Stretching for 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada, this legendary trail has become the crown jewel for aspiring long-distance hikers. It travels through three states, six national parks and 48 federal wilderness areas along the way.
Despite the trail’s exploding popularity, fueled in part by the book and movie Wild, this epic quest has only been successfully completed by a few thousand intrepid hikers. Fewer than one in five who attempt the feat complete the entire trail.
If that sounds like a challenge tailor-made for you, Tessa Bondi, a seasoned long-distance hiker and an REI Outdoor Programs and Outreach Market Coordinator, has some insider tips for you about how to prepare and pack to tackle the full trip. (Bondi, whose trail name was “Overkill,” also helped develop PCT preparation classes available at some REI stores.)
The full trail takes 4 to 6 months to complete and many people find that the trip takes 8 to 12 months of planning and preparation. We hope this guide will simplify the planning and set you up for success on your journey.
Pacific Crest Trail Permits
Full trail permits: For any PCT hike that’s 500 miles or longer, you can apply directly to the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) for your long-distance permit. You’ll need to complete a detailed trip plan before applying because the permit asks for specifics. A new limit introduced in 2015 is that only 50 hikers per day are allowed to begin at the Mexican border, so be flexible on your exact start day. Permit processing begins in February each year.
Side-trip permits: The long-distance permit doesn’t cover trails and camps off the PCT. You must apply to the agencies that administer the trails and camps you will be using. If your side trip to resupply takes less than a day, or if you sleep in a hotel, you won’t need an added permit.
California campfire permits: In order to combat wildfires, the State of California now requires a campfire permit, even to use a stove in the backcountry. Unless you opt for stoveless meals on your trip, you’ll need this permit. Pay close attention to conditions in each region. If you use an alcohol- or wood-burning stove, be prepared to switch to cold meals during extreme fire danger, when land managers might choose to ban those types of stoves.
The Canadian Complication: You can stop (or start) at the U.S./Canada border without the need for more paperwork. Crossing the border is tricky, though, because U.S. Border Patrol forbids entry into the U.S. on the trail. Canada allows you to hike across the border, but requires an Application for Entry into Canada.
PCT Route Planning and Timing
When considering the gear you’ll need to bring along, you’ll need to factor in the likelihood of snow or whether you’ll be hiking in desert extremes based on your itinerary.
South to North: Nearly 90% of all hikers start at the Mexican border. A big advantage to this approach is that long stretches of desert and lowland hiking can be done in early spring, when snow covers the Sierra.
North to South: To reach the Canadian/U.S. border requires a 34-mile hike north from Harts Pass, which is often snowbound into June. Then the same stretch of trail southbound becomes the first leg of your PCT journey. If you’re set on hiking this direction, you’ll need to prepare for snow in the Cascades at the start and fewer water sources in the Southern California desert at the end.
When to start: South to North hikers begin by early May. Earlier starts spare you blistering heat in the desert, but you can encounter snow in the Sierra. Start late, though, and fall snowstorms in the North Cascades are a concern.
How long it takes: Elite athletes have done the trail in as little as 2 months, but the average is about 5 months. Differences in daily mileage and number of layover days add up, ultimately determining if you finish in 4.5 or 5.5 months. Factors like storms and lingering snow can also impact how long you take.
Your plan is an initial projection: Hiking thousands of miles through wilderness over many months is an unpredictable endeavor. Check the PCTA trail conditions and closures page before you go and when you have online access. Talk to hikers along the way. Have contingency plans and assess conditions throughout the trip.
PCT Supply Planning and Budgeting
Food and resupply planning: These are the nuts and bolts of your trip plan, and the details will take substantial research. You can find a wealth of information in guidebooks and online, including PCTA pages that discuss food and resupply strategies. Some websites include interactive trip planners with the most common resupply points.
Trip Budget: The PCTA estimates costs of the trip from $4,000 to $8,000 or more. How much you splurge on layover days affects this total, as do your food and gear choices.
PCT Maps and Guidebooks
The PCTA maps and guidebooks page is an excellent resource. Halfmile’s topo maps and phone apps, offered there free of charge, are thorough, detailed and constantly updated. You can also find PCT books and maps at many REI stores around the country.
PCT Gear Considerations
Gear weight: Some say that the PCT inspired the ultralight gear revolution. If you carry excess pounds over thousands of miles, your body will indeed pay a price. See our article about Ultralight Backpacking Basics for more information.
Gear philosophy: Your views on comfort, risk and the reality that gear wears out also weigh into your approach. Some hikers opt for new clothing along the way, for example. And most hikers go through two pairs of footwear. Minimalist hikers will always argue that you can go lighter, but you’ll need to decide for yourself where you are on the ultralight to ultra-prepared spectrum. Then select gear through that lens.
