Planning & Preperation For Hiking The Pacific Crest Trail

  • Updated: June 01, 2020
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

Whenever I talk to people about my 2,653+ mile 149 day thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail they almost always comment on how it must have taken a massive amount of planning and want to know how you can do such a big trip and return to a normal life afterwards.

Well I'm here to share how it doesn't take near as much planning as you might think and how I decided normal life is overrated, threw caution to the wind, and had one of the most amazing experiences of my life thus far.

Life Circumstances And Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail   

It takes most people 4-6 months to walk from Mexico to Canada which is a long time to sustain all those painful little realities of modern life like rent, car payments, bills, ect not to mention being away from family and employment. 

Ever since I learned about the PCT I wanted to know how people managed it. And in the end while I would love to be able to spin a simple and inspiring story about how it happened the reality is I was stumbling through a number of challenges, things aligned, and I decided to make some major sacrifices and just go for it. 

I first learned about the PCT way back in 2008 when I was taking the Sierra Club Wilderness Travel Course down in Orange County. 

There I met a guy named Bill Payne. While he hadn't done the trail himself his knowledge and enthusiasm about it is what initially perked my interest. 

We became friends and then the following year we went to the Annual Day Zero Pacific Crest Trail Kick Off aka ADZPCTKO. (Yes that is quite possibly the worst acronym in the history of acronyms.) It used to be held every April down in Lake Morena roughly 20 miles from the southern terminus and ran from 1999 until 2016 when they decided to retire it.

Anyone who wanted to could could go and they had registration categories for for thru hikers, section hikers, future hikers, and trail groupies. It was two days of presentations on the trail, ultralight gear vendors showing off their wares, and generally a great opportunity to meet everyone before they set out on their individual journeys up the trail.

I went to learn everything I could in the hope that I could maybe do the trail someday. I remember sitting on a rock watching the class picture being set up nearby and chatting with a guy my age who was actually planning to hike that year. I expressed how it seemed like an amazing thing to do and asked what he did for a living that he could afford to spend 6 months out on the trail.

Turns out he was a drug dealer who had had a crisis of conscience and this was how he was going to deal with it. So thanks a lot high school guidance counselor for steering me to a legitimate career like IT that kept me from being able to do cool things like hike the PCT!

While doing the whole PCT wasn't realistic I could manage shorter trips and soon I was spending pretty much every weekend running amok outdoors. During the summer I'd organize trips and climb peaks in the Sierra and then switch over to the western desert in the winter. I also became a volunteer instructor for the Wilderness Travel Course and later a mountaineering based program called Advanced Mountaineering Program. 

Along the way I *might* have picked up a slight reputation for running theme based trips. Because why not have fun!

In 2011 I took a bad fall during an extended peakbagging trip deep in the Sierra. This resulted in a helicopter extraction and a multiyear saga that I feared might sharply curtail my future hiking and climbing plans.

Considering that a fall like that could have killed me I'm grateful that I wasn't hurt worse. Unfortunately once I recovered I found I was having almost constant pain in my right knee. Standing up from a chair, going up or down stairs, or even walking down a sloped trail would hurt to greater and lesser degrees.

I was stubborn and I didn't stop my outdoor activities since being in pain almost every step was still better than not going out at all it at all. But it did really hold me back.

I'd been to a few knee specialists but the consultations never filled me confidence and none of the half measures they tried seemed to help much. Then in 2015 when things had become almost unbearable a friend encouraged me to try one more time and I finally found a doctor I felt like I could trust. After trying some less invasive options I ended up having a microfracture surgery on my right knee in late 2015. Following a torturous 6 months of recovery I found myself with significantly less pain though I still wasn't quite able to get back to my former hiking shape.

Eventually I started going to a local personal trainer named Jobi Morrison who I credit with helping me finally turn the corner. I started going in three times a week on top of my other evening and weekend activities and he was able to help me work around my not insignificant knee based limitations. 

So I was finally back in reasonable shape and able to hike without an unreasonable amount of pain but I still had the whole work / "real life" circumstance holding me back.  

