Planning a Pacific Crest Trail Thru-hike

So, you’ve decided to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail, but are unsure of what to do next? Planning a thru-hike can seem like a daunting task, and while there is a lot that needs to be done, it doesn’t have to be the super-stressful process it’s often made out to be. One of the biggest parts of preparation is putting your gear list together, so if you are still working on that, check out my gear guide. If you’re ready to move on to the next stage of your planning, read on!

Permits

Get ready to fill out some paper work! For taking a trip into the wilderness, there are quite a few bureaucratic hoops to jump through before you’re able to set off into the mountains.

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The main permit that is required* for thru-hiking the PCT is the PCT Long Distance Permit, issued by the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA). This free(!) permit covers any journey of 500 miles or more along the PCT, and allows you to hike and camp anywhere along the trail. This permit is convenient because, without it, a hiker would have to apply to a multitude of different permits from the many land management agencies the PCT passes through. That being said, the long-distance interagency permits are limited to 50 people per day and some prospective hikers may miss out on nabbing a permit for their preferred start time. It IS possible to thru-hike the PCT without the thru-hike permit, but it will make the journey a lot more logistically challenging. I’d recommend finding out when the PCTA will start issuing permits, and being ready to apply as soon as the application opens (I booked the day off work to do this, it’s serious business).

The official PCT ends at the U.S.-Canada border, but most hikers choose to continue about 8 miles into Canada to end their hike at Manning Park, where there is transport available to get back to civilization. Since the northern terminus is located in the middle of nowhere, if you choose not to enter Canada, you must backtrack to the last place where the trail crossed a road. If you choose to enter Canada on the PCT, you must apply for a permit to do so through the Canada Border Services Agency. You may be denied entry if you have a criminal record.

The final permit most hikers need to acquire is the California Campfire Permit. This permit allows you to have a campfire, and (more importantly) use a camp stove within the state of California. If you are planning to go stoveless, you may not need this permit, but it’s so quick and easy to acquire that you might want to grab one anyway, on the off chance that you decide to use a stove or start a fire. There is a short video to watch and a few quiz questions to answer, and then your permit will be in your hand (it’s free and lasts for a full calendar year).

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If you are coming from outside the U.S., you may need to apply for a visa in order to complete your thru-hike. If you’re Canadian, you most likely will need not to do this, as Canadians can spend up to 6 months per year in the U.S. without needing a visa. If you are coming from anywhere else, make sure to research your visa requirements well in advance of your trip. Another planning step specific to international hikers is finding adequate travel insurance. Of course, this isn’t necessary, but you’ll certainly be glad to have it on the off chance that you are injured or sick and need to make use the U.S. medical system. Finding travel insurance for a thru-hike can be a bit of a chore, due to the long timeframe and nature of the trip (many insurance providers won’t cover you above a certain elevation, or if you’re participating in what they deem to be “high-risk activities”). Make sure to read your insurance policy VERY carefully before committing!

Resupply + Scheduling

Deciding how you want to resupply is one of the biggest steps in planning a thru-hike. Resupplying is the act of stocking up on food and supplies, usually while in town. It’s such a process that it deserves its own post, but I will try to briefly explain it here. There are two major methods of resupplying: mailing yourself boxes of food and supplies along the trail, and buying supplies in trail towns as you go. It’s clear that one of these options involves a lot more advance planning than the other. If you are planning to make resupply boxes ahead of time, you’ll have to buy and prepare all of your food in advance, and portion it out into boxes that will be sent to pre-decided locations along the trail. This means you’ll be planning exactly what and how much you’ll be eating for the entire trail, which is generally not recommended. Unless you’ve thru-hiked before, you really have no idea how much food you’ll need, and what you’ll actually want to eat. Filling 30 boxes with Clif bars and instant oatmeal may seem like a good idea now, but you’ll almost certainly regret it after you’ve spent a couple months eating nothing but the items you packed ahead of time.

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While you may not relish the thought of spending your time off here, it’s better than getting bored of your food a few 100 miles in.

