Physical Preparation


Just Because It's Graded for Pack Animals Doesn't Mean It's Easy

Don't judge a trail by its elevation profile. Too often we have seen someone compare the elevation profiles of the PCT with the AT and declare the PCT to be easy. Yes, the footpath has been designed with pack animals in mind and so the grade is much more reasonable than on the AT. The PCT never asks hikers to climb straight down a granite wall on a ladder of rebar, like the AT does, and there is nothing like the boulder scramble of the AT's Mahoosuc Notch.

 

That doesn't mean the PCT is a cake walk, however. While the climbs may not be steep, they can be very long. The trail might steadily gain elevation for seven miles or more. That's unheard of on the AT. At the same time, the PCT is consistently at much higher altitudes than the AT, almost always more than a mile above sea level. After a while PCT hikers begin to think of 5000 feet as low.  High altitudes, thin air, extreme temperatures, intense sun, and long steady uphill climbs make the PCT a hard trail. Preparing for the PCT requires recognition of this reality.


Should You Hit the Gym Before the Hike?

Yes

The PCT demands that you are strong and fit on day one. Northbound, there is no water source for the first 21 miles, so when you leave the southern terminus, you must be strong enough to carry water for 21 miles of hiking desert hiking.

 

You must also be able to hike those 21 miles (which includes a 1000-foot ascent) in at least two days. The longer it takes you to reach ______ park, the first water source, the more water you have to carry. The more water you carry, the heavier your pack, and the slower you hike. The slower you hike, the less distance you cover. The less distance you cover, the longer it takes to reach ______ park and the more water you have to carry. You get the point.

 

You Can't Warm Up With Short Days During The First Week

We strongly disagree with the claim (often repeated on blogs and forums) that you don’t need to physically prepare for a thru-hike — any thru-hike. This conventional wisdom says the best training for the Trail is the Trail itself. Take it slow at first and you'll adapt, they say. That may be true for a few hikers — someone under 25, not overweight, and already active. However people have a way of overestimating their fitness level, and the Trail will quickly correct that misconception. Most importantly, the PCT doesn't let you take it slow.

 

On the AT, it is not uncommon for thru-hikers to hike just 6 miles or less each day for the first few days. Short days are possible on the AT because of the abundance of water. Campsites and shelters are plentiful too. For someone who has not trained physically beforehand, short days are a good way to warm up and prevent stress-related injuries. This is not possible on the PCT.

 

Pre-Hike Training Prevents Injuries

Hikers who do not train before a PCT thru-hike set themselves up for stress-related injuries like sprains and strains in the knees (tears of a tendon), or tendinitis in the Achilles (inflammation triggered by overuse). Pre-hike training will prevent these injuries.


Upping Your Mileage

Your goal during pre-trip training should be to comfortably hike 18 miles a day with a full pack plus a gallon of water. The following is our recommendation for scaling up your daily mileage to hit that target.

 

Training isn't just about building muscle, it's also about changing your metabolism. Consider how your metabolism must adjust when increasing your daily mileage from 9 miles to 18. To reach 18 miles a day you must hike 9 miles between meals — which previously was your mileage for the whole day. That's a big jump for your metabolism to make, leading to blood sugar drops and fatigue.

 

As discussed in more detail on the Food & Nutrition page, we've concluded that a three-meal-a-day routine is not the best strategy for a PCT thru-hike because while hikers average 12-15 miles a day on the AT, the PCT demands 17-21 miles a day. The longer the hiking day, the more miles between meals, and the lower your blood sugar gets between those meals. We recommend a two-lunch strategy for sustained energy, which also makes increasing your daily mileage easier.

 

If you eat two lunches and take 5-10 minute breaks in between each lunch, you can easily increase your daily mileage by gradually adding half a mile between breaks (see chart below). This is less demanding on your body and metabolism than other strategies.

Breakfast

   1 mile

   1 mile

1st lunch

   1 mile

   1 mile

2nd lunch

   1 mile

   1 mile

Dinner

     = 6 miles

Breakfast

   1.5 miles

   1.5 miles

1st lunch

   1.5 miles

   1.5 miles

2nd lunch

   1.5 miles

   1.5 miles

Dinner

     = 9 miles

Breakfast

   2 miles

   2 miles

1st lunch

   2 miles

   2 miles

2nd lunch

   2 miles

   2 miles

Dinner

    = 12 miles

Breakfast

   2.5 miles

   2.5 miles

1st lunch

   2.5 miles

   2.5 miles

2nd lunch

   2.5 miles

   2.5 miles

Dinner

    = 15 miles

Breakfast

   3 miles

   3 miles

1st lunch

   3 miles

   3 miles

2nd lunch

   3 miles

   3 miles

Dinner

    = 18 miles

Breakfast

   3.5 miles

   3.5 miles

1st lunch

   3.5 miles

   3.5 miles

2nd lunch

   3.5 miles

   3.5 miles

Dinner

    = 21 miles


Weekend Training Hikes

If you are working or going to school before your hike, you might be able to hit the gym or jog during the week, but the best training for a thru-hike is to hike all day with a fully-loaded pack. If you can regularly get away on weekends, you can use the chart above to set mileage goals. For the first two weekends, hike six miles each day, and then nine miles a day over the next two weekends, and so on. Follow that pattern exactly and it will take three months to go from six to twenty one miles a day.


The Two-Week Switch

The first two weeks of a long trek are difficult on your body. Even people in great shape do not exercise eight hours a day, every day, for weeks at a time. However, that is what a thru-hike is like: unending exercise.

 

During the first two weeks the body panics—unsure what is happening, it diverts blood from the digestive and other organs to supply muscles. Consequently, you lose your appetite. After a long hard day of hiking, you find that you just can’t finish your dinner. It feels awful, but you have to force yourself to eat.

 

After two or three weeks you will feel as if a switch has been thrown—suddenly your appetite returns (greater than normal too), and you have more stamina.

 

So take it easy the first two weeks and give your body time to adjust to the challenge of the trail. In this sense, no amount of training can really prepare someone physically for a thru-hike, because most of us can't possibly work out 8-10 hours a day in normal life. So while you hike, take a break every twenty minutes. It’s a marathon, not a sprint after all. Eat small snacks throughout the day rather than force yourself to eat big meals. In two weeks you will be completely adapted.


The Importance of Zero & Nero Days

A zero day is a day where you do zero miles on the trail. A nero is a near-zero, typically a brief couple of easy miles before getting into town.

 

It is crucial to your health and the overall success of your thru-hike that you take a zero day once a week. Your body needs a rest and without a regular schedule of zero days, you will flame out and the trip will come to an end.

 

However, what tends to happen is that zero days become work days. Gear is cleaned and repaired, groceries are bought, laundry is washed, et cetera. Sometimes we are more tired at the end of a zero day — because we do lots of walking around and carrying stuff — than we are at the end of a normal day of hiking. So our preferred method of doing things is to nero into a trail town, get all the chores done that day, and then zero the next day.

 

Also, if you have plenty of supplies, you can zero at a campsite. We love to do this — spend a day hanging out in camp, reading, watching the lake or river, exploring the forest or park where you've camped. These are the most relaxing days.