The Pacific Crest Trail, which spans 2,650 miles from the Mexican to the Canadian border, is one of the most iconic trails in North America.
The trail winds through Californian deserts, The Sierra Mountains through Oregon, and Washington state on its way up to Canada’s British Columbia.
Hikers who have completed this amazing thru-hike will tell you that it is not for beginners – it is darn tough! With all the gear needed for a journey like this and with so many different options out there, how do you know what items are essential?
This blog post gives a potential PCT thru-hiker an ultimate packing list of must-have pct gear when preparing for a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike.
We will also discuss other things you need to be aware of when planning your expedition.
How Long Does it take to hike the PCT?
The first thing to consider is just how long does it take to do this monster thru-hike?
Although seriously fit and skilled PCT hikers can complete the full Pacific Crest trail in under 3 months, it typically takes up to 6 months to complete, assuming you hike 15-30 miles per day
Before you start
If that was not enough of a marathon, the trip usually takes 8 to 12 months of planning and preparation before you put a foot in your boots.
We did say this was a big undertaking though, didn’t we!
The first thing to tick off is your permits.
Pacific Crest Trail Permits
The first thing you need to do is get yourself a permit.
You can apply for your PCT permit through the “Pacific Crest Trail Association.”
The Pacific Crest Trail Association also offers information on how to plan out and prepare for your hike. Some of this includes routes, resupply points, important considerations, etc.
Full trail permits
You can apply directly to the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) for your long-distance permit for any hike of 500 miles or more. Before applying You’ll need to complete a detailed trip plan as the permit asks for specifics.
Permit processing begins in February each year
Since 2015, only 50 thru-hikers per day are allowed to start from the Mexican border. This means you may need to be flexible on your exact start date.
The long-distance PCT permit does not cover trails and camps off of the PCT. If you plan to make any diversions along the way you will need to apply to the agencies that administer the trails and camps you will be using.
However, if your side trip to resupply takes less than a day, or if you sleep in a hotel, you won’t need an added permit.
California campfire permits
You have probably seen the coverage of wildfires that have ravaged California in the last few years. These fires have forced the Californian agencies to require a campfire permit even for stoves.
Of course, you can opt for stoveless meals on your trip. But if you are planning to heat anything up or cook, you’ll need this permit.
Pay close attention to conditions in each region as this changes depending on the fire risk. During high fire risk periods, land managers may also ban alcohol or wood-burning stoves. So be prepared to switch to cold meals if you plan to hike during fire season.
The Canadian Border
You can start or finish at the U.S./Canada border without the need for more paperwork. However, if you want to hike further, Canada does allow you to hike across the border but requires an Application for Entry into Canada.
If you are heading south, you will find the U.S. Border Patrol forbids entry into the U.S. on the trail.
South to North or Vice Versa?
You can hike the PCT either south to north or vice versa, however, the vast majority of hikers travel south to north.
South to North
We recommend this too, as the initial miles of desert and lowland trekking can be done in early spring, when it is cool and snow covers the Sierra. By the time you get further north, you will have missed the cold, wet winter weather in Washington and Oregon.
There are some places on the PCT where you have no choice but to take a local bus or hitchhike because there is no car access for miles (sometimes hundreds of miles). If you’re not comfortable with this, you might want to hike north to south.
North to South
To reach the Canadian/U.S. border requires a 34-mile hike north from Harts Pass, which is often snowbound into June. Then the same stretch of trail southbound becomes the first leg of your PCT journey.
If you’re set on doing it in this direction, you’ll need to prepare for snow in the Cascades at the start and fewer water sources in the Southern California desert at the end.
Plan Out Your PCT Hike
One of the best things about the PCT thru-hike is that you will not need to start with an enormous amount of food and gear. Since you can restock and kit yourself out along the way so you only need to carry the stuff you need for the next section.
Some sections will only be a few days before you reach somewhere with food and water, others are pretty arduous, multi-day hikes. Some sections will require heavy-duty wet weather rain and cold gear, others will be in the desert.
So we recommend that you research what you will need for your trip based on the time of year, how far you will get from civilization at each point and your personal circumstances – how fit and experienced are you?
Many post offices will hold packages for you, so you can have your gear waiting for you. For example, as you enter the Sierra mountain range, arrange to have a bear canister and cold weather gear waiting for you. At the same time, send your desert gear home. When you’re done with cold-weather gear, you can ship it home or ahead to the next big mountain range.
