On the Appalachian Trail, permits are only needed when in the two national parks: the Smokies and Shenandoah. Hikers pick up permits at self-serve kiosks at the entrance to the parks. They are free, do not need to be requested in advance, and do not require approval from a park official. The purpose of these backcountry permits is to collect statistical data about how many people are using the trail so that the National Park Service can report this information to lawmakers and secure money necessary to maintain the trails.
On the PCT the situation is different. Along the trail route permits are used to limit and regulate the number of people in a backcountry area. Out west the lands and plants are more fragile and recover from the impacts of human use more slowly. When too many people are in the same place at the same time, all of whom need to camp, drink water, and poop, a great deal of strain is placed on fragile ecosystems. For example, the PCTA reported that 118 thru-hikers started their trek on the same day in 2014. Since 118 people could not possibly have all camped at Hauser Creek (mile 16), they must have fanned out into the surrounding lands, trampling desert plants and so forth.
The Pacific Crest Trail traverses dozens of different national forests, national parks, state lands, and private property each controlled by a different management agency. Some require overnight permits while others don't. For example, the National Forest Wilderness Areas, National Parks, and California State Parks all require permits, while regular non-wilderness parts of national forests and BLM lands do not.
Section hikers have to fend for themselves and acquire whatever permits are needed in the section they are hiking, but thru-hikers
(anyone hiking 500 miles or more) have it easy. The Pacific Crest Trail Association has worked to make it possible for thru-hikers to obtain a single permit valid for the entire length of the trail. Here are the
- permits are free
- each person must have their own permit (there are no group permits or couples permits)
- a permit is only valid for the person whose name appears on the permit
- northbound hikers beginning at Campo are assigned a specific start date
- only 50 northbound hikers may start from Campo on the same date
- southbound thru-hikers are not assigned a specific start date
- there is no daily limit on how many people may start from the Canadian border
- permits cannot be expedited
- permits allow for camping along the PCT, but not side trails
- the permit does not cover campground fees
- you are required to carry a paper copy of the permit with you - digital versions are not allowed
How to Get a Thru-Hiker's Permit
Apply for your permit online at the PCTA's website. Don't fill out the application more than once or else risk having your application canceled. Approval is not automated — someone at the PCTA reviews and approves your application which takes a couple days. Once your application is processed and approved, the permit is emailed to you. Remember to print it out, since you must carry a physical paper copy. Save the email in case your paper copy is destroyed or lost — that way you can print another copy at a library in town.
When to Apply
The PCTA starts accepting permit applications in either January or February of each year. The exact date changes, and you cannot request a permit early. It's best to choose and commit to a 3-4 day range of start dates that work for you before the New Year and then pounce when the permitting application goes live on the PCTA website. If your first choice fills up before you can get it, you can pick your second choice and so forth.
Northbound hikers are given a specific start date, but adherence to that date is largely voluntary. You may run into Crest Runners during the first couple of days of the hike who will ask to see your permit. Crest Runners are employees of Cleveland National Forest, although not rangers with law enforcement authority. They can however call a ranger to report you. What will the rangers do to you? That's unclear. It's best to stick to your start date and avoid potential trouble.
While in Yosemite National Park, park rangers will absolutely ask to see your permit (and your bear canister), without fail. If you do not have one, you will be escorted off the Trail. There is a jail in Yosemite valley and the rangers have a reputation for being no-nonsense, so don't push your luck and keep your permit in an easily accessible part of your pack while in the park.
Thru-hikers who are under 18 at the start of their trip must include a written and signed letter of consent from a parent or legal guardian with their permit application. The letter must state your start and end dates and locations. During your hike, you must carry this letter with you. The PCTA mentions that permit applications for unaccompanied minors under 16 are reviewed by the U.S. Forest Service, not the PCTA, though it's not clear why or how often such applications are rejected.
Not Starting at Either Terminus?
