The Secret to Planning

I know that for many people the thought of planning a thru-hike is daunting, paralyzing, and one of the biggest reasons people shy away from this amazing experience.  I am not one of those people.  I love to plan and planning something like PCT for me is like the plan-gasms of planning.   Now that my trail season has officially come to a close and I am back working nights at a restaurant I have all the free time I need to start organizing our 2016 thru-hike of the PCT.  I also have the unique opportunity to analyze exactly HOW I plan and pass on that secret information to you.  Or at least that was my goal…

What I realized about how I plan, not necessarily how everyone plans, but how I plan is that it is not, in fact, very organized.  It isn’t easy to write down or sum up, there is no secret tip or carefully devised spread sheet of steps (at least not yet).  In the beginning stages of planning my method is actually very organic.  Let me explain it this way:

This last summer, as you may know, I worked at King County on their Backcountry Trails Program.  We worked all over the county at varying sites building all sorts of structures and maintaining trails.  We were at this one site on Taylor Mountain for a couple of weeks, milling material for a puncheon we were putting in about three-quarters of a mile down trail.  We were responsible for moving the materials down to their eventual resting place and this proved to be a difficult job.  We had to  move fourteen 5′ by 1′ by 4″ deck boards, three 14″ by 16″ by 4′ sills, and three 14′ by 6″ by 4″ stringers.  That is a lot of very heavy wood for four people to heave down the trail.  We tried everything.  Some of the pieces were the right size that we could attach them to a log carrier, some we used straps to carry, some of the smaller boards fit into an external frame pack, but eventually we had a couple of deck boards left that seemed impossible to move without two people just carrying them down trail.  No one seemed to want to do that so I just jumped in and stood one of the deck boards upright and teetering it from corner to corner began to walk down trail with it.  Everyone else proceeded to the work site to begin assembly but I just kept walking my board along, and eventually we made it there.

Sometimes when there is a job to do, maybe it is building fifty feet of new trail or writing your final paper for biology or moving a heavy board, the job itself can seem so huge and overwhelming that where to start isn’t exactly clear.  You could stand around for a long time, trying to plan where to begin, the steps after that, but there are so many possibilities, so many options, any one could be the right one, and you are paralyzed by indecision.  I totally know how this feels, and what I strive to do in this moment is to just jump in somewhere, and start chipping away.  I do something to get the ball rolling and then proceed from there, staying flexible enough to step back after a little while and reassess, reorganize, remove clutter and continue on.  Sometimes when a job seems too big you just need to start at one small corner and after a while you will look up and notice how much you have done!

That is basically how I started planning for the PCT.  I don’t have any magical tips or secret formula.  I just picked a spot and I started.  Things I have done so far:

  • For months I book marked pages online that I had come across randomly that I thought would be useful when I started planning for the PCT.  My first step was to go back through these.
  • On one of these pages a past thru-hiker reviews guides and maps that she used and makes her own recommendations.  After reading this I bought Yogi’s PCT Handbook, Halfmile’s maps (the paper version, but I plan on downloading them onto our iPad as well), and a couple of other books about lightweight hiking.
  • Then I read the entire PCTA website.  I feel like this is a fairly obvious place to start but maybe not.  It has a lot of good information and I took notes while reading, writing down things to remember, download later (like the water reports), check on, do.  They suggest the Wilderness Press Guidebooks but after seeing that they haven’t been updated since 2004 and reading reviews on them I decided not to buy them… yet.  I might end up getting them later because I don’t think too much information is possible when preparing for a thru-hike.
  • By this time Yogi’s book had arrived and so that’s where I am at now.  I am reading that, taking notes, underlining things, making to do lists.  I am going to let that book inform me as to where I should head next, remind me of things I need to get organized, give me a structure for the future’s planning.

Those are the steps I have taken.  The steps that I will take are still forming in my head.  Sometimes I think about all the things that need to be done, I step back and look at the whole, and yes, I feel kind of panicked.  There is SO much.  But that just makes me realize that I am not ready yet to see the whole.  I still need to stay small, focus on organizing and planning more general and basic things.

