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Thru-Hiker FAQ

How long does it take to hike the trail?

It depends on your hiking style, how many rest days you take, and if you do any peak bagging or take alternate routes along the way. The quickest thru-hike we know of was around 40 days. If you hike an average of 15 miles a day and don’t take any rest days or alternate routes, you will finish in around 80 days. Most hikers seem to finish in 60-70 days.

Where does the trail start? How do I get there?

Most hikers start at the Continental Divide at Chief Mountain Customs, in the northeast corner of Glacier National Park.  The easiest option for getting to the trailhead is to have a friend drive you up and drop you off. However there are transit options available. The East Side Shuttle starts running on July 1st of each year. The shuttle can bring you to Chief Mountain Customs from East Glacier (where there is an AMTRAK station) or from Two Medicine (where you will need to pick up your backcountry permit.)

Some hikers choose to hike eastbound from the western terminus at Cape Alava on the Pacific Coast in Olympic National Park. To get to Cape Alava, you will start hiking from the Park’s Ozette Ranger Station (where you get your wilderness camping permit.) If you don’t have someone to drop you off, transit options aren’t as easy on this end. From Seattle / SeaTac Airport, it is possible to get to Clallam Bay (30 miles north of Ozette) via a series of buses and a ferry (see the Jefferson County Transit and Clallam Transit websites.) Or, check with Olympic National Park or the Clallam Bay Sekiu Chamber of Commerce about private shuttles operating in the area. PNT hiker Barefoot Jake wrote up some good tips for “buspacking” on the Olympic Peninsula.

When should I start?

The PNT crosses three major mountain ranges:  the Rockies on the east end, the Olympics on the west end, and the Cascades in between. The snow-free season can be pretty narrow.

Most thru-hikers travel westbound. Typically, they start the last week of June or early July, as soon as they hear the snow is manageable on Glacier National Park’s high passes. You can leave later in July and even August, but you may then hit early fall snow in the Olympics. One other advantage of getting the earliest possible start is that you may make it through central and eastern Washington before the worst of the summer heat and wildfire season.

Eastbound hikers have to negotiate a sluggish snowmelt in parts of the Olympic Mountains, where there can be snow on the trail through July or even early August, and then the possibility of early fall snow in the Rockies in September.

Besides snow, another factor to consider is stream crossings. There are a few places on the PNT where hikers negotiate tricky steam fords (Swift Creek near Mt. Baker may be the most notorious.) Rivers and streams run higher in early summer as the snow is melting in the mountains.

What’s the earliest/latest historically people have started?

The earliest recorded start on the PNT was by Cam Hoonan (Swami) who hiked eastbound and started in early June. (Snowshoes were no doubt needed!) We know of westbound hikers who have started in mid-June.

Which direction should I go?

Westbound is by far the most popular way to hike, and most guidebooks are written and organized for west bounders. Like a raindrop (or snowflake?) you start in the Rocky Mountain peaks at the Continental Divide and end up at the Pacific Ocean.

Eastbound has its advantages as well. You will have solitude (and maybe some snow) in the Olympics. The Rockies should be snow-free when you hit them. If you are coming from Seattle, you may have an easier time getting a ride out to Lake Ozette for the start of your trip than trying to find a ride from there.

Flip flopping is always an option too. Flip floppers hike from either terminus to the midpoint in Oroville, WA. From there, you can travel by train, plane, or automobile to the other end and hike toward Oroville again. This also is an option for those who wish to hike half one year and the other half another.

What's the deal with the Alternates vs. Original vs. Future routes?

Many maps, including the PNTA’s own strip maps, show multiple route options. The terminology is confusing, especially since the PNT is a relatively young trail in comparison to the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail and is therefore still in a period of growth and change.

The original route is the route created by PNT visionary Ron Strickland. Ron’s guidebook describes both the “practical route” (one possible to hike at the time of writing) and suggestions for an “ideal route” that could be built in the future to provide the ultimate hiking experience.

Alternate routes are routes may have been part of the vision for the trail at one point, or they may simply be other ways for hikers to get to the same place while getting a different experience or seeing a different part of landscape. Or, alternate routes may be better trails for horse riders where the main route is impassable or closed to stock.

The Congressional route is the one officially designated by Congress in 2009 when the PNT became a National Scenic Trail. This is mostly important for the Forest Service, which is the agency Congress charged with being responsible for administering the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail. The Forest Service is in the process of writing a comprehensive management plan for the trail; one thing they will consider as part of the planning process is whether there are places on the trail where the official route should be changed. (You can follow and weigh in on the plan.)

The PNT is still in the process of change. We are continuously advocating for opportunities to create a better experience for trail users. Eliminating long road walks. Moving from abandoned trails onto trails that will actually be maintained. Connecting to trail towns and local trail systems. We work with land managers to refine the PNT route while staying true to what makes this trail so special. In some places we have a good idea of where the route can shift so that the future trail is safer, more enjoyable, and more in line with what hikers expect of a National Scenic Trail.

