What is the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)?
The Pacific Crest Trail travels, as its name states, parallel to the Pacific Coast along the westernmost mountain range of the United States. From its southern point near Campo, California, on the US/Mexican Border, to Monument 78 on the US/Canada border (or if you choose to cross, Manning Park, BC), the PCT allows hikers to journey roughly 2,650 miles through pristine wilderness through the entire length of Washington, Oregon, and California. The PCT climbs nearly 60 major mountain passes, descends into 19 major canyons, passes more than 1,000 lakes and tarns, and travels through 3 national monuments, 7 national parks, and 24 national forests. While the PCT can be accessed for day hikes or shorter backpacking trips, many choose to thru-hike the entire trail. Though the known speed record on the PCT is 53 days, hiking the entirety of the trail takes the average person the entire snow-free season—roughly five to six months. To finish in five months, hikers must average 17.76 miles and 2,000 feet of elevation a day. The Pacific Crest Trail, along with the Appalachian Trail (AT) and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), make up the Triple Crown of thru-hikes, a feat that only 290 hikers are known to have ever accomplished.
Why thru-hike the PCT?
Let’s break this question down. First, why thru-hike? Kim “Thunderbunny” Sorensen, a 2015 PCT thru-hiker and 2016 CDT thru-hiker, shares her reasoning: “Thru-hiking is an unexplored adventure that awaits you; while you're in it, you don't even realize the extent of the memories you are forming. Each mile, hardship, friendship and life lesson becomes something your heart yearns to go back and experience again. Thru-hiking is a game-changer.” OK then, why the PCT? For Kyle “Butters” Johnson, a 2014 thru-hiker, his “why” was to experience a freedom unlike that found in day-to-day life. “What better way to experience the soul-stirring grandeur of the mountains and wilderness of the West Coast, all while achieving a feeling of confidence, wholeness, and freedom rarely achievable in ‘normal’ life?” Outdoor enthusiasts have been thru-hiking long before it was popularized by Cheryl Strayed in her book and subsequent 2014 film Wild. Paul “Booty” Moore, a 2013 thru-hiker, said he embarked on the PCT to fulfill a childhood dream after seeing two thru-hikers passing through Bucks Lake in 1992 near his family cabin. Moore now works as a USFS Climbing Ranger in Mt. Shasta—a job he never would have found had it not been for the trail. Nick Neiman, who thru-hiked the trail in 2015, did it as a great excuse to quit his job of five years and try something new. Reasons for embarking on this journey are as varied as the journey and its participants, and most will not know the true impact until after completion; Triple Crown thru-hiker Patrick “Texas Poo” Seibt discovered, “Thru-hiking was a therapist for me and I did not even know it. [I’ve taken] what I learned in there and use it in my daily life out here.”
When to start the PCT
According to the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA), about 90% of hikers travel northbound on the PCT, starting in late April to early May in Southern California. It is important to be attentive to weather and snow levels when determining a start date, as snow can often be encountered in the early season only 150 miles north of the Mexican border on Mt. San Jacinto. If you want to avoid the crowds and have the skills to encounter snow, you could start earlier, as Seibt did. “I started [early] in April that year to get ahead of the ‘bubble’ of people that normally started on the 25th because of ‘PCT Trail Days,’” Seibt explained. Neiman started later (in mid-May), and “for the first 3-4 weeks, we generally slept in broken 4-hour segments so that we could hike in the morning and evening and not during mid-day.” So, plan carefully. Or, take your adventure to the next level and travel southbound. “SOBO” hikers, as they are called, will face the challenge of timing their journey so as to not encounter too much snow in Washington (starting late June, early July), but hiking efficiently to arrive in California before the water sources dry up by the fall. Southbound hikers certainly experience more solitude and adventure, and generally will need to hike faster to find passable conditions.
Maps on the PCT
Although there are signs and some trail markers along the way, the majority of hikers carry maps on the PCT. Hikers can be divided into two different camps when it comes to maps: those who prefer to use paper maps and those who use digital maps. These days, most hikers choose to use digital maps: the standout favorites are Halfmile (offering both physical maps and a smartphone app), Hikerbot, and Guthook (an app specifically dedicated to the PCT). These resources are all updated often and include details such as reliability of water sources, hours of post offices in town, nearest campsites, and elevation. Prudent hikers like current thru-hiker Daniel Winsor carry paper maps as well, citing they’re “a must for backup” in case of technology failure. On the other hand, there are benefits to sticking to paper maps only. Johnson did not use a digital app, sharing, “I felt like it took a little too much of the mystery out of the trail. I don't need to see a picture of the water source or campsite, I'm gonna get there anyways! Why ruin that feeling of something new and surprising at every turn with pictures from up the trail….We live in a world of too much beta, too much control. Sometimes less is better for keeping the adventure alive.” Moore adds, “By using an actual map and orienting it, I learned and remembered many peaks, streams and lakes that some hikers forgot or blew by. I marked my camps and dated them, and marked my water sources on my maps...and still use some of them when I go out.”
