Understanding the PCT Permit System, and Why it Matters

It was a scorching summer day in Southern California. I was taking a break underneath a large tree, elevating my feet to provide my poor extremities some sweet relief. A fellow Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker was telling us how he ended up on trail — a common topic of conversation. This particular hiker had decided to attempt a thru-hike (and would go on to successfully complete it) just three weeks before he started, and we were amazed. Having decided to do the PCT a year beforehand—and working an average of 60 hours a week in my ski-resort town to save for it—I was always impressed and confused by the people who pulled it off within a short span of time. Kudos to them.

“But how did you get the permit with such late notice?” I asked, incredulous. His answer added him to the small but important list of people I would meet on trail who had worked their way around the permit system. He had received a permit, but his allotted start date was much later than he desired. So he pulled a few nifty strings. Three weeks later, he was on trail.

Each year thousands of aspiring thru-hikers apply for the PCT permit, and soon after starting the PCT last summer, it became apparent that this permit system was a hot topic among hikers.

In an effort to mitigate increasing trail traffic and to better gauge how many backpackers take on the PCT every year, the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) implemented a policy in 2013 that all long distance and thru-hikers obtain a permit. It is not mandatory, but it is strongly suggested… not to mention incredibly convenient.

Rather than endure the headache of understanding the backcountry policies for the seven national parks, 26 national forests, five state parks and four national monuments that the PCT passes through, an aspiring long-distance hiker can simply apply for the PCT permit and carry that single piece of paper authorizing their use of the national lands. It’s essentially the golden ticket of the West Coast hiker world. In theory, the thru-hiker permit dictates one’s start date and limits traffic to 50 people per day. It serves as one of the few permits required for the trail and is by far the most fundamental, due to its all-encompassing nature.

Justin Kooyman, the PCTA’s Northern Sierra Regional Representative, said the intention of the permits is to preserve the trail experience as well as possible.

“I often tell folks we’re playing the long game. We’re trying to look out 50, 100 years and advocate—do the works for the trail that will really protect it into the long run so that it’s there for generations to come.”

But with the permit system come a number of loopholes. How do you enforce a permit system on a 2,650-mile trail filled with hikers of all types — the teeniest percentage of whom are thru-hikers? Can you really stop someone who doesn’t start their thru-hike on their intended start date? Then there are the logistical issues of actually getting a permit—the site crashes due to user volume, groups hiking together receive permits for different dates, and the process can be stressful overall. Hikers have also expressed the concern that permit start dates that are either too early or too late will create dangerous conditions, causing hikers to either start the desert section in the heat of summer, or hit the Sierra section too early during seasonal snowmelt. 

“When you start thinking about rules and regulations and law enforcement, we govern for the majority, right?” said Beth Boyst, Pacific Crest Trail Program Manager for the US Forest Service. “That’s how you plan, and I believe that the majority of long-distance travelers really care about the PCT, and because they care about the trail they want to do the right thing.

“We’re seeing a really high compliance rate with permits—and I believe it’s because people understand that if we have 5,000 people starting on April 1st at the Southern Terminus, it will have a significant impact on the desert ecosystem as well as their experience.”

A number of hikers abided by the permits, but were frustrated that they couldn’t get their desired start date and had to readjust their plans. Jake “Baloo” Carlson had to start his thru-hike a month later than he had hoped for because of his allotted date. When he showed up at the Southern Terminus, he realized he had somehow managed to mix up the dates of his permit, and an official who appeared to be a member of the US Border Patrol scolded him for starting two days earlier than allowed.

“The guy was super nice and let me boogie north anyhow,” he said.

There are some community members who think the PCTA should do away with the system altogether and leave thru-hikers to their own devices, making extensive research of all the parks and national forests’ policies part of the planning process. One would have to estimate exact dates that they would be in a regulated area, and apply to multiple different agencies for camping permits throughout the trail. Boyst pointed out that one could still do this: if you don’t get the all-encompassing permit, you can still get permits for each area and successfully hike the PCT — as long as you can handle carrying all of the extra paper weight.

Bruce “DrumSolo” Etter completed the PCT in September 2017 and is among those who harbor strong feelings on the matter. Etter supports the permit system but has his own ideas for how it can be improved.

“I think it is a such a beneficial system for a lot of reasons,” he said. “If nothing else, it provides us with legitimate hard data, which we can use for a slew of things.”

Etter thinks the permit should come with a fee.

