The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is a US National Scenic Trail. Located approximately 100-150 miles from the West Coast, the PCT stretches all the way from the US border with Mexico at Campo, CA to Manning Park, British Columbia, Canada, just north of the border.
The PCT stretches over 2,650 miles (4,265 kilometers). It takes approximately 530,000 steps to walk the entire length!
The trail spans three states (California, Oregon, and Washington), with a short incursion into Canada’s British Columbia province.
The trail goes through 57 major mountain passes, 19 major canyons, and over more than 1,000 lakes.
The highest point on the PCT is Forrester Pass, CA (13,153 ft aka 4,009 m). The lowest point is Cascade Locks, OR (193 ft aka 53 m.) The approximate total elevation gain (and loss) is 489,418 feet. A thru-hiker climbs the equivalent of Mt. Everest 16 times.
Major highlights include the Southern California desert, the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and volcanic peaks and Alpine Lakes in the Cascade Range in the Washington State.
The vast majority of the trail is on Federal and public land, with just 300 miles in private land. The PCT goes through 5 national monuments, 5 state parks, 6 national parks, 25 national forests, and 48 federal wilderness areas.
The PCT is divided up into 29 sections, designated by their state and a letter. For example, I live near WA Section I (White Pass to Snoqualmie Pass) and WA Section J (Snoqualmie Pass to Stevens Pass.)
The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) issues 50 long-distance permits per day for northbound trips starting at the southern terminus between March and May, plus 15 permits per day for southbound travel. Countless day and section hikers also enjoy the trail.
There is no shortage of videos on the Pacific Crest Trail out there, but the following three stand out and are worth watching if you want to better understand the call of the wild and the joys and tribulations of the journey.
The PCT Lingo
Backpacking is very much a sub-culture, and long-distance backpacking a bit of a microcosm, complete with its own vocabulary! Below are a few common terms and definitions. Here’s a much more expansive lexicon.
To prepare a (cold) backpacking meal without a stove. This typically involves re-hydrating couscous, rice, or ramen a couple hours in advance. Cold soaking is simple, cheap, it helps cut weight (no fuel or stove), and saves the trouble of finding fuel in town.
FarOut (aka Guthook)
The phone app that virtually every section and thru-hiker relies on to navigate the trail. The app works offline and it shows maps, points of interest (such as water sources, camp sites, connecting trails, town services), as well as crowdsourced information (for example: is this stream dry, is this river difficult to cross, how large is this campsite?)
A package sent ahead of time to a post office or business along the trail. Maildrops typically include food, hygiene supplies, and other gear. Maildrops help hikers resupply in locations where getting necessities would be challenging (for example, because there’s no grocery store anywhere near the trail.)
“Nearly a zero” — a day during which one hikes only a few miles.
Northbound thru-hiker (Mexico to Canada.)
The Pacific Crest Trail Association, a non-profit organization. The PCT is primarily managed by the US Forest Service (USFS) but the PCTA is in charge of promoting and maintaining the trail to a large extent. The organization is also in charge of issuing long-distance permits.
Getting food and other necessities in town.
A hiker who hikes a section of the trail, as opposed to a thru hiker, who hikes the entire trail, or a day hiker, who doesn’t carry any overnight gear. The PCT is divided into 29 sections which typically take anywhere between 3 and 8 days to complete.
A hike for the purpose of evaluating new gear. For example, going on a shakedown hike may help evaluate pack comfort under load, the pros and cons of a tent, or the practicality of various gear.
Southbound thru-hiker (Canada to Mexico.)
A person who assists a thru-hiker by providing a ride into town, food, shelter, a shower, laundry, or any other service or act of kindness.
A random act of kindness by strangers along the trail. Examples include water caches in the desert, or hot meals or beer along the way. Folks providing trail magic are called trail angels.
“Trail family.” A group of hikers who end up hiking a substantial portion of the trail together, often for months at a time. Hiking pace and style, as well as mutual interests, often determine how tramilies form along the way.
The three US long-distance trails: the Pacific Crest Trail (2,650 miles), the Continental Divide Trail (3,100 miles), and the Appalachian Trail (2,190 miles). A triple-crowner is a hiker who has hiked them all. In 2021, two bright 21-year old Stanford students completed the Triple Crown in one calendar year, thus becoming the youngest hikers to achieve this feat.
Typically, an end-to-end hike (such as Mexico to Canada.) The definition is pretty loose, though, and often subject to debate. A thru-hike is a long-distance journey, but it doesn’t have to be the entire length of the trail—for example, a hiker can through-hike an entire state. On the other hand, some purists believe that a thru-hike requires a continuous footpath. In their opinion, a fire closure would prevent the completion of a thru-hike. The PCTA hasn’t weighed in on the topic.
A hiker whose base weight is less than 10 lbs (5 kg.) Base weight includes pack and all gear except consumables (food, water, fuel, toothpaste, etc.) and worn clothing. Lightening a pack has considerable health and speed benefits, though there’s a fine line to walk between weight, comfort, safety, and flexibility.
A stash of water in the middle of the desert, often provided and maintained by trail angels.
A rest day, during which one hikes zero miles, typically in a town.