While I was writing my posts on trail, I spoke a lot about what we were doing every day, and special events that arose in the course of walking, but I never really got down to the nitty-gritty "routine" of things on the trail. For me, this routine was so ingrained that I barely gave it much thought, but I realize that it might be of interest to you to hear what a typical "day on the trail" was really like.
Throughout the Pacific Crest Trail, there are several different lifestyles you lead based on what ecosystem you're currently walking through. Life in the desert, for example, is much different than life in the mountains. So I'm going to break down the different parts of my hike and explain to you hour-by-hour what a typical day of hiking looks like. Hopefully this will give you some insight on what it's really like to walk 2,650 miles. :)
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA: the desert
Mileage per day: 18-22 miles per day
4:00am - 5:00am:
Wake up. (Usually a little bit before Katie) Get dressed in the tent and crawl out. While I'm packing up my gear, Katie is changing in the tent. I carefully clean and bandage up any blisters on my feet for the day. I eat a quick breakfast on the go and Katie and I break down the tent together. She packs up the tent body and I pack up the stakes and footprint. I hobble around camp for a while until my feet regain feeling. They are always, always sore when I wake up and it takes me a while to walk properly in the mornings. Brush teeth, take a bathroom break.
5:00am - 8:00am:
Start hiking; the goal is to get in as many miles as possible before the heat of the day is too unbearable. My feet are still warming up and until they settle into the rhythm of hiking, I stumble along the trail at a slow speed. It takes about 30 minutes to get into the groove.
8:00am - 8:15am:
Second breakfast. We've gone about six miles and the pop tart from 4:30am is not holding me over anymore. I eat a granola bar with some peanut butter and a few other small snacks, depending on how hungry I am. We can't stop long because we need water and the sun is getting hotter.
8:15am - 12:00pm:
Hiking - it is usually miserable by now. After 9am the sun is brutal and we have to get through the miles as quickly as we can. Our usual goal is to hike "ten by ten", or ten miles by 10:00am. If we get started by 5am each morning, this isn't too difficult. Our next huge goal of the day is to find an appropriate place for lunch. Knowing that we will be there for some time to escape the worst part of the day, we have very specific things we look for: shade and water. If we find water, we can fill up our containers and rinse the dirt out the socks we wore yesterday. They will be hung on the outside of our packs to dry in the sun while we walk. We can't always find water (it depends on the location of the springs) but shade is non-negotiable. If we happen to find a good tree at 11:00am instead of noon, sometimes we'll stop early, especially if the heat is particularly bad that day. 9am until noon is essentially spent scouting out the perfect siesta spot.
12:00pm - 4:00pm:
Afternoon siesta. This is what we look forward to all morning. If we're lucky, we've found a tree with a decent amount of shade. Usually there isn't water, so we have to ration ourselves carefully until dinner. I always have a spare 2L of water that I reserve for cooking dinner, and I try not to drink it during the day. My total water capacity is 6L and if I'm not careful I can drink it all in the course of an afternoon.
During the afternoon siesta we roll out our foam sleeping mats in the dirt, take off our shoes and socks (very important. There's nothing better than the feeling of naked feet after walking all morning) and take naps. Unless I'm really tired, I'm not very good at sleeping in the heat. Instead, I catch up on my journal and make myself lunch. I eat bits and pieces throughout the whole siesta so that I keep myself from getting unnecessarily hungry. Every ten minutes or so we have to rotate where our mats are lying because the sun and the shade shifts around us. Sometimes it disappears altogether, which can be very uncomfortable.
4:00pm - 7:00pm:
If we've been making good time all day, usually we only have five more miles or so to hike after our siesta (sometimes more if we stopped really early.) The goal in these few hours is to find water. If we arrive at it early, we will stop to make dinner where we can replenish our water containers. If we're really lucky, we will have water at our campsite for the night. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen very often. More often than not we will stop to cook, wash up, fill up, and walk a few more miles to dry camp. We need to collect enough water to get us through the next morning, as well. Water sources almost entirely dictate our mileage for the day, and we usually look ahead on the maps to plan out our route so that we can arrive at them in time. People camp together quite a lot in the desert because we walk to where the water is.
Hiking after 5:00pm is my favorite part of the day. The sun is barely starting to set, and as the hours go by, it gets cooler and cooler. Since it is still high summer, it is light out until 9:00pm, but dusk lasts long enough for us to get our final miles behind us.
7:00pm - 9:00pm:
We find camp (usually a designated spot on trail so we can minimize our impact, though it's not usually hard to find a flat spot to camp in a pinch) and set up our tents. If we've already eaten we have more time to relax in camp. If not, we cook and unpack our gear into our tents. We have plenty of time to socialize before dark. Everyone changes into camp shoes - our feet are stained with dirt by now, as well as any dust that has been kicked onto our legs. Before bed I roll up my pants and scrub down my feet and legs with baby wipes. It takes some muscle power to get the dirt off, but I love cleaning my feet because it feels like a foot massage, and my soles are so sore. If I have blisters, I take out my first aid kit and carefully empty and clean them. I'll leave them unbandaged for the night so they have time to heal. I change into sleep clothes, brush my teeth and crawl into bed to write in my journal. I usually write until it gets too dark to see, and then fall asleep.
