Posted on February 26 2018
The PCT is a journey, not a race. This can’t be overstated enough as you embark upon the first 100 miles of your 2,660-mile hike to Canada. Injury is among the top reasons hikers leave the trail in the first 100-300 miles. The tips provided below will help you avoid injury and keep you walking happy and healthy well beyond these first miles.
BEFORE THE TRAIL
8. Train - So many thru-hikers neglect this part. Being physically fit before starting the trail is the #1 way to avoid injury on the trail. It’s not a requirement, but it is REALLY REALLY helpful and makes the first 100 miles a little easier. Even if you are fit, the first 100 miles is still tough and will challenge you in ways you never dreamt before. If you live in a place not conducive to training outdoors there are lots of ways you can train indoors. The areas of focus should be:
~ Time on your feet with your backpack fully loaded. One hiker in 2017 told me she lived way up north, almost in the Arctic Circle, and she walked circles in her living room for up to 8-hrs a day to get her body ready. Maddening! But she arrived strong and fit and ready for the trail.
~ Develop strong legs, core, back, and shoulders. When you hike for many hours a day with a backpack on your body gets tired and your body mechanics begin to breakdown. Once your body mechanics breakdown you need to stop hiking ASAP! Continuing on can quickly develop into an injured knee, hip, shoulder, etc. Strengthening these areas ahead of time is better than doing this on trail.
~ Develop a stretch routine that targets all your major muscles. Having a stretch routine before the trail will make doing it on trail much more likely and it’s a very good habit to get into when hiking for 8-10+ hrs/day.
ON THE TRAIL
7. Carry just enough water - I know, you’re starting your hike off in the desert. It’s hot. All the books/blogs say there’s no water for the first 20 miles. Have you looked at the PCT Water Report available here? Often times there is water in the first 20 miles it's just a short hike off trail, but there is water. In a wet year there are numerous water sources on trail during these miles. IF you decided you don’t want to walk off trail to get water then consider these items when planning the amount of water you’re going to start with.
~ What is the weather? - If it’s a cool cloudy day and rain is expected (this does happen) then you won’t need to carry the conventional 6L of water at the start.
~ Are you a small, medium, or large guy/girl? - A small female will not need to carry as much water as a large man. Analyze your size and water needs. I am a 120-lb female and started my PCT hike on a day with temperatures topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I hiked 15 miles to Houser Creek my first day. I used water in a lunch, dinner, and breakfast before reaching Lake Morena. I began with 4 liters of water and still had some left when I reached the lake. I’m from Southern California and was well acclimated to exercising in the heat.
~ How many miles are you hiking your first day? - There’s no need to hike all the way to Lake Morena on Day 1. You can split it into 2 days. If you haven't be able to train enough, plan to do it in 1.5-2 days and plan on walking the short distance off trail to get additional water so you are more comfortable during the hours and miles you are walking on the first couple of days. You’ll have plenty of time to do this and take numerous breaks.
Water is heavy, weighing approximately 2.2-lb or 1-kg per liter. It’s important that you know where your next water supply will be so you carry just a tad more than what is needed to get there. Be realistic about your water needs and know in many places you can hike a little off trail and get more water if needed. Know where those sources are BEFORE you set out each day and don’t rely on water caches. While 3rd Gate is usually stocked during the season, even if it’s out, there’s a hose a little further off the trail where you can get water.
6. Reduce your food - Most hikers carry way too much food their first 100 miles. They dump half their resupply box into the hiker box and groan about the wasted money and weight they’ve been lugging around for the past week. When packing your food consider the following:
~ Hiker hunger doesn’t kick-in for a couple weeks, sometimes longer.
~ When it’s really hot most hikers don’t feel like eating a whole lot.
~ When you’ve walked all day in the heat and you’re exhausted, you don’t feel like cooking a hot dinner. Although if you’ve followed the advice above you won’t be exhausted. You will have taken plenty of breaks and not walked more miles than your body was ready for.
~ There are cafes/restaurants and resupply options available every 20-35 miles for the first 100 miles. Make use of those and don’t carry so much food with you to start. Your backpack will be lighter, your body will feel better, and this will reduce the chance of injury.
5. Don’t carry “backup” anything - I can write a book about all the “back-up” and “extra” things hikers carry in their backpacks. You haven’t hiked the PCT before or any long trail so you (or your family/friends) have a long list of “what-ifs” that you feel you need to prepare for. 99.9% of those things will not materialize. You only need the absolute essentials. You don’t need an extra shirt or pair of shorts. You don’t need 2 books. You don’t need 3 flashlights and 2 extra fire starting items. You don't need bear spray or a machete or even a bear canister. What you do need is a backpack that is light enough that you are comfortable carrying your food, water, and essential supplies. You may think that you will have tons of time to do “insert some activity here”, but you’ll be too tired to want to do those things, or you’ll be too busy making new friends, making dinner, napping, or looking at what’s ahead for tomorrow.
4. Take Lots of Breaks - You’re walking far, very very far, almost 3,000 miles! Stop and rest. Take off your backpack. Take off your shoes and socks. Stretch. Eat. Hydrate. Taking frequent breaks helps your body avoid injuries by giving it rest and an opportunity to move in a different way. Overuse injuries are VERY common on the PCT and result in hundreds of hikers leaving the trail. It’s advisable that during breaks you take time to massage your aching feet and legs. Move your body throughout a range of motions that are different from walking. It will feel good, trust me! And this is a great habit to form.
3. Get really big shoes - Shoes are tough. Most hikers start with shoes they consider to be big. They size up a half or whole size and feel like they have lots of room in there for their foot to grow. The reality is your feet are going to swell up to 2 sizes during the desert and here’s why. You’re walking EVERYDAY. You’re walking FAR everyday. You’re walking with more weight than you trained with. You’re walking up and down mountains. You’re walking in 100 degree heat. All these factors contribute to big feet! Do yourself a favor and get really big shoes; your feet will thank you!
Keep in mind, the first 100 miles is indeed the toughest! That’s not to say that any single mile after 100 will be easy, but if you follow these tips, you’ll set a solid foundation for your PCT thru-hike that will last for many miles beyond the first 100.
Wishing you an awesome thru-hike!
Mary (aka Pillsbury)