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What to Expect When Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT): A First-Timer’s Guide

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    The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is a long-distance hiking trail in the US.

    It stretches from the border of Mexico and the United States, through California, Oregon, and Washington State, and ends at the border of Canada and the United States. The length of the PCT is approximately 2,650 miles (4,265 kilometers). Every year, millions of people explore parts of the trail. However, only a mere 800-1000 hikers accomplish an authentic thru-hike: traversing its entirety in a single summer season.

    Whether you plan on tackling it all at once or just taking on sections here and there, this guide will provide you with tips for planning your trip so you can get out there and start exploring!

    1. Overview of the Pacific Crest Trail

    The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is a long-distance hiking trail in the US.

    The trail stretches from Mexico to Canada, running through California, Oregon, and Washington. It’s one of the most renowned trails in the world, with stunning views and unique terrain along its 2,650 mile route. The trail cuts through some of the most scenic and diverse landscapes in North America, including deserts, snow-capped mountains, lush forests, and alpine meadows.

    The PCT is not only a great way to explore nature but also provides an opportunity for hikers to challenge themselves mentally and physically while taking in some of the best scenery North America has to offer. 

    The PCT is known for its difficulty due to its length and changing terrain; however, it remains a popular destination for hikers seeking an unforgettable adventure. Hiking the entire Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is a significant undertaking, and the amount of time it takes to complete the trail can vary widely depending on a number of factors, including a hiker’s physical condition, hiking experience, and the pace they set.

    That being said, most thru-hikers (those who hike the entire trail in one go) take an average of 5 to 6 months to complete the trail, which translates to about 150 to 180 days. Most hikers cover about 20 miles (32 km) per day. Some hikers, however, may complete the trail in a shorter amount of time. For example, the current speed record for the PCT is just under 52 days.

    It’s important for hikers to be prepared for a long and physically demanding journey and to plan accordingly to ensure they have the necessary gear, supplies, and support to complete the trail safely and successfully.

    1.1 Short Facts About the PCT

    • Length: 2,650 miles (4,265 kilometers) 
    • How long does it take to hike the PCT: 150 to 180 days (5 to 6 months)
    • Starts at: Campo, a town near the Mexican border
    • Ends at: Northern Terminus monument, the U.S. — Canada border
    • Route: the trail runs from the border of Mexico and the United States, through California, Oregon, and Washington State, and ends at the border of Canada and the United States.
    • PCT trail sections: 29 sections / 5 segments
    • The best time to start: mid-April through early May
    • Sleeping on the trail: camping, trail shelters, hostels, lodges, motels and hotels (where available)
    Landscape in Yosemite National Park, US
    Photo by Roberto from Pexels

    2. Different Sections of the Trail and What They Have to Offer

    The PCT is divided into 5 segments.

    Each of these segments has its own unique terrain and challenges. These segments are:

    1. Southern California: This section of the PCT runs from the Mexican border to Kennedy Meadows and covers approximately 700 miles. Hikers in this section must contend with hot desert conditions, rugged mountains, and limited water sources.
    2. Central California: The central California section of the PCT runs from Kennedy Meadows to Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park and covers approximately 450 miles. This section includes high-elevation mountain passes, alpine lakes, and scenic meadows.
    3. Northern California: Running from Tuolumne Meadows to the Oregon border, the northern California section of the PCT covers approximately 400 miles. Hikers in this section will encounter dense forests, volcanic peaks, and river crossings.
    4. Oregon: The Oregon section of the PCT runs for approximately 450 miles from the California border to the Columbia River Gorge. This section features lush forests, stunning waterfalls, and volcanic landscapes.
    5. Washington: The final section of the PCT runs for approximately 500 miles through Washington state from the Columbia River Gorge to the Canadian border. Hikers in this section will encounter rugged mountains, alpine meadows, and glacier-fed rivers.

    These segments are subdivided into 29 sections. With 29 sections to choose from, it’s never been easier for day and multi-day hikers alike to select the perfect segment they want to explore.

    The PCT also passes through seven national parks:

    1. Kings Canyon National Park,
    2. Sequoia National Park,
    3. Yosemite National Park,
    4. Lassen Volcanic National Park,
    5. Crater Lake National Park,
    6. Mt. Rainier National Park,
    7. North Cascades National Park.

    2.1 Best Sections of the PCT

    The Pacific Crest Trail has many beautiful and unique sections.

    However, the most popular sections of the PCT are the Southern California’s sections, which include the first 700 miles of the trail. This part of the route is popular because it is easily accessible and offers diverse terrain and scenic views, including the Mojave Desert, the San Jacinto and San Bernardino Mountains, and the San Gabriel Mountains.

