21 Things 2023 PCT Thru-Hikers Need To Know
If you’re planning to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail in 2023, look no further. We have some advice that will make prepping for your 2,650-mile trip a whole lot easier. Your start date will be here before you know it—read on to make sure you’re trail-ready!
1. First things first: get your permits.
Thru-hikers need a PCT Long-distance Permit. Each year, the PCTA (authorized by the U.S. Forest Service) releases these permits in two rounds. The first permit release date this year was on November 15th, but you’ll get another chance to apply for a permit during the second round on January 10th. To be eligible to apply for the January permit release, you must have registered ahead of time. The deadline to sign up is January 5th at five p.m. PT. If you previously registered for the November permit release, you do not need to re-register for the January permit release.
READ NEXT – How To Score a PCT Long-distance Permit
If you’re planning to cook your meals on a camp stove (we’re assuming that’s most of you), make sure you have a California Fire Permit. If you’re curious about having an actual campfire during your hike, don’t be (just kidding). In all seriousness, though, campfires aren’t allowed along much of the PCT, especially in Southern CA. If campfires are your thing, just know that it’s your responsibility to be up-to-date on fire restrictions and safe campfire practices.
The Canada PCT Entry Permit is exactly what it sounds like. This permit applies to you if you plan on hiking north to Manning Park after you reach the terminus. FYI, it’s illegal to return to the U.S. via the trail. Entry into Canada wasn’t allowed for the past two years due to COVID-19, but now that travel restrictions have been lifted, the PCTA’s new recommendation is to check the status of the Canadian border for any pandemic-related border closures. Stay tuned for updates on this.
One more thing: You’ll pass a handful of self-registration permit boxes in Oregon and Washington. Do yourself a favor and fill out those permits—they help agencies understand how many people are using the trail, which in turn helps land managers protect sensitive areas.
2. You may not be able to maintain a continuous footpath.
It’s no secret that wildfires are becoming increasingly common on the PCT, and we largely have climate change to thank for that. PCT hikers in 2022 had to contend with fire closures in all three states (even the beloved Northern Terminus was closed). Expect to hike through previously burned sections (burn scars) as well—they are plentiful, especially in NorCal and parts of Oregon.
Basically, expect that your hike may not go as planned. This is true for any thru-hike, and especially so on the PCT with the prevalence of fire. Trek Blogger and ’22 PCT thru-hiker Janine “Sofa Queen” Abdallah has the following advice to share: “Be adaptable. Things (weather, shipping issues, your health, etc.) will NOT go as planned. The trail will assess your comfort zone and then likely sh*t all over it, so embrace it. Plus, it’ll make for one helluva story!”
The PCTA has helpful information about how to approach a thru-hike differently than a traditional NOBO or SOBO trip. It might not be a bad idea to keep this info in mind in case you need to change your itinerary for any reason.
3. Be mindful of Leave No Trace Principles.
It’s probably safe to assume that one of the reasons we all hike is because of our shared appreciation for the outdoors. Unfortunately, though, this isn’t always reflected in our actions on-trail, so make sure you learn or brush up on the LNT Principles before your hike.
The 7 LNT Principles:
- Plan ahead and prepare.
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
- Dispose of waste properly.
- Leave what you find.
- Minimize campfire impacts.
- Respect wildlife.
- Be considerate of other visitors.
Even when you’re feeling lazy, dig your cathole and pack out your TP. It takes much longer to break down than poop, which is part of the reason it’s so common to see lily-white “toilet paper blooms” strewn across campsites and the trail.
If packing out your TP sounds gross, there are some things you can do to help yourself out. Carry a dedicated ziplock bag to put your used TP in—you can double bag it and cover the outer bag in duct tape if the visuals bother you. If you’re someone who squats to pee: use a pee rag for #1 to cut down on the amount of TP you have to pack out. Relatable for everyone: use a portable bidet to use less TP when you go #2.
One more thing: If you see trash on the trail and have the ability to pack it out, do it! You’ll feel good about yourself, and you just might inspire a fellow hiker to do the same.
4. Have some sort of first-aid kit.
Even if all you carry is a roll of leukotape and some ibuprofen, a few simple items can go a long way. Other good items to bring for backup include Neosporin, an ace bandage (especially if you’re prone to rolled ankles), tenacious tape or another type of repair tape/patch, and a trusty lil’ pocketknife.
You can assemble your own DIY first aid kit in a ziplock bag or purchase a store-bought ultralight version. If you go store-bought, you can save weight by repackaging into a ziplock and eliminating redundant or excessive contents.
