So you've decided to attempt a thru-hike? Congratulations, that's the first step of millions you'll take by the time that you see this thing through! It's a common sentiment among long-distance hikers that the first step is the hardest one to take... but that doesn't mean that it's all going to be downhill from here. The purpose of this article is to help make sure that you're properly prepared and equipped to have a safe and enjoyable experience with every upcoming step of your Pacific Northwest Trail adventure.
Physical and Mental Preparation
Thru-hiking any long distance trail is a physically grueling and mentally demanding endeavor, and the Pacific Northwest Trail has a well-earned reputation for being among the most difficult of them all, but with great challenge comes great reward, and with the proper preparation, that reward is within your reach.
If you're looking for suggestions to physically prepare for hiking the Pacific Northwest Trail , it's simple – hike! Start small and work your way up in mileage. When you're comfortable with that, it's time to add a pack. Start with lighter weights, and work your way up to a full load. When you're comfortable with that, start focusing on vertical gain. Carry your pack up and down the biggest hill you can find, or substitute some stairs. One of the most physically challenging aspects of the Pacific Northwest Trail, when compared to other National Scenic Trails, is that the PNT goes against the grain of the mountains instead of following their spine. You will have to climb up and over every single range between the Divide and the Pacific to complete it. Climbs of more than 5,000' per day are typical on many parts of the trail. That's the equivalent of climbing 500 flights of stairs! A high level of physical fitness prior to your departure will make for an easier transition into the trail life, but it's important to remember that nothing is going to make you comfortable with hiking more than 20 miles a day, every day, with a loaded pack on your back, besides hiking more than 20 miles a day, every day, with a loaded pack on your back. Work some extra time into the beginning of your itinerary to help you safely find your stride.
While a strong body will be helpful before your hike, a strong mind is a must. You will get lonely, lost, scared, hungry, thirsty, cold, hot, soggy, sunburned, bug bitten, bee stung, tired, and uncomfortable. You will lose the feeling in your toes, and maybe the toenails off of them if you're not careful! You will struggle, and you will hurt... This isn't going to be easy. If you're the kind of person that thrives in challenging environments, then maybe this trail is for you; but be honest with yourself about your limitations and expectations for your Pacific Northwest Trail experience - do you really think that you have what it takes?
Gear and Equipment
There are a huge number of products marketed toward backpackers, and opinions on what's best to carry are as varied and plentiful as the gear options themselves. Finding the best combination of gear for you, and becoming comfortable using it all prior to your big hike is crucial to your success. Pack lists are large and differ from one hiker to the next, but here are some basics about the pieces that will make it into anyone's kit.
Pack – While largely dependent on your other gear selections, a pack with a 55 liter capacity is generally plenty for most PNT hikers. These days, there are a lot of nice 55 liter packs that weigh around two pounds or less. These are ideal - balancing the right capacity, suspension, and cost. Fit is the most important criteria to select a pack on, however. If a pack with all the right stats on paper is uncomfortable on your back, keep shopping.
Shelter – There will be weather and there will be bugs. What you need to feel comfortable in the elements is subjective, but at a minimum, your shelter should be able to keep you and your gear dry while you sleep. Small, lightweight backpacking tents are popular, as are tarps, and even hammocks. A good shelter is one that protects well, weighs little, packs small, and sets up quickly. It's easy to find an affordable shelter in the two to three pound range, but they also come much smaller and lighter at a price.
Sleep system – A typical sleep system consists of a sleeping bag or quilt, and an insulated sleeping pad. There are a lot of options, and each have strengths and weaknesses to consider. Most hikers will find that a sleeping bag rated to 15 or 20 degrees will be appropriate for summer hiking on the Pacific Northwest Trail . Goose down is typically lighter and packs smaller than synthetic, but it's also more expensive and more sensitive to moisture. Quilts are typically lighter than bags, but they can be drafty for some sleepers. Foam pads are bulky, but they set up fast, and are maintenance free. Inflatable pads are more comfortable, but also prone to puncture. A good sleep system is one that you feel comfortable with, after taking all of these strengths and weaknesses into consideration. Most hikers should find what they need for under three pounds combined, but sub-two pound combos are available for those looking to save more weight.
Footwear – While the sturdy leather boot is an iconic image associated with backpacking, it's also outdated. The vast majority of long distance hikers have been enjoying the benefits of wearing lightweight, breathable, trail running shoes for years. When selecting footwear, most thru-hikers benefit from purchasing shoes that are one full size larger than what they typically wear, to accommodate the inevitable swelling that comes with such an endeavor. Also look for shoes with a wide enough toe box to allow you to spread your toes apart to avoid lost toenails, and look for shoes that breathe well and drain moisture easily to keep your feet healthy and blister free.
Rain gear – While summers in the Pacific Northwest are probably much drier than many people expect, you will need to be prepared for rain on the trail. A small, lightweight, packable, and breathable jacket is a must. Also consider packing bottoms, such as rain pants or a kilt, and make sure you're capable of keeping the contents of your pack dry as well. This can be done with a pack cover, a pack liner (trash bag), or waterproof stuff sacks. Your feet will get wet no matter what. Deal with it.
Camp kitchen – Most hikers opt to carry a backpacking stove, but with this luxury comes the duty to use it responsibly. Many forest fires have been caused by hiker carelessness, so please consider safety your number one priority when selecting a stove. Canister stoves that can be turned on and off are generally considered to be the safest, but alcohol stoves are also popular with many hikers for weight savings and fuel availability along the trail. Campfires are frowned upon in most circumstances by the hiking community, and may even be illegal in many places along the trail depending on weather conditions and the agency managing the land.