All that being said, oftentimes due to fires, harsh snows, or injuries a hiker may have to—or just want to—veer off the PNT as shown on the map and take a different route. The PNT has always been a “choose your own adventure”-style trail, allowing the hiker to decide how they want to cross over various mountain ranges, water crossings, and forests. As far as we’re concerned, if you hike from the Continental Divide in Glacier National Park to Cape Alava on the Pacific Ocean or vise versa, you have successfully completed the PNT.

Do I need a permit?

Yes, in the three National Parks! Permits are required for camping within Glacier National Park, the North Cascades National Park Complex, and Olympic National Park. There is no Long-distance Permit offered for the PNT. Hikers need to work directly with each of the parks to get the necessary permits.

Entrance fees may be required for National Parks. Recreation passes or fees may be needed for some Forest Service and Washington State Parks trailheads and recreation sites. Permitting information for National Parks can be found on the PNT in National Parks Page.  We are currently working to get updated permitting information for other aspects of the trail. 

Where can I resupply?

The Pacific Northwest Trail runs through or near 18 different trail towns. Some are no more than a small general store/gas station while others have supermarkets, restaurants, and big-box retailers. You can find re-supply information in Melanie Zimmerman’s Pacific Northwest Trail Town Guide or on the PNTA Forum

Where can I mail supplies to myself?

Melanie Zimmerman’s Trail Town Guide has good information on the services available in each town (post office, general store that will hold boxes.)  Be sure to call each place ahead of your departure to confirm they will be able to hold boxes for you. Check out our page on How to Prepare for an in-depth guide.  For a list of re-supply locations, visit the PNTA Forum

Is it easy to find campsites?

There are specific sites marked on the Pacific Northwest Trail Association strip maps as well as maps made by the Forest Service and Park Service. When looking for a campsite, be sure to check with the land agency to follow the protocol of that region.

Much of the Pacific Northwest Trail is on National Forests (seven different Forests, to be exact) where dispersed camping is generally allowed and free.

In National Parks, a backcountry camping permit is required for all overnight stays. Permits cannot be self-issued at the trailhead and must be arranged with the Park in advance of your arrival. Camp only in designated campsites! Please see our page The PNT in the National Parks for more information.

State parks have developed car campgrounds and may have hike-in sites.

On other parts of the trail, such as private timberland, the landowner only allows the trail on private property with the stipulation that there is no overnight camping.

Trail towns have a range of accommodations from high-end lodges to hostels to city parks and athletic fields where you can pitch a tent. Check out the Trail Towns page for a list of trail towns and link to the Resupply List of Towns and Resources on the PNTA Forum.

If you are in a bind, call the PNTA office, we will do our best to connect you with a local trail angel who may be able to help you find a place to sleep.

Where can I report trail conditions?

The Facebook group 'PNT Hikers' has emerged as the best place to get info out quickly to other hikers. You can also call our office at 877-854-9415 or contact the local land manager . Of course, in an emergency situation such as a wildfire or mudslide, call 911 or activate your personal locator beacon. (Cell phone reception is spotty. Be aware that 911 calls from the backcountry may go to dispatch centers at a distance from the trail—Seattle, or even Canada.)

If it’s not an immediate concern, the PNTA thru-hiker survey is a good place to report on general conditions and also specific problem areas in need of TLC. We use the feedback from thru-hikers to plan our volunteer and youth trail crew work and to notify local land managers.

Are there plentiful water sources along the way?

The Pacific Northwest is known for its rainy wet weather but there are stretches along the trail where water is sometimes hard to come by. Sections in Eastern Washington are known for their dryness, and finding a water source especially high on a ridge may prove difficult. It’s counterintuitive, but the Olympic Coast is one of the sections where freshwater is scarce. Our How to Prepare guide has some useful tips for maintaining and treating your water supply! Always be sure to know your sources ahead of your next day on the trail.

Do I need to bring a bear canister?

You are not required to carry a bear canister on most of the trail.

Olympic National Park has two areas (Seven Lakes Basin, Olympic Coast) where bear-resistant canisters (bear-resistant panniers for stock) are required. In Glacier National Park and North Cascades National Park Complex, food storage regulations allow other methods, such as using a Park-provided food storage locker or using appropriate methods to hang food. All three parks make bear-resistant containers available for check out. Please see our “PNT in National Parks” page for details.

Hikers who own their own bear-resistant canister may want to use it canister for the required sections and then ship it out at the next trail town.

Please note that grizzlies and black bears can be seen on many sections of the trail even outside the National Parks. Be bear aware. Hanging your food/other scented items and cooking at least 100 yards from where you sleep will help keep you (and the bears) safe.

What kind of weather can I expect?

What’s the first thing you think of when you think of the Pacific Northwest? Rain. If you live in Seattle, that’s the weather you experience nine months of the year.

But that’s not necessarily what you’ll get on the PNT.

Summer is our best weather. Unlike the Midwest and East Coast, we don’t get the summer humidity and regular afternoon storms. Summer tends to be dry.