“A total of 5,657 people (received) a long distance permit. If each of those people paid $20 we’re talking about an increase of $113,140 for the PCTA. Think of all the good that could do for the trail… We are getting into the national parks for free. That alone means we’re saving money.”

Other advocates of implementing a fee argued that, by having one, people would be less likely to cancel without notice — forfeiting someone else’s opportunity to start on their desired start date. It would serve as an initiative of sorts to make plans for the trail and to stick with them.

Boyst noted the controversy surrounding the idea of charging a fee, and said that while the PCTA hasn’t completely ruled out the idea of charging a fee for permits in the future, any fee high enough to make someone more committed to their plans to thru-hike would probably also be high enough to prevent someone from applying for the permit in the first place.

Adam Kelly is among those who avidly support the permit system; he is an aspiring PCT thru-hiker who just received his permit for the 2018 season.

“I think most people griping about it are people who either missed out on a permit because of the volume of applicants, or people who have this idea that they pay taxes and that’s their permit,” he wrote in an online correspondence.

At the end of the day, the permit system is in place to preserve the trail experience for generations to come. Boyst asks hikers to look out into the future when considering trail usage.

“I know that folks who are out on the trail love the PCT, and I just would really ask that they think about the greater good of their actions and to think about how they are connected to an overall experience,” Boyst said. “One is of many, and we live in a time where the tension between how things used to be with a smaller population and the reality of (population growth) is what we are struggling with.

“I think it’s really important for people to think about… how all those impacts start to add up and have the potential to degrade the physical resources along the trail. That cumulative effect over time makes it challenging for us to preserve this trail experience.”

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Comments 21

  • Kevin : Feb 26th

    As one who usually strongly argues against any permit post because of their usual dishonesty I support this article. You were able to present facts along with your own feelings without disingenuously hiding the truth. Yes the PCTA permit is highly convenient, but no it is not required as there are actually only a few places on the entire trail that require a permit (and SoCal isn’t one of them). Not only does one not need a PCTA permit but one could argue that by making permitting so incredibly easy for the masses that the PCTA actually adds to the environmental impact and not decreases it. Furthermore I think it is funny that a 2,700 mile stretch of wilderness corridor that is visited and hiked on by millions of people every year constantly gets it’s use and impact talked about only in the context of 4,000 PCT hikers. Sorry, but we just aren’t that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things.

    • Dan Paradis : Sep 29th

      Totally Agree!!!

  • Denise : Feb 26th

    I think the article was very informative, presented different views and was a pleasure to read. I thoroughly enjoyed the pictures also.

  • Smokebeard : Feb 26th

    Regarding fees, I think most thrus would pay $10 or $20, but the permit process itself is so slow and crashy that you dare not try lest you lose your permit. You can go back after and donate, but overall the process needs streamlining, or hosting at Amazon, or something to handle the load.

    People want to do the right thing, but when it becomes hard/impossible you’re going to lose the audience.

    • Kevin : Feb 26th

      Hosting at Amazon? $20? Ed BrokenFoot Old Man why don’t we just outsource the whole thing to Disney? Maybe they could put guided packages together? Pull everyone’s gear in a golf cart? Have podcasts, vlogging, live streaming, and “celebrity hikers” all over the trail…. oh no, wait, we already have all that.

      • Mike : May 2nd


  • Postholer : Feb 27th

    The PCTA does not make or enforce policy. The US Forest Service and National Parks do. The US Forest Service has bestowed the privilege of issuing permits to the PCTA. It is a gift to them and a convenience for hikers.

    Only one small, 25 mile section of trail (Hauser Creek to Mt Laguna) in the first 700 miles requires any kind of a permit; not for hiking, but for dispersed camping only. Using 1 of 4 campgrounds negates the need for a permit. This includes wilderness areas along the first 700 miles. Further, permit or not, using the campgrounds exceeds the spirit and intent of the existing rules set forth by the Cleveland National Forest.

    Here’s a question for theTrek. If the impact is so severe, why do the people who make and enforce policy have absolutely no rules addressing this impact? (other than the 25 mile section).

    Hikers are free to get a PCTA issued permit with a start location well north of the Mexico border at a start date of their choosing, without quota. This is not a loop hole. It’s following the letter of the law. It obeys all existing rules designed to protect the land. The PCTA cannot live in a vacuum and dictate their own empty policy.

    Oh and trek? The border patrol cannot ask for or enforce permits, particularly where one is not required. The was a pathetic scare tactic on your part. We know you’re not impartial, but c’mon!