Food storage – In the National Parks, bear wires or bear boxes are supplied in most designated campsites to protect the wildlife from your food. Food can be hung in a stuff sack on a length of cordage from one of these wires, or locked inside the boxes. On the Wilderness Coast, bear canisters are required for beach camping, and can be rented in the town of Forks. Animals that become habituated to human food can become very dangerous and often need to be euthanized for public safety. While proper food storage is only legally required in a few locations along the Pacific Northwest Trail , hikers are encouraged to follow safe food storage practices for the entire length of the trail.
First Aid – It's going to be impossible to be prepared for every scenario in the backcountry, but it's not hard to be ready for the most common ones. Ibuprofen, alcohol wipes, and band aids will treat most hiker injuries. Mole skin is great for blisters, and many products are now available for chafe. Consider having treatment for poison oak and bee stings too, if you're allergic. Duct tape will fix a lot!
There will be a lot more that will make it into your kit than what's described above – spare clothes, an insulated jacket, trekking poles, camera, journal, phone, toiletries, etc... it's your trip, equip yourself as you see fit. Just remember that you have to carry it all!
Trip Planning and Research
The Pacific Northwest Trail is in it's infancy as a National Scenic Trail, but more and more resources are becoming available to hikers with each passing year. In addition to the PNTA website, there is a lot of good information available on other sites around the web. Social media makes it easier than ever to connect with the Pacific Northwest Trail community. Check out the PNT Hikers group on Facebook and connect with those who have hiked the trail from end to end before. Ask around and you might get a lot of great advice, detailed map sets, and maybe even some track data to load into your GPS!
Another resource you'll want to have for planning and help along the way is a good guidebook. Currently, your best bet is the Pacific Northwest Trail Digest by Tim Youngbluth. The Digest describes upcoming sections of trail, and is very useful in helping hikers navigate the almost entirely unmarked 1200 mile route.
It's important to remember that while planning will help alleviate undue stress and concern about what lies ahead, it's likely that little will actually go according to plan. The ruggedness of the terrain, weather conditions, trail closures, fires, fatigue, hunger, and injury may slow you down much more than you anticipate. The key to planning a successful hike is to give yourself the time to make changes; be fluid and adaptable; and have a plan - but not be married to it.
At a minimum, hikers should understand:
- What kind of conditions they're comfortable hiking in.
- How long of a weather window is typically available each year to accommodate those comfort levels.
- When they need to start to get those conditions.
- How fast they're going to need to hike to make it to the other end before they lose the weather window.
Typically, Pacific Northwest Trail thru-hikers begin in Glacier National Park from mid June to mid July (dependent on snow level on the passes), and head west hiking an average of 20 miles per day, planning to finish by mid September.
It's possible to save money by buying in bulk, taking advantage of sales, and dehydrating your own food. As a result, some hikers chose to package their food and supplies in advance to mail to themselves along the way. This can generally be done by mailing packages addressed to the hiker C/O General Delivery, for pickup at the local Post Office. In some circumstances, businesses such as hotels and hostels will accept mail for hikers as well, but this should be arranged ahead of time. Many hikers decide against resupply boxes for the following reasons: Shipping costs can offset any savings of buying ahead, packages can often only be picked up on certain days, during certain hours, which may be inconvenient, and it can be very difficult to predict what you'll be hungry for, several months in advance.
Currently the only stop along the PNT where mailing food ahead is required is Ross Lake Resort. There is no food available for purchase at the resort, and there is no restaurant for hikers. Fortunately, the resort is willing to hold packages for thru-hikers. Since there are no roads into Ross Lake resort, packages are shipped to Diablo Lake, and then transported by car and then by boat by Ross Lake staff to make them available at the resort. There is a $20 fee for this service. Please remember to be a good guest at the resort, to ensure that this continues.
Maps and GPS
One of the biggest challenges facing Pacific Northwest Trail thru-hikers is navigation. The Pacific Northwest Trail is less of a unified “trail” and more of a “route” at this stage of it's existence. It is largely cobbled together from a network of preexisting hiking trails through the backcountry; but also bike paths, old rail beds, dirt roads, paved roads, cross-country bushwhacks, cow paths, and a long walk on the beach, to connect it all together. With few exceptions, the trail is not marked, and the correct path is rarely intuitive. As a result, a detailed set of printed maps is indispensable to navigate the trail. A hand held GPS, preloaded with maps, tracks, and waypoint information is a good idea, but not a suitable replacement for paper maps. I'd also recommend carrying copies of the guidebook pages for each section. The route descriptions can be a life saver!
The Pacific Northwest Trail is one of the most beautiful, rugged, remote and exciting hiking opportunities in the National Scenic Trail System. It's also one of the most physically and mentally demanding, and while the Pacific Northwest Trail outshines many trails in wild grandeur and adventure, it currently lacks a developed community and many of the amenities of the more established trails. While I am a strong advocate for exposing more people to the wonders of the Pacific Northwest Trail , I believe that most hikers would benefit significantly from hiking one of the more popular long distance hiking trails first. Trails like the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail, or the Colorado Trail offer a more forgiving environment to learn long distance hiking techniques, as well as a community of other hikers for support. Starting the Pacific Northwest Trail with a strong foundation of hiking experience to draw from will contribute to a much more enjoyable trek, and a much higher chance of completion.