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Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail: Where Does the Time Go?

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail: Where Does the Time Go?

Have you ever wondered how long it takes to hike the PCT? Or maybe you’ve heard of the Pacific Crest Trail, but you’re not entirely sure what it is and why it’s such a trendy hike. Do people genuinely hike for months to complete a trail? Would you consider doing that? You might if you had all of the details.

Well, we have those details for you here. Let’s get started!

What Is the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)? 

The Pacific Crest Trail, better known as the PCT, is one of three triple-crown trails. The other two are the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. The PCT stretches for 2,650 miles along the Pacific Coast, from Mexico to Canada. It traverses some of the most stunning scenery on the planet. 

From the arid deserts of southern California to the snow-capped peaks of the Cascade Range, the PCT offers hikers a never-ending supply of breathtaking views. Its highest point is Forester Pass in California at 13,153 feet, and the lowest is in Oregon at the Cascade Locks at 140 feet. High or low, hiking this trail isn’t for the faint of heart.

Pacific Crest Trail Documentary: A YEAR OF ICE AND FIRE

How Does Hiking the PCT Work?

So you want to hike the PCT? Great! It’s a fantastic experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life. However, there are a few things you should know before you take on this remote trail.

First, hiking the PCT is not a task to undertake lightly. It’s essential to do your research and plan. You’ll need permits for certain sections before you start hiking.

You’ll also need several maps of the trail and maps highlighting towns where you can resupply and pick up packages. The packages are usually food drops people mail to you along the route. You can’t carry five months’ worth of food simultaneously. 

While you may have your gear figured out for the start of the trip, you may need to purchase additional equipment or order delivery along the way. Planning for a thru-hike of this magnitude takes time and fortitude.

Because parts of the PCT can be relatively remote, you’ll need to be comfortable with hitchhiking to get on and off the trail. This isn’t always easy, but it’s a necessary part of the experience.

Finally, hiking the PCT is a fantastic feat, but it’s not something everyone can do. It takes planning, perseverance, and luck. But if you’re up for the challenge and you have the budget, it’s an unforgettable experience.

Pro Tip: Before attempting any hike, check out our list of 10 Hiking Essentials You Should Never Hit the Trail Without.

Pacific Crest Trail
Hiking the PCT takes planning, perseverance, and luck.

How Much Does It Cost to Hike the PCT? 

Hiking the PCT is a significant undertaking in terms of time and money. While the trail is free to use, costs are involved when embarking upon and completing a thru-hike. These can range anywhere from $4,000 to $8,000 for the entire trek. 

People spend money differently, and the same goes for hiking the PCT. How long it takes to hike the PCT will also dictate how much money you spend. Staying in fancy hotels or hostels will change the funds you need. So will eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches compared to gourmet burgers when off the trail. 

These costs may not yet include gear. Depending on what you need and already have, you could spend anywhere from $700 to $5,000.

But don’t let that deter you. It costs money no matter where you live, so why not live on the PCT for the next few months?

How Long Does It Take to Hike the PCT?

Most hikers complete the PCT length within five months, hiking an average of 20 miles daily. Taking longer could put you at risk of walking in winter weather, which can be pretty dangerous. The PCT is a demanding trail, and your daily mileage will depend on your goals, stamina, and how often you leave the trail. 

The key to completing the hike is to pace yourself and prepare adequately. With proper planning and preparation, you can enjoy a safe and rewarding experience on one of America’s most iconic trails.

It’s also essential to take care of yourself while on the trail. That’s why most hikers enjoy taking complete rest days, or “zeroes.” They also take days with nearly no hiking, or “neroes,” as often as once a week. These days allow you to relax and recharge yourself and your gear.

You can also resupply and enjoy the towns along the PCT. Regular breaks will help you stay refreshed and ready to tackle the next section of the trail.

PCT sign
It can take about five months to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail.

Where Does the PCT Start and End? 

When determining how long it takes to hike the PCT, you must know where the trail starts and ends. Stretching from Mexico to Canada, it passes through California, Oregon, and Washington. It also spans seven national parks: Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Yosemite, Lassen, Crater Lake, Mount Rainier, and North Cascades. 