Budgeting for the PCT
How much you need to save will depend on your lifestyle and how much gear you’ll need to acquire, food preferences, and whether or not you’ll spend your nights in town in a hotel or in your tent. As you can guess, the cost of thru-hiking the PCT will vary from hiker to hiker. The average hiker’s budget is usually broken down into three categories: gear, resupply (food), and town, with approximately $2000 spent on each. “I saved up $1 per mile—$2700 plus $1000 for after the trail,” said Patrick. Hikers all admit that huge savings can take place by curtailing money spent in town, a difficult feat when greasy hamburgers and warm showers are available. “After the Sierras, I got what we call ‘hiker hunger,’ and I had no problem sitting at a restaurant for breakfast and hanging out there for first lunch and then second lunch,” shares Sorensen. There is, however, hope for the super budget-conscious. Moore explains, “If you already have the gear, you can hike nearly for free. Just resupply out of the hiker boxes and don’t ‘zero’ [a thru-hiker term for a day with no mileage] in towns. Just continue to camp.” Hikers overwhelmingly choose to go cashless and carry a credit or debit card. And of course, hikers should not forget to set aside a bit of money for their transition back to the real world after completion of the trail.
Packing for the PCT
If there’s one thing PCT hikers love to talk about, it’s pack weight. As hikers average roughly 17.7 miles a day on the trail, it’s imperative to keep packs light enough to move quickly. Thus, the average PCT pack weighs between 10 and 20 pounds. In fact, reporting from his 2016 survey, Mac from Halfway Anywhere shares, "People who completed the PCT had a starting base weight that was 3.68 lbs. lighter than people who did not finish." Hikers often tweak their packs as they go. “I was pretty involved in my pack weight at first, and in the planning stages,” said Johnson. “I kept a spreadsheet and tried to shave weight within a budget... But I think most hikers find that once you are out on trail, as long as you are reasonably light, 15 pounds give or take, the rest just comes, you learn to enjoy what you have, and refine little bits for the better, regardless of weight sometimes.” For some PCT hikers, the desire to limit pack weight and remove items comes later down the trail. Seibt shares, “I was not really anal [about pack weight] at first, but then became that way after about two weeks.” And then there are some hikers, like Sorensen, that end up adding items. “As the miles went on and I got stronger, I also threw in extra luxury food items and didn't mind the extra weight for goodies,” she said. There are some great resources online to help with dialing in your pack: Walking with Wired and Mike and Sarah break their lists down ounce by ounce, and dollar by dollar. You can even do this with your own pack, using the handy Lighter Gear tool online. Keep in mind too, that the gear that you’ll need in the Sierra might be different than what you want to carry in the desert. Who wants to schlep a bear canister or microspikes when you don’t have to? These items can be shipped to resupply locations along with the food, and shipped home when not needed. Paul "Bronco" Fuzinski, 2015 AT thru-hiker, encourages hikers to make sure that their lightweight choices do not compromise too much comfort, listing good food, an inflatable sleeping pad and pillow, a water bag, backup battery, and portable speaker as items that, though not absolutely essential, increase comfort and enjoyment enough to warrant carrying. Here’s a list of luxury items that thru-hikers are glad they didn’t leave behind:
- “A large battery bank to keep the phone charged so you don’t have to hold back on photos, navigation, and writing.” - Daniel Winsor
- Telescopic fishing rod and lures, shipped to Kennedy Meadows. “I caught a ton of fish and would make fish tacos with wild onions, lemon pepper and garlic salt fried in oil with Tapitio and tortillas. It was great for bartering for cookies or pretty much whatever I wanted.” - Paul Moore
- “Coffee and Cigarettes!” - Patrick Seibt
- “Backup battery packs were really nice to have. We used Anker and could not be more pleased….This meant we could use Guthooks, listen to podcasts and even occasionally rig up an evening movie screening in our tent.” - Nick Neiman