    Another popular PCT section is the iconic Crater Lake National Park. As hikers make their way around the lake’s rim, they will be treated to some of the most breathtaking views in the park. The deep blue waters of the lake are set against a backdrop of towering peaks and cliffs, and the trail offers numerous opportunities to stop and take in the scenery. Some of the most popular spots along the PCT section include Discovery Point, which offers a panoramic view of the lake and surrounding mountains, and Cloudcap Overlook, which provides stunning views of the lake and Wizard Island.

    We also want to mention the Killen Creek Meadows section of the Pacific Crest Trail which is a beautiful and challenging part of the trail that offers hikers stunning views of Mount Adams and the surrounding scenery. Hikers will pass through stunning alpine meadows filled with wildflowers, traverse rugged mountain ridges with sweeping views, and cross rushing streams and rivers.

    A man holding a paper map
    Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

    3. Preparing for the PCT

    Remember that preparation is key to a successful PCT hike.

    Take your time to research, plan, and prepare yourself both physically and mentally, and you’ll be ready for an unforgettable adventure.

    3.1 When to Hike the PCT?

    Hiking in the mountains is most delightful during the summer and early fall months, while spring and autumn are ideal for exploring lower elevations of California. For the best experience, plan to trek the Pacific Crest Trail northbound between April and September.

    3.2 How Much Does It Cost to Hike the PCT?

    How much money do you need to hike the Pacific Crest Trail?

    How much does PCT cost? The amount of money you need to hike the Pacific Crest Trail can vary depending on various factors such as the duration of the hike, the gear you need to buy or rent, transportation costs, and food and accommodation expenses. However, here is a rough breakdown of some of the major expenses you might incur while hiking the PCT:

    • Gear: Depending on the gear you already own and what you need to purchase, you can expect to spend anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars on gear. This includes items such as a backpack, tent, sleeping bag, stove, water filter, and clothing suitable for hiking. You can also save money by buying used gear or renting equipment instead of buying it.
    • Food: The cost of food can vary depending on your dietary needs and preferences, but most hikers spend an average of $5 to $8 per day on food. Some hikers choose to resupply at grocery stores along the trail, while others send themselves food packages in advance.
    • Accommodation: Most PCT hikers choose to camp along the trail, which is free of charge. However, if you choose to stay in motels, hostels, or other accommodations, you can expect to pay anywhere from $20 to $100 per night.
    • Transportation: The cost of transportation to and from the trail can vary depending on where you live and how you choose to travel. Some hikers choose to drive to the trailhead, while others fly or take a bus or train. You may also need to pay for transportation to resupply points or other towns along the trail.
    • Permits: There are various permits required to hike the PCT, and the costs can add up. For example, the PCT long-distance permit costs $10, and some wilderness permits require a fee as well.

    Overall, most PCT hikers spend between $3,000 and $8,000 on their hike, depending on the factors mentioned above. However, some hikers have completed the trail with less money, and others have spent significantly more. It’s important to budget and plan carefully before embarking on a long-distance hike like the PCT.

    3.3 What to Pack for a Hike on the Trail: PCT Gear List

    The Pacific Crest Trail is a long-distance hiking trek that takes months to complete.

    As such, preparing for a thru-hike on the PCT requires careful consideration of your gear and supplies. Here’s a PCT packing list to help you get started.

    The Most Important Gear:

    A backpack, tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and good hiking shoes are some of the most important gear for the Pacific Crest Trail because they provide the hiker with the essential comfort needed to survive and thrive on a long-distance hike. Here’s why:

    • Backpack: A backpack is the essential tool for carrying all of your gear and supplies throughout the journey. It needs to be comfortable, durable, and fit snugly to prevent chafing or discomfort while walking. Most thru-hikers choose a 60-75 liter backpack. 
    • Tent: A tent provides shelter from the elements, including rain, wind, and sun. It also provides privacy and protection from wildlife while sleeping in remote areas.
    • Sleeping bag: A sleeping bag keeps you warm during cold nights on the trail. The temperature can drop significantly at higher elevations or in colder seasons, so it’s crucial to have a high-quality sleeping bag that will keep you safe and comfortable. Choose your PCT sleeping bag wisely!
    • Good hiking boots/shoes: Good hiking boots provide support and stability during long days of hiking. They need to be comfortable, durable, waterproof or resistant to keep feet dry when crossing streams or wet terrain.  Without proper footwear, hikers can suffer from blisters or other foot injuries which could hinder their ability to continue hiking.
    • Sleeping pad: A good PCT sleeping pad pad is crucial for camping because it provides cushioning between the camper and the ground, as well as insulation. A sleeping pad helps to retain warmth and prevent hypothermia, as well as prevent discomfort or pain in the back, neck, hips and joints. Most thru-hikers choose lightweight inflatable sleeping pads for their trekking trips.

