Welcome to Logan’s Guide to the PCT! I wrote this guide after my 2015 thru-hike because I felt that the resources I used for my own hike could have been better or were outdated. I’ve broken my guide down into the following sections.
There are a thousand ways to hike the PCT, and no way is the correct way. Still, there are easier ways than others, and I share what was easiest for me throughout my guide, keeping in mind that I’m not here to tell you how to hike. Take what you find useful, throw out what you don’t, and make your hike your own.
By now you may have already read the wikipedia page and scoured the PCTA page for all of the facts and numbers and the history behind the trail. If you haven’t yet, you should.
Rather than rehash what they do well, I’m going to give a summary of what a hiker experiences along the trail through each section.
The Pacific Crest Trail is a 2650 mile national scenic trail that stretches through the mountain ranges of four different states. Thru Hikers will typically travel to San Diego on route to Campo, CA where the monument lies about one mile from the town, a rocks throw from the border fence. The first 700 miles are called desert, although are technically Chaparral, and the trail traverses through the mountain ranges of Southern California.
Unlike the desert you may have pictured, the trail for the most part will follow the ridge line with a steep drop off on one side and a steep hill along the other. Also, the cactus is small. Because the trail is graded for horses the climbs are generally slow and steady, and there are switchbacks instead of steep climbs or descents. While up in elevation there are pine trees and sometimes snow, and when descending in elevation, which usually only happens when switching mountain ranges, the shrubs and Yucca slowly take over and the trees become less frequent.
The desert has very little water, but the desert towns, piped springs and small creeks are frequent enough that a person doesn’t have to rely on water caches, even in a drought year like 2015. A thru hiker will live off of their water report, checking each upcoming source to see how much water they will need to carry to make it to the next reliable water.
A water report should be printed just before you leave, although one is usually provided at the Kickoff. You can print new reports at the town library, and some libraries (such as in Idyllwild for 2015) already have printed reports available for hikers. A hiker will typically carry one liter of water for every 3-15 miles largely dependent on the heat, the individual, how well they camel up, and how frustrated they are with their Sawyer Mini, as most hikers in the desert wont know about the superior regular Sawyer Squeeze yet.
The hiker will need to shut out the sounds of lizards rustling through dry leaves. Lizards will be seen every few minutes, and the sound of a lizard running through the leaves sounds exactly like a rattlesnake and a mountain lion, especially when you are trying to sleep, are night hiking or tuned out to your far too short playlist.
The hiker will need to deal with other hikers telling them “I heard a rattlesnake but I haven’t seen one yet” even though they heard a cricket, or a lizard, and when you ask them if they know what a rattlesnake sounds like they’ll say no. The hiker will likely see 5-10 rattlesnakes by the deserts end.
The desert nights are the coldest of the trail bar October Washington, especially for people who get caught in storms, or who try to sleep near the top of San Jacinto. Rain was common for the 2015 class, as was snow, sleet, and wind storms. The people who sent their rainfly ahead were sorry.
The hiker will either be an ex-AT thru hiker or not, and will have to deal with the stories, egos, cliques, and complaints that some of the louder ones perpetuate. Most of them are alright though.
The hiker will continually answer the same questions. “What was your start date?”, “Have you thru hiked before?”, “Where are you from?”
Or from non hikers “Do you carry all six months of food at once?”
The desert produces the best sunsets and the best memories as you’ll be meeting hikers that you’ll likely be bumping into for the next several months. The desert also has the best trail magic, many trail angels, some of the best quirky towns, the strangest locals and many great views.
Memorial Day weekend is the time to be at a major road crossing. (Walker Pass) and the hikers will find gobs of trail magic waiting for them.
Most people will try to get through the desert before it gets too hot, and Kennedy Meadows is the goal on every hikers mind because that is where the desert is meant to end.
The hiker will make the long walk down the road to the KM store where the lazy hikers on the porch will all clap for them. The hiker will meet a ton of people they’ve never seen before who were probably just a few miles ahead of them for the last 700 miles. After many beers, burgers, ice cream, and perhaps an unlimited pancake breakfast run out some dudes house, the hiker might escape the vortex, or they might just take a zero.