- “My luxury item was a baseball... I don't know where I got the idea, but I carried at least one baseball the entire PCT. I had both hikers and people I met along the way sign it if they made notable impact on my hike. I have two baseballs filled with the signatures of all the amazing hikers, kind strangers, and generous trail angels I met along the way. Sure, it was useless weight, but now I have these tangible and symbolic pieces to go along with all of my memories.” - Kyle Johnson
- “I absolutely had to have my Bible and journal. This journey was about connecting with God. I also prefer good old handwriting over journal entries in my phone; I could never get used to that.” - Kim Sorensen
- “Some way to focus the mind. I chose to not bring a way to play music, and I would find myself begging my partner to stay in a coffee shop just to hear another song. My partner bought me an iPod Mini for our anniversary and had it sent to Oregon—the best present ever. We also brought books of short stories and would read them to each other around the campfire.” - Hillary Schwirtlich
Choosing the right footwear
In regards to choosing the right hiking boots or shoes for the PCT, Mac, a 2013 thru-hiker and currently on the CDT, wisely states, "Shoes are like love. They are unique to each person.” Trail runners are by far the most popular footwear on the PCT, offering both breathability and support in a lightweight package. Current Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, Stewart Moore, advocates for sizing your shoes larger than normal, and purchasing those with ample cushion. Because weather conditions change along the trail and because boots can wear out after hiking 20 miles a day, many hikers will choose to mail extra shoes to themselves in their resupply boxes. 2011 thru-hikers Mike and Sarah started out in the desert with running shoes, and switched to waterproof trail hiking shoes for the Sierra. And of course, if we’re nit-picking about shoes, socks matter too.
What food to pack on the PCT
“…Struggling to ascend pass after pass, and running low on food, I broke. My partner and I rationed for days. My muscles became weak. The Muir Ranch we had put our emergency resupply hopes upon was closed. I quit. I cried. I said I was done.” 2015 thru-hiker Jill’s reflection on the Sierra section of her hike provides an ample warning for prospective hikers to not underestimate their food needs while packing resupply boxes. Additionally, Winsor again chimes in, “I ran out of food before Big Bear, around mile 260. Being 30 miles from food and having to hike hungry ensured I never skimped on packing food again.” Resoundingly, successful thru-hikers’ advice is this: pack enough food. Food on the PCT can take a number of different forms: carefully pre-packed and pre-shipped resupply rations, boxes at resupply points that offer free castoffs from other hikers (see resupplying section below), greasy cheeseburgers, beers, and huckleberry milkshakes in town, pastries from delicious and well-stocked bakeries in the middle of the woods, or even pancakes from trail angels along the way. Hikers might spend just as much money on food in town as they do on their packed food, but it’s a matter of personal preference and budget. Speaking of personal preference, some hikers even choose to go stoveless, saving on weight, space, and time. As a compromise, Moore packed a super-lightweight stove, made from a 39-cent cat foot container that he hole-punched and cleaned. “[It] weighed maybe an ounce,” Moore said, and was fueled by denatured alcohol or HEET. Strategies vary, and hikers will likely tweak their food choices as they travel (a reason for not planning out resupply boxes too heavily—see “Resupplying” section below). “My main eating strategy was to keep things above 100 calories per ounce. Fats really help with that, as they have 9 calories/gram instead of 4 like carbs and proteins,” Johnson said. “Your body really can adjust to utilize energy in a different way, making fats quite a valuable asset to your big mileage performance and metabolism.” But there’s also caution that needs to be taken with the food choices hikers choose to pack, sometimes the extreme, desperate feeling of hiker-hunger can lead to less-than-wise meal choices. “ I once ate a wrap consisting of ingredients I'd been carrying for five days through the hot desert, all of which were ratty, or greasy, or just plain old at that point... Tortilla, spam, butter, tuna packet in olive oil, and cheddar cheese,” said Johnson. “It was a very questionable choice, one that resulted in some rather violent illness at Kennedy Meadows. For a couple hours, I thought I was gonna perish in that place.”
