The Pacific Crest Trail, also known as the PCT, is America’s second longest trail, stretching from Mexico to Canada through the states of California, Oregon, and Washington. Adventurous hikers looking for a challenge will take the high route through the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges and witness some of America’s most scenic and varied terrain—from scorching desserts to snowy mountains—along the way. Whether you decide to thru-hike the PCT or enjoy its beauty in sections, here is everything you need to know to prepare for this life-list wilderness adventure.
Want to kick-start your thru-hiking skills? Take our Thru-Hiking 101 class, featuring expert long-distance hiker Liz "Snorkel" Thomas.
The Pacific Crest Trail is 2,650 miles long (4,265 kilometers. Starting in Campo, a small town on the United States-Mexico border, it goes through California, Oregon, and Washington before reaching its northern terminus at the United States-Canada border in Manning Park, British Columbia.
You might find other sources reporting numbers that are slightly lower or higher than 2,650 miles, and there are two reasons for that discrepancy:
Thru-hiking (hiking a trail its entirety in one season) is a long-term commitment. For the average hiker, it takes about 4-6 months. However long you take, plan on finishing before winter’s inhospitable weather strikes.
Hiking anywhere from 10-20 miles a day is the norm, but most people walk faster in the dessert and slower in the snow. Don’t worry if on some days you take a “zero,” or don’t clock any miles at all. To keep you on track with your timeline, forget calculating average miles per day, and instead, set a destination goal (e.g. “I should be in Northern California by June”).
Experienced hikers have finished the trail in less than two months. But a speed hike is no easy feat: Those fit few who have finished in under 100 days averaged about 30 miles a day.
Going northbound or southbound is an important choice, because the weather will be starkly different depending on whether you start in Canada or Southern California. You should start in late April if you’re going northbound and late June if you’re going southbound. Map out anticipated weather for each location (state, geographic area, or resupply station). It helps with your resupply strategy, so you’ll know exactly what sort of gear to send yourself on the trail. Keep in mind that 90% of PCT thru-hikers go northbound because the weather and other logistics are less challenging when traveling north.
You’ll need three permits. All of these are free and easy to obtain.
You should plan to complete the hike within 6 months, otherwise you’ll freeze to death (possibly literally) during the colder months. Most people over 10-20 miles a day, with a 16-mile-a-day average. Some days you’ll walk more; some days you won’t walk as much. Create a rough plan of where you’ll be each week and each month, and consider the weather when planning. Keep in mind that once you’re on the trail, your rigid plans will likely derail, and you’ll rely on spontaneity to make it through.
Besides training physically for an epic thru-hike, PCT aspirants need to prepare mentally as well. Write down a list of reasons why you’re doing this hike and memorize this list to help you pull through when you’re exhausted, beaten up, and questioning why you subjected yourself to this endeavor in the first place. Read blogs and books written by people who have done thru-hikes before; Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, is the most famous of these, but definitely not the only one.
In addition to the big-ticket necessities recommended in the Ultimate Gear Packing List, the following items are necessary for every thru-hike.
Of all the silly things you could do on this trip (and there will be many silly stories), buying 6 months of food in advance would be the worst. Unless you’ve gone on long thru-hikes before, you won’t know how much you’ll eat, and more importantly, what foods you’ll like eating. You’ll likely get sick of the food you packed and wish you had more variety. Pack snacks and meals for the first leg of your trip, but plan on buying food in resupply towns on the trail, which is less expensive than shipping a box from home. You can also buy food on the trail and ship it to a resupply point further up the trail.
In a survey on resupply strategy conducted by Halfwayanywhere, most hikers recommend sending resupply boxes while on the trail. You can also send half from home and half on the trail. Most people sent an average of 10 resupply boxes, and they recommend sending them to the following resupply stations.
These are listed from south to north.
Tip: Because the first leg of your hike will be through desert, you’ll be carrying a lot of water. To cut down on weight, buy food on the trail until you reach the Sierras.
Tip: You can stick a mailing label on a bear can and mail without a box.
The following are general recommendations. These foods are all high in calories, fat, protein, and nutrients and are easy to pack. Note that you will need to eat an additional 2,000 calories a day on top of your normal calorie intake. Most hikers pack:
Consider your health and fitness level when choosing. NOBO thru-hikers should start in late April and SOBO thru-hikers should begin in mid-June or early July for the best chances of successfully completing the entire trek.
