Not many of us can imagine what it would be like for months on end to put one foot in front of the other, pushing your body and mind to the limit, and enduring the waves of injury, stress, and loneliness that can creep up while hiking through the Pacific Crest Trail.
The Pacific Crest Trail is a world renowned, 2650 mile hiking route that begins at the US/Mexico border, and winds its way north through California, Oregon, and Washington, before ending at the Canadian border. The trail promises breathtaking views and a life changing experience for the hikers that dare to embark on this epic journey.
We sat down with Sara, fresh off the trail after 184 days to learn a little bit about her experience.
What inspired you to do the Pacific Crest Trail?
I've always been really into backpacking and I live really close to the start of the Pacific Crest Trail here in Lake Tahoe. I would see these hikers come through, walking really fast with little tiny packs. They would be coming all the way from Mexico to Canada. I would stop and talk to them and be so inspired by their journey and it just seemed so impossible for me to ever do something like that. Once I really started researching it, I realized I could do it and just decided to go for it.
Starting point: Southern Terminus / Photo: Sara Kruglinski
Did you train before hand?
I did. Not everybody trains, but I trained by wearing a loaded backpack on the treadmill in my gym. I would lower it and go a little bit faster, then I’d put the incline up as high as it would go. I know I looked pretty funny doing that, but I thought it was the best option that I had living somewhere where it snows all the time. I know people who lived in areas without snow in the winter and they were able to train by carrying their packs and walking around and doing 20 mile day hikes.
Did you do the trail with a group or by yourself?
I went completely alone. I made friends along the way. It's a super social trail, so you meet a ton of people right away. The first day, I met four women. We're all about the same age and everyone was alone and it was really cool because we hiked together for a few days and then realized that our goals were different so we parted ways. We still remained in contact through Facebook and text messages and kept track of each other along the way, it was really nice to have that support from other women on the trail.
I also ended up hiking with a girl from New Zealand for a few hundred miles and I hiked with a girl from Hawaii for a few hundred miles and so, it was nice to be able to make these instant friendships along the way because everyone's working towards the same goal and has the same passion. It’s really great in the way that you have an instant connection with everybody that you pass along the trail. You feel like you've known people for years when it’s been only two days but there's no cell service which forces you to connect at a deeper level and it's kind of like going back in time. You don't have your cell phone, you're not constantly distracted by Facebook or Instagram. So you really get a chance to disconnect and be connected to the people that are next to you, in the environment that's surrounding you. It's a really great experience to be able to fully immerse in that.
Was a plan prepared going into the trail?
I think the number one thing with hiking the Pacific Crest Trail or any long trail is that you have to be flexible and be prepared for your plans to fall apart. I had this idea that I was going to try and hike 20 to 25 miles a day and I was able to stick to that for the most part. But there was a day I did three miles because I started hiking up the hill and then a giant rain storm came and I realized I was going to have seven miles of ridge walking, I didn't want to do a scary ridge walk in a rainstorm so I had to set up camp after only three miles.You're carrying food and I’d planned for 20 miles a day, but then if I only did three miles, that meant that I really had to step it up the next two days to make it to town or I’d run out of food.
I’m sure water was a concern as well
Water in the desert was a big concern in Northern California. There were a lot of areas where there wasn’t water. So if you're carrying water, you have to make it to the next water source. So, it's definitely a big motivating factor.
1000 Mile Milestones / Photo: Sara Kruglinski
Is there a moment or memory on the trail that stands out?
My last week in Washington I was in this hundred mile section that was pretty isolated, I checked the weather and it said it was supposed to snow two inches at the most on the top of a mountain, with only a 20 percent chance of snowfall. I went ahead and got ready to hike through it and once I started to get towards the top of the mountain, it was clear that it was definitely snowing more than two inches. It was snowing about 12 inches and I was stuck on a ridge walk. I had to keep going because there was nowhere for me to set up my tent, and nowhere for me to stop. If I went backwards, I knew I had a long way to go in order to get to a place where I could settle for the night. It looked like if I kept going forward, there would be a place eventually where I could set up my tent, it was really scary. I had no cell service. I did have a map on my GPS and so I was able to keep checking my phone to make sure I was on the trail because I couldn’t see the trail since it was covered in snow and there were no footprints ahead of me. The other issue was all the seasonal streams were flowing normally, but I couldn’t see them because they were covered in snow so I would walk forward and plunge my foot into the icy cold water. I had tennis shoes on so my feet were freezing and soaking wet. It was definitely the scariest day when I saw how easy it was for people to get lost or confused about where they were going on the trail because without my phone, I wouldn't have known where the trail was, without my GPS, there was just no way to tell.
