What 2020 PCT Hikers Need to Know I: Gear, Permits, and Getting to the Terminus
Being a 2020 PCT hiker means you’re going to have to do some research. There are plenty of questions you’ll spend hours thinking about before you ever take your first step on the Pacific Crest Trail. You can dream about hiking from Mexico to Canada for years, and then when you commit it, not know where to start planning.
But worry not, because whether you’re a planner or a total procrastinator, we’ve got the breakdown for you here.
Before I get started on the basic gear that you should have in your pack, check out the gear list created by Trek experts on what you should bring on the PCT.
The Big Three
Pack – Make sure you’re picking a pack that suits your base weight. If you pick an ultralight pack but your gear isn’t ultralight, your pack won’t function well and you will be performing repairs and experiencing discomfort. That said, there are many packs that offer features some will find unnecessary. Many hikers won’t need a plethora of pockets, the brain, and UL hikers can often do without a hefty internal frame.
Sleeping Bag – You’re going to want something lightweight, but that will keep you warm on chilly desert nights, through the Sierra Nevada, and in rainy Washington. A sleeping bag liner is a great thing to consider. Silk liners offer the most heat at the lowest weight, but are also the most expensive.
Sleeping Pad – This is a big-ticket item, and will depend on your budget and what level of comfort you’re trying to achieve. There are inflatable sleeping pads, and foam sleeping pads. An inflatable one is usually more comfortable, and expensive. They also make a lot of noise when you’re moving around at night. Foam ones are usually cheaper, and don’t make noise, but don’t provide the same level of comfort as inflatables.
Shelter – This is going to be your home for the next five months. I hated my tent on my first trek of the PCT, but bought it because it was recommended and lightweight. I cannot stress enough testing your tent out before you go. Make sure you’re happy with the space, setup, weight, vestibules, and internal storage. Being happy with these things will make you excited to turn in every night after a long day of hiking.
These three items are arguably the most vital items you’ll carry with you on your trek. In addition, they’re also probably the items that’ll carry the most weight in your pack. Choose wisely.
Puffy Jacket – You’ll likely wear your puffy every night, when you’re gathered around eating dinner with your trail family. It’ll also keep you warm during lunch at alpine levels, or in the bitterly cold mornings when you’re packing up camp. Our Pick: Patagonia Down Sweater
Raincoat – An essential. Do not hike any section without a rainproof gear. Our Pick: Arc’teryx Zeta SL Rain Jacket
Thermal Layers – Great for sleeping in and will keep you warm. Wool is a good way to go. Our Pick: Smartwool Merino 250 Base Layer Bottoms
Hiking Clothes – These will likely be the clothes you wear. A lot of people start out with standard hiking pants and a button-down shirt. Your outfit will likely change a couple times on the trail; wear what you’re comfortable with.
Shoes – See the section below on popular hiking shoes. Most hikers go with trail runners, and specifically Altras. Keep in mind that your feet will likely swell and grow in size while you’re on the trail. Our Pick: Altra Timp 1.5
Socks – Three pairs is pretty standard. Two pairs for hiking, one pair for sleeping. Darn Tough and Injini are probably the most popular brands on the trail. Our Pick: Darn Tough Socks
Beanie – Great for chilly mornings in the Sierra and for basically every night before bed/or while you’re sleeping. Our Pick: Carhartt Beanie
Town Clothes (optional) – Town clothes are nice because then you’ll have something to wear other than your rain gear when doing laundry. A lot of girls bring a dress. But a light pair of shorts and a tank will also work. If you’re really trying to cut weight out of your pack, these aren’t unnecessary.
