite frequently. You still should not rely on these caches, but Guthook and the water report accurately report the amount that’s left. If you’re very conservative with your water carries you wouldn’t need more than 4 liters for 20 miles (that’s 1 liter per 5 miles or about 2 hours).

As long as you plan out your water carries in advance and know when the next good water source is, you’ll be fine (use Guthook or the water report). I also recommend cameling at water sources. This involves drinking a liter or two so you’ll feel good in dry stretches while needing less water. Obviously, there are many factors that will determine how much you drink on trail, so carry what you need. It’s always better to have a little more just in case. Heat, speed, personal body fitness, and exposure make a big difference. Running out of water can be scary, but don’t let it stop you from preparing to hike the PCT.

The Heat is going to Kill Me

Another “hot” tip is to take siestas during the hottest parts of the day. I didn’t do this at first and it made my hike miserable. Take a break at the 12-3 hour at a water source. An added bonus is there will likely be other hikers hanging out to chat with. You can extend these breaks or lessen them depending on your style and the temperature.

The water filter I recommend and the one most people use is the Sawyer Squeeze. It screws right onto a Smart Water Bottle (lightweight yet strong). I recommend bringing a 1.5L Smart Water Bottle along with another 1 L Smart Water Bottle. Another 2-3 L bladder will round off your water capacity at the start of the trail.

Preparing to Hike the PCT: I’m Going to Starve on Trail

I was worried about having enough food while out in the middle of nowhere. As a result, I always carried way too much. It took me a long time to get the hang of how much I ate on trail. In the beginning I ate far less, but as my body began to adapt to the trail I developed a much larger hunger. The biggest mistake people make with food carries are not accounting for town days. You can fuel up in town and not eat anything for most of the day. As a result, you will eat far less on your first day out of town.

Estimate how many miles you are going to do each day (it’s typically about 15 miles for someone new) and divide that by the number of miles to the next resupply. For instance, if it’s 100 miles to the next town that will be about a 6 and a half day food carry at 15 miles a day. That’s about 12 meals ignoring the first half day where you’ll be fueled up by town and breakfast (bars).

Most people eat about 5 bars a day so bring about 30 bars. For me, a meal was a ramen packet with a packet of spam with chips and a tortilla. I usually ate a few bars or a Pop Tart for breakfast. My food was never the healthiest, but I found that it got me where I needed to go. I also made sure I ate as many vegetables in town along with a fat burger to make up for missing nutrition. I have 5 years of coaching endurance athletes how to eat better. Schedule a free 30-minute call or check out my nutrition coaching page for the help you need.

Preparing to Hike the PCT: I Don’t Know How to Cook on Trail

Cooking is overrated. Cold soaking is the easiest way to get quick food in while hiking. It’s not for everyone, but I think hot food is overrated. Bring ramen, Idahoan instant potatoes, couscous, and oatmeal and soak it for an hour before eating in a Talenti Gelato jar (hardy and awesome). It’s so much easier and you don’t need fuel or a stove. My favorite meal on trail was Idahoan potatoes wrapped in a burrito with spam or tuna topped with chips. Frozen burritos can be carried out of town and will defrost by the time you’re ready to eat them. Food preferences differ from person to person so please email me with more specific questions. Food on trail is its own separate post.

Some people prepare all their resupplies before starting, but this is way too much effort. If you’re experienced and know your daily mileage this can be helpful, but for a newbie, you can resupply in most towns. I only shipped 6 packages and I always did it from the previous town. It’s much easier to do it this way because you’ll have a much better idea of how much you’re going to eat. You can also use free hiker box food which is plentiful.

I’ll be Out There All Alone with No Support

So many people are worried about getting stuck in a bad situation with no food or an injury. Three or four bad decisions can put in you in a bad or even a life threating situation. Yet, as long as you’re careful the chances are low. There are so many people out there that there will be very few times where this isn’t someone around to help you. There are trail angels in every town who will pick you up from the trailhead (their numbers are listed there or on Guthook) or even give you a place to stay.

Trail angels are incredible. They will feed you a hot meal on the side of the trail or give you a ride to town. Always offer a tip to trail angels so they can keep feeding hikers. When hitching into town (not dangerous at all) always offer money for gas.

