Pacific Crest Trail Prep

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Pristine Dorothy Lake on the PCT in Yosemite National Park
Dorothy Lake Yosemite National Park

Welcome to Hikerlore’s guide to Pacific Crest Trail prep!  This article will give you the low down on some of the things you need to know before you start a straight-up northbound thru-hike of the PCT.  It will also recommend some other important planning resources (for southbounders, too).

Please remember that what you pack is determined by your level of comfort and risk tolerance.  It takes time and experience to figure this out, of course.  Our recommendations come from our experience and risk tolerance, which may be different from yours.  We try to pack as light as we can without sacrificing our safety while maintaining a reasonable level of comfort.

If this is your first thru, you will probably take more than you need.  You will learn and shake down your pack as you go.  If you don’t use it, lose it!

Pacific Crest Trail 101

Our nation has 11 National Scenic Trails.  The Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail (PCT) is one of these.

Total length

It is approximately 2,653 miles in total length. The trail is marked with Pacific Crest Trail symbols.

Start and end points

The PCT’s southern terminus is located in Campo, California about 50 miles east of San Diego.  The northern terminus is in Manning Park, British Columbia, Canada, about 135 miles east of Vancouver, BC.  Most thru-hikers go northbound (nobo).

Getting there

We flew into San Diego. Fortunately for us, we have family there. If you need a ride though, check out Scout and Frodo’s page here. They will put you up, feed you, and drive you to Campo. There are details about public transit to the Southern Terminus on their Web site. If you’re a southbound hiker (sobo), you cannot legally enter the United States from Canada on the PCT. You would need to get to Harts Pass, then hike about 30 miles North to the U.S. Canada border. Check out this great guide on a PCT Southbound hike, click here.

Closures

Like all trails, the PCT sometimes has closures. Most commonly, these are due to fires. In fact, this is why our PCT hike of 2017 turned from a thru-hike into a section hike of California instead. Please visit the PCTA closure page here for the latest information.

Permits

Please carefully read the PCTA long-distance permit page here. They have outlined everything you need to know. Here are the three main permits to concern yourself with before your nobo departure:

  • PCT Long-distance Permit
  • Canada PCT Entry Permit
  • California Fire Permit (if you plan to use a camp stove)

Hiking Season

A good time to begin is in late April or early May.  This allows plenty of time (if you’re hiking between 15 – 20 miles a day with zeros) to arrive in Kennedy Meadows by early to mid-June-the recommended time to start the Sierras. This depends on snow levels, of course.

You will need to finish your hike in September before the weather turns. The weather in Washington, like everywhere else, can be unpredictable. I have heard many stories about people forced to quit because of winter storms. A hiker even disappeared one year after a storm. As far as I know, he hasn’t been found yet. When you thru-hike the PCT northbound without flip-flopping, you’re on a time crunch. There’s no way around it.

Lake on Muir Pass on the PCT
Muir Pass

Terrain

There is challenging elevation gain and loss on the PCT. You will work hard. The good news is that the trail is well switchbacked and the grade is mostly gradual, unlike the Appalachian Trail.

Climate

Be prepared for extremes. In the desert section, you will contend with temperatures exceeding 110 degrees Fahrenheit. We got a heat wave coming out of Tehachapi that rose to 117 degrees. Many people night hike to avoid these extremes. We would often take a long break during the hottest part of the day, finding shade wherever we could. At night, temperatures drop again. The desert gets cold at night. Be ready. See our desert hiking guide, here.


Not only do you have temperature extremes, but you will get rain, wind, hail, sleet, snow, lightning, and humidity. You must be ready for anything and quickly. When you get to the Sierras, depending on the snow levels, you may be hiking in a lot of snow or not. It just depends on the year. In fact, you could be hiking in the snow before the Sierras. It just depends on the year and when you left Campo.

The heat and humidity in northern California are intense (and so is the chafe!). I thought it felt hotter there sometimes than in the desert, especially on the Hat Creek Rim.

