A Pacific Crest Trail planning guide. A way to get an overview of this wonderful trail without being bogged down with lots of info!
Updated January 2017.
The Pacific Crest Trail
The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is the Appalachian Trail’s more isolated, lonelier western counterpart. For almost 2700 miles the PCT travels from Mexico to Canada. From a high point of 13200 feet in the High Sierras to a low point of nearly sea level at the Columbia River it is a trail of extremes. A thru-hiker on the PCT will go from deserts to snow fields. Will see glaciers, old growth forests, and volcanoes. It will also be an adventure that will not be forgotten.
This handout will help you prepare for the basics of a journey for this trail. But, as always, you should consult with other resources before heading out on an extended trek in the mountains.
The Pacific Crest Trail at a glance
- Administered by the Pacific Crest Trail Association
- Almost 2700 miles in length
- Travels through three states (California, Oregon, Washington)
- Goes through all but one of the ecosystems in North America
- Starts at the Mexican Border near Campo, CA and runs 12km into Manning Park, BC, Canada
Appalachian vs. Pacific Crest Trail
- The PCT is open to both hikers and horses
- More gradually graded, easier tread
- Almost no shelters
- Goes through more extreme environments
- Longer days and miles between re-supplies
- Due to the easier tread way and more gradual grade, tend to do more miles per day on the PCT than the AT
- Narrower window of hiking. Can’t start much earlier than mid-late April or you will hit much snow in the High Sierras. Finish much past October 1st (or even around), and you will more than likely have a snowstorm in the Cascades. Reverse problems for south bounding (PCT SOBOs typically start in June)
- Fewer people attempting to thru-hike the PCT per year than the AT
- Higher completion rate of the PCT due to more experienced hikers on the PCT overall (though, that is changing rapidly)
- Typically, if you did the AT in 6 mos, you will finish the PCT in 5 mos. If you did the AT in 5 mos, you will finish the PCT in 4 mos
- Or to put it another way, you tend to do five miles per day more on your hiking days on the PCT than the AT. A person who averaged 15-20 MPD hiking on the AT will typically average 20-25 MPD on the PCT.
- If you were already in good shape when you did the AT, used to longer hiking days and used light gear, probably won’t notice much difference. Most ATers typically spend more time both in camp and towns vs a PCT hike as well.
- Miles per day typically goes up after the High Sierra
- Fewer towns..but the town stops tend to be more expensive. Call it a wash vs the AT.
- An average thru-hike costs ~$1000 per month.
Major concerns for PCT thru-hikers
Most aspiring thru-hikers of the PCT have a few key concerns. Typically they involve desert hiking (sun exposure, heat, water situation), travel through the High Sierras (ice axe use, bear canister regulations, snow field travel) and re-supply.
This section will touch upon those concerns.
1) Desert Hiking
Hiking in the desert is something new for most PCT thru-hikers. Water can be scarce, the heat is intense, the feet often swell up and it is an environment alien to those used to the “Long Green Tunnel” of the AT. In brief, in the desert section of the PCT:
- Water is critical. Pay attention to your resources! I highlighted all the water sources in bright yellow. I found one liter of water for every five miles of hiking was how much I drank. YMMV.
- In recent years, trail angels have been putting out water caches. While almost always there and they are a welcome gift from the trail community, DO NOT COUNT ON THEM. These caches are stashed by the generosity of volunteers. If something happens and they cannot stash water, then you may be in trouble. Think of these water caches as “gravy” and take 2 liters at the most from them. Water cache info will be available via online or other sources. But, again, think of this as extra water and DO NOT COUNT ON THE CACHE ALWAYS BEING AVAILABLE
- On a similar note, a newer resource is available called the PCT WATER REPORT. I held off initially listing it as too many people are relying on caches. Additionally, the caches themselves are becoming a contentious issue (just read the notes in the report!) Plus other resources already list the non-cached water resources. OTOH, there is some good info in there. So here it is. I’ll just repeat again DO NOT COUNT ON THE CACHE ALWAYS BEING AVAILABLE. And on a similar vein, these caches are done by the generosity of others. They ain’t your Momma. Don’t abuse the water supply, don’t leave trash behind, pick up after yourself and don’t kvetch if the cache is empty. Hell, my rather ah, “colorful” Mom would have given me a backhand if I pulled some of the crap some hikers do. 😉 I’ll also do a little bit of editorializing and say I don’t think caches are “needed” on the PCT (or the CDT). OK. Off my soap box. 😉
- The traditional approach that works for many while hiking in the desert is an early start, a siesta, hike to early evening, eat dinner, hike a bit into the night.