Hat – A desert hat with a long round brim is great to keep the sun off your face and neck in the desert. Most people usually switch to a baseball cap somewhere along the trail. Our Pick: OR Sombriolet
Camp Shoes – These are also optional, but you can also find super lightweight camp shoes like Xero sandals or off-brand Crocs. Our Pick: Crocs Swiftwater Sandals
Rain Pants – Many consider these to be an essential for the Sierra and Washington. Our Pick: Outdoor Research Helium Rain Pants
Gloves – Gloves are a great addition for the Sierra or for Washington, especially if your hands get bitterly cold. Our Pick: REI Liner Gloves
Underwear – A lot of female hikers opt to go without. ExOfficio is a great brand for women and men, and will keep you from chafing and offer ventilation. Our Pick: ExOfficio
Trail Runners – Trail runners are the most common type of shoe you’ll see on trail. Hikers wear trail runners because they’re comfortable, convenient, and easy to find along in towns the trail when need replacing. Chances are you’ll replace your shoes 3-5 times on the trail. Altras are an especially popular shoe among thru-hikers. Some of their features include a wide toe box, built-in gaiter trap, and great traction. See our reviews on the Lone Peak, Timp, and Superior
Boots – Some hikers hike in boots, most commonly through the Sierra Nevada. Boots may offer a more secure hold than a trail runner, and better traction. The life of a boot may last you longer than a trail runner, but many hikers find them unnecessary. Our Picks: Merrell Moab 2 | Salomon X Ultra 3
Bedrocks/Chacos – In recent years more thru-hikers are making the switch to sandals. There are undeniable benefits, such as hiking through water crossings in sandals and no need for camp shoes if you’re already hiking in sandals. Be aware that you’re trading some element of protection when you ditch the fully enclosed shoe, and you should have experience hiking in sandals before attempting your full thru-hike in them. Bedrock | Chaco
Darn Tough – Darn Tough socks are undeniably the most common brand of socks worn among through hikers. This could be due to the durable and comfortable wool they’re made of, or their lifetime warranty. That’s right. If you get a hole in your Darn Toughs, they will replace them for FREE. Shop here
Injinji – These socks are also quite common on trail. A great option for anyone who likes toe socks, or tends to get blisters in between their toes, these socks are commonly made in the toe sock form. Also made of majority merino wool; these socks are durable and comfortable. Shop here
First Aid Kit – You’ll likely want Band-Aids, Leuko tape or duct tape, ibuprofen, Neosporin, safety pins, gauze, a lighter, and any other supplies you deem necessary. The ultralight first aid kit from REI worked great for me. Find it here.
Sewing Kit – Having a sewing kit on trail has saved me many times, and taught me how to sew! I’ve sewn fellow hikers’ shirts that had holes in them, and my spandex I hiked in countless times.
Headlamp – A vital piece of gear. A rechargeable headlamp is great, but anything will do as long as it’s over 220 lumens. Our Pick: Petzl Actik Core Headlamp
External Battery – Anker is a great brand for external batteries, and Goal Zero is a great brand for solar power. Keep in mind an external battery can take 8/9 hours to charge, so you may be stuck in town for a while. Our Pick: Anker PowerCore 21,000 MaH
Charging Cords – iPhone/USB micro cords are the most common. But whatever you need to charge your phone/ battery/camera gear/etc.
GPS – I have a Garmin inReach GPS and it makes me feel at peace being on the trail with something that has an SOS button. That said, these are expensive and the plan to keep them working is expensive. It’s up to you.
Stove – This is also an optional item, but many hikers enjoy a nice warm meal after a day of hiking. If you bring a stove, you also need to have fuel and a lighter to ignite the flame. Our Pick: JetBoil Zip Cooking System
Talenti Jar – A lot of people, going stoveless or not, have found that the Talenti ice cream pints (that you can find at any grocery store) make for a great reusable Tupperware for cold soaking.
Food Bag – Get one big enough for 5-10 day stretches of hiking. But this is also up to you! Our Pick: Hyperlight Mountain Gear Roll Top Stuff Sack
Spoon/Fork – Titanium is your lightest option. You’ll thank yourself later if you buy one with a long handle. Our Pick: Sea to Summit Alpha Light Spork Long
Snow Gear (Sierra Nevada)
Ice Axe – An ice axe is a great item to have while you’re trekking through the Sierra Nevada, and is necessary on a high snow year. In addition, it’s important to know how to use your ice axe. Practice with friends, or take a snow safety class through REI before you head out. Our Pick: Black Diamond Raven Ice Axe
Crampons/Microspikes – Both are great options that will help you with traction while you’re treading through miles of snow in the Sierra section. If you go with crampons, again make sure you know how to use them, for your safety and for the safety of other hikers. Our Pick: Kahtoola MICROspikes Traction System
Bear Canister – This is necessary through much of the Sierra Nevada and through Lassen National Park. They are big and bulky, but you’ve gotta have it. If you get caught without one, a hefty fine will ensue. Our Pick: BearVault 500
Water Filter – The most popular filter on trail is the Sawyer Squeeze because of its ease of use and ability to filter out bacteria that can make you sick. There are other methods, such as the Katadyn BeFree filter, Aquamira tablets, a Lifestraw, etc., but having a water filter is vital. Our Pick: Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter System
Water Bottles/Bladder – Most hikers use Smartwater bottles because they’re durable and lightweight. You can also use a water bladder for water storage. In the desert you’ll likely need 4-6 liter capacity. Divvy that up between bottles and a bladder to make sure you’ll have enough water in the driest section of the trail. Our Pick: A Smartwater bottle found at convenience stores.
