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Planning for the Pacific Crest Trail

So you’re thinking of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail?

All I can say to planning the pacific crest trail is: YES! Go do it! It will be hard, it will be terrible, you will hurt, you will curse, you will sweat, you will be as dirty as you’ve ever been in your life and it will be amazing.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not something you should undertake lightly. It requires a lot of time, planning, dedication, money and effort. But it’s all doable. I’ve done it, and that means you can too.

People at home will call you crazy, sure. But the people that have done it, are doing it, or are planning to do it, won’t. We get it.

Once you are out there hiking, it will become normal, this crazy undertaking, because everyone around you is doing it as well.

Making the dream come true.

Step 1: Decide and then go for it.

Tell yourself this is what you are doing, and don’t let anything stop you from making it happen. No more self-doubt. The decision is made. No matter what everyone else says. YOU CAN DO THIS!

Everything after this is much easier, and I’ll guide you through it.

Step 2: Research

Start digging into all the things you will need to arrange to make this happen. You’re here, and that’s a great start. I hope I can help you along to a flying start, but there’s so much info out there. Take advantage, but don’t let it all confuse you. No one has the single truth about what it will take for YOU to make this happen. 

Watch hundreds of YouTube videos. It’s an awesome funnel to get stuck in and will provide you with heaps and heaps of info and entertainment. They’re also a great way to prepare your family and loved ones for this adventure you’re about to undertake.

This step will basically never end. You’ll be researching until you take the first step. You’ll still be doing it by the time you take the last. Enjoy it.

Step 3: Make a plan (with a timeline)

Map out what it will take to get you there at the terminus, and what you will need to make it through. (Or thru…) Most of the things on your list should have crossed your path already in step 2, so best to combine steps 2 and 3 together.

Consider the following:

  • Visas and permits
  • Budget
  • Insurance
  • Gear
  • Training
  • Mental preparation
  • Timeline
  • What to do with your life back home

 

Step 4: Execute the plan

Make sure you prioritize the stuff that will take a long time to arrange. How much time do you have to prepare? I had over one year and used it all, but it can be done faster. For me, getting the B2 visa for a 180-day stay in the US took the longest, about six months to get it all sorted. Partly, this was due to the aftermath of COVID. If you don’t need one, lucky you.

Something else that should take you months: training. I would recommend starting four months in advance at the latest, but more is better. Don’t overtrain or rush it though. The whole point of taking so long is to be able to build it up slowly. The vast majority of hikers that had to quit due to injuries around me, were experiencing overuse injuries. They take a long time to heal!

The nitty-gritty of planning the Pacific Crest Trail

Okay, so you’ve got a plan and are sticking to it. 

Now let me take you back to step 3 to look at the points more in-depth.

Visas and Permits

Depending on your nationality, you might need a B2 visa (non-resident) to be allowed to stay in the US for longer than 90 days on one stay. I have met several hikers who did not get this visa in advance. They took a short break and flew out of the country for a short holiday after 90 days, and then came back to trail. This seemed to work for most of them, but it is a risk. Customs might not let you back in. And the longer you go off-trail, the harder it will be to return to it. Civilization can be a sweet distraction. 

Also, if you go off trail, your tramily, those awesome individuals who have been your constant support and lifeline throughout those 90 days, will be gone. Onwards and upwards. You have to be ready to let them go, or skip part of the trail to catch up with them again.

Check with the US embassy in your country to find out what getting a B2 visa will entail for you, and if it is feasible. Do this as soon as possible, as they require a hell of a lot of information from you. Be ready to share with them the story of your life and everyone you’ve ever hung out with.

If your visa gets refused (it happens), don’t panic, and don’t give up on the dream. Like I said, an ESTA might still work perfectly fine, if you’re eligible for one.

