How to: Hike the Pacific Crest Trail

by  Teresa Bitler | May 12, 2014
Pacific Crest Trail
Pacific Crest Trail / TobinAkehurst/iStock

In some ways, the book (and soon-to-be-released movie) Wild serves as a what-not-to-do guide to the Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT — don’t over pack, don’t hike in untested boots, and don’t underestimate the weather. Author Cheryl Strayed certainly made some mistakes, but, by learning the hard way, she also got quite a few things right.  Here’s a brief overview on how to hike the Pacific Crest Trail:

Plan before you go. The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) recommends spending six to eight months researching and preparing for your trip. Start by poring over the PCTA's database of maps, trail conditions, water reports, and guidebook recommendations. Finance is another important factor – between $4,000 and $8,000 is usually needed for supplies if you plan to hike the entire trail.

Obtain the permits to hike. If you intend to hike 500 miles or more of the trail in a single trip, you will need a Long Distance Permit from the PCTA (free). For shorter hikes, determine your starting and ending points, and then check which permits you’ll need along the way. You may be required to obtain additional permits to hike in specific areas such as the Whitney Zone in Inyo National Forest, or to stay at certain campgrounds. When applying for permits, allow at least three weeks for the paperwork to be filed, or be prepared to purchase a permit from the local ranger station.

Train for the hike. It takes the average person more than 150 days to hike the PCT’s entire 2,650 miles from the United States’ southern border to its northern border. That’s five months of walking roughly 17 miles per day. Needless to say, you'll need to be in top physical shape. Practice hiking mountains and hills with a heavy backpack. Test your gear, including your hiking boots. If you don’t know basic back-country skills, take a class.

Pack smart. If you’ve read the book, you know Strayed packed way too much — in fact, she nicknamed her backpack “Monster.” However, failure to pack the necessities could result in death, injury or at least severe discomfort. Things you will need: a portable stove, cooking fuel, clothing for all types of weather, insect repellant, sunscreen, a first-aid kit, sturdy hiking books, tent, sleeping bag, food, and compass or GPS device for navigation. Another must? A cell phone. You can usually get cell coverage on the PCT, and you can use it to check trail conditions, research upcoming weather or make phone calls. Plan to use it sparingly, though. You won’t be able to recharge until you get to town.

Have a resupply strategy. Since it's impossible to bring five months' worth of food with you on the trail, you’ll need to replenish your food supply along the way by either purchasing food at local stores (generally, you can buy food every 4-10 days) or mailing it to yourself. Most hikers do a combination of both. According to the PCTA, resupply locations come and go, so you’ll have to do a little online research before your hike ( is a good resource). To give yourself more flexibility, consider sending your package to a store, lodge or hotel and asking them to hold it for you – just make sure to bring ID, since you will probably need one to pick your package up.

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