PCT Permits: A Conservationist’s Point of View 

There is no shortage of grumblings about PCT permits these days.  With the second round of permits approved and start dates quickly approaching, there seems to be increased demand for change in the permit process.  Myself being new to the thru-hiking scene found this process to be quite interesting as applying for a permit without any financial obligations was a new one for me.  While I am sure there is no “perfect” system I think there are a few things that could improve this process.  While there are pros and cons to any proposed changes (or the current system for that matter) I hope to explore some of those options.  This is just my, admittedly biased, opinion on the matter and you’re free to disagree; in doing so I doubt you’d be the first person to think I am an idiot but, I digress.  


(For this article I intend to speak only on the long-distance permit with the intention of a full thru-hike.  I know there are several other permit options but this is the most widely debated at this time)


The first, and most obvious topic to be addressed is the financial obligations of obtaining a long-distance permit.  Pros and cons are pretty cut and dry when requiring a fee for a long distance permit.  By far the biggest pro is money goes to the PCTA and the US Forest Service. This cash flow helps advocate for public lands and assist with all of the stuff that costs money like trail maintenance and recovery from fires.  The major con is pricing people out of a thru-hike.  While I don’t like the idea of gatekeeping people from a permit for financial reasons, we do have to accept the fact that thru-hiking isn’t cheap to start with.  The cost of getting a permit pales in comparison to the cost of things like gear, transportation, resupplies, and beer.  


I have seen quite a few models about how a fee structure would work.  I think my preferred method would be a deposit and fee system.  With this system, you would be obligated to put down a deposit to hold your permit with a smaller portion being kept by the US Forest Service.  I have no idea what the right number is for these fees but here is an example anyway.  Say the fee cost is $50 and a deposit of $200.  Once you get your permit date you give the PCTA $200 to hold your permit.  That permit is yours unless you cancel it, in which you would then get your $200 back.  If you do start the trail you get $150 back and continue on your way to Canada. That remaining 50 bucks would go to the US Forest Service with a percentage going to the PCTA for managing the permit system.  Is this system perfect, no absolutely not, but it would essentially eliminate the “I’ll get a permit just in case” people from getting permits without any real intention to hike.  


Permit Application Process

When thinking of ways to improve the overall experience I think the most important thing to consider is implementing the fee system that was previously mentioned.  With the deposit system, the demand for permits would go down as those without intentions to actually hike would not be willing to put up the cash for a permit they wouldn’t use.  I think this alone would improve the chances of getting a permit on the date you would like.  By adding a fee structure it is unlikely any other changes would be required.  However, if the fee changes are not sufficient there are other options to tackle this situation.


Permit Points

An alternative to the current system is creating a preference point system, not unlike how many of the lotteries for hunting tags work in the United States.  Say you apply and cannot get a permit, you would pay a small fee and receive one point.  When next year’s lottery comes around whoever has the most points takes a permit so long as they produce the fee.  There would have to be a cap to the number of “point eligible” permits, say the first 10-15 per day.  The remaining 40-35 would be the general lottery system that we already have.  This system would prevent someone from striking out for multiple years in a row. Furthermore, if someone has to start on a specific date this ensures they can secure that permit date.  I am oversimplifying a bit but you kind of get what I am going for here.  Most states have a system like this for big game hunting tags and it is a proven way to ensure a somewhat fair and even distribution of a permit/tag that has a greater demand than supply.  


International Hikers

Alright, so if you didn’t hate me yet for my opinions here it comes.  I think international hikers are obligated to higher fees than US Citizens.  Okay, I will give you a second to head down to the comment section and tell me how much of an idiot I am, however true that may be.  Again I turn to the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation as a reference here.  In the US, wildlife and natural areas are owned by the citizens and managed with taxpayer’s dollars.  So if someone who is not directly funding the protection and maintenance of public land through taxes wants to use the resource I feel like they should contribute more than those who are already funding it.  Quick reminder international folks I still love you and hope you’re still reading.  I don’t think the price increase should be astronomical but, if I may carry on with my rough estimate from above I would say the entire $200 deposit would be a fair number.

This price discrepancy is best illustrated with an example from my home state of Wisconsin.  In Wisconsin, a resident gun deer tag is $24 for citizens of the state.  If you are not a Wisconsin resident the same exact tag is $160.  That is over 6 times the price for the same tag.  The reason for the difference is the owners of the resource.  Every deer in the state belongs to every resident of the state.  If you are to come into the state and take the state’s resources they demand a premium.  


