How To Walk The Pacific Crest Trail

by Astrid Callomon

The Through-Hiker Ritual

The light and dark of the through-hiker ritual.

The through-hiker ritual has both light and dark sides. Photo: Israh Goodall.

Before, during and after my hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, my partner and I met many people who “would love to do something like that but, really I couldn't”.

Following that statement we were given a reason why: "my job, my family, my dog, my knees, my age", etc.

For every reason listed, we met someone on the trail who had met that same reason for not doing it, but had gone ahead and done it anyway.

Jobs - quit or sabbaticals taken. Family - people took their family with them - on the hike, or in a support vehicle. Dogs - were equipped with small socks and boots and came along too. Knees - were braced and supported, and our 75 year-old friend completed the trail the day after us; for the second time.

Perhaps anything is possible.... Though I had no idea if it was before I started.

Sat at home, in a sunny conservatory in England, it was hard to imagine how I would walk 20 miles a day, let alone 25 and 30 miles. In fact, I didn't really know what 1 mile felt like. I'd always walked in kilometres.

The best advice I received was to take one day at a time. So take them I did, all 166 of them. I really whole-heartedly took this on board. On that day in the conservatory, I was planning, not walking. So I didn't let myself think too hard about it.

Pacific Crest Trail Sign no 2000

To cover this distance, the best advice I recieved was to take one day at a time. Photo: Israh Goodall.

I read that you can walk yourself fit, that anyone can do the Pacific Crest Trail if they want to badly enough.

Some people say the PCT is a mental challenge and the Appalachian Trail (2,160 mile trail on the east coast of the US) is a physical challenge. I think there is no mental challenge without the physical challenge and no physical challenge without the mental challenge. They are entwined. You hope that when you are not mentally strong, you can be physically strong and when you are not physically strong, that your mind will keep you walking. When you have both strengths, you enjoy walking. When you lose both, you stop walking.

Having worked in the outdoors for a number of years, I felt I already had everything I would need to walk the Pacific Crest Trail. Regarding my kit I was right. The more you enter into the world of 'thru' hiking, however, the more you realise that walking for 5 months is very different from a one or two week excursion in the Scottish Highlands. I wanted to make myself as comfortable as I could afford to be.

Flowers on the PCT

The Pacific Crest Trail held a lot in store for us. Photo: Israh Goodall.

The principle of being 'lightweight' came to me instantly in the planning stages of the hike. I had never been particularly lightweight. Having only really ever been out for a few weeks at a time, I would always choose to take comforts over the lightest possible option.

Kit shakedown

Shake-down!

By the time I was ready to leave, my stove had been replaced by a lighter, slower option; my sleeping mat had been replaced by a lightweight, warmer pad; my pot was titanium. I had made some alterations and, by the end of this process my pack was a mid weight, not in the lightweight category but not heavyweight either.

From the moment I arrived in San Diego, at the house of our first Trail Angel’s, 'Scout' and 'Frodo', I was making more alterations to my kit, and I would be doing this for the whole journey.

In San Diego we had a pack 'shake down’. Scout went through and weighed every single item in our packs and we discussed its purpose. Mostly, if it didn't have more than one use, it was not useful enough.

After this we sent two boxes of surplus kit to my uncle in New Jersey. Extra dry bags, bits of extra first aid kit items, needless cosmetics and most horrifying to us - as two girls from England - layers. We sent layers away.

We put our trust in the trail - and in Scout - and hoped we would be warm enough.

* * * *

The trail is, of course, a free experience. We had no-one to answer to, no-one expecting us, no-one needing us - but within our new 'wild' lifestyle there was still routine, very clear routines. We left the southern terminus at the Mexican border on April 14th. There began the constantly developing, ever evolving through-hiker ritual.

The Mexican border. Photo: Israh Goodall.

The Mexican border. Photo: Israh Goodall.

My eyes would open each morning to the sky, a dim, early sky, sometimes part covered by the woods, sometimes a raging golden sunrise. My body got into a pattern: 5:50, awake, every morning. I'd sit up and I'd start the careful pack-up ritual.

