What You Need to Know Before Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail

The number of people who have attempted hiking the entire Pacific Crest Trail since Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling book about finding herself in the wild was released in 2012 has increased tenfold—they call it the Wild effect. The famous challenging trail spans 2650 miles from the Mexican to Canadian borders and takes a whole four to five months to complete on foot.

If you’re going to be a thru-hiker—someone who attempts to hike the trail in its entirety—there are tons of things you must consider before setting off. This is no small feat, so it’s best to be thoroughly prepared because once you’re out in the wilderness, many factors will be almost completely out of your control. Thankfully, you won't be the first to make the trip (or the last, for that matter), so there is plenty of information available about how you should plan your expedition.

If hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is on your mind, learn about the steps you should take before making the plunge.

hiking the pacific crest trail
Bérenger Zyla / 500px


Find Your Purpose

As with marathons and other strenuous physical activities, hiking long distances requires great mental strength. You should be embarking on this journey for a solid reason. Truly brainstorm why you are doing this—to prove your strength to yourself, to see nature like you haven’t before—and then write down your purpose. Tuck it into your pocket for reference whenever you have a rough moment on your journey, but make sure you do this before you set off. “When battling dehydration, heat exhaustion, and an array of silver-dollar sized blisters, it’s harder to remember why you’ve subjected yourself to such a lifestyle,” says Zach “Badger” Davis, an Appalachian Trail hiker and co-author of Pacific Crest Trials.

Decide If You'll Go Solo

Just because Strayed did her hike alone doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t include a friend, partner, or even a workout buddy. Weigh the pros and cons, and decide if the solo or buddy/group atmosphere will be more conducive to achieving your goals. There’s always the option of starting your trip out on your own and making a travel companion along the way (it actually happens).

Pick A Time Frame

The trail basically shuts down in the winter because of the snow, so you need to pick your timeframe wisely. The general rule of thumb is that north-bounders have a mid-April to early May start, while south-bounders begin in late June to early July. But if you leave too early, you can find snow for large stretches; if you leave too late, you can be forced to face dangerously hot temperatures. The Pacific Crest Trail Association suggests you monitor weather conditions during these start windows.

Secure A Permit

If you're going to be traveling the whole trail, you'll be considered a long-distance traveler and will need to apply for a permit. These permits are free, but you must apply in advance and include your start date (so make sure you decide on this first). Once you receive your permit, you’ll need to keep a hard copy with you at all times on your trip (remember: digital versions won’t suffice).

Prepare Physically

“Most people spend too much time online researching gear and reading blogs, but not actually enough time training with their gear and preparing mentally,” says Jennifer Pharr Davis, who's hiked 12,000 miles spanning six continents (including the PCT). Pharr Davis says to start preparing your body, you should do two days of cardio for every one day of strength training and give yourself one to two rest days per week. Once you’re more comfortable getting moving, you should add some weight to your cardio days by completing your workout with the pack you’ll be wearing. Other things you should consider are climbing some hills to simulate the actual trails you’ll be hiking and doing yoga to strengthen your core so you reduce your chance of injury. 

Invest in the Right Gear

The Pacific Crest Trail Association warns you to pack your backpack light, but to also not forget that weather can get cold and brutal even in the summer. You’ll also need a laminated topographic map, a compass, sunscreen, and sunglasses. For traveling in the dark, you’ll need a flashlight or headlight (plus spare batteries), a first-aid kit, waterproof matches or a fire starter, extra food and water, and some sort of emergency shelter. You can see the full recommended list, but make sure to do more thorough research before heading out.

You will also have two options for replenishing food: You can ship food to post offices or hotels on your journey, or you can pre-plan which stops you'll make so you can replenish your supply in town stores. There are pros and cons to each, of course, one being that you may not feel like the food you send ahead of time and you'll pay hefty postage fees. On the flip side, the town stores may not have the food you’re looking for, the food is often more expensive, and you'll spend your downtime grocery shopping.

Plan How You'll Stay Connected

You’ll want to stay in touch with loved ones back home and have a tool to communicate in case of an emergency. A reported 70% of the PCT has wireless cell phone service (you can check your cell phone plan to see where you should have service on your trek). It’s wise to pack a battery-powered cell phone charger with you for when your phone dies. Although it's too heavy for most hikers to bring with them, a satellite phone is another option that will allow you to have service throughout your journey. Most hikers stick to using calling cards they’ve gotten in advance to make calls once they get to town. 

Another device to consider is a SPOT messenger, which allows you to send one-way messages with your location to family and friends (or Search and Rescue) in case you’re in trouble. If you’re more of an emailer, PocketMail devices allow you to send emails by holding the device up to a phone after calling a toll-free number. 

Training will be a breeze with a bottle that will keep your water chilled for a full 24 hours like the one below:

S’well Milky Way Water Bottle
S'well Milky Way Water Bottle $26

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