Overwhelmed with spectacular sights and unforgetable shenanigans, it’s ever so easy to portray the PCT as a wholly enjoyable process. Let’s give you an insight into some of the less appealing elements of being a long-distance hiker. If you’re planning on one or debating it, this will give you a number of factors to consider.
Let’s start at the shallow end with THE SMELL.
This was a no brainer addition. On the PCT at least, we can spend up to ten days at any one point without showering. Hiking silly distances through the desert mountains in SoCal (Southern California) and the humid Northern sections can produce significant body oder. After starting a night hike at 7.50PM the other day when it’s considered to be not so hot, it only took ten minutes before looking like I’d been swimming.
Speaking of swimming, we do try get ourselves clean with the use of lakes, rivers etc. Only to dry ourselves off and discover that nothing about your stink has changed. This is disruptive in towns when you’re trying to disguise yourself as a regular person. Luckily for us, so long as we’re wearing our hiking gear you’re generally not frowned upon.
Not all of the trail is mind bogglingly The trail can become a bit MONOTONOUS, which is a big reason for thru-hikers dropping out after getting a significant number of miles under their belt. Our daily routine goes something like this. (For me at least)
5.30AM – Alarm goes off. Generally have breakfast (a few of the crunchy nature valley bars and crisps). Then proceed to pack up my gear and head on out.
6-6.30AM – that hiking lark.
6.30AM – Can often find myself short of water come morning, so a nearby watersource is usually key to my camping location. Instead of having any “clean” water bottles for filtered water only, I now simply attach a Sawyer Squeeze filter and drink straight from it. This saves so much time!
6.35-11.45AM – a lot more of that hiking lark. 15 miles by lunch is the regular target, but it often varies due to terrain and elevation fluctuations. Would generally throw in a 15 minute break to eat a tad more too.
11.45AM-12.30PM – Lunch and potential mini siesta. Tortilla wraps w/ Nutella, more crisps (for salts), couple more bars and a snickers too.
12.30-7PM – With my body willingly giving up each and every afternoon, the morning pace is often a thing of the past. I have more breaks and sometimes a suitable lake, creek or river pops up and an even longer rest is obviously required. The pace is generally 2 mph on average, compared to 3 mph in the morning.
7-7.30PM – The vast majority would set up camp, have dinner and be in bed by 8.30 to 9PM. Not me. This time is regularly used for getting some last ditch food in before more hiking. In the evenings – tortillas, nutella, bars, cheese and then tuna packets for protein. Do my teeth then head out.
7.30-11PM – Night hiking! Most painful part of the day, but much cooler to hike in. Normally reaching the 30-35 miles mark at least before setting up camp.
Then it’s the same routine for the next 5-6 days (generally) before reaching a resupply town for a day.
Am sure you noticed the BLAND DIET I have on trail. When stoveless and coeliac, trail food creativity is severely limited. Even with a stove most people seem to have gone down the ramen or rice route anyway. For me it’s all about calories. Fruit and veg can wait until town. Peanut butter is a thing of the past and hope it stays that way.
There was one funny story to come from eating. When in town, you indulge in caloric and ideally nutritious food. So there I was, sat on the pavement and asking a local chap to recommend a cheap place to eat, to which he recommended “the dumpster behind the Chinese”. I wasn’t quite sure what to think initially. This fella soon returned to us, sighed, then offered up some of his own food vouchers along with “I’ve been in your position before”. I politely explained that I was on the trail, not homeless and thanked him anyway for his act of generosity. What a hero!
Your BODY TAKES A BEATING when you’re covering 35 mountain miles across a rocky trail for up to 14 hours a day. Most commonly your FEET, which ache like crazy! I managed to get tendonitis in one foot, which won’t budge. A PCT hiker will generally go through four pairs of shoes, with your size increasing each time. Some people say your feet grow, when it’s actually your feet flattening out, therefore they get wider and longer due to less of an arch. It’s not uncommon to see a relatively short girl on trail wearing men’s size 9+. This change is permanent too!
