How To Score a PCT Long-distance Permit
It’s that time of year again. The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) will open the PCT Long-distance Permit application on Tuesday, November 15th at 10:30 a.m. Pacific Time.
In the olden days, thru- and section hikers had to apply for dozens of local permits to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. The 2,600-mile trail passes through lands managed by numerous local, state, and federal agencies, many with individual permit requirements.
In 2013, the PCTA and the US Forest Service came out with a PCT Long-distance Permit that takes the place of all those individual permits. While the Long-distance Permit isn’t technically required to thru-hike the PCT (you can still hike legally by obtaining the 2o or so local permits), it simplifies the logistics dramatically.
READ NEXT – Understanding the PCT Permit System, and Why it Matters
It also helps protect the trail corridor. Through the Long-distance Permit, a quota system is in place to limit foot traffic and protect fragile trailside ecosystems. The PCTA is authorized by the Forest Service to issue up to 8,000 permits each year.
This year, the PCTA has introduced some changes to the Long-distance Permit application process. Most importantly, anyone planning to hike the PCT in 2023 will have to register before the actual permit release date. Basically, if you’re applying for a permit this year, you’re going to want to make sure you have your shit together.
How to Apply for a PCT Long-distance Permit
1. It’s important to understand how the permit system works.
The 8,000 permits will be issued with the following restrictions:
- 50 permits per day for northbound trips starting between the Mexican border and Sonora Pass between March 1st and May 31st (35 released on November 15th and the remaining 15 released during the second round of applications on January 10th).
- 1,400 permits for section hikers crossing the John Muir Trail overlap and 600 permits for trips starting in the Southern Sierra at eligible trailheads.
- 15 permits per day for southbound thru- and section hikes starting between Canada and Stehekin, WA between June 15th and July 31st. Then, 15 permits per day starting in the Northern Terminus area for section hikers between Aug. 1st and Sept. 15th. 825 total Northern Terminus area permits. (Note: SOBOS can’t apply for permits until the second round of applications opens on January 10th).
The majority of thru-hikers prefer to start at Campo in April. In that one-month window, only 1,500 permits will be available for the Southern Terminus.
You can see why permits are in such demand. That’s why it’s important to bring your A-game on November 15th. Here’s what you need to know to successfully apply for a PCT Long-distance Permit this year.Get the Best from The Trail, Direct to Your Inbox
2. You must register before your permit release date.
If you’re applying for a Long-distance Permit on the first release date on November 15th, you have up until November 1st at 5 p.m. PT to register. For the second release date on January 10th, you will need to register before January 5 at 5 p.m. PT. This part of the application process is new this year. In theory, it should help things operate more smoothly on permit day.
When registering, you’ll enter your phone number, email address, date of birth, and other contact information. Note that registering doesn’t ensure that you’ll receive a permit—it only means that you are eligible to apply for one.
3. If you’re hiking with a partner, you’ll have the option to link your applications together.
Another feature new to the 2023 application process is the ability to link your application with your hiking partner’s application in the management portal. This will enable both of you to get the same itinerary, but you must do this at least 24 hours before the permit release. On permit day, only one of you will enter the queue. When it’s this person’s turn, they will be able to select a date that has two or more spaces available. Once they’ve hit Submit, applications for both people will be created.
4. You’ll be assigned a random place in line on November 15th.
The portal uses a waiting room system so that the website won’t crash from too much traffic. When the application goes live, you’ll be placed in the virtual waiting room and assigned a random—random!—place in line. A limited number of people can access the application at a time.
You won’t improve your odds by getting to the waiting room hours in advance. Just show up a few minutes early to ensure that you know where to go and that your internet is working correctly. Anyone arriving after 10:30 a.m. goes to the back of the line, so don’t be late.
Once you get your spot in line, the portal will tell you how many people are in line ahead of you and give an estimated wait time. As stated above, thousands of people will be applying on November 15th. It can take hours to get through the line. Many people take the whole day off work to ensure they’ll be available when the time comes. (For reference, November 15th is a Tuesday).
When I applied for a 2020 permit (sigh), I was number two thousand and something in line. My partner, who got to the waiting room at the same time, was way back in the six thousands. It really is a crapshoot.
Some people open the waiting room in multiple browsers and then close out of all but the one with the most favorable position in line. We don’t endorse this practice, but it does mean you shouldn’t despair if you’re way back in line. Once all those duplicate browsers go away, your wait time will probably shrink quite a bit.