Then 2019 rolled around and amongst other developments my latest employer made it really really easy to quit. Let's just say they didn't properly respect their employees or a multitude of state and federal laws. And this wasn't the first time I'd felt burned by an employer. Or the second.

While I still had a well paying job at least for the moment my girlfriend Jen was tired of seeing me slowly driven crazy with stress. She convinced me to take a chance, quit before the company went down underneath me, and to spend the summer running amok outdoors doing all those longer trips I'd been having to say no to. Her teaching job gave us just enough stability that along with some lifestyle changes we could swing things on a single income for a bit.

I've had a distressing number of friends pass away or face major health challenges over the last few years. Combined with my own issues that's served as a stark reminder that we really don't know how long we have and that you have to do everything thing you can while you still can. I figured I might regret  potential financial ruin but I'd regret even more never doing something like the PCT.

Incidentally before I quit my job my doctor was threatening to put me on blood pressure medication (among other things) despite the fact I exercised constantly, ate reasonably well, and spent a lot of time outdoors doing things I loved. Not long after quitting I went back in for another matter and he couldn't believe how much by blood pressure had dropped. So quitting your job: healthier than medication and cheaper than therapy!

So we spent the summer of 2019 hiking, climbing, paddling, and diving every chance we could. Part of that was 16 days hiking the Theodore Solomons Trail and an 11 day end to end trek of the John Muir Trail. I did the latter with Jen and she had so much fun that we decided to go big and do the Pacific Crest Trail in 2020. Because gainful employment is overrated.

So a summer away from work turned into a bit of longer term disruption. And since I couldn't go back to my previous style of IT work for just a few months I decided to spend the end of that year living in Thailand doing my divemaster in the Similan Islands. Because why not! But that's a story for another time...

Anchors Away: Getting Ready For Not Being Around

So that brought me to January of 2020 needing to make some major changes.

I was fortunate that I had my student loans and my jeep paid off at this point. I didn't own a house but I was renting a nice undermarket condo with a 200 gallon saltwater reef aquarium and two garages filled with an assortment of outdoor gear. 

I'd been struggling for some time with the feeling that the condo was a waste and that all the clutter I'd managed to accumulate over the years was just weighing me down. 

The aquarium was the hardest thing to contemplate getting rid of since it was our pride and joy and our fish all had distinct names and personalities. But it required constant upkeep and while we'd managed to get through the previous summer leaning on Jen's parents and a few friends neither of us felt that was a viable or responsible solution for something longer like the PCT nevermind if this became more of a lifestyle shift.

So when I came back from Thailand where I'd basically been living out of a small waterproof backpack for two months we went big. 

We still needed to be based around Orange County for part of the year due to Jen's job and my outdoor classes but beyond that anything was on the table. We sold the aquarium, gave notice to my landlord, and after finding that parking an RV in Orange County wasn't financially viable we ended up buying a conversion van with the plan of living out of some local campgrounds. That gave us a local base that we could throw into vehicle storage if we wanted to leave town for months at a time. And we got a storage locker for those things we just couldn't do without or bear to part with.

This whole thing wasn't planned very far in advance so we didn't have the advantage of extensive savings or multiple income sources. We just decided to align closer to our priorities and take a chance while we were still young enough and healthy enough to do it.

Soon we were living like voluntarily homeless nomads and I started to focus on a series of prep backpacks like the Hot Spring Trail, the Condor Trail, and the Santa Monica Mountains Backbone Trail to get my hiker legs ready for the big event.

Defining Success Or What People Mean By "Doing" The PCT

You run into a lot of people out there who say they have done the PCT and at least in the beginning I assumed that meant that they'd walked every step from Mexico to Canada in one go. 

In reality people experience the PCT in all sorts of ways. Arguably the most famous person associated with the PCT in popular culture is Cheryl Strayed who wrote the book Wild about her real life experiences. She tends to be a somewhat controversial figure amongst some trail enthusiasts due to the fact she only did about 1,100 miles of the 2,650 mile and because she made quite a lot of what could be considered irresponsible decisions.

