Picture this: you’re on a trail, 750 miles north of the Mexico 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 1,900 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.
Mt. Hood National Forest is one of many highlights on the Pacific Crest Trail © Dee Browning / Shutterstock
The Pacific Crest Trail runs 2,650 miles through California, Oregon, and Washington, spanning from the border of Mexico to the border of Canada. It takes anywhere from four to six months of hiking, week by week, from one national park and wilderness area to the next.
What’s more, the trail covers the most variable terrain the planet has to offer, from the heat of the Mojave Desert in California to the high-altitude granite peaks of the Sierras. 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.
The desert sections of trail are incredibly demanding physically, yet stunning in their own way © Sean Jansen / Lonely Planet
What to expect
Terrain: 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 9,000 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.
Weather: 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 the trail.
Accommodation: 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.
Following the footsteps of John Muir, the Sierra Nevada section of the trail is a favorite to many, and for good reason © Sean Jansen / Lonely Planet
When to 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 late March to late May; any later and you’ll be trying to conquer the mountains in the snowy months of winter. If you’re heading south, the start dates will depend on the snow pack in the Cascades, though they typically range from early June to late July.
Training: 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 most 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, so 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.
Climbing out of Cascade Locks and the lowest point on the trail, the rain and trees dominate the landscape for much of Washington © Sean Jansen / Lonely Planet
Skills: Believe it or not, a basic knowledge of camping and backpacking gear are really all you need. You will meet other thru-hikers on the 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.
Gear: 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 but lightweight 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 don’t pack cotton clothing – it retains sweat instead of wicking it away, making your clothing heavy and possibly leading to hypothermia.
The weather on the Pacific Crest Trail decides to switch when it pleases. An early September snowfall in the Cascades isn't much of a surprise © Sean Jansen / Lonely Planet
Provisions: You’ll need to find your way into nearby towns at some points 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. 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.
Getting there: Regardless of where you’re from, all hikers need to get a trail permit in order to hike. The Pacific Crest Trail Association has an online application, and you should apply early in the year to secure an available start date. Many dates are limited to a certain number of hikers and those who apply late must start on dates available. Many major airports are within a reasonable drive from the trail. San Diego is nearest to the Mexico border for the northbound hiker, while Seattle is the nearest to Canada for the southbound start. Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles are close enough to the trail to be accessible.
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