5. You’ll be asked for your starting and ending locations.
When you reach the application, you’ll have 10 minutes to enter the portal (in case you were in the bathroom when your turn came up). Select a starting point between Campo and Sonora Pass and an endpoint at least 500 miles north. You’ll be choosing from a dropdown menu that displays the name of each trailhead, the road number, and the northbound PCT mile marker.
Most NOBOs want to start at the Mexican border and end at the Canadian border. As a result, the competition will be fiercest at Campo (although trailheads near the Sierra are also challenging).
If you’re worried about your odds of getting a permit date, selecting an entry point further north on the PCT will probably improve your odds. You can then apply for local permits and hike the miles between Campo and your permitted start date at any time. (Bear in mind that the southernmost sections of the trail are busiest between mid-March and mid-May.)
READ NEXT – A Complete List of Individual Permits Needed to Hike the PCT
Have a first-choice trailhead and a backup plan that you can enact if you end up way back in the queue and want to hedge your bets. If you have FarOut Guides or a paper guidebook for the PCT, have it handy for reference just in case you decide to change your entry point at the last minute.
6. You’ll be asked to choose a start and end date from the calendar.
Each date will be numbered from zero to 35, indicating how many people have selected it. Dates showing the number 35 are already full, and you can’t choose them. At this point, you need to make your decision quickly because dates can fill up even as you’re looking at the calendar.
Again, it’s important to be flexible with your start date, as there are no guarantees you’ll get the one you want. Think about the earliest and latest you’d be willing to start and have a few backup plans in mind. Planning for the worst-case scenario will save you time fretting about it in real-time.
Once you select a date, the system will reserve it for 20 minutes while you complete the application. PCTA says the whole process takes most people about eight minutes, so this should be plenty of time. Don’t click back in the application once you’ve selected a date, though, or you’ll immediately lose the one you picked.
You can only select one start date (no option to specify second and third choices or a range of dates). Once you’ve chosen, hit continue. Then you’ll have a chance to pick an end date from another calendar.
It’s almost impossible to anticipate the exact day you’ll finish a long hike before you’ve even started it, but that’s OK. Your projected end date doesn’t have to be 100% accurate. PCTA is just looking for a ballpark estimate to make sure you’ve thought this through realistically.
You’ll be fine if you list something three to six months out from whichever start date you end up selecting (depending on your hiking speed). There’s no quota limit on end dates, so this part is easy.
7. You’ll be asked about stock animals, contact info, children, etc.
After selecting your dates, you’ll indicate whether you’ll travel on foot or with a stock animal. You don’t have to specify if you’ll be hiking with a dog, but you’re expected to abide by local rules and regulations. Some parts of the trail don’t allow pups or have explicit leash laws.
Go to the next page and fill out your full legal name, birth date, street address, email address, and phone number.
After that, you’ll have an opportunity to add one or two minor children to your application. You’ll need to input their full legal names and birth dates.
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Note: if you’re a minor who will be hiking solo, you’ll need to send PCTA a signed letter from your legal guardian after applying. If you’re under 13 and will be walking alone, a parent or guardian has to fill out the application for you.
8. You’ll then review and agree to the terms of the permit.
If you’re caught breaking the rules on your hike, your permit can be invalidated. The PCT Long-distance Permit terms include:
- The permit allows you to hike and camp on the PCT only. If you’re taking an alternate/side route, you’ll have to get separate permits for that trail (if there are any).
- You can hike up to 15 miles off the PCT to get to a trailhead to resupply via the most direct (on-trail) route possible.
- You have to start the trail at your permitted trailhead on your designated start date.
- Thirty-five days to complete the Southern Sierra section (Kennedy Meadows to Sonora Pass), and you have to travel continuously with no skips or directional changes.
- The permit allows you to hike Mt. Whitney from the PCT, but you need special permits to visit Yosemite Valley and Half Dome.
- You have to carry a legible, unlaminated copy of your permit throughout your hike.
- You must comply with all local regulations during your hike. Examples:
- Restrictions on hiking with pets
- Fire/fireworks bans
- Bear canister requirements
- Federal, state, and local COVID-19 regulations
You’ll also review the seven Leave No Trace principles at this point. Here they are:
- 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
Next, you’ll have an opportunity to donate to PCTA and review the application before you hit submit.
Resist the urge to rush through and hit the “submit” button without first checking that your info is correct and typo-free. Technically, your application could be rejected if there are any mistakes.
Don’t take that risk.
9. After the PCT Long-distance Permit application is submitted…
You should receive a confirmation email from PCTA shortly after submitting your application. It takes time for them to review the applications, so you won’t hear back with final approval for at least a few weeks. Barring glaring errors, most successfully submitted applications are approved.
