2018 PCT Info Part I: Permits, Closures, Sections, and More

If you’re attempting a section hike or thru-hike of the PCT this year, you probably have some questions. Do I need a permit? How do I walk into Canada? What about wildfires? Do I really want to eat oatmeal for five months? How do I protect said oatmeal from bears? The task of planning to hike, while exciting, can also be daunting.  The Trek is here to help.

Permits

The glamorous Southern Terminus at the Mexican border

PCT Permit

The PCTA issues a free interagency permit to those wishing to hike 500 continuous miles (or more) of the PCT. Permits are required along some parts of the PCT.  The PCTA issues 50 permits per day for hikes originating from the area between the Mexican/U.S. border and Warner Springs (PCT mile 110). Most days in March-May are already full; but, if you missed out on a permit, keep checking the PCTA’s page as they will update their permit calendar if any cancellations occur. If you have a permit from the Southern Terminus and your plans change, please cancel your permit with the PCTA to give others the opportunity to start on that date.

If you’re section hiking over 500 continuous miles and not starting near the Mexican border, or planning a SOBO hike, you may still acquire a permit from the PCTA. If hiking less than 500 miles, you’ll need to apply for any required permits directly from the issuing agencies. Before applying for a permit, or if you have any questions, it is highly recommended you visit the PCTA’s permit page.

When I hiked the PCT in 2016, I was asked by rangers to see my permit multiple times (mostly in the Sierra). It is good practice to keep your permit handy. Many a hiker has been stopped by a ranger in the rain and asked to show their permit which happens to be crammed into some corner of their pack. Make your life easier and carry it someplace you can always access in areas that permits are required.

Other permits

  • Planning on walking into Canada? You’ll need to apply for a Canada PCT entry permit no later than 8-10 weeks before the start of your hike (and no earlier than six months). If you have had a misdemeanor in the last ten years, or two-lifetime convictions, you will be denied entry to Canada. While the U.S./Canada border is the official northern terminus of the PCT, hikers can opt to hike 8.8 miles north into Canada to Manning Park, and the nearest road to end their trip instead of turning around and heading south 30 miles to Hart’s Pass (the nearest U.S. road).
    • Note: While with a proper permit it is legal to cross from the U.S. to Canada If you are heading southbound, it is illegal to cross from Canada into the U.S. along the same route.
  • California Fire Permit: required if you want to use your stove in California, or have a campfire.
  • Camping permits are required for North Cascades National Park, Obsidian Limited Entry Area (Oregon), and Pamelia Limited Entry Area (Oregon). The latter two are less than two miles long, so the majority of PCT hikers just pass through. The North Cascades section is 17 miles long, and camping is only allowed at designated sites with a permit. No reservations are allowed, and permits can be obtained in person or over the phone, more information can be found here.

Resupply

If you’ve hiked the AT, it is worth noting that there are considerably fewer towns along the PCT. Whether you plan on buying food as you go along or sending resupply boxes to each town, it pays off to familiarize yourself with the options. Often when you get to a road crossing, it will be your only resupply option for at least 100 miles, and you’ll be forced to head to the town. Because of this, I found it easier to put together a general town-stop itinerary in advance of my hike. Fellow Trek writer Maggie Wallace wrote an excellent PCT resupply guide covering a variety of strategies.

I hiked the PCT with a partner, and we decided to send out boxes to most stops. Everything I read cautioned me from doing this, because “your tastes and calorie needs will change.” I thought, “Nah, I know myself pretty well.” WRONG! I can no longer eat my former favorite Cherry Pie Lara Bars. Carnation Instant Breakfast is about as appealing as a slug smoothie. Don’t even get me started on Creamy Garlic Shells. If I were to do it again, I’d send fewer boxes and plan to resupply in towns with good grocery options. Here’s another great reference from a PCT thru-hiker, on what she’d do differently with her resupply if she could do it over.

Navigation

“A responsible thru-hiker is going to have a map.” Jack Haskel, PCTA’s Trail Information Manager

Paper maps

Having (and knowing how to use) a map and compass is the responsible decision on the PCT. Smartphones can die, and a backup battery can fail despite your best efforts (especially when the temperatures get cold). Practice using a compass and map before you go. You’ll learn a new skill set, and become a more knowledgeable and experienced backpacker. 

Maps also enrich the experience. Over snack breaks and at night in the tent, we’d pull them out to see what the next day would bring. Sure, you could look at the elevation profile on Guthooks (we’d do that too), but we found more meaning looking at actual contour lines. And, we could put names to many of the features we were seeing in front of us.

Halfmile maintains free maps, which are the most zoomed-in and appropriate for PCT travel. They contain campsites, alternate routes, water sources, and plenty of notes. You can also download them as a gpx file if you’re bringing a GPS. If you’re sending resupply boxes, it’s easy enough to break-up Halfmile’s maps at home, and then mete them out.

