The PCT Thru-Hike Checklist: 29 Things To Do Before You Start

Getting ready for a thru-hike is a daunting process. Unplugging from the stress of day-to-day life for a multi-month trek sounds incredible, but first, you have to actually get to the starting line. Not only do you have to prep for the logistics of the hike itself, but you have to make sure your home affairs are in order. That way, you can focus solely on the trail when the time comes.

Trust me: getting your ducks in a row before you hit the trail (while you still have cell service) will make your hike go much more smoothly. If you’re getting ready to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail, make sure you complete everything on this checklist before you go.

The PCT Thru-Hike Checklist: 29 Things to Do Before Starting the Trail

1. Get your permits in order.
2. Learn snow skills and practice with your ice axe.
3. Download the first water report.
4. Keep an eye on the snowpack.
5. Get in shape.
6. Learn to identify poodle-dog bush.
7. Make a hitchhiking sign.
8. Figure out section-specific gear.
9. Get your bills on autopay.
10. Health insurance.
11. Cancel car insurance and surrender plates/registration.
12. Cancel or pause subscriptions.
13. Visit your doctor: renew prescriptions + address outstanding health concerns.
14. Put your stuff in storage.
15. Notify your landlord and employer.
16. Notify your credit card company you’ll be traveling + make sure you know your debit PIN.

17. Entrust someone with your important personal information and passwords.
18. Designate someone to handle your mail.
19. Set your vacation reminder.
20. Shakedown hikes: test your gear + make needed returns and exchanges.
21. Gear TLC
22. Activate subscription for your GPS beacon + program the device and practice using it.
23. Download books, movies, music, apps, maps, etc. that you plan to use on the trail.
24. Get your blog/social media/etc. set up.
25. Familiarize yourself with the trail: outline a tentative itinerary + choose where you want to send boxes.
26. Arrange travel to the trailhead.
27. Personal grooming.
28. Try not to freak out.
29. Enjoy the comforts of home while you still can.

1. Get your permits in order.

pct thru-hike checklist permit

The PCT thru-hike prep checklist: Secure your permits!

Many stretches of the PCT require permits for hiking and camping, which you can obtain individually or substitute with the PCT Long-distance permit, a blanket authorization for thru-hikers and other long-distance trail users. PCT permits are fairly competitive. Thirty-five daily permits per trailhead are released in October or November each year and another 15 per trailhead per day are released in January.

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If you plan to use a camp stove anywhere in California, you’ll also need to get a California Campfire Permit. It’s easy and fast to obtain: you can do it online at any time.

Finally, if you plan to hike northbound into Canada on the PCT, you must have a valid passport and a Canada Entry Permit, which you should apply for several months ahead of time.

A Note About Start Dates

There’s no guarantee you’ll get your preferred start date, so you should have a range of acceptable dates in mind going into the application process. Starting early (March) likely means you’ll get cooler weather and more water in the desert but will have to contend with more snow, potentially as early as Mount San Jacinto within the first 200 miles.

Most hikers prefer to start in April or even May. At this time of year, you’ll probably be hot and dry in the desert but have safer, less-snowy hiking conditions in the Sierra. Starting later in the year makes you more likely to encounter wildfires in late summer, which can in turn lead to bad air quality and trail closures.

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2. Learn river fording and snow skills + practice with your ice axe (if you plan to bring one).

pct thru-hike checklist stream ford

The PCT thru-hike prep checklist: Study up on snow skills and safe stream fording. Photo via Zacc Larkin.

If you’re planning to bring an ice axe through the Sierra, you must think there’s a reasonable chance you’ll need to use it at some point. And if you need to use it, that might mean it’s the only thing keeping you from sliding off a slick mountain into a snowy abyss—not to be melodramatic—so you should probably make sure you’ve studied and actually practiced self-arresting ahead of time.

Try to get out to some snowy mountains over winter to practice hiking and camping in the snow. Take a class if you can afford the time and the price tag. In addition to self-arresting, you should practice basic snow skills like setting up your tent on snow and safely traversing steep, snowy slopes.

Try hiking snowy trails with crampons or microspikes so you can get a sense of how they affect your pace and gait, as well as how to take them off and put them on quickly as needed. I was surprised by how much of a monumental pain it is to walk in microspikes the first time I tried it—it’s not hard, exactly, but it is something you should try to get used to ahead of time.