Even after approving your application, PCTA won’t issue the actual permit until three weeks before your start date. You’ll be notified via email when that happens. At that point, you can log in to the Permit Management Portal to download it.
Be sure to print a copy to take with you on the trail. A ranger will probably ask to see your PCT Long-distance Permit at least once on your hike, and digital copies are not acceptable. Also, you won’t be able to print your permit after your start date has passed, so make sure to print it before you start your trip.
10. What if I didn’t get the date I wanted?
If you didn’t get a start date or location on November 15th, you can try again on January 10th at 10:30 a.m. Pacific Time. PCTA will issue another 15 permits per trailhead per day at that time. The January application typically sees significantly less traffic than the November date—again, just make sure to register ahead of time.
Two things to note: If you’re hiking southbound or starting north of Sonora Pass, you must wait for the January permit date to apply. Secondly, if PCTA approves your permit in round one, you’re ineligible to reapply in January unless you cancel the existing one.
Also, after submitting your application, check the PCTA’s Permit Management Portal every day to see if anyone has canceled. You can change your start date right up until your permit is issued. Slots open and fill quickly, so check frequently and respond ASAP if something opens up.
Worst case scenario: you’ve tried everything and still can’t get a date or entry point that works for you. You can still hike the PCT legally by obtaining local permits for each section of the trail that requires one. It’s harder, but that’s how all thru-hikers did it before 2013.
Food for thought: The purpose of the permit system is to limit the number of people on the trail so it doesn’t get trashed. Going with local permits is legal, but it sidesteps the quota system and all the benefits it provides.
11. What if I’m hiking with a partner or a group?
Going back to #3 on this list, you will have the option this year to link your application with one other person. If you have three people in your party, one person will have to apply for their own permit. If you have four people—or some other even number—in your group, they can pair up to improve their chances of getting the same start dates.
Other ways you can increase the chances of multiple people getting the same start date include planning a less popular starting date or location. It’s best if everyone in your group can be in the same building on application day so that you can coordinate and make decisions in real time.
If you don’t get the same start date, keep checking the Permit Management Portal in case slots open up due to cancellations. Worst case, if you do end up having to settle for two separate dates, pick dates as close together as possible. You can start separately and hopefully meet up with your partner soon after.
My partner and I submitted our 2020 applications several hours apart but still managed to score start dates just two days apart (March 4th and 6th, respectively). We knew there would be a lot of competition and decided we were OK with an early start, given that it was shaping up as a low snow year. The two-day discrepancy was still a pain, but it was logistically manageable.
12. What other permits will I need?
Anyone planning to use a backpacking stove anywhere in California needs a California fire permit. This permit doesn’t mean you can have a campfire anywhere you want—you still have to abide by local fire restrictions.
You can get the permit online at any time. The process is straightforward and quick, and you’ll get the permit via email as soon as you hit “submit.” It’s valid for one year from issuance.
READ NEXT – Backcountry Campfires: A Relic of the Past
Thru-hikers planning to cross the Canadian border also need a Canada PCT entry permit. Unfortunately, Canadian Border Patrol stopped issuing these permits due to COVID-19, but this may change soon. Canadian travel restrictions were lifted on October 1, 2022. According to PCTA, you should check the status of the Canadian border for closures related to the pandemic for 2023.
Access the paperwork for the Canada Entry Permit here.
Anyone who’s ever gone through customs knows that those guys do not F around. You must follow PCTA’s instructions to the letter. Make sure everything you put in the form is correct before emailing it, along with scans of your passport and driver’s license, to [email protected].
Apply between two and six months before the start of your hike.
While the permit allows you to enter Canada via the PCT, it is always illegal to enter the US via the trail. If you’re ending your hike in Manning Park, you must return to the US via an official border crossing. If you’re hiking southbound, no Canada for you: you have to start at the border.
The PCT Long-distance Permit application is very simple, but it can be stressful. It’s essential to go in with a firm understanding of the process and a few backup plans in case things don’t work out perfectly.
Think of it as a warm-up for the hike itself. Adaptability is key to success on the trail, where logistics are messy and things rarely go to plan. It’s the same with this application. Prepare as best you can and accept that you can’t control every aspect of the process.
Just breathe. It will be fine.
This article was originally published on 10/7/2021. It was updated by Rachel Shoemaker on 10/17/2022.
Featured image: Graphic design by Chris Helm (@chris.helm).
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