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Critical Skills for PCT?
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Chris S
(csteutterman) - F

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Critical Skills for PCT? on 02/29/2012 22:24:47 MST Print View

What are some of the skills needed to hike the PCT that the average 3 season backpacker might not have? One skill that comes to mind that I know I need to work on is hiking through snow covered trails. What are some others? Even little things.

a b
(Ice-axe)
Find something to love everyday on 02/29/2012 22:35:26 MST Print View

Find something to love in every situation.
Be "okay" with what happens every day of your hike. You will remember the happy moments long after the painful ones subside.
Be Flexible with your plans. Go ahead and plan your heart out but once on the trail believe things will work out even if the plans go wrong. Plans always go wrong.. It always works out anyways.
Never turn down food when it is offered.

Hiking Malto
(gg-man) - F
PCT Skills on 03/01/2012 05:46:01 MST Print View

I suspect that you are looking for items like map reading etc. I would say that success probably isn't all that dependent on "traditional" skills as those. I would say that the biggest skill is the ability to overcome adversity. What are some adversities? Your feet will like hurt, you may have pain and/or injuries, there will be reports of impassible snow, there may be real issues with snow or stream crossings, you may loose the trail, your resupply may get lost, resupply locations may be closed, fire detours, crappy weather etc. These and many more will happen and how a hiker reacts to those will likely determine if they finish.

I ran into several hikers going into Warner Springs (Day 4) They had all sort of ailments and aches and pains. A couple were getting off the trail due this. But were they really leaving for that reason? Or was it just not the stroll through the park that they were expecting. This is the mental game of the trail and it will break many hikers.

But as Matt said, after the pain of the journey fades the great parts continue to shine.

PS - The closest I got to getting off the trail was in Desolation Wilderness. It was my first full day back on the trail after taking 5 days off with my wife at Tahoe. The previous day I had hiked in from Echo Lake and discovered that the snow was still very much around but I was in good spirits. At 5am I woke and hit the trail. Within a 100 yards the snow gave way and I fell into water, great wet cold feet at 5:30am. Then the trail disappeared, there were multiple stream crossings and my feet really hurt. It was a very slow slog through muck. I was mentally whooped and plotted my exit at Barker Pass. But just as fast as that plan was hatched I ran into some weekend hikers. I talked with them instantly lifting my spirits. I took a couple of Advil and caffeine and broke my loose policy on listening to music. Within an hour, my outlook inmproved and it ended up being a great day. I learned that day that the Trail was very tough on optimists last year. The optimists expected the snow to come to an end, the pessimists expected snow all the way to Canada. The pessimists were right.

Edited by gg-man on 03/01/2012 06:03:45 MST.

Scott S
(sschloss1) - F

Locale: New England
Critical Skills for PCT on 03/01/2012 06:19:14 MST Print View

A few small things and one big thing. Small things:

- tolerance for mosquitoes helps, especially in the Sierra and Oregon
- the ability to deal with foot pain. I had no injuries on the PCT, but once I got past 20 miles each day, my feet were always sore. I eventually learned to ignore the pain.
- eating a lot. Almost all guys lose weight on long hikes. The better and more you eat, the healthier you'll be and the better you'll feel. Stuff yourself in town--you'll be thankful for it later.

And the big thing:
- Always have something to look forward to. I didn't love every day on the PCT. Some days I found almost nothing to love (like Section O in northern CA). But what ultimately kept me going was having big goals that I was anticipating. The Sierras pulled me through some hot days in the desert (though I loved the desert in its own way). Crater Lake pulled me through northern CA. Goat Rocks and Rainier got me through some of the dull stretches of Oregon. Some folks were motivated just by the idea of finishing their thru-hike, but what worked best for me was to have a goal that was a week or two out. That seemed achievable, even in California when the Canadian border was still impossibly far away.

Edited by sschloss1 on 03/01/2012 07:49:45 MST.

Paul Magnanti
(PaulMags) - MLife

Locale: People's Republic of Boulder
Critical skills on 03/01/2012 07:59:12 MST Print View

An odd mixture of flexibility and stubbornness. :)

Flexibility to change plans as needed; stubbornness to push through an adversity (mental, physical or emotional).

These traits apply to any long hike, mind you.

