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Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail: What to Expect & How to Prepare

If you are looking for a place to hike that offers unreal beauty, look toward the Pacific Crest Trail.

The Pacific Crest Trail is the second-longest hiking trail. It is commonly referred to as the PCT, and it stretches from Canada to Mexico. This lengthy trail crosses through Washington, Oregon, and California. It offers a variety of scenery to suit everyone’s preferences.

You will need to be an adventurous hiker to tackle this rail. The trail will lead you through the Cascade ranges and the Sierra Nevada mountains. Additionally, you will also work your way through the desert and over the mountains. You will handle a variety of different terrains.

Taking on an excursion like this will take some preparation. You will need to consider a variety of questions before setting out on your journey.
Inside this guide, we will look at:

  • Where the trail starts, ends, and how long it is
  • How long it will take to travel the entire Pacific Crest Trail
  • What to expect while hiking
  • Preparing for your journey
  • The cost of hiking the whole trail
  • Essential items to pack
  • Survival tips

Tackling a trail like this one, whether you plan on doing it in sections or taking on the whole thing at once, is no easy adventure. It will take mental and physical prepping before you embark. Making a list of questions and figuring out their answers is advantageous during the preparation process.

Facts About the Pacific Crest Trail

Pacific Crest Trails

If you’re looking for lengthy adventures, the Pacific Crest Trail has you covered. It’s almost 2,700-miles long. Some thru-hikers spend up to 10 months walking the trail to completion. There is plenty to see on the trail, and it’s sure to challenge even the most active hiking enthusiasts.

The Pacific Crest Trail starts in a tiny town at the border of Mexico and the United States and travels through California, Oregon, and Washington. The trail ends at the United States border and Canada, near manning Part, British Columbia.

There are 30 different sections of the Pacific Crest Trail. Some people will hike each section, allowing them to say they walked the entire trail. Others will plan a thru-hike and attack the whole trail at once. Whichever way you choose to do it, the trail will leave you feeling accomplished. California holds the majority of the Pacific Crest Trail and is broken into 18 different sections. Oregon contains seven sections, and Washington holds five. Each section is roughly 90-miles long.

Depending on what you look at, the length of the trail may vary. There are a few different reasons you may find length numbers that are higher or lower than 2,700 miles. The Pacific Crest Trail goes through a routing change yearly. This makes for better scenery and treadway. The trail may also be moved to help hikers avoid threats like wildfires. These changes can impact the length of the path significantly.

Traversing this trail is going to take some time. When thru-hiking, you will be making a serious commitment to hiking. More often than not, hikers can walk the trail in roughly 4 to 6 months. If you are inexperienced when it comes to hiking or you go when there is inclement weather, it could add quite a bit of time to your journey.

Most hikers will be able to cover between 10 and 20 miles per day. The number of miles you accomplish is going to change from day to day. The terrain, weather, and conditions will all play a role in how far you will go each day. Tracking your timeline via miles per day is unrealistic. Instead, you should set destination goals to keep yourself on track.

Some people have been able to complete the entire trail within a few months. This is an extreme feat. If you plan on finishing the Pacific Crest Trail quickly, you will need to spend a decent amount of time training. Allowing yourself ample time to accomplish a task like this one is advantageous and helps ensure successful completion.

5 Things to Remember When Thru-Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail

Each hiking excursion is going to bring different challenges. Preparing for each trail you plan to conquer is a solid plan. Knowing what to expect is the best way to be ready and ensure you have a safe, fun journey.

Supplies

Each leg of this journey will require supplies. You will not be able to carry everything you will need if you’re planning a thru-hike. Most people will not be able to take more than 8 to 10 days’ worth of supplies at a time. So, if you’re planning to trek across the whole thing, you will need a plan. There are several towns along the Pacific Crest Trail, and you send yourself resupply boxes to these locations.

Your resupply boxes will hold various items, including clothing, food, and essentials for the next section of the trail. There are also stores in these towns that you could find supplies in if you forgot something. Some people also have boxes sent to themselves while actually on the trail. This can be a bit tougher to figure out, but it is possible.

Weather

Man hiking during daytime

You should be ready to face pretty much every type of weather condition possible. You will be traveling through several different states, and each one will throw different things at you. As you go through the desert, you will face hot temperatures during the day and freezing temperatures at night. The first month of your adventure may be warm and balmy, changing to snowy conditions when you finish it out.

