How to Prepare for the PCT: Lessons in Grit

Camping & Hiking expert Kat Keith shares the story of her PCT thru-hike and the challenging lessons she learned about grit along the way.

Stunning mountain vistas along the Pacific Crest Trail.

Photo by Sébastien Goldberg

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“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.” -Pema Chodron

John Muir called The Sierra Nevada mountains the Range of Light for a reason. The early morning sun sparkles on snowfields that rise diagonally hundreds of feet up majestic mountain peaks under a vibrant sky of orange, purple, and red. The snow is solid as I make my way up 3,500 ft to Muir Pass. My fatigue, hunger, and thirst grow as I climb towards the summit while my mind begins to play games with my emotions.

Two backpackers trek through the snow on their way up to a rocky peak.

The Sierra Nevadas on the PCT. Photo by Free Freaks Hike

On the backside of Muir Pass, the afternoon sun had melted the snow, and I walk through this never-ending snow swamp post-holing up to my thighs as each foot mercilessly breaks through the snow without a base. The gaiters offer little protection against the abrasive snow which digs into my skin. There’s no trail, only an endless blanket of snow. I don’t even know if I’m going in the right direction. Seven miles in pure mushy snow with six knee-deep river fords makes my toes freeze. The indifferent majestic gigantic mountain peaks, which usually inspire me, fill me with an overwhelming sense of desolation.

A man stands up to his knees in a snowfield. He leans over as if to catch himself. He's wearing a hat and gloves but looks unprepared for the cold.

The visual definition of post-holing. Photo by Devin H

My body is having a rough time right now. My thighs are raw, my face has blisters, and my nose is peeling. My lips are burnt, blistered, and host a lovely blend of pus and scar tissue. I ripped the skin on my bottom lip off, so if I try to smile, it bleeds. I’m sunburnt and snow blind. The sun’s bright reflection on the snow etches into my eyes like sandpaper.

Yelling my frustrations into the deep blue sky, I hear nothing but rushing water in reply. I almost expect the indifferent mountains to care about my struggles. Maybe if I yell out loud enough, the endless expanse will take my burden away. In solitude, we can’t hide behind everyday distractions, and my wounded soul lashes out. So, standing trapped in freezing water, stuck in the snow, the past, the present, I literally can’t move. I’m done.

Sitting here in this endless snowfield, I assess my situation. I look like a beat-up warrior princess in shorts, gaiters, and a sports bra on a journey to save the planet. If only I felt like a warrior. I have three options, go back the way I came into the pain of the past, stay stuck where I am, or go forward down the trail into the future. I know that standing here crying, stuck in water and snow, will not get me anywhere in life.

I tend to talk to the mountains; I have no one else to talk to usually.

“Is this what I’ve been doing all year? Have I been standing still, stuck in misery, too desperate to move?”

The mountains don’t give me a reply. Or rather, the answer is obvious. Time to take a step forward, time to accept that I made mistakes and hurt people. Time to move on.

“I can’t!” I scream at the top of my lungs. The echo bounces off the snow and rock and returns to me in orchestrated harmony. “I can’t, I can’t, you can’t.” That just pisses me off.

“Who are you to tell me I can’t? I can do anything I put my mind to!” I cry out to the snow that is trapping me in my story of helpless victimhood. But then, screw it; I get mad.

I take a few deep breaths to calm my nerves and gather my grit before taking a giant step. Holding my breath, I commit to this step, only to fall through once more and crack my knee on a sharp rock. I watched the snow turn red with my blood.

“Give me your all—I dare you!” I shout at the moon.

I want to live, to dream, to love, to soar, and to laugh. I no longer care what the cost. I need to believe in myself again. Resolve fills me. I don’t care if I bash my knee with every step; I will keep walking. Every step forward is a step closer to my truth.

“Whatever the pain, whatever the cost, that is the step I promise to keep making myself every day of my life,” I vow aloud to the moon. Or rather, to myself.

A hut made of stones sits in a shallow dip between ridge crests. The ground is snowy but the sky is blue.

John Muir Hut atop Muir Pass. Photo by Kat Keith

We all have our reason for wanting to do an extended thru-hike. I took off to solo hike the PCT to heal from my difficult teenage years. There is a spiritual exchange in the wilderness when you are willing to let go of the security of company and gift yourself with solitude. The PCT was a lesson in hard-core grit generation for me. Grit is strength, courage, resilience, heart, being able to bounce back from failure, and the willpower to never give up. There were countless moments that I would scream out loud at the world.

When you are past your breaking point on the PCT, or even a challenging two-mile hike, there are times when you just can’t go on; life collides in on itself. For me, I didn’t know if it was my past, my weak soul, or my lack of control over things I couldn’t change. But, as I kept taking one step in front of the other, I made it down that trail and learned how to manage life. All we can do is take things one step at a time, being fluid along the way. That is generating grit. That is why adventure sports call out to me.

