The Pacific Crest Trail occupied a year of my life. I spent 6 months preparing for the trail, 5 months actually hiking the PCT, and 1 month transitioning back to real life. Solo hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Now years later, I get a lot of joy out of helping future PCT thru-hikers accomplish their own goal of hiking all 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada.
In this blog post, I share 11 tips for other PCT hikers to help you prepare for what lies ahead. Combined with the lessons Kristen shared from her John Muir Trail hike, you have more than 30 tips for kicking ass, no matter the number of miles you’re looking to tackle.
Get ready for your thru-hike with these 11 tips for hiking the PCT!
Tips for Hiking the PCT
1) Build Your Off-Trail Support Community
There is no question about it, I would not have completed the PCT without my family and friends. I had more than 10 friends travel to visit me while I was on the trail. Knowing that they were expecting me to be somewhere by a certain date kept me committed.
If friends can’t join you on the trail, you are most likely traveling with a cell phone. Even if it’s just a phone call or Facetime chat, having a community that you can count on back home to encourage you when you get lonely or feel like quitting is essential.
I also had a friend join me for the first two days of my PCT hike which I highly recommend. She built my confidence and ultimately encouraged me to introduce myself to two guys we camped near who ended up being part of the trail family that I hiked with for over 500+ miles.
2) Do your research and take training seriously
People die every year in wilderness wettings… and on the PCT. I don’t say this to be morbid, I say this because hiking the PCT is not just a walk in the woods. If you’re serious about doing a thru-hike, take the time to prepare physically, mentally and hone any skillsets you think you’ll need.
I read a lot of information about hypothermia, river crossings, snake bites, falls, how to stay safe during wildlife encounters, and more. Goat Rocks Wilderness and the Sierra Nevada were the two biggest sections that I was the most scared of as I was worried about encountering snow.
The book Journeys North: The Pacific Crest Trail is a great read to help you start preparing mentally for your hike.
3) Be Open to Meeting and Hiking with New People
Whether you start with a partner or not, it’s likely that who you hike with will ultimately change. It was really hard to say goodbye to people I’d spent 100+ miles with, but I quickly realized that with goodbyes come hellos.
Sometimes people you are hiking with might prefer to speed up or slow down and you’ll need to naturally separate. When I look back on the trail, if I would have stuck with my first trail family, I would have made far fewer friends in the long run. I’m glad I moved around and hiked with different groups.
4) Know that Hiking the PCT & Camping Alone Isn’t Scary
My parents insisted that I camp alone before setting out on the Pacific Crest Trail, so I did a two-night solo camping trip. Even with that, I was STILL scared at the beginning of my PCT hike when I camped alone. However, by the end of the trail, some of my favorite nights were when I was on my own schedule and alone in my own campsite.
I now love hiking and backpacking solo. Don’t be afraid to spend some days and nights alone with yourself. For peace of mind and safety precautions, we do recommend hiking with an off-grid communication tool like the Garmin InReach Mini in case you do need to get in touch with someone.
5) Take Time to Explore the Towns You Pass Through
Some of the towns you travel through you’ll most likely never visit again. If you like the town, take a rest day and hang out to explore. If there is a restaurant in town or brewery you’re dying to check out, do it!
Here are a few suggestions on things not to miss while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail:
- Summit Mt. Whitney
- Take the JMT detour — don’t miss having lunch at Lake Aloha!
- Chill in Tahoe for a zero-day
- Fall in love with the cool cities of Ashland and Bend
- Don’t miss eating at Morning Glory’s Restaurant in Ashland and by all means get breakfast and lunch
- Don’t skip the Crater Lake detour
- Leavenworth is worth checking out if you have time
- Stehekin Pastry Company is a do-not-miss
6) Don’t Over Hydrate
Ever heard of electrolyte imbalance? I hadn’t either. I’m not a big water drinker, so I knew on the trail I’d need to make sure to hydrate. What I ended up doing, though, was overhydrating and I wound up really sick in Julian, CA. It was an incredibly hot day and I basically flooded my system with water and washed out my electrolytes.
The warning signs of electrolyte imbalance (also known as hyponatremia) are:
- Slurring of speech and inability to produce coherent thoughts
- Muscle spasms, aches, or twitchiness
- Headaches & fatigue
- Dizziness when standing up & disorientation
7) It’s Okay to Call Home & Cry
When I hit Kennedy Meadows North, I called home from a remote location on a payphone using lots of quarters to let my parents know I was quitting and getting off the trail. My not-so-outdoorsy mother told me, “Oh hunny, you just need another shower. You’re just tired. Go get some rest and see how you feel tomorrow.” The truth was, as I stood there clinging to the phone, I knew my mom was right.
I’d taken a shower and I could still count 10 places I still saw dirt on my legs. I did need another shower. I was also exhausted and my back hurt from my bear canister digging into it. We’d just had a really scary descent into town with more snow than I thought we’d encounter AND… the store was out of ice cream bars.
The trail will make you an emotional wreck at times. That’s okay. In my opinion, if you feel like you want to quit, give it a week and keep walking north. For me, I woke up the next morning, hitched back to the trail, and kept hiking the PCT north.
8) Be Honest
If you share your hike on social media, you’re going to have a lot of people following you and supporting you. It might feel uncomfortable to show the not-so-glamorous side of thru-hiking, but I highly recommend you do because you’re going to need that community’s support with the tough stuff.
Also, be honest when you’re scared on the trail and ask others to support you with your fears. I was hiking alone in the Southern California desert when I passed a section of trail in which there were three massive rattlesnakes lining both sides of the trail. I did a 180 and stopped for a 2nd breakfast until there were other hikers to pass the section alongside. I told them why I had stopped and it was empowering when they asked if I wanted to hike with them through it.
I was scared as well in Goat Rocks Wilderness and on numerous snowy passes in the Sierras, but after vocalizing my fears to friends I felt supported by those I was hiking with.
9) Don’t Skip Hiker Boxes
Some of the gear items I found in hiker boxes I still have to this day, including a compression sack for my sleeping bag. Some hiker boxes will also help introduce some variety into your resupply boxes if you’re unhappy with anything you packed.
Plus, hiker box finds are FREE and they are an easy place to find more fuel without having to find an outdoor store.
10) Don’t commit to a rigid schedule
If you’re tired, stop and take a nap. If you’re hungry, pull over and make something yummy. The trail will be over before you know it and you’ll miss it more than you can imagine once you reach the Canadian border. Take time to embrace what it means to slow down and appreciate the opportunity you have to be on your own timeline and schedule through such a beautiful landscape.
11) You got this
As hard as hiking the PCT will be, it’s 100% worth it. The Pacific Crest Trail is notorious for having the lowest completion rate of any long-distance trail and you’ll see why when you’re on it. If you’re planning to hike the PCT, it takes commitment. Don’t give up on yourself too quickly when the going gets tough.
Take training for your thru-hike seriously. You’ve most likely put your life on hold to hike the trail plus not to mention the financial investment in gear for the Pacific Crest Trail and planning out all your Pacific Crest Trail resupply boxes. Don’t quit just because you have a rough few miles.
Take a zero-day in town, shower, sleep in a comfy bed with fluffy pillows, and treat yourself to some non-trail food. Then get back out there! My experience was always realizing how much I missed the trail within the first mile after a zero-day.
Have you completed a long-distance hiking trail? What lessons did you learn? What questions do you have about hiking the PCT? Leave a comment below!