- Though it is easier to do big miles, take it easy at first. All those “easy mile” days can be deceiving. Feet tend to swell up in the heat and all those big 25-30 mile days from the start can be murder on the feet
- Sun exposure is a major concern. Sunglasses and sun protection are a must! Wear sunscreen and/or a large hat, long sleeves and long pants.
- Note that there really is a difference between a dry, Western heat and a humid Eastern heat. Different strategies may be required. In general, humid heat makes me personally feel more sluggish but dry heat (with little shade esp as on the PCT) leaves me feeling more dehydrated. Your experience may be different.
2) High Sierra Hiking
As with the desert, traveling in the High Sierras has a set of issues unique for most AT veterans. Crossing snow fields, dealing with bears on a regular basis, and using an ice axe are all issues typically new for most people who have done the AT. In brief, the High Sierra issues are:
- Going over the high passes (and the snow fields typically on the passes when thru-hikers come through) are best done in late morning or early afternoon. The snow is slushier and less icy. Makes for safer and easier travel.
- Many thru-hikers bring an ice axe. Typically, a thru-hiker will pick up an ice axe at Kennedy Meadows and mail it back at Tuolumne Meadows. If you do bring an ice axe, know how to use it. Otherwise it is just a piece of equipment you are bringing for no reason. Take a class, practice or at the very least read how to use it. A classic on mountaineering (with ice axe use illustrated well) is MOUNTAINEERING: FREEDOM OF THE HILLS. If you don’t have access to mountains for ice axe practice, a large snow bank will work for practicing self-arrest techniques
- Bear canisters and there use is controversial at times. Having said that, as far as can be determined; bear canisters are required in Yosemite National Park and in the Ansel Adams wilderness. Other areas (Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Parks) have bear lockers at popular campsites. Stealth camping is used by many thru-hikers in bear country. A thru-hiker will cook dinner, hike an additional two-three miles and camp in a spot that gets little to no use. Look at the various guidebooks for current bear regs. (As a side note, there is a bear canister loan program that has been posted on various hiker bulletin boards in recent years.) Note that Bear Vault had a program geared for PCT hikers in the past. One company even has Bearikade discount rental available for PCT (and JMT) hikers. As of August 2016, they are now required for overnight use in Lassen Natonal Park.
- As with desert hiking, sun protection is a must! The UV radiation is intense at high elevations. Also, wearing sunglasses is esp. important to prevent snow blindness on the snow fields
- Using some sort of lip balm (i.e. Chap Stick) is very useful in the colder, drier and intense UV radiation of the High Sierra
- Speaking of altitude, most thru-hikers have adopted to altitude by the time they have hit the High Sierras.
- If you are an East Coast based hiker, using mail drops exclusively can be expensive
- It is possible to “buy as you go” if you are not picky and do not mind hitching further out
- A popular hybrid is a combination of “buying as you go” and sending mail drops ahead to spots that do not have a large re-supply selection. For example, many thru-hikers will buy their food in Ashland, OR and mail it ahead to such places as Crater Lake.
- New commercial enterprises are mailing out food to hikers. Quite a few. They regularly post on forums and Facebook advertising their services. Some hikers are using Amazon Pantry Service or the Walmart equivalent, too.
- A larger period of time between re-supplies. Typically, you will re-supply every 5-7 days on the PCT versus the average of every 3-5 days on the AT
- Drift (or Bounce) Boxes come in handy for the PCT. If you do not have a person to do mail drops from home, the drift box is valuable for containing memory cards, batteries, map sections and other items you use but not on a regular basis
- White Gas (Coleman Fuel) is avail in most resupply areas if you using this type of stove
- Denatured alcohol (and HEET) is found fairly easily in most towns. Some hostels are stock denatured alcohol for thru-hikers
- Fuel canisters are popular in use. Various towns stock them. Please see RESOURCES (below) for further info on possible town services and supplies.
