What I Learned While Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail

Hik­ing the 2,650-mile Pacif­ic Crest Trail has its chal­lenges, but there’s got to be a rea­son why more and more peo­ple are ven­tur­ing out each year to tack­le this mul­ti-month thru-hike.  To find a lit­tle clar­i­ty about the things you learn along the way, a 2016 PCT thru-hik­er by the name of Hawk­eye was hap­py to share 10 life lessons learned while hik­ing the Pacif­ic Crest Trail.

bradlane1It’s the Steps Between the Des­ti­na­tions that Define Your Journey
The begin­ning and end of the Pacif­ic Crest Trail make for some of the best pro­file pics, but the real pic­ture of what it’s like to hike the Pacif­ic Crest Trail comes from the many days between the two des­ti­na­tions. Truth be told, the begin­ning and end of the trail aren’t the most mem­o­rable moments of the entire trip. It’s the sud­den snow­storms, the unex­pect­ed trail mag­ic, and the wide-vari­ety of peo­ple who cross your path that have a big­ger impact than the two mon­u­ments that capped the whole experience.

bradlane2Plan Ahead and Pre­pare; Then Go With It When the Plan Falls Apart
Not until the last three miles of the 2,650-mile Pacif­ic Crest Trail did any well-thought out plans go exact­ly as I had writ­ten out on paper. An extra day in town, few­er miles thanks to inclement weath­er, ambi­tious plans meet­ing the real­i­ty of what they are, you name it—any num­ber of things can slow you down on trail. While the ini­tial direc­tion of north lays a good foun­da­tion and prop­er pack­ing is essen­tial for non-star­va­tion, you can only plan and con­trol so much on the Pacif­ic Crest Trail. The rest you just have to make it up as you go along.

bradlane3You Nev­er Know What’s Real­ly Ahead of You Until You Hike There
Inside the tent at night, it’s easy to keep your­self up wor­ry­ing about what obsta­cles lie ahead on the trail; until the com­plete exhaus­tion of hik­ing for months on end kicks in and you fall asleep the moment your head hits the stuff-sack pil­low. Stress­ing about how much the climb will hurt, whether the weath­er is going to stay on your side of the moun­tain, or the unknown dread at the pit of your stom­ach won­der­ing if you can stand up to the over­all chal­lenge. The truth was, only a small num­ber of wor­ries ever came true, and most of the real strug­gle seemed to come with­out fore­warn­ing. While hik­ing the Pacif­ic Crest Trail, the only way to see what obsta­cles you’re fac­ing is by con­fronting them with every step forward.

bradlane4A Lit­tle Com­pa­ny Can Take You A Long Way 
Some of the most reward­ing times hik­ing the Pacif­ic Crest Trail were the solo-moments. Feel­ing your­self shrink as the sun drops on a hid­den camp­site, fol­lowed by the reas­sur­ance of life wak­ing up to the new day’s light—it’s a nec­es­sary expe­ri­ence for any hik­er. But that time alone comes with a sharp edge on its back, enhanc­ing every strug­gle and every phys­i­cal and men­tal dan­ger you come across. Hav­ing a lit­tle com­pa­ny on trail didn’t just pro­vide a safe­ty net, it was often encour­age­ment to go that extra-mile, and you wouldn’t believe the sort of sat­is­fac­tion there is when you are sit­ting, soak­ing in the rain and you are able to turn to some­one and say, “well, this sucks.”

bradlane5Earn­ing the Views Makes Every­thing Look That Much Better 
There’s no lack of moun­tains to climb on the Pacif­ic Crest Trail, almost frus­trat­ing­ly so at times, and there is always a point in each climb where a stray thought could find itself cen­ter­ing around “why am I doing this?” More times than not how­ev­er, as you climb and climb and climb some more, wait­ing for you at the top is a stun­ning view of the world. While those views aren’t too shab­by in the nor­mal day’s light, once you have your blood flow­ing and feel weak in the knees, those views can take you off your feet and remind you exact­ly why you chose this life.