    Accessories and Gadgets

    • Trekking poles: adjustable, durable, and lightweight
    • Backpack rain cover: waterproof and durable
    • Dry bags: to keep your clothes, sleeping bag, and other items dry
    • Map and compass 
    • Headlamp with extra batteries
    • GPS device
    • Smartphone: with protective case, charger and a charging cable
    • Powerbanks: for when you have access to electricity; charge them to use for charging your device later
    • Maps and guidebook: waterproofed or stored in a waterproof bag
    • Earbuds

    Personal Items

    • First aid kit: with basic medical supplies
    • Sunscreen: at least SPF 50
    • Insect repellent: DEET or other effective options
    • Toothbrush and toothpaste: travel-sized
    • Hand sanitizer: small bottle
    • Toilet paper: biodegradable
    • Trowel: for burying human waste
    • Personal hygiene items: tampons, pads, etc.
    • Prescription medication: with enough supply for the entire trip


    • Food and water
    • Backpacking/camping stove and fuel
    • Fire starter
    • Water reservoirs: 6-7 liters of water capacity
    • Water filter such as a Sawyer Squeeze or Katadyn BeFree, or water purification tablets
    • Pot and/or Pan
    • Utensils
    • Bowl and/or Plate
    • Cup/Mug
    • Spork (a utensil that combines the functions of both a spoon and a fork)
    • Knife or multi-tool: for various purposes
    • Bear canister, or odor-proof bags

    Clothing and Footwear

    • Camp Shoes or Sandals
    • Sturdy hiking socks
    • Layers of clothes
      • Hiking Shirt
      • Hiking Shorts
      • Long Pants or Leggings
      • Insulated Jacket
      • Rain Jacket
      • Fleece or Down Jacket
      • Warm Hat and Gloves
      • Bandana

    Other Supplies

    • Cash and credit card: for resupply and emergencies
    • Camera: to capture memories
    • Trekking guide: such as Halfmile’s PCT app or Guthook’s PCT app
    • Extra batteries: for headlamp and other electronics
    • Duct tape: for gear repairs
    • Emergency whistle: for signaling for help
    • Bear spray: for protection in bear country
    • Ice axe and crampons: for snowy conditions (in early season or certain sections)
    • Microspikes: for traction on icy or slippery trails

    Keep in mind that this is not a 100% complete packing list. 

    Personal preferences, hiking experience, and trail conditions may require adjustments to this list. Always do your own research, and for a complete packing list, refer to PCT guidebooks and PCT online guides

    3.4 Physical Training

    The PCT is a long-distance hike that requires a lot of physical endurance.

    How to prepare for the PCT? Start preparing for the hike by building your endurance and strength through a regular exercise program. You can start with regular hikes, long walks, or other forms of cardio exercise. Consider working with a personal trainer or a coach to develop a training plan that suits your fitness level and goals.

    The PCT can be mentally challenging, so it’s important to prepare yourself mentally as well. Start by visualizing yourself on the trail and imagining how you’ll handle different challenges that may come up. Consider talking to other hikers who have completed the PCT to gain insights into what to expect and how to handle different situations.

    3.5 Transportation to the Trail

    The trail starts at the Pacific Crest Trail Southern Terminus.

    It is located in the Mexico-US border town of Campo, California.

    The closest major city is San Diego, which is about 50 miles away. You can fly to San Diego or take a bus, depending on the city you are coming from.

    You can take a public bus to Campo from San Diego. Keep in mind that these buses do not run on weekends or holidays. There’s also a PCT shuttle bus running from central San Diego to the trailhead (Southern Terminus).

    A man holding a camping stove
    Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

    4. Overview of the Daily Routine and Challenges of Hiking the PCT

    4.1 Where to Find Water and Food Along the Way

    The Pacific Crest Trail is known for its scenic views but it can also be a remote place, so it’s always best to make sure you have plenty of water and food with you before heading out.

    There are a few reliable sources of water along the PCT, including streams, rivers, and lakes. While it is generally safe to drink straight from these sources, it’s always a good idea to bring along a water filter or iodine treatment tablets just in case.

    Additionally, there are some camping stores and small towns located along the way where you can restock on food and supplies.

    Many people who are hiking the Pacific Crest Trail opt to send packages of supplies to certain locations along the route.

    These packages are called “PCT Resupply Boxes”. These packages often contain food, gear, and other supplies that hikers send to themselves along the Pacific Crest Trail. These boxes are typically sent to post offices, resupply points, or other locations where hikers can pick them up as they pass by. The purpose of a resupply box is to provide hikers with the necessary resources to continue their journey along the trail without having to carry all of their supplies at once, and having access to a greater variety of food and other supplies.

    This can help lighten the load on a long-distance hike and make it easier to manage food and gear throughout the journey.

    4.2 Where to Sleep

    Camping is the most popular option for PCT hikers.

    There are many campsites along the trail, some of which are free and others that require a fee or reservation. Be sure to follow Leave No Trace principles and set up your campsite in designated areas to minimize your impact on the environment.