Smartphone Apps

  • Halfmile’s PCT: Free app that will let you know your exact milepoint on the trail. Also contains all of Halfmile’s notes from his maps in the app (Android & iOS).
  • Guthooks: Free to download to demo the first 20 miles of trail, but you’ll need to download individual trail sections (or download the whole trail for less than purchasing each section individually (Android & iOS). 
    • Once a section is purchased, the user can choose additional data to download for free, such as topo maps and images from other users of campsites, water sources, storefronts, and more.
    • Allows users to comment on data points along the trail. Comments have a timestamp, and can be useful when considering where to camp for the night, staying in town, or determining if a water source is still flowing. Warning: comments should be taken with an ounce of caution. In southern Oregon, a water source was listed as flowing, but when we arrived the pond had dried into a two-gallon cesspool surrounded with horse poo. Did we drink it? Yes. Were we happy about it? No.
  • Hikerbot: Free crowdsourced app, similar features as Guthook’s. For Android only.

The Desert

Water

The water situation in the desert can seem really daunting at first, but you’ll get the hang of it. The PCT Water report is your friend. I started with printed copies, but the report is updated frequently enough that I saved a copy to my phone when I had service. Additionally, if you choose to purchase Guthooks, users often comment on the quality of a water source.

You will hear information or read reports of water caches up the trail. As tempting as it may be, you should not rely on water caches. Also, should you find a water cache, please take only what you need.  

In the desert, I used the popular “rule of thumb” to carry one liter of water for every five miles, plus an additional liter for camp. This strategy worked for me, but it may not work for you. Until you become comfortable with your average water consumption on the trail, err on the side of carrying more than you need. 

Heading NOBO from Campo through your first stretch of desert? Often there is a push to make the 20 miles to Lake Morena because the few on-trail water sources that flow in early-spring are dry. If you find yourself between Campo and Lake Morena and in need of water, Randy “Rebo” Berton has repeatedly reported that there is a reliable water cistern 1.4 miles off the trail from Hauser Canyon Road (PCT Mile 15.36), and has kindly posted a video detailing its location.

People often talk about the lack of water in Southern California, but parts of Northern California and Southern Oregon can also be dry (I’m looking at you, Hat Creek Rim). Plan accordingly.

Sun exposure

Heat exhaustion is a real concern on the PCT, and there are a variety of strategies to avoid it. 

  • Drink plenty of water. The human body can only process about one liter of water/hour. At water sources, make sure you drink about a liter.
  • Wear lightweight clothes in light colors.
  • Consider carrying a lightweight umbrella.
  • If you find some shade in the early-afternoon, stop to take a siesta during the hottest part of the day.
  • Hike at night.
  • Carry electrolyte powder or tablets with you to add to your water (Nuun hydration, Gatorade, etc.)

The most important thing is you find what works for you. When I hiked my goal was to get to a water source early afternoon (there generally is some shade due to where these locations are), and hydrate and take an afternoon break. Then I’d hike until 6-7pm, eat dinner, and then put in a few more miles. Others choose to hike at night and sleep during the day.

The Sierra

North side of Forester Pass

Snow

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. 2012-2016 saw severe droughts in the Sierra, while 2017 saw unusually large snow levels. Hikers should equip themselves with the gear and skills necessary to navigate a snowy Sierra because, by the time winter has played all its cards in the high elevations, the window to train in those environments (for most people) will have closed.  Skills required may include winter navigation, self-arrest, water crossings, proper layering, etc.

Carry an extra day of food in the Sierra. Added pack weight from a bear canister and colder-weather gear, higher elevations, and unpredictable weather patterns can amount to a slower hiking pace through the High Sierra (and definitely will when snow levels are high).  Hikers should plan to have at least one additional day worth of food in their pack as a safety net, as there are fewer bailout points in this section.

Stream Crossings

No two stream crossings are alike, especially year to year. When I crossed Evolution creek in June 2016 it was chest deep to my 5’2″ self. I met another hiker of similar height who crossed it the year before and she said it was ankle deep. Reading the 2017 PCT class’s accounts of creek crossings, they were posting videos of dangerous creek crossings that were nothing more than a fun rock hop in 2016. Before you leave for the trail, read about crossing streams and watch online videos. Often the safest place to cross a steam is not at the trail crossing. Be prepared to hike a couple miles up or downstream to find a wider spot (i.e. lower flow). Streams will be flowing the fastest late afternoon from snowmelt during the day. A crowdsourced Snow and Ford Report is maintained on the PCT Water Report site. 

Sierra grouping

It is recommended that you don’t hike alone in the Sierra, due to the risks associated with snow travel and stream crossings. That said, hiking with a group or partner is not a guaranteed safety net. Your partner will do you little good if you don’t actually hike together, or at the very least wait for each other before potentially challenging spots. Choose a partner or group that you trust, as your life may depend on your choice.

Mt. Whitney

On top of Mt. Whitney, 14,505 feet

You can hike Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48, with your PCT permit. However, your PCT permit allows you to do only make the 15-mile round-trip to Mt. Whitney as a day hike. You may not camp east of Crabtree Ranger Station (located 7.5 miles from the summit of Whitney). You may pay $21 in advance for a permit to descend the mountain eastbound towards Whitney Portal and the town of Lone Pine.

