Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail: Expectation vs Reality

Heather (@thisramblingrover) is an experienced adventurer who has hiked, kayaked and biked in Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Leaving her job and home in Sydney for six months, she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada in 2018…and so of course, we were super keen to hear from her on the SWW blog!

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Adventures always sound so …adventurous.  

To live in the wilderness for 6 months and experience that level of connection to the outdoors sounds like a dream come true…that is until the weather isn’t perfect and the trail is an uphill climb that goes for days.  

In search of my next challenge, I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, a 4265km (2600mile) thru-hike in North America, going from Mexico to Canada.  

It took 177 days to complete, and I learnt something new every single day.  All the planning in the world can’t truly prepare for the experience, and unless you’ve thru-hiked yourself, I assume you’d have the same expectations that I did, which I’ll address right now!

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Expectation: I’ll walk 20km then enjoy being at camp for the afternoon

Reality: It’s not a walk in the park, I’ve got places to be, like Canada. Expect to walk for at least 10 hours a day, 12-14 hours if you want to take it in and get photos. By the end I was walking up to 50km days! This is no small feat, and it won’t come easy; you’ve got to be prepared to put in the time and effort.

Expectation: I’ll be grubby but will swim in lakes to keep clean!

Reality: Nope, too cold today. Thru hikers are beyond dirty; we’re grimy. Covered in 7 days of sweat, sun cream, bug spray and dirt and wearing clothes that likely haven’t been washed in weeks. By the time I finished my sleeping bag could have grown legs and walked itself to Canada.

Expectation: I’ll be lonely undertaking this hike solo

Reality: You meet people out there on the same journey.  I made friendships for life with the hikers I met along the way.  Most of the people out there are as crazy as you are, so you’ll get along just fine.

Expectation: I’m scared of animals, hitch hiking, running out of food and water and getting lost.

Reality:  If you use your brain, there’s nothing to be scared of. Animals are happy to be left alone, including bears and snakes. Most of my hitchhiking experiences were with Mums (benefits of being female) or other adventurous hitchhikers who were repaying their lift karma. Food is easy to calculate once you know how far the next town is, we collect and filter water as we go and the trail is really well marked.  Every situation is manageable with the right skills and attitude so get yourself out there and see for yourself.

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Expectation: I’ll be healthy, pack out fresh food for the first day or two of each leg and eat well in towns.

Reality: Give me all the carbs! And a Snickers a day. In reality, fresh food doesn't pack well. It gets squashed and goes off quickly and doesn't seem to be filling enough. “Hiker hunger” takes over in towns leaving you to crave burgers, pasta and any other heavy meal. I turned into a bottomless pit…who ate cake regularly.

Expectation: Snow and altitude will be challenging

Reality: Snow and altitude was extremely challenging. There was no amount of mental preparation that could have truly prepared me for crossing freezing rivers while it snowed or just how hard it is to hike with a pack in altitude. But just remember “hard” doesn't mean “impossible”!

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Expectation: I’ll see every sunrise and sunset for 6 months

Reality: It’s cold and I found I liked to stay in my sleeping bag until the sun came up. The sun also sets very late at around 8:30pm or 9pm. With an 8pm bedtime, I had a hard-enough time keeping my eyes open until 8:30pm just writing down my day and chatting to fellow hikers. We often went to bed while the sun was still up.  That being said, the sunrises and sunsets we did see were incredible and memorable since it still wasn’t part of the norm.

Expectation: I’ll come home fit, agile and in peak condition

Reality: I couldn’t walk. I was so fatigued and sore from overuse injuries. I’d hold onto furniture to stand up, and going down stairs was comical. Think full body stiffness, tendon damage in your feet, sore knees and no upper body strength (every day was leg day!)

What did I learn from the experience?  

  • Your feet and legs never stop hurting. You’ll just get used to it. You’ll also get used to having blisters, pack rash and chaffing.  For people who can hike so far, we hobble a lot in the mornings before we’ve warmed up. 

  • A hill will always be a hill. It doesn’t matter how fit you are, or how many other hills you’ve climbed, it doesn’t change the terrain, but you learn to be patient while you push up it. 

  • You can do anything you put your mind to. Dream big, take the leap, chip away one day at a time and you WILL achieve the impossible task. Whether it’s starting a business, running a marathon or walking the length of a country, you CAN do it.

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Follow Heather:

Instagram | @thisramblingrover

Website | www.thisramblingrover.com