Considerations For Gear for the PCT
Before setting out on any major hike, you need to be able to answer two basic questions:
- Can you cope with an accident or emergency?
- If things go wrong, how long can you survive out on the trail?
For PCT Hikers all gear involves compromise. For example, the lighter your sleeping bag, the less it keeps you warm, or the more expensive it gets!
No piece of gear is perfectly suited to all conditions. In order to find the right gear for you, you will need to consider your fitness level, skill, how much experience you have, how much risk you are willing to take on, and what is most comfortable for YOU.
Experienced PCT hikers carry a wide variety of gear depending on what they know and like. In fact, you will probably never find two with the same.
However, there are some guiding principles
Lightweight Gear is right…to a point!
It is no accident that most modern lightweight gear for thru-hiking and the associated techniques were born on the PCT. The fundamental idea is to get your base weight down, making it much easier to carry your gear and much less fatiguing.
But not too light – Have the right gear for the conditions
Camping and hiking are easy on sunny days. In those conditions, the equipment doesn’t matter so much.
So while the PCT is usually sunny and warm, especially during the summer months, the weather can turn very nasty.
It is the driving rain, wind, heat, and cold that will test you and your gear. So always carry backpacking gear for foul weather, even during the summer.
Finally, if you’re out in winter or the shoulder seasons the gear for the PCT should change. Using your ultralight summer gear in the Northern Cascades in October is unlikely to end well.
All the gear but no idea – learn how to use your trail gear
The Pacific Crest Thru Trail is not easy. Having ticked off all the items on your PCT gear list is only going to work if you know how to use it.
Reading books and websites cannot teach you the skills that you need to safely thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail. You need to practice the skills and using your equipment.
Get out and test your gear on shorter hikes. Break in your gear and learn how it all worse close to home.
Here is a list of the gear you need to bring on the Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike.
The first thing to consider is your backpack, however, your pack should be the last thing you buy! Knowing the weight and volume of your gear will help you decide which rucksack you need.
A good pack should be lightweight, fit your body, ride well when loaded, and not rub or chafe when you’re on the move.
The best way to find the right pack is by trying on as many different backpacks as possible.
You will be carrying this pack for days and weeks at a time so it’s important to get one that fits correctly and won’t cause any pain or discomfort during a thru-hike.
One final note, most larger packs are not 100% waterproof. Many hikers line their pack with something waterproof like a trash bag. Also, get yourself a rain cover.
Being too careful is better than trying to dry out your soaking gear in an Oregon rainstorm!
Navigation (Map, GPS, and Compass)
Always carry a detailed topographic map and know how to read it. Keep it in a protective case or plastic covering.
A map is not anywhere near as useful without a compass, so always carry a compass too.
If you carry a GPS on the trail, it should be able to work with topo maps. Also, make sure you bring means to charge it while you are out.
You may also want to bring guidebooks with route descriptions and trip reports along with your smartphones and photos of significant way-markers
Hiking Boots and/or Shoes
On a 2,500-plus mile hike, you are going to go through several pairs of boots or shoes. The PCT is tough, so you may need to replace your boots about every 400 miles, so be sure to budget for this!
Start the PCT with a worn-in pair of shoes that are comfortable, even with a fully laden pack, but haven’t used too much.
If they are still comfortable 300 miles into your trip, order yourself a new pair of the same shoes and have it mailed to a hostel or Post Office near the 400-mile mark of your trip. (Post Offices cannot accept mail from non-USPS delivery services, so keep this in mind when ordering)
Once you pick them up, remember how much time it took to break them in originally and allow some time doing this, potentially overlapping with the last miles of your old pair of shoes.
If they didn’t work out, find a store near the trail (there are plenty!) and find something that feels better.
Also, be aware that many PCT hikers find their feet expand up to two sizes over the length of the Pacific Crest trail, so the size and model that worked at the beginning of your hike, may not be the right size by the time you get towards the end!
Finally, you’re sure to get a few blisters no matter how good your shoes are. So be sure to pack a few pairs of blister-patching bandages, like moleskin or Second Skin.
Shoes and Trail Runners
Almost all hikers choose lightweight mesh trail runners for the desert hikes. You need to look for a shoe with breathable mesh to help prevent excessive foot sweating (which can cause blisters) These will also dry fast and cut down on weight.
As you get further north, you will hit more rugged terrain, and you will need to switch from shoes and trail runners to boots.
Hiking boots are waterproof, have more ankle support (to protect against ankle sprains), a rigid shank for stability on uneven terrain, and sometimes offer additional protection in the form of toe caps to protect your feet.
