4 Unexpected Lessons Learned

Well, we did it. We walked from Mexico to Canada. In the coming months I’m sure I’ll hear hundreds of questions along the lines of “how was the hike?” from people expecting a quick answer. As you might expect, there’s no good way to compress 129 days of walking in the wilderness into a nice little sound byte. In an attempt to convey some sense of what it’s like to hike the PCT, I’ve decided to share some of the most surprising lessons I’ve learned over the past four months. I’ll try to avoid the more obvious ones (“thru-hikers smell bad” and “dude, modern society is like, so materialistic, man,” and so on).

4. Thru-Hiking Is Not Backpacking

Every year, hundreds of people set out to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail, and every year about 60% of them stop hiking before they finish the trail. A good amount of this high dropout rate can be attributed to injury, as the trail exacts a heavy toll on the body. However, those who do not leave the trail because of injuries often leave for “emotional reasons.” In other words, they don’t enjoy their hike and so they choose to stop.

It doesn't help that the first 700 miles look like this.

It doesn’t help that the first 700 miles look like this.

Why would someone dislike thru-hiking? Most people who set out on the PCT have done at some backpacking before, and presumably they enjoy it if they are planning on hiking for several months straight. The problem is, a thru-hike isn’t actually like a backpacking trip at all. Sure, you’re carrying a pack full of gear and food and you walk between campsites during the day, but that’s where the similarities end. In a typical weekend backpacking trip, you might hike five, maybe ten miles if you’re feeling ambitious, to a lake or river and set up camp. That whole process probably takes half a day, the rest of which you spend reading, fishing, or engaging in whatever recreational activity floats your boat. Sounds pretty nice, right? Unfortunately, thru-hiking isn’t quite so relaxing.

I’ll take a minute to clarify what I mean by “thru-hiking.” To thru-hike a trail generally means to walk its entirety over the course of a single season, as opposed to “section-hiking,” when you hike the trail in smaller chunks, often over the course of many years. A thru-hike of the PCT is subject to some natural time constraints. You have to start late enough that you aren’t bogged down by snow in the Sierra Nevada, but you also have to finish before snow renders the North Cascades impassable. In most years, this means starting in late April or early May and finishing by the end of September. Let’s say you have about 160 days to do your hike (April 24th to September 30th), during which time you have to cover 2668 miles. That means you need to average about 17 miles a day to finish the trail. But you’re going to want some rest days! If you take one zero a week, you’ll have 137 days of walking, meaning you’ll need to average almost 20 miles a day to finish. That’s a lot more miles than you would normally do on a backpacking trip!


You appreciate the rest even more, though!

Because of the sheer number of miles you need to cover, you have a lot less free time on a thru-hiking trip than on a backpacking trip. Instead of taking your time and enjoying the views, you spend most of every day just putting one foot in front of the other. It can get monotonous, and a lot of people realize that they would rather take their time and smell the roses rather than speed all the way to Canada. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, it’s simply a matter of choosing your priorities.

3. You Stink

I know, it’s not surprising that someone who hikes hundreds of miles without seeing a shower would smell like a gym locker room full of sewage. But that’s not what this entry is about. I mean you, dear readers, the washed masses. You stink.

Believe it or not, covering yourself in soap and shampoo every day doesn’t prevent you from smelling- it just makes you smell like soap and shampoo. That plumbleberry-happyfruit skin lotion that moisturizes, exfoliates, and makes your skin glow like a radioactive infant’s? I don’t know what they put in there to create that aroma, but WOW it is powerful. When you spend all your time around people who shower somewhat regularly, you don’t notice the smell of cleaning products. But when everyone you hang out with smells like week-old butthole, you can smell those lotions and deodorants a mile away.

I first noticed this upon hiking into Tuolumne Meadows. Coming up on a bend in the trail, I caught a whiff of a biting, sickly-sweet chemical odor. As I rounded the turn a group of cotton-clad day-hikers shuffled by, and I was overwhelmed by the medley of aromas they gave off. At first I thought they just went a little heavy on the perfume, but as more equally-clean and smelly hikers passed me in the opposite direction I realized that I had just forgotten the smells of modern society.

I’m not saying civilized folks should stop washing with soap (imagine an office building full of body odor), or even that they smell bad, but maybe the next time a stinky hobo sits across from you in the subway, consider that you might smell just as strongly to him as he does to you. And give him a Snickers bar, he might just be a thru-hiker.

