10 Tips for Preparing to Hike the Pacific Crest Trail

So you want to embark on the ultimate hiking challenge – the Pacific Crest Trail. You’re not alone – these days more and more people are challenging themselves to thru-hike the 2,650 mile Pacific Crest Trail or PCT, which stretches from the US-Mexican border to the US-Canadian border and takes the average hiker five months to complete.

This is the trail that spiked in popularity following the publication of Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild and the film adaptation. Strayed’s story also inspired many women to set of on their own journeys of discovery on the PCT.

Hiking the PCT requires a tremendous amount of preparation, with many hikers spending 6 months or more planning their trip. Ready to plan your hike? Here are 10 tips to get you started.

1. Ask Yourself Why

One of the most important things to do before planning your hike is to ask yourself why you want to do this hike in the first place. Maybe you want to take time off from your day job and the hectic pace of everyday life, or you have a need to find meaning in your life.

You might want to challenge yourself physically and emotionally, and discover just how strong you really are. Whatever your reasons, it is important to understand why you need to hike the PCT, and to 100% commit yourself to your quest if you want to succeed.

2. Weigh the Pros and Cons of Going Solo

The next thing you want to decide on is whether to go solo, with a buddy, or with a group of hikers. Many hikers do in fact decide to travel the PCT alone, so that they can make a journey that’s entirely their own, and enjoy the beauty of the natural word in solitude.

The journey is strenuous and can strain relationships, so if you are hiking with a traveling companion, it is recommended that each person carries their own gear and that you allow one another plenty of personal space. Going alone has its own share of concerns, since you are more vulnerable on your own and will need to take extra safety precautions.

3. Chart Your Course

When you begin to plan your trip, you will first need to decide on the course you will be taking. It is more common for hikers to take a northbound route from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, and the recommendation is that travelers going north begin their trek in mid-April to early May.

Those who are planning a southbound route should leave in late June to early July. Be aware that parts of the trail may still be snow covered well into summer, especially the Sierra range. Southern California is likely to be extremely hot in summer, putting your safety at risk.

Keep your timeline in the recommended window but take weather conditions into account when setting out.

4. Apply for a Permit

If you plan to travel 500 or more miles on the trail, you will be considered a long-distance traveler and will need to apply for a permit. You will need to apply for one from the local land management agency.

5. Get in Shape

It is essential that you begin conditioning yourself for hiking the PCT at least several months in advance. A combination of cardio and strength training are recommended, and eventually you should add the actual pack you will be carrying to your cardio workout. It’s also a good idea to do walk on hilly or mountainous terrain and to add some yoga to your routine for increased core strength and flexibility.

6. Gear Up

Gathering the necessary gear requires a great deal of thought and planning. You will need essential items, but you also need to be able to travel light so you can manage the weight of your pack.

The Pacific Crest Trail Association has a list of 10 Essential Systems, which covers the essential gear you should have on your journey. The list includes first aid supplies, headlamp or flashlight, extra nutrition, a sufficient water supply, emergency shelter and more.

In terms of resupplying, the main options are mailing packages to various post offices in towns along the trail, stopping in these towns to purchase groceries or some combination of the two.

7. Stay Connected

It is important that you have some way to keep in touch with others while you are on the trail. Approximately 70% of the PCT does have wireless cell service, so you may opt to bring a cell phone along with a battery powered cell charger. Other options are a satellite phone, a Personal Locator Beacon, Pocket Email devices and SPOT messengers.

8. Test Your Equipment

Be sure to test all of your equipment before setting out on the trail to make sure everything works properly. You’ll also want to make sure you can set up your tent easily, and that you know how all your gear functions. If you test things out in advance, you will be far more confident that you know how to use everything you need on the trail.

9. Pack Paper Maps and a Compass

The PCT is generally well marked, but there is still a chance that you could get off track and will need to find your way back onto the trail. GPS and smartphones are extremely helpful, but you don’t want to depend on a digital device, and it is very important to carry highly detailed paper maps. It’s also a good idea to carry a small compass, since they are an essential navigation tool.

10. Pack Your Journal

Don’t forget to pack a travel journal to record your thoughts, feelings and experiences on the trail. Hiking the PCT is a life-changing experience for many and after your trek is complete, your journal will help you to remember your time spent on the trail. It will be a special reminder of the sights you saw, the people you met, and all that you learned about yourself on your remarkable journey.

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