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On a PCT thru-hike, you’ll be spending months with your gear. Pick it wisely, and you’ll have a friend who never lets you down. On the other hand, gear that is just “good enough” for a short hike could rub you the wrong way when carried day-after-day and may even lead to injury.
Some thru-hiking gear is the same stuff you would use backpacking, but some is a little different. Since you’re carrying the gear for much longer with a goal of hiking most of the day with less time in camp, thru-hiking gear tends to be smaller and lighter than most traditional backpacking gear.
There’s no such thing as the “perfect gear for the PCT”—only the perfect gear for you. What gear you use depends on your skills and experience. But your choices also depend on your age, fitness level, and any health issues you may have. While many PCT hikers who set out on a thru-hike have a similar dream and goal in mind, everyone has a different way of getting there. Your gear choices will change depending on whether your goal is to hike fast, stay comfortable, take great photography, or see the trail in as many seasons as you can stand it out there.
I prefer lightweight and even ultralight gear when thru-hiking. Walking day-after-day, month-after-month takes a toll on the body, and I find that carrying lightweight gear can help reduce the aches and pains associated with backpacking.
But lightweight gear (heck, any gear) is only useful so long as a thru-hiker knows how to use it in different conditions. Test your gear out on backpacking trips before starting a thru-hike. Here’s a solid list of easy-to-learn, thru-hiker-approved gear for your journey.
Try to keep these major items below 2 pounds each.
Buy this last: Once you know the volume and weight of your other gear, it’ll make your choices easier. A good pack should fit your body, ride well when loaded, and not rub or chafe when you’re on the move. I like the Gossamer Gear Gorilla or its bigger cousin, the Mariposa. They only weigh two pounds but are made of abrasion-resistant fabric—70-denier Robic ripstop nylon reinforced with 100-denier for the Gorilla, 100-denier Robic with 200-denier reinforcement for the Mariposa—that can handle a load, even a bear can and heavy food carries. Most packs of this weight aren’t waterproof, so I always use a pack liner (a trash compactor bag works well).
A good PCT shelter is lightweight, durable, easy to set up, keeps out bugs, and holds up to storms. The sewn-in-Seattle Tarptent Rainbow or its larger two-person version, the Double Rainbow, are a good balance of weight, price, and durability, mixing the light weight of a tarp with the coverage of a tent. They’re 2 pounds or less per person including stakes, guylines, and stuff sacks, and you can use your trekking poles to set them up in freestanding mode (though they're not required).
Sleeping Bag or Quilt
Temperatures on the PCT can be anywhere between the teens to more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, so no one sleeping bag is going to be perfect for every night. Most hikers find a quality 20-30 degree down sleeping bag or quilt to meet their needs for almost every night of the trip. PCT hikers are also increasingly choosing sleeping quilts to get the warmth of a bag at 2/3 the weight and volume. I like the Katabatic Palisade, which uses 900 fill power down. For those looking for a traditional mummy, my go-to bag on the PCT, the Western Mountaineering Ultralite, has full coverage and a hood but weighs less than 2 pounds.
A sleeping pad is not just a mattress to stay comfy: it keeps you warm by insulating you from the ground. That may mean the difference between no shut-eye and a good night’s rest in the Sierra or Washington. A lot of thru-hikers opt for a ¾ or kid-length pad to cut down on pack weight. At 12 oz for a six-footer, the Thermarest Neoair XLite is one of the lightest pads out there and is a common sight on the trail. If your priorities are price and durability, a foam pad like the Thermarest Z-lite Sol is more likely to survive the desert and its cacti than anything inflatable.
Pacific Crest Trail Apparel and Accessories
The easiest way to cut your clothing’s weight: bring less of it. You’ll be stinky, but by carrying only what is on this list, you’ll have all you need to survive most PCT conditions. Use laundromats often.
No matter your hiking style or goals, you’ll want a lightweight puffy to help manage the extreme temperature swings on trail. I find the Montbell Superior Down Parka to be a good balance of warmth to its light 8.7-ounce weight. If you’re concerned about rain in the Pacific Northwest, its synthetic analogue, the Montbell U.L Thermawrap weighs only 2 ounces more and stays warm when wet.
It may never rain in California, but PCT hikers can tell you when it does rain, it pours, hails, and snows. Oregon and Washington can get precip for days. The Montbell Versalite, which weighs only 6.4 ounces, adds enough warmth (but not too much) and vents better than most. That means you won’t constantly be taking off your pack to switch layers. A lightweight rain jacket that functions in this way should be enough to see most thru-hikers from Mexico to Canada. Many thru-hikers pack a lightweight umbrella, which can double as a parasol in the desert sun.
The PCT can be a sandy and gritty trail. I started without gaiters, but after one too many rocks and pine needles in my trail runners, I picked some up along the way. I like Dirty Girl Gaiters, which weigh little more than an ounce, and are made of a breathable four-way stretch fabric that doesn’t cause feet to overheat. Best yet, they come in lots of designs to show your personality, which is important given that you’ll be wearing the same thing every day.
