Is hiking the Pacific Crest Trail your dream? In this article, you’ll read everything about permits, what to pack, and how much it costs.
Introduction: What is the Pacific Crest Trail?
The Pacific Crest Trail is one of the most famous long-distance trails in the world. Every year, thousands of people attempt to walk from the Mexican border in California via Oregon and Washington to Canada. Only 500-1000 people complete the trail, which is a whopping 2,650 miles (4,286 kilometers) long. If you want to hike the entire trail, you will be on the road for between 4 and 6 months.
You can hike the PCT in two directions:
- NoBo (NorthBound – NOBO) – from Mexico to Canada, most people choose to do this.
- SoBo (SouthBound – SOBO) – from Canada to Mexico, which is a lot quieter. Since only 10% of the hikers choose this option.
You can roughly divide the Pacific Crest Trail into five major sections:
- Southern California: The first 700 miles from the Mexican border. This is also called the desert section because you mostly hike through the desert.
- Central California: Pretty much everyone you meet in Southern California talks about this section every single day. You have to hike through the Sierra Nevada (called “the Sierras” by hikers). One of the most beautiful sections of the PCT (you hike through Yosemite National Park, among other things), but it is also one of the scariest sections due to the snow and river crossings.
- Northern California: Many hikers have a hard time in Northern California. After the Sierra Nevada, the landscape seems empty and boring and the northern terminus still seems so far away.
- Oregon: After hiking through California for months, you are finally in the second state of the Pacific Crest Trail: Oregon. A beautiful state that is full of volcanoes, forests, and the beautiful Crater Lake National Park.
- Washington: Via the Bridge of the Gods in Cascade Locks you hike into Washington, the most northerly state of the Pacific Crest Trail. The highlight in this state is hiking in the Cascade Mountains. And of course, at some point, you’ll reach the northern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail.
In 2019, I hiked a large part of the desert section. In this article, I’ll share all my experiences and tips for the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).
Preparations: Before you start
Before you even start hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, you have to make some arrangements.
When do you start?
When do you start your hike? This is an important question to ask yourself before starting your hike on the PCT. You will be on the road for 4 to 6 months and the trail passes through many different landscapes. For example, the desert of southern California and the high mountain range of the Sierra Nevada. It can be very hot in the desert, and in the mountains there can be a lot of snow. So it is best to avoid the most extreme weather as much as possible.
The best time to start at the Mexican border (NOBO) is in April (when it is not too hot in the desert and most of the snow has melted) and if you walk from Canada to the south (SOBO), July is a good start month.
The PCT runs through many nature reserves, such as national forests and a number of national parks and you cannot just pitch your tent here. You can apply for a (usually free) permit for each area separately, but the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) also gives the option to order 1 permit for the entire trail (free).
If you plan to walk from north to south (SOBO) it is not such a problem to get such a permit, because only 10% choose that option. The other 90% starts at the Mexican border (NOBO) and the PCTA tries to avoid having too many people on the trail at the same time. That’s why they only make 50 permits per day available.
The permits are released two times a year: late October / early November and mid-January. If you want a permit for a certain start date, you really have to be ready at the exact time when they release the permits, because there are thousands of others who want to get a permit as well. April is the most popular month to start hiking, so these dates fill up quickly.
You also need a California Fire Permit, otherwise, you will not be allowed to cook with your small gas stove. You can read all about the various permits on the PCTA website.
When you’re not a USA citizen, you have to check your visa requirements. For example, if you live in the European Union, you usually can apply for an ESTA when you travel to the United States. However, an ESTA is only valid for 90 days, which is not enough when you plan to thru-hike the PCT. You then need a B-2 visa and you must arrange this well in advance. Costs for such a visa are $ 160 and you have to make an appointment at the American consulate in your home country. More information about this can be found on this website.
You also need a document for Canada, called a Canada Entry Permit. You must request this well in advance before you start the PCT. You can find everything about this specific permit on this page.
Where do you start?
90% of the hikers choose to go NOBO, and therefore start in Campo, a very small village in California, on the Mexican border. If you are starting the Pacific Crest Trail as a European, it is useful to fly to San Diego or Los Angeles. Check Skyscanner for the cheapest airline tickets. From San Diego, you can take a bus to Campo.
Would you rather hike SOBO? That is possible, but it is quite a challenge logistically to get to the northern terminus. You cannot start in Canada because it is illegal to hike across the border from Canada to the United States. Most people, therefore, hike from the US to Canada first and then turn around and start hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. More information can be found on this page. The closest major airport for people who want to hike SOBO is Seattle.
What to pack?
You carry everything you need in a backpack on your back. You don’t want to carry unnecessary weight, so think carefully about what to bring and what not.
“What is your base weight?” is a frequently asked question on the trail. Your base weight is the weight of all the items you bring with you, excluding food, drinks, and things like toilet paper. If you can keep your base weight under 10 kilos, that’s pretty neat.