Snow

We did the Sierras in August. It was the last section we hiked in California. 2017 was one of the highest snow years on record. We used spikes and axes. I slept in Smartwool with a down jacket and pants. Luckily for us, we timed it just right though, the rivers were relatively safe to cross and the passes, while still pretty snowy, were challenging but not stressful. The year we hiked two thru-hikers died crossing rivers in the Sierras. It is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, but it’s truly dangerous. Know how to cross rivers and passes properly. Most hikers try to hike early in the morning when the snow is packed and the rivers are lower. Know how to self-arrest.

Heat

The heat in southern California is no joke. Take sunscreen and chapstick. Wear light colors, breathable full-coverage clothing, use a desert hat, or use a desert umbrella. Many hikers get their miles done early in the morning and in the evening, sitting out the hottest part of the day. Of course, plan out your water carefully and stay hydrated. Check out our desert hiking guide here.

Potentially Dangerous Wildlife

The PCT is home to some potentially dangerous venomous snakes, black bears, mountain lions, ticks, mosquitoes, and cows.  You are required to use a bear canister in several places. Please visit the PCTA page here for all the details. We carried canisters through the Sierras and mailed them home at Kennedy Meadows North (Sonora Pass). 

If a black bear is being aggressive, make yourself look big, speak assertively, back up slowly, and avoid eye contact.  Fight back when attacked. We didn’t see a single black bear on the PCT in all of California, but we saw signs of them often and heard many stories of other hikers seeing them. It is wise to take extra precautions in areas where bears are known to be a problem. Read the comments in Guthook’s for a clue.

Mountain lions are rare.  If a lion is being aggressive with you, make yourself look big, don’t run, and fight back if attacked. We have heard many stories of lion sightings. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll see one.

Mojave Green Rattlesnake near the trail on the PCT in the Hat Creek Rim area Northern California
Mojave Green Rattlesnake

Insects

Ticks and mosquitoes are present.  We use 98% Deet and protective clothing when the mosquitoes get bad. In our experience, Yosemite (Dorothy Lake) was mosquito hell. A friend told us that in Oregon, the mosquitoes were so bad that he kept his raingear on while hiking and only stopped at the end of the day once safely in his tent.

We didn’t see any ticks, but you should do a tick check daily.  If you are bitten, watch the bite site carefully for a bullseye.  Seek medical attention as soon as possible, if one appears.

Snakes

We saw many rattlesnakes while on the trail in California. Try to be vigilant at all times while hiking. You may want to avoid headphones or maybe wear one in and one out so that you can hear their rattle.


Potentially Dangerous Plants

As far as plants go, there is the Poodle Dog Bush and Pacific Poison Oak. We saw tons of both. Poodle Dog Bush smells like weed and is only found in the Southern section. Learn to identify these plants. Avoid touching them with your body, clothes, or gear.   

Water

Of course, you should always treat your water, unless you like getting Giardia.  I know hikers who do not filter. The ones that don’t get sick are extremely selective about their water sources. In the desert, you can’t be too picky. You have to drink whatever water you can find, so I highly recommend treating your water.

On our hike in 2017, we used a sawyer squeeze. Since then, we’ve thru-hiked the Appalachian and the Florida National Scenic Trails. After much experience, we have switched to bleaching our water. You may not be comfortable with this, and that’s perfectly fine. You do you. I think it’s easy, economical, time-saving, and safe. We use 2 drops per 1 liter, and we keep our bleach dropper from getting exposed to UV light. After letting the bleach do its work for 30 minutes, we drink up.

Water can be tricky on the PCT. Be careful and make sure to plan. We ran out of water once. It was 5 miles from the source in the Mojave in July. It was highly uncomfortable and even dangerous! Use Guthook’s and be sure to read the comments. I wouldn’t bet my life on water caches, but you can read recent comments in Guthook’s and the water report to gauge if a cache is likely to have a supply.

The water and snow report (used for river crossings too) is a crowdsourced document that gets updated by hikers. You can download it to your phone (we used Google sheets), but the information changes on a daily basis, and you must get the new version each time you have a signal for the latest data. Click here for information.

Hiking the PCT
The Aqua Duct

Camping

Finding suitable camping is fairly easy on the PCT. We always try to camp near a water source. Keep in mind that camping near a body of water increases the condensation in your tent. It may also be colder by the water, which could be a good thing. Ideally, you would find a flat spot under a tree (check for widowmakers!) with some duff beneath you.