bradlane6This Too Shall Pass
Nin­ja mos­qui­tos mak­ing their way into your tent, soft­ball-sized sprains that slow down your day—a lot of the things that are easy to com­plain about on trail often do pass with time. Ago­niz­ing­ly slow maybe, but every blis­ter, abra­sion, and feel­ing of self-doubt does heal up and become stronger skin. Remem­ber­ing this, and remem­ber­ing that the suc­cess­ful feel­ings of climb­ing to the top of a moun­tain pass, hit­ting 10 miles by 10:00 a.m. and the reas­sur­ance that you are exact­ly where you are sup­posed to be in your jour­ney, those feel­ings too, they shall pass.

bradlane7Men­tal Strug­gles Are Hard to Get Over, For Every­thing Else There is Aleve 
Of course you can’t will your­self out of a bro­ken leg, or pos­i­tive­ly imag­ine the snake ven­om cours­ing its way out of your veins, but more times than not, it’s the men­tal strug­gles won or lost that define your expe­ri­ence on the Pacif­ic Crest Trail. There are immense lows, val­leys that you must climb out of to accom­plish your goals, and the high­est of highs as your raise you arms on top of the world. Being mind­ful of what is real­ly ail­ing you, as well keep­ing a healthy dose of Aleve or Ibupro­fen at hand, is the key for mak­ing the long haul on the PCT.

bradlane8Life Moves Faster with Less Things to Carry 
It’s unbe­liev­able the val­ue you put on things once you start hav­ing to car­ry them all on your back. Sud­den­ly things that were once con­sid­ered essen­tial get pitched into the lux­u­ry cat­e­go­ry, and it’s phys­i­cal­ly notice­able once you cut down all that weight. Liv­ing sim­ply, car­ry­ing only the necessities—even the intan­gi­ble items you leave at home while trav­el­ing the trail, such as con­stant social media plug-ins, 24-hour news chan­nels and the all-know­ing Google to answer all of your questions—makes you quite a bit faster in your pursuits.

bradlane9Insur­mount­able Goals Can Be Reached One Step at a Time 
While 2,650 miles might seem like a lot of dis­tance to cov­er over rugged ter­rain, which it is, the only way it can be been done is one step at a time. While that should go with­out say­ing, it’s easy (and stress­ful) to pic­ture the trail in its entire­ty. Instead, tak­ing the large goal at hand and break­ing it up to sin­gle cycles of the sun it a way to keep sane in an oth­er­wise over­whelm­ing hike across the country.

bradlane10There Are 24 Hours in the Day, Use Them
Donat­ing many 14+ hour days to cov­er the large dis­tances need­ed to reach the Cana­di­an bor­der, sud­den­ly the urgency to use each hour effec­tive­ly becomes inher­ent. What becomes hard to bal­ance how­ev­er isn’t the hours used to hike, it’s the oth­er parts of the day ded­i­cat­ed to rest and recov­ery. Using all 24 hours of the day doesn’t mean hik­ing all night, but instead rais­ing aware­ness of how to use the hours in the day to opti­mize per­for­mance. Rest­ing when relax­ing was need­ed, tak­ing care of the small chores that kept the jour­ney afloat, and hit­ting the trail at full speed with a recharged enthusiasm.

bradlane11Bonus: It’s All in How You Choose to Look at It
While it’s hard to say with any true author­i­ty, the entire trail is real­ly a les­son in per­spec­tive. Whether it’s an appre­ci­a­tion for the run­ning water back home, the real­iza­tion that these forests and parks have been grow­ing for cen­turies before you were ever born, or it’s just the under­stand­ing that rain is wet but it doesn’t have to ruin your day, hik­ing the PCT is a prac­tice in mind­ful­ness and that change in per­spec­tive will define the beau­ty along the way.

pho­tos by Brad Lane