Cost of a Thru-Hike
As mentioned, an average thru-hike costs about $1000 a month once on the trail. If you take a longer hike, you will need more food, have a greater chance of running into more weather issues, probably incur more town costs and may need to replace more gear.
A good, rough equation for overall expenses is this idea:
COST OF GEAR TO START + TRANSPORTATION TO TRAIL + (MONTHS ON TRAIL * 1000) + TRANSPORTATION FROM TRAIL. = ROUGH COST ESTIMATE
The cost of your initial gear and transportation to and from the trail will differ from hiker to hiker. Do you already have the gear? Or is this your first long hike and buying all new lightweight gear? Do you live in Seattle with (relatively) easy and cheap transport up and down from either termini or are you coming from Boston and need to get some expensive flights to and from each terminus (or a long ass bus ride!)
I feel pretty comfortable with the $1000/mo figure once on the trail. This figure includes food, town stops, and some typical gear replacements (shoes and socks come immediately to mind).
These numbers are for a middle of the road hike. People who want more luxurious accommodations vs hostels take side trips with car rentals (Hey! Let’s check out the brew pubs in Portland for a few days), expensive restaurant meals vs a burger and beer, etc. will spend more.
Other people do avoid some of these costs by having family members ship food/finance part of the hike, do “work for stays” at some hostels (more common on the AT), depend on hiker boxes or rely on the charity of others.
More thrifty hikers, esp those with experience and know the PCT well and/or are disciplined, might be able to go more frugal at ~$800/mo. (And, as always, I am sure there are exceptions. )
- The PCT is where lightweight backpacking seems to work well. Most nights I slept under the stars. Only had to set up my tarp seven times in a little over four months.
- On the same theme, the easier tread of the PCT makes hiking in sneakers very feasible. Most PCT thru-hiker I know hiked in trail shoes or sneakers. You will want to make sure the shoes are well ventilated for the desert section. Make sure the shoes have enough wiggle room as well. My feet grew half a size in the desert section!
- Again, light weight hiking has taken off very much so on the PCT more so versus the more traditional AT. Part of the reason is that after hauling a fifty-pound pack for 2200 miles, most AT veterans never want to do that again! (For any easily offended AT veterans, this statement is called “hyperbole”. 😉 )
- The PCT will not be a repeat of your AT experience. Esp. after the High Sierra you will see less thru-hikers. The town culture is not as established. And you will have a journey that you will not forget
The PCT and dogs generally don’t mix. More extremes in the environment, more restrictions in some of the California state parks and NPS units along with a less of a dog-friendly infrastructure to get dogs around those places (unlike the AT with its kennel a and shuttle services for hiker’s dogs near the NPS units and Baxter State Park). A legal thru-hike with a dog on the PCT is rather difficult.
If you love your dog, you probably don’t want to take it on the PCT for months on end. The AT is very dog-friendly overall for a fit, active, well-behaved dog with a considerate owner (And that is debatable as many dogs don’t seem to have attentive owners! 😉 ) . Some dogs do the PCT and even the CDT, but that is the very big exception to the rule.
Section hiking with a dog, and cherry picking the places and seasons would work better regarding logistics and your dog’s health. Go to the desert when it is cool. Hike the national park units on your own and not have to worry about shuttling and kenneling options. Etc.
And please do not get a fake service dog patch. You are only making it more difficult for those with a legitimate need for a service animal.
The PCTA requests that this info is read before filling out ALL the permits.: http://www.pcta.org/discover-the-trail/permits/
Please note, there are significant changes in the PCT permit system starting in 2015. “Only” 50 people a day may start from the southern terminus. Please see this page for more information http://www.pcta.org/2015/improvements-southern-california-aim-protect-visitor-experiences-pct-environment-27304/
The direct links for the permits are being left in for the PCT users convenience.
Anyone hiking 500 miles or more on a single trip of the PCT can get a permit for the PCT. This permit eliminates the need to get separate permits for all the national parks, wilderness areas, etc. you will be passing through. For PCTA members, the permit is free.