If you are hiking more than 500 miles but not starting at one of the termini, the permit application requires that you put specific starting and ending locations on your application. The locations must be points on the PCT itself, not something like "Yosemite National Park" or "Oregon," so use Yogi's PCT Handbook, the Databook, or Halfmile's maps to choose specific trail locations (like road crossings and trailheads).
Good news: your thru-hiking permit is a golden ticket to climb Mt Whitney whenever you get there. Lots of people want to climb the highest peak in the lower 48 but have to enter a lottery for a limited number of permits and those permits are only valid for specific dates. PCT thru-hikers on the other hand bypass the lottery and face no restrictions on what dates they can summit. Hurray!
The PCTA says thru-hikers summiting Whitney should camp at Crabtree Meadows, rather than Guitar Lake (which is above treeline and effectively at the base of Whitney).
Additional "Whitney Zone" Permit
The thru-hiking permit only allows you to go up Whitney and then back down the same way you went up, on the west side of the mountain. There is a second trail down Whitney however, on the east side, called the Whitney Trail. It leads to a trailhead called "Whitney Portal" and from there a road leads to the town of Lone Pine. If you'd like to reach Lone Pine to resupply via Whitney Portal, you have to apply for an additional permit, which costs $21. This Whitney Zone permit is not a separate piece of paper but is printed on your thru-hiker's permit. If you go to Lone Pine this way, you are expected to arrive back at Whitney Portal within 48 hours of leaving. It should be noted that most thru-hikers do not do bother with this additional permit.
To legally use your camp stove outside of a developed campground in California you must get a California Campfire Permit. They are free, valid for one year, and constitute an agreement that you will obey fire safety rules. While you can pick up a campfire permit at Forest Service offices, California Division of Forestry offices, and other locations, it's easiest to simply follow this link and print one out.
Frankly, this is a weird permit. To get it you have to watch a video and then pass a quiz on the content of the video. The video addresses campfires, not camp stoves, and the practices demonstrated in the video are extremely outdated, destructive, and irrelevant to backcountry hikers. For example, the video says to clear an area of land 10 feet in diameter where you plan to have a fire. This is incredibly destructive and violates a basic Leave No Trace principle to only use existing campfire rings or not build a fire at all.
After reaching the Northern Terminus, if you want to enter Canada legally you need permission from the Canada Border Services Agency. While in Canada carry a paper copy of your approved Application for Entry into Canada via the Pacific Crest Trail form with you at all times, as well as identification.
U.S. citizens do not need a passport to enter Canada, but will need a passport to re-enter the U.S. (see below). You will need some way to prove to Canadian officials that you are a U.S. citizen however, which could be a birth certificate, enhanced drivers license, or passport.
You should apply for this permit at least two weeks before the start of your hike but no more than three months in advance. You'll need to include color photocopies of your passport and driver's license, so if you don't already have a passport, you need to get that first. When ready, email the application and additional documents to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Questions about the application can be sent to the same email address, email@example.com, or call 1-866-496-3987 then press “0” and ask for the Pacific Crest Trail Coordinator. The PCTA has an FAQ page about entering Canada on the PCT, which covers technical issues like bringing fruit into the country, but the application is pretty straight forward and shouldn't give you too many problems.
You cannot legally enter the U.S. from Canada on the PCT, even if you are a U.S. citizen and have a passport. In other words, you cannot hike from Manning Park in Canada to the PCT at the Northern Terminus then cross the border. The border is patrolled near the PCT and the PCTA stresses that you can get in trouble in its lengthy FAQs about the issue.
Basically, if you finish your thru-hike at the Northern Terminus and continue north into Canada's Manning Park, you will have to re-enter the U.S. at an official border crossing and show either a passport or an enhanced driver's license. If you don't already have a passport or need to renew one, visit the state department's webpage about passports. The Canadian entrance visa asks for a photocopy of your valid passport, so it's best to get a passport early in your preparations.