Inaki Diaz de Etura
(inaki) - MLife

Locale: Iberia highlands
Re: Critical Skills for PCT? on 03/01/2012 09:04:15 MST Print View

Like for any long hike: mental strength, determination to make it. In 4-5 months you'll go through difficult times, sometimes (but so at home!) and it may seem like the end of the world (say, the end of the hike) but just like at home the bad times will pass and everything will be fine again. Be sure to remember that to yourself when needed. Keep a positive attitude.

Together with Scott's advise of having something to look forward to, which is fine, I'd say also think short time, have short term goals. Don't risk feeling overwhelmed by the task. Kind of thinking of the trip as a series of shorter trips. Every now and then, you'll think back of what you've already hiked and you'll get a wonderful, motivating perspective of what a long distance trip means.

Be as proficient as you can about the typical technicalities: navigation, camping, water/food management... the trail itself is not technically difficult but the more proficient you are, the more confident you will feel.

Try to avoid trying new relevant things. Use the gear and techniques you're confident with. It'll all go smoother. If you want to try something new, practice with it before the trip.

And take care of your body, listen to it. If your body complains, don't ignore it. Be particularly careful with your feet: the trail being technically easy puts a lot of stress on your feet; it's basically just walking, lots of steps... let your feet rest, keep them clean.

Edited by inaki on 03/01/2012 09:05:50 MST.

German Tourist
(GermanTourist) - F

Locale: in my tent
Critical Skills for PCT? on 03/01/2012 10:10:26 MST Print View

I have written something about the thruhiker mentality needed for such a long hike here on my blog:

http://christine-on-big-trip.blogspot.com/p/mentality.html

Thanks for all the BPL member who have given me some input for that article.

Other than the above mentioned mental skills I mostly had to learn logistical stuff on the PCT. As a day hiker or weekend warrior you will not be familiar with the logistics of such a long trail. These little details will not make or break your trip but they can make life a bit easier - and you have asked for even little things.

Figure out in advance whether you want a bounce box, what you want in there and how to mail it.
Familiarize yourself with dealing with USPS, general delivery and mailordering stuff from REI and the like onto the trail. For example I went to REI before I left for the PCT and tried out all sorts of shoes. From that I knew what brand and size I had to mailorder onto the trail for different conditions.
Find out in advance what sort of stuff you like for re-supply in a normal super market. It is one thing to go shopping in a supermarket for "normal life" and another thing to find light weight high calorie stuff as trail food.
Figure out a system how friends and family back home can mail you equipment if something breaks on the trail or you have to replace it for other reasons. After friends send me the wrong shoes because they could not tell one shoe brand from the other all my spares back home are numbered. My "trail manager" and I both have reference list. If need be I can just call and ask them to mail #42 instead of having to describe which of my five sleeping bags or three rain jackets I want.

Brian Lewis
(brianle) - F

Locale: Pacific NW
skills on 03/01/2012 13:32:24 MST Print View

My impression is that the O.P. is looking for specific skills more than things like "be mentally tough" and the like ... ?

As Christine said, one of the specific skills you need is the logistical stuff; I suggest that you "gain that skill" by just getting Yogi's guide and using that.

In a list of specific skills I would include (and prioritize) foot-related stuff, but not so much a general "expect foot pain" comment, but "know how to deal with common foot problems". Specific issues I've had on long trips included blisters (common at beginning for first time thru-hikers), morton's neuroma (pounding the nerves at the ball of the feet), bunions/bunionettes (get wide-toed shoes), extensor tendiopathy (don't tie your laces too tight), and the very common plantar fasciitis (look it up). Lots of ways for feet to go wrong; knowing some of the more common issues in advance might help you stay on trail or get back on quicker. Foot problems are one really big thing that ends trips for people.

Other than feet, just knowing "most common" first aid type of issues. What to do if you get giardia-like symptoms. What to do about cuts, gashes (often little or nothing, but knowing when nothing isn't the right answer to prevent, say, blood poisoning). Etc.

Food: how to resupply with adequate nutrition that you'll actually eat, in somewhat limited circumstances (such as a gas station mini-mart where fat/sugar content is high and food value sometimes difficult to come by).

Certainly navigation is a specific skill, which includes map & compass, plus optionally gain experience ahead of time with a GPS if you have one.

How to dig an efficient (and please, deep enough) cat hole. More generally the whole "how to defecate in the woods" thing.

If you're particularly fearful of such things, arm yourself with knowledge about "lions and tigers and bears, oh my". Plus maybe snakes and scorpions. I don't put this particularly high on the list, but some folks are more comfortable knowing the statistics and what causes actual issues that really happen.