Nearly 90% of PCT thru-hikers go northbound. It is recommended to start south and go north for several reasons:
With that said, there are still benefits to hiking southbound. Below are pros and cons for going southbound vs. northbound.
More people on the trail means more opportunities to make friends.
The desert will be crowded and hot when you start in April.
The desert terrain is easier to traverse than the Washington mountains, which means that starting south allows you to slowly build up your fitness level so you’ll be more prepared for the difficult trek in the later half of the hike.
If you get to the Sierras too early, you’ll run into high waters and snow.
Since there will be more people, you’ll likely get more assistance. NOBO hikers have been known to leave helpful notes for the hikers behind them (e.g. Like a warning about a hornet’s nest to watch out for) .
You will have to rush through Washington to avoid heavy winter snows in the fall.
It’s a road less travelled, so you’ll see fewer people and be better able to enjoy nature.
The trails are marked better for northbounders (NOBOs), so it will be more difficult to navigate.
If you start in June, by the the time you reach the deserts of Southern California in the fall, it will be relatively cooler.
Water supply will likely be scarce when you arrive in the desert during the fall.
The southern terminus is accessible by car and closer to civilization, so you could Uber to an airport and fly home if you felt like doing so.
Late snowfall in Washington and Oregon means SOBO hikers face additional obstacles.
Here are the PCT’s 30 sections. You can hike just a few sections, or if you’re planning on thru-hiking, this list can serve as your itinerary.
For a map of each section, check out Halfmile’s PCT Maps. You can also download PDF files of the maps to your phone or download their free map app.
If you think grazing on ramen out in the wilderness with no electricity sounds like a cheap way to spend 6 months, then you are wildly mistaken. The average cost of a PCT thru-hike, including gear, food/resupply, and other end-to-end trail expenses, is $4,000 to $6,000 per person for an average thru-hike. That said, it’s not uncommon to hear stories of some people spending close to $10,000. If you plan and budget ahead of your trip, you can avoid becoming a $10,000 story. Keep in mind too that you’re also losing 5-6 months of income from not working. Make sure you have enough saved up to re-enter civilization and start paying bills again.
If you already have gear or you’re just looking to upgrade a few items, then you likely won’t spend much in this category. Buying everything brand new, however, will set you back $2,000 to $4,000. That may sound like a lot, but it really isn’t because you’re making a long-term investment. If you’re going to splurge on anything for this trip, then this is the category to do it. Invest in quality, lightweight gear; you'll regret it if you try to muscle through with heavy equipment.
This category includes the cost of food and the cost of shipping resupply boxes. Most hikers report spending an average of $10/day on food, but some spend more. This averages to approximately $300 a month on trail food, so the total cost of trail expenses for most hikers is about $2,000.
Time spent in towns that you pass through along the way will be the most expensive part of your trip. You could skip the towns altogether, but the temptation of sleeping in a hotel, eating at restaurants, sampling the local beers, and using an actual toilet will be hard to resist.
Don’t skimp on gear and resupply. To save money, try to resist going into every town. Unless you and your entire group of buddies are disciplined and frugal, spending time in town becomes costly. It only takes one spontaneous friend to lead your group down the regrettable path of frivolous spending. To read about how one thru-hiker budgeted her trip, check out Liz “Snorkel” Thomas’s article about how much a thru-hike costs.
Dogs are allowed on most parts of the Pacific Crest Trail, but before you take your canine buddy along, consult our guide on safely backpacking with dogs to make sure the experience is enjoyable for both you and your pal. Remember, you are sharing the trail with other people. Dealing with dog poop is an additional inconvenience that could slow you down, plus your dog might run into conflicts with wild animals. Thru-hiking with a dog is not allowed because some national parks along the route completely ban dogs on trails.
According to the Pacific Crest Trail Association website, 5,406 people have completed the PCT as of 2018, and 87 of those people did it more than once. These numbers are based on a self-reported honor system, so it may not be a fully accurate measure of the exact number of people who have completed the hike. Check the site for more up-to-date tallies of PCT thru-hikers as the number increases every year.
Together, the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail, are known as the Triple Crown of long-distance hiking in the United States. Someone who successfully thru-hikes all three trails is known as a Triple Crowner.