Sunrise

Beginning of another day on the trail and the ritual that went with it. Photo: Israh Goodall.

Empty the big black dry bag of clothes, which had been acting as a pillow for the night (an example of items having more than one use). Stuff the black dry bag into my rucksack - which would keep everything waterproof in case of rain. Change from my thermal top to my hiking top, put my puffa jacket straight (back) on. Usually the mornings were cool. Let out the air in my mat, receive the deflating signal that it really is time to get up. Carefully fold the mat in half, roll it tightly up and put it into the dry bag within the rucksack. Stand up, test my balance against my muscles, usually tender from yesterday's walking. It was not uncommon for me to fall over at this point. If balance prevailed and still successfully upright, let sleeping bag fall down to the ground, and stand there for a moment, letting the cool air wake my legs. Stuff sleeping bag into the dry bag. Change my thermal bottoms into my hiking shorts. Put both my thermals into the red dry bag - which was 'the spare clothes dry bag'. Listen to my grandfathers voice in my head "a place for everything and everything in its place". Tightly close the black dry bag and place the red dry bag inside my rucksack on top of it. Put my head torch, which was left loose by my head while sleeping, into the small green dry bag along with our first aid bits, spare batteries, and our 'SPOT' device (or emergency personal tracker) and put this into the rucksack. Put my journal and documents back in its Ziplock bag and slot it in place in the front of my pack. Shoes and socks on. Lift the groundsheet of the tent (which I'd been sleeping on) off the ground; stuff it into the larger green dry bag. Pack in the stove.
Joshua Tree National Park camp

Camp in Joshus Tree National Park. Photo: Astrid Callomon.

Then I'd shuffle through my food bag to find breakfast - a meal that evolved through the trail. We went from dry cereal to one bar, to two bars, to one slightly more protein packed bar, then back to cereal, but this time a more advanced mix of three different cereals and with the addition of powdered milk. Glorious. After breakfast rinse out the pot and put that into my rucksack. Take my day’s ration of snacks (bars and nuts) out of my food bag and put them in the lid of my rucksack. Pack the food bag in the very top of my rucksack. Put my platypus of water on top of that. Pre-sterilised from the night before, and just the right amount to get to the next water source. Lastly, take the puffa jacket off, and stuff it around the platypus to keep it cool as I walk. The platypus tube pokes through a hole in the rucksack, and sits in an elasticated band on the strap of the pack, for easy drinking while walking. We took it in turns to carry the map and often would double check the route over breakfast. How far to the next water, do we start with an uphill or downhill section, and if it's uphill, for how long?
Checking the route. Photo: Israh Goodall.

Checking the route. Photo: Israh Goodall.

We'd lift our packs on to our knee first, then twist it round onto our backs. We'd lift our packs onto our backs several times a day, putting it onto our knee first was an important mid-step, to avoid back strain over this long period of walking.

* * * *

Mile 1 Pacific Crest Trail

"Not so bad". Photo: Israh Goodall.

Once you have walked the first mile of the trail, you meet a sign that reads '”Mile 1”.

When my partner (Israh) and I reached this sign, I looked at her and said, "That wasn't too bad".

Israh smiled and responded, "only 2,667.8 more of them to go...".

How far should we walk before our first break, before lunch? How long should we break for? When does it get dark? No-one was capable of answering these questions, not even us at the moment that we were asking them - so we just had to walk, and work it out.

In the beginning it was five miles to break, another five to lunch, five more to second break, then a final five to dinner. We then upped it to seven miles. Then it was ten until our first break, 9 miles to lunch, 6 to dinner and a final 5 or more to bed.
Astrid Callomon dinner on PCT

Dinner before walking on for another 5 miles and bed. Photo: Israh Goodall.

Comfortable in camp.

Comfortable in camp.

Our hiking routine changed with our fitness. Water, matched with terrain, our desired mileage and daylight determined a lot. It determined when we would eat, when we would sleep, stop, drink, and how far we would walk. The factor that came into it the least was how we felt, as the former variables were more important. Sometimes it was more important to walk two miles further, to get up the hill so you didn't have to walk it in the morning, than stopping just because your feet were sore.
Break on top of a high pass on the Pacific Crest Trail

Break on top of a high pass. Photo: Israh Goodall.

