How to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail
For most people hiking the Pacific Crest Trail involves hours of painstaking research online before they every get outside and step foot on the trail. We hoped we could save you some time by compiling some of the frequently asked questions and we got while screening "Only The Essential" around the country.
By Colin Arisman
Q: What is thru-hiking?
A: Loosely it is defined as travelling the entire length of a trail in one attempt or season. There are many ways to thru-hike however and within the long-distance hiking community many folks have different criteria for defining thru-hiking. Most PCT thru-hikers begin their journeys on the Mexico border in late April, hiking North-bound toward Canada. The journey typically takes 4-6 months, with most hikers finishing by the end of September. By the mid-point of the trip most thru-hikers find themselves hiking 20-25 miles a day on average. Typically thru-hikers resupply food in town a few times a week and rest one day per week. No one knows how many people start or finish, but roughly a thousand hikers are starting the trail each year on the Mexico border with about half completing the thru-hike. The popularity of thru-hiking is increasingly dramatically in recent years with more and more folks aiming to thru-hike each year.
Q: What is the difference between the PCT, CDT, and. AT?
A: The Triple crown refers to these three national scenic trails. Each trail offers unique challenge and opportunities to thru-hikers.
- Appalachian Trail: 2160 miles, steeply graded, physically challenging trail in comparison to the PCT or CDT. Be prepared for wet conditions. Very popular trail, with a strong culture – not as wild or remote as the other trails.
- Continental Divide Trail: 3100 miles - the most challenging of all the long-distance trails. The CDT is extremely remote, unmarked in many places, and incomplete in its construction. Significant challenges include scarce, poor quality water, large sections of snow in the alpine, dangerous river crossings and the extreme length and isolation of the trail. Far fewer hikers attempt the CDT in comparison to the other trails.
- Pacific Crest Trail: 2650 – arguably the easiest physically of all the major trails. Weather is generally mild, with moderate precipitation. Less congestion than the AT and less remote and isolated than the CDT.
Q: Which section of the PCT is most challenging?
A: Each section of the Pacific Crest Trail presents unique challenges due to the ecological characteristics of the region.
- Desert: Best season April-May. Getting in trail shape in a hot environment can be a tough transition for many hikers. High mid-day temperatures, sun exposure and lack of shade are significant challenges. Additionally there is scarce water, with long stretches between sources. Extensive burned areas offer hazards including widow-maker trees and patches of toxic poodle-dog bush.
- High Sierra: Best season June-August. The Sierra present the highest elevations experienced on the Pacific Crest Trail, and altitude sickness is a concern. The Sierras are a classic big mountain environment, with lingering snow crossings, remote sections and unpredictable thunderstorms.
- Northern California: Best season June – September. Forest fires are a consistent hazard in Northern California. Poison oak is also common at lower elevations. Water again becomes inconsistent, with sections like Hat Creek Rim requiring water to be carried for 30 miles. Hikers may experience the highest temperatures on trail in this region.
- Washington: Best season July-August. Characteristic of this region are frequent rain and colder temperatures. Hypothermia is a primary concern. Potential blizzards can trap hikers or obscure the trail in September and October.
Q: Where can I learn more?
A: There is an overwhelming amount of info on thru-hiking and the PCT. Some sites aren't particularly useful - here are our favorites resources:
- pcta.org – The Pacific Crest Trail Association protects and maintains the PCT aswell as providing support for users. PCTA.org is fantastic resource for info on permits, trip planning and lots more!
- pctmap.com – Offers fantastic free maps and trail notes. Visit for detailed info on camping, water, and resupply points. Additionally, the website provides a free smartphone App which allows you to reference your exact position and proximity to resources on the PCT using GPS.
- PCT Thru-hiker Survey - halfwayanywhere.com conducted an interesting survey in 2014. This sight might end of answering many of your questions about the thru-hiking.
- backpackinglight.com - Backpacking Light hosts the articles and discussions on ultra-light philosophy and gear. This is a great resource for learning more about going light and researching individual pieces of gear.