The hiker will be told by at least twelve people that if they enter the Sierra they will posthole for days but then they won’t. They will continue to be told ridiculous baseless things like this for the rest of their hike and it will be up to them to find out for themselves.
The hiker will be slightly frustrated when the first thing they do after leaving KM is slog through sand and continue to see cactus for half a day, but the views and water quickly lift their spirit as they slowly transcend into the Sierra.
The Sierra is the promise land, and most hikers will take their time and enjoy the views. Hikers will have bought or shipped a bear canister to KM and will be trying to figure out how to repack their packs to get the canister in comfortably. About two or three days in the hiker should summit the tallest mountain in the lower 48, Mt. Whitney, then enjoy the weird changes that all the Sierra offers.
Like the feeling of impending doom when you don’t have a water report, but quickly realize that you see water every ten minutes. Sometimes the water runs into the trail and is excessive, even in a drought year.
And the weird feeling of only having one or two water bottles in your side pockets rather than four to six plus a bladder.
Or when the hiker sees their first Marmot and wonders “What in God’s name is THAT?”
Or the feeling of seeing someone on trail that isn’t a thru hiker. JMT hikers will be seen every so often because they typically make the grave mistake of going south. The hiker will look in amazement at the size of the JMT packs that only get larger as they approach the start of the JMT, the clean gear, and their clueless straight from REI nature. The JMT hikers will have their jaw drop when they see thru hiker girls (and guys) crossing snowy Forester Pass in a skirt and tennis shoes, or when they see us running up an icy Whitney in shorts and trail runners.
The Sierras will also bring a great sense of freedom regarding campsite selection because rather than being alongside ridges like in the desert, the trail goes through valleys and then switchbacks up over a mountain pass about once a day to reach the next valley.
The hiker will be surprised at how they are sleeping warmer than they did in the desert.
The views are jaw dropping and make the hiker feel small. Glenn pass will make the adventurous hiker feel like they wish they had an ice axe.
The hiker will find few places to resupply, often requiring a side trip out of the Sierras or a trip to an expensive resort. All of the hikers friends will stop filtering their water, and the hiker might too. The hiker will find themselves taking more lunch breaks than normal with all the good spots, which is strange, and their mileage will drop.
After the hiker becomes a rock hopping stream crossing master they will soon come to the end of the Sierras and will have forgotten what it was like to use the water report. They’ll either wonder when they are going to see their first bear, or if they’ll see another.
Upon reaching Tuolumne Meadows the hikers will all celebrate at the hiker table, separate from the shiny tourist table. They will be most excited about not having to have the same short conversation with every single JMT’er because the JMT will now split off from the PCT down into the Yosemite Valley. Some hikers will try to get one of the 25 daily permits that will allow them to finish the JMT, and they should if they can.
Now that the Sierras are over the trail should be easy. Or so the hiker thinks. In reality the next three days of the trail will be harder than anything the hiker has experienced on trail. The mosquitoes alone will create stories and complaints that hikers will talk about until Washington.
It will be neat when the mountains change from granitic to volcanic after the 1000 mile mark. A brief celebration will happen, and hikers around you may tell you that they are done hiking. Plenty of rumors will go around about how everyone is quitting now, but they won’t know more than one or two of them personally.
The hiker will have a new found motivation when they are told that South Lake Tahoe has casinos, buffets, and cheap hotels. This fact combined with the feeling of accomplishment after hiking over 1000 miles, seeing the sierras and finishing the JMT will cause more hikers to drop out than it feels like dropped out in the desert.
After much feasting, the loss of money, and perhaps a side trip to San Fran, the trail continues into the unknown territory of Northern California.
Although the Sierran Mountain Range technically continues north, many hikers start calling the area past Tahoe Norcal, because it looks nothing like the actual Sierra that they just hiked through. Norcal can be hotter than the desert, with dry stretches that are just as long. Typically there are not big climbs until the hiker descends down into town, and has to make the climb back out again. Norcal is all big valleys, with steep hills, but once you climb out of town there isn’t much elevation gain.