We Take More than We Give

I can already hear the counterargument to this, citing the difference between taking an animal and hiking on a trail.  For that, I would argue they are more similar than one might assume. There is a specific reason the US Forest Service only allows a certain number of hikers to leave per day.  Trails constantly need maintenance for the heavy use they already see.  In addition, there are side effects that come with a long-distance hike.  Every cathole dug impacts the ecosystem more than we would like to admit.  There are countless studies into migration corridor disruption and the energy expenditure changes in wildlife directly caused by outdoor recreation.  


In Summary

I don’t hate the current system but I don’t have to hate it to think it could be better.  This system could be improved by adopting a system more similar to how we manage wildlife in the United States. The two major changes that I think could improve the process is some sort of a financial obligation as well as a point system to plan your dream hike.  You may disagree and that’s okay, but that’s my opinion and it is worth every penny you paid for it. 

Happy Trails.  

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 7

  • Chris : Feb 23rd

    Personally, they’re not bad ideas at all. I like the point system for people who have not secured a permit. One suggestion I would add, is to give an extra point or two to hikers who have already completed the AT & CDT, and are in pursuit of the coveted “triple crown” title. I’m sure those hikers would have already applied in previous years for their permit, so this would just give them an edge to complete all three trails without having to wait multiple years in hopes of landing a permit.

    We should be thankful that the permit process is in place and works so well (on a technical level) The US Mint website crashes each time a coin with a limited mintage is released, resulting in a TON of ticked off collectors. You could be on the page entering your payment info, and then boom,. have to start all over. It’s been this way since 2019. So,. it could be worse,.. much much worse.

    • Quinton Peters : Feb 23rd

      I agree the website holds a TON of traffic very well.

      I am biased because the PCT is my first complete long distance trail, but I would disagree on the extra point for hikers who have completed a different long distance trail. I think experience should not be a factor for permits. Some people can only make one thru hike work for them and if they are constantly getting beat out by hikers with more experience that would be a little unfair. Sure it would only be for the first 10-15 permits that are point eligible but still. In addition if you’re an experienced hiker getting a permit is probably not as hard for you. If you’re decently fast hiking there are a ton of opportunities to pick up mid-late May permits.

      I totally understand your point though. It’s a tough situation because there really is no perfect solution.

  • Papa Smurf : Feb 23rd

    I agree with every aspect of your view. Locking things up through fees may seem to be prejudicial, but may be the only way to ensure a system that keeps trails open and available for all in the long run.
    Requirements that include higher fees for nonresidential US hikers makes sense. Michigan has similar fee structures for both hunting and camping that charge nonresident users higher fees. These fees help to ensure that everyone is helping To maintain the resources that keep the infrastructure in good working order.
    Great article!

  • Dan : Feb 23rd

    I am glad to see someone talk about the permit system. I am an older walker, hiker, infrequent backpacker. Thru hiking permits should not be limited. Are we not free citizens possessing the freedom of travel and movement? Why should any citizen be denied access to our “public” lands. These national scenic trails were established for everyone’s benefit not just people privileged enough to have access to a computer on a particular day. Non citizens make up 40 to 50 percent of permit holders. Why are American citizens bumped in favor them? Any damage to the environment from “overuse” is confined to the very narrow corridor of the tail itself. Much more depredation occurs from horse use and cattle.
    Permits, at a nominal fee, should be automatic for everyone.

    • Quinton Peters : Feb 23rd

      I would disagree my friend. There is no shortage of evidence for natural areas being destroyed when left to their own devices. While being free citizens we still have to have some structure and regulation otherwise these areas will be exploited.

      Overuse is not just on the physical trail. There is substantial evidence to show wildlife habits change based on the activity level and outdoor recreation. So much so, some trails are closed during certain times of year to avoid disrupting Elk in Colorado for example.

      It is a brutally tough job trying to manage public assets but if they didn’t make tough choices we would, without a doubt, love it to death.

  • Old hiker : Feb 23rd

    I agree with you, because I have seen the over usage and lack of LNT does to an area. I have gotten so mad at stupid people, who shouldn’t be allowed to get off their couch, after see everything from trash left at the campsite, to the dumbass who shot the area with paint balls. I am still pissed about that one. I am no tree hugger, but anyone who abuses our national treasures, should be jailed and forced to clean up / restore the abused areas. I am a firm believer of carry it in carry it out and leave no trace. That way my grandkids can enjoy our great outdoors.

  • Kevin C : Feb 23rd

    The trail and its users would benefit by a points system that would also honor volunteer service maintaining the PCT.


What Do You Think?