Stretching from the Mexican border in Southern California to the Canadian Border in Northern Washington, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is a 2,650 mile hiking trail. Similar to the Appalachian Trail, the PCT is the West Coast version of North America through hiking. If long stretches of wilderness, high altitude splendor, and western views are your kind of hiking, this is the trail for you. Legendary in the backpacking world, undertaking this trip requires phenomenal planning, a deep understanding of the landscape, and an overall badass mindsight. With less people on the hike and larger wilderness areas than the East Coast, it is the undertaking of a lifetime.
Permits Needed for the Hike
If you’re planning on hiking more than 500 miles, then a permit is required. The permit is free and is used to separate the amount of hikers beginning on certain days from the Southern Terminal. The fragile desert ecosystem has been under a lot of stress due to the increase in popularity and it is important to thin out the crowds. Since 2013, there has been a 200% increase in through hikers on the trail. As long distance hiking becomes ever more popular, permit systems are necessary to keep the trail clean from litter, waste, and overuse.
Another area of concern is the Southern Sierra Nevada Mountains. Close to Los Angeles, they are some of the most visited mountains in the world and crowd management has become an issue lately. Being a thru-hiker, it is important to respect the landscape and share the mountains with everyone. By applying for and following permit guidelines, you can do your part to keep the Pacific Crest Trail wild and free.
Beginning in the Desert
The Pacific Crest Trail guarantees terrific biome diversity throughout the trail. The hike begins in the Colorado Desert, an extremely arid and unpopulated region of California. Considered part of the larger Sonoran Desert Ecosystem, it is much drier than even the deserts in Arizona. Because of the sun exposure and heat concerns, most hikers begin the hike in late May, any later and the summer temperatures can make trekking extremely dangerous. Proceeding northwards, you will enter the Mojave Desert, mountainous and dry, this beautiful region offers gorgeous views. Looking North, the Sierra Nevadas seemingly rise out of the desert floor and promise perennial water and high altitudes.
How to Find Water in the Desert on the Pacific Crest Trail
Because it is a desert, water sources are few and far between. The scarcity of water makes it important to properly plan your mileage and understand where the next source is located.
Often times, the source could be a cattle watering hole. Dirty pools of water require extreme filtering your water purification system will become clogged because of it.
The PCT Water Report is a website run by a group of people who, every year, create an unofficial document outlining where water is located on the trail. They offer free PDF’s for download if you are interested. I highly recommend planning out your refill locations, especially in the desert.
Dealing with the Desert
Many hikers will not bring a tent, rain gear, or warmer clothes on this part of the trail. The lack of precipitation makes cowboy camping a possibility and lighter loads means more mileage. The desert is relatively flat, at least compared to the rest of the trail, and it is not uncommon to hike 20+ mile days. Leave your warm weather gear at home for this section. Temperatures will soar into the 100’s (Fahrenheit, it is in America after all) during the day and stay relatively warm at night. A good method is to mail your high altitude gear to the first trail town you hit after reaching the Sierra Nevada mountains.
The lack of water sources can also make cooking dehydrated meals difficult and some hikers eat cold meals throughout the desert. The less gear you have, the more room you will have for water. Enjoy granola bars and power bars, alongside peanut butter tortillas. If done right, dry meals will still offer plenty of nutrients without the need to boil water. Maybe not the most pleasant experience but you’ll get through it.
Next Up, Sierra Nevada Mountains
The tallest mountains of the lower 48, this high country hiking is some of the most breathtaking on the trail, possibly the world. Mt. Whitney, the contiguous United States’ tallest mountain, 14,494 feet, is nearly on the trail and most thru-hikers climb her peak. These are the mountains that inspired John Muir, and the Pacific Crest Trail follows the John Muir Trail for most of its length. With high altitude lakes, snowfields, and crisp air, this part of the trail is a veritable wonderland for hikers.
If you have ever wanted to backpack Yosemite National Park, now you can. Perhaps the most popular park in America, waitlists for campsites keep many from ever experiencing the backcountry. But as a thru-hiker, you are allowed to camp without being put onto a waiting list.
Enjoy the rarely visited backcountry of Sequoia National Park, almost devoid of human life, the only people you might run into are fellow thru-hikers. This whole part of the trail stays in wilderness areas and has some fantastic dark skies. With little to no precipitation during the summer, the Milky Way viewing in the thin atmosphere of the high altitudes will prove to be mind bending.
When hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, winter snowfall amounts will dictate when you can safely pass through the Sierra Nevada’s. If you hike through the desert at too fast a pace, the snowpack in the mountains can prove to be impossibly deep, forcing you to wait until it melts. But leaving too late in the year will not give you enough time to finish the trail in the Northern sections before snow falls again. Keep track of the snow totals the winter before your planned hike and plan accordingly. Many hikers even bring an ice axe to help them traverse the snow. Hiking on snowpack does provide ample opportunities for glissading, the art of sliding on your butt down a hill. Fun and possibly dangerous, I highly recommend it.