The Rest of the Goods
Stuff Sacks – I have one dry sack, which is a stuff sack that is waterproof, that I put my electronics, and other stuff safe for my clothes. Our Pick: Hyperlight Mountain Gear Drawstring Stuff Sack
Trekking Poles – A solid pair of poles will help you through almost any terrain on the PCT. Our Pick: Leki Makalu Lite Cor-Tec Trekking Poles
Toothbrush/Toothpaste – Dental health.
Toilet Paper – Plus a plastic bag to yes, pack out your toilet paper. Everyone does this and it’s a part of Leave No Trace ethics.
Hand Sanitizer – For after you finish your business.
Permits – Keep these in a waterproof, safe, accessible spot in your pack.
Ultralight vs. Not
Being ultralight is a blessing for hiking because that means the load you’re carrying on your back won’t be so heavy, and will likely help you make more miles daily.
But if this is your first thru-hike, it’s likely you’ll be carrying more than you need in your pack and that is OK. The more you hike on the trail, the more you’ll refine what you do and don’t need, and you’ll drop unnecessary gear along the way.
Finding what luxury items are important to you, such as a pillow, journal, town clothes, camp shoes, etc., and what items aren’t so important to you, is a good place to start.
Keep in mind when purchasing ultralight items that you’re often sacrificing something. With a UL pack, if you overload it, it will be uncomfortable. Switching from a sleeping bag to a quilt can often let more of a draft in at night and you can be a bit colder. You just can’t have your cake and eat it too.
On the other hand, carrying a pack that is unnecessarily heavy can result in body deterioration sooner than you’d expect. It can also mean that your pack will fall apart, and that could be terrible in the middle of a 100-mile section.
On your first thru-hike it’s likely you’ll carry unnecessary items, and you’ll learn what method works for you. Before you head out, don’t obsess too much about your base weight before you hit the trail. After your first section, do a shakedown. Once you’re about a third of the way through, do another. This will help you pare down after you know what you’ll use and what you won’t.
PCT Long Distance Permit – The first PCT Long Distance Permits have been issued, but don’t worry, because another round is coming on January 14 beginning at 10:30 a.m. PST.
Note that you ONLY have to apply for a PCT Long Distance permit if you plan on hiking more than a 500-consecutive mile section. Note the 2020 updates to SOBO permits, and that hikers must take a continuous path through the Sierra or the permit will no longer be valid.
In order to get a PCT Long Distance Permit you need to pick your start date. It’s a bit difficult to decide what day you want to begin living out of a tent, but late April to early May are definitely the most popular times.
I always recommend starting early, because that means more time on the trail, and you’ll be able to take your time more, spend more zeros in cool towns, take more on-trail zeros at interesting spots. Starting in late May is a good option for those who are attempting to hike the trail in a certain timeframe, to test their physical fitness or those who can only get so much time off work.
On January 14, at 10:30 a.m., the PCTA will have a waiting room on their website.
When you log into the site, you’ll be automatically placed in line to fill out a permit. There is a benefit to logging in a bit earlier than 10:30 if you so choose. Note that only 15 permits are available for every start date, so if your start date isn’t available, make sure you have another one in mind. It’s likely you’re going to have to compromise.
When it’s your turn in line, the first thing that you’ll do is pick your start date. That date is then locked for 20 minutes while you fill out the rest of the form and submit your application.
Once you’ve filled out the application, you’ll receive an email 15 minutes later from the PCTA with a permit application number. You can use this number to log on to the Permit Management Portal to check the status of your application while you await a approval/denial response.
The PCTA will begin to approve applications 1-3 weeks after your application has been submitted, and if it’s approved, they’ll email you. If there are errors, it can be canceled or delayed.
If you haven’t already, read through all the info on this page. It has killer details on all your permit-related questions.
California Fire Permit – This doesn’t guarantee that you can have a fire wherever you want, but it’s required to have a fire anywhere in California.
These permits are free and require you to take a quick online quiz and print out your permit. These permits can also be obtained at California ranger stations, California Forest Service, BLM, California Division of Forestry Office, or California visitor centers.