The climate is dramatically different on the west and east sides of the Cascades, and even the west and east sides of the Olympic where a rain shadow keeps Sequim dry while Forks drips with moss.

In central and eastern Washington, summer can be very hot, in the 90s and 100s. Summer storms do bring rain, often with high winds and lightning in the mountains that keep everyone anxiously watching for wildfires and hikers cursing new blowdowns.

West of the Cascades, summer tends to be mild (70s and 80s) and idyllic. Up at elevation, though, an early fall cold front can bring freezing temperatures and soggy snow. Western Montana is similar.

It’s hard to predict what you will experience. Some hikers have experienced virtually no rain the entire trip, while for others a non-rain day was a rarity. From snow in the mountains and heavy rains (just about anywhere!) to scorching sun, be prepared for the elements.

What maps should I bring? Do I even need paper maps if I have a GPS?

It is always good to be safe and carry the section maps of where you are hiking, even if you do have a GPS.  The PNT is known for being difficult to navigate, but with the right tools and skills hikers can be successful. Check out our Maps section on our website for free printable PDF’s of the entire trail.

Looking for maps for a specific area along the trail? The PNT is shown on newer maps from National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated series as well as on U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps. It is being added to U.S. Forest Service maps as they are updated.

Many use maps that are created by past thru hikers. Reaching out to the PNT hiking community would be a good start to finding alternative maps.

Have questions about maps? Call our office:  877-854-9415

Do I need a GPS?

You do not need a GPS to complete the trail, but it can be very helpful.

How difficult is the trail to follow?

Unlike the more-traveled, long-established Appalachian Trail (AT) and Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), the Pacific Northwest Trail is known among hikers as being one of the more difficult long-distance trails to navigate. The route uses some trails that get very little traffic beyond our 10-15 thru-hikers a year and may not be recently maintained. In other places, you might stand at the intersection of a web of near-identical forest roads, wondering which one to take.

Since the PNT is a relatively young National Scenic Trail, there is still not much signage along most of the route. Unlike the PCT, there is not a single trail number used to identify it from end to end.

We are working to make the PNT easier to navigate by increasing signage along the trail and improving maps. In the meantime, we strongly encourage you to read recent thru-hikers’ trip journals to see other hikers had difficulty and to be sure you practice to get confident in your map and compass skills before you go.

How dangerous is the trail?

There are some dangers inherent to backcountry hiking, especially if you opt to solo hike.

Make a plan for how you will communicate in case of an emergency.

Cell phone reception is unreliable in the remote and rugged terrain where you will be traveling. Be aware that 911 calls may go to distant dispatch centers—perhaps even in Canada.

Carrying a SPOT beacon will allow you to send regular reminders to friends and family that you are safe and even show them your location on a map. An emergency button alerts local authorities of where you are and that help is needed.

Be sure to also self-register at trailheads. This not only helps the local land manager have a better idea of who is using trails and how, it also creates a record of when you were there and where you were headed in case emergency responders need to locate you.

How many other people can I expect to see on the trail?

Along most of the trail, you will enjoy a fairly quiet experience, so either bring a friend or savor those encounters when you make them. In some parts of the trail, especially the Puget Sound region, you may be surrounded by people. (Fun fact:  the Deception Pass Bridge gets more than 2 million visitors each year.)  

Compared to the more-traveled, long-established Appalachian Trail (AT) and Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) that get hundreds of thru-hikers each year, the Pacific Northwest Trail gets 10-20. (We do expect that number to grow in the coming years more people learn about the trail.)

Another difference is that for most of its route, the Pacific Northwest Trail uses trails that have relatively low local use by day hikers or overnighters. PNT thru-hikers may go several days without seeing another person.

That being said, friendships are forged on this trail. Meeting up with another PNT thru-hiker is special. Thru-hikers have amazing stories of the kindness of people in the towns and communities the trail goes through, many of whom are part of our growing network of trail angels. And, of course, we love it when thru-hikers visit the PNTA at our office in Sedro-Woolley, just a short jump off the trail.

Can I thru-hike with my dog?

Dogs can make great companions along the Paw-cific Northwest Trail.  (Just ask Fronkey!) Dogs are allowed on the PNT except in National Parks  where dogs (other than service animals) are prohibited on trails and in the backcountry.

Practice Leave No Trace principles even with dogs. Be prepared with bags to pack out your dog’s waste or a trowel to bury it in a cathole. Some places may require or request that you keep your dog on a leash.

Thru-hikers crossing Puget Sound from Whidbey Island to the Olympic Peninsula on the Washington State Ferry are allowed to walk on with their dogs and stand in the external passenger spaces. For more information, see Washington State DOT’s ferry pet policy.

I just finished my hike, where can I get my patch?

Congratulations! Please check out our 1,200-Miler Page for info on how to send us your information, how to get on our Hiker Yearbook, and also how to let us know how your journey went by filling out our PNT Thru-hiker Survey.