CENTRAL CALIFORNIA: the sierra nevadas
Mileage: 15-18 miles per day
7:00am - 8:00am:
It is really cold at 9,000 feet, so we sleep in and wait for it to warm up a little. We do our usual morning routine, getting dressed and packing up. There are a few small alterations to our routine in the mountains: we often have to keep our wool sweaters on for the first hour of hiking until we warm up. I keep mine stashed at the top of my pack instead of at the bottom so I have easy access to it. We also have to contend with a large, plastic bear vault for our food. It keeps my meals organized and un-crushed, but it's a chore to get it to fit in my pack. I put it in last, which means I can get at my snacks quicker when we stop for breaks.
8:00am - 11:00am:
Our big goal of the morning in the Sierras is to get over the mountain pass before second breakfast. We generally are camped only a few miles from the next pass, and each one is spaced about 15-20 miles from the last one, so we climb one pass per day. The morning is spent slowly climbing up the rocky faces from 9,000 feet to 12,000 feet. If the pass approach is only 5-7 miles long, we can usually make it by early afternoon.
11:00am - 11:15am:
Mountain passes act as a great reward system: do some really difficult climbing for a few hours, and be rewarded with an amazing view. It's a great feeling to sit at the top of the world and look down over the landscape. Usually we can see beautiful blue lakes and more mountains stretching in all directions. We pull on all our layers (because we're sweaty and it's really cold and windy at the top) and take a break to eat second breakfast.
11:15am - 1:00pm:
The nice thing about the Sierras is that your elevation is pretty consistent from day to day. You spend all morning climbing up to 12,000 feet, and then you spend the rest of the day descending from the pass and approaching the next one. The next few hours are spent carefully navigating snow fields on the north side of the passes and slowly descending into the valley below. Our goal is to find a gorgeous lake to have lunch beside. It's not a hard task.
1:00pm - 1:30pm:
When we've found the perfect spot, we sit to make lunch and enjoy the amazing views. I usually wish we could stay here all day, or at least spend an afternoon siesta there, as we did in the desert. But we cover much fewer miles in the rigorous Sierras, so we don't have time to stop for hours in the middle of the day. The temperatures are usually in the 70s and perfect for hiking. I'm in heaven.
1:30pm - 4:30pm:
Though we're usually descending in the overall elevation profile, there are many small hills to climb and rocky terrain to navigate. We walk no faster than 2mph, and sometimes slower. It's hard to complain when the scenery is so stunning. There is water everywhere so we have gotten used to carrying no more than 2L at a time. This makes our packs much lighter and easier to carry. We also don't have to plan our day around water sources, since they are quite easy to find.
4:30pm - 5:00pm:
We will still stop early for dinner if we get hungry enough. Between the cold weather and the tough terrain, we have been burning so many calories that we need the energy to keep us going for the next few hours. A warm meal does a lot to revive us. We clean out our pots at the end and pack everything away. Cooking before getting to camp also makes sure that no unwanted guests visit us in the night, looking for leftovers.
5:00pm - 8:00pm:
We cover the rest of our mileage before dark. Campsites can be a little trickier to find in forested and alpine areas, but there are enough of them on this stretch that we manage to find something. We get updates about the trail ahead from southbounding JMT section hikers, so we can plan out our daily routes more accurately. We pitch our tents and quickly bundle into our warmest layers, since it gets cold when it gets dark. Instead of washing myself off with baby wipes, I am usually rewarded with a flowing water source beside our campsite. The only downside? It is glacial runoff and freezing. And though the dust is less prominent here than in the desert, I still enjoy cleaning myself off before bed as best I can. We stay up to talk and then I write in my journal in the warmth of my sleeping bag. We are usually asleep by 8:00 or 9:00.
NORTHERN CALIFORNIA AND OREGON
Mileage: 25-30 miles per day
6:00am - 7:00am:
This section of trail is an interesting blend between desert and mountain life. The days and nights are very warm but there is enough tree cover and water that we don't feel the effects of the heat as in Southern California. We settle into a routine of a 6:00am wake up call. I have my own tent now, so I learn the habits of how to pack up my own stuff in an efficient amount of time. We are usually in a hurry to get going, so I often skip my morning bathroom break and wait until I'm on trail to find a spot. Breakfast is still on-the-go and my hunger is such that I can't hike very long without getting hungry again. I don't have blisters to tend to anymore, but my feet are still sore every morning. I am so used to hobbling around for the first half hour that I don't even notice anymore.
7:00am - 9:00am:
We have found our stride. We walk at a strong 2.5-3mph and with the flat, rolling terrain, we are able to cover a lot of miles each day. The trail can get kind of monotonous through this section, so I find that my favorite parts of the day are breaks. We create a clockwork-like schedule and stop every 5-6 miles, or two hours to catch up with each other.