Resupplying during your PCT trek
As the PCT takes hikers months to complete, there’s no way that you’ll start off carrying all the food you’ll need for the entire journey. Hence, the resupply. Resupplying can take the form of picking up a pre-shipped box of food in predetermined towns along the way, or simply buying food in towns with ample grocery stores as you go. According to Halfway Anywhere’s survey of 2016 hikers, 75% mailed SOME resupply boxes, 16% mailed ALL, and 9% mailed NONE. Part of the 75%, Moore said he would wing it it if he ever hiked the PCT again, buying food along the way or shipping boxes ahead when in bigger towns. This method allows hikers to support local economies. “By Oregon, we were calling the trail ‘our walking tour of small-town America’—we loved supporting the small family-owned grocery stores along the way,” said 2011 thru-hiker Hillary Schwirtlich. Johnson recommends Tahoe, Ashland, and Cascade Locks as places with good grocers and good logistical points to evaluate the next couple hundred miles. This hybrid tactic gives hikers flexibility to change their itineraries, but also the comfort of knowing that they will have a resupply waiting in the smaller, less convenient resupply sites. There are towns where hikers overwhelmingly wish they would have sent a resupply instead of attempting to shop in the tiny (or nonexistent) grocery store. However, if you have specific dietary preferences that necessitate pre-packing food for the entire journey, there are an array of tools available online to help you carefully plan your resupplies, including PCT Planner. Additionally, some hikers have what they call “bounce boxes,” which provides a way to reunite with gear they don’t want to carry (laptop, charger, extra toiletries, maps for future sections) along the way. They exchange or use items from their box when in town, and then ship it to the next post office, hence “bouncing” it down the trail.
Expert advice: 6 Common mistakes and pitfalls on the PCT
Hindsight is always 20/20, and looking back on an experience like thru-hiking the PCT, there’s bound to be a whole host of “shoulda, coulda, wouldas.” Below, we asked the experts to share their advice on how to have the best possible experience on the PCT:
- HYOH: Hike Your Own Hike: “Don't go out there to party. Yes, it is fun and social, but go out there to find who you are in there and bring that back out here to share. I personally rediscovered who I was as a man coming out of my ‘youth.’ Spend time ALONE out there. BE scared. PUSH yourself. CHALLENGE yourself.” - Patrick Seibt
- Slow down: “Maybe physically, maybe emotionally. Just clear that clutter. Clear those fearful thoughts, worries, and insecurities from your head. Find a pace that's deliberate, and sustainable, not frantic or erratic. For your thought process and for your miles per hour!” - Kyle Johnson
- Be in shape: “Sure, tons of people get in shape on trail, but a little head start can save you a lot of pain later. Stretch! Sure, you might get away without it -- I did. But I've learned better since then -- save yourself the tendinosis.” - Kyle Johnson
- Break your plan: “We were very regimented in our trip planning, zero days, and it would've been nice to leave some extra time for fun and different stops. We missed Wrightwood and were told that is it a super-fun hiker-friendly town.” - Nick Neiman
- Be open: “Go into a thru hike with an open mind, open heart, and a sense of adventure. You'll find out new things about yourself; what you're capable of physically, mentally, emotionally. You'll find out new things about strangers; how kind they can be; how all different kinds of people can get along, can show each other generosity. There is goodness out there, despite what the news, and politics, and all of today's frantic hyperbole would have you think.” - Kyle Johnson
- Be present: “If I were to do it all over again, I wouldn't fret the little things. At times I was focused on finishing and worried about taking too many days off. How ridiculous! Enjoy each and every moment and catch yourself if you are fretting about finishing. You'll get there -- and if you don't, the trail will always be there. Journal -- you may not think the little things are worth writing down, but the second you get off the trail, you begin to treasure even the smallest of moments and words exchanged with friends.” - Kim Sorensen
Safety on the PCT
“Everyone has their own limits for risk and danger,” Winsor shares while on a town day in Lone Pine, CA. “A few days ago, we were caught in a late-season snowstorm up near 11 thousand feet. Snow was collecting fast, so we'd need several days for avalanche conditions to settle and didn't have the food to wait, so we had to make the tough call to walk 18 miles off trail to get down to Lone Pine to escape a potentially deadly decision. Staying safe is all about good decision-making. Summit fever will kill you faster than anything.” When people think of the wilderness, they often think of unsafe terrain, of wild animals, and of dangerous exposure. However, instead of being eaten by a bear or falling from exposed ridge lines, perhaps your largest nemeses on the Pacific Crest Trail will be mosquitos, hydration, personal hygiene, mental exhaustion, and blisters, along with early/late season snow danger. “Dehydration seemed like the most realistic fear to me,” said Neiman. “Know where water is in the desert! Always map out the sources ahead of you and look for the most recent reports. This is especially important for late starters.” Schwirtlich advises never to rely on water caches. And Moore’s experience of only having 3 liters of water for 25 miles in 100-degree heat is a reminder of the importance of proper hydration. “I was hiding under rocks for shade, rationing my sips...I saw a weird low-flying lizard that was extremely fast. I may have been hallucinating.”
Planning your own PCT adventure
Whether you’re looking to find yourself, get fit, reconnect with nature or for any other reason, the Pacific Crest Trail offers a grand adventure for those willing to take it on. Research, prepare, and listen to advice from the PCT veterans and experts to help you have a fun and safe trek.