This stunning, 2,600-mile trail could take five months to complete. You should be prepared.
While The Appalachian Trail (AT) tends to get all the press, the U.S.’s other long distance hiking route covers even more distance. Many say it is more beautiful too. The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) stretches more than 2,653 miles from north to south across California, Oregon, and Washington, taking backpackers from the border of Mexico all the way to Canada, while passing through some of the most stunningly gorgeous landscapes that North America has to offer. You’ll find it to be every bit as challenging as you expect. Before you go, here are a few things you should know:
When to Start and Which Direction to Go
As with any long-distance thru-hike, deciding when to go and which direction to travel can play an important role in your enjoyment and potential success. On the PCT, however, some of that decision is made for you thanks to seasonal weather patterns and trail conditions.
While it is possible to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in either direction, the vast majority of backpackers start at the southernmost trailhead in Campo, California and hike north to Canada. Only about 10% of all thru-hikers start at the opposite end at the Manning Park trailhead, in British Columbia.
The reason for this is that backpackers have a fairly narrow window to hike through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where heavy snows are possible from October to June. That means that generally speaking, the best time to start a northbound thru-hike is late-April or early-May. Traveling in this direction also tends to provide more water in the desert sections of the trip. It has the added benefit of avoiding the North Cascade Mountains while they are still shaking off the last vestiges of winter.
Expect the Hike to Take Five Months to Complete
A lot of variables play a role in how long it takes to hike the PCT. Covering more than 2,650 miles will take a considerable amount of time, even at a rapid pace. That said, it generally takes most hikers roughly five months to complete the entire route, which is relatively fast considering the PCT’s length and challenging terrain. That means that if you start in May, you’ll reach the end of the trail sometime in September. To do that, you’ll need to average about 17 miles per day. That’s no small accomplishment.
You’re Going to Need Permits—Lots and Lots of Permits
Because the Pacific Crest Trail crosses through state and national parks, as well as numerous national forests, a permit is required for hiking just about any section of the route. Exactly which permit you need depends on which part of the trail you’ll be exploring and just how far you intend to walk.
Backpackers who only intend to hike a small portion of the PCT can usually get by with a permit that is designated for hikes that are 500 miles in length or less. Those permits can generally be obtained at the trail head for free or at a nominal cost. You can also reserve campsites and find permits for federally-managed public lands at recreation.gov, which serves as a good one-stop shop for tracking down all of the paperwork that is required.
If you’re backpacking more than 500 miles you’ll need a long-distance hiking permit, which will cover you along the entire length of the trail. In addition to allowing you to hike the PCT, this permit also grants permission to camp along the route. Be advised however: Only 50 long-distance permits are issued each day and they are handed out on a first come, first serve basis. You can apply for that permit on the Pacific Crest Trail Association website.
Depending on your plans, there may be additional permits that you will need as well. For instance, if you’re hiking through California you’ll also need a California Fire Permit, which is free and can be obtained online or at any ranger station. This permit does not allow you to start a campfire, as that is dependent on local regulations and conditions. But this permit is still required at all times just to operate a camp stove for cooking meals.
If you’re camping in the North Cascades National Park, you’ll need a permit to stay there, too. And the state of Oregon requires permits if you stay in the Obsidian Limited Entry Area or Pamelia Limited Entry Area. Finally, if you intend to hike to the end of the trail in British Columbia, you’ll also need the Canada PCT Entry Permit.
In Case You Also Want to Climb a Huge Mountain
Standing 14,505 feet in height, California’s Mt. Whitney is the tallest peak in the contiguous United States. What many people don’t know is that the long-distance hiking permit that grants access to the PCT can also be used to make a quick day-hike up Whitney. It is a side hike that actually takes you off the trail for a short time, but provided you get to the top and return to the trail in the same day, you’ll be completely legal the entire time. And maybe a little tired.