If a little tape or ibuprofen isn’t doing the job, you need to take a break or seek medical care. Seriously, don’t ignore it—go ahead and take the proper precautions and time to heal so that you can safely return to trail. Most trail towns will at least have an urgent care (or will be in hitching distance of a town with medical facilities).
In 2022, Morgan Brosnihan, PT, DPT of Blaze Physio began offering physical therapy and advice to PCT hikers on-trail, and the good news is that she’ll be offering her services again this year. Her prices are reasonable, and if she can’t meet you in person, she offers telehealth appointments as well.
Pro tip: Wrap leukotape around your trekking poles to save on bulk and weight in your pack.
5. Bear canisters are required in the Sierra and other sections of trail.
We’ve all heard the saying that “a fed bear is a dead bear,” and it’s true. Sleeping with your food in your tent is dangerous not only for you, but for other nearby hikers and animals too. Bears can learn to associate campsites with food, and when that happens, they may eventually have to be relocated or put down for aggressive behavior. It’s not fair to cause that fate for a bear or other wildlife, so it’s best to properly secure your food overnight in either a bear canister or bag.
- Parts of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
- Inyo, Sierra and Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forests
- All of Yosemite, Desolation Wilderness, and Lassen Volcanic National Parks
Admittedly, bear canisters are a bit bulky and heavy, but at least they’re easy to just plop down when you get to camp at night. Bear bags and critter-resistant bags are a great alternative for any section of trail that’s outside the canister-required areas. Don’t forget—other critters besides bears (namely rodents) may want your food, too!
6. Hiking in the Sierra is tough, but the views make it all worth it.
Hiking in the Sierra will be more difficult than what you experienced in the first 700 miles. There is more elevation gain (and loss) each day, your pack is heavier, thanks to the bear canister and longer food carries, and hiking at altitude is an adjustment. The good news is that you will be a stronger hiker by the time you’re through. And the views? They’re out-of-this-world.
Some words of advice: At least in the beginning, consider reducing your daily mileage until you get used to hiking at higher elevations with a heavier pack. Consider reducing your daily mileage through the Sierra in general so that you can take time to really enjoy yourself—the alpine lakes are plentiful, and you may just want to take a refreshing dip after that big climb you just did.
As far as the passes go, consider hiking one pass a day. Plan each day so that you can camp close to the pass the night before and get an early start. This way, you’ll be able to get up and over the pass before the snow softens. Postholing sucks, and your microspikes are more effective on harder snow. Getting an earlier start will give you more time during the day to hike more carefully through the snowpack and to have more breaks and enjoy the scenery.
Other tips: Hike Mt. Whitney at sunrise (weather permitting of course). It may well be one of your highlights on trail.
7. Familiarize yourself with the symptoms of altitude sickness and illness.
Let’s take a quick lesson on altitude sickness. This condition is not to be taken lightly. Keep yourself—and your fellow hikers—safe by familiarizing yourself with the symptoms and knowing what to do if you experience them.
Ed. note: We are hikers, not doctors. Always consult a doctor regarding medical concerns. This advice is in no way intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice from a doctor.
Altitude sickness is very common and happens when you travel to a high altitude (8,000+ feet above sea level) without giving your body time to adjust to the lower air pressure and oxygen levels. You may develop symptoms such as a mild headache, fatigue, or feeling lightheaded. Do not ignore these symptoms, especially if they do not improve or if they worsen.
Most people who develop altitude sickness get acute mountain sickness (AMS), especially at elevations higher than 10,000 feet. AMS can be categorized as mild, moderate, or severe:
- Mild: You may develop a mild headache and fatigue, but not to the point where it significantly impacts your daily activities. You feel better after a few days as your body acclimates, and it’s probably OK to stay at your current elevation.
- Moderate: Your symptoms worsen and begin to interfere with your activities. Symptoms may include severe headache, nausea, and difficulty with coordination. You need to go to a lower elevation to get better.
- Severe: Symptoms may include shortness of breath, even at rest, and it can be difficult to walk. You need to descend immediately to a lower altitude and seek medical care.
Less common but more serious forms of altitude illness (HAPE and HACE) can be life-threatening. If you or a fellow hiker is experiencing symptoms of HAPE or HACE, get to a lower elevation immediately and seek medical care.
- HAPE (High-altitude pulmonary edema): There is excess fluid on the lungs, which is causing breathlessness, even while resting. Symptoms include feeling extremely weak and fatigued, and possibly the feeling of suffocation.
- HACE (High-altitude cerebral edema): There is excess fluid on the brain, which is causing the brain to swell. Symptoms include confusion, lack of coordination, and possibly violent behavior.
