Time Management on the PCT
With today's lightweight backpacking gear, it's easier than ever to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail in one season. Snow in the spring and fall put natural boundaries on the window of time available to hike through the mountains, and thru-hikers need to get it done in 5 months or less. This article will cover ways of speeding up your thru-hike to finish in 5, 4, or even 3 months depending on your goals and abilities. The recommendations below are a combination of what I did in 2009 based on previous experience and what I would do differently next time. I hiked the PCT in 131 days and feel I could easily shave off 10 days, probably 20 or more.
Basic time-saving methods
With some research and effort just about everyone should be able to get their baseweight (weight of gear carried in pack, not counting food and water) to 10-12 lbs or less. The PCT was "made" for ultralight backpacking, with its dry summers, warm days, and gentle grade. If you're much above 10-12 lbs., I'm sure you can give lots of reasons why you need the gear you're taking, but you could make things easier on yourself by subjecting your gear list to some careful scrutiny and consulting with some UL (ultralight) folks.
Every additional pound on your back translates into a slightly slower pace and increased fatigue at the end of the day. For people with baseweights of 10 lbs. and above a frame pack will be most comfortable; those with baseweights of 8 lbs. or less should consider frameless UL packs. You'll be carrying a lot of food with you, so even with a baseweight of 10 lbs. you'll often find your total packweight at 20 lbs. and over, when a frame starts to make a difference in comfort and efficient load transfer to the hips.
The effect of 100 additional grams of gear in your pack may add up to as much as one more day on the trail to complete the PCT. Cut down the extra gear and save many days of time.
Different hikers have different attitudes towards town stops. Some love them, others don't. If you want to cut time off your thru-hike, consider keeping town chores to a minimum. Get in early in the morning and get out by noon when possible. It is often hot in towns, and having to walk around on hot asphalt looking for grocery stores and libraries can be demoralizing. If you get into town late, you may be forced to spend the night, losing many hours of trail time.
If or when I do the PCT again, I will make an even greater effort to limit my time in towns and will plan to always arrive early in the morning and get out as quickly as possible. I have many bad memories of baking to death in hot intermontane towns in northern California.
A good strategy for saving time is to buy food from grocery stores where they are large and easy to get to and to get food in packages when stores are small and/or hard to get to. If you can have packages sent from home rather than preparing them yourself as you hike the trail, you'll save a substantial amount of time.
Esoteric time-saving methods
The points listed above are all obvious enough. Now for some of the less-obvious ones — things you wouldn't tend to think of until you are well into your thru-hike.
Avoid fatigue and super-high-mileage days
This is probably the single most important way to shorten your PCT thru-hike. An analysis of my 2009 hike log reveals that much time was lost as a result of trying to walk too far or too fast in one day. For instance, 37-mile days were followed by 7-mile ones. Why? I just couldn't get started the next day and didn't feel like doing anything. A number of times I really got into rhythm of walking fast and let myself get carried away. The next day, my mileage would drop 10 miles or so.
Basically, any time your heartrate is elevated above a certain level for very long (for me probably about 125 BPM), your body is digging into energy reserves that take longer to replenish. It's better to slow down a bit and sacrifice half a mile today than 8 or 10 miles tomorrow as a result of fatigue. The same can happen as a result of very long hiking days.
When I do the PCT again, I'll try to limit my daily mileage to 30 miles, possibly 32 on the very easiest days. Instead of letting fatigue accumulate to the point that I end up needing to rest a whole day or half a day, I'll give myself a bit of extra time for rest every single day, or walk just a bit slower than I could.
Housecleaning on the trail
All clothing should be quick-drying and easy to clean by rinsing. If it's hard to clean, you'll tend to wait till you get to town, where cleaning becomes a time-consuming chore. I highly recommend washing (rinsing) an item or two of clothing a day on the go instead of letting "housework" accumulate. Forget soap — it doesn't make much difference. Instead of aiming for 100% cleanliness, just shoot for 90%. Hang damp clothes on the back of your pack and let them sun-dry.
Same goes for your body. Scrub your groin, armpits, feet, and face on a daily basis — again, aiming for 90% cleanliness. Wash your hair once or twice a week when it's warm and sunny. By doing this you'll spend just a few extra minutes a day rather than many hours at once doing chores in town.