I didn’t have much experience hiking in the snow before the PCT, so I made sure to take a trip up to Maine to hike and camp in four-foot-deep snow before starting the trail. It was a grueling weekend that involved me getting off-trail and circling back on my own snowy footprints after several hours, but in spite of or because of those difficulties, it was an incredible learning experience.

Stream Fording

In conditions where you’ll need traction and an ice axe through the Sierra, you’ll probably also end up fording swollen, fast-moving rivers. Make sure you know the basics of river fording safety:

  • Ford early in the morning when the snow is still frozen and there’s less meltwater swelling the stream.
  • Check for downstream hazards, like waterfalls or fallen trees over the river, before you start. Find a new place to ford if there are hazards just downstream.
  • Face upstream at all times as you edge across so your knees don’t get knocked out from under you by the current.
  • Unbuckle your pack so you can slip out of it easily if you fall and become entangled.
  • Use your trekking poles to probe the river bed and maintain at least three points of contact at all times.
  • Flip on your back and point your feet downstream if you fall and can’t get back up right away. Wait for an opportunity to stand or swim to shore.

When in doubt, look for a safer place to cross or wait for some other hikers to join you.

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3. Download the first water report.

The PCT thru-hike prep checklist: Download the PCT water report. Arm yourself with knowledge before heading out into the arid desert.

The PCT water report provides crowdsourced information about the status of known water sources in the SoCal desert. It’s very detailed and gets updated as new reports come in from trail users. While you can also get crowdsourced information on water sources from FarOut (formerly Guthook) comments, it’s important to know as much as possible about water availability in the arid desert.

The water report includes some water sources that FarOut doesn’t, and vice versa, and sometimes the water report has more recent updates (or the updates reflect different information and perspectives) than the FarOut comments. It’s free and digital, so it costs neither money nor weight to add this tool to your toolbox.

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4. Keep an eye on the snowpack.

The PCT thru-hike prep checklist: Monitor snowpack throughout the winter and spring before starting your hike. Photo via Samantha Olthof.

Whether the winter before your thru-hike brings a heavy or a light snowpack will hugely impact your thru-hike. It will determine whether and how much snow you’ll encounter in the high mountains, as well as how early. Higher winter snowpack also means more to melt and make stream crossings difficult.

If it was a snowy winter and/or Southern California has been pummeled by late-season snowstorms and/or you start the trail in March, you may need traction devices and an ice axe well before the Sierra. Pay attention so you know when and where to start carrying specialized gear. (The PCT Snow Report from Postholer.com is a great resource.)

Even if the snowpack is low in January and February, there could still be a “miracle March” of late-season snow that completely changes the landscape for PCT hikers.

Case in point: A thru-hiker slipped on steep ice and died near Mount San Jacinto in March 2020. He had planned to pick up microspikes and an ice axe in the next town (Idyllwild) but was surprised by snow and ice earlier than anticipated. Pay attention to the snowpack, and carry traction if there’s even a CHANCE you’ll need it. Those extra 12 ounces aren’t worth more than your life. Hikers starting in March should plan to pick up traction devices no later than Paradise Valley Cafe.

Also of note: even if you’re starting later in the year, last winter’s snowpack will affect your water availability in the desert. If it was a drought winter, it’s probably going to be a tough first 700 miles.

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5. Get in shape.

The PCT thru-hike prep checklist: Get in shape before you go. You may have to walk a long way between water stops early in your thru-hike.

Unlike on the perpetually moist Appalachian Trail, northbound PCT thru-hikers cut their teeth in a water-scarce desert. AT hikers have the luxury of starting out slow. Not so on the PCT, where you may need to walk dozens of miles between water sources in the earliest days of your thru-hike (schlepping liters of heavy drinking water the whole way).

Things will go a lot better for you if you’re fit enough to cover a 20-plus-mile water carry in one day, rather than two or three. If you can’t traverse the miles between sources reasonably quickly, you’ll never be able to carry enough drinking water to sustain you along the way.

PCT hikers also face more pressing time constraints than AT hikers. PCT hikers must generally start later in the spring and finish earlier in the fall due to weather constraints, and they have the wildcard factor of late summer forest fires to contend with as well. Add in the fact that the PCT is over 400 miles longer than the AT, and you can see why it’s important for thru-hikers to start out strong and maintain a consistent pace throughout.