You can get a permit by going to:
Additionally, at this same site, you can get a Whitney Zone permit for hiking Mt. Whitney. As the highest point in the Lower 48 , it is a side trip most PCT hikers cannot pass up. With the appropriate permit, you do not need to reserve a day to hike Whitney (though an estimated day of arrival is requested when filling out the permit). It cost $15 for this permit. Only needed if exiting via Whitney Portal.
There is also a special use area in the Three Sisters Wilderness called the Obsidian Limited Entry Area that needs an additional permit for camping. It is only one mile long, so it should not have an effect on most PCTers. Note that no additional permit is needed to hike this mile.
This permit is free from the Canadian government.
Please be aware, If you are denied entry by the Canadian government for a misdemeanor or felony , you’ll need to take an alternate route that does not cross the Canadian border. See the guidebooks, maps and/or PCT forums for details. Alternatively, you can be ‘rehabilitated’ for $200 and filling out the appropriate paperwork. If it has been ten years or more since your DUI, you may be allowed in without needing to pay the $200. BUT APPLY FIRST, AND DON’T ASSUME!!!!!!
I really would not try to get into Canada without the proper paperwork. If you take an alternate route due to snow, keep that in mind too. :O
On a related note, getting back into the US is a little more complicated since 9/11. You cannot just use your driver’s license. You will need a passport or what I call the “passport lite” (a card for entrance into the US from Mexico or Canada only).
Many thru-hikers will mail themselves their passport to Stehekin.
Non-US hikers will need to do additional research. Non-US hikers have had their queries answered on various forums. This page from the PCTA should be a useful starting point.
Other Legal Considerations: If you go Southbound, you can no longer legally enter from Manning Park, BC, Canada. The US Govt is very serious about this restriction. Fines of $10,000 have been given to hikers. Please read this info from the PCTA site for more info.
Some earlier text that is descriptive:
The PCTA strongly urges all hikers using the backcountry to obtain a California fire permit. The permit covers use of campfires and stoves in ALL Park Service, Forest Service, BLM and State Lands within the state of California. Permits can be obtained at any US forest service, National Park service, BLM, or California Division of Forestry office. They are free and valid for one year. The purpose of the permit is to ensure that people using the back country have all the proper information about safe use of fire in the backcountry. These permits should be acquired before the start of your hike or ride.
Get the California Campfire Permit here
Speaking of fires, land agencies are getting strict with the types of stoves being used in the increasingly fire-prone West. In brief, a stove without an on/off valve is often not allowed. No alcohol or Esbit stoves or campfires basically. Please see this doc I wrote earlier for more information. Please pay attention to the stove bans. Really.
Courtesy of Jester…
Often hand in hand with these stove bans are frequent trail closures due to wildfires. Road walk alternates are available to get around these trail closures.
The PCTA will regularly update their website for any trail closures and conditions and sometimes stove bans. A good rule of thumb is that if there are trail closures on the PCT in the vicinity of where you are hiking, an alcohol stove may not be a good idea or even legal.
North Bound vs South Bound
Though approx 90% of all thru-hikers do go north bound, going south bound (SoBo) does have some appeal in addition to unique challenges. A typical SoBo journey starts in July.
In brief, the pros of a SoBo journey are:
- More of a remote and wild feeling experience esp as the PCT gains popularity
- Cooler weather in the desert
- Longer weather window
- Less rain in the Pacific Northwest
The cons of a SoBo journey are:
- Harder logistical challenges as you can not legally start from Manning Park, BC
- Possible navigation issues at the start of the trail due to the snow pack from winter
- Water resources scarce down south
- Less support overall (may be a plus for the right type of hiker! 😉 )
If a SoBo journey on the PCT sounds intriguing, you should check out this excellent and new site dedicated to south bounding on the PCT: https://www.pctsouthbound.com/
Some other useful SoBo sites include:http://francistapon.com/Travels/Pacific-Crest-Trail/Why-go-southbound-on-the-PCT https://just2hikers.wordpress.com/2015/02/09/pct_sobo_scoop/
The first place to get any info about the PCT is from the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA). At their web site you can join the association, order guide books, videos and other merchandise: www.pcta.org The PCTA has an excellent thru-hike overview as well.
The most popular on-trail resources for the PCT currently are:
- Half-Mile’s free maps and Half-Mile’s app for iOS and Android platforms.