Hikers do often trade-off some comfort and weight for these features, but turning an ankle with a 50lb pack on your back miles from help is not fun!
Good quality hiking socks are essential to prevent blisters, sores, and hot spots.
We recommend a lightweight merino wool blend hiking sock for the PCT (though there are many options out there). If possible buy a pair and test them on before your hike!
Look for features such as mesh ventilation panels along the tops of feet that wick away moisture. Your socks should also have effective arch support, and cushioned heels and toes.
For female PCT hikers, socks feature a wider toe box, narrower heel cup, and optional targeted cushioning to address the additional pressure exerted on feet during long periods of time spent on your feet.
These are a must-have for PCT thru-hikers!
Gaiters keep your pants and shoes dry as you walk through wet or snow-covered brush. The gaiter drapes over your boots, keeping water out from getting inside the shoe while also preventing rocks and debris from entering with every step.
The PCT is a sandy and gritty trail, so you are likely to get rocks and pine needles finding their way into your boots. This is uncomfortable and can give you blisters and hot spots.
Trekking poles are a big advantage on the PCT. They provide stability on difficult terrain or when carrying a heavy pack. They also allow your arms to take more weight off of your legs, which can give you relief if you’re trekking for an extended period of time with little rest.
The downside is that they are usually bulky, and some hikers leave theirs at home to save space in their pack. If you do bring them though, make sure they’re collapsible so they take up less room and spend the money on a lightweight pair!
For some tents, a trekking pole can also be used as a tent pole, which helps reduce weight by removing the need for tent poles.
As hot as the sun may be in the day, it can get very cold, very fast.
You’ll want to be prepared with extra clothing for warmth if the temperature drops or you come across any wet stretches of trail.
This may include a fleece jacket, and warmer clothes such as lightweight down puffer jackets and thermals as part of your trail gear.
In the Californian desert, this may not be the top of your list. But once you hit the Sierra mountains it does not just rain, it pours and hails, and snows!
Get as far north as Oregon and Washington it can rain heavily for days. You will be hugely thankful for good a good rain jacket…and cursing poor gear!
When deciding which rain jacket to take, consider that you will be wearing it for many hours at a time and in all kinds of weather. You’ll need one which is lightweight, waterproof, and breathable so as not to make you sweat more than necessary.
A poncho may also come in handy if there are any long stretches without trees along the trail or if your pack gets soaked
Illumination (headlamp, flashlight or lamp)
We mentioned the sun going down, and the trail is rough and only 18″ across in places. So when it gets dark, you will need to see where you are going.
Ideally, you’ll have a headlamp or flashlight to keep your hands free.
We also recommend carrying one of those battery-powered lamps that clamp onto the top of walking poles. Those give off enough light for reading and are easy on your arms when night hiking.
First aid kit
As we mentioned before, you need to be able to cope when things go wrong, which means all common medical conditions you are likely to experience thru-hiking.
You can divide it up between the group, but we recommend you have an extensive first aid kit in addition to what the group carries.
Also remember any personal medication, especially if it’s required by your doctor. It is very hard to get a prescription halfway up a mountain, so bring contingency supplies.
I would also include insect repellent, as those mosquito bites are never fun
Sun protection (Sunglasses, Hat and Sunscreen)
Sun protection is paramount. The last thing you want is to be suffering from horrible sunburn out in the wilderness.
Bring the strongest sun cream you can and, If you are in strong heat, apply sunscreen liberally for at least 15 minutes before being exposed to the sun.
And don’t forget your lips – chapstick is also a must on your gear list!
Even with sunscreen, always carry sunglasses and a hat to protect your eyes and skin from the sun.
Fire Starting Gear (waterproof matches/lighter/starter)
You must have the means to start and sustain a fire.
You can get waterproof matches or a fire starter kit, which includes things like magnesium bars and stormproof matches. However, people usually carry several lighters instead of matches. Keep them in a waterproof container.
Firestarters are useful for igniting damp wood quickly for an emergency campfire.
Wildfires are now common on the PCT through the hotter months. In drought years, the Forest Service even bans alcohol stoves. This means you will need to take a gas-powered stove, although even these can get banned.
More and more thru-hikers are electing to go stoveless, taking cold-soak dehydrated meals or foods that require no cooking.
These should all be sealed in a bear canister, or expect to find a bear or two invite themselves round for dinner!
When you are hiking the PCT, you can consume as much as 6000 calories per day. That can seriously add to your base weight, so you need to make sure you are taking calorie-dense food.