More critically, know about creek crossings. These actually can be dangerous. For the PCT, the Sierras are where the issues are.

Know how to hitchhike. There are various skills here, not just about getting a ride, but knowing how and when to decline one.

Ice axe. Know (body knowledge, not just head knowledge) how to self arrest and self belay. Also know when to bail, when to turn back to save your life. Extra emphasis on this aspect if you're young and male.

Know how you want to keep a journal; different approaches here, but you'll be happier at the end if you keep at least some notes along the way. Ditto knowing how to use a camera of some sort.

Optionally, knowing how to use the cell phone you carry --- whatever features it has that might be useful on trail (especially if a smart phone), take significant time before the trip to learn and practice with.

Know how to sleep warm without carrying a ton of gear; there are some tricks. Look them up, learn them.

Know how to deal with bug swarms. Again, there are different approaches, best if you have some clue ahead of time.

Know how to recognize poison oak, in its various phases --- look for pictures on the internet.

Dave T
(DaveT) - F
pct skills on 03/01/2012 15:19:07 MST Print View

Great response Brian. There definitely are things to learn about, be aware of, have a rudimentary level of skill with, etc. There are lots of things to not worry about on the PCT, and there are occasionally things that can hurt you, and rarely a few things that could kill you.

And I'd echo other's comments that it's good to have the right mindset for it. Set your goal for the next town, the aqueduct, Kennedy Meadows, Tahoe, the blessed end of Section O, the last time you see Shasta, the Oregon border, the next volcano, or whatever. If you break it into 3-5 day goals, it's much less daunting than thinking about how "I still have 500 miles of California to go!"

I can't stress enough how important it is to hike your own hike, for your own reasons, and don't get caught up into other people's agendas, gripes, plans, complaints, or expectations. If you find someone with a good vibe to hike with. If you find someone with a crappy vibe, hike away from them.

In the final analysis, it's just walking every day for 4-5 months. Pretty simple.

(Also I'm fairly local to you, so if you got any other questions, let me know!)

Edited by DaveT on 03/01/2012 15:21:11 MST.

Chris S
(csteutterman) - F

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: skills on 03/02/2012 13:12:08 MST Print View

Thanks everyone. Very helpful comments. I was more curious about the technical skills and trying to get some ideas for things to work on this spring and summer to improve my skill set. I don't have any specific plans to hike the PCT, but I just want to be as prepared as possible in case I decide to go for it at some point. Brian, I think your list is just what I was looking for.

That said, I think the mental issues discussed here and in some other recent threads would be my biggest obstacle if I decided to go for it.

David Thomas
(DavidinKenai) - MLife

Locale: North Woods. Far North.
Choose early, practice a lot. on 03/02/2012 13:48:55 MST Print View

Since this is a longer-term goal of yours, look for ways to buff your thru-hike skills on shorter trips. Carry a low-base-pack-weight on your shorter trips. Get dialed in on which clothing combination covers you for the widest conditions. And ID those areas in which skill trumps specific gear choices:

Which firestarter / lighter you have matters much less then knowing how to use them and being creative with local materials. So practice that in MANY settings around town and on shorter trips because the PCT will offer many, many wet/dry, high/low brush/trees/no-trees settings over its length. Even if you're not cooking on a wood fire, you should be ready to make an warming fire in an emergency. I've had to once. Ray Jardine relates a few times he HAD to make a warming fire quickly in bad conditions.

More so, there are several perfectly valid ways to cook food: canister stove, alky stove, wood stove, or no-cook meals. Better to pick one and get good at it then to delay that decision. Each scheme has its pluses and minuses but any choice is best used and planned for by someone with a lot of experience with that system.

Similarily, pick a tarp, bivy or lightweight tent early in the process and then use it all the time on all your trips so you get really good at using it in different settings. Because you not only have to be good at setting it up, but you should know how to plan WHERE to camp given the shelter you've choosed.

Sean Nordeen
(Miner) - F - M

Locale: SoCAL
Critical Skills for PCT? on 03/02/2012 21:01:41 MST Print View

People like to think that someone who has completed a thru-hike is now some sort of super hiker. But in reality, that isn't necessarily the case. Some are, but I saw a few that really were no better then the average guy going out for a few days. There are people who actualy finish and you wonder how they survived. Yogi's PCT Handbook is a good resource for someone new to thru-hiking with some specific PCT stuff.