Every day the terrain was different, the feeling was different. New pain appeared while yesterday’s pain disappeared. The light changed, the temperature, the views. The routine that never really changed was the morning routine. And the evening routine. Sometimes I wished it would, I wished I could do it differently, to stop the repetition, and sometimes I was grateful for it; for knowing every piece of kit so intimately well, caring for it, needing it, and knowing exactly where it went in my pack. I lost my spoon once. Disaster. It's so hard to replicate a spoon. We learned the harsh grips towns would have on us - and so learned to leave them as soon as we re-stocked with food. Our careful ritual was destroyed in towns. There were different ugly temptations - a drag on our bodies - distractions unrelated to the path we were on. It was too easy to get lost.
Hitch hiker

Getting out of town as quickly as possible. Photo: Astrid Callomon.

Before I left, I pondered on what I would learn from being in the wilds for almost half a year. Part of me wondered if I would become a bare foot cavewoman, with long matted hair. Would I not feel the cold or the heat and would I have a total affinity with my surroundings? Would I know all birdsongs and what they meant? Would I sing back, would I speak their language? I was none of these things. Quite the opposite. I was cleaner and more efficient, quicker and smarter. I knew nothing of the meaning of the bird’s song but I heard it that much louder and appreciated it so much more than in the beginning. I walked faster. I dealt with pain differently. I spoke less, moaned less and felt what I did say had more meaning to me than before.

* * * *

You could tell yourself for months, years even, that it's not the right time for a grand adventure. Sometimes things never feel wholly 'right'.

Sometimes you only realise in those first steps, having taken a risk perhaps, that in fact it doesn't have to feel right to be right, to be something. A movement, a change.

Burn area in Oregon. Photo: Israh Goodall.

Burn area in Oregon. Photo: Israh Goodall.

You can spend those same years or months planning, or you can do very little, pack a bag and put your trust in nature and in life, believing that it will all come good. I planned. I liked planning, I liked getting excited. The trail defied many of my careful plans - and so came the surrendering to the journey. Which was just as exciting.

“So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity and conservatism, all of which may appear to give piece of mind, but in reality nothing is more dangerous to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future.” Christopher McCandless.


 

This article is the second in a series of three. Read the first article here: Why Walk The Pacific Crest Trail? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below:
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Astrid Callomon

Born and raised in the remote mountainous region of Suffolk, Astrid is a dyed-in-the-wool outdoors woman. Educated and qualified in mountain leadership, scuba diving, rock climbing, canoeing and kayaking, life preservation and many more daring and dangerous pursuits, she's an outdoor instructor and expedition leader. Astrid's also been known to attend the occasional Frontier Bushcraft course.

 

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Jennie

I really enjoyed both of the PCT articles , beautifully written, good to read about the small details ……A fantastic achievement, but I shall stick to long dog walks !

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Nati

Wow! So great to read the small stories within the big story 🙂 and so encouraging for the ones whi still think there are imposible goals. Thank you so much for another great read!

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ANDRE

Made me feel like saying ‘me!’ to the invitation ‘who wants to go for a walk?” I can smell the mountains in this epic.

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ryan

great read and well done for finishing the thru hike. i am planning to try and thru hike the AT in a years time so got a lot of good advise form you. i and a planner too so starting to get ready for it now. how much training did you do before you left?

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Astrid

Hi Ryan

Thanks for your message!

I didnt really make any alterations to my life training wise before the hike.

I work in the outdoor industry, so am outside a lot anyway.

I was a member of a gym (something i vowed never to be again after the thru-hike) and i did swim and climb weekly – i think these things kept a good level of permenant fitness. However the ony way to really train for walking up mountains with a pack on, is to walk up mountains with a pack on. And my area (Suffolk) is pancake flat. So i didn’t do much of that.

