When we first signed up for our PCT permits, we had selected April 15th as our start date. We figured that it was best to give ourselves more time (based on the Sierra snow accumulation) and that we could just go at a slower pace with the early start. Well, with some work commitments we needed to deal with, we weren’t able to start the trail that early. Instead, we started on May 3rd. Picking the perfect start date is always tricky…we wanted to give ourselves as much time to finish as we could, but we couldn’t start too early given the snow in the Sierras. It seemed that our start date was probably a good compromise. While we did have snow on all the passes and very swollen rivers in the Sierras, there wasn’t really a way to avoid this and still keep on a good schedule for finishing in Washington. We could have started earlier and taken a week or more off before the Sierras, but the reality is that by mile 700 of the trail, we had already made friends that we wanted to keep hiking with. As much as we want to believe that we can just hike our own hike, the pull of new friendships often trumps any changes we would consider making to our hiking schedule. We had talked before starting the trail, of possibly doing a flip at Crater Lake (north to Crater Lake and then south from Manning Park backbit Crater Lake) and finishing there…this option was discussed more as a possibility if we were behind schedule. And while we did manage to finish before the weather turned too bad, the idea of finishing as Crater Lake is still really appealing. Perhaps if we were to hike the trail again, we would consider a non-linear thru-hike.
Starting in very late April or early May (I have done April 29th and May 3rd) is pretty ideal, in my opinion, if your hike is NOBO and going to be 4-5 months. You get into the Sierras late enough for safe passage over the passes, and still finish early enough to probably skip long cold stretches in Washington. I’d do the same in the future. Unfortunately, the PCTA’s permit system puts this traditional start time out of reach for a lot of hikers. We aim to come begin our thru hikes in decent physical shape so that we are not starting slow, which helps our planning, and in general allows us to throw on a 20/mile per day expectation for most hikes.
In thinking about completion, we try not to set an arbitrary finish date early in the hike. Short of going for a speed record, why bother picking a date on a calendar with 1200 miles left to go? A lot of hikers do this. For us, we just want to be outside hiking. We will keep a solid steady pace in an attempt to finish before poor weather, but otherwise, we want to keep enjoying the hike and not be concerned with an anticipated end-date until we are within a couple weeks of finishing. This year’s hike had a good bit of rain and cool temps at the end, but that just comes with fall hiking in Washington…and we knew that ahead of time.
It seems like many hikers treat the trail as two different sections…before Lake Tahoe, most hikers keep their mileage between 20-25 daily. Then, after Lake Tahoe, many hikers bump up the mileage to high 20’s to mid-30’s. When we got into Tahoe, we were almost exactly at the same pace as Beardoh when he had hiked in 2012…having most of our days in the low to mid 20’s. After Lake Tahoe, we pretty much stayed at that pace. So, while we felt like we were going a bit faster than the average up to that point, we started to have a lot of hikers passing us after Tahoe. It definitely requires that we keep our egos in check, and instead just focus on a good pace for maximum stamina. Since I am the slower and weaker hiker of the two of us, the pace was always based on what I felt comfortable doing. We pretty much stayed with the schedule we had created before the trail…just adding in a few zero days. Our biggest day was 29 miles, which is certainly lower than the average PCT hiker, but we felt comfortable with our projected finish date, so we never really felt nervous about so many fast hikers passing us up. Luckily, MountainMan and Gazelle were both willing to go at our more relaxed pace, so we were able to hike with them for so much of the trail. If they had wanted to go faster, it would have been hard not to speed up to keep up with them…luckily we never had to cross that bridge.
Our pace was a bit slower this year than in 2012. I think our highest mileage day this year was 28 miles. In 2012, I had long stretches in the mid 30s. While it is fun to kick it down and crank, I enjoyed the pace this year. SweetPea and I are a solid foot difference in height, so we go her pace. While this was occasionally frustrating years ago, I have come to accept it as a comfortable pace, where I can walk with a smooth, light easy step and simply not damage my feet and legs as much. I had a ankle sprain issue on the AT that kept me wearing a brace for over 2 years of thru hikes. This year, I made the whole trail without as much as rolling that ankle. Also, I had zero blisters this year! I attribute both of those successes to taking a lighter, smoother step. I’ve found that it simply isn’t walking slow, but actually treading lighter.
Here are some stats:
Total Hiking Days: 132
Total Average Miles/Day: 19
Average Miles/Day – full hiking day (no town): 21.5 miles
Number of Full Hiking Days: 71
Average Miles/Day – when affected by town stop: 15.8 miles
Number of days affected by town stop: 61
Longest Hiking Day: 29 miles
Shortest Full Hiking Day: 15 miles
Zero Days: 13
Nero Days (5 miles or less): 7
Nero Days (6-10 miles): 3
Nero Days (11-15 miles): 11
Town Stops where we were able to start near our normal hiking time (Steven’s Pass, Belden, & a few others) were not included in the 15.8 miles/day stat above. Some towns are right on trail, so we can get moving early in the day.
It is interesting to note how much resupply/recharge in town can affect average distance per day. We are not ones to linger in towns too much, nor do we make it a point to spend as little time as possible. We enjoy the calorie load, shower, and rest, but know that towns can eat into a hiking budget aggressively.
This year’s hike was a success. Not simply because we made it to the Canadian border, but because SweetPea and I both overcame some physical challenges. We knew these going in. For me, it was chronic sinus and asthma issues that started several years ago. For SweetPea, it was a chronic hip tendon issue that started on the Appalachian Trail in 2011. Both of these issues could have taken us off the trail this year if they exacerbated too greatly. We knew this going into the hike and were truly prepared to hop off early should we need to. In fact, in preparation and at the beginning of the hike, our expectations were not really to complete the PCT. Our food drops were prepared for the whole trip, but mentally, we were OK with a plan that took us as far as we felt made sense, and then possibly taking an extended break and hopping on another long trail like the Colorado Trail.
Breathing, Asthma and Sinus issues:
I developed problems with my sinuses and asthma in 2011 after a series of heavy head and respiratory colds. I have been through an array of tests, diets, surgery, etc..to try and find relief from the problems associated with both problems – with only marginal success. In mid April of 2016, I did a short Buteyko breathing course to see if I could get some relief. The Buteyko method is a method created by a Russian physician a few decades ago and aims at creating a situation in the body where oxygen is more effectively absorbed into our cells. One of the key practices of this method is to limit breathing to nasal breathing. So, for the hike, I tried to breathe through my nose. This can be tough sometimes, especially when climbing, and even more-so at higher altitude. Difficult at first, my body got stronger and I was able to stick with nasal breathing for the whole hike. I continued nasal breathing even over all the High Sierra passes and steep climbs in Washington. More importantly, my asthma was not an issue at all, and my chronic sinusitis was better than it had been in years. By the end of my PCT 2012 hike, I felt like a mucous machine, having difficulty making it through the night without hacking up a bunch of stuff just to continue breathing. This was not the case at all this year. This is big for me. In addition, I believe that nasal breathing is an outstanding regulation tool. It is not easy to push one-self too hard while nasal breathing. One must slow down to keep walking without opening up their mouth. By the time we were in the Sierras, I was able to open my pace quite a bit and really move.
Before starting the hike, I worked with Buteyko Breathing Coach named Felix Laevsky – http://bestforhealth.com . It was great to work with Felix, who helped create a good plan for practicing the exercises of the Buteyko method. The book that really spelled out the Buteyko Method for asthma is by Patrick McKeown – Asthma Free Naturally. Patrick does a great job of explaining some complex physiological concepts and has a lot of supporting videos that can be found on YouTube. The work of both Felix and Patrick have really helped me.