    • Mike : Feb 28th

      This part of the story has to be a joke, or fake news, right?:

      “A number of hikers abided by the permits, but were frustrated that they couldn’t get their desired start date and had to readjust their plans. Jake “Baloo” Carlson had to start his thru-hike a month later than he had hoped for because of his allotted date. When he showed up at the Southern Terminus, he realized he had somehow managed to mix up the dates of his permit, and an official who appeared to be a member of the US Border Patrol scolded him for starting two days earlier than allowed.

      “The guy was super nice and let me boogie north anyhow,” he said.“

      This is incredibly laughable at best! Having been in law enforcement for 25 years I know for a fact that the fine folks at the Border Patrol, folks who do a tough job mostly unappreacated by their fellow citizens, have better things to do that harass hikers. I would question the authenticity of being “scolded”

      In fact, I doubt the entire story. I did some research and made some calls and in fact not only does the Border Patrol not ask to see permits – they are NOT allowed to do so by law! So either the officer was being unprofessional, or this hiker is lying and/or embellishing the story. Hiker claims he was “scolded” by the officer, yet also claims the officer was “super nice”

      Which is it?

      The Trek should be ashamed of many aspects of this story, but sullying the Border Patrol is a new low for the Trek.

  • Mike : Feb 28th

    The PCTA likes to make people think that their permit is the only way to go, and threatens people with scare tactics on their website. At the permit FAQ page they say:

    “For those who need a little more incentive to “do the right thing,” the Cleveland National Forest, approximately 14 miles from the border, is the first place where travel permits are required. Crest Runners, who are Forest Service employees, will be on trail contacting PCT travelers and they will have access to law enforcement officers.“

    This threat is outrageous and the PCTA is way overboard in making it. This is a trail that every citizen in the United States owns by law. It’s a public trail, by law. Lying flat out by saying “travel permits are required” when in reality I know for a fact that you just need the dispersed camping permit. How? I did independent research and saw directly through the BS the PCTA is pushing out.

    I have long found it offensive that the PCTA assumes that people who don’t have their pass must be bad stewards and fail to follow LNT. I follow strict LNT ethics and during my thru-hike the worst offenders were those holding the “golden ticket” from the PCTA.

  • Mike : Feb 28th

    I would like to add that Postholer above said it best:

    “ Hikers are free to get a PCTA issued permit with a start location well north of the Mexico border at a start date of their choosing, without quota. This is not a loop hole. It’s following the letter of the law. It obeys all existing rules designed to protect the land. The PCTA cannot live in a vacuum and dictate their own empty policy. “

  • PackmanPete : Feb 28th

    The permit system is right and needed. It spreads out the number of hikers in a given month. Can you imagine how many people would show up on 4/15 if there wasn’t a permit system ? And 50 a day is about right considering a lot of people change their plans and don’t show up. I also support a fee, prorated for section vs thru hiking, as long as it will be used for more camp sites to accommodate the higher number of people, spread the impact and pit toilets to get some control on that mess. I’m not going to get into the ” I already paid for it with taxes” vs a use fee argument. If you can afford to do a section/thru hike, you can afford a small fee.

    • Russ : Apr 2nd

      People don’t hike at the same speed. 1000 people could leave on the same day. They would disperse along the trail over hundreds of miles of desert before getting into any forested area and the impact would be minor. You’re just moral posturing from an uninformed standpoint. Public lands were set aside for public use. Expect and teach sustainable behavior, but no more fascist management of lands that by law are guaranteed access to every citizen.

  • Jacky Horn : Jun 21st

    Well….I dont know if it is legal or not, I am new to hiking, for just the past few years. I have done a couple of month long hikes, various areas of the U.S. and I was never stopped and asked for my permit in those places even though I had it. I am planning on getting time off work for the PCT in a couple of years , cannot go sooner due to employer issues, cannot be changed. However, two of my friends on the PCT were both stopped by what they called Rangers within a day after starting at the Mexican border, and one of them was stopped again 2 days later, each time asked to see their permit. So, I honestly do not know what would have happened if they had not had a permit, but based on their experience I would follow what is being asked of us and get a permit. These are people I know to be honest, and one was quite surprised she was stopped, because she almost went without a permit, simply because she does not believe she should have to obtain a permit to use public lands. In the end, she applied and got the permit she requested. So, what would that “ranger” have done if they had not had a permit? I don’t know. But I do know it happened to them, so if it did, it seems anyone could be stopped. These people both started in late March of 2018, and are still on the trail.