Sierra Nevada to the Cascade Range
Crossing into northern California brings you to the end of the Sierra Nevada mountains and into the Cascade Range. The dry, high altitude conditions gently give way to the wetter and more volcanic soil of the Cascades. The increased seismic activity makes the topography a little more interesting. Steep climbs and river valleys will force you to descend rapidly and ascend just as quickly. These extreme sections are strenuous and the thicker vegetation makes the hike a completely different animal than the drier portions in Southern California.
Although, more valleys means more towns and resupply points. Careful planning will let you restock on supplies often enough to keep your pack weight down.
The Cascade Mountains continue their march northwards as you cross the border into Oregon. The trail stays relatively flat with the highest part of the trail standing at over 7,000 feet. Although flatter, the scenery is nothing short of breathtaking. Camp on the shores of Crater Lake, and experience one of America’s most beautiful regions. Climb into the Columbia River Gorge to take in spectacular canyon scenery and dense forest. Although, the recent forest fire of 2017 will leave this stretch charred and unrecognizable.
Hike alongside Mount Hood and gaze at her snowcapped peak. Don’t be fooled by her seemingly benign appearance, this mountain is Oregon’s largest and most active volcano. As you head ever northwards, the climate becomes wetter and the Pacific Northwest biome, featuring large douglas fir trees, begins to dominate the mountainsides.
Washington to Canada
The mountains in Washington are extremely wet. The Pacific Ocean keeps this region almost perpetually rainy. Rain in the summer and snow in the winter has created permanent snowpack and glaciers. The steep valleys and mountains will cause you to slow down as the end becomes closer and closer.
Pack rain gear and a waterproof tent, you will need them on this section. Enjoy large wilderness areas and beautiful views, when the clouds allow. Glacier Peak Wilderness is without a doubt, one of the highlights of the trail. The most isolated mountain peak in the State and perhaps the whole trail, hiking on a dormant volcano ensures you are in for an adventure. Douglas Fir trees reach a gargantuan size as well, over 10 feet in diameter.
The trail ends on the Canadian border. The Canadian government added 7 miles to the trail as a route to the nearest highway, giving thru-hikers the opportunity to hitch back to civilization.
Hitch-Hiking on the Trail
With over 2,000 miles of hiking to undertake, getting to and from trail towns is imperative for resupply. However, being a hiker, you will not have a car and so finding a ride from the trail into civilization is a challenge all hikers have to overcome. The best (and perhaps only) way to travel is by hitch-hiking. Sticking out your thumb and hoping some nice local decides to let your smelly self into their vehicle for a ride is a daunting prospect. Couple that with the fact that most of the rides are not a simple, couple mile drive, some trail towns are hours from the trailhead. It takes a special kind of person to let a thru-hiker stink up their car for that amount of time.
Don’t be Afraid to Hitch-Hike
Having hitch-hiked before, I can tell you, it’s not as terrifying as Hollywood wants you to think it is. Obviously, if you are a solo female hiker, it might be safe to practice the buddy system when getting into town but even so, I have never had a bad experience. And because you are hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, there is a strong likelihood that there will be a other hikers also trying to get into town.
Think about the types of people who are driving through remote areas. They either live close by or they are on vacation, taking in the sights. Local people who live near the trail are generally self sufficient, rugged individuals. If they really were crazy, they probably wouldn’t have survived away from a city that long. And then vacationers are generally with other people, and are usually in the mindset of being stress free and having fun. Hitching a ride with either type of person sounds like a good time to me!
Hitch hiking is pretty standard, no matter where you are doing it. Being on the Pacific Crest Trail, you will have to be extremely patient. There is not a lot of traffic out in the mountains and you may have to wait.
Not every car is going to pick you up, in fact, only one will. Don’t get disappointed or angry about it. Think about the situation from the perspective of the driver:
They see you, a dirty, smelly, stranger, who hasn’t showered in days.
They know you are slightly insane because you are hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and you are most likely armed with at least a knife, maybe even bear spray. If you do sit in their car, you will get it dirty, smelly, and you won’t even pay them for the trouble. And because you are living in the woods, maybe you can’t hold a conversation, what if you’re some kind of creep. “No way”, the driver thinks, and just rolls right by you.
Perspective of the driver who stops
They see you, a dirty, smelly stranger, most likely a bearded man, who hasn’t showered in days. “Hmm”, they think, “what an interesting person, I would like to hear what he has to say.” Or perhaps they have compassion for the tribulations you are putting yourself through, it’s not easy finding a hitch.
Lucky for you, there are plenty of people that have the perspective of the latter. Unfortunately for you, they are the minority of drivers. No matter what happens, stay smiling and keep your head up. Eventually someone will stop.