9:00am - 9:15am:
Second breakfast. We usually tailor our miles to stop at a water source. Water isn't as frequent as in the Sierras, but sometimes we can go up to 15 miles between sources. Fortunately, since we cover miles so quickly now, it isn't as dire as in the desert. We carry about 3L at a time. We snack on granola bars, jerky, dried fruit and peanut butter, and take time to filter our water before moving on.
9:15am - 12:00pm:
This stretch of hiking is mostly spent thinking about lunch. The main goal is to cover at least half - if not more than half - of our miles for the day before stopping to eat. We will suffer through hunger and fatigue if it means we will have fewer miles to hike in the afternoon. Generally this means we will have to cover 15 miles before stopping for lunch, though depending on the difficulty of the terrain, we will stop after anywhere from 12-15 miles.
12:00pm - 1:00pm:
Since we don't take afternoon siestas anymore, and since we can cover more miles in a day, we compromise by taking a long lunch. We often hike alone, at our own paces, but we always make sure to stop as a group for breaks. Lunch is the best part of the day because we can strip off our shoes, pull out our sit-mats and enjoy a leisurely break. We make elaborate lunches and tell each other jokes and stories. We try to find shade and water, but neither one is a necessity. For once, no one is in a hurry to move and we take the full hour to sit, which feels luxurious in a full day of walking.
1:00pm - 7:00pm:
A good lunch usually powers us through the next few miles. We stop for small snack breaks every 2-3 hours or to fill up water. We will have dinner on trail near a water source if convenient, otherwise we'll have an extra snack break and keep pushing until camp. My body gets used to my new eating routine and tells me every two hours to stop for food.
7:00pm - 8:00pm:
We generally try to be in camp by 7:00, since the sun is setting earlier and earlier, and it is usually dark by 7:30 or 8:00. There is a little bit of time to socialize or make dinner, but long days exhaust us. We walk anywhere from 25-30 miles, and by the time we get to camp, everyone just wants to go to bed. Sometimes I skip dinner if I'm too tired to cook. I stop writing in my journal and instead keep notes on my phone, since I don't have time to write everything out. I still clean myself off before bed, but it doesn't take as long since the trail is much less dusty.
Mileage: 20-25 miles per day
6:00am - 7:00am:
In a lot of ways, we try to keep the same routine we had through NoCal and Oregon. But the terrain in Washington is much more difficult, and we soon find that we cannot sustain 25 mile days every day. We continue to wake up at 6, though this fluctuates based on weather. If it's raining, sometimes we stay in our tents another hour. It is usually cold and wet, so we dress appropriately and eat a quick breakfast before getting on trail. I try to keep at least one pair of socks dry at all times for safety, which means that often I have to put on wet socks day after day in the rain. Hiking warms us up and there are many difficult mountains to climb ahead.
7:00am - 9:00am:
The first six miles are difficult, and usually I am starving by the time we stop for second breakfast.
9:00am - 9:15am:
Second breakfast. This is also prime drying-out-gear time, so instead of looking for shade and water (as we have done in the past) we instead attempt to find a flat, dry slab of rock. There we can spread out our tents and sleeping bags and let the condensation (or rain) dry in the sunlight (provided its sunny by then). If it's still overcast or raining, our breaks are very short and sometimes we stay standing, since it gets much too cold to stop moving.
9:15am - 12:00pm:
We keep hiking, trying to get in at least ten miles, if not more before lunch. Some days this is easy and some days it is extremely difficult. River fords take up more time than accounted for, so often this sets us back.
12:00pm - 1:00pm:
Ideally, if it was overcast this morning, it gets sunny by lunchtime and we have time to dry out our gear. This isn't always the case, and sometimes we are forced to eat lunch under our umbrellas, which is tricky and uncomfortable. If the weather is nice, we take a long break and cook our meals so we can eat something warm. If the weather isn't nice, our breaks are shorter and we keep moving to get to camp as quickly as possible.
1:00pm - 6:00pm:
We stop for water and snacks every few hours, but we're moving slower than usual and our days are dictated by the terrain and the weather. Often we keep granola bars in our pockets and eat on the go. We carry only 2L of water at a time - we should be drinking more, but the weather is so wet that we spend most of our time drenched and we don't think about drinking. Sometimes I go days before refilling my water. We try to get to camp as early as possible. Fall is in full swing and the nights are getting dark so fast. If we're not careful, we end up hiking with our headlamps on more than one occasion.
6:00pm - 8:00pm:
Ideally we reach camp at 6, just before dark, but usually we can't get there until 7 or 7:30, when it's already pitch black outside. If we manage to get in camp at 6, it's cause for rejoicing and a very precious hour spent with friends. If it's raining we eat our lunches for dinner in our tents - this is the other reason we cook dinner at lunchtime - and if it's not, we have the luxury of building a bonfire in camp and eating around it. We set up our tents and pull on our warmest clothes, since it's very cold. I give up trying to wash myself off before bed - usually I've been drenched all day and I just don't care anymore. I write a few notes to myself before bed and fall asleep sometimes before 8:00.
As you can see, life on the trail is full of routine, but it also changes with the seasons and the landscape. Hopefully this has been a fun peak into what day-today life is like on the PCT!