Photo provided by Chad Lubinski
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My Trail Story featuring Chad Lubinski

Being an outdoor enthusiast his whole life, Chad Lubinski set out on a PCT section hike to see if the long-distance hiking lifestyle was for him. He shares about his experience and what he learned being pushed out of his comfort zone.

Natalie McMillan      My Trail Story       10/04/2019
Natalie McMillan
My Trail Story
10/04/2019
By: Chad Lubinski  (no trail name yet)
 PCT Section Hiker – 250 miles this summer
Spring 2020: 275 miles from Campo to Big Bear and possible JMT thru-hike
27 years old

I’ve been in love with the outdoors all my life. After living and graduating college in the Midwest (Go Packers!), I knew I needed something more.  I packed everything I owned and made the move to Oregon. This same feeling came over me in the winter of 2018, when, after going through yet another seasonal depression (big mistake not to research how much rain Portland gets in a year!), I decided I wanted to adventure more and get out of my comfort zone by exposing myself to hikes longer than your typical weekend.  

A hiker standing in front of a mountain on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Photo provided by Chad Lubinksi

I decided to do a 100 mile section hike of the PCT in Oregon. 

And… I wanted to hike it entirely solo. 

Let me preface – to any thru-hiker reading this, 100 miles seems like a chip shot and I totally get that. I’m a fan of graduated practice and 100 miles was still outside my comfort zone at that point in my life. I wanted to make sure I would enjoy the long distance hiking lifestyle before going out and buying all the expensive gear I thought I should own. I also wanted to know if I’d be absolutely miserable or if I’d truly enjoy myself. 

A view of a mountain on the Pacific Crest Trail.
A trail sign on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Photo by Chad Lubinksi

Back to the solo section hike.

 Yes, I wanted to do everything “my way”. After watching hours and hours of YouTube videos and going on a few early backpacking trips, I figured I was dialed in. Hilariously, I only ended up downloading the Guthook app a few days before leaving as I didn’t think I would need it! 

My lovely girlfriend, Karlee, dropped me off at the PCT trailhead at Willamette Pass. Ten minutes into my hike, I had already made a wrong turn and was starting to go under the ski lifts! Talk about being a rookie!

 Oh Guthook, what would I do without you?! 

This hike was a steep, yet enjoyable learning curve. On the first night, fate ended up bringing Salty Dog – a 68 year old hiker from North Carolina who thru-hiked the AT in 2015 and was finishing up the PCT this year – whistling into my camp at Bobby Lake.  From then on, Salty and I became hiking partners for the duration of my hike. At first, I was curious to see how this would play out since my plan was to hike solo and learn everything on my own. 

What happened was better than anything I could’ve anticipated. 

A tent in the woods on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Photo by Chad Lubinksi
A mountain on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Photo by Chad Lubinksi

Fast forward to day two: a dense, dark cloud of mosquitoes pleading to get into my tent, my ankle throbbing, and chafe between my thighs made me reconsider what in the hell I was actually doing after only my second day out. The doubts began swirling in my mind and the thought of completing 100 miles seemed extremely daunting, if not extremely doubtful. However, Salty’s particularly positive attitude about the situation put me at ease. We discussed the general craziness of what thru-hikers go through between our tent walls as the sun was still up (if you’ve ever been through Oregon during mosquito season, you’ll know why!). We agreed that one of the most important things a long distance hiker can own is the space in their mind to put up with suffering on a day-to-day basis, or – in Salty’s words – the ability to get “trail hardened” – letting the natural adaptation to the rigors of the trail set in before calling it quits.

My trail hardiness was tested on this hike as I experienced the gambit of conditions throughout the week – cold rain, a day of snow travel, mosquitoes, lava rocks, and heat. I saw several other hikers getting off trail early, as well as opting out of traveling through the snow that still lingered under the Three Sisters Mountains.  

I started to reframe my mind around how I viewed each of the conditions I was subjected to; I began to view them as a pros vs cons. For example, it may have been rainy and miserably cold the third day, but there was no instances of running down the trail from mosquitoes, and the cold weather allowed for smaller carries of water between sources. 