Resupply

It is a good idea to have an outline of your planned resupply spots before you head out on a thru-hike.  That way you know if maildrops are necessary and can prepare them for your resupply person back home.  We like to do mostly buys along the trail because you never know what you’ll feel like eating.  Also, plans sometimes change and this allows more fluidity.  Lastly, if you’re using post offices, the hours can be a drag.

We mail ourselves shoes every 500 miles because we know through experience the size and make preferred.  Thus, we use a hybrid resupply method, consisting of buys and maildrops.  Please bear in mind that your feet will likely get bigger on your first thru-hike.  Your feet will swell and widen.  We both increased in shoe size when we did our first long-distance hike on the PCT. Kennedy Meadows is a good spot to mail your Sierra gear. We mailed our spikes, axes, and canisters home from Kennedy Meadows North (Sonora Pass).

We use a combination of the guidebooks, Web sites, and Guthook’s when planning our resupply stops and drops before leaving.  When on the trail, we use Guthooks.

Resupply Stops

Here is a list of all the places we stopped for resupply along the way. Our favorite trail stops are starred, meaning they would be good for a zero. They have a decent hotel, a grocery, and good places to eat.

  • Mount Laguna
  • Warner Springs
  • Idyllwild *
  • Big Bear *
  • Cajon Pass
  • Wrightwood
  • Agua Dulce (Hiker Heaven is wonderful)
  • Lake Hughes
  • Hikertown
  • Tehachapi *
  • Lake Isabella
  • Kennedy Meadows
  • Lone Pine *
  • Independence
  • Muir Trail Ranch
  • Vermillion Valley Ranch
  • Mammoth Lakes *
  • Tuolumne Meadows
  • Kennedy Meadows Resort North
  • Markleeville
  • South Lake Tahoe
  • Chester *
  • Old Station
  • Burney Mountain Guest Resort
  • Mt. Shasta *
  • Etna *
  • Seiad Valley
  • Ashland *

We would not go to the following places again, if it could be avoided: Lake Hughes (we couldn’t get a hitch. the people weren’t friendly. the post office is far), Lake Isabella (it’s spread out. the hitch is long. there seemed to be a lot of shady people around), Independence (we couldn’t get a room. all the restaurants were closed. there’s no grocery worth a damn), Muir Trail Ranch (depending on trail conditions and your mileage, you may have to send a drop here. it’s expensive and requires special packaging. the hiker boxes can be awesome though), and Markleeville (it’s a long and hard hitch. it’s expensive).

Isabella Motel on the PCT
Motel at Lake Isabella

What to Eat?

We’re not dieticians or nutritionists, so we can’t make recommendations.  But here is what we eat: high-calorie foods with a good balance of carbs, proteins, and fats.  We have found low-glycemic foods to be beneficial for endurance exercise.  Also, whenever we get to town we try to eat a lot of fresh produce.

A typical day will start with a “breakfast bomb”.  This consists of muesli, whey, almond flour, peanut butter powder, and milk powder.  Add some water and viola!  A mid-morning snack may be a pro-bar or trail mix.  Lunch usually consists of trail butter and tortillas.  A mid-afternoon snack may be another bar.  Dinner is pasta or beans.  These are a few suggestions.

Stoveless?

You will learn whether or not you like to cook on the trail.  We now have 5,000 miles of long-distance hiking under our belts, and we have finally decided to go stoveless.  It’s not for everyone.  My advice to you is that if you find yourself eating trail mix instead of cooking dinner, stoveless may be right for you.  We prefer to have a hassle-free approach.  This way we don’t have to carry fuel, a stove, or a pot.  Try it out on a test run before your thru-hike.

Other Hikers

There are many other thru-hikers on the PCT, especially in the beginning. In fact, sometimes there were too many. We did a flip flop of California to avoid a high snow year, so we didn’t see that many thru-hikers through northern California and the Sierras. I think it’s safe to say that as you go farther along the trail, you won’t see as many other thru-hikers. You will see many day hikers and weekend campers too. Hopefully, they give you some food! You will meet many people if you’re open to it. That is definitely part of the fun.