I also ran into a number of people who would say they'd done the trail on xyz year and then when I asked them about some section that had been a particular pain point for me they revealed that they'd skipped large sections or even states.

And fair enough, hike your own hike and all of that. But I know myself and I was only going to be happy with doing every step from Mexico to Canada in order and in the same season. No skips, no flips, no slackpacking.

Of course it's easy to say you want to do that and a whole other thing to actually accomplish it. Weather, injuries, and conditions outside one's control can easily end a thru-hike early. Including, let's say just as a random example, a worldwide pandemic...

It seemed like one week life was relatively normal and then all of a sudden there were toilet paper shortages and we were being told the campgrounds would be closing. 

For a while it looked like we might need to cancel our hike before we even started. The whole situation was complicated enough that I did a whole writeup about it called Pandemic Crest Trail: Thru Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in the Summer of COVID-19 but needless to say after a lot internal debate the hike was still on.

I didn't have the easiest time on the trail but I stubbornly stuck to my goal through all the struggles and bad days because I knew how much it would bother me to have that mental asterisk in my head when I talked or thought about my hike later. 

And honestly I got lucky. With months on the trail and somewhere north of 5 million steps injuries can come out of nowhere and end your hike suddenly. I never came close to quitting I was very afraid that I was going to be forced off the trail by an achilles issue around mile 500 and later at Crater Lake I stumbled on some stairs and came very close to breaking my ankle. And then there were the fires.

Fires, Smoke, and Weather Oh My!

2020 would like you to know once again that it hates you

2020 was a record fire season and it was just luck that I didn't end up getting blocked by any of them. I did have some worryingly close calls and people just a few days behind me ended up getting forced to skip ahead due to closures.

Fires and closures are a fact of life along the PCT and usually you just have to reroute and hike around them. My first was in Northern California around Bald Mountain. After finding out from others on the trail that there was a fire closing the trail ahead I spent the evening and following morning frantically pouring over maps making a plan for how to walk around only to have the trail reopen by the time I reached it.

In Oregon near Lily Lake there was an active fire that closed the trail for 5 miles in every direction. Here there was an easy reroute provided and I think I ended up maybe doing an extra two miles walking around it.

Even when I wasn't under threat from the fires themselves there was smoke to contend with. The pictures above are from Washington and were taken just a few hours apart when a giant smoke cloud blew in from all the fires down in California and Oregon.

It was so bad at Snoqualmie that I had to exit the trail and wait several days for air quality to improve and it lasted long enough that several people ended their hikes completely.

Avoid going outside and try not to breathe much is not the forecast you really want while doing the PCT.

And of course there were a few other challenges along the way: 
  • Days of 95+ degree heat in the Southern California desert.
  • Coming down with giardia and being stuck in Julian for 4 days.
  • Multiple earthquakes triggering landslides including one big enough to close Whitney Portal.
  • Civil unrest after the killing of George Floyd resulting in curfews as I passed through Agua Dulce 
  • A historic wind event in Washington that just about blew me off the Goat Rocks knife edge. 
  • Two 4 or 5 day periods of rain that sometimes became downpours in northern Washington.
  • Shortages of things like fuel canisters and hiking shoes after the initial lockdown.
  • Freezing rain turning to snow at Rainy Pass.
All of this added to the pressure I felt to reach the canadian border before time ran out and winter snow hit. Conventional wisdom is you have until the 1st of October to reach the border before it becomes too difficult or dangerous to continue. Some years that's happened in mid September while others people have finished in November. This year the window lasted until mid October.

Northbound or Southbound? 

Northbound is the traditional way most people experience thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. People start in the March to May timeframe down at Campo where the trail spend a lot of time at lower elevation. You have about 700 miles to work up your hiking endurance and to let the winter snow (hopefully) melt off the Sierra passes. Then you just have to reach Canada before the snow hits traditionally sometime around the first of October.

Southbounders start at Manning Park or Harts Pass in June or July and jump straight into the rugged terrain of the Northern Cascades. There's more altitude gain here and the trail is likely to still have a significant amount of snow making for a more challenging start. On the plus side once past the Sierra the desert can be finished well into December or even January.

