If you’re contemplating a long distance hike along the California Coastal Trail, you need to consider many things and do a lot of planning to prepare for your trip. If you plan to hike the entire CCT in one continuous trek, your planning and preparations must be particularly detailed. Coastwalk’s 1996 “Whole Hike” took 96 hiking days plus 16 rest days to cover the entire 1194 miles. That amounts to an average of 12.4 miles per hiking day. That would be “The Journey of a Lifetime” for all but the most experienced long distance hiker.
The CCT covers many different kinds of terrain and passes through extremely remote, rugged terrain as well as urban landscapes. Different sections require extremely different levels of hiking ability. If you plan to hike the entire CCT, you need to start training unless you’re already extremely fit.
You can conduct a long distance hike several ways. The most difficult is backpacking the entire trail. Perhaps the easiest would be to use lodgings along the way and eat out daily, but you’ll find no lodgings for spans of 24 to 50 miles along the Lost Coast, at Point Reyes and Big Sur, so you’d need another way to cover those miles. If you plan your hike around lodgings, you’ll need advance reservations for most places during summer. The lodging/cafe option requires a healthy budget. However you do your long distance trek, here are some suggestions on possible ways to go, followed by some essentials to consider.
Use a support vehicle: Vans shuttled the 1996 Whole Hike group to the nearest campsite or hostel, returning them to the CCT the next day to resume the walk. A solo hiker or small group might find a friend to be driver, cook and/or errand runner. A larger group could use van, hiring someone to provide support. People using a support vehicle will still need to backpack the Lost Coast and Point Reyes.
Backpack: The freedom of backpacking means you don’t have to rely on any vehicle support, but the downside is carrying extra weight. Also, official campsites may not be available when you need them. In that situation, the options are staying in lodging or quietly finding a hidden spot to sleep.
Hybrid Plan: Combine various options into your own plan. Backpack areas requiring it and those with good camping. Use van support/lodgings elsewhere. A fourth option: Do as much of the trail as time permits each year. This book serves as a handy way to keep track of progress over the years.
Being prepared is fundamental for any long distance hiking trip. We’ll mention some of the most important essentials. Keep in mind, however, that entire books have been written on the logistics of such trips. For longer treks you should consult one. Several good books discuss planning through-hikes on the Pacific Crest and Appalachian trails. These aren’t guidebooks, but books on how to make a long distance trek. Most of their planning information will be useful.
Get in shape before you start. While this isn’t a mountain expedition, be prepared to hike some long days and rugged terrain. Parts of the CCT cross slippery tidal rocks and climb and descend steep hills. Walk every day starting several months before departure, and increase distances gradually.
Have the right gear, not just a lot. Boots must be comfortable but not necessarily expensive. I wore out two pairs of $30 light hiking boots from Oregon to Mexico. Boots with good ankle support will pay off on rougher sections. Good socks such as the new long wearing, comfortable socks of blended fibers are essential. Carry sandals for wading streams. Comfortable camp shoes are invaluable for resting boot-weary feet. Carry a fluorescent vest for times you must road walk.
Bring clothes to dress in layers to adjust for temperature and weather changes. Bring two pairs of quick-drying long pants so you can switch when a pair gets wet.
Carry a first aid kit including any personal medicines you may need. Include an ample supply of moleskin to protect against blisters.
A comfortable pack is essential. Even with a support vehicle you’ll need a sturdy day pack roomy enough for day gear and lunch. If you’re backpacking and camping the entire way, you’ll need an expedition pack for treks over 100 miles. If your backpack is only for sections requiring backpacking, a mid-size pack roomy enough for five-day trips is sufficient. Packs come in many sizes, shapes, and suspension systems, but don’t skimp if you’ll be carrying it many miles. Before your trek, be sure to hike a ten- or twelve-mile day or two with your pack loaded with the full weight you plan to carry.
Depending on the nature of your trek, you may want a sleeping bag, sleeping pad, lightweight backpacking stove, cookware, eating utensils, good light tent, ground cloth, clothesline, and numerous other items.
When you’re on your long distance trek, pay close attention to the weather and to ocean conditions. Don’t get caught by a “sleeper wave.”
Plan boat crossings in advance or plan on adding miles to walk around river mouths, bays and harbors.
On longer treks, always have a tentative plan of what you can reasonably hike during the next two or three days, including where you’ll spend the night. In the busy summer season, call ahead if you think a reservation might be needed.