10 FAQ About PCT Hiking in OR

With the COVID pandemic throwing a wrench into most travel plans this year, it’s a great time to head for the hills. However, escaping into the backcountry to get away from all the chaos comes with a few extra precautions this year—in addition to the normal advisories about snow, water, bugs and wildfires. Here are ten frequently asked questions we’ve been getting from hikers itching to hit the trail this summer. Be safe out there!

1. Can I hike the PCT during COVID?

Even with the coronavirus pandemic sweeping across the country, you can still hike the Pacific Crest Trail in Oregon this summer—with a few caveats and extra safety precautions. After briefly closing all national forests during the initial outbreak, the Forest Service has reopened public lands in Oregon for outdoor recreation, and Crater Lake NP has recently reopened as well. In order to stay safe, and reduce risk to others, the following guidelines have been issued:

  • Avoid distant travel by hiking close to home, and plan to be completely self-sufficient. This will mitigate risks to small, near-trail communities, and not put a strain on limited resources.
  • Hike only with your immediate household, or close associates. Avoid hiking with strangers or in groups where you do not know if persons have been in contact with the virus.
  • Recreate responsibly by planning ahead, checking trail/road conditions before you go, maintaining good physical distancing between yourself and others, and packing out all trash.

For more information and safety recommendations, visit the Oregon Health Authority. This situation will likely continue to evolve through the summer, so follow PCT: Oregon for the latest updates.

2. When can I hike the PCT in Oregon?

Oregon’s PCT hiking season typically lasts from July to October. This is when the trail is generally clear of snow and the weather is mostly favorable. The 2020 hiking season is shaping up to be a fairly normal year, with plenty of snow in the higher elevations—Diamond Peak, Three Sisters, Mount Jefferson, etc.—that will likely linger into July. You can expect both mosquitoes and water to be abundant in early summer, with wildflowers at their peak. Summers can get quite warm, especially on the drier east side, so plan to carry extra water and plenty of sun protection. This year is also expected to be a drought year, so water will start diminishing significantly as summer progresses, and high fire danger is expected. Carry a good map with you, and have an escape route planned if the need arises. Check our Conditions page for links to useful trail information as the season progresses.

3. How hard is it to hike the PCT in Oregon?

With a little stamina, endurance and conditioning, hiking the PCT in Oregon is not difficult. Most of the terrain along the PCT in Oregon is very mild to moderate—and hiking northbound is the easier direction, with most ascents being quite gradual with few steep sections. Campsites along the trail are fairly plentiful and easy to find, and there are several Resorts* near the trail for taking breaks, getting burgers and pizza, and resupplying. Some of the challenges in Oregon are finding water (see below), as there are a few long, dry stretches of trail, and many springs and creeks start to diminish by midsummer. This may require a little extra planning in order to help keep your water bottles full. Recent wildfires in Oregon have done significant damage to the PCT in some areas, and trail crews have been delayed this year due to COVID, so you may find an abundance of downed trees and snags to navigate around. Otherwise, hiking thru Oregon is quite comfortable, with lots of shady forest, sparkling lakes and stunning volcanic peaks.

*Some resorts may be closed this year, or offering limited services due to COVID. 

4. What permits do I need for hiking in Oregon?

You do not need a special permit for hiking the PCT in Oregon. There are, however, a few specific areas that require a permit for backcountry camping. The new Central Cascades Wilderness Permit System has been delayed until 2021, so the older system is still in effect for this summer:

  • Crater Lake NP: Get your free backcountry camping permit in person at Park Headquarters.
  • Three Sisters Wilderness: Get camping permits for the Obsidian LEA at recreation.gov.
  • Mt. Jefferson Wilderness: Get camping permits for Shale/Pamelia Lakes LEA at recreation.gov.

You only need LEA permits for camping in these areas. You do not need a permit just to pass thru. For more information, see our Permits Page.

5. Where can I camp on the PCT?

With a few exceptions, and following a few guidelines, you can camp anywhere you find a flat spot along the PCT. Popular locations, such as trailheads, water sources and viewpoints often have campsites nearby. In addition, there are several developed campgrounds on or near the PCT for convenient camping. A few areas require special camping permits (as noted above), and a few short stretches cross private property (e.g., near Mt. Ashland) where camping is not permitted. It is best to use already impacted campsites that adhere to Leave No Trace (LNT) practices. There are many other primitive campsites along the trail that may not adhere to LNT, and it’s up to your own judgment whether to use or not to use these. For more info on PCT camping, visit our Camping Page.

6. Where can I find water on the PCT?

Acquiring fresh water on the PCT in Oregon can be challenging in some areas, particularly in the southern regions. This may require you to detour off the PCT to local lakes, streams or springs. These water sources can range from a few hundred yards up to a mile off the trail. Many of these water sources make good places to camp. There are a few extra-long waterless stretches of PCT—up to 24 miles!—where you should carry extra water, especially if you plan to dry camp in between. In some of these long stretches, local volunteer groups may maintain water caches for PCT hikers—but you should not depend on these! These caches often run out during peak season. Also, many of the small springs on or near the PCT are seasonal at best, and may run dry later in the summer. Check the PCT Water Report before you head out to see if there might be any issues.