The hikers, especially in town, will hype up the climb. They will talk about the numbers, how many miles the climb is, the weather, how they don’t want to leave in the heat of the day, and anything else that makes the climb seem worse than it actually is. They really just want someone to become vortexed and chill in town with them.
The climbs are generally well graded and although long, aren’t too strenuous.
Half of your thru-hiker friends will tell you they don’t know what Poison Oak looks like, and this will surprise a few hikers who will immediately suggest that they look at the pictures they’ve taken of it so they don’t die.
There isn’t much to look at in Norcal until about Mt. Shasta or so. Sunsets are rarer to see since there are so many trees. There are a few cool huts. The trail gets real remote, and the towns smaller. The sun starts to rise later and later as July progresses and August approaches.
Nobody hates cows more than thru-hikers.
Hikers will all want to spend the 4th in town, and this will create some of the largest gatherings of thru-hikers that have been seen since KM. Drinking, swimming, and seeing people you haven’t seen since KM or the desert will occur.
There are two kinds of thru-hikers. The kind that wonder why the hell there is 50+ porta-potties lining the town of Belden, population 22. And the kind that find themselves in the middle of the most random massive rave.
July is so hot that the hiker will sleep with no warm clothes and with their sleeping bags unzipped. Being able to walk in the morning with no gloves on will be appreciated. Being able to dunk a bandanna in every stream and lake will also be appreciated.
Rumors of wildfires and the people who spread the rumors will scare lots of people.
It will be nice to be doing big miles again. It will be slightly disappointing to get to town and realize that town is an RV park, a gas station sized store and maybe a restaurant, but at least all your hiker friends will be impressed at the creativity in your resupply. Coffee grounds mixed with peanut butter that has been melted together with butter? Actually pretty delish.
You realize that you don’t know your best friends real name.
Go summit Mt. Shasta because it is visible for like 500 miles of the trail every now and then and it is awesome.
After passing the I5 to Shasta/Castella/Dunsmuir the trail will start to get really pretty again through the Castle Crags, Trinity Alps, Russian Wilderness and Marble Mountains and eyes will be set on the promise land of Oregon.
Everyone will say that Oregon is flat, but until you experience it, you won’t understand how flat it is. There are few switchbacks, and the ‘climbs’ are small ups and downs. It is even flatter than the elevation gains make it appear, and there is room for some big mileage.
Southern Oregon offers little in the form of views, and Oregon in General is mostly a green tunnel with some brown lakes here and there. The exceptions are Crater Lake, Mt. Thielsen, The Obsidian Limited Entry Area around the three sisters, Mt. Jefferson, and Mt. Hood.
Some people try to hike the entire state in two weeks, called the Oregon Challenge. It’s really really hard, especially if you haven’t put in many 35+ mile days in Norcal. 28 miles is a full day for a normal thru hiker in Oregon. Things will start to get cold, especially as September approaches, and all the common stops are lake resorts and lodges.
The hiker will know that there is a special place in hell where people are asked to hike on lava rock all day, and they’ve experienced it for themselves. Hopefully there is more water in Washington the hiker thinks, because Oregon has a few of the longest waterless stretches of the PCT.
Oregon is horse/pack mule hell. Nobody hates equestrians more than someone who walks through horse crap all day and is expected to stop walking so that the overweight weekend warrior carrying massive tents and unnecessary gear on their four legged trail destroyers can pass them because ‘we wouldn’t want to scare the animal’.
After the buffet at the lodge that everyone says is from the shining the hiker will continue onto the Eagle Creek alternate with the tunnel falls that everyone talks about any time Oregon is mentioned and they’ll finish off Oregon.
The bridge of the Gods is really scary.
Washington is known as the land of the wet. Sometimes that is true. It is certainly the most remote and for me the hardest part of the trail, physically, and mentally, and mileages drop hard. For most, there are only 4 mail drops in the entire state, the first three drops are ski resorts, the last one is a resort town only reachable by plane, a 52 mile ferry, or by trail. The last 250 miles of the state have zero cell service.
