Prepping for the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge

Planning on tackling the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge? Read on for advice on how to train and prep for this hiking challenge! (If you’re looking for more about the Rachel Carson Trail itself, check out my post here.)

What is the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge?

The RCTC is a challenge occuring on the Saturday closest to the longest day of the year (June 21). There are two options for the RCTC. The full challenge takes place between North Park and Harrison Hills. It is approximately 36 miles long (but can vary each year based on trail rerouting). The Homestead Challenge is half that distance, approximately 18 miles long and is named because it is close to the Rachel Carson Homestead. Each year, the direction the challenge travels reverses. In 2023, the challenge will go from Harrison Hills to North Park.

In 2022, I completed the Homestead Challenge. I won an entry from Public Lands about three weeks before the challenge. Thankfully, I had already been hiking on the trail regularly and felt confident in my ability to navigate the trail for 18 miles. (However, I would not recommend this YOLO approach as the best strategy if you don’t already know the trail).

While I might have not known I was participating in the Challenge until three weeks before, I still was preparing as if I WAS going to do the challenge. Below I’ve listed out all my tips and tricks for a successful challenge experience. I’m hoping to tackle to full Challenge in 2023 using the advice below!

Advice for Conquering the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge

Build Up to Distance

The challenge and training for the challenge are (literally) more than a marathon, not a sprint. If you have not been hiking regularly, make sure to start with shorter hikes rather than thinking you can tackle twenty miles right off the bat. Start with three to five miles at first and add a couple of miles each time.

Join a Training Hike

Multiple organizations in the Pittsburgh area lead RCTC training hikes. These hikes are usually a series to get you comfortable with the whole trail and builds from shorter distance to longer distances over more challenging terrain. Keep an eye on the Rachel Carson Conservancy or 3RiversOutdoorCo events pages to find a hike that fits in your schedule!

Learn the Trail

Trail distance is not the only challenge in the RCTC. The trail can be difficult to navigate at times. Even if you know the trail, reroutes are not uncommon and the trail may be different than the last time you hiked it. If you haven’t seen a blaze for over 200 meters, stop and look behind you. If you still don’t see a blaze, you’re probably off trail and you should backtrack to find it!

Reroutes are usually well marked, but you never know!

If you’re not local and can’t explore the trail before the challenge, I highly recommend the Hiker’s Guide to the Rachel Carson Trail book. This book has maps of the trail as well as information about the animals and plants on the trail. My favorite part of the guide is a table that shows distance between trailheads, which is super helpful for planning training hikes.

Test Your Gear & Food

In every sport I’ve done advice about gear is the same – train in the gear you want to wear on competition day. If there’s a bit of chafe for a ten mile hike, it’s going to be a big problem on mile 30. Make sure all of your clothes are comfy for the long haul!

This is the same for food. If you’re doing the full, you could be out on trail for 12 hours or more. Knowing what foods help (or hurt) your stomach when you’re active for that length of time is vital. Personally, I get to a point where I can’t stand anymore sweet items (like all of the energy chews and electrolyte mixes seem to be). I love eating savory chips like Fritos while hiking. That may not work for you so make sure you’re taking all your potential Challenge day snacks during training hikes

My one exception to this rule is the freeze pops that some nice strangers gave me

Hike in the Direction of your Challenge

As mentioned earlier, the Challenge changes direction every year. To help with both learning the terrain and learning what you’re in for on challenge day, hike in the direction of your challenge as much as possible. The best way to do this is with a two car strategy. If you have a hiking buddy, coordinate to park one car at the end of your hike, then drive to the start of your hike. This way you can do a point-to-point hike in the direction of your challenge. I’d recommend leaving extra water and snacks in the car at the end point.

Train Uphills and Downhills

Everyone talks about the hills on the RCT, but they aren’t just talking about the uphills. The downhills will wreck your legs just as easily. Making sure your knees, hips, and ankles are all prepared for the uphill and downhills by training both!

Find a Buddy

Training is always more fun with a friend! If you don’t know anyone training yet, check out one of the training hikes I mentioned above. You may find someone with similar goals as you who wants to join you for some additional mileage!

Are you ready to tackle the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge? Let me know in the comments below!

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