Avoid overstuffing yourself
Ah, the memories of all-you-can-eat buffets at Mazama Village, the 7th Day Adventist Camp, and Timberline Lodge... the feast at Drakesbad, the gorging at Subways... Fond memories indeed, but if I'd simply eaten my fill rather than stuffing myself to the gills, I probably could have finished the PCT an entire day earlier. An overstuffed body requires hours to rest and digest food, as I found out several times on the trail.
Avoid blisters and inflammation
A great deal of time can be lost as a result of blisters and various forms of trail inflammation. Reduce the frequency of blisters by cooling and drying your feet, switching socks, and resting during the heat of the day. Take off your shoes during frequent rest stops. Nearly any anti-blister measures you take will save you time compared to having to treat the blisters and walk slower to avoid hurting them. If you change your stride to avoid tenderness, you risk developing inflammation as a result of walking with an unnatural stride.
Inflammation tends to be worst in the first month on the trail when your ligaments are not yet accustomed to such strain. This is a time to slowly build up your hiking speed to avoid overstressing your body. You will probably save time in the long run by artificially limiting your mileage in the beginning to give your body time to adjust. Perhaps start out averaging just 15 miles a day, than 10 days later get up to 20 miles a day, and 10 days after that build up to 25 miles a day. If you haven't trained before your hike, start at 10 or 12 miles a day. In a month you'll be close to your peak cardiovascular form no matter what.
Cut down on zero days
To get rid of zero days, you must develop a sustainable trail life. That is, you need to do things in such a way that unsatisfied needs such as hunger, fatigue, and grime do not build up such that a long town stop becomes the only solution. You'll need to watch your mileage and avoid overdoing it, make sure you're sleeping enough, keep you and your clothes relatively clean, etc.
A good rule of thumb is this: whenever you have two activated needs, do something about it. For instance, it's probably okay to ignore hunger or thirst for a while, but if you need to poop on top of it, then it's time to stop and take care of yourself. Or, if you're a bit cold but otherwise taken care of, you might just walk a bit faster to warm up, but if you're hungry on top of it, then you should stop, put more clothes on, and feed yourself.
Trail life is full of routines — packing and unpacking, getting ready for bed, getting yourself ready in the morning, making food and eating, going to the bathroom, cleaning yourself, doing laundry, going into town, hitchhiking, etc. To speed up your movement on the trail, get these routines down to a science. Make them as quick and painless as possible without adding more weight to your pack than is necessary. Then walk at a relaxed and sustainable pace as long as you can without getting too tired.
Poor sleep has to be made up for later, so make sure you're sleeping as soundly as possible. A thicker sleeping pad may well be worth the weight; 150 grams more weight may provide you with 15 more minutes of deep sleep a night. That will allow you to complete the trail quicker than without the 150 grams. If it helps you sleep better, consider also taking a sleeping mask or anything else that helps you sleep just as well on the trail as in your bed at home.
Avoid finicky gear
Some ultralight gear is finicky — for instance, poncho tarps. You have to figure out a way to store the tie-outs separately from the poncho, or else use thicker and heavier rope so that they don't tangle. But then you'll have to have a way to remove them in case you need to wear the poncho in rain. For this reason I am no longer a fan of poncho tarps. Your shelter should be quick to set up and fool-proof. Extra time spent carefully storing tie-outs or putting up a finicky UL shelter may negate the benefits of its lower weight. Also, having a few thicker and longer stakes will make it easier (and quicker) to set up your shelter in less-than-ideal conditions.
How you spend your time on the PCT is a personal thing, and there is no "right way" to hike your hike. I am fairly certain that most hikers could do the whole thing in under 3.5 months if they followed all the recommendations here to the best of their abilities. Their bodies are capable of it. However, if you actually hiked the trail at this pace, you would end up leaving nearly everyone behind because most people take over 4 months to complete the PCT. If you're in front of everyone, loneliness may start getting to you. That's one reason why thru-hikers usually don't push themselves to their limits. Furthermore, "smelling the roses" along the way, including town stops, is part of the PCT experience for many hikers. Nonetheless, to finish the hike comfortably within the annual window of 5 months or so, you'll probably need to apply at least some of the principles explained here.