Embracing Repetition: Tips for Enjoying a Thru-Hike

Words by Chris Zimmerman

For many people, setting off on the Pacific Crest Trail or a thru-hike is a dream come true. After months and years of planning, training and mentally preparing, those first dozen miles are make or break. Did you bring enough stuff? Or too much stuff? Will your body be able to hold up? How far until the next re-supply? Will your mind be able to hold up? As with many things in life, there is the buildup and anticipation, then the actuality of execution. On paper, hiking 20-30 miles a day for 4-5 months doesn’t seem so bad, but in reality, that is a long distance and a very repetitive schedule. Add in the solitude, dietary restrictions and sleeping arrangements, and it’s a recipe that could drive some mad.

Learning how to cope with the mental side of a thru-hike is a skill unto itself. From mixing up the diet to taking a well-earned “zero” day, knowing how to cope with these eventualities can take as much fortitude as completing the entire 2,600 miles. In order to learn a little about how to enjoy a thru-hike we consulted our panel of experts about how they kept each day fresh, the art of the mail drop and the little things that are easy to pass over but worth their weight in gold.

 

Hiking day after day and eating the same thing could get pretty repetitive, what were some of the things you did to mix it up a bit?

“We ended up preparing at least 11 different meals with different proteins, spices and bases. We had too much variety. We stuck to eating four or six of the favored types from those then supplemented with grocery stops when possible. We had an endless number of snack types. A lot went bad while waiting to be sent to us, but we were fine with the few that made it. Gushers were clutch.” – Chris Berry

“I’ll just say I haven’t eaten a Snickers in three years. I was so sick of them! Honestly, as long as your food is simple and tastes good, you’re just happy to be eating. I recommend buying some supplies along the way. Every little shop has the same pop tarts and good stuff, but there’s always something different so you can mix it up.” – Molly Scheer

“I did mix up my eating habits quite a bit. I had pre-made about 15 drop boxes to have mailed to me, but after a while the food became very boring. I just started shopping more in town and getting better food in town. Mixing it up every once in awhile is key. By the time I was in Washington I was easily burning 5000-6000 calories a day, so keeping my diet relatively new was interesting.” – Matt Hess

“I don’t really mix up meals haha – spicy ramen, charcuterie, oatmeal and ALL THE BARS.” – Sam Kelly

“I like to carry freeze-dried vegetables on thru-hikes, which I add to ramen or instant mashed potatoes. They don’t add a ton of calories or nutrients, but they make dinners so much more enjoyable. If there’s a bakery in town, I try to pack out some pastries, bagels or fresh-baked bread, which is a great alternative to my usual breakfast of pop tarts.

As far as the tedium and repetitiveness of hiking itself, I listen to music, podcasts and audiobooks on my headphones to mix things up. An exception is on the CDT or other trails that require cross-country travel and navigating with a map and compass, I do away with distractions to focus on route finding and staying on course.” – Molly Katzman

“So, I’m hiking stoveless, which in the beginning I wasn’t so sure about but, now over halfway, I don’t think I’d really change anything. There are tons of food options available to you as long as you can get used to eating things warm/cold. About every two to three weeks I switch up my diet so I don’t ruin any of my food options. My biggest diversity comes from my snacks though. Every time I resupply I throw new snacks into the rotation to spice things up.” – Cody Howell

 

A lot of people mail themselves food, gear and maybe motivational letters to themselves, what kinds of things did you send yourself? Anything fun or extravagant to treat yourself?