2. Healthy Food… Isn’t.

Walking twenty to thirty miles a day is an awesome way to burn thousands upon thousands of calories. All that energy has to come from somewhere, though. For the first couple of weeks of hiking, most people don’t need to eat too much more than they normally would, as their bodies supplement their diet by converting stores of fat into calories to keep those legs pumping. Once all that excess body fat disappears, though, the infamous “thru-hiker appetite” sets in. You’re always hungry- even after a big meal, you feel satisfied but never full, and a couple hours later you’re back to starving. When your body doesn’t have any calorie reserves saved up, you go from peckish to I’m-not-moving-until-I-eat-a-pound-of-chocolate starving in the blink of an eye, so you snack constantly to get yourself from meal to meal.


We calculated that we ate four to five thousand calories a day, and we were still losing weight (I lost 20 pounds over the course of the hike). When you’re carrying five days worth of food at five thousand calories a day, you can’t afford to carry “inefficient” food. That means that when grocery shopping, you look for calorie-dense foods- the more fat and sugar, the better. We learned to quickly evaluate whether a food item was worth carrying by looking at its calories per ounce (CPO). Anything under about 100 calories per ounce just doesn’t cut it, and the higher the better. We immediately dismissed anything that had “light,” “low-fat,” or “sugar-free” written on the label, as those are all code for “no energy here!”

Snickers bars never get old.

Snickers bars never get old.

That might seem to go against all conventional nutritional wisdom, but there’s nothing conventional about the dietary needs of someone who needs to eat five thousand calories a day to keep from wasting away. Fresh fruit and vegetables? That’s a lot of water weight and fiber, both of which give you exactly zero energy. We would go with nuts and candy instead. Tuna packed in water and wholegrain bread? Screw that, Kettle Chips and pepperoni will keep you going much longer (plus you can crunch up the chips and use them as flavoring- mmm, trail cooking).

Why carry salt, oil, and spices separately?

Why carry salt, oil, and spices separately?

It sounds unhealthy, but the more fat-and-sugar-laden foods you eat, the less weight you have to carry. Besides, how often do you get to pig out on candy totally guilt-free?

1. People Are Awesome

The Pacific Crest Trail took us through some of the most rugged, remote, and beautiful terrain the west coast has to offer, but more than anything else, I am inspired by the people that we met along the way. People hiking the trail come from many walks of life, and all have unique reasons for embarking on their adventure. String Bean (a.k.a. Joe McConaughy) passed us in Southern Oregon during his record-smashing run of the trail, during which he raised 30,000 dollars for a cancer charity in memory of his young cousin who lost his life to a brain tumor at the age of two. We spent a few days on the trail with Shadow, who hiked to raise money for research on ALS, the terminal disease that he inherited from his mother. In Castle Crags State Park we camped for a night with Smokes, who broke trail through the High Sierra and has been on the trail longer than anyone else this season. He is a three-time war veteran who lost his wife and unborn first child to a drunk driver last year, and is known on the trail for his generosity and willingness to help other hikers. When we met Smokes, he was recovering from an infected scorpion bite, but it was clear that no obstacle could keep him from reaching Canada.

Even more amazing than the hikers are those who choose to spend their time and money helping them. We met countless “trail angels” who went to great lengths to help us however they could- they gave food and water, rides to and from towns, and even warm beds to sleep in. The kindness these people showed to complete strangers (and stinky ones at that) was incredible. Oftentimes when we explained what we were doing to folks we met in towns, we got reactions of incredulity and awe. “Wow, you guys are crazy!” and “I could never do that!” were common exclamations. Many people would immediately offer anything they could to help, and they often treated us as honored guests. This blew me away- it’s tempting to think that, because we were working hard and trying to do something unusual and difficult, we were entitled to the free soda and the worship of “flatlanders.” In reality, though, we were the ones who should have felt honored to even have the opportunity to do the PCT. Being able to take five months off from reality to go pursue a dream is an incredible privilege, and the generosity of the people who helped us along the way made us feel even more fortunate.

One thought on “4 Unexpected Lessons Learned

  1. Lauren Lester

    Thanks for sharing all these post hike thoughts. I am interested in more as you return more into “society”. The “you smell” is so true – something we experienced on our JMT hike last summer. We could pick out the day hikers a long ways away! And often wondered why there clothes were so clean?

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