In Washington a climb will feel like it lasts forever without any real progress. The trail goes up and then straight back down, only to come back up again. This leads to a high rate of injury, even with hikers who had zero injuries for the first 2100 miles. The rain on the rest of the trail, at its worst, turns to blue skies the next morning, but in Washington storms can last for weeks. It can suddenly snow, and the fog can cause near white out conditions.
In Washington the wasps get eaten by even bigger and meaner wasps. Seeing bits of wasp nest in the trail every few miles is common, as are full sized wasp nests. Look up, and you’ll likely see one. Stop for a lunch break and you’ll be quickly swarmed with yellow jackets. This isn’t a good place to learn you’re allergic. The trail logs are full of hikers talking about how often they’ve been stung.
Hikers will finally learn what it is like to have their food bag ripped into in Washington as the rodent problem is almost as bad as the wasp problem. Any established campsite will be infested, packs, tents, and pole straps will be chewed through, and if you are the type to cowboy you may even get a kiss on the nose.
I did an experiment where I put out some trash and turned on my light when I heard them. They instantly teleported away with incredible speed. Then I turned the light off, and nearly instantly I heard them chewing back on the trash. Don’t be surprised if you see any R.O.U.S.’s.
IMO everything except the first 80 miles are fantastic. The only poison oak on trail since hiking out of Seiad Valley in Norcal is during the first 6 miles of Washington. It can be a bit of a green tunnel at times, but the moss, fungi, water features and trees make up for it.
There are parts of Washington that are certainly the coolest parts of the trail. There are parts of Washington that compete with the Sierras in beauty. Washington is the most remote part of the trail, and often the only way someone gets to where you are is by walking the whole way. There are few connecting trails, and few people beyond thru hikers walk in the rain and snow in late August/September/October in Washington.
Ponchos and rain gear are crucial.
Labor day weekend is not a time to be caught anywhere near civilization unless the hiker enjoy swarms of slow and often rude people, trail runners, people with dogs etc.
Sometimes there is trail magic.
Mushrooms large enough to sit on, and washed out bridges are common.
The lack of horses from the steepness+number of downed trees is enjoyable.
Trees the size of houses.
The Stehekin bakery is as cool as everyone says it is.
The views on the last day of the trail are incredible, some of the best of the trail. A great way to finish a thru-hike.
The thru-hiker will approach the monument, and it will not be what they were expecting it to look like, just like the monument in the desert was not what they were expecting it to look like. It won’t feel real. After reading through the log in the silver monument, signing it, and taking the picture which they’ve been trying to think of a pose for, they’ll call it good enough, walk to Canada, and it will all slowly become dream.
My problem with most of the gear lists out there is that they are lists of what a person is going to take on their thru hike. Sometimes they update the lists after the trail. Other lists are out of date, or simply list the gear and don’t really discuss alternatives. I’ll try and have a complete list here with all of the options that most thru-hikers go to, and why.
- My Gear List
- Big 3
- Water Filtering and Systems
- Other Gear
- Trekking Poles
- Electronics and Charging Systems
- Being Bug Proof
- Cooking and Stoves
- Sierran Gear – Ice Axes, Crampons, Bear Cans
- Washington Gear
First I’m going to list my gear before starting my hike, and then I’ll list the changes.
I’d like to clear the air on the confusing topic of training for a thru hike. Some sources will tell you to forget training altogether. After all, there’s nothing you can do to prepare your body for hiking 20 miles a day, or so they say. Let me tell you about the first few weeks of my thru hike, and compare it to the first few weeks of all the people around me who did zero or little training.
My legs were never sore. I didn’t get a single blister during my entire hike. My feet ached a little for the first few weeks, but it was a good ache that went away with sleep. I did the 22 miles out of kickoff at Lake Morena to Mt. Laguna in 7 hours before the PO closed. The next day I did 26.5 miles through a sideways sleet wind storm. I kept doing 20+ miles a day with no problems, right out of the gate.