A sign rises along the right-hand side of the image. It spells out, "PCT" vertically, and below the text is a Pacific Crest Trail sticker that someone added. The trail, in a desert environment, extends beyond it.

Trail marker along the PCT. Photo by Rob Bertholf

How we pick ourselves up after a breaking point defines our capacity to fully engage with life. It’s not the fact that we broke; it’s how we get back up. And to get up takes grit. We need grit, and getting outdoors creates it for us. So, if you want to be prepared for an upcoming adventure, you can intentionally create grit scenarios to build up your resilience early.

Developing Grit

You can go online and find ways to develop grit. However, you won’t find the one crucial ingredient: you have to invest your soul into the process. You can’t just dip your toe and test the waters to decide or look outside to see if the weather is nice enough to generate grit. You have to engage your mind, body, and soul because that’s what it takes if you want to achieve maximum performance and ensure you can handle what life may throw at you.

A rocky, gravelly trail extends forward through the fog. Spindly pines line the left-hand side of the trail.

Foggy Days on the PCT. Photo by Dave Hoefler

There are a couple of simple tools to help you down the path of developing grit. So that when you are in a challenging situation, you can have something to guide you through it. For example, one tool is to “find your why.” I carry a picture of my daughter on the seat of my dogsled. When I’m struggling or feel that I’m on the brink of failure, I can look at her picture, and she gives me the strength to get through. That builds grit. Find your why and keep it with you. I explore more ways to generate grit below.

Steps to Develop Grit

We must learn to sit with our discomfort, manage the pain, and breathe through it. Use the tactics below to build up the long-lasting grit which will remain with you. Know that on the other side of it, you are rewarded with an increase in confidence, inner knowledge, and a greater tolerance for distress and suffering when it exists in life and on the trail. 1. Learn about your body-mind connection: When our physical body breaks down, our emotions and mind quickly follow. Use this pain as fuel to keep moving forward through the tough times. Hold onto the beauty and joy, but release the pain. 2. Develop a goal or dream larger than yourself: For me, this was hiking the PCT. A defined goal will propel you forward and provide the motivation to get you up day after day through tireless work and insurmountable odds. 3. Embrace failure: Be okay with failure and even flexible with the occasional disaster. Failure is not easy to deal with and takes time to recover from. The key to generating grit is learning to pick yourself up again, recognizing that failure is a detour that still leads to your destination. Life happens in the detours. 4. Face your fears: Facing down fear in its various forms is critical because it can freeze you in your tracks. Working through your fears is key to developing grit. Starting with more minor worries can give you practice on building grit. Then apply grit to more crippling fears, such as the fear of a bear eating all your food and then you! 5. Balance strength and vulnerability: Being emotionally and mentally strong when you are open and vulnerable is incredibly difficult. It is also critical to developing grit. This delicate art form takes practice. Being able to breathe through the times when you most want to quit yet standing resolute is one of the most critical aspects of living.

On the PCT, I was 19 and super poor. I had a whopping $10 in the dropboxes which I prepared ahead of time and shipped out to the resupply points along the PCT. I managed to live on this until I became very ill with giardia. I couldn’t walk more than two miles, but I needed to see a doctor and get Flagyl. I stopped in Lake Tahoe to be a waitress for a couple of weeks until I could afford the pills. Getting further sidetracked, I heard about a sacred Native American ceremony called a Sundance being hosted in Arizona and hitchhiked there—which is totally another story, but it saved my life.

Alaska or Bust! Photo by Kat Keith

I was going to finish the thru-hike the following year, but my childhood dream of going to Alaska, the Last Frontier, couldn’t be denied anymore. At 21, I found a short bus converted into an ice cream truck and drove north without looking back. My soon-to-be canine companions were waiting for me to hit the trail together, but this time on a dogsled.

You see, even the best-planned out adventures get side-railed, but having innate resilience will see you through with flying colors.

We can quickly develop grit from the suffering caused by improper gear on the trail. However, the misery caused by incorrect or lacking preparation isn’t an ideal scenario, as this can result in a prematurely short trip. Fellow Camping & Hiking expert, Amy B., compiled a great starting gear list in her article Hiking 101. Expert Hannah K. details the 10 ways thru-hiking changes your life in her article, to get you prepared for this transformative experience. I recommend reaching out to me or another of our Curated Camping & Hiking experts to help you get dialed in. Bounce your equipment list off of us, and let us help ensure that you can give your next adventure your all.

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Written By
Kat Keith
Kat Keith
Camping & Hiking Expert
After living a subsistence lifestyle off-grid above the Arctic Circle for five years, Katherine Keith went to the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. There she got her pilot’s license, became an EMT, and graduated with an interdisciplinary degree in Renewable Energy Engineering. ​ As a wilderness athle...
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