In the United States, a lot of hikers are obsessed with Ultralight backpacking, so some of your fellow hikers have a base weight of only 5 kilos! However, this comes with a huge price tag, and not all the ultralight camping gear is available outside of the United States.
The big three
The big three are your heaviest items: your backpack, your tent, and your sleeping system. If you choose these properly, you can already save a lot of weight. When you pick your big three, keep in mind that you have to use these items every day for months, so choose wisely.
I myself spent a long time looking for the right backpack, I often went to fit backpacks in a specialized outdoor shop. Here you can get help and there are also have weights you can put in the backpack, to feel how it fits when you carry a lot of stuff. Don’t just pick the first backpack you see (or is on sale), since you have to it every single day, so it must be comfortable.
In the United States, you can buy very lightweight backpacks from, for example, ULA or Hyperlight Mountain Gear, but you cannot carry much weight in them. Many people I know have therefore switched to a heavier backpack from, for example, Osprey, because it carries a lot more comfortably with more weight.
You also have to do some research before buying a tent. For example, a single tent is a lot lighter than a two-person tent, but it is quite tight and your backpack will not fit in it. Do you dare to leave it outside at night? That is why most people also carry a two-person tent. On the trail, I saw a lot of people with a tent from Zpacks (which you have to set up with your hiking poles) or a lightweight tent from the MSR brand.
I myself used this Naturehike tent on the Pacific Crest Trail. A lot cheaper than the ones I mentioned earlier, and I really loved my tent! It is firm and spacious (besides myself, my backpack also fits perfectly in the tent) and has a porch where you can put your dirty shoes.
Sleeping bag and sleeping mat
Your sleeping bag and your sleeping mat are also considered heavier items. With a sleeping mat, you have to make a choice between an air mattress or a mat. Although foam mats are indestructible and are ideal to use during your lunch break, they take up an incredible amount of space (I had to store mine on the outside of my backpack). Nowadays an air mattress is just as small as a water bottle, but unfortunately, it can break easily. The most popular sleeping pads on the trail were the air mattresses Therm-a-rest NEO-Air Xlite and the mat Therm-a-rest Zlite.
With sleeping bags, you should pay particular attention to the comfort temperature. Since you are likely to spend a few nights or more sleeping in the snow or in cold conditions, it is wise to get one that is warm enough and has a comfort temperature of -10C or -20 degrees Celsius, like this one.
Other things you need to pack
In addition to the big three, there are a lot of other things you should bring with you, such as:
– Shoes, preferably trail runners instead of heavy mountain boots. Trail runners are lighter and dry much faster.
– Water filter: This filter by Sawyer is very popular.
– Water bottles: almost everyone carries Smart water or Life water bottles. These are super light, virtually indestructible and it’s a perfect fit with a Sawyer water filter. In the desert section, I had 4 or 5 bottles of water with me every day.
– Cooking utensils.
– A puffy (warm jacket), since it can get chilly in the evening.
– Trekking Poles.
– Ziplocks (can be used to keep your things dry or as a trash bag).
– Bandanas (can be used as a towel and to clean your cooking pot).
– Sunscreen and insect repellent (all in travel packaging).
You have to eat a lot when you go on a long-distance walk. You will also have to purchase new things along the way, such as new shoes or socks. What’s your resupply strategy?
Having enough food is very important when you’re hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Think carefully about every section you’re going to hike. How many days do you think you will be on the road before you hit a town? Bring enough food with you for those days plus one extra day (just in case). This includes breakfast, lunch, dinner, and at least three snacks a day.
You’ll burn a ridiculous amount of calories, so make sure you have enough to eat. Also, pay attention to the weight of your food. For example, canned food is much too heavy (also as waste) and it is better to choose food from bags.
You can usually buy food in the towns you hit along the way, but buying food in trail towns is usually more expensive than buying food in larger cities. Sometimes it pays off to stock up heavily at Walmart and send yourself food through the mail.
Don’t forget: leave no trace. You can’t throw anything away while you’re hiking, so you have to carry your own trash until you see a trash can. There are sometimes no trash cans along the trail for days, so keep that in mind when buying food. And don’t forget to bring a sealable waste bag, so that you can easily throw everything away when you are back in civilization.
Check this article to learn more about a PCT resupply strategy and what to eat on trail.
Use post offices
Almost every week, you’ll pass through a village with a post office, which is very convenient. It is very easy to send yourself packages, there are boxes in every post office that you can fill for a fixed price. You can fill these boxes with anything you need (note: no flammable stuff!) The largest costs about $ 20. They call these flat rate boxes.
It’s also very easy to order things from Amazon and get them delivered to a post office. My sleeping mat broke on the first day (not my best purchase), but I was able to pick up a new one at the post office at the next town because I had ordered it from Amazon. That was really awesome!
If you send packages to yourself on the Pacific Crest Trail, you should keep the following in mind:
- Post offices are not open every day, so check where you expect to be when to pick up your package.