My advice:

Learn strategies for desert hiking. As an example: Getting up before dawn and hiking until 11am-noon. Wait out heat of the day under some shade (or know how to create some), eat your dinner for lunch while you wait. Hike on in the late afternoon until dark. Maybe learn how to night hike. Stop frequently to rotate socks. At every break, take socks and shoes off to let your feet dry. Elevating them above your heart really helps with the swelling. Wear thin socks and shoes with alot of mesh. The ground temperature is much hotter then the surrounding air so it really bakes your feet.

Cowboy Camping; especialy in Soutern California. It really saves time setting up and packing up your camp. Know to look for ants before you setup camp and don't camp next to that hole in the ground where something lives.

Don't camp next to meadows or in areas showing signs of burrowing. Unless you like mice chewing on your stuff overnight. In popular campsites in Washington in mid to late September, the mice are getting desperate for food so they will chew into your tent. Better to camp away from heavy use campsites. Know how to keep your tent/tarp standing in high winds that threaten to blow it off the mountain.

Sierra Neveda: Learn to self arrest with an ice axe. Learn to ford a creek with a fast current. Learn to navigate off a map and compass. Learn to stop and eat dinner early before hiking a few more miles and camping to avoid food smells. Avoid camping in high use areas that the bears all know people use. Know how to properly store food in black bear country.

Bugs in the Sierra Nevada and maybe Oregon: Know how to deal with mosquitos in such numbers that it seems like a story out of the bible; both hiking and sleeping. Think permithrin treated clothing, long sleeves and pants, and headnet. DEET is your friend. Sleeping in those conditions with just a headnet or my bivy sack was enough for me as they often left after sundown and didn't return until dawn. The first one buzzing in your ear as you cowboy camp does make a nice alarm clock since you have a huge incentive to get up now and pack up before its friends join it. But not everyone has that discipline and prefers a castle to hide in; only 30 will follow you inside evertime you unzip your tent so you'll need to learn how to hunt them down and kill all of them before you sleep.

Learn how to stay dry in several days of rain. Learn to layer and learn when to strip those extra layers off before they cause you to sweet; especially when hiking in cold wet weather. I can't tell you how many thru-hikers don't know this and they blame their rain gear for why all their warm layers are soaked. When I was just hiking in a thermal top and a rain jacket feeling warm, this one guy had a down jacket on and complaining it was soaked under his raincoat. You don't need alot of clothing, even in snow, if you keep hiking. Learn how to setup and take down your shelter in the rain and how to minimize condensation inside your shelter (impossible with some shelters).

Lighten Up! If you are a camper and like short miles, then heavy is fine. But to complete a thru-hike, you have to be more of a hiker which means big miles every day. The lighter you can safely go, the easier it is on your body and the less likely you'll get injured. I met this girl who carried everything and the kitchen sink. She made biscuits on the trail with a whisperlite stove and even had a spice rack! She also could hike faster than most of us as she was really strong. But she ended up with a stress fracture due to the weight in less then 300miles.

Edited by Miner on 03/02/2012 21:17:51 MST.

Luke Schmidt
(Cameron) - MLife

Locale: The WOODS
Bear Canisters etc. on 03/02/2012 23:13:22 MST Print View

Christ I have not done the PCT but a couple thoughts come to mind from experiences elsewhere.

1. What's your plan on bear canisters in the Sierras? I mention this because I've seen some threads where people try to squeeze as much as possible into a smaller canister. I'd do it too, but keep this idea in mind. You'll be thinner and hungrier by the time you hit the Sierras so you might want to factor in a bit more food (and thus possibly a bigger canister) than you would normally take.

2. Make sure you resupply on socks, when they wear out it stinks.

3. Camera batteries dont' last well in cold weather. Keeping them in a warm pocket helps but bring extras.

4. I like Andrew Skurka's new book. I think it would be worth reading for ideas.

5. Andrew Skurka is a fan of using fleece for hiking in cold wet weather (the idea is fleece keeps you warmer when its wet and dries fast). I fell in a river once wearing fleece and was surprised by how fast I warmed up after I got out.

6. Ibeprofin is good.

b willi jones
(mrjones) - F

Locale: best place in the world !?
Re: Critical Skills for PCT? on 03/03/2012 03:24:48 MST Print View

this is a great thread guys, keep it comin

Steven Hanlon
(asciibaron) - F

Locale: Mid Atlantic
read Dan White's book on 03/05/2012 10:16:10 MST Print View

read Dan White's book and then do the exact opposite. it boggles my mind what people think or don't think when they head out into a desert. "this water is heavy glug glug glug"