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Everything to Know When Planning to Hike the Pacific Crest Trail

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Preparing to thru-hike one of the great American trails is as much about honing your mental state as it is about physical ability or having the right gear. That’s the first lesson Barney Mann, who is known in the hiking community as a true guru of the Pacific Crest Trail, shares. Mann, who goes by Scout on the trail, thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2007, and served as chair of the Pacific Crest Trail Association from 2012 to 2015. He’s also thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, and as PCTA chairman, he was fortunate enough to appear at multiple Wild premieres alongside the cast and Cheryl Strayed. Mann and his wife live near the starting point of the PCT, and host more than 30% of the aspiring thru-hikers each year at their San Diego home.

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We caught up with Mann, whose book “Journeys North,” which chronicles him and his wife’s Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike, was released on August 1, 2020. Mann walked us through everything the budding hiker needs to know when planning to hike the Pacific Crest Trail.

The Most Popular Pacific Crest Trail Route

Majority of hikers—95%—hike northbound, starting in the town of Campo, inland of San Diego, and finishing their hike at the northern terminus, Manning Park. The southbound trek is much less popular because timing weather-wise presents a host of challenges (“the northwest mountains don’t free up from snow until July,” says Mann). As a result, the dropout rate among southbound hikers is high. Ultimately, most thru-hiker hopefuls start in Campo, and from there, “snake [their] way north, largely along the crests of California, Oregon and Washington for 2,650 miles,” says Mann.

How Long Does Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail Take?

Hiking the entire 2,650 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail takes most thru-hikers five months. It took Mann and his wife, whose trail name is Frodo, exactly 155 days—and they hiked the trail at 47- and 55-years-old. To finish the trail in five months, thereby avoiding the winter season entirely, hikers have to cover at least 20 miles a day.

The best time to start hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is between mid-April and early-May, which means finishing in September or October.

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The Resources and Permits Every Pacific Crest Trail Thru-hiker Needs

Thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail has grown exponentially in popularity following the success of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild and of course, the movie of the same name featuring Reese Witherspoon. Between mid-April to early May, 50 permitted hikers can start each day and those permits are in seriously high demand. The long-distance PCT permits, available through the Pacific Crest Trail Association, are free and must be applied for well in advance. To begin hiking in April, your first opportunity to apply for a long-distance permit is six months prior to your start, in October.

Not only do hikers apply for permits through the Pacific Crest Trail Association’s website, they also use it as a go-to resource. Mann recommends mining the site for information, as well as buying a copy of Yogi’s Pacific Crest Trail Handbook.

Physical Preparation and Pacific Crest Trail Gear

Before you embark on the Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike experience, Mann recommends a three-pronged approach to preparation. He says you need to be prepared mentally, physically, and with your gear. In terms of mental preparation, Mann reminds hikers, “the most important muscle is inside your head.”

But beyond wrapping your head around the idea of hiking 2,650 miles, Mann recommends, for those in good physical shape already, at least two five-mile hikes a week for the two months prior to your start on the PCT.

In terms of gear, everyone has their own opinions on what’s the ideal “base weight” for a pack. Fortunately, because Mann hosts more than a third of the thru-hikers at his home each year, he’s seen it all in terms of what people stuff into their pack, and how much a good pack weighs.

The first thing to know is that thru-hikers discuss the pack weight in terms of “base weight,” which Mann explains “is the weight [of your pack] without water, food, or a fuel canister.”

He says if hikers can start with a base weight of about 20 pounds, that’s ideal—though some start with closer to 40 pounds and end up shedding weight at every possible opportunity. Mann’s personal starting base weight is about 10 pounds.

In terms of gear shopping, he recommends hikers start with the big three: the backpack itself, your tent, and your sleeping bag. Beyond those headline items, hikers will add clothes, electronics (perhaps including an external battery, phone, camera, or kindle), a sleeping pad, cooking utensils, a water purifier, a small first aid kit, and other personal necessities to their base weight.

The Best Landmarks on the Pacific Crest Trail

As you start planning your Pacific Crest Trail trek, one of the best ways to mentally prepare is, of course, to let yourself get excited for the famed landmarks you’ll encounter along the route. Starting near the Mexican border in Campo, hikers will hike the southern California mountain ranges—”the Lagunas, San Jacintos, the San Bernardinos, the San Gabriels,” offers Mann.

Farther north in California, hikers hit the Sierra Nevada, which Mann qualifies as the “crown jewel of the PCT.” Once hikers pass Kennedy Meadows at mile 702, they’ll embark on 210 miles of roadless trail, which Mann says is the “longest roadless trail in the country.” In the Sierra Nevada, Mount Shasta is the long-awaited peak.

“You can see Mount Shasta for over 350 miles on the trail,” says Mann. “It’s a big deal.”

By the time you cross the California-Oregon border at 1,700 miles, you’re three months in. For those who want to try trekking parts of the Pacific Crest Trail but not attempt a thru-hike, Mann says “section hiking” just the Oregon or Washington parts of the trail is quite popular. In Oregon, his favorite landmarks are Crater Lake, the Three Sisters, and of course, Mount Hood and the famed Timberline Lodge. In Washington, few sights compare to the Northern Cascades vistas and The Bridge of the Gods, which is a sight prominently featured in Wild. Finally, the trail terminates at Manning Park, where PCT hikers officially become thru-hikers.

There’s just one catch. Once you finish the trail at Manning Park, “you still have to hike the eight miles out,” says Mann.


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