Hiking The PCT: The Stuff I Wish I Knew, And Am Glad I Didn’t

The PCT was my first backpacking trip. When I set out to hike it in 2019 had no idea what I was getting myself into. Learn from my story.

When I set out to hike Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 2019, I truly had no idea what I was getting myself into. All I knew is that I needed to make a change, and all the stars had aligned for it to happen:

My torn medial collateral ligament (MCL) from a cliff jumping accident was healed (enough); I could walk (mostly).

My bank account boasted just enough money to afford it (hopefully).

My eating disorder was in full force and I was going to feed that (rather than my body) by hiking this trail.

My plans were open, and I had nowhere to be (for now).

I was living in New England while recovering from tearing my MCL, going to physical therapy, and felt like my life was spiraling out of control. I wasn’t happy, I wasn’t making great choices, I didn’t love who I was, I wanted change, I couldn’t walk. I had been so used to spending most of my time outside. Exploring. Traveling. Adventuring. I couldn’t do any of that with my useless leg making the rest of my useless body even more useless. I was exhausted—of myself, of my life, of my knee. I thought the trajectory of my future was tanking. My body had let me down, and I simultaneously felt an intense desperation to both punish it and strengthen it.

I needed change, and going on a very long walk seemed like the biggest change I could make from what my state was at the time. At some point in December of 2018 I went into my physical therapist’s office and announced “I’m going to hike the PCT.” To me she felt like a Jennifer Aniston character—beautiful, funny, kind, and compassionately sarcastic. She said “You know you can’t walk, right?” “Yes,” and it was the most confident answer I had given to anything in a long time. She looked at me for a few moments, and with determination said “I guess we have some work to do then.”

And so we did. Physical therapy twice a week, ultrasounds on my knee twice a week, exercises three times each day, and tears much more frequently. Christmas Day was the first day I could bend my knee to a 90 degree angle. I applied for a PCT permit in late January 2019, still hobbling, still lacking full range of motion. Trail conditions were looking good with relatively average to low snowfall, a blessing on my weak body, so I kept my fingers crossed that I would be the lucky recipient of a highly coveted PCT permit.

I received my permit in early February. Snow dumped on the trail all through the month. I left my job February 23rd and New England on February 24th. I started hiking on March 9th.

The PCT was my first backpacking trip.

Sure, I had camped and I had hiked. I had even dared to hike as many as 18 miles in one day once. I had carried heavy things before. I had experienced snow and rain and I had even camped in the cold once. I had done a fourteener already, I had climbed mountains, I had swam in rivers. I had a good relationship with the outdoors. But never had I ever put a backpack on, full of everything I needed to exist, hiked to somewhere, slept there, and then hiked away.

On March 9th, 2019 I set out on my first backpacking trip: the Pacific Crest Trail. While I had done a lot of research and learned a lot about the trail and others’ experiences on it, what I didn’t know far outweighed what I did know, and while I would have appreciated someone questioning why I was taking a hammock instead of a tent (seriously, no one was going to let a girl know?!), this journey would not have been the same if I had all the answers upfront.

I had heard of being “ultralight,” but with no backpacking experience I had no real concept of what that meant. How heavy could one backpack be? (The answer is very.) I had a tight budget, and knew that “every ounce counts,” so I tried to buy the lightest versions of everything that I could afford. My base weight getting on trail (all the pieces of gear I carried with me where the weight wouldn’t diminish over time like it does with toothpaste, toilet paper, and food) was 27.6 pounds. Most thru-hikers aim for about 15 pounds. This meant getting on trail with full food and water my pack weighed about 48 pounds. That’s a lot, and at five foot nothing and not a lot of pounds, I was struggling. A lot of people, day hikers mostly, would comment on the size of my pack. A lot of comments were made about how much harder it is to finish the trail with a heavy pack.

I guess the reality is obvious: it was hard to finish the trail with a heavy pack. But harder does not equate to impossible, and it was the only thing I knew; I had no comparison. I didn’t know how much easier it was to carry a lighter bag, how much less the impact would be on my body. Leaving town was a struggle every time. The first few miles were a struggle every time. The bruises and callouses on my shoulders and hips were gnarly. But I earned them. While so many others felt proud of their sub-15 and sub-10 pound base weights, I felt proud that I was able to carry so much. While I’ve started using lighter gear since then and wouldn’t recommend that people actively seek heavier items, I’m happy I didn’t know the difference then. I gained so much physical strength for something that I kept hearing would make the trail so much harder. And it did, but the whole point was to do a hard a thing.