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6. Learn to identify poodle-dog bush.

The PCT thru-hike prep checklist: Learn to recognize the characteristic hairy leaves and purple flowers of poodle-dog bush. Wikimedia Commons.

Poodle dog-bush is a native flowering plant of southern California that can give you long-lasting rashes, blisters, and respiratory distress if you touch it. It’s like poison ivy on steroids. That’s why it’s important to be able to recognize it and be on the lookout as you’re hiking. You may even want to save a few pictures of the plant to your phone for reference.

The pretty, purple-flowered plant is typically found in areas that have recently burned in wildfires—you’ll see it growing alongside the trail in the area burned by the Mountain Fire near San Jacinto, for instance. Poodle-dog bush has been especially rampant near mile 420 in the area burned by the Station Fire in 2009—though PCTA volunteers have done significant work in that region to make the trail safe for hikers.

You can identify the plant by its clusters of pale purple, bell-shaped flowers, pungent odor, and tall, hairy-looking stems.  Wear long sleeves and pants in areas with poodle-dog bush and use your trekking pole tip to carefully push it out of the way if necessary.

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7. Make a hitchhiking sign.

pct thru-hike checklist sign

The PCT thru-hike prep checklist: Tyvek is the ideal medium for a hitchhiking sign to get you between town and the trail. Photo via Jessie Metzger.

Unlike on the Appalachian Trail, where towns are typically a few miles (or less) from the trail, you may have to travel tens of miles to get to resupply from the PCT. Hitchhiking is therefore a little more complicated on this trail. You’ll improve your odds of getting picked up if you have a sign to attract drivers’ attention and let them know where you’re trying to go. A bit of white Tyvek HomeWrap with “PCT HIKER TO TOWN/TRAIL” written on it in large black letters will do the trick (keep it generic so you can use the same sign again and again).

READ NEXT – The Thru-Hiker’s Guide to Safe and Effective Hitchhiking.

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8. Figure out section-specific gear.

pct thru-hike checklist snow gear

The PCT thru-hike prep checklist: You’ll need specialized gear in the Sierra and potentially northern Washington. Photo via Jennifer Foster.

Your setup in the hot SoCal desert will be completely different than in the snowy Sierra or, later on, in brisk northern Washington. When you get to the high mountains, you’ll probably want a warmer sleeping bag, warmer clothing layers, a bear canister (required in the Sierra), microspikes or crampons, and an ice axe. You may even want a larger, more cushioned backpack to accommodate heavier and bulkier gear.

READ NEXT – PCT Clothing System

Make sure to account for cold-weather gear in your budget. Have this stuff set aside and ready to ship to you when you get to Kennedy Meadows South. You can also buy or rent specialized equipment from Yogi when you get to Triple Crown Outfitters, saving you the necessity of shipping heavy, bulky gear across the country. Either way, do your research ahead of time and familiarize yourself with all the gear you’ll need during your thru-hike, not just the kit you’ll be starting with.

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9. Get your bills on autopay.

The PCT thru-hike prep checklist: Get your bills on autopay. You won’t want the distraction once you’re out there.

Time means nothing when you’re out on the trail. Business hours? Bank holidays? Due dates? Grace periods? What even are these things? Will they mean anything to you when you’re a hungry, rain-sodden, free-spirited hiker trash? You’ll tell time by the distance to the next town and the weight of your food bag, not by days of the month.

If you don’t have your credit card, phone bill, insurance, etc. on autopay, you’re probably going to end up missing at least a few payments due to lack of cell service or just plain forgetting. Don’t burden yourself with bills while you’re out having the time of your life in the mountains. Just put it all on autopay and make sure you’ve factored recurring payments into your budget.

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10. Make arrangements for health insurance.

The PCT thru-hike prep checklist: Plenty of opportunities to get hurt on the trail, so make sure you figure out your health insurance.

Thru-hiking the PCT places you at risk of sprained ankles, broken bones, norovirus, dehydration, smoke inhalation, exposure, and more. I’m not saying thru-hiking is more dangerous than regular life (walking everywhere lowers your risk of getting into a car accident, for instance, and the exercise and fresh air will do wonders for your long-term health) but regardless, you should probably have health insurance while you’re out there.

