Picture this: You’re on a trail, 750 miles north of the Mexican border where you started, and the elevation is continuing to rise. After two months of slogging in the desert sun, you feel every rock you have stepped over, every switchback, every mountain pass – and a great sense of accomplishment for how far you’ve come.
But the looming mountain reminds you: There are still 1900 more miles of hiking ahead through two more states, and countless obstacles of terrain and weather.
What does it take to complete the Pacific Crest Trail, the US west coast’s greatest footpath? Perseverance. And passion.
Where is the Pacific Crest Trail?
The Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT, runs 2650.10 miles through the states of California, Oregon and Washington. Spanning from the border of Mexico to the border of Canada. It takes anywhere from four to six months of backpacking. Through one national park and wilderness area after the next, one step at a time. Roughly five million to be exact.
What’s more, the trail covers the most variable terrain the planet has to offer, from the heat of the Mojave Desert in Southern California to the high-altitude granite peaks of the Sierra. Then volcano-hopping in the central regions of Oregon before finally inching toward Canada through the wonderment of the Cascade Mountains in Washington.
Here are the basic skills, terrain, weather and more information needed for anyone who wishes to attempt this grueling thru-hike in 2022 and many years to come.
What to expect on the Pacific Crest Trail
The landscape of the trail: The landscape and environment on the trail change as much as the altitude. One day could be 90 degrees in the scorching desert sun, the next near freezing at an elevation of 9000 feet. Preparation for the daily – even hourly – changes is vital. The lowest point on the trail is only 170 feet above sea level (the Columbia River Gorge on the border of Oregon and Washington). The highest is at 13,200 feet (Forester Pass in California’s Sierra Nevada range). With such a huge variation, you could get altitude sickness in the morning and heat exhaustion by the afternoon.
The weather along the PCT: The weather also changes dramatically and quickly. The desert, blistering in the daytime, can drop below freezing the same night. In the higher altitudes of the Sierra Nevada and Cascades, too, temperatures can range from nearly 90 degrees to below freezing, with snow even in the summer months. The variation can be exciting but prepare for rain, sleet, snow, lightning, hail and everything in between at any location on trail, any day of the year despite what the weather channel says.
How to sleep on the trail: Where you sleep depends on what you decide to carry. Most pack a tent, sleeping bag and sleeping pad for protection from weather and the environment. Yet hikers will cross a road or highway weekly, where it is possible to hitchhike into a town to stay at a hotel or hostel for the night. Be advised, however: most towns rarely have more than a grocery store and gas station. While it’s common practice in the region around the trail, hitchhiking is never entirely safe and we don’t recommend it. Travelers who hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk.
How to prepare for your hike on the Pacific Crest Trail
When to start your hike: Timing is crucial and depends on whether you’re hiking south-to-north (most popular) or north-to-south. If you’re heading north, the start dates range from March to late May; June onward the Pacific Crest Trail Association has revoked any permits issued during this time for a northbound thru-hiker. If you’re heading south, the start dates will depend on the snowpack in the North Cascades of Washington, though they range from early June to September with their own limitations to permitting as well.
How to get a PCT permit: As if the 2650.10 miles of trail aren’t hard enough, the permitting process and applying for one might be a close second. Not only has the National Forest limited the amount of permits issued, they also cut off much of the year for permitting. Limited to just 50 a day for the northbound hiker, starting March first and spanning through to the end of May, spots fill the day the permit applications open. For this year, it began November 9, 2021 for early registration and a second opening January 11, 2022.
For the southbound thru-hiker, the permits are limited to just 15 a day from June 15 to the end of July, then again another 15 a day from the first of August to September 15. Due to COVID-19, hikers are restricted to entering Canada. In order to begin your hike at the Northern Terminus, a hiker must hike north to the terminus, against the traditional start in Manning Park, British Columbia. Permits for entering Canada have been restricted at this time.
With a total number of 8000 permits issued a year for the Pacific Crest Trail, planning your start date well in advance may not guarantee you a space reserved, but offers you the greatest chance at your desired permit date. Should there be no more permits available for your start date or any day in the permit window, you may contact PCTA.org for possible cancellations. Though there is no waitlist available. To begin your future start on the Pacific Crest Trail, you must apply for a permit through the Pacific Crest Trail Association.
