Day hikes and occasional weekend backpacking trips aren’t satisfying your appetite for outdoor adventure? You’re an experienced backpacker with months of free time ahead of you? Why not take a crack at the mother of all thru-hikes--the Pacific Crest Trail?
The PCT runs 2,650 miles from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. Completing it isn’t easy and it isn’t for the faint of heart. Last year, out of several thousand permits issued, only around 700 hikers completed the whole thing.
The trail has five main parts in order from south to north: the desert, the Sierra, Northern California, Oregon, and Washington. Each section is unique and comes with its own set of challenges (and rewards).
In 2013, Heather Anderson set the record for fastest unsupported PCT thru-hike when she completed the trail in sixty days.
It takes us mere mortals way, way longer. Most people budget around five months to hike the trail which puts you at about 17.5 miles a day. Ideally you’ll have an open-ended schedule so you can slow down when you want to and wait out bad weather when you need to. And rather than hitting 17 odd miles each and every day, most hikers go through faster and slower periods, as well as zero days, or rest days.
However, you can’t take too long to complete the hike because you need to beat the first snow storm in Washington (assuming you’re going south to north, which 90% of hikers do). The best time to hike the PCT is to leave Mexico in April, arrive in the Sierra just after the snow melts in June, and then finish in September just before it snows in the Cascades.
The cost of a PCT thru-hike will vary from person to person. According to the Pacific Crest Trail Association, you can expect to spend at least $4,000 and as much as $8,000 or more. The three main types of expenses are gear, resupplies, and off-trail spending:
$2,000 is a good estimate for total gear expenses. If you already have a lot of high-quality gear then that number could be a lot lower, but you’ll most probably still need to buy multiple pairs of hiking boots, as well as a couple of cool gadgets that you can show off on the trail.
Resupplies are the food and other necessities that you’ll pick up as you go, either from stores along the way or from the mail. If you want to eat cheap you can survive on the basics: trail mix, oatmeal, etc. If you want to eat nothing but fancy pre-made meals - and you can afford to - then go ahead but you better share! Either way, you should be able to estimate what a day’s worth of food looks like and calculate your total resupply cost based on that. $2,000 is about average.
The final category is your off-trail expenses. This could refer to bills such as health insurance and cell service (which are important), but we’re mostly talking about the money you spend in towns on those all-important zero days.
You might consider yourself to be a responsible spender, but after weeks of living in relative isolation – barring your newfound trail mates – you’ll probably start throwing money around like an animal the second you enter civilization again. Restaurants, hotels, bars; you’ll rack up expenses quick if you’re not careful. Budget $2,000 for your town expenditure if you don’t want to hold back too much.
One more thing to consider: In addition to the cost of hiking the PCT, you’ll also probably have to quit your job and lose 5 months of income in the process. Ouch! Basically, hiking the PCT isn’t cheap.
But it’s worth every penny.
Can’t find anyone foolish enough to quit their job and invest thousands of dollars to spend five months with you hiking 2,650 miles across the country?!
No, us neither.
Luckily, hiking the PCT alone can be just as rewarding, if not more so, as hiking it with a friend or loved one.
First of all, there are all the usual cliché reasons that doing things alone is great: the experience will be more spiritual, you’ll learn a lot about yourself, and you’ll gain a ton of confidence. All that’s true. But what may surprise you is that a lot of the time you won’t actually be alone.
The PCT (as well as other big thru-hikes) is known for its community of hikers. You’ll probably be starting on the same day as other thru-hikers and you’ll end up camping in groups on a daily basis. Pretty soon you’re giving each other nicknames (a common trail tradition) and sharing stories late into the night. We can basically guarantee that you’ll leave the trail with a whole host of wonderful new friends.
But, if you’re hiking solo for the first time, you can also grab some solitude when you want it as well, and you can always move at your own pace.
To be safe, plan your trip as if you were going to be alone the whole time. That means learning essential survival skills, take fewer risks, bring more supplies, know where you are, and know the weather because, if something goes wrong, there might not be anyone there to help you. Plus, while PCT horror stories may be rare, peace of mind can be an extremely valuable commodity.
It’s also important that you tell friends and family your plans before setting off so that they will know approximately where you are every step of the way. You can even use a beacon so they’ll know exactly where you are and so you can call for help if you need it. You’ll almost never have cell phone service so don’t expect to be able to call 911.
If you’re a female thru-hiker, you should absolutely feel confident to go it alone, but you might want be a little extra careful, especially of other people. Don’t spend too much time near roads, be careful hitchhiking, and don’t broadcast your coordinates on social media.
These days, there is tons of great PCT info available online such as Halfmile maps and the Postholer forum, but it’s never a bad idea to do some extra reading. Here are some books we recommend for both preparation and motivation:
You’ve almost definitely heard of Wild and reading it may have even inspired your desire to hike the PCT, but we still had to put it on here – it’s an inspirational PCT classic.
The Wilderness Press regularly publishes a full PCT guidebook. It is probably the most detailed guidebook out there and gives you mile by mile information for the whole trail. It’s invaluable to have something like this when planning out your trip.
A Blistered Kind of Love is a book written by a couple who hiked the PCT together. The authors alternate so one chapter is written by the husband and the next by the wife and so on, so you get multiple perspectives on trail life. A fascinating read.
If you want to read something a little less educational but a little more fun, we recommend Mile 445: Hitched in Her Hiking Boots. It’s a charming true story of a young woman hiking the PCT who meets a handsome man, falls in love with him, and marries him by mile 445. It just goes to show that anything can happen out there.
OK, let’s recap: it takes about 5 months to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. The best time to hike the PCT is by starting on the Mexican border in April. Budget at least $4,000, but you’ll probably need a lot more. Hiking alone has its pros and cons, and you probably won’t be alone that much anyway. Just be sure to brush up on your survival skills before you leave.
Got all that? Good. Now enjoy this really cool PCT documentary filmed entirely by a couple of talented thru-hikers:
Related Post: How Long Does It Take To Hike The Appalachian Trail?