Coverage isn’t a given since you’ll be out of work at least part of the year. You’ll have to put some work in to make sure you’re covered.

Basic Options:

  • Medicare (for retirees)
  • Medicaid
  • COBRA (so you can continue job-based coverage for 18 months after leaving the job, but it’s expensive y’all)
  • Affordable Care Act coverage
  • Travel insurance (World Nomads is the best travel insurance for thru-hikers)
  • Catastrophic or accident insurance, or short-term health insurance

Health insurance in the United States is pretty complex stuff. (Newsflash! Alert the press!) If you’re not sure which option is best for you, it might be spreadsheet time. Click here for an exhaustive (yet easily digestible) overview of thru-hiking health insurance options.

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11. Cancel your car insurance.

The PCT thru-hike prep checklist: You won’t need the added expense of insurance while your car’s sitting idle during your thru-hike.

You won’t need your car on the trail, so unless you’re letting someone else drive it while you’re gone, cancel your car insurance before you head out. The money you save by eliminating this bill can go into your pizza budget.

Important: in most states, you have to surrender your license plates and registration to the DMV before canceling your insurance. If you don’t, you may face hefty fines or suspensions for having an uninsured vehicle. No one can drive the car legally once you’ve done this (until you get back and go through the hassle of re-registering and insuring it).

Different states have different rules surrounding the whole insurance-registration-tags nightmare, so check your state’s laws. For instance, in Virginia and Connecticut, you can place your license plates on temporary hold if you don’t intend to drive or have insurance for a while without having to straight-up surrender the tags.

You’ll also need to find someplace to store your car. Ideally, someone you know will have enough space that you can park it on their property for a few months. If they really like you, they may even start up the engine once a week to make sure it doesn’t die while sitting idle for months on end.

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12. Cancel or pause unnecessary subscriptions.

The PCT thru-hike prep checklist: Cancel subscriptions. Just saying, you probably won’t be reading Better Homes & Gardens out there.

In addition to magazines and newspapers, many people subscribe to weekly or monthly deliveries of everything from CSA produce to makeup and dog food. Make sure you cancel or pause it all.

You won’t be able to use it on the trail, and you may not even have an address to receive it at anymore. Your friend who’s handling your mail for you while you’re gone probably doesn’t want your Fruit of the Month shipments piling up for the next months. Save yourself some money and hassle. You can always renew when you get back.

Note: You should also give serious consideration to any online subscriptions you hold (streaming services, Amazon Prime, etc.). Since they’re web-based, you might still get some use out of these things while hiking. If you’re a music-lover, you could still use a music streaming service, for instance.

I seriously debated keeping Amazon Prime when I thru-hiked the AT, figuring the two-day free shipping could come in handy. In the end, though, I decided I was unlikely to need it, as most of the stuff I’d need to buy on the trail would come from either REI or a local outfitter.

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13. Visit your doctor and renew prescriptions.

Get a once-over from your GP and make sure all systems are functional before you hit the trail. Let them know what you’ll be up to for the next few months and ask about any health concerns you may have. Before I hiked the AT, I told the doctor I was scared of getting Lyme disease on the trail. Once she understood the situation and my concerns, she wrote me a script that I could take with me in case I got bitten. (Fortunately, I never needed it.)

If you have any regular prescriptions, get them all renewed now so they won’t expire in the middle of your hike.

Now is the time to address outstanding health concerns. Visit the dentist (you should be doing this every six months anyway, and that’s about how long most thru-hikes take). Are you recovering from an injury? Get your butt to physical therapy and do your best to resolve this before you get going.

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14. Put your stuff in storage.

pct thru-hike checklist stuff

The PCT thru-hike prep checklist: You won’t take much with you on the trail. All the rest must be gotten rid of or stored. Photo via Jennifer Foster.

Assuming you’re moving out of your house/apartment before thru-hiking, you’ll need to pack up your stuff and find a place to store it for a few months while you’re gone. This could be your parent’s/good friend’s garage, or it could be a storage locker with a cheap monthly subscription fee.

Now is a good time to offload accumulated clutter. Many thru-hikers come back from the trail itching to downsize anyway—might as well save yourself (and your friends and family) the hassle of storing a bunch of crap you’re going to get rid of soon anyway. The less stuff you have, the less painful this process will be.