“What did you do to train?” I asked a guy at the hiker table at a restaurant in Mt. Laguna. “Ate cheeseburgers and drank beer!”. I met a lot of people, really the majority, that had major problems with their body in the first few weeks of their hike. I was amazed when people at kickoff said they had blisters after the first 20 miles. I know a lot of people who had to take a week off because their blisters and feet problems were so bad. Shin splints, shoes that shredded their feet, terribly sore legs, and eventually tendinitis, plantar fascia, and other major problems, some of which took them off the trail entirely within the first month.
All the people I met who avoided blisters and injuries in the beginning had one thing in common. We trained. And it made my experience far better because of it. If anyone tries to tell you that training isn’t important, they are only half right.
Early in the desert I met a crew and hiked with them for a few days. They all had major feet problems, shin splints, blisters that they cut off, and when I got into the Paradise Valley Cafe 4 hours earlier than they had (though we camped together), thinking that it was a pretty easy day, they were dying. I kept going on, and thought that they would never catch me again. One of them finished a full month before me, two of the girls caught me at Kennedy Meadows and stayed ahead of me till Oregon. If you decide to not train, your body will eventually catch up, but you can sure save yourself a lot of misery in the beginning if you take a few hours a week to train, and you minimize the chance of a injury that might take you off trail, either for the season or for weeks.
Here is what I did. I carpooled to work and ran home after work. The run was 5 miles and I did it 5 times a week. At first I did a mix of running and walking, because I was terribly out of shape, but after 4 weeks I was amazed when I was able to run the whole way. I kept doing that for 5 weeks, continually trying to improve my times. My last week of work I only walked, so my legs would stop being sore in time for my hike. The run was on flat country roads for me, but some elevation gain would really have helped. If you have a tall building nearby, try going up the stairs to the top, and ride the elevator down. Or I hear they have things called stair masters that do the same thing. I carried my work clothes and tools during my run, around 12 pounds worth, but I really think training hikes with a pack on is a waste of time. If you have an hour a day to train, it would be better spent running than doing an hour of training hikes. If you have the time for both, prioritize running first, and training hikes next. If you do a training hike it should have as much uphill as possible, otherwise it really isn’t doing much for you unless you’re doing big miles.
Before I started training I started a job where I was always standing. My feet ached for the first few weeks because they wern’t used to standing all day every day. I think it is important to get your legs used to that before your hike, otherwise you are going from a crawl to a sprint, and your feet will really take a beating. If you have to stand at a desk job and watch tv standing up, anything helps.
It would be good to train in the shoes you are wanting to hike in to see how they work with your feet. I only used my hiking shoes the last two weeks because I didn’t want to wear them out, and I trained in a cheap pair of New Balance trail runners.
Hikers can reach a level of fitness where there really isn’t much of a difference between uphills and flats. The only difference is their breathing and heart rate increases, but they aren’t totally out of breath or winded, and their breathing/heart rates go back to normal very quickly once the climbing stops, and they’re ready to keep walking. Some hikers refer to this as having their hiking legs. Your level of training before your hike helps determine when you get them.
I think I got my legs somewhere towards the end of the desert, although they felt especially strong in Norcal. The climbs were harder since my legs didn’t have the elevation gain during my training run, but I was able to catch my breath quickly and speed back up on the flats until they grew into it.
After I was done hiking I couldn’t run five miles anymore without stopping, but I could sure speed hike 40 miles. Running, hiking, and trail running all use different muscles, or so I’ve been told.
Back To Top
Before my through hike I thought planning and preparation was everything. When I got out there I realized that most things tend to work out, within reason, and it is better to just go with the flow. I met people who didn’t have their bear cans bought, didn’t have any boxes mailed anywhere, or any of the other things I did to prepare before leaving, and I thought they were doomed. If I could do it all over again I would have just winged it, with some exceptions. Here is a list of what you should actually be worried about in the months before your first thru hike.
1. Exercise and training
3. One box of food to ship. Maybe two at most
4. Food preparation if you have extreme diet restrictions, or if you really want to prepare all your food before hand.
5. Personal Responsibilities (quitting work, getting out of rent leases, finding house-sitters/pet sitters, saying goodbye to loved ones)
6. Saving money for your hike
7. Permits and Passports
Here are some things you shouldn’t worry about.
