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 Dec 2013.
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 snowfields. 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, Washington, Oregon)
- Goes through all but one of the ecosystems in North America
- Starts at the Mexican Border near Campo, CA and goes 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
- “Trail Culture” not as established, but it does exist
- 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, and you will more than likely have a snowstorm in the Cascades. Reverse problems for south bounding (PCT SOBOs typically start in June)
- Less people attempting to thru-hike the PCT per year than the AT
- Hiker completion rate of the PCT due to more experienced hikers on the PCT
- 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, and used light gear, probably won’t notice much difference. Most ATers typically spend more time in town vs a PCT hike as well.
- Miles per day typically goes up after the High Sierra
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 very important. Pay attention to the PCT Data Book or similar 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. At the ADZPCTKO (see notes later in this doc) and at some places along the trail, water cache info will be available. But, again, think of this as extra water and DO NOT COUNT ON THE CACHE ALWAYS BEING AVAILABLE
- 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 for 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.
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 among many of the PCT hiker forums. 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 bullentin boards in recent years.)
- 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.
- 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 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
- Denatured alcohol (and HEET) was found fairly easily in most towns. Some hostels are starting to stock denatured alcohol for thru-hikers
- Canisters are becoming more popular in use. Various towns stock them. Please see RESOURCES (below) for further info on possible town services and supplies.
- 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 4 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!
- Alcohol stoves were by far the most popular stove on the PCT. Again, light weight hiking has taken off very much so on the PCT. Part of that is Ray Jardine’s influence. Part of that 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 PCTA requests that this info is read before filling out ALL the permits.: http://www.pcta.org/discover-the-trail/permits/
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.
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 PCT-L. 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
Annual Day Zero PCT Kick Off
The ADZPCTKO is an annual event put on by a dedicated and generous group of volunteers for people about to start their hike of the PCT. It is generally held in the last weekend of April. At the KO, you will get info about water caches, trail conditions, and have a great feed-a-thon for the hikers and the good wishes of people cheering you on. The cost to thru-hikers? Zero.
It should be noted that if you attend the kick off party, it will mean that you will be hiking with a large group of hikers (about thirty hikers in the trail towns at one time) from Mexico up until the High Sierra. For those who want somewhat of an “AT” experience to ease them into the PCT environment, it may be good to attend this weekend. If you want more of a solo experience from the beginning, plan on starting before or after the KO. Some people hike ahead and hitch to the PCT from further up the trail. Think of the KO as the PCT’s very low-key version of Trail Days.
More info can be found at: http://siechert.org/adz/
In the past, there have been CA Fire Permit available as well as a mini-post office setup for mailing packages. Please check up on these facts as the KO gets closer.
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 late June/early July.
In brief, the pros of a SoBo journey are:
- More of a remote and wild feeling experience
- Cooler weather in the desert
- Longer weather window
- Less rain in the Pacific North West
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! )
More information:http://francistapon.com/Travels/Pacific-Crest-Trail/Why-go-southbound-on-the-PCT (Strongly suggested you read this if thinking of going SoBo)
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
Wilderness Press publushes guidebooks to hike the PCT and are all available from the Pacific Crest Trail Association.
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 more more details on these maps), a PCT hiker could have a nice alternative to the Wilderness Press guides.
Pacific Crest Trail Data Book
Very similar to the AT Data Book. Has mileage guide, water info, elevations, etc. Another useful book.
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!
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 nice, 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.”
Guthook’s PCT Guide: Another guide in smart app form for the PCT. For iOS and Android.
Mobile device reception: On a related note, check out Halfmile’s page for mobile device reception (cell and WiFi)
Additionally, these maps are available that have been used and enjoyed by other PCTers:
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 essentially 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/
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 web site:
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
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 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.
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 excllent 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 web site. www.lwgear.com
The Pacific Crest Trail: A Hiker’s Companion by Karen Berger and Dan Smith
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 wonderful 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!
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 really 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.
I’ve see way too much of this guy since I’ve met him on the PCT in 2002.
A wonderful, giving and warm hearted person I have the pleasure of calling a good friend. She provides the bandannas you see at the KO. Tell her THANKS!
If you want to see photos and the journals of shortish, heavily bearded fellow who could look like an extra escaped from Pirates of the Caribbean/Adventurers of a Bedouin/LOTR meets a Biker Gang, read this guy’s site.
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.