The trail begins at a relatively low elevation of 2,915 feet in the small border town of Campo, California. It ends at the Northern Terminus, two feet south of Boundary Monument 78 on the US/Canada border. Hikers will experience many diverse ecosystems as they climb several mountain passes and descend into low valleys.

Which Sections of the PCT Take the Longest Time?

While around 800 people attempt the PCT yearly, only about 450 will complete the entire 2,650 miles. Most hikers head northbound, starting in Campo, because of increased chances of better weather for extended periods. However, some hikers head south, starting in Canada. 

If you’re wondering why so few people attempt this stunning thru-hike, first, it’s over 2,600 miles long. That’s a lot of time to drive it, let alone walk it.

Second, it’s challenging. Two of the most demanding sections are the John Muir section in California and Section K in Washington.

path on PCT
Only about 450 people complete the entire 2,650 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail each year.

Many consider California’s John Muir Trail section in the Sierras in Yosemite the most challenging. It is 210 miles, and the majority follow the PCT. This section can take around 90 hours to complete, and many hikers will go off the PCT to summit the majestic Mt. Whitney at 14,505 feet.

Another tough stretch of the PCT is in Washington, Section K, Stevens Pass to Rainy Pass. This is a grueling 127-mile trek with 26,351 feet of elevation gain and 25,552 feet of elevation loss. Section K can take around 60 hours to complete, so how many miles you can hike at elevation while ascending and descending mountain passes will determine how long each hiker will take.

Don’t get too discouraged—the more challenging the trek, the more rewarding the views. Plus, there are more manageable sections along the PCT.

Where Are the Easier Sections of the Trail?

While one might assume the most accessible sections are also at the lowest elevations, this isn’t always the case. Hiking the entry section starting in Campo for the first 700 miles is a relatively easy hike. But what makes it difficult is the increased possibility of extreme temperature highs and lows, and water scarcity. 

Another reportedly easy section of the PCT is in Oregon, as much of the trail goes through forests and lava fields. Many hikers take on the “Oregon Challenge,” attempting to complete this 455-mile section in just two weeks.

The difficulty all depends on how each hiker perceives the situation. Come prepared physically and mentally, and however long it takes to hike the PCT or sections of the PCT will be worth the time.

Alpine meadow on the PCT
You’ll need to be prepared physically and mentally to hike the PCT.

Are There Checkpoints?

When hiking near the U.S./Mexico border, you will likely come across border patrol checkpoints. They may ask you to declare your citizenship and may even ask to see the soles of your shoes if they are tracking someone specifically. 

The further north you go along the trail, you’ll be less likely to cross checkpoints, but you may need specific permits from other agencies while hiking the PCT.

So no matter how long it takes to hike the PCT, it will take much longer if you don’t cooperate with local checkpoints and get the proper permits when needed.

Who Has Hiked It in the Shortest Amount of Time?

Hiking the PCT is not your typical race, but some attempt to hike the PCT in the shortest time. So how long does it take to hike the PCT if you’re trying to be the fastest hiker on the trail?

If you plan on breaking the record of the shortest time hiking the PCT, you’ll have to do it in under 52 days.

According to the online magazine Trail Running, Tim Olsen completed the entire PCT in 51 days, 16 hours, and 30 minutes. However, he’s not your average hiker. He’s a professional trail ultrarunner. While you may want to set personal records when hiking the PCT, going up against Olsen is not recommended.

trail runner
You’ll need to hike the PCT in under 52 days if you want to break the current record.

Can a Beginner Hike the PCT? 

Many people dream about thru-hiking the PCT, but they don’t think it’s possible because they don’t have experience. With the proper preparation, anyone can hike the PCT. You need to be in good shape and have some basic understanding of Leave No Trace (LNT) principles.

However, research and practice can go a long way in ensuring you’re prepared for anything the trail might throw your way. 

You should research the gear you need and understand the time and effort it takes. Know what food to bring and your average calorie intake. You don’t have to buy the most expensive gear or food; ensure it does what you need.

