Training for a thru-hike is not an easy task, because nothing can really prepare you for that, except maybe having done one before. And if that’s your case, you’re probably not reading this website. So how can one best prepare to walk every single day for nearly 5 months? I don’t really have a clear and definitive answer to that question, and to be honest I think I was ill- and under-prepared myself when I started my PCT, but I’d still like to share a few thoughts about preparation, now that I have experienced a thru-hike. Then I’ll tell you how I prepared so you have at least a reference point.
Sharing random thoughts
- A good physical condition is an asset for sure…
I’ll start with stating the obvious: a good physical condition is required for that type of activity. True enough, I’ve seen people of all ages and all body types on the trail, and some of them made it to Canada. Will power is at least as important as muscle force on a thru-hike, and I truly believe that with enough spirit and the right attitude, anyone can hike the PCT. Nevertheless, a healthy lifestyle and a healthy body, even if they’re no garantee for success, will be obvious assets.
- … although not an absolute must
But then keep in mind that the PCT is first and foremost a hike. It’s no extreme sports, it doesn’t require an exceptional physical condition and it’s certainly not just for the sports elite you see running marathons, tough-mud stuff or Spartan races. The PCT is a long hike for sure, but still just a hike, and as such, anyone who really gives it a try can actually do it.
As I crossed path with locals who were taking day-hikes on the PCT, the comment I heard from them an awful lot of times was: “I’d love to attempt the thru-hike just like you, but I can’t”. Of course some people would tell me they couldn’t afford to take 6 months off from work, but for most of the people I talked to that wasn’t the main reason. Most of them would tell me things like “I’m too old”, “I’m not fit enough”, “I lack muscle force” or even “I know I would never make it”… but you do. In fact, all you need to do is take your backpack and walk.
Being in good shape is obviously an asset but, while it’s no guarantee that you will complete your thru-hike, it’s also not a must.
- Know your gear!
At the very least, you’ll need to test your full equipment under real conditions. That is very important, in fact it’s a must, and by “full equipment” I mean the actual backpack you’ll be carrying, loaded with ALL of your gear plus consumables: 2-3 litres of water and food for 3-4 days. Obviously you’ll need to wear the shoes you plan to use on the PCT. Trail runners don’t need to be broken in, but hiking boots do. Wearing them on those “test-hikes” will give you a chance to do that. The same goes for clothes: you really wanna test out the ones you actually plan to wear on the trail.
By doing so you’ll be able to experiment with gear, see how it works on the field, and most importantly you’ll see how the various pieces of your equipment interact: your shoes felt great when you tried them on at the store, but do they give you the same level of support with a 26 lbs. pack on your back? That hip belt that felt so comfy when your pack was empty, does it fit with the belt-line of your shorts? Are you sure it doesn’t wrinkle your shirt, which would give you severe burns at the hips after just a couple of days hiking?
Make sure your pack is well organized, and that the equipment you’ll need to use often is within easy reach. If you need to twist your arm pretzel-style every time you wanna grab your bottle of water, or if you need to empty half of your pack to reach your snack bars, you might wanna seriously reconsider your organization before the big start.
The same goes for your tent: make sure you know how to pitch it (and break it) quickly, and how to organize your stuff at camp. So ideally you should even plan for overnight hikes in your training.
- To train for walking, nothing beats a good walk
A 2.600+ mile hike across deserts, mountains and forests will challenge your body and soul for sure, but maybe not the way you’d think, and mostly not in a way that you can anticipate and be prepared for. Of course hiking the PCT requires a good physical shape, and having prepared your muscles and cardio system will help a lot. But what truly makes a thru-hike stand apart in terms of the physical impact it will have, is the endless repetition of movements, of impacts, of chafing, day after day for months on end. And that precisely is very difficult to simulate other than by hiking every day. So to prepare for a hike you should hike, and if you’re preparing for a long-distance hike… you should hike long distance. For as silly as it sounds, that’s really the best thing to do. So ideally, if you can, you should take several week-long trips in the months prior to your PCT start, on fairly easy terrain, hiking a daily 15 to 20 miles… with all your PCT gear.
Of course I do realize that not everyone can afford that much spare time from work. Those of you who can’t will be interested in my next point…
- Hiking the PCT will train you to hike the PCT
Keep in mind that a thru-hike such as the PCT is a long-term endeavor, and that you’ll have time to acclimatize once there. By starting slowly (I’ll soon translate the page covering this very important topic) you’ll allow your body to acclimatize and you’ll do on the trail exactly what I described in my previous point: walking will train you to walk. If you feel it’s too difficult at first, slow down: on a long hike like this, your pace at the beginning is not important. Soon you’ll pick up pace, and you’ll be surprised of the distances you can cover in a day once your body has acclimatized.
- Going to the gym is an option (alone or combined with hiking)
If you really have zero opportunity to train on the field in the months prior to your PCT start but still want to start with some kind of training (and you would be right) then you can go to the gym.
Go as often as you can, at least twice a week, ideally every day.
