Do I need a permit? Yes.
The Pacific Crest Trail Association is the managing entity for PCT Long-distance permits. If you plan to hike 500 miles, or more, along the PCT then you will need to obtain one of these permits. Anyone that has researched the PCT prior to 2020 will want to note the following significant changes in effect. There are two new changes for 2020 permit holders, going forward, and a permit issuance change due to COVID-19.
NOBO (Northbound) Hikers: You must complete the Southern Sierra section from Kennedy Meadows South to Sonora Pass, in a continuous hike within 35 days. There are no change of directions, flip-flops, skips, do-overs, take-backs or whoopsie-daisies allowed. Your NOBO permit means you have to keep hiking northbound. In years past, hikers may have run into high snow levels in the Southern Sierra, skipped ahead and returned to complete this section under better trail conditions, also often referred to as a flip-flop. In order to protect the trail, environment and experience, this new rule has been put in place. It will help spread the number of hikers out, rather than everyone crossing the trail at the same time in the summer. If you do decide to skip north, your permit is still valid to continue hiking north. Should you return to the Southern Sierra, you’ll need to obtain a separate local permit for that section.
SOBO (Southbound) Hikers: As the PCT has attracted more and more hikers every year, more hikers are attempting a SOBO hike. In order to more evenly disperse the number of hikers starting each day and the toll on the trail, there will only be 15 permits issued per day to begin at the northern terminus. I’ll address this more in my SOBO alternative option article.
The PCTA announced in September that there will NOT be any permits issued in October for the PCT 2021 season...yet. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and all the uncertainty that comes along with the spread of the virus, the PCTA decided to announce early and responsibly that there will not be any PCT permits issued in October for the 2021 season. They will continue to monitor the situation and if deemed appropriate and safe, they will issue permits in January. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, along with every other hopeful hiker, for 2021.
Step 1: Mentally commit to your PCT thru-hike
I think the best way to ensure you get a permit is to commit to hiking the PCT. I don’t mean sell your house, your truck and your dog before you get your permit (that sounds like a country song). Especially with the wildcard that COVID-19 has thrown at the world. What I mean is, commit mentally that you will be hiking the PCT. Begin planning your life and saving toward your hiking budget around the fact that you will be living on the PCT for however many months you estimate it will take you to hike 2,650 miles. This will be somewhere between 3-6 months of your life.
How can you commit to hiking for 3-6 months? It’s not for everyone, but it’s also not impossible. I wrote down a quote I came across that says, “If it is important you, you will find a way. If not, then you will find an excuse.” My wife and I each wrote down 3 goals in 2019. One of mine was to thru-hike the PCT.
Since we wrote down our goals we have made some pretty significant changes in our lives. We both resigned from our careers. We got rid of most of our possessions. We found remote sources of income by teaching English as a second language online, while we both work on our passion projects. (Hint: you reading this now is continuing to inspire me to pursue my passion for writing.) I obsessively read everything I can about the PCT and thru-hiking. The life decisions I have made have allowed me to tailor my life to plan and complete a PCT thru-hike.
Cool story Dan, but that can’t work for everyone. You are absolutely correct. What changes I make will not work for others. Just like, the decisions others make will not work for me. I think this applies well beyond thru-hiking and the PCT. The goals each individual has are for them to pursue and prioritize in their own individual life. Whatever it is that is important to you, then you need to work towards that every day. Small, actionable steps. If a thru-hike is truly important to you, then you will find a way.
Step 2: Apply for your PCT permit.
Under normal circumstances, permit launch day is October 29 for the upcoming hiking season. You’ll need the following information to complete your online application:
On the morning of launch day it is recommended you open the permit page a few minutes before the page is active, which is 10:30am PST. You will be placed in line at random. Be prepared to wait up to 3 hours to submit your application. When it is your turn you will have ten minutes to complete the permit application. Now the exciting part; You will get to see what start dates have openings available, and select the official start date of your PCT thru-hike!. The prime start dates are mid-April to early-May. More on this later.
*Due to COVID-19 the PCTA will NOT be accepting permit applications October 2020. Hopeful hikers will have to wait until January 2021 to see if permits will be issued.
The PCTA will begin approving permits 1-3 weeks after the application day. You can check your application status online. Once your permit status is “approved”, you can begin reserving logistics, like flights for example.
During the first round of permit applications (normally in October) the PCTA will issue 35 permits per day for NOBO hikers. In January there will be another 15 permits issued per day. In total, 50 permits per day are issued to hike the PCT NOBO. 50 permits means 50 individuals per day. This season we can expect all 50 permits per day to be issued in January 2021. Fingers crossed.
If you are mentally committed to this hike, then you will be flexible with your start date. During the application phase, be prepared to start on a weekday, rather than a weekend. If your ideal week is full when it’s your turn to apply, then being able to move your start date a week in either direction will allow you to successfully obtain your permit. A few days earlier or later is not a deal breaker when you are talking about a thru-hike that will last months.
Later, you will receive an email notifying you that your permit is available to print on the Permit Management Portal. The PCTA states, “You must print it out and carry a physical, paper permit with you on the trail. Digital versions are not allowed.” I’d recommend also taking a photo of your permit on your phone too. Just in case. (For those ultralight hikers, a single sheet of paper weighs 0.16 ounces.)
How much does the permit cost? $0.00. That’s right folks. You can hike the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail from Mexico to Canada, and the permit costs you nothing. Enjoy that, because you’ll spend thousands of dollars on food and gear. We’ll talk about a thru-hiking budget later on, in depth.
Step 3: Make logistical commitments once your permit is approved.
Once your application is approved, then begin making logistical arrangements and life commitments to your thru-hike. Are you moving out of your current home? Are you selling your home? Are you taking a leave of absence from your current work? Are you resigning or retiring from your career?
One thru-hiker we came across on the JMT, was a guy that said the only days he had not hiked the PCT were the days he had to get off the trail to sign paperwork to sell his home. Then he got back on the trail and kept hiking. He was committed.
Are there any other permits required? Can I hike to the peak of Mount Whitney? Do I need a JMT permit too? Can I hike into Canada?
California Fire Permit: You can find the link and information here. This permit is also free. You’ll need this permit even for cooking with a camp stove. If you are cold soaking your food and will never have a campfire, in permitted areas, then you can skip this. The majority of everyone else, you will need this.
Due to the popularity of the Sierra Nevada with PCT thru-hikers, JMT hikers, and weekend hikers there are some restrictions with specific camping areas and the PCT permit. You’ll want to review these areas before entering the Sierra section of your hike. Yes, you can day hike from the PCT to Mount Whitney and then back to the PCT.
Having hiked the JMT in 2018 (humble brag), I would consider obtaining the extra permits for camping at places like Guitar Lake and Thousand Island Lake. You will not regret it. If your mileage or schedule doesn’t line up with camping at these locations, no big deal. But if you find yourself ready to set up camp and spend the night next to picturesque, alpine lakes, then you’ll be happy you have the necessary permit.
Canada PCT Entry Permit: Currently the Canada border is closed to entry from the US. If this changes before the 2021 hiking season then you will need to complete this application process before beginning your hike. Alternatively you can turn around, and re-hike the trail 30 miles back to Harts Pass on the Washington side of the border. Note that if you do enter Canada and head to Vancouver for example, as a US citizen, you will need your passport to re-enter the US.
Mentally commit to your PCT thru-hike.
Apply for your permit.
Logistically commit once your permit is approved.