Of the two options most people go northbound. I was torn between wanting to have the traditional experience / setting myself up for the best chance of success and being drawn to the less common and crowded option.

In the end I never seriously looked at going southbound even when COVID-19 started throwing everything into disarray in March and a lot of people were talking about switching in the hopes that things would have blown over July. Sadly the COVID situation stretched on for the rest of the year and those that did go southbound were generally forced off the trail due to the fires later in the season.

Start Date

Having settled on going northbound I had to decide what date to start.

Someone aiming to do the entire trail in a single season has to really watch their timing. Assuming your not a superhumanly fast hiker that is.

It used to be common for people to start in mid April which was when the Zero Day Kickoff was held. Then the PCTA started issuing permits. 

The PCTA long distance permit is a relatively recent development. Whereas before you had to arrange for different permits for different wilderness areas you can now get just the single one good good for the entire trail.

They issue 50 a day starting March 1st which seems to be a popular choice especially for the international crowd. Personally as a long time California hiker this strikes me as a bit too early. You're likely going to have to deal with rain in the desert, snow in the local mountains, and it's common for people to arrive at the Sierra while there's still an inconvenient or dangerous amount of snow up high meaning you either get off trail and wait or do a whole hell of a lot of postholing.

On the other hand starting in late April or early May can mean desert heat, more limited water, and having to keep up a reasonable pace to reach Canada before the snow makes things impassable.

I had an easy time making this decision because I was scheduled to wrap up my commitments to the spring Advanced Mountaineering Program on May 3rd. So I put in for May 5th figuring I could camp down near the border on the 4th and then get an early start the next morning. I figured since I was backpacking a fair amount I could move at a reasonable 15 mile a day pace right out of the gate and that hopefully the late start would mean less snow issues in the Sierra setting me up for a late September finish.

Conditions can vary wildly year to year but fortunately 2019-2020 turned out to be a relatively low snow year in the Sierra. I mostly avoided having to walk on deep snow which was a stark difference from last year where there was still significant snow on the passes in August.

And of course you can't really predict what the spring snow levels are going to be when you have to put in for the permit in October. You just have to make a decision and then see how things develop though for better or worse we do seem to be getting a lot more drought years lately.

In the end I was really happy with my May 5th start date. If I were to rewind and do it all again in identical circumstances I might elect to start a week or two earlier just to have some extra buffer but after hearing what the early season folks went through I'm a big believe in later starts.


I had my direction and start date decided so now what?
I was already an avid backpacker with a large collection of gear but I'd mostly done shorter trips based around climbing peaks. I spent a good amount of time researching tweaks to lighten my pack but a lot of that was done the previous summer in preparation for the John Muir and Theodore Solomons trails. 

I did make a few PCT specific tweaks based on those experiences. I traded my bivy for a tent in anticipation of weather and mosquitos and I also decided to change back from a sleeping quilt to a lightweight mummy bag to give a bit of extra comfort and flexibility since I'd be living out of it for months on end. 

Guidebooks, Guthooks, and Why Sometimes You're Better off Not Knowing

When it comes to learning about the trail itself you can go to your book vendor of choice and find all sorts of in depth guides covering every single aspect. And if that's your thing people generally seem to speak well of Yogi's PCT Handbook. And of course you can always go on YouTube and find an endless free supply of video blogs and guides from past hikers. And I avoided pretty much all of them.

I knew a fair amount about trail in Southern California from my various hikes over the years and I'd already done every mile between Kennedy Meadows and Yosemite more than once. And what I found was that for those sections I was constantly focused on what I knew was ahead vs just enjoying the moment.

Once I was past Yosemite I only had the most general notions about what was ahead and I found that I was far more in the moment just enjoying the constant parade of new views and changing terrain.

That doesn't mean I went in unprepared. I heard a few hair raising stories about people showing up at the southern terminus carrying two gallons of water and not even knowing if there were even any towns ahead or people cluelessly hitting their satelight messenger panic button in the first major canyon but in general everyone hiking the trail these days has a huge advantage called Guthooks / Atlas Guides.


