All the Gear You’ll Need to Hike the Pacific Crest Trail

The 2,663-mile Pacific Crest Trail is a journey that will change your life in more ways than you can imagine.
Pacific Crest Trail

As you make your way from the Mexican border up to the Canadian border (or back the other way), you’ll trek along deserts, glaciers, ancient volcanoes, and old-growth forests. You’ll meet trail angels who will renew your faith in humanity and form close bonds with fellow hikers who, despite the fact that you barely know them, will become like family.

You want to spend the next five months walking across some of the most beautiful backcountry in western America with your entire life crammed into a single backpack.

What do you cram into that backpack?

Before you take those first steps on the trail, you’re going to have to make sure you’ve got the gear you need to make it out in one piece. And despite what you may have seen in a recent Hollywood blockbuster, you really should get to know your gear before you head out on the PCT.

Here’s what you’re going to need to get started on your multi-month expedition through the wilderness of the Pacific Crest Trail.

The big four

The big four—that is, your tent, your sleeping bag, your sleeping mat, and your backpack—are the most important items you’ll have with you on the trail. Quality matters here, so invest in these pieces. You want gear that will last you the entire trail and that will still be kicking when you make it to the maple leaf border.

You want to choose a tent that’s small, lightweight, and weatherproof. Choose a model that is easy to set up—you don’t want to be battling with tent poles when you’re combating fatigue and pesky bugs.

Hiking the PCT in its entirety takes most people four months or more, so chances are good that you’ll trek through at least two seasons. That makes it tricky to pick a sleeping bag suited to the varying temperatures you’re likely to encounter. You want something that will keep you warm at night, but remember—you’re trying to pack light. You can always supplement extra heat by adding layers of clothing.

Your sleeping mat needs to be tough. Remember, unlike some of America’s other great trails, there aren’t many designated campsites along the PCT. You’ll be setting up camp basically wherever you feel like it, which means you’ll be sleeping on all kinds of surfaces. You want a sleeping mat that will help you forget you’re sleeping on tree roots or rocks.

When it comes to your backpack, take the time to adjust it properly to your body. The salesperson at a good outdoor outfitter should be able to help you with this. Bigger isn’t always better. In this case, it just means you’ll lug more unnecessary stuff that you could’ve left behind.

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Tent, bag, mat, and backpack

Hiking clothing

The PCT winds through a variety of climates, from deserts to mountains, and the typical trip spans multiple seasons. You’re going to encounter just about every type of weather you can possibly imagine, and you’ll need the right clothes to get you through it all.

Packing your clothing is a fine balance. You want enough to be able to layer properly, but packing too many pieces will weigh you down and take up valuable space in your pack. At any given time, you’ll have an outfit you’re wearing, and an outfit in your pack. Some hikers also choose to have climate-specific gear shipped to them when they’re in a certain location.

On most days, the clothing on your person will include underwear, hiking socks, a lightweight shirt, and pants that convert to shorts. You’ll also want to pack a thermal bottom and socks for sleeping, one high-quality waterproof shell, a down jacket to layer, a second pair of underwear, a warm hat or balaclava, and gloves.

Don’t forget, you’re hiking on the West Coast—it’s going to be wet, so select your gear accordingly. You may choose to have rain pants and rain mitts delivered to you for wetter parts of the trail like the Sierras, or Oregon and Washington, or you can carry these in your pack if you don’t mind the extra weight.

Yes, things will get filthy and smelly, but nobody cares when you’re out in the woods.

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Hiking clothing

Cooking supplies

You’ll need the right supplies to prepare your food and keep yourself satiated on the trail. Pack a lightweight camping stove and fuel canisters to heat up your meals. When it comes to pots and pans, plates and utensils, look for products that aren’t overly bulky.

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Cooking supplies

Drinking water

Staying hydrated is also extremely important. There are sections of the trail, particularly in Southern California, where there is little to no water. You may have heard about water caches along the trail, but these are never a guarantee.

Intimidated? Check out this guide to being water smart on the PCT. As you’ll learn, a sufficiently large bottle or hydration bladder is a must, as is a means to purify your water, like filters, tablets, purifiers, or UV lights.

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Hydration bladders and water filters

Multiple pairs of running shoes

Your shoes will become your new best friend on the PCT. While hiking boots might seem like a must, most hikers wear standard running shoes – the lighter the shoe, the less weight you’re carrying with you. One good rule is to size up slightly. While you don’t want your feet to slip around (hello, blisters!), your feet will swell a bit while you’re out on the trail.

On a trail this long, prepare to wear through your shoes, and have to buy more along the way.

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Five pairs of running shoes

A first aid kit and safety supplies

Anything can happen out on the trail, and you’ll often be several days away from medical help. Equipping yourself with a first aid kit is just the first step. You have to then learn how to use it. Sign up for a wilderness first aid course so that you know what to do in case of an emergency. Ask employees at your local outdoor specialty store for courses they’d recommend, or check out offerings by the American Red Cross or other similar organizations.

Supplement your basic first aid kit with bear spray, a pocketknife, a map with a plastic protective sheet and a compass, and plenty of waterproof matches. These should keep you covered for a variety of scenarios without adding too much unnecessary weight to your pack.

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Safety gear

Trekking poles

Trekking poles help you conserve energy and hike more efficiently, both of which will benefit you immensely on the PCT. Even if you’re not used to taking them on shorter day hikes, you will not regret toting these along on your trek. As a perk, they don’t take up pack space since you’ll be using them while you’re on the move.

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A pair of trekking poles


When shopping for a headlamp, you’ll notice there is a huge range in terms of price points, with options starting at $20 working up to $100. Take note of lumens, which tell you about the lamp’s light output. Typically, higher lumens mean a brighter light. But these brighter lights run down the battery more quickly, so there’s a tradeoff to consider.

A flood beam light is great if you plan on hiking only by daylight, as the shallower, wide beam is perfect for taking care of business around camp. However, if you plan on doing some hiking at night, a spot beam will help you see farther ahead—though the lit field will be narrower.

A headlamp that offers several different brightness modes will cover you most scenarios. Use the brightest setting when you need extra light, but keep it on the low setting most of the time to conserve precious battery power.

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Food, glorious food

The one thing you will not want to scrimp on is food, which will likely take up the bulk of the weight you carry on your back. Calorie-rich foods are key during the hike, as you will burn up a lot each day. Think about packing corn pasta (as it has more calories than wheat), polenta and dried vegetables for carbs, as well as beef jerky, dried milk and crushed peanut butter for protein. Also, feel free to eat whatever you want – you have a long road ahead each day, and will need to get calories in when and where you can. Yes, you can—and should—eat that ice cream sandwich from the convenience store!

Smart travelers buy up their supplies in bulk, and mail boxes to themselves along the way. This cost-saving measure will help you save money along the way, and will eliminate the need to scour local stores in the spots you stop at.

All in all, food is going to be a large expense, but it’s essential.

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Food for the PCT

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