You’re doing it. You are thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Most of your time over the next four to six months is spent hiking 8 hours or more each day. Some of your time is spent sleeping. But sleeping where? Can you camp anywhere on the PCT?
The answer is: No, you cannot camp just anywhere you want on the trail. While the PCT might sometimes look like one big campground with plenty of flat spots, you cannot make any place you want your campsite. Because of course, how flat a campsite is should not be the only criteria to consider for what makes an acceptable campsite.
The good news is though, there are plenty of campsites along the trail. The PCT has so many beautiful spots calling your (trail) name to camp, that you should have no issue finding a place to sleep each night. When I thru-hiked the PCT in 2015, I never had any trouble finding a place to camp and still managed to respect the general camping guidelines.
So how do you know where you can camp on your thru-hike? It helps to know about a few tips you can (and should) follow and specific things you need to know about camping on the PCT, so that you don’t end up wandering around all night looking for a place to sleep.
Because other than running out of water in the desert, there is almost nothing worse than hiking at night alone when you were not planning on it.
There Is a Permit Required for Camping
First and foremost, there is one big permit you need in order to thru-hike and camp on the PCT. This biggie is the PCT Long-Distance Permit, which you can get from the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA). It’s a free permit with a cap issued at 50 permits each day for thru-hikers starting at the Mexico border.
This is so that hundreds of people are not showing up on the same day to start their thru-hike (going northbound is still significantly more popular than southbound). Even if you’re going southbound, you still need to get this permit. Hint: If you plan on hiking more than 500 miles, then you are also required to get a long-distance permit.
The PCT passes through seven national parks, 26 national forests, 5 state parks, and four national monuments. The long-distance permit gives you permission to hike the trail and camp along it, in most areas, without having to get a permit for every single campsite and for every single park you walk through.
Essentially, the long-distance permit means you get to camp along the PCT corridor. This means camping at least 200 feet away from the trail and water sources. This also means no camping on side trails and alternate routes. And regardless of whether you are hiking northbound or southbound, camping rules are the same.
How to Choose a Spot to Camp
Once you have a long-distance permit, you can camp in places along the PCT. But how do you know which places, specifically, you can set up your tent each night and call it a day? It helps to know that most of the camping spots on the PCT are dispersed campsites. This means the campsites are on National Forest lands, outside of a designated campground.
There are no toilets, no trash cans, no treated water, no picnic tables. You’ll be able to easily spot these areas because of two main reasons:
Your PCT hiking apps will show you where these campsite are (see below for more detail) and because they are obvious – you can tell which spots are where people have camped before because there is a smooth, flat outline of where tents have been placed and they are on durable surfaces.
One of the major things to note about camping on the PCT is that it’s important to follow the Leave No Trace (LNT) practices for this. What exactly does LNT mean when it comes to camping? One of the things it means is that you should avoid camping in sensitive areas.
For example, you’ve hiked 20 miles, the sun is setting and you are ready to pass out. If all you see around you are flowers, lichen, plants, and other sensitive materials that will be impacted (crushed) by your body weight and gear, you should keep walking and find another spot.
Practicing LNT also means that when you camp on durable surfaces, like a rock ledge or a dispersed campsite, make sure to leave the area as you found it. So that means putting sticks back that you might have brushed away, not digging up dirt around your site, replacing any rocks you might have moved.
If that reads as nitpicky, try thinking of it this way: Thousands of people each year are thru-hiking the PCT. That is thousands and thousands of footsteps over the same areas, making a huge impact on the land. If we want to have access to the land the PCT crosses, we need to do our part to protect it. If we want others to have access to the trail in the future, that means leaving an area the same as when we found it.
Helping You Know Where to Camp: Hiking Apps
There are two apps I cannot recommend enough for your thru-hike of the PCT, especially when it comes to knowing where to camp. They are Halfmile’s PCT app and Atlas Guides, previously named Guthook Hikes.
Each of these identifies practically everything you need to know for the trail, with campsites being one of those important things. With these apps, you’re able to see which campsites are coming up, how many miles away they are so that you can plan accordingly, water sources along the way to them, and elevation gains and losses.
I recommend using both of these apps, since I found they balance one another out very well. Not to mention, every so often one app will list a campsite the other one isn’t identifying. Halfmile’s PCT app is free. Atlas Guides costs $29.99, or you can buy sections of the trail for $7.99 each. It is worth every penny, in my opinion.
Because again, for some people, it might not be fun to hike around in the wilderness by yourself in the dark, all because you can’t find a place to setup your tent. These apps do a great job at preventing that from happening (unless of course, you prefer that type of adventure).
Where You Absolutely Cannot Camp (Unless You Get the Specific Permit)
There are four specific areas where you cannot camp along the PCT, unless you get a specific permit for each of these sections. They are: North Cascades National Park (Washington), Obisidian Limited Entry Area (Oregon), Pamelia Limited Entry Area (also in Oregon), and Mt. Whitney (California).
Before you panic about where to camp in these areas, know that there are still plenty of camping options along the trail. First off, Obsidian Limited Entry Area and Pamelia Limited Entry Area are both such tiny sections, it’s easy to plan your day around them, either stopping before or after you walk through.
Second, your PCT apps (mentioned above) will also remind you that you cannot camp in these areas and to plan accordingly.
For camping in North Cascades National Park, you have to camp at a designated campground. This means you cannot camp just anywhere along the trail in this area. So, when you hike through North Cascades National Park, you can’t decide last minute that you want to camp on the park grounds.
This is something you will need to decide in advance that you want to do, and then get a permit for the Park. However, this section is only 17 miles, so you can easily pass through the area and avoid camping. All it takes is a little planning with your mileage the day before.
Now, the big area where you cannot camp is Mt. Whitney, BUT, with a PCT long-distance permit, you actually can day hike from the trail to Mt. Whitney’s summit. The keyword being day hike, so that means you cannot camp at Guitar Lake or on the summit, or hike down and camp to Whitney Portal. You need to go up to the summit, turn around and come back to the PCT in that same day. This is very doable.
Choose Your Overnight Location Early
When it comes to choosing a campsite, the PCTA strongly emphasizes that this means planning ahead. Try to figure out where you are going to camp early in the day, rather than last minute as the sun is going down and you are feeling rushed to find something. Remember, stick with campsites that have already been used, avoid sensitive areas, and stay at least 200 feet off the trail and from water.
Leave your campsite as you found it. If you follow these points, you should have no problem finding an acceptable campsite each night on your thru-hike.
Carly Moree is the Owner & Founder of Rocky Mountain Hiking Company. She was the first woman to attempt the men’s unsupported record on the 223-mile John Muir Trail/Nüümü Poyo. She is the co-author of the popular thru-hiking book Pacific Crest Trials, and has hiked and run thousands of miles on trails, including the Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim, both the Pacific Crest Trail and Appalachian Trail, and the Tahoe Rim Trail. Her work is featured in REI and Larabar and she is the co-host of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s podcast Unlikely Stories.