Guthooks is an app for you phone which lets you buy guides for trails like the PCT, JMT, ect. Each guide comes with maps and also waypoints showing town stops, water sources, campsites, ect. In addition to the official details they provide users can leave public comments on each waypoint which is invaluable in a year like 2020 when so many places were either shut down or running limited services or hours. And I can't stress enough how nice it was to know if that water source at the end of that 25 mile dry section was flowing.

This provided me with a wealth of detailed information which I mostly ignored until I was actually walking that part of the trail.

The majority of my actual planning ahead was done with a document on my phone I called PCT Plans. I listed the major stops and what mile they were at, what my resupply strategy was once I'd decided, and the distance between stops. This let me see at a glance what I was in for when making plans about how much food I was going to carry.  


If you look you can find people gleefully documenting as they prepare 37 -ish packages of food to send to themselves for the entire length of the trail. And if you have special dietary restrictions then that might just be your only option.

Personally I struggle with burning out on food items over time so the thought of eating the exact same thing for 4-6 months is downright horrible. So I went with the buy as you go approach.

Fortunately the PCT has countless options for resupply. Between resorts and small towns right along the trail to bigger cities accessible just a hitch away it's quite possible to buy everything as you go.

The longest section of the entire trail with no easy resupply options is the Sierra. We carried 10 days of food to get us from Kennedy Meadows at mile 700 to VVR at 878 -ish. Some people choose to hike out at Kearsarge Pass around mile 780 and resupply in Bishop or Lone Pine but that's a really big hike out over the pass and back and it's going to cost you at least a day.

If you look at my stat sheet here I marked the daily mileage column orange each time I touched a town. And keep in mind there were even more stops like Buck Lake that I skipped completely.

Guthooks will generally tell you what the food buying options are for a given stop. Even for those that offer limited supplies it's easy enough to buy at a previous stop and mail it ahead to yourself.

For example when we were in South Lake Tahoe we did a massive grocery haul and bought enough food to get us through the next section and we made boxes to send ahead to Sierra City and Belden. (Jen said that was the most she'd ever spent in a single shopping trip!)

This means you don't have to make decisions past a week or two in the future. Which is good because...

The Universe Hates A Plan

You can find tools online that will take your estimated daily mileage and output a detailed plan for the entire trail including resupply stops. And what you'll find once your out on the trail is that the entire thing is worthless.

It's one thing to do 20 miles a day for a few days or even a week. It's a whole other thing to maintain that pace up for months at a time.

You're going to get faster along the way as you cut down your gear and get in better shape but you'll also find you get worn down and have to adjust how many days off trail you take to recover. Then there's the steady parade of minor injuries, strong days, bad days, weather, and big events like fires. And sometimes you find the resupply points have limited hours forcing you to either delay or rush ahead.

I was fortunate to have a lot of flexibility around my finish date. I saw others rushing at end to finish before they had to return to work and I really felt for a guy who had to skip 100 spectacular miles of the Cascades right near the end because he ran out of time.

I didn't have a solid sense of when I'd finish until partway through Oregon. Early on I added stats to my spreadsheet calculating how many days I had left at 20 or 25 miles a day just so I could be sure that I was still within my window of finishing at the end of September and I pushed myself hard to keep moving and build up a buffer against unforeseen complications.

As you can see my daily mileage varied quite a bit. I finally made specific plans around when I'd finish in mid September and within a week I was scrambling to change them after smoke forced me to take an unplanned layover in town and a persistent foot issue had me struggling to make enough miles to catch up to where I was supposed to be. 

This ended up working out well in the end with an extended stay in Stehekin allowing me to finish in a period of pleasant sunny weather instead of a miserably cold rainstorm.

You're going to want some downtime anyway when you finish so I'd recommend resisting the urge to set anything in stone or buy a plane ticket home if you can avoid it.

Cost of Hiking The PCT

And of course one of those things you can't really get away from is how much the entire adventure is going to cost you.