You must also consider the elevation. When you’re hiking your way through the mountains, you will likely deal with freezing temperatures. Therefore, planning each section of the trip is so important. It ensures you have the clothing and protection you need to survive all types of weather conditions.

Sleeping

Unlike the Appalachian Trail, there are not many shelters along the Pacific Crest Trail. Most of the time, you will be sleeping in tents. Investing in a tent that’s not going to leak and can handle windy conditions is imperative to your comfort and safety. Some thru-hikers take advantage of the towns they come across and spend a night in a hotel or motel. This rest in civilization can be a much needed mental and physical break as you work your way along the Pacific Crest Trail. More often than not, you will be camping out. Having options is also a good thing, so packing a hammock around with your tent will give you versatile sleeping options.

Hazards

Sign for the Pacific Crest Trail

As with any hiking adventure, there will be hazards that you need to watch out for. It’s not completely uncommon to come across bears and mountain lions when you’re working your way through the Pacific Crest Trail. You will also deal with all types of weather, including lightning storms, torrential downpours, and even blizzards when moving through the tops of mountains.

Not only will you face the weather, but you will also meet a variety of animals. In Oregon and California, you are likely to come upon bees and rattlesnakes. You will also have to deal with other people on the trail. This includes people on bikes that don’t pay much attention to others that are around.

Water

Most of your trip on the Pacific Crest Trail will have streams for resupplying your water. However, there are stretches where you won’t find a water source for 25 to 30 miles. Making sure to keep at least 2-liters of water with you will ensure you stay hydrated through these stretches. You will face a limited water supply while walking through the desert, but that’s not the only place. It happens sporadically throughout the trail. Water caches along the route can be used to refill your jugs and bottles. These are inconsistent but can be a lifesaver if you find that you’re running low.

Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hiking Preparation

Hiking preparation

Preparing yourself for a hike like this one takes some time and consideration. There are many things you need to consider, and it’s advantageous to make a list. This will help you visualize your trip and make sure you hit all preparation points before heading out on this long excursion.
Considerations for Pacific Crest Trail Preparation:

  • Direction: Most people don’t realize what an important choice northbound or southbound is. The reason it’s essential is because of weather patterns. If you start in the North, you will likely want to begin around June. On the other hand, if you start in the South, it will be better to start in April. This will help when it comes to staying in comfortable weather conditions for the entire journey. As you are planning, pay attention to the weather patterns in the area and time of year that you’ll be crossing through. This can help ensure you get the correct items while resupplying. Many people who have made this hike will suggest you travel from South to North. This is because of the weather patterns and travel logistics.
  • Permits: Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail will require you to obtain three different permits. Each of the permits is free, and they are relatively easy to get. If you start on the south end of the Pacific Crest Trail, there is a permit required to enter Canada. While there is no one there to stop you from coming back, it’s illegal to enter the United States from Canada. If you are thru-hiking, with intentions of hiking 500 miles or more, you will need a thru-hiking permit. You can apply for this permit online. The last permit you may need will be when you are in California. A Fire Permit is required to cook food or boil water while hiking. This permit will require you to take a quiz. Be aware that places with frequent fire problems, like Southern California, will not allow you to have any open flame.
  • Timeline: When you travel a great distance, you will need to set a timeline. The weather patterns and seasons are going to play a role in when you decide to go. A thru-hike can take over six months, which means the season when you start will not be the one you end on. When in northern areas or areas of high-altitude, you will be up against freezing conditions. If this is done in the winter, it could cost you your life. If you are not an avid hiker, you can expect to travel about ten miles a day as your body becomes more accustomed to the exertion of hiking that may increase to fifteen or more miles a day. If you are in shape and an avid hiker, covering twenty miles a day is not unrealistic. Now, with that being said, there will be days that you travel less, so adding some extra time to your estimate is smart. Make a layout of where you would like to be, and when your adventure commences – this can help keep you on track for your timeline. However, be aware it’s likely you will not be able to stick to any exact plan as you never know what may happen while you’re on the trail.
  • Training: Attempting to hike your way from one end of the Pacific Crest Trail to the other is no easy feat. Many people try, and only a few succeed. It’s hard for people to wrap their minds around how far 2,700 miles actually is. It’s mentally and physically exhausting. Aspiring to make this journey will mean you need to take preparation through physical training seriously. You should spend time getting your strength and endurance up. Start hiking other and harder trails than you usually do. When out on hiking adventures, pack your backpack and carry it with you. This will get your body prepared for what it will be like on the trail. You should also spend some time thinking about why you want to take on this quest. When you are exhausted on every level, knowing why you are doing it can help give you the drive to keep going. There are many books written about people’s experiences on thru-hikes. Reading up on these can help you understand exactly what you should expect and help you become mentally ready for the endeavor that lies ahead.
  • Cost: You will likely need to spend some time saving before deciding to go on a thru-hike. On average, it costs between 5 and 6 thousand dollars per person. Unless you already have excellent hiking gear, this is part of the cost. You will also need to think about food, resupplying, and trail expenses. Not only that, but you need to be ready to reenter the world after spending six months hiking. You will not have your regular income while hiking, and your bills won’t disappear. Budgeting your trip in advance is the smartest thing to do. This will give you a good look at the actual cost and help you avoid spending way more than anticipated.

