Hiking the PCT: 7 Must-Follow Tips for a Successful Trip
Maybe doing an epic hike is on your bucket list. Maybe you’re looking for a challenging new fitness goal. Or maybe you finally got around to reading Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild and want your own life-changing Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) adventure. Whatever the reason, if you’re thinking about hiking the PCT, you may be wondering how to get started.
Thousands of people hike the PCT every year, either by tackling a small section of the trail or by trekking the full distance. The trail runs through some of the most beautiful scenery the western U.S. has to offer. That said, it’s not an easy hike — and you need to start preparing long before you lace up your hiking boots. Wesley Trimble, program outreach and communications manager at the American Hiking Society, offers these tips and tricks for hiking the PCT.
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1. Start Saving
Keeping your backpack loaded with the necessary supplies will be vital to your success on the Pacific Crest Trail, but you’ll also need cash — and plenty of it — to restock your stash when you arrive in a new town. So how much does it cost to hike the Pacific Crest Trail?
“Most people recommend saving at least $2 to $3 for every mile you walk,” says Trimble. That means you’ll need between $5,300 and $7,950 to cover food, supplies, and lodging for the whole journey.
“If you’re on a shoestring budget, focus on saving enough for food, and camp often,” says Trimble. (You’ll need a permit if you want to camp along the PCT. The Pacific Crest Trail Association has helpful tips and guidelines on their website for finding a campsite.)
2. Decide When to Go
How long does it take to hike the PCT? About five months, if you plan to hike the entire trail. The best time to start hiking the PCT depends on which direction you want to go.
The trail stretches from Mexico’s border with the U.S. all the way into British Columbia, Canada. This means you might encounter every type of weather condition, from desert heat to subzero temperatures and snow.
If you’re hiking northbound, “start hiking in late March to early April at the latest,” Trimble says. You’ll start when the weather is seasonable in the southwest and reach the mountainous areas after their snowy season ends.
If you want to take the southbound route, you have more flexibility, Trimble adds — though “most people start in late June or early July” so they’re past the snow-prone areas by the time summer turns to fall.
3. Get Your Permit
Hiking the PCT requires a permit. The type of permit you’ll need depends on how far you’re hiking.
- If you’re hiking the PCT for less than 500 miles, you’ll only need to apply for the permits that cover the area you’re traveling.
- For PCT hikes over 500 miles, you’ll need the PCT Long-distance Permit, which covers your entire journey. The permits are free, but the application process can be competitive — the U.S. Forest Service only allows 50 people to start the northbound route each day.
4. Start Training
How exactly do you train for a 2,650-mile hike? The best way is to start slow — no matter your fitness level — and work your way up.
“We highly encourage people to start hiking months in advance,” Trimble says. “Start by walking a few miles with a light pack, then build mileage and pack weight over time so that you’re prepared before you hit the trail.” The typical thru-hiker should be prepared to walk around 20 miles a day with a pack weight of 30 to 35 pounds, Trimble says. (A good lower-body resistance routine can also help build the strength and endurance you’ll need.)
But be aware: It’s practically impossible to fully prepare your body for a journey like this. “No matter what you do for training, you’re going to come to the trail and have to build up that endurance by hiking,” says Trimble. “Almost no one comes to the trail already prepared for such a long hike.”
5. Get the Right Gear
Since you’ll be lugging all your supplies on your back, you’ll need to be choosy about what you pack. But make sure you always have the following essentials, as recommended by the American Hiking Society:
- Appropriate, well-fitting shoes (you’ll likely go through multiple pairs)
- A map and compass (or GPS)
- Adequate water (and a way to purify it)
- Rain gear and fast-drying layers
- Fire-starting supplies (but keep in mind campfires are prohibited on certain parts of the PCT)
- First-aid kit
- Knife or multi-tool
- Sun protection (sunscreen, sunglasses, and protective clothing)
- Shelter (tent, lightweight blankets)
- Trash bags (make sure you abide by the Leave No Trace ethical principles — and, yes, this includes toilet paper!)
6. Pack Snacks
You’ll burn thousands of calories per day hiking the PCT, so it’s important to make sure you’re eating enough along the way. While you can go into town for some meals, you’ll also need to pack plenty of lightweight, nutrient-dense snacks to munch on. Some of the best snacks for the PCT include:
- Granola bars
- Trail mix
- Protein bars
- Peanut M&Ms
- Beef jerky
- Dried fruit
- Peanut butter and crackers
7. Stay Safe (aka Are There Grizzlies on the PCT?)
Snow, heat, wildfires, flash floods, falling rocks — you may face multiple dangers while hiking the PCT. Keep an eye on weather reports, and have a game plan for how you’ll handle any emergencies so you’re mentally prepared.
If you’re hiking the PCT alone, the PCTA recommends taking extra precautions. If a person or place makes you feel uneasy, trust your gut. Don’t post your exact location online, but do let friends and family know your plans. Consider linking up with a group of like-minded nature lovers.
As for grizzlies — they’re out there, but not as big of a concern as you might expect. “The majority of hikers will never see one,” Trimble says. (The most likely spot for a sighting: North Cascades National Park in northern Washington.) But it never hurts to be prepared, so add a bear canister to your packing list to help keep your campsite safe from critters.