READ NEXT – How To Stay Safe While Hiking at High Elevation
8. Bring microspikes for San Jacinto, Baden-Powell, and the Sierra.
If you’re questioning whether or not you need microspikes for any section of trail, just go ahead and bring ’em. It’s always better to err on the side of caution. Plus, they’re really not that heavy—your average pair of Kahtoola MICROspikes weighs roughly 11 ounces.
If you’re not convinced that you need microspikes for hiking in snow, you might consider reading about Trevor “Microsoft” Laher’s tragic accident in 2020. If buying spikes is an issue in terms of budget, you can get a discounted pair through the Trevor Spikes Program. After Doug Laher lost his son, Trevor, he created the Trevor Spikes Program to give discounted spikes to NOBO PCT hikers.
Mt. Baden-Powell is another section where it would be helpful to have microspikes. This area often catches hikers by surprise, but thankfully, you won’t be one of them. NOBO hikers with March and April start dates, take note—Baden-Powell can have snow that lasts through late spring.
Carrying traction devices through the Sierra goes without question. Most thru-hikers also purchase an ice axe, though this depends on your Sierra entry date and snow levels for the year. We recommend the C.A.M.P. Corsa or Blue Ice Hummingbird.
Important: If you bring an ice axe, make sure you know how to use it—including how to self-arrest. REI offers mountaineering courses for beginners. If a course isn’t offered where you live, you can also try reaching out to local guiding companies and alpine clubs for advice. Social media and Youtube are your friends too! Just make sure the advice you’re receiving is from an expert.
9. Save more than you think you’ll need and budget wisely.
Generally speaking, hiking on the West Coast means paying West Coast prices. Even so, you can cut down on costs if you’re strategic. If possible, share motel rooms with members of your trail family or other hikers that you know. Are there other available accommodations like staying with a trail angel or pitching your tent at a KOA? Get creative. If you know you’re going to want a comfy bed or room to yourself from time to time, which you likely will, make sure to set some money aside.
It’s not uncommon for people to leave the trail early for financial reasons—don’t let that be you! Unforeseen circumstances aside, you’ll be golden if you save as much as possible pre-trail and keep an eye on your budget while you’re on trail. Seriously, save as much as you can. A hot shower and meal in town can really boost morale.
A couple of other notes: Don’t get crazy with your spending too early in your trip. Four to six months is a long time to budget for. Chances are, some of the extra funds you designate for “treating yourself” will have to go toward repairing/replacing damaged gear and clothing. Oh, and shoes…
10. Prepare to go through many pairs of shoes.
A good rule of thumb is to replace your shoes every ~500 miles, which mathematically comes out to 5.3 pairs of shoes (bare minimum). Do yourself a favor and go ahead and budget for at least six pairs. This is not an area of your budget to skimp on—your feet are way too important!
Side note: Be somewhat strategic about timing when you replace your shoes. For instance, don’t get a brand new pair right before hitting the lava rocks in Oregon (specifically referring to the Three Sisters Wilderness). Lava rocks will do a number on your shoes, so if you can wait it out, make your old pair last and replace it in Bend or Sisters.
11. Resupplying town-to-town is mostly OK.
It’s perfectly fine to resupply from town-to-town with the exception of a few stretches like the Sierra and parts of WA. Getting a hitch into town to resupply is usually not a problem, as the PCT has an awesome support system. Most people who live close to the trail know about the PCT and will be able to tell that you’re a friendly thru-hiker. In general, keep in mind that if you’re resupplying in a smaller town, you’ll pay slightly higher prices.
A strong network of trail angels exists for pretty much every section of trail, and all of them have a Facebook group, so you can contact them if you need. This likely goes without saying, but be sure to show your gratitude to these kind souls and offer gas money, especially if you’re asking them to go out of their way for a special request!
If you have dietary restrictions and need to plan resupply boxes ahead of time, it can most certainly be done. Just make sure to research ahead of time and give yourself plenty of time to figure out the logistics. Also, as grateful as we all are for the US Postal Service, chances are that one of your resupply boxes may not reach your destination as planned, so prepare to be flexible.
12. FarOut is your friend.
Pre-trail, it can be helpful to stay up-to-date on trail conditions (like snow), by checking out online resources and trail guides. On trail you can really get everything you need from the FarOut smartphone app. (Of course, there’s no substitute for a physical map and compass if your phone dies.)
FarOut has more useful information than you could possibly hope for. The app shows elevation gain/loss down to the mile, campsite locations, water sources, information on trail towns, and one of the best features—or worst, depending on how you look at it—is the comment section.
Hikers can comment on waypoints, which is super helpful for keeping information up-to-date, like with water sources and carries. At times though, certain comments can be a little too helpful in a sense. A word of caution—take comments about things like the difficulty of climbs or other subjective topics with a grain of salt.
