PCTA Releases Updated Permit Regulations, Including Continuous Travel Through the Sierra

An October 1 update from the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) has made public several changes for 2020 PCT thru-hiker permits.

There is now a limit on southbound permits. Permits for the number of SOBO thru-hikers—those who intend to start at or near the Canadian border—are limited to 15 per day between June 15 and July 31. 15 permits per day will then become available for hikers aiming to start their hike between August 1 and September 15.

The other notable update requires thru-hikers to continue in a continuous line—no skips or directional changes—through the Sierra Nevada. Hikers who flip past the Sierra, even with regards to snow or water crossing conditions, will be required to get a local land- management-use permit when they return to finish the section, as their PCT thru-hiker permit will no longer be valid. Exiting for resupply is still allowed and will not impact the validity of the interagency permit.

These changes have come, at least in part, from a yearly increase in foot traffic along the Pacific Crest Trail from thru-hikers, section hikers, local usage, and John Muir Trail hikers.

A concern that the “continuous path” requirement raises is that it will pressure hikers to continue through the Sierra in conditions they might otherwise be inclined to flip past. Flipping past the Sierra in high-snow years has been a proven strategy for hikers uncomfortable with the conditions, allowing them to return later in the season with lower water crossings and reduced snowpack.

PCTA Trail Information Manager Jack Haskel maintains that the PCTA is not encouraging hikers to go outside their comfort zones when it comes to continuous travel.

“We’re not discouraging people from flipping past the Sierra Nevada,” says Haskel. “The long-distance permit is an interagency permit with the intent to limit travel and impact through wilderness areas that require certain management.”

Haskell cites crowding and increased usage pressure from a variety of user groups, and that the Sierra Nevada is “an area of high demand.” The idea of the interagency permit has historically been to follow a specific itinerary, and increased instances of hikers flipping past this section to return later have disrupted the moderated traffic flow from PCT thru-hiker permit allocations.

“The Sierra Nevada can be impacted with snow like any other mountain range,” says Haskel. “Just because snow covers the trail, it doesn’t mean the trail closes. It’s important that people are safe, but they are still expected to pass through with their permit. They can still skip it and be responsible for their own safety, but if you want to come back to the Southern Sierra, you need to make sure there is space in the quota.”

Hikers planning a 2020 PCT thru-hike starting at the Mexico border can apply for their permit on Oct. 29, 2019, at 10:30 a.m. PT. Southbound (and other itinerary) permits will be available on Jan. 14, 2020, at 10:30 a.m. PT. These permits are for anyone who is planning to hike 500 miles or more in one continuous trip. This is an interagency permit, and hikers who are planning shorter section hikes, or those who skip the Sierra, will need to apply for permits from the individual land management associations under the jurisdiction of the agencies they will be passing through.

“You’re welcome to skip the Sierra,” says Haskel, “but you’ll need to get a local permit to come back and finish the section.”

Feature image via Elise Ott

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Comments 6

  • Roy Burton : Oct 8th

    This extra permit will push some hiker into a life threatening situation that they would have avoided before. When someone dies there will be a lawsuit.

    • Rob : Oct 8th

      The whole ‘it’ll push some to some people to hike in unsafe conditions’ theory takes all personal responsibility and accountability out of doing the PCT…a bogus and flimsy argument in any court of law, even for an ambulance chaser lawyer.

      I for one say it’s about time for this rule change!! It’s about 5 years over due! Why should the rest of the backpacking world be held to different standards than the yearly PCT hordes going through, normally earlier in the season.

      I’m thankful for the changes, and look forward to, ( hopefully ), seeing less crowded conditions in the very short hiking season in big snow years in the Sierras. Thanks!

  • Zack Kelley : Oct 9th

    I’m happy to see stringent standards applied to protect wilderness values any time, any where. If someone considers themselves ‘outdoorsy’ in any sense or fashion, it would seem axiomatic that the need to protect wilderness values in designated wilderness is an imperative of the utmost importance. I for one fancy the solitude that any visitor to a wilderness should reasonably expect – when an action unnecessary to wilderness and its values impairs such a value, a solution is necessary. This is our birthright as American’s thanks to the 1964 Wilderness Act and should not be frowned upon. Such an act on behalf of the agencies involved and the PCTA is a huge accomplishment and win for the venerable effort that is conservation.

  • Christopher Zaleski : Oct 16th

    Seems like over regulation to me. It’s a shame how inflexible government agencies can be. We just want to hike and be left alone… the freedom to do the trail “your way” is blunted and it makes me sad.

  • Z : Nov 4th

    I’m wondering if anyone has clarification on this. Does this mean that if you skip/flip the sierras that means your pct permit is null and void for the rest of the trail? Or is your permit still valid but not for the section you skip and want to return to later on?


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