“We know an elementary school teacher from Edmonds, WA, who was so excited for our trip she taught her students about the PCT and thru-hiking. That alone was pretty cool, but then she would have the kids write us letters that were mailed to us along the way. The kids’ letters were an absolute inspiration. To this day our crew will offer each other “Congagalations” and make sure we “watch out for kugars and snaks.” We were so grateful for their support that we went to their class after the trail to let the kids ask questions and play with our gear.” – Chris Berry

“I sent way too much stuff. My favorite thing was new socks in every package. The rest was the usual food supplies.” – Molly Scheer

“The best things I had mailed to me were definitely surprise items from friends and family. Mainly good food items, a nice letter, or even some news clippings from home. Just a few things for positive motivation. New socks or shoes are also always welcome!” – Matt Hess

“I try not to send too many mail drops to myself on thru-hikes, as the logistics of picking up packages is often complicated and expensive. However, it’s definitely worth it to mail boxes to towns without big grocery stores. I make sure to send myself a decent supply of Starbucks Via packets, a bag of freeze-dried vegetables, a couple dozen ibuprofen and a handful of fresh Ziploc bags. Very extravagant…” – Molly Katzman

“My girlfriend is actually my champion re-supplier. She’ll usually send me a few stock items like TP, electrolytes, and oatmeal as well as an assortment of Trader Joe’s treats on occasion. For the Sierras, I had to send myself an ice axe, microspikes and my bearvault for all my food.” – Cody Howell”

 

From a fresh pair of socks to a jar a peanut butter, what was something you did to treat yourself along the trail that most people wouldn’t consider until they were 1000 miles deep and have raw feet?

“One thing I took most people wouldn’t was nail clippers. So many people wanted to borrow them and were shocked when I would pull them out of my first aid bag. I guess they figured it was luxury. I figured it was worth the extra weight.” – Molly Scheer

“Treats on trail: going out for good food in town, zero days, new shoes and hot springs.” – Matt Hess

“My favorite way to treat myself when I’m bruised and battered on long distance hikes is to get a hotel room in town and spend the better part of the day in bed eating ice cream and pizza.” – Molly Katzman

“In every town I restock my quart size bag of gummy candy and hope it gets me through to the next spot.” – Cody Howell

 

What was the first meal you ate after completing the trail? Was there something you had been craving that you just had to have?

“Champagne and cupcakes. Lots of cupcakes. Then I took a hot shower. Good lord it was awesome. As far as cravings, on the trail you are burning so many more calories than you can stuff in your face each day. I started the trail at 224 lbs and ended at 193 lbs, with a low of 184 lbs. You crave simple sugars and in my case that came in the form of soda. Pitchers of the stuff. I didn’t drink it before the trail and I drink it sparingly now, but during that trek you wouldn’t want to get between me and a can of Mug Root beer.” – Chris Berry

“I ended at Cascade Locks on the Columbia river. My friend that I camped with at Mirror Lake finished before me, so we met and had lunch while I waited for my ride from Seattle to pick me up. I had a big greasy sandwich and fries, but I honestly don’t remember what kind. I do remember having a beer, and it was incredible! I was craving beer the entire hike. Not all day, but when I’d get to camp at night.” – Molly Scheer

“Pizza. All the pizza.” – Sam Kelly

“The first thing I did after the trail was spend a whole day at Pike Place Market eating all sorts of seafood and sushi.” – Matt Hess

“After I finished the PCT, I went to a Whole Foods in Seattle with some other hiker friends and made the most ridiculously expensive salad from the salad bar I’ve ever put together. And coffee. I was so excited to drink real coffee again.” – Molly Katzman

“When I met my parents after the Sierras I had asked them for chicken artichoke alfredo pasta and plenty of beer to wash it down. It was just as satisfying as I’d dreamed it would be.” – Cody Howell

Much like going to work everyday, hiking each and every day can become repetitive if small things aren’t done to mix it up. While it’s many people’s dream to hike the PCT, sometimes it’s not until you’re a couple months in that reality sets in. Hopefully these tips from some experienced thru-hikers will help you consider not just hike preparation, but the execution as well. Thanks to our panel of experts for all their advice. If you’re looking for a small taste of the PCT or want to give back to organizations that keep trails like this open, check out our custom collection of products in partnership with Bradley Mountain, Parks Project, Mizu and Coal Headwear. For every item sold from this collection, 10% of proceeds will be donated to the Pacific Crest Trail Association’s Trail Maintenance Fund to support the 2,000 volunteers who keep this icons trail accessible for all to enjoy. 

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