- Finding someone to hike with
- Buying a ton of food
- Shipping or preparing boxes unless you’re making your own food
- Beating the “crowds”
- Water situations
- Weather and the Sierras
- What day your permit is for
When you actually get out there only a few things are actually going to matter and effect you. If you don’t get your shoes figured out, your feet are going to feel it. If you don’t have enough money to finish your hike, it’ll catch up to you. If your gear sucks, you’ll find out quickly, and you’ll be able to fix it, but you’ll save money if you get it right the first time. If you didn’t train at all your body will go through some pain for the first month or two.
You can always send yourself food from the trail, and it will be food that your new tastes will actually enjoy. If you do bring maps, they’ll be the first thing you toss into the hiker box after you realize that getting lost on the PCT is about as hard as getting lost in your bedroom. As far as permits go, they aren’t even required until you hit Idyllwild at mile 179, and if you see more than one or two rangers on the whole trail you’re unlucky.
If you try and beat the crowds by starting early you’ll find yourself reaching that monument on the Canadian border alone, waiting for someone to come along to take your picture, wondering what friends and memories you could have made if you had taken your time. Being alone in the woods sounds great when you live a life at home where you interact with people daily, but once you get out there, and months go by with limited social interaction, its a major reality check. When you get done with the trail all of the memories of the things you saw and did will fade, but the people that you went through it with will still be there. People are the best part of the trail, don’t miss out on it.
Don’t worry about the people who are starting before the first week of April, I started at kickoff, finished 144 days later and wished I had stuck back and met everyone I could have. There were lots of lonely days, lots of hiking alone, I never had to fight for camp sites, and even if a site was full thru hikers are some of the nicest people and are more than willing to make room.
In the desert I would count the number of people who signed the trail log, and 30-40 was pretty common, 20-30 became common after the Sierras, 15 was normal in Norcal, 10-15 Nobos in Oregon, and in Washington 5-10 names per day. Part of it is that hikers really spread themselves out after the desert. Part of it is that plenty of people don’t make it. Generally speaking you know and have met all of the people around you in the log books by the time you finish. Sometimes you run into someone in Washington and recognize their name from the logbooks 100 miles in.
Nobo or Sobo?
I will start off by saying that I am extremely biased in that I completed a Nobo thru-hike. I’m going to try to talk you out of the notion of a Sobo hike as being a good idea, but at least I’m up front about it.
Sobos start in June/July, Nobos start in April/May. Sometimes people can’t do a Nobo hike because their April/May is busy, so they consider a Sobo hike instead. First, in my honest opinion, if you are considering a Sobo hike because you can’t start in April/May you should wait till next year. Walking 2650 miles is a huge commitment. It would be like deciding you are going to adopt a baby because you don’t want to wait nine months to make a baby. Thru hiking is a big deal, and it takes a huge time commitment.
A Nobo that finishes their hike in five months is going to be done in late September. A Sobo that finishes their hike in five months is going to finish in late November.
A Nobo has the sun at their back all day. A Sobo has the sun in their eyes all day.
A Nobo gets through the desert before it gets hot in the spring, when the water is still flowing well.
A Nobo gets more trail magic. A Nobo gets to experience snow on the peaks and passes in the Sierra that make it feel more wild and adventurous, and less crowded.
A Nobo doesn’t have to worry about getting through the Sierra before the snow comes back.
A Nobo doesn’t have to do the 32 mile walk from Harts Pass to the monument only to turn back around, since you can’t enter the United States from Canada. Nobos can just drive up to the southern monument, or bus to about a mile away.
A Nobo gets to finish the PCT hiking through the North Cascades, some of the most beautiful part of the trail. Sobo’s get to finish in the desert. I’ll take glaciers and friendly Canadians over cactus any day.
A Sobo has to pass every single Nobo that is on the trail.
Nobos have more people to meet.
Nobos get to count up their miles to 2650, Sobos have to count the miles down to 0.
Again, I’m taking an ignorant stance here because I really don’t know anything about Sobo thru hiking. If you want to do that, you’ll have to research Sobo specific advice elsewhere.