13. Sun protection is essential.
News alert: you will see the sun on the PCT, and thank goodness for that. Just make sure to prepare accordingly. The desert is a no-brainer, but other sections like the Sierra and NorCal have plenty of exposed sections that require sun protection. Plus, in the Sierra, there’s also the sun reflecting off the snow and additional exposure from hiking at altitude. You’ll also hike through a number of burn scars in NorCal and Oregon, and as you might guess, those don’t offer much shade.
Option 1: Pair a sun hoody with a baseball cap. Protect your hands with sun gloves. Still carry sunscreen for your face and for exposed legs if you wear shorts.
Option 2: Carry a sun umbrella. Borrow one from a friend or at least test out the one you bought before starting your hike. They’re not for everyone. Still bring sunscreen to cover exposed legs/other parts.
Even if it’s cold, don’t forget sun protection if you’re hiking in an exposed area, and especially if you’re traversing snow (that’s double the sun). Sunglasses that filter UV light are also a year-round must.
A word on hiking in the heat…
Particularly in the desert, if it feels like it’s too hot to be hiking, then it probably is. Wait out the hottest part of the day and then resume hiking in the late afternoon/early evening when temperatures begin to drop back down. Siestas in the desert are definitely a thing, and as long as you have a decent patch of shade, they can be really nice—who doesn’t appreciate a good mid-day nap?
14. Practice good hygiene and illness prevention.
Practicing good hygiene on-trail can be difficult, but try your best to take care of yourself. You’re asking a lot of your body on a daily basis, and you owe it at least the bare minimum so that it can keep performing as it should.
Prioritize brushing your teeth at least once a day—you don’t want to come home with one (or more) cavities. Let’s face it, those sugary snacks we all like to eat on-trail aren’t exactly dentist-recommended. You might also consider taking vitamins and supplements to boost your immune system and reduce inflammation.
Norovirus and Giardia are the biggest things to watch out for:
Norovirus can really ruin your fun, and it’s common to see an outbreak every year on popular long trails. Thankfully, it’s largely preventable. Filter your water, wash your hands or use hand sanny, and don’t share food. Or if you do share food, have some ground rules, like pouring food out rather than allowing hands to dip into the bag. This will help prevent the spread of illness. When greeting fellow hikers, do a fist bump rather than a high five.
Giardia is another terrible, but absolutely preventable trail affliction. Filter your water at every source, no matter how “pristine” it looks—this nasty little parasite isn’t visible to the naked eye. Giardia can also live on food, surfaces, or other objects—really anything that has been contaminated with poop from infected people or animals. Once again, make sure you use that hand sanny and fist bump your friends.
Even after taking every precaution, if you experience fever, nausea, or a seriously upset stomach during your hike, get off trail and see a doctor ASAP. Hiking through illness can cause serious dehydration. If you have flu-like symptoms, self-isolate and take an over-the-counter COVID test. The trail is already tough enough on your body. Don’t risk your health or safety (or anyone else’s) by trying to hike through illness.
15. Go at your own pace and rest when you need to.
Rule 1: Listen to your body. You’re asking a lot of it on a daily basis and eventually, the trail will take its toll.
Zero days give your body time to rest and recover a bit before heading back out. If your timeframe or budget doesn’t allow for many zeros, consider taking partial days off (neroes). Taking a nero makes for an easier day without breaking the bank. Get some hot food in town, resupply and do your chores, and then head back to the trail in the afternoon/evening. Get to camp early and indulge in a special treat you packed out from town.
Alternatively, have you considered taking an on-trail zero? You could plan this for a scenic part of trail—ideally a campsite with a lake nearby—and pack out extra food from town.
Resting is important for both your mental and physical health. One of the best ways to avoid fatigue and giving up is by taking a break when you’re not feeling up to hiking.
Thru-hiker and Trek Blogger Melissa “Caps” Riordan shared the following advice: “Listen to your body and rest when it is telling you to rest. It can be hard when you’re trying to make miles, but not every day needs to be about pushing big miles. Take a minute to slow down and take in the incredible landscape around you.”
Rule 2: Establish a mantra/reason for hiking the trail and revisit it often.
As crazy as this might sound, you won’t wake up every day of your thru-hike excited to hike, especially when the newness of it begins to wear off. Reminding yourself of the reason you’re on this incredibly amazing (and at times, exhausting) adventure will help you take that next step.