So, my secret tip?  There doesn’t have to be any secret tip.  It is tempting to look at someone who plans a trip like this and think, “Oh, well I could never do that, they must have all their shit together.  They must be super organized and anal and have a million to do spread sheets.  Not to mention they knew where to start.  I’m not like that.”  Well take it from me, my room is probably just as messy as yours, my hand writing just as bad and my to do lists just as crazy and all over the place.  That doesn’t mean that I am not good at planning.  For me, what I love about planning is how rich it makes the overall experience, how awesome it is to realize how much work goes into something like this, and for that to follow me down the trail.  What I have found is that it’s just about taking those first steps, both on trail and off.  The rest will fall into place.

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As Edward Abbey said, "An indoor life is the next best thing to a premature burial."

17 thoughts on “The Secret to Planning

  1. I have a week-long trek I’d like to do in Scotland but I have a breastfed ten-month old as well as a big child (my husband) who likes to walk a hell of a lot faster than I do. I won’t be doing it until next summer (UK weather is awful, even Seattle weather beats it), but I’m not sure it’s manageable with a baby on board. Do you have any friends with experience of taking a baby on longer treks? Also, how did they manage the added baby gear (we have an Osprey baby carrier, but the bag is small and can hold the just the baby’s essentials which means we will have one proper pack between us)?

    Thanks in advance, and thanks for following my blog

    Yaz x

    1. Okay, I recently was reading a blog by this couple who are planning on hiking a pretty big chunk of the AT with their baby… and I am searching for it but I can’t seem to find it. What I can remember is that one of them was going to have to carry the baby all her stuff and the other one was going to carry all the other gear. So that was their answer to that question. So the blogs are out there, those people exist, I just don’t personally know any of them. I also found this article by the PCTA:

      Another website I found that is really awesome and that I follow on wordpress is They have lots of information about how to hiking with a baby/child.

      Here is another article:

      Aaaaand another one:

      Maybe those will be helpful. I think it would be a really novel experience! Good luck!

      1. Thank you for taking the time to send these, they are great and I have followed the blog you suggested. I also found two very interesting links, one with a negative view of trekking with little ones and one about a month long expedition in Alaska. I’ve linked them in case you find any other outdoors mums asking for info.

  2. What you have written here could be applied to so many situations! I think the idea of just getting started and allowing the rest to form as you continue is one of the best. And always being flexible.
    Thanks for liking my blog about hiking in Oaxaca. Walking, whether in the city or countryside is such a great way to really see. We do not have a car so almost all errands are done on foot (sometimes by bus). An unending amount of interesting stuff is going on out there, and I’d miss it all if I weren’t walking.
    Have a wonderful adventure!

  3. I can relate to it. I love planning our trips. To me, it’s the next best thing after actually going on trips and writing about them. Look forward to reading about your PCT hike. We haven’t done extensive hikes like that yet, but they are on our ‘to do’ list. Reading about other people’s experiences helps to prepare. All part of the planning process!

  4. Sounds like good advise for trail or regular planning. Glad you will be able to tackle the PCT. We will be in Seattle Nov 20-Nov 30. Would it be possible to meet up with the two of you during this time period? Can you contact us by phone or email? Ruth Rowe

  5. Great post. There is no secret formula really as you said to accomplishing big endeavors – only tips and tricks that can save you time or make things easier – and the most important thing you can do is do *something.* I think it’s so easy to get caught up in information overload and analysis paralysis especially that we all forget that just “taking those first steps” is really all you need to do.

  6. I did obsessive planning for the AT because I’m a westerner who was used to riskier hikes than the AT. My compulsiveness helped. Now, I too am planning for the PCT with most of the same diligence, but without the obsession. I also have debriefed a number of PCT hikers, including Yogi herself, and feel more comfortable with the process. Good luck you guys. Can’t wait to follow your adventure.

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