As for permits: you will most likely want to obtain two: 

1: The PCTA long-distance PT permit

This will allow you to hike the entire PCT on one permit. Check the PCTA for release dates and be prepared to suffer for it. Read through the application process thoroughly, as it changes frequently. Competition is fierce and chances are you won’t get one for your preferred date. Don’t sweat it though. If you didn’t get one, there will be other chances later on when people start to cancel and release theirs. Also, if all else fails, you can hike on local permits. It’s a hassle and requires more work, but it is possible.

Use the Facebook groups that give information about the trail, there are several groups each year, one for each hiking year, and they will often have info on the permit process.

2: A Californian Fire permit (even if the only fire you plan to use is your cooking stove)

Available for free online, after doing a short and easy quiz. Valid for one calendar year, so don’t apply for one until after January 1 of the year you’re going. Are you a cold soaker and hate campfires? Don’t worry about it then.

Budget

Thru-hiking is the most expensive way to be homeless, was the joke we made amongst each other on the trail. And it wasn’t really a joke. It will be expensive. Not just the gear, flights, and insurance, but also the hotel rooms in towns, food, transportation, eating out, and drinking. These things will bring you joy, and not being able to afford them will be tough.

But also, don’t forget you will most likely have to switch out gear that isn’t working for you, or replace broken gear. There will be postage fees and many other expenses you haven’t even considered yet. Budget extra just in case. You might get injured or ill and need time in a hotel or elsewhere to recover. You might want to make side trips, go off trail for whatever reason, and come back. And last but not least, don’t forget the money you are NOT making in your job back home, and the costs that will run on there, such as mortgage payments, insurance fees, etc.

You don’t want to end up being that hiker that can’t afford to give a trail angel gas money for picking you up, do you?

Learn more about budgeting for your thru-hike here!

Insurance

This varies wildly per country. Check the fine print to make sure your health and/or travel insurance cover incidents in the USA. If something happens out there, it gets real expensive, real quick.

Make sure you have Search and Rescue coverage as well, and that alpine environments are covered. If you end up needing a helicopter rescue from a National Park, it is free, but outside of the National Parks, it won’t be, and once they hoist you into an ambulance, the meter starts running.

It might sound like a far-fetched scenario, but I personally know two hiking friends that had to be airlifted out and have heard of several more. Even just a short visit to a doctor can end up costing you hundreds of dollars.

Make sure that the insurance covers your 180 consecutive days of travel. Even if you plan to hike faster than that, you might get delayed along the way, or perhaps want to add on some recovery time on a sandy beach somewhere.

Bonus tip: Consider taking a Personal Locator Beacon or GPS tracker with an SOS button. They’re expensive but could save your life. I personally brought the Garmin Mini and was very happy with it.

Timeline

The PCTA (Pacific Crest Trail Association) gives out permits for three months of the year. For northbound (NOBO) hikers, 50 per day for each day in March, April and May. Less for southbound (SOBO) hikers, 15 per day in 2022. When you apply for your permit, you won’t know if your year will be a good year to start early or late. Early March will most likely still have lots of snow in the Sierras by the time you get there. Late May will have little to no water in the desert and you’ll have to rush to get to Washington before the snow starts falling there again.

It’s a gamble. I started on April 3rd, and in hindsight would have wanted to start a bit earlier even, but hikers this year (2023) are facing an entirely different scenario with lots of snow. Are you comfortable in the snow? Or do you prefer hiking in the desert heat and don’t mind a lack of water? Deciding when to go and when to return isn’t easy and takes a whole lot of consideration. Don’t forget to budget extra time (and money) for unforeseen circumstances, because life just happens sometimes. And make sure your return ticket is flexible.

Gear planning for the Pacific Crest Trail

Gear. Ah, gear! 

Now here’s something that will keep you busy (and then some) and entertained right up until the moment you pack your bag. Question everything. Weigh everything. Both physically and mentally. Test it out if you can. And be ruthless about what to take and what not. I considered taking an e-reader before I left, but as it turned out, the only things I ever did once I finished hiking for the day, was eating and sleeping. 