I had experienced both discomfort and pain before, but I did not have a solid grasp on the difference between them, nor how important it was to learn that difference. My first two nights on trail I didn’t find trees to hammock from, because I was in the desert backpacking the PCT with a hammock instead of a tent like a reasonable human, so I set up on the ground and managed to rig my tarp up over my sleeping pad from my trekking poles without having practiced this before getting on trail. It even stayed up all night without falling the first night.

What I hadn’t accounted for was the condensation from my breath collecting on the tarp and then dripping onto my down sleeping bag because I hadn’t strung it up high enough. My down sleeping bag was then wet, rendering it useless. I slept a collective two hours the first two nights on trail, having spent both of those nights primarily shivering in my wet sleeping bag. I was very uncomfortable, and I assumed this was what every day would be like. The third night we got snow, and my tarp collapsed on me, dumping a layer of several inches of snow on me, and once again giving me a wet sleeping bag. A newfound friend shared his one-person tent with me to get me out of the snow.

I was regularly uncomfortable; I wasn’t used to carrying that much weight, especially not with it rubbing against my hips and shoulders. I wasn’t hungry enough yet to eat enough to fuel myself, nor did I want to, so my body was always tired. My feet were blistered. I was cold, both during the day and it night. There was snow and rain throughout the desert. I was traversing things in snow way outside my comfort zone by myself regularly. Somehow, I could keep moving. I loved every minute of it.

Around the 500 mile mark I felt shin splints, which were not new but a distantly familiar pain from my track days in high school. I was slackpacking (not carrying a backpack because a trail angel was kind enough to hold my belongings for me and drop me off at the beginning of a section and pick me up at the end) an 8 mile section between the two road crossings near Tehachapi. I literally couldn’t move without feeling sharp, burning pain in my shins. I was forced to slow down, rub my shins, and pause between nearly every step. I couldn’t go on without it.

I developed plantar fasciitis fairly early on and massaging my feet became a necessary part of the daily routine to continue walking.

I felt sharp stabbing pains in both hips in the earlier parts of Oregon after deciding I basically needed to hike 30 miles each day to see my best friend for one day in Washington when she would be visiting family. These pains made it so I would take a few steps, tears would well in my eyes, I would stop, and the process would repeat. I still felt shin splints. I walked across the Three Sisters Wilderness in Oregon and cried with every step, wondering why I was doing what I was doing, saying out loud “this is stupid” as my tender feet became intimately familiar with every curve of every piece of lava rock in my path—I remembered my time living on Maui, where I would walk barefoot across lava rock for miles at a time, and wondered how my body had become so sensitive to and so estranged from something it had once known so well. I had to slow down and be mindful of where my feet were going; this section was hard and rushing wasn’t going to make it easier.

The last few miles of the trail I felt pain my knees, a scary sensation with the lingering and recent healing of my poor MCL, which had gone through so much trauma to carry me so close to the monument at the Canadian border. I paused, thought about what I was doing, and put intention into each step as I neared the end. The hike into Canada after was physically painless.

Each pain let me know to change something—my self-care routine, my mileage, my pace, my mindset. Once I was open to change, I could keep moving.

Ignorantly, I hadn’t contemplated the necessary discomfort and the likelihood of pain that I would experience hiking a long trail. Most human beings try to avoid discomfort and pain, because it’s in our nature to preserve life and maintain homeostasis. Often, things that cause discomfort and pain don’t serve that purpose. I honestly don’t think I really knew what the difference between discomfort and pain was before the PCT. I don’t know that I can really define it now, except that discomfort I can work through, and pain is something I try to change, often into discomfort, because when I feel pain I know that if I push it too far I won’t be able to accomplish the goal I’m pursuing. Had anyone told me how uncomfortable I would be or how much pain I would experience, I don’t know if I would have so eagerly taken on the challenge of completing the hike, because even though I wasn’t comfortable or pain-free before the hike, I knew what to expect in the life I was living, and the land I wandered into showed me new discomforts and aches I may not have so willingly chased.