Fire permits: Lastly, you will need to obtain a fire permit for uses of a campfire at any location on trail as well as the use of a camping stove. Fire restrictions may be in effect at any location on trail depending on drought or fire weather and each hiker must be knowledgeable of these advisories at their location on trail.
How to train for your hike: Exercises, stretches and other workout routines can be helpful to prepare for months of hiking. Many thru-hikers prepare with trail running. Logging a couple of miles each day in the months before your hike, with slow mileage gains weekly, can prepare both your body and mind for the eight to 10 hours of daily hiking you’ll do on the trail. Stretching, even yoga, can make moving easier and injury-free. After blisters, muscle tears are the most common setback for hikers and stretching can prevent (and even help heal) injuries.
However, the most important training is mental. All the physical training and backpacking experience means nothing if you aren’t driven to make it to the border of Canada or Mexico. The passion and perseverance it takes to complete the trail is often underestimated. Whatever your reason for starting, hold onto it and use it as your personal drive. It will be monumental to your success while hiking and to your happiness once you’ve finished.
What skills are needed for the PCT: Believe it or not, a basic knowledge of camping and backpacking gear are all you need. You will meet other thru-hikers on trail, and the struggles and exertion will often be shared. Spend some time before you go learning some simple map reading skills and basic first aid. And take the time to balance your pack with weight distribution to make the hike as comfortable as possible. The greatest skill you can carry is the knowledge of what your body is capable of doing. Knowing your limits – both physical and mental – will help your ‘cruise control’ stay set.
What to bring on the PCT: Along with your physical preparation and time management, the tools you use are equally essential and can make or break the trip. A several-liter backpack, warm sleeping bag and sleeping pad are a must. You’ll need to choose between a tent and lightweight bivy (smaller than a tent, it covers basically the same footprint as your sleeping bag) for protection from the elements. Rain gear, a down jacket, extra socks, trekking poles, a hat, sunglasses, trail shoes, a backpacking stove, a water filter, a headlamp and base layer clothing are all necessities. Absolutely do not pack cotton clothing – it retains sweat instead of wicking it away, making your clothing heavy and possibly leading to hypothermia.
How to eat on the trail: You’ll need to find your way into nearby towns along the trek to collect food supplies. You can mail boxes to yourself before you leave, for pickup at various post offices or plan to get food from grocery stores. With a basic and lightweight stove designed for boiling water, you can pack out instant meals, mashed potatoes, noodles and oatmeal. Along with snacks; energy bars, chips, nuts, fruit and candy, the stove is great for tea and coffee. Water is obtained naturally, through the creaks and lakes along the trail. You will need a filtration device to drink the water and avoid sickness caused from waterborne parasites like Giardia or H. Pylori. If you do choose to hitchhike, know that people who live near the trail understand the need for hikers to get to town and many are thrilled to see you.
How to get to the Pacific Crest Trail: Many major airports are within a reasonable drive from the trail. San Diego is nearest to the Mexican border and the Southern Terminus for the northbound hiker, while Seattle is the nearest to Canada and the Northern Terminus for the southbound start. Coupled with Tijuana in Mexico and Vancouver in Canada for nearby international airports. Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles are close enough to the trail to be accessible within the borders with connections from there to even smaller and remote locations.
The Pacific Crest Trail and COVID-19
Due to the pandemic, the local areas off trail may be limiting their access to grocery stores and other social engagements to limit the spread of COVID-19. Take this into consideration when entering these areas and use all the tools given by the CDC to do your part. The PCTA also has their recommendations for hiking during the pandemic here. Mailing yourself food to the Post Offices throughout the trail may be the best way to limit your impact. Must you use the local grocery store, please respect the local guidelines and the people who inhabit these small mountain and desert towns.
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Safety recommendations and restrictions during a pandemic can change rapidly. Lonely Planet recommends that travelers always check with local authorities for up-to-date guidance before traveling during COVID-19.