Would you say the reality of the trail met your expectations?
I did a ton of research and read a ton of blogs and books about the trail and I had hiked last year a 200 mile section of the trail to prepare for this year. I thought I was really well prepared and it was completely different than what I expected. It was a lot of fun and it was incredibly beautiful but there were sections of trail that had recently burned in the fires and that was really depressing to see. There were days where there was fire in Northern California and that smoke followed me for about two weeks on the trail.I couldn't see any of the view, and it was really hard to breathe. Everything I had smelled like smoke, the water sources had ash in them. But it made the days where it wasn't smoky, and clear so much better because we were really able to appreciate the fact that it was so beautiful.
Was there a point where you wanted to quit or you hit a mental wall?
There was a day in Northern California where it was smoky, there was a fire happening and I had to climb 4,500 feet straight up a hill. It was 103 degrees out and I had to carry all my water, so I had four or five liters of water on me. That day I remember there was no shade and I was just hiking along and it was hot and I was alone and I knew I was going to run out of water. It was not pretty and I just kept thinking “Why am I doing this?” I was really frustrated and just wanted to quit so badly.
I got to the top of the mountain and the smoke started to clear out, I could see Mt. Shasta in the distance and the breeze came and cooled me off. It was just beautiful and I realized that's why I'm out there. It completely changed my mind and I was so grateful that I was on the trail again. And that would happen all the time, where something would seem impossible and I would wonder what I was doing, and then, a few minutes later, something beautiful happened and that would reinforce the reasons why I was out there to begin with.
What advice would you give to someone who's considering the Pacific Crest Trail or another really long distance hike?
Definitely do your research in advance. The people who did a ton of research were able to stick it out to the end and had a better idea of what they were getting into. And I would read. Reading all the blogs and novels the other hikers had written about their experiences start to finish really gave me a picture of what the trail was actually like. It's not always beautiful views, sunshine and a nice light breeze. It's hard, so you have to be able to adapt and expect the unexpected at any time and understand that there's going to be good days and bad days. But the good definitely outweighs the bad and you have to be willing to stick it out through the bad times to get to the good times.
Do you think there's a way to mentally prepare?
I think the best way to mentally prepare is to have people at home that are supporting you and people that you know you can call who will tell you to stay on trail. So if I was having a bad day and I called my mom she would tell me to get off the trail and to quit because she was really worried about me.
But if I call my best friend, she knew that her job was to tell me to stay out there and she had a list of the reasons why I was out there. Her job was to encourage me to stay, It was nice to know that I had that support at home.
Taking time to enjoy a new perspective between Oregon and Washington / Photo: Sara Kruglinski
What do you think is your biggest takeaway from this experience?
There's a lot. I think the biggest thing is learning to be flexible.
One day on trail I was really excited and set to do 30 miles. Shortly in with another girl, we discovered a forest fire. We tried to put it out with dirt and rocks but ended up having to call the fire department, and wait until they arrived. It was important to be flexible and adaptable and understand that things are going to come up that will change your plans.
Positive moments change your plans too. In Washington I had planned to do a really big day and when I sat down for lunch on the grass I saw a herd of mountain goats also eating lunch on the grass. It was so cool to watch these mountain goats graze close by. So I sat there for three and a half hours and watched goats eat grass which is really an interesting and an awesome experience. It was nice to be able to be flexible enough to say I'm going to sit here and just enjoy this and enjoy watching them, because I might never be able to do that again.
Would you do the trail again?
I'm planning to do it again. Once you're out there and really living on the trail, it's such a feeling of freedom and personal challenge and trying to push yourself as hard as you can to get the miles in. Every day is different because you're traveling south to north so you’re never passing the same things a second time. There’s something really interesting about traveling on foot at two or three miles an hour and seeing things in a slower way.
Start and finish, wearing Inner Fire Soul Shorts