Pacific Crest Trail Packing Essentials

Each hike you take will require different items. This particular trail will require a variety of items all on the same trip. Because you will be going through a plethora of varying weather and climate situations, you will need a pretty extensive amount of gear. However, some items are critical in keeping you safe during your adventure. Each hiker will have specifics that they will consider needs. Here are some universal needs that should not be ignored:

Map/Guidebook

Hiker reading map

Having a topographic map is one of the most critical items on your packing list. Some hiking trails are well-marked. However, this one is not. You can go for miles without ever seeing a trail sign. Another advantage of having a map is if you study before you go, you will have a good idea of where you are headed, making navigation on the trail a bit easier.

Compass

Some people have an excellent sense of direction, but regardless of this, you should always carry a compass. This will ensure you stay en route, even when there are no signs for miles. A map and a compass are critical items. Having a backup compass is not a bad idea. They are inexpensive, and if you lose or damage one, you will not need to worry about becoming lost.

Water Purification Method

Natural water filtering

There is an expansive number of options for water filtration and purification. It really doesn’t matter which one you choose. If you go with tablets, make sure you pack enough for the whole trip or include extras in your supply packages. You don’t want to fight with Giardia (intestinal parasites) while on a hike like this one. Many people prefer squeeze filters because they are durable and cheap.

Sunscreen/Protection

As noted, you will be traveling through the desert. To be exact, 700 miles of desert. Protecting your skin from the harmful UV exposure due to the sun is imperative. Making sure to bring sunscreen, long-sleeved shirts, sunglasses, and floppy hats will ensure your stay protected and comfortable while traveling through sunny stretches of the Pacific Crest Trail.

Batteries/Headlamps/Battery Chargers

Led Headlamp

Not everyone will hike after dark, but it’s still a good idea to have a headlamp and some extra batteries. There will be times you don’t set up camp until the sun is setting or it has set completely. Additionally, if you need to gather wood in darkness, a light will make it safer and more straightforward. Battery chargers are not an absolute necessity, but they are relatively small and lightweight. They are a convenience item that makes keeping your phone, or other things charged a bit simpler.

First Aid Kit

Carrying a well-stocked first aid kit is a good idea regardless of the adventure you are taking. You never know what may happen while working your way up or down the Pacific Crest Trail. Having easy access to antiseptic, bandages, headache medicine, and other first-aid supplies will set your mind at ease. Additionally, you will be prepared if a minor disaster strikes, which saves anxiety and panic during a time that should be enjoyable.

Waterproof Tape or Duct Tape

Duct tape is one of those items that has so many purposes. You should always keep a roll with you. If your tent or your waterproof jacket tear, you can quickly patch the rip with duct tape. In fact, if your pack or a variety of other pieces of equipment become damaged, duct tape is a good solution for a quick fix.

Knife

Bushcraft survival knife

Carrying a decent pocketknife will help in a lot of situations. Many hikers prefer to use a Swiss Army type knife. This provides them with essential tools in a form that doesn’t take up too much space. Whether you need to open a can, cut a piece of rope, or clean a fish, having a decent knife is essential.

Toiletries

While it’s likely that you will not be bathing every day of your adventure, there are a few daily toiletries you’ll want and need. You will want to make sure to bring a toothbrush and toothpaste. If you forget them, you will not be happy with your mouth’s state within a few days. You will also want to make sure to bring toilet paper. Depending on how long you’ll be hiking for, you will want to make sure you add toilet paper to your resupply boxes.

Plastic Bags

White plastic bags

Plastic bags and Ziplock bags are handy. They help with organization. In addition, they will ensure that your items stay dry in case your pack springs a leak. Plastic bags can also be utilized for garbage. Cleaning up after yourself is required, and plastic bags are a great size. Plus, they are easy to tote around with you.