I was miserable well over half the time on trail, but absolutely loved it and couldn’t figure out why.

I had officially caught the bug.

A thru-hiker in a rain poncho.
Photo by Chad Lubinksi
A mountain on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Photo by Chad Lubinksi

A month later, I used my new mindset to plan and complete my second section hike. This time I was going to do 150 miles. This time the hiking would be mostly solo with no primary mentor. 

The first day I was dropped off it was pouring rain. I woke up the next day to more cold rain, fog, and wind. Salty’s mantra of “Never quit on a bad day,” and “There’s more good days than bad days on trail,” began playing on repeat in my head. For context, the weather was bad enough to make a thru-hiker I had camped with up and quit!

I was fortunate enough to be hiking during the tail end of the thru-hiking bubble. When I caught up to someone (or more like they caught up to me), you bet I was picking their brain. This meant I got to talk to many different thru-hikers about their experiences.

After eating lunch at Olallie Lake, I ran into a thru-hiker sitting next to the dusty trail. We hiked together during that warm evening for a few hours. I had expressed to him the disappointment I had with the weather at the start of my trip. His response was interesting and enlightening. He said that you have to look at obstacles like that as challenges to be overcome. Once you overcome them, you become a much better and more experienced hiker. He also told me that a trick to stay motivated for him was to challenge himself on a day-to-day basis – things such as making himself carry a minimal amount of water for X number of miles or dry camping. He said, “Otherwise, you’re just walking in the woods.”

A hiker posing next to a Pacific Crest Trail sign.
Photo by Chad Lubinksi
A river on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Photo by Chad Lubinksi

Each thru-hiker I met did things a little different, but the thing they had in common is that they were normal people. That’s right folks – anyone can hike a ton of miles, but the common denominator is a positive mindset, dropping the “know it all attitude” and learning from the people you meet on trail. It struck me that if I had been recording all the hikers I was informally interviewing on trail, I could’ve been the next up and coming hot podcast! 

Another mindset piece I developed on this hike was the inclination to always be looking forward to small things throughout the day. This helped curb the monotony associated when hiking through boring sections (yes, the trail will get boring at times!) and allowed me to stay motivated each day.  An example of this would be looking down at my watch and telling myself that I’ll allow myself to listen to music or a podcast in an hour. Looking forward to the giant distance between you and the finish line never did anyone any good. 

The difference between this hike and my first was unrecognizable. The skills I learned in the first section hike were built on during the second. I ended up completing the 150 miles within the same amount of days as my 100 mile section hike (6). Additionally, I pulled off my longest day on trail – 28 miles!

A hiker sitting and looking out at the sunset.
Photo by Chad Lubinksi

To sum it up, my advice to any aspiring long distance hiker is this: be willing to walk (literally!) outside your comfort zone, have little things to look forward to during the day, adopt a stoic philosophy, drop your ego, and LEARN from those on trail. 

We are each far more capable than we think. 

Although I’m not a thru-hiker, I encourage anyone that’s going to be pushing their comfort zone in the realm of hiking to take some of the things I learned from my hikes and put them in your tool belt. It could be the difference in whether you stay one more day to complete your trail hardiness break-in period… or walk out of the woods and back into your comfort zone, as I saw many times on my hikes. 

I often wonder how everything would’ve transpired had I not met Salty Dog at Bobby Lake.

A hiker on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Photo by Chad Lubinksi

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Pacific Crest Trail

The Pacific Crest Trail is an epic journey of over 2650 miles (4260 km) and is one of the most popular thru-hiking trails in the United States. Its path travels from the US-Mexico border to the northern US-Canada border, passing through California, Oregon, and Washington.

2650 miles
$29.99 full guide
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About the Author
A woman wearing a denim jacket and a brown hat stands in a field of wildflowers.

Natalie McMillan

Natalie grew up hiking in Arizona where she fell in love with the outdoors. Her favorite hikes are to Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon and Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park, UT. She loves taking pictures of people and places and nature, which might explain why she has almost 23,000 photos currently residing on her phone. She takes care of all things social media/marketing-related and might be seen frolicking around Flagstaff taking photos of the Arizona Trail.