    There are several hostels along the PCT that offer affordable accommodations for hikers. Some hostels also provide amenities such as showers, laundry facilities, and meals.

    If you’re looking for more comfortable accommodations, there are several hotels and motels located near the trail, especially in larger towns and cities.

    Some Trail Angels also offer their homes or backyards as a place for hikers to camp. Trail Angels are volunteers who provide assistance to hikers on the PCT, including rides, food, and sometimes a place to sleep.

    Lake Helen Lassen Volcanic National Park
    Photo by I Batista from Pexels

    5. Safety Considerations When Hiking The PCT: Solo or in a Group

    Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) can be an incredible adventure, but it’s important to prioritize safety while on the trail. Here are some key safety considerations to keep in mind:

    • Clean drinking water: Water can be scarce along certain sections of the PCT, so it’s important to plan ahead and carry enough water with you at all times. You should also know how to properly purify water from natural sources.
    • Dehydration: Even though water can be scarce in some parts of the PCT, it’s important to stay hydrated. Dehydration can lead to fatigue, cramps, and other health issues. Drink plenty of water throughout the day, especially in hot weather.
    • Weather conditions: The weather on the PCT can be unpredictable and change quickly, especially in mountainous areas. Be prepared for rain, snow, wind, and extreme temperatures by carrying appropriate gear and checking weather forecasts regularly.
    • Wildlife encounters: The PCT passes through wilderness areas where wildlife such as bears, mountain lions, and snakes may be present. Know how to safely store food away from animals and what to do if you encounter wildlife on the trail.
    • Navigation: Navigation is an important aspect of the PCT. Make sure you know how to read a map and use a compass, and consider taking a navigation course if you’re not confident in your skills. The PCT is well-marked, but it’s still important to carry maps, a compass or GPS device, and other navigation tools to ensure you stay on course.
    • Regular breaks: Schedule regular rest breaks throughout the day to give your body time to recover and prevent overuse injuries. 
    • Good footwear: Invest in good quality hiking boots or shoes that fit well and provide adequate support for your feet and ankles. Boots with adequate cushioning can absorb shock and reduce impact on your joints, helping to prevent fatigue and overuse injuries. Good hiking boots are typically made from durable materials that provide protection from rocks, roots, and other hazards on the trail.
    • Travel insurance: Invest in a good travel insurance. When hiking the PCT, you may be at risk of accidents or illnesses that require medical attention. Travel insurance can help cover the cost of medical treatment and emergency medical evacuation, which can be extremely expensive, especially in foreign countries.

    By keeping these safety considerations in mind and taking appropriate precautions before and during your hike on the PCT, you can help ensure a safe and enjoyable adventure along this iconic trail.

    Hiking in Malaysia wearing Prabos shoes
    Sturdy hiking shoes are a must when hiking the PCT!

    6. Pacific Crest Trail Day Hikes and Multi-Day Hikes

    You don’t have to hike all trail.

    Most people go on multi day hikes, spending on the trail just a few days or a week.

    Make sure you know what you’re getting into before you start hiking. Learn about the terrain, climate, water sources, and potential hazards in the area. You can find this information on the PCT Association’s website, guidebooks, and online forums.

    7. Resources on the PCT

    If you’re interested in hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), there are a variety of resources available to help you plan and prepare for your trip. Here are some of the best resources on the PCT:

    • Pacific Crest Trail Association: The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is the organization responsible for maintaining and protecting the PCT. Their website provides a wealth of information on the trail, including trail conditions, permit requirements, and volunteer opportunities.
    • Yogi’s Pacific Crest Trail Handbook: This guidebook by Jackie McDonnell (aka Yogi) is an essential resource for PCT hikers. It covers everything from gear selection and resupply strategies to water sources and trail etiquette. It also includes tips and advice from previous PCT hikers.
    • PCT Trail Angels: PCT Trail Angels are volunteers who provide support and assistance to PCT hikers. They offer everything from rides to resupply boxes and are an invaluable resource for hikers on the trail.
    • PCT Trail Journals: PCT Trail Journals is a website where hikers can document their experiences on the trail. It’s a great resource for getting a first-hand account of what it’s like to hike the PCT and can help you prepare for your own journey.
    • Halfway Anywhere – This website is a popular resource for PCT hikers, offering a wealth of information on gear, food, water sources, resupply options, and trail conditions. The site also includes a PCT survey, which provides a snapshot of the experiences and preferences of hundreds of PCT hikers.

    By using these resources, you can get a better understanding of what it takes to hike the Pacific Crest Trail and prepare for your own journey.

    Do you have more questions about hiking the PCT? Have you hiked the PCT? Which section did you choose? Or did you hike the entire route. Share in the comments.

    Featured photo by Christian Grand from Pexels

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