You can absolutely walk yourself fit, and train yourself as you do the hike, just start off slow and build up. You will not be doing that high a mileage on the AT as its steep, so a 20 mile day on the AT is a big day!

Happy to help/answer an other questions you may have for your hike! I made an English friend thu a hiking forum before i left, she had done the PCT the year before and it was so helpful to have someone to talk to and get advise from.

Astrid

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ryan

thank you i will defiantly have some more question as the time goes buy. glad to hear that you did not do too much training i play rugby twice a week so have a good fitness level. but i’ll be hiking my self fit as well we have lots on hills in dorset but no mountains. was not going to planning to do it like a bat out of hell where is the fun in that. i could not agree more with your comment on the mental and physical changes it does not matter where you are or where you have to hike to. if your legs are sore and you don’t want to get out of bed then that is that the way it is. ryan

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Renata

Thank you for writing such inspiring, honest and heart-felt articles.
I don’t want them to end.
A book to come perhaps?…

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Kirkland Baptie

Once again a fascinating read. I am reminded by certain passages of a short storey by Stephen King writing as Richard Bachman by the force of will required to fulfil this achievement. I’d be keen to read your list of kit taken (sorry kit junky). Looking forward to future articles etc. Inspiring!!

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Kirkland,

Saw your comment on Astrid’s article after the KIT JUNKIE alarm and flashing red light went off at Frontier Bushcraft HQ! 🙂

Seriously, though, I’m glad you’re appreciating Astrid’s articles.

Like you, I’m looking forward to the next installment….

Warm regards,

Paul

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Courtney

You make me feel such hope, such guilt, for not living my life in the way that’s most meaningful to me. Thank you for making this trek and for sharing it so humbly, so honestly. My footsteps are now moving in a new direction and leading me to a new brave journey, so like and unlike yours.

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Courtney

And so much better written than Wild. 🙂

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Davidn

Wow! Great read and very inspiring!
David.

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Kevin Piggott

Superb read and very inspiring, i thought my few days wild camping in scotland and Offas Dyke was good but this is awesom

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Paul Kirtley

🙂

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Russell

Brilliant, just brilliant.

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Paul Kirtley

Thanks for the feedback. I’m sure Astrid appreciates it.

Warm regards,

Paul

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Astrid

Thank you all for your kind words… You’re all clearly WONDERFUL people!

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James Gohl

Dear Astrid,

What a wonderful adventure you’ve had and so nice of you to share it.
Your pictures really add a lot to your story.
You must be proud of this accomplishment.

Thank you,
Jim

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Astrid

Thank you for your words Jim…

A

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Hans

I loved both your articles and find them inspiring, it’s refreshing to see the gear and routine choices. I’m planning for a hike myself for next year and run into so much similar things. Funnily enough a guy i spoke to about a month ago, pointed out (this was during a day hike) that he saw me easily up my daily distance significantly in a matter of weeks after starting my trip.

PS: Yes i was one of those people that had the same arguments for not even trying to start (to old… to out of shape… work… family etc etc), and now since i’ve decided to pick a date and just start working towards it my life has changed in so many positive ways already.

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Astrid

Hi Hans –

I never thought I could walk as far as I did – it’s amazing what your body is capable of given time and care (and food of course!) 35 miles is not an unobtainable feat… And there were folks doing 40 miles a day too… !

I for one don’t like to be in a hurry – you just find your body moves faster in time.

Good luck with your hike! The date is all you need…

A

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Bill Jackson

Thanks for the write-up. Very useful. Especially your focus on how important you found morning and bedtime routines to be. Also your comment that a spoon is difficult to replicate! I’ll be thinking about how to cover the inconvenience of being spoonless!
I may not do the trail but, I’m fortunate to live on the Canadian west coast and have long wanted to spend an entire summer in our remote wilderness.