  • Jacky Horn : Jun 21st

    I wanted to add something else. I have mixed feelings when it comes to the fact we have already paid taxes and these are public lands. Yes, that is true. But there are a fair amount of people out there who just do not care to take care of these public lands. Throwing their garbage out there, and even though they have been given information about how far away to camp from water, and to camp in designated spaces, even where to urinate, and how to do so, they just ignore it. I have seen animals more or less teased, and lots of other things. people using their soap to wash their clothing in the streams. This is not good even with so called environmentally friendly soaps. And, yes these were thru hikers I met on the trail. So, to blame it all on day users is not correct. So, as for me, I am willing to pay a fee so that it can be used to maintain these trails. It is expensive. And, when you go onto trails that have not been maintained, or you get there too early in the season before much has been done to them, you will realize the amount of work and money that goes into maintaining them. I mean, the careless acts with fires, no fees could ever even cover the damage done to that. So, I will pay the fee. And, if there is a co thru hiker who really needs it covered, I will try to help them with it if I can. But, we are hard on the land, and we need to take care of it.

    • Bryan : Dec 9th

      I agree with you. Unfortunately as the PCTA adds rules (some of which are not written) there will be a backlash. The merit of their cause will not matter. It’s human nature. When we look at the southern trail we can see impact from illegal migration and CBP. PCTA has no way to fix/mitigate it. Moving north the trail crosses a few little towns. Those towns impact the trail even without thru hikers. These things occur outside of PCTA’s control. In the end the southern trail is not and probably never will be a wilderness experience. It’s a pure hiking trail that is over populated. I propose a different tact on the first 365 miles. Over time, produce infrastructure to control waste(trash/bio/water contamination). Some sort of shelter system of toilets and water will be necessary.

      I understand the PCTA doesn’t want the trail to become the AT. In the end I believe they will have to change their ways. This is true whether they become an overbearing collection of control freaks doing Gaia’s work or if they succeed in controlling the hoard of hikers with great governance. Most of the problem is out of their control.

  • Jimmy t : Nov 3rd

    So with all the back and fourth of permit and no permit , I am actually reading that BY LAW no permit is needed for the first 700 miles !
    Show up and hike
    Yes it’s public land and yes we pay taxes So with that said Maybe the first picks for permits should be for people from the States that have paid taxes and set aside a few for others not from the states
    Yes I know this will stir things up from a equal rights stand point
    But shouldn’t we as Americans be able to hike our trails first instead of being left out because of a permit system that allows world wide access
    Just sayin !

  • jimmi b : Jun 6th

    I have no issue with the permit system…that is needing one however I do take issue with the fact that the PCTA says it is a good idea to hike with someone over going it alone… If each adult needs a permit of their own it is super difficult for that to happen…especially if they end up in the waiting line hundreds of people apart. I’ve heard of families going together and wonder again about how the permit system works for them. Do they skip the permit in order to go together or did they get super super lucky to get permits on the same day…if I remember right kids don’t need their own but both parents do. The system should be changed to allow groups up to four on a single permit. They can still stick to the 50 per day rule and set up a limited amount of group permits per day.

  • Greg Robinson : Apr 18th

    The idea that you need a permit to walk the Earth is silly. What an elitist bunch of cr@p. And paying a fee? Nonsense. Take a long distance view of the Earth from space and you will see that we are all stuck on this floating piece of rock, and these people who try to argue that only a certain few who are lucky enough to obtain Willy Wonka’s golden ticket are allowed to walk here are utterly ridiculous. They arrogantly act like they own the trail. I can see these people harassing hikers everywhere, demanding (without authority) to see everyone’s permit. I’m a US citizen and have the right to walk anywhere I want. Y’all keep advocating these laws that prevent people from accessing the parks they have already paid for with their taxes. I pay for Yosemite, yet I’m not allowed to see it because I didn’t win the entrance lottery during Covid. I’m pretty sure Senator Cruz gets to go any time he wants though. Your permit system is one step away from barring anyone except a privileged elite of politicians and their chosen supporters from enjoying our national parks. If you would put you nonsense aside for one minute and ask yourself how many people are seriously going to hike this extremely challenging and remote stretch of the Earth, it’s virtually no one. 2600 miles in the middle of nowhere and you are concerned about who is carrying a permit??? Seriously? Don’t worry about it. You don’t need much to maintain this trail. Hire like a hundred people to patrol a stretch, pick up trash and tote it to a disposal point. It would cost like $5 million a year and the Federal Parks system already has the money to do that. Then forget about the permits altogether. The more the merrier…


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