Carry Plenty of Water
There are certain sections of the PCT where resupplying with water can be a real challenge. For instance, the desert regions of Southern California are often lacking in moisture even in the springtime, and the Hat Creek Rim in Northern California is notorious for its lack of water throughout the year. While somewhat rare, there are times where you could find yourself walking as much as 25 or 30 miles without a reliable water source. In order to stay safe, be sure to bring water bottles, hydration reservoirs, and dromedary bags to help you transport water through these difficult areas. A good rule of thumb is to carry one liter of water for every five miles of trail you’ll be hiking.
Leave the GPS at Home
A GPS device can be a handy tool for navigating the backcountry, but those gadgets can also be challenging to keep charged while living off the grid for weeks at a time. With a dead battery, a GPS device turns into dead weight that just takes up room in your backpack. Besides, the PCT is very well marked and extremely easy to follow, which means you don’t need a GPS anyway. On the other hand, packing a good map can come in very handy. A map can help you to not only find your route should you accidentally wander of trail, but it can assist in estimating distances to towns, campsites, and other points of interest too.
Altitude and Elevation
Altitude and elevation are two things that thru-hikers must always take into consideration when setting out on a long-distance trek. How much climbing and descending you’ll have to do along the route will have a direct impact on your speed and distance covered. On top of that, days that feature a lot of ups and downs on the trail can zap the strength and stamina from your legs too, potentially requiring a little extra time to recover.
Believe it or not, despite being longer and featuring much higher elevations, the amount of altitude gained and lost on the PCT is actually less than on the Appalachian Trail, which includes as much as 515,000 feet of climbing across its entire length. The Pacific Crest Trail offers roughly 489,000 feet of elevation gain, and an almost-identical amount lost. In fact, when northbound hikers reach the terminus of the trail at Manning Park in British Columbia, they’ve only technically gained a little more than 1000 feet from their starting point at Campo in California. Of course, the 2,650-mile route in-between actually climbs from as low as sea level to as high as 13,153 feet, providing plenty of challenge along the way.
Bring a good pair of hiking shoes or boots, break them in well before you go, and be prepared for a lot of ups and downs along the way.
Bring an Ice Axe
Most of the gear you bring on a PCT hike is the same as what you would use on any other long-distance backpacking trip, with the possibility of one exception. For certain sections of the hike it is a good idea to carry an ice axe, as it could potentially save your life in the event of an ill-timed slip on the trail.
Most northbound hikers will at least carry an ice axe—and possibly crampons—from the Kennedy Meadows region all the way to Sonora Pass in Northern California. Between those two points there is a real possibility of encountering snow at practically any time of year. Being able to self-arrest during a fall could make all the difference should an accident occur.
Additionally, an ice axe may be required in the mountains of SoCal following a particularly long and snowy winter. The regions around Mt. San Jacinto and Mt. Baden Powell can be especially dangerous at times, making the use of an ice axe mandatory. If you don’t already own one, add an axe to your gear list just to be on the safe side.
Be Prepared, Both Physically and Mentally
Embarking on any long-distance thru-hike is a serious undertaking, which makes being physically and mentally prepared an important piece of the puzzle. Before setting out, hit some of your favorite local trails to make extended hikes and overnight camping excursions. This will not only be a good test of your strength and endurance, but it is a great way to try out any new gear prior to actually setting off on a five-month odyssey through the wilderness.
Believe it or not, getting mentally prepared can often be even more of a challenge than preparing yourself physically. At times it can get awfully lonely on the PCT, even when you’re walking and camping with other thru-hikers. Prior to embarking on your hike take a moment to consider the reasons why you’ve chosen to tackle the trail in the first place. Then, take things one step further by setting some goals for yourself. Focusing on achieving those things can help you to get through the long, challenging days when the wind is blowing, the snow is flying, and you can’t remember why you decided it was a good idea to hike the PCT in the first place.
Also, allow yourself a few luxuries along the way. You’ll appreciate being able to listen to music from your smartphone, read a passage or two from a favorite book, or occasionally check in back home when you have cell service. Those kinds of treats can make all of the difference and help you survive an end-to-end trek on one of the crown jewels of thru-hiking.