Sleeping bags and pads can keep you warm on cold mountain nights. Clothing can protect and keep you cool under the burning sun at elevation. Anything that goes into your backpack must be as lightweight and functional as possible.

Once you have the gear, you need to practice using it. Even advanced hikers practice with their equipment, and beginners must train even more. Get in your sleeping bag, put on your pack, set up your tent, and use your camping stove and water filter all before you hit the trail.

With the right gear and attitude, anyone can hike the PCT. 

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Is It Easy to Get Lost on PCT?

How long it takes to hike the PCT depends on many factors. One is that you could quickly get off trail without realizing it until miles later. This is why maps and GPS tools are imperative for your planning process.

The PCT is a trail over 2,600 miles crossing mountain passes, possible snow fields, and rivers and streams. While it is well-marked, it is still a wild, rustic trail. Getting lost on the PCT is a possibility. 

It can happen from the start of the hike. According to accounts on the Pacific Crest Trail Association, one of the familiar places people get lost is PCT mile 14, where the trail sharply turns right and joins the unpaved South Boundary Road.

Border Patrol is continuously helping PCT hikers who stay straight and lose their way. However, if you map out the route beforehand and track your progress, losing your location will hopefully be the least of your worries.

➡ Cell service isn’t guaranteed, so you may want to learn how to navigate with a compass to avoid getting lost!

Can You Camp Anywhere on the PCT?

Following LNT principles is a crucial component when camping on the PCT. This helps mitigate the overuse of land and protect wildlife and plant life. Planning allows you to take your time finding an appropriate spot.

We suggest trying to arrive at a possible campsite during daylight hours when you’re not utterly exhausted. This allows you to find a site that has a decreased impact on the trail. You’ll disturb more of the natural world when there are no more durable surfaces to camp.

Another LNT principle is to camp and travel on durable surfaces. While you can camp almost anywhere along the PCT, campsites should be at least 200 feet away from the PCT and water sources. 

You may not always have permission to start a campfire. Many places along the PCT do not allow campfires.

In addition, if they allow a campfire, you may need a permit. You may also need a permit for your camp stove and anything else with a flame. So while you may be able to camp almost anywhere, it doesn’t mean you should.

Hammock camping may be a popular option on the Pacific Crest Trail, but is it legal? Find out: Is Hammock Camping Illegal?

13 PCT - My Favorite Campsite on the Entire PCT! WOW!!

How Safe Is the Pacific Crest Trail?

Bears and disease-carrying mosquitoes might become a significant concern on the trail. However, the most prominent danger may be yourself.

The most common injuries on the trail are blisters and sprained ankles. Heatstroke, hyperthermia, and dehydration are common ailments that can become serious. Trust your instincts, learn first aid, prepare, and let people know where you are and where you are heading.

If you’re worried, you may want to have a personal locator beacon on you for your backcountry adventure.

While safety isn’t guaranteed anywhere, hiking the PCT can still be relatively safe. 

Is Hiking the PCT Worth the Time?

So how long does it take to hike the PCT? We’ve tallied the average times, mentioned the costs, and even discussed the fastest time. However, most of your time will be before and after hiking the PCT, pre-planning, and post-rest.

It may only take five months to hike the trail, but the real-time will be the life-long memories you make from hiking the stunning 2,650-mile-long PCT.

Looking for an East Coast thru-hike? Find out: How Long Does It Take to Hike the Appalachian Trail?

Pacific Crest Trail

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About Mortons on the Move

Tom & Caitlin Morton of Mortons on the Move gave up the stationary life for one where they are constantly on the move. They are full-time travelers, television hosts, and digital media producers.
They left their jobs, sold their house and possessions, and hit the road in September 2015 in their full-time “home on wheels”. Since then they have traveled the US, Canada, and even internationally by RV.
Now, they are Discovery Channel & PBS TV Co-stars of The RVers, producers of “Go North” on Amazon Prime, co-founders and instructors of RV Masterclass, and contributing authors for Hwy.co and an Arizona travel guide.

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