Hiking Guide to The Pacific Crest Trail

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Pacific Crest Trail What You Need to Know Before You Go

The Pacific Crest Trail continues to gain elevation. It always seems to. Every rock stepped over, every switchback taken and every mountain pass hiked has been realized after two months of slogging in the desert sun. The accomplishment is powerful and the view of the splendid Sierra Nevada bursting out of the horizon is almost an oasis of HD views that most cameras don’t know how to handle.

The looming mountain pass in the distance however, is a reminder of the 1900 more miles to go; two more states of countless obstacles of terrain and weather to be seen. Perseverance and passion are needed to finish the west coast of the United States’ greatest footpath. And anyone can do it.

PCT Overview

The Pacific Crest Trail is a 2,650.10-mile trail through the states of California, Oregon, and Washington on the west coast of the United States. Spanning the length from the borders of Mexico to Canada, one hikes anywhere from four to six months of their life, living from week to week in the remoteness of the most variable terrain the planet has to offer.

Going from the desert sun of the Mojave Desert in Southern California, the high altitude granite peaks of the Sierra. Then volcano hopping in the central regions of Oregon and finally inching closer and closer to Canada through the wonderment of the Cascade Mountains in Washington. Jumping from one national park and wilderness area to the next, here are the basic skills, terrain, weather, and more information needed for anyone who wishes to attempt a thru-hike on the PCT.

The Pacific Crest Terrain

The landscape and environment change on the trail as much as it changes altitude. One day could be 90 degrees with scorching desert sun, while the next being near freezing at an elevation of 9,000 feet.

Change is apparent on a daily basis and the preparation for such is very important. The lowest point on trail is at a meager 170 feet above seal level on the Columbia River Gorge on the border of Washington and Oregon. While on the contrary, the highest is at 13,200 feet on Forester Pass in the Sierra Nevada of California. You could literally get altitude sickness in the morning and get heat exhaustion by the afternoon.

Weather

The weather also changes dramatically and quickly. The desert is extremely hot with obvious reason but it can also drop below freezing at night on the same day. The altitude environments of the Sierra Nevada in California and the Cascade Range of Washington can be nearly 90 degrees as well as below freezing with alpine snow even in the summer months.

The variation is exciting with rain, sleet, snow, lightning, hail and everything in between at any location on trail.

Where to Stay on The Pacific Crest

Where you sleep day to day on trail comes with what you have decided to carry. Most pack a sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and tent for protection from weather and the environment. Yet on a weekly basis, you will cross a road or highway where you can hitchhike into a town to stay at a hotel or hostel for the night depending on the location.

Be advised however that most towns hitched into rarely have more than a grocery store and gas station.

When to Hike

Timing is crucial for the PCT. Unless you wish to challenge yourself further by conquering the mountains in the snowy months of winter.

The start dates typically range from Late March through Late May for a Northbound Thru-hiker. You can choose to either hike South to North from Mexico up. Or you may go from Canada south.

Though the dates change for starting, the northbound hike is the more popular of the two. If southbound, start dates depend on the snow pack for the year in the Cascades, though typically range from early June to late July.

Training for PCT

There are certainly exercises, stretches, and routines that can be helpful for preparing for months of walking. Many start by trail running. A couple miles a day with slow mileage gains weekly can prepare both your body and mind for eight to twelve hours of daily hiking, sometimes even more than that.

Stretching and yoga will play a tremendous role in keeping you moving effortless and injury free. The most common set back most hikers face beyond blisters were of muscle tears. Stretching has proven to be a healer as well as preventer of injuries.

However the most important training one can do is through mental awareness. All of the physical training, stretching, and experience with backpacking means nothing if you aren’t truly driven to seeing yourself at the border of Canada or Mexico.

The drive, passion, and perseverance are an understatement and hidden factor when the first step is taken. Whatever the reason was that you found to even consider hiking the trail, hold onto it and use it as your personal drive as it will be monumental to your success and happiness for completion.

Skills

The basic knowledge of camping and backpacking gear are really all you need as the struggles and exertion are shared among the others that have decided to hike as well. However balancing your pack with weight distribution is a must for the most comfort you can have hiking.

Some simple map reading skills and the basics of first aid training are all obvious common sense knowledge that will help you and others. The greatest skill you can carry though is the knowledge of what your body is capable of doing. Knowing the limits both physically and mentally will help the cruise control stay set for the months spent on trail.

Gear

The tools required for completion beyond physical limits and time management share an equal part for making or breaking the trip. A several liter pack, fairly warm and lightweight sleeping bag and sleeping pad are a must. Some choose between a tent and lightweight bivy for protection from the elements.

Other Essential Gear includes:

Rain Gear
Down jacket
Two pairs of socks
Trekking poles
Hat
Sun glasses
Trail runners
Packable stove
Water filter
Headlamp
Base layer clothing

Top Tip: Absolutely no cotton clothing as they are heavy and a killer for hypothermia reasons when sweat occurs.

Provisions

Some unforeseen attributes that are a staple for success are through hitchhiking. Whether you set yourself up to send boxes of food through various Post Offices or you intend to go into the nearest town weekly and get food from grocery stores, the necessity of hitchhiking is unavoidable.

Be confident, be comfortable, and be open to the willingness of strangers happy to help out. People who live near the trail know the need for hikers to get to town and many are thrilled to see you.

Flights/Visa

Regardless of where you’re from, all hikers need to get a trail permit in order to hike. You can go to the pcta.org website and apply to get one. It is advised to apply early in the year to set a start date available.

Many dates are limited to a certain number of hikers and those who apply late must start on dates available. There are also many major airports within a reasonable drive from the trail.

With San Diego being the best option and nearest to the Mexico border for the northbound hiker, while Seattle being the nearest to Canada for the southbound start. Also with Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles being excellent choices for midway breaks.

Accommodation near Pacific Crest Trail

Rad Season is providing you with hotels and Airbnbs at the lowest prices available online. Book your stay near Pacific Crest Trail using the map below!

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Sean Jansen

Sean Jansen is a freelance writer, photographer, and seasonal tour guide. When not guiding people in Yellowstone National Park, he spends his time fly fishing, trail running, backpacking, or surfing. Writing and photographing his experiences along the way has shaped him into a life long enthusiast of the outdoors.

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