Forest Fire Danger on the Pacific Crest Trail
Unlike the the wet Appalachian Mountains, the Pacific Crest Trail follows the drier mountain ranges of the West. The majority of precipitation in these mountains fall as snow during the winter months. Some years, over 20 feet will blanket the peaks, providing drinking water to Californians.
However, during the summer months, it is not uncommon for months to go by without any substantial rainfall. Temperatures can rise into the high 80’s (F) and the ground quickly dries out under the harsh conditions. The forests that blanket the Cascades and Sierra Nevadas are predominantly Conifers.
Think pine trees.
When pine needles dry out, they become extremely flammable. During periods of drought, evergreens can become standing fuel, simply waiting for a spark to set the whole forest ablaze.
Forest Fires are common occurrences, especially in Oregon and Washington recently, and it’s important to prepare for the possibility. Lucky for you, the majority of forest fires occur on Federal Land and the US Government has live mapping software available to the public. These maps are updated in real time and provide information on blazes near the trail.
It is also important to stay vigilant during fire season. Look and smell for smoke, if you can see a large fire, think about re-routing around it. In most scenarios, rangers or fire fighters will close trails leading to forest fires, preventing hikers from testing their luck. Keep your wits about you and always go around fires, these are deadly natural disasters.
Should I Physically Prepare Myself for the Pacific Crest Trail?
Conditioning your body before undertaking a serious long distance hike is never a bad idea. There is some debate among thru-hikers on its effectiveness. Those who argue against exercise make the claim that because the hike is so long, your entire body will change to match the conditions. It is very common for people to lose upwards of 30lbs. Any muscle mass you do have will be lost and consumed for calories, just like your body fat.
The first two weeks of any hike are going to be the hardest. The first 7 days consist of your body being broken down by the stresses of long distance hiking. Your backpack will weigh on you and your feet might develop blisters. It is extremely common to suffer from chafing between the thighs, buttcheeks, and testicles.
The pain is real.
Some of this can be mitigated with using baby powder and carrying a lighter pack. But your body still needs to acclimate.
By the second week, your body is no longer being broken it is instead repairing itself. But the hiking for some is even harder because now, their body is broken down, there is a lot more physical stress to deal with. Some common problems are knee pain, ankle pain, back pain, sprains, and even cysts forming behind the knee. Many hikers end up quitting in the beginning of the hike because they are unprepared for the physical stresses.
Mental Stress of Thru-Hiking
Besides the physical pain brought on by extreme exercise, the mental obstacles are even greater. Willing yourself to keep hiking through pain is not easy. It takes a very committed person to fight the urge to quit.
Besides the physical, you must be prepared to finish the hike. If you do not wake up every day with the goal of finishing, then you will not succeed. Walking for hours a day can be maddening to some people. The fear of missing out they develop from being away from friends and family has caused many people to cut their hikes short.
How to Prepare Yourself for the Pacific Crest Trail
When I am training for a long distance hike, I run, multiple times a week. I am not running long distances, at the most, only 5 kilometers. I have noticed that when I keep a running schedule for two months before a hike, I have less pain in my knees and ankles when I begin. My hypothesis is that the running strengthens my ligaments and muscles, the vibrations from running outside acts as a way to tighten my lower body.
I also change my diet and weight lifting routine. There is no need to have overdeveloped upper body strength for hiking. These muscles will only cause you to consume more calories and add weight to your skeleton. That being said, it is important to keep a relatively strong frame, especially in the shoulders and back. I suggest bodyweight exercises like pullups and pushups 2-3 times a week.
As for my diet, I change what I eat in the months leading up to the hike. I am naturally skinny and weight is hard to gain. But this next diet rule can be followed by everyone, plus, it’s definitely the most enjoyable advice you will ever receive.
Eat Everything and Gain Weight
You heard me correctly.
Eat high calorie foods and get yourself some fat reserves. For the 5 weeks leading up to the hike, increase your caloric intake. Try consuming an additional 500-1000 calories from what you normally eat.
Donuts, pizza, beer– oh yeah, now who wants to go on a hike?
This meal prep plan will only work if you finish the trail. If you simply gain a bunch of weight and then cannot complete the hike, you are doing yourself a disservice. The average thru-hiker burns 3500 calories a day. At that rate, it is simply impossible to carry enough food and have enough time to consume calories.
This is where those wonderful fat reserves come in handy. That donut you ate two months ago? Boom! You just used it to climb a mountain. That six pack of beer? You just hiked 30 miles in a day because of it.
The modern diet is so full of excess sugars and fats that when you do come off the trail, it will quickly dawn on you how useless most of these foods are in modern society.
Just Get Out There and Start Hiking
Like anything else in life, you can overthink the Pacific Crest Trail until you decide not to do it. Don’t be that person. Buy a plane ticket right now and start planning for the hike. The Sierra Nevadas and Cascade Mountains are calling your name. Long distance hiking is an endeavor for the mentally insane but sometimes, you have to be slightly irrational to get anything done.