If you get your shoe size or fit wrong there are bigger issues to be had. Blisters are basically a given. Having feared this before flying out to the USA, getting my shoe/insole/sock combo right was top of my priority list. I’m part of an exclusive club who have only had a few blisters, one of which got infected. Some hikers have experienced a blister, under a blister that’s under a blister! Generally a hiker’s feet are up there with the most undesirable things on this planet. Imagine toenails dropping off too. I can’t even…
CHAFING! This is my worst enemy. When the trail first began, I never had a sit-pad and opted for going straight onto the floor, allowing for dirt/sticks to sometimes get into your boxers and cause some issues. Couple this with the hair and sweat down there and continuous walking motion, then you have the latest scene of a horror movie in terms of blood and gore. Your lower back can often struggle too, with the heavy pack jiggling about and causing friction between your clothes and skin. Another would be around your inner thighs, although I’m yet to experience it.
Seamless clothing is the name of the game though. Having worn my only pair of boxers for the previous five days, the need to go commando was compelling enough. So I did this and failed to consider the seam up the front of the shorts. Let’s just say the horror movie had a sequel and leave it at that! (I never thought it would look the same)
It doesn’t take long before WE LOSE OUR MINDS. Often found eating a rotisserie chicken with our bare hands, on the floor immediately outside of the very same supermarket we purchased it from. The monotony of trail life after a couple of months means you can lose certain social skills. Your manners and interactions change. Look at ‘Extra Mile’ (Jeremy) as an example!
We dig and POO INTO A HOLE, then proceed to pack the toilet roll out. Leave No Trace principles apply to your toilet usage on trail. When you have to go, a hole must be dug several inches deep and wide. One mistake several hikers made first time round (including myself) was to not consider the other half of the action. When you wee whilst squatting into a hole you want to make sure that there are no hard objects or bushes in front of you! Just saying.
Luckily it was never a factor for me due to timings, but when we were in the high sierra there was a rule about where you could go. If the ground’s snow-covered you should actually pack out your erm… produce… into a scentless bag and dispose of it when next possible. I’m grateful for not getting ill up in the mountains, let’s just say that.
The last issue surrounding number twos are your timing of them. You are flying along and then you get that feeling. The last thing you want to do is stop hiking, so you try to push ahead to your next planned pitstop. This doesn’t always work out. Sometimes you have no choice but to go and go quickly, which might not leave you with enough time to dig the ruddy hole.
When you cowboy camp a lot, mosquitos are one of the biggest enemies. Other BUGS AND CRITTERS too. On a morning after one of my best sleeps, there was a tickle on my leg and something was obviously scittering about inside my sleeping bag. Once revealed it was a beast of a cockroach, my reaction couldn’t have been more timid. It’s a part of life when you live outdoors.
Going back to mosquitos, they’re a much more prevalent force around water sources, which were often used as pitstops back in the desert where they weren’t a problem. Now it’s a “get in, then get out” scenario when you grab some water. Either that or gain a few more itchy lumps here and there.
Our ZERO DAYS aren’t exactly complete rest days. In a short space of time you need to get laundry done, resupply on food, plan for what’s ahead, get clean (somehow) and eat as much as possible. Some of us have to write here and there too, as there’s very little opportunity on trail.
IT’S NOT A WALK IN THE PARK. Let’s get this straight. You walk anywhere between 15 and 35 miles-a-day, carrying upwards of 40lbs on your back. It’s not uncommon to have 5000+ ft of total ascents in any one day, although it’s the descents that do the most damage to your body.
You need to feel comfortable in your environment, whatever’s thrown your way. If you’ve read my previous post, it goes through some of the dangers that come with snow travel! On my next blog post I’ll cover the next 600 miles, which includes a 40m slip down an ice shoot whilst nighthiking!
What other things could I have included? Comment below, as I’ve lost my mind too after all.
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Again thank you to the companies supporting this charity challenge!