- Packages are often held for up to four weeks, not longer. Keep that in mind.
- The post offices along the Pacific Crest Trail have to hold an awful lot of packages for a long time. Make it easy for employees by writing your name very big on all sides of the packages with a thick marker. It is also advisable to put some brightly colored tape on it, for example. If your package stands out, it will be found in no time.
On this page you can find an overview of places where you can have packages delivered at the PCT.
It’s easy to order stuff from Amazon, but if you want to try on shoes or need a new tent, for example, there is one store that serves you according to your wishes: REI. This is a huge outdoor shop that sells everything you need. If you can get a ride to an REI on the way and you need something, GO!
Navigation is pretty easy on the PCT. In general, the trail is very well marked, there is regularly a sign to point you in the right direction. Some hikers also bring printed maps, but almost everyone uses the Guthook app. This app also works when you have no coverage and you always know exactly where you are. It indicates, among other things, where the nearest place is to collect water or set up your tent. Another advantage is that anyone can comment on it, so the information is almost always up-to-date.
Sometimes it is difficult to find the navigation on the spot and you cannot follow the navigation of Guthook 100%. In that case, it is also useful to always have a compass with you (and to know how this works). I had to use my compass a couple of times when the trail was covered in snow. The path was invisible, I got a little lost, but thanks to my compass I was able to find the trail again.
How much does it cost to hike the PCT?
How much does it cost to hike the PCT? That very much depends on how you like to spend your money! Do you already have your gear or do you still have to buy everything? Would you like some luxury during your town visits and book a hotel room for yourself? Or are you with staying at a cheap campsite in town? Are you planning on staying in town for a couple of days? Or do you continue hiking the next morning? Do you buy luxury meals or are you satisfied with a cheap package of noodles?
It can be as cheap and as expensive as you want, but on average, hikers can spend between $ 6,000 and $ 12,000 for the entire Pacific Crest Trail (excluding travel costs).
I myself spend about € 1500 during my 5-week hike on the PCT (excluding flights and gear). Since I had no intention of walking the entire PCT, I opted for a little extra luxury here and there (I slept in a hotel for a couple of nights and went out for dinner a few times). I will share a detailed cost overview of my walk with you at a later date.
Terms you need to know
During your hike, you will often hear a number of words you probably never heard of. These are a couple of common terms.
Leave no trace
Very important: don’t leave anything, just footprints. You must bring all waste with you, including (used) toilet paper. When you need to go for number two, you have to dig a hole (at least 10 centimeters deep) with the help of a shovel or tent peg and at least 100 meters away from water. Believe me, you get used to it.
One of the best things you will experience while running the PCT: you get a trail family (or several as you hike longer). This is a group of people that you meet along the way, at about the same walking pace, and that you meet often. Before you know it, you will know everything about each other. You also keep in touch after the trail.
Trail angels are the sweetest people in the world. They always do something cool for the hikers of the PCT, give you a ride to the nearest village, take you in, do your laundry, give you food, etc. You have trail angels of all shapes and sizes and often you come across them completely unexpected (just when you need them).
Trail magic is an extension of trail angels because trail angels provide trail magic. Sometimes you’ll stumble on a whole dinner buffet in a parking lot, sometimes it is an ice-cold can of coke in the middle of the desert or a bear box filled with good food and drinks. You have to be lucky to experience trail magic, but it is always unforgettable and just when you need it.
You can’t walk 30 kilometers every day for five months. That’s why you occasionally read a zero, a day when you don’t hike. During a zero you usually stay in a city or town, you sleep well in a hotel (if your budget allows it), you eat as many burgers as possible, you can take an extensive shower and do the laundry. You are actually very busy during a zero, but it is really necessary every now and then!
After a few weeks of hiking, it’s suddenly there: hiker hunger. You have lost so much weight and you need so many calories that your body has no stop. Normally you can’t finish the large American portions, but if the hiker hits hunger your plate will be empty within ten minutes. And an hour later you are hungry again. From that moment on you should actually bring more food with you, breakfast twice and lunch twice a day is very normal
All hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail carry something they don’t need. You can leave these items (mostly food) in a number of places in a hiker box, a box, or a cupboard at a shop or a post office. Other walkers may need exactly what you no longer want and vice versa, so that’s how you help each other too.
Hike your own hike!
The most important thing to remember when hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is Hike your own hike. No one but yourself knows how you feel and why you want to do this. Is your backpack heavier than someone else’s? No worries, if you feel happy with it, it’s okay. Also maintain your own walking pace and try not to force anything. You are the one who knows what you want!
More tips for the Pacific Crest Trail
For more tips for the Pacific Crest Trail, check out these pages:
I hiked the first 444 miles (715 kilometers) of the PCT. Check my video on this page. Or get one of these books to prepare for your hike:
Do you have any questions? Leave a message below or send me a message via my social media. Happy trails!
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