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Planning a thru-hike on the Pacific Crest Trail

The following is a simple step by step synopsis for the average hiker planning a northbound through hike on the PCT. Additionally, you'll find many answers in the PCT FAQ.

Simply put:

1. Learn about the trail, train for it. Assess and become intimate with the gear you'll be taking.
2. 2 months before estimated start date, apply for a through hiker permit and Canada Entry Permit.
3. April 1st choose a hard start date based on your abilities with current SoCal/Sierra snow conditions.
4. If using public transportation, arrange travel to trail head 2+ weeks before start date.
5. Download and print CA Fire Permit.
6. 10 days before departure send resupply package USPS to Warner Springs (if resupplying there).
7. 1-10 days before departure mail bounce box. Be sure it arrives before you. (if using one)
8. 1 day before departure, send resupply packages to VVR, Kennedy Meadows and Agua Dulce.
9. Arrive at southern terminus near Campo, CA and start your hike!

+ Resupply as you go and/or mail resupplies 'Priority Mail' 2-3 weeks ahead from trail towns as needed
+ Mail bounce box ahead of you as required, 'Priority Mail'. Be sure your box arrives before you.



Synopsis

Section 1 - First Steps

1.1 Learn as much as you can
If you're reading this you have probably dreamed of a long hike. You've also probably viewed many books/journals/forums/maps on the subject, knowing your subject matter gives you a big advantage. Absorb as much as you can from all available sources. There are plenty of good journals and gear lists to learn from.

1.2 Take a walk
Some will insist that you can start the trail without any training, that is true. Taking long walks regularly will prepare your body and mind for those many miles on the trail. You don't need a pack or anything special, grab your water bottle and a snack and head out the door. The more you invest in training, the better you'll be prepared the first day on the trail.

1.3 Gather experience
Having backpacking & hiking experience is also a huge benefit, but not required. Knowing your gear preferences, weather and terrain abilities and having developed your own hiking style can only be developed from doing. Without this experience you'll start the not optional, hands-on learning process the first day on the trail.


Section 2 - Things to know

2.1 Documentation
Get your PCT through hiker permit and your Canadian Entry Permit. Estimate your start date and Canadian border crossing date, neither has to be exact. Begin the process about mid-February or 2 months before your start date. You can also print out your self-issued California Fire Permit.

2.2 Start date
Assuming a 5 month hike, start late enough to avoid snow pack/spring storms and get to Canada before winter sets in. Be completely flexible with your start date if at all possible. The single most important criteria for a start date are the Sierra snow conditions and your ability to deal with mountainous spring snow conditions. A big winter snow means a later start date, a mild winter means an earlier start date. You must also consider snow conditions in the Southern California mountains, particularly Mt San Jacinto, Big Bear and Mt.Baden-Powell. The PCT northbound departure window is typically April-May with the majority leaving about May 1st during a normal snow year. This means an arrival at Kennedy Meadows in the southern Sierra about mid-June. April 1st is a good time to set a hard and fast start date, scheduling air/bus transportation to the southern terminus, 2+ weeks in advance.

2.3 Water
Your daily actions will be dictated by reliable water sources or unreliable water caches for the first 700 miles of trail. The importance of this cannot be overstated. You must make it to the next water source without running out of water. This has a direct impact on your daily mileage and thus your overall plan.

2.4 Resupply

2.4.1 What constitutes a resupply package?
The main criteria is enough food to get you to your next resupply. Less obviously, it may contain map/data book pages, socks, shoes, medicine, fuel, etc. Be sure to label your packages correctly!

2.4.2 Resupply as you go
Resupplying as you go is by far the most efficient and requires the least amount of planning. Many towns exist on or near the trail. Many of these have stores that range from full-service to adequate for resupply. (Yes, they know you are coming!) You may find these depleted from time to time though. Only on a few occasions will you want to mail a resupply. These are some places, depending on your planWarner Springs, Agua Dulce, Kennedy Meadows, Vermilion Valley Resort, Hat Creek, Burney Falls SP, Hyatt Lake, Shelter Cove, Big Lake Youth Camp, White Pass, Snoqualmie Pass, Skykomish and Stehekin.

2.4.3 Resupply by mail
This is the most cumbersome. This requires you (or someone at home) to create all of your resupply packages and then mailed at the appropriate time. This can be dozens of packages. Every year a few hikers like to dehydrate food and mail it. This is the preferred method for them.


2.5 Bounce Box
A bounce box is a moving storage container you keep mailing ahead of yourself. It can be very handy for storing items you're not sure when or if you'll need, such as, hiking pole tips, water filter parts, extra fuel, maps, clothes, etc. You can also use it for resupply with food, then just mail it ahead to a post office somewhere up the trail. Be sure to label your box correctly!

Section 3 - Making a plan

3.1 Keep it simple
Your plan is a guideline, not a set of rules. Think generally in terms of daily mileage and days between resupply. You don't need to plan every camp site or where you should be precisely on day X. There are many options and no 'right' one. If you don't want to bother with developing your own plan, select a plan that suits you.

3.2 Daily mileage and days between resupply stops
How many miles a day can you hike? How many hours of the day do you want to hike? How aggressive is your hiking speed? Is the terrain full of ups and downs? How hot will it be? Is the snow coverage intense? How many days food do you want to carry (2.5 pounds per day @ 4500-6000 calories)?

All of those questions need to be considered. If you're not sure, using this excellent planner will give you a good idea of your daily mileage and number of days between resupply stops.

3.3 Zero mileage days and partial days
Every hiker loves taking a day off from hiking; a soft bed, hot shower, laundry, ice cream and pizza for breakfast. Life is good! You'll want to build those into your plan as well. Also consider post office hours/holidays as they might not be open when you get there. Plan to arrive earlier or later.

3.4 Putting it together
Once you have an idea about your preferences you can start to nail down a plan. Some folks use a spread sheet, others write it down once and that's their plan. There are no rules, have fun with it. Planning is part of your journey.


Have a great hike!

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