Gear advice: In addition to outdoor clubs and stores like REI, PCT classes are great places to ask about gear you’re considering. PCT hikers are avid gear reviewers, too, so you can find plenty of online opinions about gear and clothing.
Gear know-how: The PCT is not the place to learn how to use critical items like an ice axe, nor for a maiden equipment voyage. Take trips to familiarize yourself with your gear and take classes to ensure your backcountry skills are honed for the challenge.
Pacific Crest Trail Backpacking Gear List
Because the PCT has long, dry stretches and snowy mountain sections, many hikers select key resupply points to swap out gear. Ultralight gear makes sense in the California desert, while extra weather protection is needed in the Sierra and Cascades. Kennedy Meadows South is a classic desert/mountain resupply spot. Your trip plan’s timing and direction will impact how robust your mountain gear needs to be and how much lighter you want to go in the desert.
“Swapable” gear: Choosing to swap gear out at certain places is optional. Here we focus on the biggest, most commonly considered gear, but some items can be swapped when moving from desert to mountain, or vice versa. Essential items in this list must be carried in the terrains where they are listed.
Water reservoirs: The Southern California desert is the most infamous area where water reliability is a concern, but it’s not the only region with long waterless legs. See the PCTA water page for details about where extra reservoirs are essential.
Note: Included in this checklist are the Ten Essential Systems you should have on every backcountry trip: navigation; sun protection; insulation; illumination; first-aid supplies; fire starter; repair kit and tools; nutrition; hydration; emergency shelter. To learn more, see our Ten Essentials article.
The PCT Master Checklist
- Backpack that’s large enough to hold a bear canister
- Pack raincover
- Small daypack (optional)
- Tent suited to terrain, with guylines and repair sleeve
- Tent footprint (optional)
- Sleeping bag suitable for the conditions
- Sleeping pad
- Whistle (plus signaling mirror)
- Multifunction watch with altimeter (altimeter feature is optional)
- Knife or multi-tool
- GPS (optional)
- Map(s) and guidebook(s) or route description
- Trekking poles (optional)
- LED headlamp with extra batteries
- Water filter and backup treatment system
- Stove, fuel and repair kit
- Matches or lighter
- Cookset, dishes, bowls, utensils, cups (measuring/drinking)
- Bear canister
- Nylon cord (at least 60 feet)
- Repair kits for mattress; duct tape strips
- Fire starter (for emergency survival fire)
Clothing and Footwear
- Wicking, quick-drying underwear
- Wicking, quick-drying sports bra
- Wicking, quick-drying long underwear
- Wicking, quick-drying T-shirt and long-sleeve shirt
- Quick-drying pants
- Quick-drying shorts (optional)
- Fleece jacket or vest, or insulated jacket or vest
- Fleece pants (optional)
- Waterproof/breathable rain jacket suitable for the conditions
- Waterproof/breathable rain pants suitable for the conditions
- Bandana or Buff
- Sun-shielding hat or ball cap
- Winter hat
- Gloves or mittens
- Hiking boots or hiking shoes suited to terrain
- Socks (synthetic or wool) plus spares
- Sandals (for fording streams and relaxing in camp) or water shoes
- Swimwear (optional)
- Water bottles or hydration reservoirs (3 liters total capacity)
- Lip balm
- Toothbrush with cover and biodegradable toothpaste
- Biodegradable soap
- Toilet paper
- Sanitation trowel
- Hand sanitizer
- Women’s hygiene items
- Personal wipes
- Spare eyeglasses or contact lenses
- Plastic zip-top bags
- Insect repellent
- Bear spray (optional and prohibited within Yosemite National Park)
- First-aid kit (see our First-Aid Checklist)
- Quick-drying towel
- Camera or video cam and extra memory cards (optional)
- Binoculars (optional)
- Cell phone (don’t rely on service)
- Satellite communicator / personal locator beacon (optional)
- Field guide(s); star identifier (optional)
- Journal, pen and e-reader or reading material (optional)
- Fishing gear and permit(s) (optional)
- Credit card; small amount of cash
- PCTA permit plus additional permits for your planned itinerary
- Trip itinerary left with friend
6,000 calories per day in these categories:
- Breakfast (oatmeal, granola, freeze-dried breakfast, etc.)
- Lunch (bagels, summer sausage, cheese, smoked salmon, etc.)
- Dinner (pasta, couscous, rice, freeze-dried dinner, etc.)
- Snacks (cookies, GORP, jerky, candy bars, dried fruit, etc.)
- Energy gels
- Energy bars
- Electrolyte replacement drink mix
- Extra day’s supply of food (carried on each leg of the hike)
- Traction devices like microspikes (essential, especially early or late in the year)
- Ice axe (recommended, especially early or late in the year)
- Bear canister (essential for mandated areas)
- Waterproof hiking boots
- Knee-high waterproof gaiters
- 3-season tent
- Warm sleeping bag: 15°F rating
- Waterproof/breathable rain jacket and pants