- PCT WATER REPORT
- Guthook’s PCT Guide
- Yogi’s PCT Handbook
- Postholer maps and databook
Additionally, pre-hike, many people use Craig’s PCT Planner.
Not quite as popular yet, but As The Crow Flies puts out a free and no-frills town guide for the Dragnet fan (Just the facts Ma’am). More people seem to be using it. A PDF version is available. Hikerbot is also becoming popular as a smart device app.
See below for information on the resources in more detail. As mentioned these resources above are used the most on the PCT.
Additionally, there some other resources listed below that may be of interest if used less frequently by most PCT hikers.
Wilderness Press publishes guidebooks to hike the PCT and are all available from the Pacific Crest Trail Association. These books are best for informational purposes about the geology, history and general area pre and perhaps post hike. Few people use this resource anymore except as a general reference.
The guide books to get are:
The Pacific Crest Trail: Southern California
The Pacific Crest Trail: Northern California
The Pacific Crest Trail: Oregon and Washington
These three books have the trail maps and descriptions needed for each state. Alas, they have no immediate plans for updating these books
Coupled with Half-Mile’s free maps (not counting the cost of printing; see below for more details on these maps), a PCT hiker could have an excellent alternative to the Wilderness Press guides if someone wants a more traditional guidebook.
Pacific Crest Trail Data Book
Very similar to the AT Data Book. Has mileage guide, water info, elevations, etc. Another useful book. Other resources have mainly replaced this book.
Postholer.com has an online version of a PCT databook as well, and a new set of map books. Scott also has an excellent planning utility based on his databook. Postholer also has a neat little, and free, databook app that also has the weather and makes it easy to post journal entries on the Postholer site. For Android only at this time.
Yogi’s PCT Handbook
The PCT equivalent of the ALDHA Companion. Much info about re-supply areas, desert hiking, what shoes to bring, etc. Much input from past PCT Thru-hikers. Yogi has thru-hiked the PCT three times herself! Yogi also runs a special where she will print out Halfmile’s maps.
http://www.pcthandbook.com (Full Disclosure: I helped contribute to this book as well as the CDT handbook. I receive no compensation other than helping out a dear friend in addition to fellow hikers)
Pocket PCT http://hikethru.com/pocket-pct The Pocket PCT is a lightweight (3.8 oz), pocket-sized (4.25 x 6.88 inches), affordable, and easy to use elevation guide for Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers, section hikers, day hikers and anyone in between. Basically, this is a a quick “at a glance guide” to places along the PCT.
Smart Phone and Tablet apps Many PCTers with tablets and smart phones now. Various apps are now made to have maps, update journals, mark waypoints, etc. for the PCT. Caveat: Electronic tools are helpful, but should not be your only source of info. All electronic devices are prone to failure.
Avail apps currently are:
HYOHPCT: Avail for the iOS and Android platforms. “PCTHYOH puts lots of the info you need while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail at your fingertips in one central location then allows you to use it off-line.” The developer of this app passed away in April 2014. Future development is uncertain.
Offline Maps: Offline Maps done by Noam Gal for the AT,PCT and CDT that makes use other Backcountry Navigator app.
Hikerbot: “HikerBot is a crowd-sourced guidebook and navigation app for long-distance hikers that fully works even in airplane mode.” For Android only.
Mobile device reception: On a related note, check out Halfmile’s page for mobile device reception (cell and WiFi)
Additionally, these maps and resources are available that have been used and enjoyed by other PCTers..if some not used as frequently in some cases.
US Forest Service Maps for the PCT
A series of nine color maps of the PCT that has all the topographic information for the PCT. Some people prefer these maps to the ones in the guidebook. These maps can be ordered from the PCTA.
Tom Harrison Maps for the JMT
A very detailed set of maps for the JMT portion of the PCT. In a heavy snow year, some people have found these maps more useful than the the PCT maps in the various guide and map books. These maps can also be ordered from the PCTA.
