Hike your own hike. I enjoy planning for big trips- but in hindsight I realize that I could have invested less time and stress in preparations, and still had just as much fun. Many hikers do little or no preparation, and once I hit the trail I realized that all of my planning and structure was little more than a fantasy, as I started to feel out the pace that worked for me.
General note: Once on the trail, your mindset is defined by mileage- Yogi’s Guide, the PCT Maps, and the Wilderness Press guidebooks all list the same mileage numbers for water sources and landmarks… but Postholer.com uses a different set of mileage numbers to better reflect a detour near Wrightwood. Save yourself the headache by sticking with one of the major sources for mileage information.
Yogi’s Guide (pcthandbook.com) is an invaluable resource for those who haven’t hiked before, and the accompanying Trail Tips book is a wonderful resource for time spent in town. Remember that Yogi’s guide reflects the compiled experience of a few individuals: a “disgusting” water supply may be palatable to your standards; “horrendous service” might have been quite helpful when you were in town, and “the best food on the trail!” says more about that writer’s hunger than the actual food quality.
My trail name was “Gourmet,” not because of my culinary expertise but because I talked about food a lot, and always had a tasty treat handy. When planning for the trip, I quickly gave up on dehydrating my own food and instead focused on shopping wisely and getting a good variety of delicious, high-calorie foods. In planning your food, realize that variety is essential: many hikers get sick of rolled oats, oatmeal, plain granola, and off-the-shelf trail mix after just a few weeks on the trail. If you’ve packed boxes for the rest of the trip with food which you no longer want, you’ll be throwing a lot of it away.
I sent out about 24 resupply boxes along the length of the trail, packing 17 boxes for California before I left on the trail, and packing 7 boxes for Oregon and Washington when I made it to in Ashland, Oregon. If I were to hike again I would pack fewer boxes, trusting that I could an adequately resupply at a large convenience store or small grocery. That being said, I was very happy whenever I opened a box and re-discovered the treats which I had packed: mango slices, jelly bellies, garlic-infused olive oil, freeze-dried veggies, sundried tomatoes… the little things which made meals great.
Appetite and food planning:
I targeted about 125 calories/ounce by relying on high-fat foods like potato chips, nutella, butter toffee peanuts, and ramen. Starting at eating 1.25 lbs of dry food/day (2500 calories), I had lost eight pounds by the time I reached Agua Dulce, and bumped up my rations to about 2lbs/day to fuel my 25+ mile/day pace. Many hikers find themselves losing weight in the Sierras, but Galina and I took it nice and slow, and I found myself regaining lost weight in the mountains. When my pace picked up to ~35 miles/day through Oregon I was eating 2.5 lbs/day (5000 calories) and still hungry.
Training: I spend most of my weekends in the mountains climbing, hiking, or backcountry skiing, and had hiked the John Muir trail the previous year at a 20 mile/day pace. With this base, I felt comfortable with my general fitness level, and focused my pre-trip prep on strengthening, flexibility, and running (3-6 miles/day). I had been plagued by ankle issues on previous hikes, so did daily physical therapy exercises focused on strengthening my ankles. After about 4 weeks on the trail most of the hikers noticed that we had “gotten our hiker legs” and were suddenly able to comfortably cruise at 27-28 miles/day. This is an incredible feeling, but don’t push to achieve it too soon.
Overuse injuries are probably the largest reason for aborting a thru-hike attempt, but are eminently preventable by slowly building up mileage. I pulled a muscle in my calf on two occasions, both while I was pushing myself beyond my comfort zone without paying attention to my body.