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Jim

Hi Bill
We are almost neighbors, I live just below Grand Forks, BC. Yes you do live in a mountain
paradise. I’ve climbed the Vahalla Wilderness near Slocan, BC. Equally the PCT north
terminal is in Manning Provincial Park. The Penticton Wilderness is the Canadian sector
of the Pasayten-theres great cross country hiking out of the Ashnola River. Lost spoon-I lost
my knife and found a tin can, took the lid and sharpened it on a rock. I managed to clean fish and finish trip!
Jim-Pacific NW

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Joelle

Hey! Its amazing ! You had no tent? There was no … Mosquitoes or rain? Thanks in advance!

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Astrid

Hi Joelle,

Thanks for your comment .

We did have a tent, we slept on it 90% of the time rather than in it! It’s called ‘Cowgirl Camping’ – when you just sleep out in the open…

The only times we used it were in those situations you mentioned – when mosquitos were bad or when the rain was. Then It really came in handy!

If I were to go again, i’d probably take a tarp for the rain and just be prepared with my head net for the mozzis!

I loved the tent for its lightweight qualities, but it wasn’t as light as it could be.

Besides this, the feeling of waking up to the universe is much nicer than a claustrophobic tent wall.

A

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Jim

Excellent article Asterid! To be footloose in the freedom of the mountains. It can almost become a lifestyle, and the body does get in shape for long distant hiking. It is very important to acclimate to
higher elevations-I suffered altitude sickness on the trek up Donohue Pass, 11000ft, John Muir
Trail-PCT. Unfortunately I never did the whole trail because I got lost for thousands of miles
in the Pasayten Wilderness adjacent Canada. The North Cascades are near my mountain home.
Go for it people and my heart is glad to see hikers from Europe on the PCT!
Thanks Paul
Jim-Pacific NW

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Michael

Hello Astrid, I truly enjoyed reading your article. I live near San Diego and want badly to hike the PCT. I have so many questions and am wondering if there’s a way I could communicate with you directly via email. Please let me know if you would be open to it and cheers to you and the article you wrote with your adventure!

Michael
Carlsbad, Ca.

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Dawalkat

Many years ago I bought a bicycle & rode it from the uk to The Gambia (I lived there at the time..). When I set out for France the furthest I’d ever ridden was home from the bike shop, I’d never ridden with panniers, and half the 10kg luggage allowance I gave myself went on a tent, I rode in jeans, a T-shirt & hiking boots & took a sleeping bag, spare of jeans, a fleece, a pac-a-mac, underwear, a torch & spare batteries wash kit & bike tools…a CD walkman, 24 CDs & a decent pair of headphones completed my kit list…I bought a foam sleep mat 3 days in – 77 days later (44 on the bike, the rest spent exploring places I stopped on route) I got home sweet home…when people said ‘you must be exhausted’ I said no – I’m fit, (a roady in lycra on a a bike that probably weighed fractionally more than my tent flagged me down in the Picos & said I looked ‘road fit’ – I said did he mean knackered but his english/my spanish wasn’t up to much conversation…NONE of the above is recommended, I go bike packing now with custom made frame packs, clipless pedals, bike specific clothes, cookset, a lightweight tent etc it’s still under 10 kg & I even take a water bottle, (I scavenged an empty coke bottle from a bin in a french supermarket car park the first time around) but if I hadn’t just gone the first time I wouldn’t be riding now…sometimes you just gotta jump…

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Paul Kirtley

Giles I love this story and the point you are making. Reminds me of my first backpacking trip into the mountains, with cheap, heavy tent, cheap, heavy sleeping bag, second hand trousers, and my Kona cycling fleece combined with the Freestyle cycling jacket I had. I could only afford one fleece and one waterproof and they had to make do for everything. 🙂

Warm regards,

Paul

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Dave Howard

Hi Astrid,
I really enjoyed and appreciated the second installment about your amazing through hike. like yourself I would have to stick to a routine at the start and end of each day`s walking. I like a place for everything, and everything in it`s place. Although a spoon for example can always be fashioned using
a decent knife, I too hate misplacing tools or equipment. Love the cowgirl camping, and the British need for “layers”. Many thanks to Israh for the photos, loved the one with the numbered fence panels on the Mexican border. Eagerly awaiting the final episode of this adventure.
All the best, Dave.

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