To make matters worse, you need to carry enough food for your expected hike, plus allow for foul weather, faulty navigation, injury, etc extending your hike.
You should have food that is easy to eat so you can survive if there is a disaster.
If you only plan to be away from civilization for a few days, one-day extra food will be enough. Long-distance trips should scale the amount of food up.
Finally, do not forget to bring a bear canister for your food and learn about bear safety – you really don’t want to recreate The Revenant!
Water and Fluids
Daily water consumption varies greatly. The amount you need per day is directly related to the temperature, humidity, and elevation of your hike.
A general rule is one liter for every three hours hiking at a moderate pace. You should also be carrying an extra liter water bottle in case you get lost or injured.
This means that it is very unlikely you will be able to carry all the water you need, but I would look to carry at least 3 liters of water between bottles and a hydration bladder.
You should also learn where to find water and have the right tools such as a water filter.
Along with the water filter, or other water treatment system, you will also need to make sure you learn how to use it before you set out. There is nothing worse than getting both dehydrated and ill from poor water treatment!
Knives, Tools, and Repair kit
While opposable thumbs have done a lot for us human beings, it was the invention of tools that really changed things. Since a PCT thru-hike is our way of going back to nature, we had better take some tools with us
- Survival Knife – Every person out in the wilderness should carry a survival knife. They are useful in first aid, food preparation, and repairs and may just save your life.
- Swiss Army Knife – A good quality Swiss army knife can also be a good option. These are versatile featuring many tools in one, including pliers and scissors, as well as the knife blade. It is also possible to get versions with more features such as LED lights or compasses.
- Multi-Tool – A multitool may be another reasonable choice for someone who doesn’t want something too big
You will need shelter from the sun, wind, and rain to sleep through those cold nights or if an accident happens and you have to wait for rescue.
The best shelter is a tent with good stakes to keep it stable in high winds or heavy rain. Some can be pitched using trekking poles to hold them up, meaning you do not have to carry poles.
Hammocks can also make a good option if the ground is too rough or uneven to pitch a tent.
They are generally more expensive than tents, but are lighter and offer a relaxing night’s sleep without having to worry about tent stakes and ropes
Hammocks are best if you’re hiking the PCT in good weather, and great if you are in an area with trees or similar to support your hammock
If the weather turns, you will need a tarp or you will get wet!
As mentioned above, a tarp can be turned into a makeshift shelter.
In a real emergency, a reflective blanket or even a jumbo plastic trash bag can help keep your body temperature.
Sleeping bags are vital as the night gets cold (even if the day was hot) A good quality down-filled sleeping bag is best in winter. For thru-hiking in the summer, lighter weight synthetic-filled bags will work
Instead of a sleeping bag, quilts have become a popular alternative with thru-hikers. Sleeping quilts to get the warmth of a bag but only around 2/3 the weight and volume.
A sleeping pad is a key piece of gear that all thru-hikers should carry with them for insulation against the hard ground during hiking trips. A sleeping pad can also line hammocks to stop the cold air from getting through.
Other Trail Gear
A few other items I would consider taking would be:
- Potty Gear – Poop does not decompose fast in the desert, so it is vital you practice Leave No Trace when thru-hiking. So be sure to take a trowel and toilet paper and learn how to be a good citizen on the trail and pack out used toilet paper.
- Hand Sanitizer – After using the above, you will need hand sanitizer as you really don’t want to get ill or waste your water washing your hands.
- Duct Tape – A true PCT essential, duct tape is versatile, lightweight, and can fix any number of problems. So don’t forget to add it to your gear list, you’ll be surprised at what you use it for!
- Other things – Pacific Crest trail thru-hikers might want to have are safety pins, thread, tape, and a spare cord or two. A whistle and mirror can make it easier to be found if you get lost without adding much weight.
The Pacific Crest Trail is an amazing challenge for thru-hikers. Taking you through some of the most beautiful and rugged terrain in North America, from the deserts in the south, the Sierra mountains, and the rainforests of the Pacific North West..
Completing it, or even a section, is an incredible accomplishment for any thru-hiker and is on many hikers bucket list
So if you’ve ever thought about thru-hiking it and think you have what it takes then our advice is to go for it and we hope this article and packing list helps in planning your trip.
Matt Green, is an avid hiker and lover of the great outdoors. He is always planning his next big trip or hitting the trails for a solo hike.
He’s traveled extensively to many remote regions and has plenty of experience exploring various terrains, and stories to tell.