3 Tips for Hiking Through the PCT Desert

When deciding to hike the PCT, a daunting reality is the seven hundred miles of desert that greets you. Some common misconceptions are that you’re in the Sahara fighting to survive with nothing but flat sand around you. The desert is not flat, there are living things, and on rare occasion, you will come upon a small stream. Many  who come from the Appalachian trail or those who haven’t trekked long distances have never experienced hiking in the desert and the different complications that go with it. Finding water, shade, and places to camp or siesta become a top priority.


pct waterBy far the biggest worry about the desert is the water situation. Made slightly better by a great water report that’s updated regularly and is usually posted in most town stops. Another helpful addition is the water caches that are stocked regularly by some incredible trail angels, though no water source is reliable in the desert. The frustration of packing out eight liters to come upon a full cache will happen often along with packing out four liters and getting to three dry streams in a row.

Water will be your heaviest item and will often outweigh your base weight. Laundry, washing dishes, and even brushing your teeth become hard to justify when carrying what you need to drink. Generally recommended is a liter for every five miles unless it’s above 90 degrees, which it will be, and then it’s a liter every three to stay adequately hydrated. It’s incredibly important for the risk of heat stroke that claims lives in the desert every year. Know the signs and symptoms and look out for one another. The only real advice is to stay updated, read trail logs, and always carry more than you think you’ll need.


Another mystifying thing of the desert is shade. With only scrub bush and Joshua trees, a nice shady spot is hard to come by. I’ll never forget shredding my bandana in order to cover up the sun blisters that riddled my hands or contorting our bodies to fit into shaded areas. On the Appalachian trail, I got rid of my sunscreen and chapstick very early but it was extremely necessary for the first month and a half of the PCT. Many even carried umbrellas that boast a 10 degree difference in temperature underneath to get out of the sunlight. Also tarps are nice for areas with no shade.


pacific crest trials 300x250 ad

A drastically important practice in the desert is the siesta. Waking up early and hitting the trail till about noon when the heat intensifies greatly, then hanging in a shaded area or a water source until around four when the sun gets lower in the sky. Hiking through the heat of the day is unbearable and will likely dehydrate you into the danger zone. Take the time to relax, eat, sleep some more, and drink lots of water. Camping is also very different in the desert. The need for a durable shelter is non-existent. The only time I set my tarp up in the desert was to make some artificial shade. Good luck hammock users, you’ll never find a pair of trees big enough or close enough together to set up. Leave it at home. Nine times out of ten you’ll be cowboy camping anyways. Many even send their shelter ahead to Kennedy Meadows, the start of the Sierra, to save weight. Though there is potential for rain on occasion.

The desert is a daunting challenge but the benefits are vast. Continual views of Southern California will wipe whatever visions you had of a desert away. Rarely having to deal with inclement weather is a huge bonus. Stay smart and stay safe and you won’t have any issues. 

Check out our brand new resource for aspiring PCT thru-hikers!

Affiliate Disclosure

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.

Comments 2

What Do You Think?