Bears and food storage

Along most parts of the PCT, you are required to store your food from bears properly. In Oregon and Washington, this generally means hanging your food. Some areas in California require you to store food and all smellables in a bear canister. In the Sierra, bear canisters are required in parts of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Inyo, Sierra and Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forests, and in all of Yosemite. For most hikers, this means it is most practical to carry a bear canister from mile 702 (Kennedy Meadows) to mile 1017 (Sonora Pass). Kennedy Meadows General Store sells bear canisters, and then you can send it home or up the trail from either North Kennedy Meadows or Bridgeport (both accessible from Sonora Pass).

Why would you consider sending your canister north on the trail? Because Lassen Volcanic National Park requires you to carry a bear canister if you plan to camp in the park. The PCT passes through 19 miles of Lassen Volcanic NP. Instead of carrying a bear canister, you could either hike through those 19 miles in a day; or, camp 3 miles north of the park’s southern border at Warner Valley campground which has bear boxes, and pass through the last 16 miles of the park the following day.

Trail Closures

Trail closures happen, most commonly due to fire.  Hikers can get the latest information through the PCTA website. Make sure to check the site often while hiking to stay informed of developing situations. Currently, there are eight trail closures. Two of these closures are long-term, and definitely will not be open for 2018. There are well-established routes and/or roadwalks to get around the closures (included in Half-Mile’s maps and app). 

Four are listed as potentially reopening in 2018 once the snow melts and trail crews can assess the damage:

  • Three Sisters Wilderness, OR: mile 1950 to 1981.5 (Elk Lake to Highway 242)
  • Whitewater Fire on Mt. Jefferson, OR: mile 2025 to mile 2030 (Hunts Creek Trail # 3440 just north of Pamelia Lake north to the Whitewater Trail #3429)
  • Norse Peak Wilderness, WA: PCT 2327.5 to 2343.7 (Fog City Trail #967 at Bear Gap to the north boundary of Norse Peak Wilderness)
  • Crater Lake National Park, OR: 1825 to 1836.7 (Lightning Springs Trail to the North Entrance Road).
    • The Lightning Springs Trail and the West Rim Trail are open. Even without the closure, most PCT hikers choose to hike the West Rim Trail around Crater Lake as it is the more scenic hike.

Two closures have no estimation as to when they will reopen:

  • Columbia River Gorge: mile 2112 – mile 2144.5 (Lolo Pass to Cascade Locks, OR) due to the Eagle Creek and Indian Creek fires. The PCTA recommends that northbound PCT hikers leave the PCT at Timberline Lodge rather than Lolo Pass. The PCTA has several shuttle options listed on their website.
  • Holcomb Fire near Big Bear, CA: mile 268-269. The fastest detour is to hike Forest Road 3N16 to 3N69 (Gold Mt) to the PCT.

Now that we’ve covered some pre-trip basics, keep an eye out for Part II coming soon: Keeping Yourself and the PCT Healthy.  Subscribe to The Trek newsletter and follow The Trek: PCT page to ensure you don’t miss a beat.

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Comments 11

  • Lee Welton : Jan 27th

    A great resource that is well laid out, thank you!

    Reply
    • Amy : Jan 30th

      Thanks, Lee! Glad it is helpful.

      Reply
  • Jann : Jan 30th

    Beyond comprehensive! BRAVO!

    Reply
    • Amy : Jan 30th

      Glad you found it of use, thanks!

      Reply
  • Postholer : Jan 30th

    A PCT permit IS NOT ‘mandatory’.

    This is a word you use in the first line of your article. That word IS NOT used on the PCTA’s permit page, anywhere. Further, a permit IS NOT required from the PCTA to hike the PCT. Individual agencies can issue permits or can be issued in conjunction with the PCTA issued permit. It is a choice. The PCTA permit is a convenience, it always has been.

    I understand that theTrek promotes various interests and is a ‘team player’. That’s great! However, being forthcoming is in everyone’s interest.

    Reply
    • Amy : Jan 30th

      Thank you for correcting my oversight, it was not intentional. I’ve made the appropriate changes to the article.

      Reply
    • Kells : Jan 30th

      If you think lessening the huge impact hikers have on the trail isn’t mandatory, then hiking the trail IS NOT for you.

      Reply
      • Kevin : Feb 2nd

        If you think your opinions constitute a law then society is not for you… Permits are not required for the first 700 miles of trail NOBO. Start whenever you want.

        Reply
  • Kells : Jan 30th

    Wait, does a dirty hiker count as a smellable? I think I’ll need a bigger bear can…

    Reply
  • Annette : Feb 1st

    Great article, thanks. Did you print out and carry halfmiles maps or did you buy one?

    Reply
    • Amy : Feb 1st

      We started out with printed halfmile maps, which we broke up into our maildrops. At the time they were available for purchase, but the service is no longer available as apparently the only legal way to print the maps is for an individual to do it themselves from their own printer. I’ve tried to find a good tutorial online for printing maps at home but was unsuccessful. If you want to print at home the best advice I have is to use a good quality paper, and play around with your printer settings until you find what works. We used double-sided maps. The other option is to use a service like FedEx/Kinkos. Hope that helps!

      Reply

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