If you WON’T be moving out of your home while you’re gone, that’s another story. You might want to enlist a friend or family member to house-sit or at least look in on your place now and then.

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15. Give your employer and landlord notice (if applicable).

The PCT thru-hike prep checklist: Don’t burn bridges if you don’t have to. Give your boss and landlord plenty of notice before you hit the trail.

You typically have to give 30 days’ notice before terminating a lease, but check the terms of your lease to be sure. You might have to pay a fee or jump through some other hoops.

As you probably already know, the rule of thumb when leaving a job is to give two weeks’ notice, though this is a matter of courtesy rather than a legal obligation. Still, there’s no point in burning bridges if you don’t have to. If you already have a great relationship with your boss, they may even be able to work something out with you so you can return to your position after the hike. You never know unless you ask.

Even if that’s not the case, leaving your job on good terms can open doors for you later on. The etiquette for how much notice you should give an employer before leaving a job varies by industry. I know someone who gave their boss two months’ notice. He reached out again after finishing his thru-hike and ended up getting rehired by the same company (with better terms).

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16. Call your credit card company + make sure you know your debit card PIN.

You don’t want your bank or credit card company to freak out and freeze your card when you start using it in a bunch of random small-town gas stations hundreds or thousands of miles from home. Call ahead of time and tell them the approximate dates and areas you’ll be traveling.

Many shuttles, hiker hostels, and other trail town businesses are cash-only. You NEED a reasonable way to get cash on the trail without having to schlep hundreds of dollars around the forest all hike long. To that end, if you don’t know the PIN on your debit card, start the process of recovering or resetting it right away.

I recommend carrying a debit card, a credit card, and at least $20 cash at all times on the trail. Cash because, again, many shuttles and hostels don’t accept cards, a debit card so you can get more cash out as you spend it, and a credit card so that if you run out of cash and one of your cards is lost/stolen/frozen for any reason, you have a backup option. Check that the expiration dates on your cards don’t coincide with your hike. Also, consider downloading Venmo so you can pay fellow hikers back for shared expenses in town, etc.

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17. Entrust someone with your personal information.

The PCT thru-hike prep checklist: Make sure someone back home has access to your records and passwords.

Because sometimes, stuff goes wrong, and it’s really hard to deal with it from the trail. Make sure someone you trust has access to your important accounts. Ideally, add them to your bank account so they can call or go to banks in person to take care of business without having to impersonate you.

Otherwise, give them access to your login info. If you don’t already use a secure password service like LastPass, now would be a great time to start. That way, you can keep all your important passwords in one safe place and give the person your master password for LastPass. (Make sure you don’t forget this one! Take it from me. It is a full-scale pain in the ass if you do.)

Also, scan your driver’s license, health insurance card, and passport and give your trusted friend a copy. Keep another digital copy on your phone in case something happens to the originals. You’ll need your passport if you plan to hike into Canada on the PCT, so make sure your mail person has access to it and can send it to you when you get further north (Stehekin and Mazama are the last post offices you’ll pass before the border).

PCT hikers should make sure they have a digital copy of all their permits on their phones. You’re supposed to have an unlaminated paper copy on you, but if something should happen to it, an image on your phone is better than nothing (and you can use it to print a new copy in town).

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18. Designate someone to handle your mail.

pct thru-hike checklist mail

The PCT thru-hike prep checklist: Designate someone to handle your mail.

If you’re moving out of your home/apartment, go to USPS.com and forward your mail to another address. Consider asking the person who’s handling your regular mail to also manage your trail mail: sending you replacement gear/resupplies and receiving gear you mail back as you lighten your pack.

Depending on how much mail you plan to send and receive, this could potentially be a big job. Be organized and make it as easy as possible for your designated mail helper.

Whenever possible, put the boxes together and label the shipping address yourself so all they have to do is tape them up and drop them at the post office.

Sometimes you don’t know where you’ll want an item shipped. I labeled every piece of gear I planned to mail myself with a description and a number, then entered all the info into a spreadsheet that I and my friend both had access to. Whenever I wanted something, I could text her “send the black microspikes (#4) to the following address,” eliminating any confusion for a non-hiker over what exactly microspikes are.