There are two areas in Central Oregon that require additional permits for camping: the Obsidian Limited Entry Area and Pamelia Limited Entry Area. You don’t have to camp in these areas, as it’s easy to hike through them in a day and camp outside of them.
Permit to Enter Canada – If you plan on hiking into Manning Park and the great country of Canada.
You need to apply for this permit 8-10 weeks before you plan on being in Canada, but I highly recommend applying for it before you leave for your trip. It’s preferred you fill out this application online using all CAPITAL LETTERS.
Regardless whether you fill out the form online, you’ll have to print it (fill it out by hand if you don’t type it), scan it, save it as a PDF, and attach the document into an email with the corresponding email address noted on the application ([email protected]).
You’ll also have to include copies of the necessary identification required in the same email as your application. It’s been asked that hikers do not call about the status of their application because it’s slowing down the process. Make sure you apply for this one with plenty of time to spare.
Your approved permit will be sent to you by email. If there are errors, you will be notified by email what they are, and how to fix the issue.
Make sure while you’re on trail that you’re always carrying these documents with you, in a safe, secure, and waterproof spot. I saw one hiker one year laminate his forms, and downsize them. I thought this was such a smart and easy idea. It’s also smart to always carry your ID card and passport with you.
How to Get to the Southern and Northern Terminus
Getting to the Southern Terminus for NOBO Hikers
Google Maps will take you to the Southern Terminus by plugging Pacific Crest Trail Southern Terminus into the search bar.
The terminus is just outside of Campo, California, along the Mexico/US border. The terminus is accessible via a dirt road, which is not too turbulent and easy to follow.
Here are driving directions via the PCTA website:
From Highway 94, drive south on Forest Gate Road, which is paved where it meets Highway 94. After about half a mile, the road is no longer paved but you should continue south on the unpaved road. After the road curves left around Castle Rock Ranch, turn right at the fork of unpaved roads to follow the fence line uphill. As you continue south, you will pass under a high voltage line and the US border wall and PCT monument will be visible in the distance.
You can also take public transportation to the terminus.
Here are directions on how to get from the San Diego International Airport to the terminus via the PCTA website:
The San Diego Metropolitan Transit System bus #894 runs from the El Cajon Transit Center in San Diego to Campo four times every weekday. To get to the El Cajon Transit Center from the San Diego International Airport, hire a taxi or take a bus downtown and then take the orange or green trolley.
The schedule for the #894 bus to Campo can be found here–note that it does not run on weekends or holidays. The trip to Campo takes about two hours, costs $10, and the bus stops less than two miles from the Southern Terminus. Once in Campo, you can walk to the Southern Terminus by either following the driving directions above or following the driving directions until you can turn onto the PCT about a mile from the terminus, then hike south on the PCT rather than the dirt road. By the way, have you seen our extensive PCT public transit page?
Another option to get to the PCT Southern Terminus is trail angels. Scout and Frodo are noteworthy trail angels who have yet to decide if they will continue their services this coming year. The couple host hikers before their start date, feeds them, and drives hikers to the Southern Terminus on the morning of their start date.
Here is the info about trail angels via the PCTA website:
Long-distance hikers are invited to request rides from the San Diego network of volunteer trail angels. These incredibly generous volunteers may be available to pick you up at the airport, bus or train station, host you in their home, and drive you to the Southern Terminus. They generally operate during the spring thru-hiker season. You are their guests. This is not a project of the PCTA volunteer program.
These devoted volunteers coordinate among themselves and other trail angels to best meet the large need. Email them well in advance. Follow whatever rules and requests they have. Space may fill up. Contact Barney “Scout” Mann and Sandy “Frodo” Mann via their website sandiegopct.com.
Getting to the Northern Terminus for SOBO Hikers
The PCT Northern Terminus is a recently remodeled and consists of wooden planks. It’s located on the Canada/US border, and is in Pasayten Wilderness.
It’s currently illegal to pass into the United States from Canada via the PCT. Meaning you’ll likely enter the PCT via Hart’s Pass, 30 miles south of the border. Many SOBOs hike north from Hart’s Pass to the terminus, and then turn around and hike south, rehiking those same 30 miles, to officially start the trail at the Northern Terminus.
The best way to get to Hart’s Pass is to have a friend or family member take you. It’s a windy and turbulent road, and is suitable for vehicles but not trailers.
Public transit is also available but will require time. It’s common for hikers to fly into the Sea-Tac airport in Seattle, and take public transit to Wenatchee, then to Winthrop, then to Mazama, and then hitching to the Northern Terminus. More info can be found on that here.
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