Other through hikers constantly look out for each other. I’ve seen hikers go back to look for their friends or offer food and water to someone who was running out. The community on the PCT is one of the best parts. It’s incredible to be surrounded by so many like-minded people that are looking out for each other.

Locals and Other Hikers will Hate Me When Preparing to Hike the PCT

People are so supportive on and off trails. Trail families are a huge part of the PCT. Most people find a group that hikes at the same pace as them and who they get along with. This becomes an incredible resource on trail as you can better plan resupplies, share lodging in town, and generally feel safer. They aren’t for everyone, but be aware that you will likely end up surrounded by people like you by the end of the trail. Don’t let this stop you preparing to hike the PCT.

In town, be respectful of the locals, and they will be respectful of you. They open their town to hikers and do everything possible to make us feel at home. Don’t stack 6 people in hotel rooms or walk around intoxicated. Respect the rules of places where you stay especially churches where profanity, drinking, and smoking are banned. These places continue to exist because hikers treat them respectfully. Be a good trail ambassador on trail and in town. Set an example for others by being respectful which allows towns to remain friendly to other hikers.

The Day to Day Life on Trail will be Impossible and Unpredictable.

So many people are afraid of the unknown, but the PCT can be quite predictable. You have very simple needs. You need to walk, eat, drink, and sleep. The freedom and simplicity are intoxicating. Guthook will tell you when you can expect water, food, or a good place to sleep. You’ll know the climbs coming up, and any dangerous areas. The best part about the PCT is having the ultimate freedom to sleep when you want, eat when you’re hungry, and walk as much as you feel like. The people you meet will want to help you and you’ll be amazed by their generosity. Nature will throw you surprises around every corner. The trail is unpredictably predictable.

As long as you follow the leave no trace (LNT) principles the trail will remain beautiful for everyone. Make it like you were never there and be sure to bag all your used toilet paper (it’s not as gross as it sounds). Dig cat holes for your excrements and use this lightweight trowel, an awesome piece of gear. We should always strive to leave the trail the way we found it.

Be sure to elevate your feet while you rest to avoid inflammation. Take care of your feet by covering your blisters with tape and resting them when you need to. Avoid injury by listening to your body and resting when you need to. You’ll make the trail much more predictable by resting when your body needs it and doing miles that put less stress on your body. Do this until you find your “hiker legs.”

Hike Your Hike

This by far the biggest mistake people make. They try to follow what others are doing. They push themselves too hard to keep up with friends, or they feel bad about carrying too much. I’ve met people with base weights (no food or water) as little as 6 lbs. to those that had 25+ lbs. Both people were very happy with their style of hiking. The people with bigger packs took their time while enjoying breaks to read and relax. They hung out in camp with friends and enjoyed towns. Ultralight hikers sped through the trail, but still observed the beauty.

There is no right or wrong way to do it. There may be better ways for your style, but never let someone tell you what to do. Hike your hike. You will enjoy the trail so much more. If you find people you like, hang out with them. If you want to hike alone go ahead and hike alone. Do what feels right for you. Carry the right amount of gear for your comfort level. Enjoy your hike in the way you want to.

Get out on the PCT

Through hiking the PCT was one of the best things I’ve ever done. The trail was otherworldly and incredibly beautiful. Most days are still fresh in my mind. I loved the freedom and community I experienced on the trail. I highly encourage you to hike the PCT even if you can only do a section. Don’t go crazy planning; you’ll figure out a lot along the way.

The trail won’t always be easy, but I guarantee it will be a once in a lifetime experience. I hope this article can help you avoid the misconceptions most people make when preparing to hike the PCT. Most worries are unfounded and I would encourage you to ditch them and get out there. It’s going to be one of the best experiences of your life.

I want to thank my friend “Hard Time” for his contributions to this article. Check out his website and his Insta @beardsworld. Need help with nutrition on trail? Schedule a free 30-minute call or check out my nutrition coaching page. Don’t forget to check out the complimentary podcast episode on Zero to Travel! Play below or check out the dedicated page.

The Zero to Travel Podcast on preparing for and hiking the PCT

Have you ever thought about hiking the PCT? Do you have experience through hiking? Are there any tips you want to share? Let me know in the comments!

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