Pro tips:

  • Send packages to hostels and other businesses that accept hiker mail, as they will probably have more flexible hours than the post office.
  • Venmo is your friend for reimbursing shipping expenses, etc. Alternatively, give them cash before you leave.
  • Encourage them to use USPS as often as possible and to opt for flat rate boxes to save money.
  • Show them how to label hiker boxes: how to label something for general delivery, writing “please hold for PCT hiker” and your ETA on the box, etc.
  • Leave boxes unsealed until it’s time to ship, so they can add/remove items at your request.

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19. Set your vacation reminder.

The PCT thru-hike prep checklist: If you rely heavily on email, set a vacation reminder so your contacts know you’ll be slow getting back to them.

If anyone contacts you via email (other than political campaigners and Best Buy), you should set a vacation reminder on your email account. That way, you can easily let people know what you’re up to, the approximate timeframe of your hike, and that you’ll be slow to respond to email for the duration of the trek. This is a minor detail compared to most of the stuff on this list, but it will help keep your inbox under control. Particularly important if you conduct business via email, so people don’t think you’re giving them the cold shoulder.

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20. Go on shakedown hikes!

The PCT thru-hike prep checklist: Go on shakedown hikes.

Shakedowns are SO important. The only way to develop the skills you’ll need for thru-hiking is by practicing.

Beyond getting in peak hiking shape, you need to test any new gear you’ve bought for the hike and make sure you know how to use it. If anything isn’t working for you, take care of returns and exchanges now. It’s equally important to use shakedown hikes to test old gear that you’ve had for ages. Make sure it’s still functional and that nothing’s wrong with it.

Test gear in the backyard or the public park if you can’t get to the trail for a proper shakedown. Just make sure Day One of your thru-hike isn’t the first time you’re setting up your tent or trying on your new trail runners.

Even if you’re an experienced thru-hiker, you should still do at least one trial run before hitting the trail. Even old hands can still learn something, and (I’ll say it again) you can use the opportunity to test new and old gear, get back in shape, brush up on rusty thru-hiking skills, and hopefully familiarize yourself with the terrain and conditions you’ll face on the PCT.

Related: don’t rely on sales associates to tell you what to pack. Practicing with your gear will help you learn firsthand what YOU want and need on the trail, rather than relying on the advice of sales associates at your local outfitter. Unless they have definitive long-distance backpacking experience (and sometimes even then), they’re likely to sell you gear that’s overkill for thru-hiking. What constitutes overkill? You’ll find the answer for yourself, and quickly, once you’ve carried it on your back through the mountains for a few days.

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21. Gear TLC: Permethrin, seam sealing, washing, etc.

The PCT thru-hike prep checklist: You’ll be asking a lot of your gear. Give it some love before you go.

A little maintenance goes a long way:

Permethrin on everything. Permethrin is a long-lasting insect repellant that you can spray on your clothing, shoes, backpack, tent, etc. It lasts six weeks or six washes (whichever comes first) and is among the best ways to protect yourself from ticks and mosquitoes. I always treat my gear just before starting the hike.

Seam seal tent. It’s my unique pathology, but I like to reapply seam sealer before starting a long hike to ensure I don’t have leaks. Even brand-new tents don’t always come seam-sealed from the factory.

Check waterproof bags for holes. I have tons of waterproof bags, and they’re always getting holes. Best figure this out before you go. Fill the bag with air, roll it up, and press gently. If it holds the air, there’s no leak. If it deflates, well. Yeah.

Wash down sleeping bag and jacket. You should wash your down stuff once per hiking season. Over time, your body oils coat the fluff and weigh it down, impairing loft and warmth. Wash it gently in a machine without an agitator using down-friendly soap (regular detergent ruins down), then tumble dry on low with tennis balls to work out any clumps.

Test water filters and backflush. Sawyer filters can seize up if they sit for a long time. If yours has been in storage awhile, test it before you go. (You should test ALL your gear before you go (see above), but this is something I specifically check, having once accidentally started a hike with a bad filter.

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22. Activate your GPS subscription and send a few test messages.

The PCT thru-hike prep checklist: Carrying a GPS beacon will give your loved ones peace of mind.