7. What kind of gear do I need to hike the PCT?

In a nutshell, you need everything necessary to keep you warm, safe, comfortable and fed for however long you plan to be on trail. Start with the Ten Essentials. These are a selection of items every hiker should carry for personal safety in the wilderness. This includes a water filtration system, first aid kit, rain gear, light source, etc. Next, a good pair of hiking footwear (and socks) that can handle a variety of terrain, including dirt, rock, lava, mud and perhaps snow. A sturdy shelter and a good sleep system (bag and pad) are also recommended, as good sleep ensures good hiking. You should plan to carry enough food for every day you’re on the trail—plus a little more, just in case of an unplanned delay. A few creature comforts—such as treats or small personal items—can add to your enjoyment, and serve as rewards or pick-me-ups on the difficult days. And finally, a comfortable backpack to carry it all in. You should test all of your gear and get acquainted with it before you get on the trail. Check out our Gear Shop for some of our favorite trail-tested PCT gear.

8. Are there any trail closures this year?

As of late 2019, the entire PCT in Oregon was open and hikeable. Most of the areas damaged by wildfires in 2017 have been repaired. However, new obstructions and challenges appear every year, as winter storms and spring snowmelt often cause new damage. If planning to hike early in the season, be prepared for some scrambling. The Eagle Creek Trail in the Columbia River Gorge remain closed due to extensive fire and landslide damage. The COVID situation has delayed work on this trail, so it is unknown when it will reopen. Portions of the Stuart Falls Trail, which connect the Sky Lakes Wilderness and Crater Lake NP were heavily damaged; its current condition is unknown. Once the hiking season gets under way, you can visit our Conditions Page for the latest trail updates and information. If you are out on the trail and would like to share the conditions you’re encountering, send us an email at info@pctoregon.com.

9. I want to hike ___ miles. Where should I go?

There are lots of options for hiking the PCT in Oregon, short and long. Here are some suggestions with easily accessible starting and ending points:

  • @50 Miles: Section 4A: Willamette Pass to Elk Lake is 46 miles that skirts the Waldo Lake Wilderness and crosses the southern Three Sisters Wilderness. Section 6: Timberline Lodge to Cascade Locks is 50 miles that circuits Mt. Hood and crosses the Hatfield Wilderness. Section 3: Cascade Crest to Willamette Pass is 60 miles that crosses the Mt. Thielsen and Diamond Peak wilderness areas.
  • @100 Miles: Section 4: Willamette Pass to Santiam Pass is 93 miles that skirts the Waldo Lake Wilderness and crosses the entire Three Sisters and Mt. Washington wilderness areas. Section 5: Santiam Pass to Timothy Lake is 96 miles that crosses the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness and Warm Springs Indian Reservation and ends on Mt. Hood.
  • @150+ Miles: Sections 1–2: Donomore Pass to Cascade Crest is 151 miles that crosses the Cascade–Siskiyou NM, Sky Lakes Wilderness and Crater Lake NP. Sections 3–4: Cascade Crest to Santiam Pass is 154 miles that crosses the Mt. Thielsen, Diamond Peak, Three Sisters and Mt. Washington wilderness areas.

Find more information about all of Oregon’s PCT sections in the guidebook, Hiking the PCT: Oregon, then customize a hiking plan that’s suitable for you.

10. What is your advice for first-time PCT hikers?

You do not need to be anxious about hiking the PCT in Oregon. It is a very approachable hike. That said, you should choose your PCT hike for the hiker you are, not the hiker you want to be. Review the mileage and elevation gain/loss of the section(s) you want to hike and build an itinerary that falls within your current ability. Once you get on the trail and find your comfort zone, you can adjust as necessary. 

Don’t be intimidated by experienced hikers who brag about big miles and insist on the latest ultralight gear. You’re hiking the PCT for yourself, not for anyone else, so make it your own. You don’t have to break the bank on the newest high-tech gear, and you don’t have to live off peanut butter tortillas and energy gels. Take the trail as easy as you like, and follow the motto, “Hike your own hike.”

Get acquainted with your gear and trail menu, and make sure you’re comfortable with your selections. Practice setting up your tent in case you need to do it quickly in a storm. Break in your boots, test your rain gear for leaks and make sure you have the correct stove fuel. Sample your trail menu at home before committing to food you may not like when it’s the only thing you may have to eat for days—or weeks!

Know before you go! Before heading for the trail, check the latest weather, water, trail and fire conditions. You can find links and seasonal updates for most of these topics on our Conditions Page. Being properly prepared means you’re ready to handle a variety of situations on trail, but you should not put yourself—or others!—at risk. If in doubt, bow out, and consider an alternative hiking plan.

More questions?

Leave a question below and we’ll be happy to assist. Or, send us an email. Happy hiking!

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