I am by no means an ultralight expert, but I’ve gained so much knowledge about this whole new field in that year of preparation, that most of my friends and family now consider me the go-to source of information for everything even vaguely camping related. Friends refer friends to me with questions, and before you know it, it becomes another full-time job.

If there is one thing I cannot stress enough, it’s: try it out for yourself! Test everything before you leave and don’t trust solely on other people’s opinions. 

Try to find a credible source of information (halfwayanywhere.com is a great one), and look for people that are similar to you in height, build, and gender. Gear advice from a burly, tall young guy literally is of no use to me, as I am a fairly average-sized middle-aged woman. My needs are vastly different. 

Lighterpack.com is a great website to start a packing list and keep track of the weight of your pack without actually having to pack and weigh it every time you acquire something new. In addition, it ensures you won’t forget anything when the time comes. You can find my Lighterpack gear list here!

The other website I mentioned above, halfwayanywhere.com, runs a yearly survey amongst that year’s hikers to ask them about a vast array of topics, from money spent to gear used and then publishes the results on their site, so check their site to get an idea of what kind of gear is working well for others. They even have a separate list of gear female hikers prefer each year.

On a thru-hike, you will encounter all sorts of terrain and weather. From wet, damp cold to dry, searing heat. Plan accordingly. I am from the Netherlands, and so could not fathom not needing full-on rain gear for a five-month hike. But truth be told, the weather and environment on the PCT were so far beyond what I was used to, that I could only truly dial in my gear properly once I had been walking for a while.

And once you’re used to the circumstances in the desert, you reach the Sierra Nevada mountains and everything changes again. But after 170 days of walking, I only walked through rain a grand total of three times. 

I used my rain jacket more often against mosquitoes than against rain.

Still, would I have left it at home? Looking back, I could have, but would rather have opted for a lighter, less sturdy raincoat. It is possible that you end up walking through days of rain on end. It happened to others in my year. And if you get soaked through, that could quickly turn into a life-threatening situation. Don’t take that chance.

I’m all for going as light as possible, as long as that doesn’t mean leaving lifesavers at home. If you leave it behind, or ship it ahead, could it cost you your life? 

In 2021, a young hiker slipped and fell of a mountain in the San Jacintos because he wasn’t carrying his microspikes to save some weight. He wasn’t expecting to need them so early on in the hike and it cost him his life.

Make sure you have the information you need to judge the conditions ahead of you and pack accordingly.

Training for the Pacific Crest Trail

If you are not used to hiking with a full pack, start training as soon as you can. Start out easy, hike without a pack, then a light pack, and keep increasing the weight and the distances until you are comfortable hiking at least 25 – 30 kms per day with a full pack, including food for at least 4-5 days and several liters of water. Hike in varied terrain, with as many height changes as possible. Hike up and down stairs or dunes if you have no mountains available. Walk in the shoes you are intending to hike in over there, with the pack you intend to use.

Also, ask your physio to give you some exercises to strengthen your feet, legs, back, neck, core muscles, and tendons. Good preparation will drastically decrease the risk of injuries on the trail.

Mental training

Don’t underestimate this aspect. Get comfortable with being bored, alone, cold, hot, wet, tired, thirsty and hungry. Develop a mindset which will see this as a challenge or an opportunity to excel, not as a hardship.

Life back home

This, of course, depends hugely on your current situation.

Consider the following: Can you take an extended leave abroad? If you are employed, ask your employer if you can take unpaid time off, or go on a sabbatical.

Are you prepared to quit, if your request is not granted? Remember, you committed to making this happen. There will be other jobs.

What about your home? Can you afford to leave it unattended, or will your family stay behind? Can you rent it out on a temporary basis? Or invite friends or family to come and take care of your home?

If you have a family, will they be okay with you being absent for months at a time? Discuss this with them, and show them your research. No matter what your situation, if you truly want to make this happen, there is a way. Always.

Happy trails!

Do you have any further questions about the PCT? Want to read about Lies’ journey? Have a look at her personal website: sixmillionsteps.eu.

 

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