If you’re carrying a GPS device such as a Garmin inReach or a SPOT Gen 4, activate the subscription ahead of time. Load contact info into the device for anyone you want to keep in touch with along the way. GPS beacons aren’t the most intuitive things to program and use. Give yourself time to learn how to operate yours. If you’re planning to send check-in messages from the trail, send a few test check-ins from home to ensure everyone’s receiving them.

The Garmin inReach and SPOT both allow you to pre-program messages that you can send with the touch of a button. (The Garmin, unlike the SPOT, also supports two-way text conversations).

Many hikers program a standard “I’m OK, another great day on the trail” check-in message that goes to their whole contact list, as well as an “I’m alright but need some non-emergency help, please give my location to local law enforcement” message that only goes to a few trusted individuals (whom they’ve briefed ahead of time on how to respond to such a message). The second message is useful if you, say, break an ankle and need help but not as much help as 15 search and rescue personnel and a helicopter.

Remind your contacts that they shouldn’t immediately start panicking if you sometimes miss a nightly check-in. Explain that cloud and tree cover can block reception so that messages occasionally aren’t delivered, and that sometimes you might just plain forget to press the button.

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23. Download books/movies/apps/maps.

pct thru-hike checklist phone

The PCT thru-hike prep checklist: Make sure your phone has enough storage space for tons of photos.

Take advantage of having a solid internet connection to download books, music, etc. on your phone. It’s a long trail. You might want some entertainment for lonely zero days, evenings in the tent, or long days of hiking.

You can download music and podcasts to listen offline if you have Spotify Premium, for instance. Most video streaming apps, including Netflix, also allow you to download shows and movies (though they usually go away after 30 days).

Just remember that these things will all drain your cell phone battery (especially video). If you plan to consume a bunch of digital media out there, bring a battery bank like the Anker so you can recharge on the go.

Make sure you also have any apps you’ll need. Download Guthook (now FarOut) and make sure you have relevant maps and features (the topo map layer and waypoint photos are both very useful) downloaded for offline use. Other handy apps include Venmo, Audible, Spotify, Google Maps, PeakFinder, and iNaturalist.

At the same time, delete any unnecessary apps and photos to free up storage space for the bazillion pictures you’re going to take over the next 3-6 months.

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24. Get your blog/social media, etc. set up.

Your friends and family back home will want to know where you are and what you’re up to out there. Keeping a blog, vlog, photo album, or social media page is a convenient way to share pictures and updates with everyone in your world. Bonus: you can look back on it years later and reminisce about your adventure.

If you’ll be blogging, get it set up early and do a few posts before you go. Doing so will get you in the habit of writing and your loved ones in the habit of checking the site for updates. Plus, it’s an excellent way to familiarize yourself with the blog platform. Make sure you download the app and practice blogging from your phone (if applicable).

If you plan to use social media to share your hike with the world, make sure your account is up and running. Some people do private Facebook pages to share pictures and updates—if you’re doing this, get the page set up early and start inviting people to join. Same if you’ll be uploading your pictures to a shared Google drive! (Google Photos is a great way to share photos with your network. It also ensures that your pictures are backed up to the cloud whenever you have cell signal and frees up storage space on your phone).

Apply to be a Blogger or Vlogger for The Trek

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25. Make a tentative itinerary.

The PCT thru-hike prep checklist: Plan your first few days on the trail and identify spots where you want to send mail drops.

There’s no point in trying to map out every day of a multi-month hike in advance—too many variables. Instead, I plan my hikes from one resupply to the next. Before starting the trail, I make a tentative daily plan for the first few days, noting potential campsites, water sources, viewpoints, etc. That way I’ll know what to expect and how much food to start with.

While I’m at it, I check the weather. In addition to standard weather apps, ATWeather.org is a helfpul resource for highly localized, elevation-specific forecasts along the PCT.

Beyond that, I’ll glance ahead in my guidebook before starting the trail so that I’m at least generally familiar with what’s coming. I find it motivational to identify highlights of the hike ahead of time. Knowing a bit about the trail ahead also helps me hone my packing list, resupply strategy, and rough—rough!—timeline.

Most hikers prefer resupplying in town and don’t do many mail drops. However, the PCT has a few “dry stretches” where there aren’t many grocery stores and/or food is expensive.