I have had some big emotional ups and downs, but I did not know that on trail my emotions would just completely take over when they needed to, sometimes without warning. On several occasions I would feel a hollowness in my chest, often when I was feeling utterly alone. I would feel my eyes get watery, and the more I tried to fight it the more I would feel pain in my chest and in my face. I could never fully fight it off; the tears would come. Sometimes I would cry while I walked, but more often I would sit by the side of the trail, salty water pouring down my cheeks. I couldn’t stop it, and after the first couple of times, I didn’t want to anymore. I always felt better after I let myself feel this intense emotional release.

I won’t pretend that I always knew what I was crying about. Sometimes it would just come and I wouldn’t have been thinking of anything particularly challenging—the impending death of my grandmother, the loss of relationships, my part in those relationships, how my eating disorder made it so I couldn’t genuinely connect with anyone, the self-hatred I was harboring, the quelling of my own ego, general existential dread—and all I can say is that I think my body was sorting through its trauma, sometimes without my mind, and when I did let the tears out I could think more clearly and mindfully about these experiences I wanted to process. I could acknowledge and feel them, and let them go.

The first few times this happened I was extremely embarrassed. I felt like I couldn’t control myself—here I was, in beautiful wilderness that I had chosen to be in, crying my insides out with no idea why. I didn’t want to be an emotional plane crash, but a couple hundred miles in I gave up. I was hammocking, actually from trees this time, next to my friend in the one-person tent, in the snow, and the tears came and I let them. I cried for hours—loud, ugly, snotty crying. I knew there was a lot happening inside my brain (moving on from past relationships and acknowledging the hurt I felt and how much of it was my own doing), and it just kept coming and coming until I didn’t have any more tears left, and then almost as suddenly as it had started it stopped.

I wasn’t ready for the intense waves of emotion that were moving through me at such random intervals throughout the journey, but it didn’t matter because they were ready for me. They came and left when they wanted. No one told me this would happen, and maybe it doesn’t for some people, but I have heard from a lot of hikers that sometimes the tears just come. To experience such intense emotional waves in such an uninhibited way was transformative. It improved my ability to be mindful, broke down a wall of trying to suppress vulnerability, and let me release some of what was keeping me from being emotionally ultralight.

I was entirely unaware that I was bound to experience true and intense fear. I knew scary things happen in the wilderness, but “they wouldn’t happen to me.” 2019 was a wildly high snow year on the PCT. With no previous hiking experience in the area, this didn’t really hold nearly as much water to me as the snow actually contained (which was several feet of water, had it all instantaneously melted). I remember slipping off the trail down a steep slope in Southern California in the snow and having to self-arrest with my trekking poles. I remember thinking that every step I took ascending Mount Whitney could be my last, and then I also remember the amplified feeling when I descended Mount Whitney, realized the snow was soft and my feet were sliding, and felt absolutely certain that every step would be my last. I remember staring a mountain lion in the eyes from 100 feet away, alone, in the dark, and thinking I was going to die being mauled by a big cat.

I felt genuinely afraid for my life at times on the PCT, and while I wouldn’t have invited those experiences before they happened, they were eye opening. I was in the wild. I needed to be paying attention. I don’t think it occurred to me that true fear would occur at any point on the trail; thousands of people do it every year and they don’t die, so why should I even be afraid? If I had actually contemplated the risks I was facing, I don’t know that I would have accepted the gamble because I wouldn’t have known the payout was worth it.

I did not fathom that I would grow in so many ways. I wouldn’t have believed that this experience would teach me to believe in myself and to set boundaries with both myself and others. I didn’t think hiking every day was going to be the final push to overcome my eating disorder, because hiking 20+ miles a day in the wilderness is not sustainable if you don’t eat enough and honor the hunger your body feels. I didn’t think that I would find some chill in the chaos of my brain over the course of 2,653 miles. If someone had told me all of these changes would happen, I wouldn’t have believed them, nor would I have wanted to take on the journey because it would have seemed impossible.

I didn’t know any of this, and while all of these pieces of information would have been valuable to know and be aware of, the journey wouldn’t have been the same if I hadn’t gone through the learning myself. I wouldn’t have stretched my comfort zone so much. I wouldn’t have gained the confidence I have in my body or the comfort I have in experiencing big emotions. I wouldn’t know that I can face fear, fight it, and get through something hard. I’m glad I didn’t know any of this, because if I had, maybe I wouldn’t have taken the walk. Maybe I wouldn’t have grown into the person I became. The experience would have been different, and I wouldn’t change anything about what I went through (not even the hammock).