The full set of maps for the PCT. Put out by “Erik the Black”, these maps are primarily full color topos with very streamlined info of the above resources. Initial reports are that some hikers very much like the streamlined info; others like more verbose info and want more details. At $200, they can be an expensive purchase vs. the other maps. As always, YMMV. They can be ordered from http://www.pctatlas.com/
As the Crow Flies has a free PCT town guide
Half-Mile’s Maps: Free (plus the cost of printing) and detailed maps you can print out for the PCT. http://www.pctmap.net/download/p/mapdl.html
PostHoler.Com Maps: Postholer.com has put out a collection of PCT maps as well. http://postholer.com/mapbooks/#pocket
Additional planning sources include:
PCTA.ORG Some more info about thru-hiking the PCT can also be found on the PCTA website:
http://www.pcta.org/discover-the-trail/long-distance-hiking/thruhiker-faq/ The PCTA has a Facebook page as well.
The PCT Planner
A great little program for figuring out your mileage between re-supply points
The Pacific Crest Trail Mailing List
For discussion and answering questions pertaining to PCT issues and concerns. Very little traffic.
Though focused on Eastern hiking, there are PCT, CDT and other Western trail hikers in this org as well.
ALDHA-West ALDHA’s sister organization that focuses primarily on Western trails, including the PCT
There is some light PCT discussion on this board
Whiteblaze.net Though AT focused, the OTHER TRAILS, including the PCT, section is getting growing use www.whiteblaze.net
Facebook: Facebook has various Class of 201x PCT groups to now join. Good for sharing information and staying in touch fellow with “class” members. Not good for getting questions answered due to usual online ah, intense discussion.
A site with journals, forums and a regularly updated snow percentage level along the PCT.
Postholer also has a very detailed FAQ on various PCT topics. While my doc is a good place to start planning, this FAQ, along with Yogi’s book, gives many more details http://postholer.com/faq.php
Finally, Postholer has an online databook as well.
Plan Your Hike: A site to help, well, plan your hike. 🙂 http://www.planyourhike.com/
The Hiking Life: Excellent planning page on an excellent site. I lost quite a bit of time just reading over Cam Honan’s website about his many travels! http://www.thehikinglife.com/2010/10/pacific-crest-trail-caorwa-usa-2007/
How to Hike The Pacific Crest Trail Video by Lynn Wheldon
A bit dry at times, but has some good info on such topics as re-supply, crossing passes, desert travel, etc. All the people on the video are PCT thru-hikers. Has been updated. Can be purchased from the PCTA website. www.lwgear.com
The Pacific Crest Trail: A Hiker’s Companion by Karen Berger and Dan Smith
Though a bit older, this book serves as a nice overview of the trail. Not specific info per se, but gives a flavor of what you will be hiking
through. Also makes a good present to give someone who may be curious about what a thru-hike of the PCT involves. Can also be purchased from the PCTA web site.
Books, videos and on-line journals
Of course, planning for the hike can be exciting. But some times it is inspiring to read other hikers stories or online journals:
Journey on the Crest by Cindy Ross
A PCT classic. A candid and heartfelt account of Cindy Ross’ journey on the PCT. Many beautiful hand-drawn sketches.
Along the Pacific Crest Trail. by Bart Smith (photos), Karen Berger and Dan Smith (text)
A book that will make you say “WOW”. Read this book to get inspired to do the PCT! Give it to your family when they ask “Why?”
A Blistered Kind of Love, One Couple’s Trial by Trail., Angela Ballard and Duffy Ballard.
An account of a couple’s journey on the PCT. Have not read it myself, but has received many favorable reviews.
Books for Hikers – Books (and videos) avail. about the PCT. Great resource for other trails, too!
oh..then, there’s THAT BOOK and THAT MOVIE too. 😉
The Walk Series by Scott “Squatch” Herriott A series of funny and heartfelt documentaries about our crazy little tribe
Walking the West: A well done video about a PCT thru-hike. Lo-res version can be downloaded directly. Also avail for on-line streaming in two parts on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5AXhlHoNxo8
Wizards of the PCT: A new, rather funny, documentary by Shane “Jester” O’Donnell
Tell It On the Mountain: Simply put, I love this documentary. It captures the experience of the PCT quite well.
A popular web-site for all kind of on-line hiking journals, including ones for the PCT.
Best of luck on your PCT journey! If you have any additional questions about this document or the PCT in general, please feel free to e-mail me.