The desert is a sunny place. Bring a hat with good coverage to protect your face. I like the Sunday Afternoons Adventure Hat, because it has a wide brim and neck coverage and weighs only 2.6 oz. Many hikers opt for a baseball or trucker hat and use a bandanna draped around the neck to get the same benefit. Don’t forget a beanie (any will work) to keep your head warm when the weather changes.
Carry an extra pair (no cotton). Consider using long underwear as sleep clothes and in colder conditions.
On a 2,000-plus mile hike, you’re sure to get a few blisters no matter how good your shoes are. Almost all hikers choose mesh trail runners to prevent against excessive foot sweating (which can cause blisters) and cut down on weight. To prevent against slipping, PCT hikers ford rivers with their shoes on, so you’ll need a shoe with mesh that will dry fast. Still, hikers want enough support and cushion to carry them all day with a sole that will stick to granite. More and more thru-hikers are finding that Altra Lone Peak 4 rise to that challenge. Expect to replace your thru-hiking shoes every 400 miles, especially since many hikers find their feet “grow” up to two-sizes over 2,000 miles.
Good PCT socks can prevent blisters, won’t smell, and need to hold up for hundreds of miles. I find the Darn Tough light hikers to fit so well I can barely feel them, which cuts down on the kind of rubbing that can lead to hot spots. Merino wool reduces stink, too.
First Aid and Emergency Bag
I include a blade, dental care supplies, blister prevention and care, Krazy Glue, and over-the-counter meds for stomach issues, allergies, fever, and pain. Sunscreen and sunscreen are both musts in the desert's harsh sun. Bug spray or lotion is useful for many sections of the trail. A whistle and mirror can make it easier to be found if you get lost. A needle, thread, and duct tape will cover most gear repair.
Compass, Watch, Maps, Permit
Just like on any trail, you’ll need your navigation gear. Wildfires happen every year on the PCT, often closing down the official trail and forcing hikers to navigate through unsigned stretches.
Many hikers find the 0.25 ounce Photon Freedom Micro LED keychain to be all they need to zip up their tent in the dark or get up and pee at night. It comes with attachments so you can wear it as a necklace or clip it onto a hat brim. If you prefer a real headlamp, the Black Diamond Ion has an impressive battery life and weighs less than 2 ounces.
There’s lots of PCT hikers, and desert soil doesn’t decompose poop so fast. This makes it all that much more important that everyone practices Leave No Trace. Thru-hiking potty trowels like the Deuce of Spaces weigh 0.5 oz and make digging a cathole the easiest part of the day. Be sure to pack out used toilet paper.
With so many people using the PCT these days, a good water filter is essential to prevent against illness. I like the Sawyer Squeeze filter, which easily screws onto a Smartwater bottle (the PCT hikers’ bottle of choice) or can be used as an inline filter with a hose and bladder hydration system. Its light weight and long life (a million gallons!) make it a near ubiquitous choice among thru-hikers.
Stove (or not)
The PCT has seen huge wildfires in the past few years. In drought years, the Forest Service bans alcohol stoves, including my favorite super-efficient lightweight stove from Trail Designs. Instead of packing canisters or a fuel bottle, consider going stoveless. Instead, you can cold-soak many dehydrated meals or foods in a leakproof plastic container with a screw on lid.
Many of the eight National Parks that thru-hikers visit require backpackers to use a bear can. Hikers can mail themselves a bear can before entering the Sierra and can mail their bear can ahead for other sections where bear cans may be required. At 36 ounces, the Wild Ideas Bearikade Blazer is the lightest bear can that can fit nine days of food, so it will be enough to carry most PCT hikers across the Sierra. Another option is the newly-approved Lighter1, which weighs in at 43 ounces, but has a metal lid that doubles as a cookpot.
How to buy shoes: Pacific Crest Trail hikers go through a lot of shoes—expect to wear about seven different pairs on your trip from Mexico to Canada. For first-time thru-hikers, I advise starting the PCT with a pair of shoes that you’ve worn in and trust, but haven’t used too much. If that pair worked out, when you’re 300 miles into your trip, use the internet to order yourself a new pair of shoes. Have it mailed to a hostel or Post Office near the 400 mile mark of your trip (note: Post Offices cannot accept mail from non-USPS delivery services). If your first pair didn’t work out, find a gear store near the trail and try on some shoes to find something that feels better. Otherwise, you can use the internet to size up or choose a different brand of shoes and have that pair mailed to yourself.
What to ship: The best thing about thru-hiking is you won’t need to start the trail 2,000 miles’ worth of food and gear. Use your guidebooks and maps to find the best address to send yourself gear before you go into new ecosystems. For example, before entering the Sierra mountain range, hikers send themselves a bear can and cold weather gear. When you’re done with cold weather gear, you can ship it home or ahead to the next big mountain range.