I've seen well sourced articles claim it takes most people somewhere around 5-10k to hike the entire trail with first time thru hikes costing more than the subsequent ones.

We didn't track everything exhaustively but if you check my stats cost sheet we do have what we spent during the time that Jen was with me. Extrapolating that out it probably cost me around 8k to do the trail not counting a few thousand dollars of gear I already owned.

Keep in mind that 2020 was a bit of an odd season with a lot of campgrounds, public showers, and other facilities being closed due to the pandemic along with less than the usual amount of trail angels active. Also the hotels themselves were often running at reduced capacity and weren't always honoring the advertised PCT hiker pricing due to the pandemic.

Towns are where you spend the most money and the easiest way to reduce costs is to minimize the amount of time you spend in them. It's easy to tell yourself that you'll be frugal when your planning and a lot more difficult to say no to hot food, cold beer, or dry sheets when you roll into town months into your hike after spending days out in heat or rain. Basically at that point whatever their charging seems well worth it.

Then there's gear replacement costs. Shoes would last me somewhere between 200-500 miles and I was constantly having to change pairs to try and fix new foot issues or because I couldn't find replacements in my size. I was replacing water filters every few weeks as they became so clogged that no amount of backflushing would help. Socks were constantly wearing out, my shorts ripped, and I had to replace my hiking shirt a few times as I slimmed down.  And in general everything just accumulated a surprising amount of wear due to the day in day out use for months on end.

Fearmongering, The Trail, And You!

If there's a downside to all the information out there from other hikers on the trail it's the prevalence of fearmongering where people are trying to talk you into skipping sections of the trail.

I think in most cases these boil down to people trying to make themselves feel better about their own choices by getting others to do the same thing. It's important to remember there's a really wide range of skillsets out there amongst the people hiking the trail and you could well get to the obstacle they describe and find it's barely worth breaking stride.

For example there was a rockslide near mile 170 and I heard more than one person arguing it was better to go around. We arrived to find it was something we could quite comfortably step around and someone had even gone to the length of stringing a hand line around it.

In another case I saw comments on Guthooks about the area south of Seiad Valley recommending taking a road instead of the trail. They claimed that the trail was an endless bushwhacking nightmare and warned that it was really easy to get lost. We were there around the same time and it was slightly overgrown for maybe 1/4 of a mile and really obvious to follow the entire way. 

Then you have the Aqueduct section which seems to get talked up massively in the desert and yet it's a fairly straightforward 17 mile water carry along flat dirt and pavement.

I'm not saying you should completely ignore advice especially from reliable sources. Entering the Sierra too early is a good example of something which can get you in major trouble with people every year having to bail out or suffering injuries in the snow and even later in the season water crossings are not something to be underestimated.

There was an incident a number of years ago where someone was in the Sierra during the high snow melt period. They found water flowing over the log commonly used to cross and had attempted to cross by wading immediatly upstream of the log. For the record that's never a good idea and sure enough they ended up sucked under and spit out downstream badly shaken with some scrapes and bruises. They hiked out and posted a slightly dramatic declaration in one of the PCT groups that the Sierra wasn't safe and needed to be closed. And then they had others come in and point out they'd been able to safely cross at that spot earlier and later in the day. In fact if she'd just sat down and waited a few hours she could have probably walked across the same log without even getting her feet wet.

In general just be ready to be flexible and remember there's no substitution for getting a look yourself and making a judgement call based on your own comfort level and abilities.

And take gear advice with a grain of salt. I saw a thread on Facebook where hiker from a previous year was advocating for not bringing a rain jacket at all because they only had 5 days of rain for their entire hike. And yet those who left in early March this year had 5 days of cold rain right out of the gate! And then in September we had week long rainstorms that forced some people off the trail after they got wet due to rain gear failures.


Quit your job and hike the trail sooner because you never know what's going to happen. Buy and learn Guthooks. Don't spend too much time memorizing guides or watching trail videos. Don't try and plan too far ahead or have a hard deadline for finishing the trail. Anticipate spending more money than you think you will. And whatever you do don't skimp on raingear. 

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