Matches & Lighters

Most people will use a lighter to get their campfire going. Having a couple on you is a good idea since they stop working if they run out of fluid or get wet. Matches are also a great backup to your lighters. You can buy them in waterproof tins, so you know they are always ready to go if you are in a difficult situation where you need them.

Cell Phone & Charger

Outdoor phone charging

The cellphone signal on the Pacific Crest Trail is pretty good. You will have service on about 70% of your hike when doing a thru-hike. If you’re not carrying a portable charging station, you can recharge your phone when you stop into towns along the way. Keep in mind, having a smartphone with you doesn’t mean you do not need a map.

Cash

Most places you will stop will take a credit or debit card. However, some shops will not be set up to accept credit cards. Having some cash on you will ensure that you can make any necessary purchases.

Mylar Blanket

Mylar blankets are needed whenever you’re going on long hikes. They are exceptionally lightweight, and they will take up almost no room in your pack. They offer excellent insulation to keep you warm. Additionally, if you’re in trouble, they can be used as a mirror signal.

Anti-Chafing Cream or Ointment

Applying first aid medication ointment

If you’ve ever walked, ran, or hiked for long periods, you understand how painful chafing can be. Any area of your skin that rubs together or constantly rubs on your clothing could succumb to chafing. To avoid this, invest in anti-chafing cream or Vaseline. Simply apply it to sensitive areas each day, and you should have no problems.

This list is a good look at the essential items you’ll want to have with you. However, many other items can make your hike smoother and more comfortable. There are many message boards and groups devoted to long-distance hiking. You will find excellent packing tips from those types of groups. Being prepared is critical, and they can help ensure that you are.

Survival Tips

woman overlooking mountains

When you’re going to take on an endeavor like hiking the entire Pacific Crest Trail, there are some tips you’ll need to heed to ensure you come back from it. You’ll be dealing with harsh terrain, wild animals, and a variety of other dangerous situations. Being out in the wild for six months is demanding, but with proper preparation, it will be an enjoyable adventure that you survive easily.

  • First, you need to ensure that someone at home knows what you’re doing and when you’re doing it. You should set up a check-in schedule. This will help keep you safe, and if you don’t check-in, someone will know that there’s a problem.
  • Don’t be afraid to go slow and always stay hydrated. Your body will need time to acclimate to the high altitudes in the Sierra Mountains. You’ll want to climb the highest portions during the day and sleep in lower places. Your body will recover while you sleep, allowing you to pass the higher altitudes during the day successfully.
  • Don’t overpack. You should spend some time training with a full backpack, so your body is ready for the exertion of carrying it for hours on end. If your pack is stuffed full, you’ll notice your joints and body fatiguing more quickly. Only take the essentials to ensure your endurance and strength are easily maintained.
  • Take time to stretch every day. If you avoid stretching, you will likely sustain an injury. Additionally, if you don’t stretch, you will experience more aches and pains. Your muscles will be going through a severe work out during your entire excursion, and stretching them frequently will keep you feeling great throughout your journey.
  • Pay attention to your feet. You will likely go through several pairs of shoes. Additionally, you’re going to want to invest in shoes that will be good for the terrain you’re crossing. When you are heading through the desert, your feet are going to swell, so having a pair that is a size bigger than you wear is a good idea. Be prepared to have six or seven pairs of shoes ready to go before taking on this arduous hike.
  • Know how much water you’re going to need. While in the desert, you should plan on having a liter of water for every five miles of sand. Staying hydrated is the key to maintaining optimal health throughout your entire adventure.

Conclusion

Choosing to try and conquer the Pacific Crest Trail is a massive undertaking. The sense of accomplishment, once you have completed your journey, is astounding. Making sure to be prepared for the obstacles you will face can make your excursion much smoother. You will never know what to expect exactly, but that’s okay. With a well-researched plan and solid pieces of equipment, you will be ready to head out for the adventure of a lifetime.

It will take a while to be financially, mentally, and physically prepared for this kind of trip, but it’s worth the wait to do it right. When you want to test your abilities in strength and endurance, this trail will put forth a challenge. Many people attempt the trek every year, but very few actually complete it. Regardless of whether you hike the Pacific Crest Trail in sections or one long haul, you’re sure to appreciate the scenery, wildlife, and sense of adventure it provides.

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