One of the many lessons I’ve learned on the PCT has been the importance of giving myself permission to take a break. It’s okay to give your body a rest and take a break whenever you feel like you need it.
At the beginning, in the desert, many people would push themselves right out the gate, trying to do 20 mile days. A lot of people seemed to be in a hurry to get to the next town stop. Unfortunately, many hikers would end up with various injuries within the first 300 to 500 miles of the trail because they pushed themselves too hard and didn’t take a break when they needed to.
As a day hiker, I never took breaks. I was always in a hurry to get up the mountain or to the lake, whatever it was that I was hiking to. It wasn’t until I reached the end point of the hike that I’d give myself a short break to enjoy a snack and the view. Then I’d turn around and hike as quickly as possible back to the trailhead.
As a thru-hiker, there is no turning around and hiking back to the trailhead. Instead, you keep hiking on down the trail until you either decide to take a break or quit hiking for the day and set up camp for the evening.
Over the last four months of hiking the PCT, I’ve learned to listen to my body and take breaks whenever I need to. Slowing down and taking breaks have helped me stay injury-free. Taking breaks have also helped me enjoy my thru-hike much more than if I would have been obsessed with how many miles I could hike in a day. I made more time to enjoy the sites I was seeing, take pictures throughout the day and develop meaningful relationships with the people I was hiking with.
Breaks on the PCT (or any thru-hike for that matter) can come in many forms. It could be hitting the Snooze button a couple times in the morning. It could be taking an extra five minutes at a water source. It could be taking your shoes off and soaking your feet in the water instead of just eating your lunch and getting back on trail. It could be taking your pack off for five or ten minutes while you stretch out or sit on the ground. It could be stopping to chat with another hiker. It could be setting up camp at the next tentsite instead of pushing on to one a few more miles down the trail. It could be taking an extra day off in town.
My original trail family, Team Lagger, was notorious for taking breaks. We enjoyed long breaks and took them often. We were always the last ones into camp at night and the last ones to leave in the morning. We’d take several breaks throughout the day, usually once every two hours. Most of the time those breaks would last up until an hour at a time. We truly lived up to and embraced our trail family name by taking our sweet team and always lagging behind the other hikers.
After everyone in my trail family went home and left me to hike the High Sierra by myself, I came up with a break strategy that worked for me. Instead of taking a break every couple of hours, I wanted to push myself a bit more throughout the day and take breaks only when I felt like I needed to. I’d usually stop for a late breakfast/early lunch, a break later in the day to refill and filter my water while eating a snack and an early dinner/snack break before stopping for the day to set up camp.
As a solo hiker, my breaks became much shorter and less frequent, probably because I no longer had my trail family to socialize with. There were exceptions to this new standard. If I was ever really tired, like when I was climbing up a pass, I’d stop and give myself short breaks frequently. These breaks were often just enough time to catch my breath and take a sip of water at a switchback while being able to look around and enjoy the views as I made my way to the top.
When I’m really exhausted, hot and/or hungry, I’ll take a break wherever I need to. If I’m planning where I’m going to take a break, I have preferred spots. Spots like on top of whatever I’ve climbed up, soaking my feet in a lake or creek, eating a meal at a water source or chilling under a bridge in the shade.
When you’re doing a thru-hike like the PCT, it’s important to remind yourself that it’s a marathon, not a race. To prevent injury and increase your chances of enjoying your hike, you’ve got to pace yourself. Listen to your body. Yes, it’s important to get to your next destination, but if you’re tired or hungry or just need a rest, it’s also perfectly okay to take a break.
Even though I’m now in Washington and have less than 500 miles to go, there’s still plenty of time to be an active part of my PCT hike. Click here for details.