You can send yourself packages in those areas to save money, break up long stretches of trail between grocery stores, and ensure you have good food to eat throughout the hike. Put these boxes together in advance, label them, but don’t seal them yet. That way your mail support person can add things to the box until the last minute.

Check out our Pacific Crest Trail Resupply Guide for a comprehensive breakdown of resupply options everywhere on the trail, including where to send boxes.

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26. Arrange travel to the trailhead.

pct thru-hike checklist campo

The PCT thru-hike prep checklist: Figure out how you’re getting to Campo.

Trail angels Scout and Frodo aren’t hosting hikers and driving them to Campo anymore. You’ll need to make your own arrangements.

Is a friend going to drive you directly to the trailhead? Will you fly, take a bus, hitchhike, or rent a car? How will you get from the airport/station/rental agency to the trailhead, which for northbounders is miles down a remote dirt road?

If someone can’t give you a ride, catch a bus/train/plane/rental to San Diego. Price out different options and see what fits your budget. You’ll need to rely on hitchhiking, rides with trail angels, a paid shuttle, or a bus to get the rest of the way to Campo. Look for rides on PCT Reddit and Facebook groups.

READ NEXT – How to Get to the PCT Southern Terminus

Bear in mind that you can’t bring certain items, like stove fuel, on a plane. You’ll have to get them when you land. Even if you’re not flying, it’s a good idea to check on the location of the nearest grocery store and outfitter—never know when you might need to make a last-minute supply run.

Once you get to Campo, then what? Will you camp right there (there is a campground near the Southern Terminus) or hike in a few miles? Do you know where the first few water sources are? Based on your schedule, will you be arriving early in the morning or late in the day? If the latter, is it better to rent a room in San Diego for the night and start fresh the following morning? All personal questions, all things you need to consider when laying your plans.

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27. Personal grooming. Do it.

pct thru-hike checklist grooming

The PCT thru-hike prep checklist: #beardgoals, but also, enjoy the luxuries of personal grooming while you still can.

I like to get my hair trimmed before leaving for a long hike, knowing I probably won’t touch it while I’m out there.

Some people shave their heads before hiking. Short hair keeps things cooler, more manageable, cleaner, and it’s easier to spot ticks. Others grow out their hair (and beard, where applicable) for a little extra insulation if they’re starting in cold weather.

Also, nails. Some people like to paint them so they don’t have to see a thru-hike’s worth of accumulated dirt and grime build up underneath them. At the very least, cut them short right before you go.

As in any other life situation, how you groom yourself is a personal decision, and there’s no right or wrong answer. However, if it’s important to you, this is something to at least consider while you’re still in town.

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28. Try not to freak out.

The PCT thru-hike prep checklist: Don’t let pre-hike jitters get the best of you. You’re going to be fine.

Easier said than done, I know. I was incredibly nervous in the final days leading up to my thru-hike. As I left home for the trailhead, I felt as though I were being led to my execution rather than finally making good on the dream of a lifetime. Once I actually set foot on the trail, though, my nerves calmed down right away. It was like sinking into a warm bath.

Try not to worry too much: just focus on getting to the startline and trust that you’re prepared enough to handle whatever happens once you’re there. You’ll make your packing list and check it twice. You’ll make miles and friends and remember how to set up your tent at the end of that first long day. It will be fine.

Besides, you shouldn’t squander your last few days at home with worry and stress. Which brings us to our last point…

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29. Enjoy the comforts of civilization while they last.

My partner slept outside in his tent the entire month of January leading up to his thru-hike for practice. Not me, though (we hadn’t met yet at the time.) I was keen to luxuriate in soft, clean sheets, indoor plumbing, and fresh produce while I had the chance. Not that I never got to experience those things during my thru-hike, but they were few and far between.

Be sure to schedule plenty of face time with close friends and family before you go. You may not see them for several months, after all.

The lead-up to your thru-hike is undoubtedly a time to rigorously prepare for the journey, but it’s also a time to reflect and enjoy the life you’re about to (at least temporarily) leave behind. So eat your favorite foods. Spend time with the people you love. Take a long, hot shower. It could be a while.

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What’s on your PCT thru-hike planning checklist? Let us know in the comments below.

Featured image: Graphic design by Chris Helm (@chris.helm).

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Comments 2

  • Morgan Leppke : Nov 21st

    This was an amazing article. Thank you!

    Reply

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