Hiking the PCT
Precious Shade

Hitchhiking

Generally, we had no problem hitchhiking. Most people know about the PCT and are used to picking up hikers. Keep in mind we always hitch together, we use a sign made from our groundsheet, and we try to hitch in a good location (good visibility, easy for people to pull over). Our sign says “hikers to trail” and “hikers to town”.

Blogging

Many people find the idea of blogging appealing.  The truth is that blogging on the trail is difficult.  You’re often exhausted from your day’s exertions and just want to go to sleep at the end of your day.  I find it helpful to keep notes on my phone for each day: the miles, what happened, the weather, etc.

When you get the opportunity to write on your nero or zero, you’ll have a reference to guide you.  It can be rewarding to share your story with others and possibly help and inspire them.  It does take a lot of extra work when you’re already really tired.  It’s also nice to know that, in the future, you will always be able to revisit your blog to remember your adventures.

Training

You should definitely train for your thru-hike.  For your aerobic training, hike with your backpack on 5 or 6 days a week beginning at least 8 weeks prior to your departure.  You should also have a regular resistance training routine.  In addition, develop a stretch routine to practice after your walks.  Carry this stretch routine over into your thru-hike.  If you need help with this, please visit our fit hiker page, here.

Gear

Base Weight

This is the weight of all your gear save water and food.  We aim to be around 10 pounds.  You could certainly go lighter.  We are carrying some camera gear and a few luxury items, which makes us a bit heavier than an ultra-light hiker would be.  Still, this is a respectable base weight. When we did our PCT hike, we were heavier than this, but we have learned much since then. To see our most recent gear list used on the Florida Trail, click here.

The Big Three:

Of course, you’ll need the big three.

Sleep System: quilt or bag, mat, bag liner (optional), pillow (optional).

Shelter: Tent, tarp (hope you like bugs), or hammock, repair kit.

Backpack & pack liner.

Clothes

Here is some of the clothing you might bring rain gear, cold-weather gear, wool sleeping clothes & sleep socks, 1 pair hiking pants and/or shorts, 1 long-sleeved shirt, 1 short-sleeved shirt, a wide-brimmed hat, buff, darn-tough hiking socks, gaiters, and trail runners.

Food System

You may choose to go stoveless as we did.  In that case, you’ll need a cold-soak receptacle (like a Talenti jar), and a spoon.

You may want to hang a bear bag.  Therefore, you’ll be needing a food-storage bag with hang line or a bear vault. Here is a link to our LiteAF bear bag review and PCT hang video.

If you like to cook, take a backpacking stove, pot, and lighter.

Filtration System

To maximize your chances of staying healthy on the trail, bring a water filter or other treatment.  You’ll also need water bottles for your treated water, a heavy-duty ziplock bag or other receptacles for scooping, and water bags for storage.

Navigation

We use the Atlas Guides Guthook AppHalf-mile’s maps and Yogi’s guide can be helpful. We just use the App on the trail.

First Aid

This depends on your level of comfortability.  All we bring is NSAIDs, anti-diarrheal, cortisone cream, tweezers, body glide, and leuko-tape.

Hiking the PCT
Camping outside of Seiad Valley

Miscellaneous

There are some items that you may want to bring, including an external battery, adapter, & cord, trek poles, phone (can be used for navigation, taking photos, journaling, reading, watching, calling, etc.), bug net, sunglasses, sunscreen, bug spray, chapstick, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, pocket knife, fingernail clippers, and wet wipes.

Test Run

If you’re new to all this, take your gear and yourself on a backpacking test run.  Get used to using all your gear before you head out.  This will also allow you to evaluate whether or not backpacking is as fun as you imagine it to be.

Gear List

Our PCT gear list can be found here.

Resources

Maps

Pacific Crest Trail Association: Half Mile’s

Apps

Guthook’s Guides

Books

Databook

Yogi’s PCT Handbook

Web Sites

Pacific Crest Trail Association

Social Media

Pacific Crest Trail Association Facebook

Summary

Thank you for reading. We hope this will help with your PCT planning process. If you have any questions or suggestions, please reach out to us. Happy trails!

Other PCT Articles:

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