READ NEXT – 8 PCT Thru-Hikers Share Their Top Advice
16. The desert can be really beautiful.
The 700 miles or so of the “desert” is incredibly diverse and isn’t all what one might typically think of as desert terrain. We’ve often heard hikers comment on several occasions that the desert wasn’t what they thought it would be. Yes, you’ll walk through some very hot, dry sections, but mid-day siestas can be a nice way to switch up your hiking schedule, and thankfully, trail angels maintain some incredible water caches in the driest sections. Plus, night hiking the section along the LA Aqueduct is somewhat of a tradition.
Also—if you didn’t already know about Joshua trees, you will very soon. They are really cool, and you’ll be seeing more than a few of them on-trail.
READ NEXT – The PCT Desert: Myths vs. Fact
17. Do the challenges… or don’t.
The PCT is home to several interesting “challenges,” some of which include hiking from Cajon Pass to Wrightwood with a McDonald’s resupply, the 24-hour challenge, and completing all of Oregon in two weeks.
If these things sound like fun to you, then by all means, go for it. It’s also completely fine if these games don’t appeal to you. If you decide to participate, listen to your body. Wrecking yourself (or worse, costing yourself your thru-hike) for the sake of bragging rights isn’t worth it.
18. The mosquitoes in Oregon are brutal.
Oregon isn’t all flat, and it most certainly isn’t free of mosquitoes. When you get to Ashland, definitely make sure to celebrate finally leaving CA—but stock up on DEET while you’re there.
Oregon is truly a beautiful state, but you won’t be able to enjoy the views if you’re constantly being swarmed by hordes of tiny vampires. Consider shipping yourself a “mosquito resupply box” to Oregon ahead of time (ideally to Ashland, which is the first town). Ideally, this box would contain a head net and lightweight wind pants and jacket. Even if you don’t want to wear this gear while you hike, they will save you when you stop to take breaks or filter water.
If you’re next-level, you can also treat your clothing with Permethrin. You can either treat your clothes yourself or have a company do it for you. You can also purchase clothes that come factory-treated.
READ NEXT – How To Treat Your Hiking Clothes With Permethrin
If you didn’t get the chance to treat your clothes ahead of time or if you don’t want to buy pre-treated clothes, you can also get Permethrin from REI or a local gear shop (just call ahead to make sure they have it) and devote a nero or zero day to doing it. You will thank yourself later—just make sure you have an outdoor space where you can spray and allow for plenty of time so it can dry.
19. Have a tramily, or don’t—it’s up to you!
Hiking with a trail family (aka tramily) can be an amazing experience. Just know that it’s also okay to do your own thing from time to time, or as much as you want, really. If the idea of being alone intimidates you, know that you’re very rarely ever completely alone. Most of the time, you’ll see people at various points throughout the day, and you can often find someone to camp next to at night.
Trek blogger and PCT thru-hiker Melissa “Caps” Riordan has the following advice: “Find your people—hiking and camping with the right people will make all the difference in your experience. It can also be good to hike alone for a little while, even if it’s just for a few days.”
20. The NorCal blues aren’t all blue.
NorCal has a bad rep for giving hikers the “NorCal blues,” but it isn’t all bad. Sure, at this point you’re going to be super ready to finally reach the promised lands of Oregon, but you might as well enjoy the journey until you get there.
Thankfully, there are a lot of incredible views to be had in NorCal to help see you through. Yes, you’ll walk through burn scars, but you’ll also get to witness the extraordinary beauty of the Trinity Alps and Marble Mountain Wilderness.
Also, you’ll get to give your trail legs the ultimate test with the infamous climb out of Seiad Valley. Chill out during the day and fuel up at the cafe, then hike out in the evening once it’s cooled off a bit. Once you reach the top of the climb, you’ll have the option to pick from several primo ridgeline campsites with views of Shasta.
21. Take the alternates.
Don’t miss out on taking the Crater Lake or Eagle Creek alternates just because they’re not part of the “official” PCT. The views will not disappoint. Bonus points if you hike the rim of Crater Lake at sunrise!
We wish you the best of luck on your upcoming thru-hike, PCT Class of ’23! Keep these words of advice in mind as you prepare to have the adventure of a lifetime. The more you learn and prepare in advance, the more you’ll set yourself up for success.
With that being said, there’s only so much you can do to get ready, so allow yourself to savor each moment, both leading up to and during your thru-hike. Whatever comes your way, know that you’ll be able to meet each unique challenge as it comes.
Is the AT more your style? Read 23 Crucial Things 2023 Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers Need To Know.
Featured image by Zack Goldmann.
Correction: The article originally stated that hikers who registered to apply for a PCT Long-distance Permit in November would have to re-register to be eligible to apply again in January. It was updated 01/03/23 to reflect that you do NOT need to re-register to apply in January.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.