Training your cardio system is a must, that’s where you’ll suffer the most in the first few days on the trail. Then come the calves. They will really be put to contribution on the trail along with all the small muscles in your feet, your Achilles’ tendons and your plantar fascia. Training them to work as hard and as often as you can will really spare you a lot of trouble on the trail. Again, repetition is key here, not intensity. Then the glutes, then the quads. Strengthening your back muscles will help you get a good posture.
Last but not least, every exercise you can do on uneven and/or unstable surfaces will help you strengthen your ankles and improve the proprioception of your lower limbs, which is extremely beneficial in our case. Those exercises are somewhat tedious and doing them on a regular basis requires discipline, but you’ll see that the payoff is really worth the effort.
My physical condition and my sport habits
Here are my “physical data” so you can put my case in perspective:
- I was 39 when I hiked the PCT
- I normally wear my shoes in a size 40 (US 7)
- I’m 1m76 (5’8″)
- I don’t smoke
- I weigh between 59 and 60kg (130-132 lbs.) which, combined with my height, makes me rather slender (BMI: 19,4)
- But mostly I have very little body fat: my BFP is consistently measured around 6,5% (of course the scale I use is not a professional tool and might be somewhat inaccurate, but even with a 20% error margin, it would leave my BFP in a range of 5,2 to 7,8%, which is still very low). That’s very important because it means I have (almost) no fat storage I can dig from in case of extra effort – and consequently I must adapt my diet in order to avoid muscle loss – and because it makes me a fairly solid candidate for hypothermia if I don’t cover my body adequately. I tried to gain weight prior to the PCT but it didn’t work.
When I hiked the PCT, I’d been practicing acroyoga rather seriously for 4 years. For those who don’t know acroyoga, it’s an acrobatic discipline practiced with a partner and mixing circus acrobatics with yoga. Between my personal daily routine, the lessons and workshops I take and the training sessions with my partners, I spend about 10 hours a week practicing in the winter, and up to 30 hours a week in the summer (where the warmer weather and longer days allow for longer outdoor training sessions with friends). The way I practice acroyoga makes me use my lower limbs mostly, which gave me a lot of confidence in my legs for the hike (and to some extent that was a mistake).
I don’t go to the gym and didn’t change that for my PCT preparation.
How I trained for the PCT
On top of my regular acroyoga practice, I went on the following hikes:
- Day hike in the greater Paris area: 35km (21,7 miles) covered in about 8h15, 1.300m (4.265 ft) elevation gain, 8kg (17 lbs) pack. I tested out a pair of traditional hiking boots, but they didn’t work for me.
- Day hike in the greater Paris area: 18km (11 miles) covered in 5h, 930m (3.051 ft) elevation gain, 5kg (11 lbs) pack. My dear Asolo boots die after serving me faithfully for many many years: the outsoles are (both!) completely peeled off by the time I finish the hike, and I get back home holding them in my hands like spare parts…
- 6-day hike in the Moroccan desert, with a mix of stone desert and sand dunes. About 6 hours of daily walk with only a very light pack. I try out the Saucony Xodus Iso 2 and love them.
- Still in Morocco, day hike in the Todgha Gorges: 3 hours in mountain conditions followed by another 3 hours walking on the river banks back to the town of Tinghir (dust trail, virtually flat). Very light pack. The Saucony appear to be very weak on muddy terrain: they turn into ice skates.
- Day hike in the greater Paris area: 26,5km (16 miles) covered in 6h, 22kg (48 lbs) pack. The choice of the Saucony is confirmed, but at this stage I’m still not sure about the pack.
Not bad, but not good enough
I was ill-prepared when I arrived on the trail, and my body let me know after just a few days. I’m telling you that story on a dedicated page, soon to be translated.
My first mistake was to think that my intensive acroyoga practice was sufficient training for my legs. What I didn’t realize is that in acroyoga, as a base, I’m using mostly your quads, while when hiking the glutes and calves are put to contribution primarily. At least in my experience. Over the long run though, Acroyoga offers a good cardio-vascular training, and from that point of view I was well prepared.
My second mistake was to believe that long day-hikes with a heavily-loaded pack would constitute a realistic simulation of the PCT. They don’t. What makes a thru-hike so different and so hard to train for is the infinite repetition of movements, day after day, week after week for months on end. Going on a Sunday hike, no matter how long and technical it is, and coming back home in the evening, taking a hot shower, cleaning your feet, having a warm meal that you’ll eat seating at a table, and resting your muscles and joints sleeping in a comfortable, full-size bed… simply has nothing in common with the conditions you’re gonna face on the Trail.
My agenda at the time didn’t allow me more time for additional training: I couldn’t do more weekend hikes, nor go to the gym during the week. In particular, I didn’t get a chance to go on a full-week hike with my complete PCT gear. It’s fine though, there’s only so much one can do, and what’s important is to do it. What I should have done though, was to adapt my pace during the first week to allow my body to acclimatize. I didn’t do that, and I was that close to pay the high price for it (again, there’s a page coming soon just on that topic).