Buying food and supplies as you go will mean a lot less stress in the months leading up to your hike, but will add stress to the journey itself. You’ll have to spend a good chunk of your town time in the grocery store. Some trail towns may not be well-equipped with large stores, and finding the supplies you want/need may be difficult. But, you’ll be able to choose the foods you really want to eat, and you can make sure you buy the right amount of food as your appetite changes over the course of your hike. There are some areas where sending yourself a resupply box is probably a better idea than trying to buy supplies on trail (ex. the Sierras, most of Washington). In these spots, consider sending food ahead from one of the earlier trail towns, or taking advantage of hiker services such as Zero Day Resupply and Sonora Pass Resupply, which allow you to shop for food online and have it delivered to resupply locations. These strategies are particularly helpful for international hikers, who aren’t able to easily mail boxes from home to the trail.

If you are considering making a detailed schedule for your thru-hike, stop right now. Many people expend way too much time and energy into planning every detail of their hike, which is just not necessary, and in most cases, will quickly become useless. A very rough outline may be useful, but any more detailed plans will almost certainly be thrown out the window the minute you start hiking. It’s impossible to predict how far you’ll go each day, since you never know when you might run into a glorious lake that just needs to be jumped into, when you might just have to stop for ice cream, or when you might suddenly become a hiking machine and make more miles than anticipated. Not having a set schedule is all a part of the joy of thru-hiking, and as long as you finish before the snow flies in Washington, you’re all good. You may want to plan out a rough resupply schedule (ie. when you plan to hit each major trail town), but if you’re resupplying as you go, even that may not be necessary.

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I’m a planner, so obviously couldn’t resist making a spreadsheet. But, it’s not too detailed and it won’t be a big deal if my actual hike doesn’t exactly conform to it.

Transportation

If you don’t live in Southern California, you’ll likely have to book a flight to San Diego in order to start your hike. The southern terminus of the PCT is actually located in Campo, which is about an hour’s drive outside of San Diego proper. You can reach the trailhead on public transit, or enlist the help of local trail angels, volunteers who help hikers reach the southern terminus.

Training

The process of physically training for a thru-hike is something that is often debated in the hiking community. I plan on making a more detailed post on this topic, so be on the look out for that in upcoming weeks.

Apart from physical training, you may also need to train yourself in certain skills before hitting the trail. If you are inexperienced in hiking and backpacking, this process will take a lot more work. You may need to practice pitching your tent, or cooking outside on your camp stove. You may need to research proper “pooping in the woods” etiquette. If you already have some backcountry experience, you may only need to brush up on some of the skills more specific to the PCT’s terrain, such as safely crossing alpine streams, or performing a self-arrest on a slippery slope.

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Required reading for backcountry first timers

One of my favourite ways I prepared for my thru-hike was through reading first hand accounts of the experiences of others. There are countless online journals and blogs detailing previous PCT thru-hikes, and reading through these will give you a good idea of what you need to be prepared to encounter. I highly recommend reading through a few different ones.

My Favourite PCT Resources

  • PCTA website: Your planning process should definitely involve exploring every nook and cranny of this website, as it is packed with helpful information (this should probably be your first stop if you’re thinking of planning a thru-hike).
  • Craig’s PCT Planner: This site will allow you to fill in some basic info (ex. start date, expected daily mileage, etc.) to easily create a basic outline/schedule for your thru-hike.
  • Walking With Wired: Wired’s blog was the first PCT trail journal I ever read, and her story was one of my main inspirations for starting to seriously plan my own thru-hike.
  • Halfmile’s Map: Halfmile helpfully provides free topographic maps of the entire PCT, along with trail notes for every thing you will encounter along the way as well as detailed notes regarding each resupply location.
  • Guthook’s PCT Guide: This is an amazing app for your smartphone, which provides a map of the trail and your location on it, as well as details regarding nearby campsites, water sources, towns, and other points of interest. The app must be purchased, but in my opinion will definitely be worth the dollars. (Available on Android and iPhone)
  • Halfway Anywhere: This site contains all kinds of helpful information, but one of my favourite parts is the annual Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hiker Survey, which provides a ton of useful information gathered straight from the source: the thru-hikers themselves.
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