What should a hiker wear on the Pacific Crest Trail? I put together my clothes based on my experience on the Appalachian Trail, and that turned out to be a poor fit for the PCT. Read on, to find out why, and see what I’d take if I did the trail again.
Gear on the Pacific Crest Trail
Some sort of headgear is almost essential on the PCT, thanks to the lack of tree cover along most of the trail. Most people solve this problem with a hat and sunglasses.
A hat keeps the sun out of your eyes and ears from above (and also shades your face, and possibly the back of your neck, so you don’t get as much sunburn). I personally can’t stand hats, since they restrict my field of vision. Instead, I wore a Buff, which at least kept the sun off my forehead and ears, and also helped to keep my hair more manageable.
Sunglasses also help keep the sun out of your eyes, but they serve two other critical roles. First, in the desert, and especially the Sierra where there’s the likelihood of hiking near or across snow, the ground is very lightly colored, reflecting more sunlight into your eyes. (And snow also does a good job of reflecting UV light, leading to more sun damage.)
Additionally, they help keep dust and debris out. The California desert is especially dusty. Wind blowing across snow can blow tiny ice particles around. And anywhere where there has been a fire is going to have tiny ash particles. All of that, you want to keep out of your eyes.
I brought with me a pair of polarized sunglasses I bought several years ago. By the end of the trail, they were a bit scratched up, and while they’re still useful for day-to-day activities, I’d probably get a new pair before my next hike where they’d be necessary.
Expecting a fairly wide range of conditions on the trail (varying from high heat in the desert, to to cold snowy conditions in the Sierra), I carried three different outer layers.
For warmth primarily in camp, I carried an REI down jacket. In practice, I barely ever wore it, and it spent most of its time folded into its own pocket to serve as a pillow. My heaviest piece of clothing, I don’t think it was worth its weight. (My clothes turned out to be a better pillow!) I ultimately put it in my bounce box in Quincy, CA, north of the Sierra, and it remained there the rest of my hike.
For warmth while hiking, I used a lightweight fleece pull-over jacket. If it got wet, it dried relatively quickly. Unless it was very cold (or, cold and very windy), it was usually sufficient to keep my warm, especially if I was hiking.
As an added layer for warmth, and also to stay dry from rain, I used a North Face rain jacket. Especially when coupled with the fleece, it as usually sufficient to keep me warm in most cold conditions I experienced on the trail. In practice, I used it more for warmth than rain protection, since the only time I had any significant amount of rain was in Washington.
Except during the coldest nights, the fleece and rain jacket together were sufficient to keep me warm, especially when hiking.
I also had a pair of Outdoor Research Helium Rain Pants. Like my rain jacket, they worked well at keeping me warm, and so I used them mostly in camp on cold nights. They worked well at this, but not so well at keeping me dry in the rain, thanks to the specific situation in which I used them. The only time I got rained on was in Washington. There was also a lot of low overgrown brush on the sides of the trail there, which meant that in the rain, their leaves were loaded with water. It didn’t take long hiking through that for the rain pants to get overwhelmed with water and become uncomfortable to hike in.
My previous hikes on the AT and LT were largely tree-covered, and while I knew the PCT would be more exposed to the sun, I didn’t fully appreciate how exposed the PCT was until I was already on the trail. I also didn’t appreciate the extent to which there wouldn’t be cloud cover.
Thus, I brought with me the same set of clothing I had on the Long Trail: two pairs of short-sleeved shirts, two pairs of convertible pants, and two pairs of underwear.
The short-sleeved shirts turned out to be a bad idea. The intense desert sun and lack of cloud cover brought the beginnings of a bad sunburn because I forgot to pack sunscreen.
With a short-sleeved shirt requiring no small amount of sunscreen, and my arms still getting sunburned even with sunscreen, once I reached Warner Springs (a week and 100 miles in), I bought a white RailRiders long-sleeve shirt from a gear vendor that set up shop in the parking lot of the town’s community center. That shirt was easily the best $50 I spent on the trail. Besides probably saving at least that much in sunblock over the course of the trail, I wore that shirt every day of hiking afterwards, and though it got a few holes in its shoulders by the time I reached Washington, it made it through the trail exceptionally well — far better than either of the shirts I started the AT with!
The shirt was white; I wanted a light color to reflect as much sunlight in the desert as possible. That might not have been the best color choice; even before I left California, the shirt had permanent dirt stains, and always looked dirty, even when it was clean.
The convertible pants I brought were more suited to the trail than the shirts. By being able to attach and detach the legs as necessary, I had a lot more flexibility without needing to have both long and short pants. Donning or doffing the legs could be done anywhere, and didn’t require privacy. If a second person was around to put them in a pocket on my pack, I could even take them off (or put them on) without needing to take my pack off.
Once I got the long-sleeved shirt, I didn’t wear the shirts I started with. Once I started using a bounce box in Bishop, they were among the first parts of my gear to be sent away. The pants I brought worked much better than the shirts, though eventually it became clear I didn’t need two pairs of pants either.
I brought two complete sets of clothing with me because on the AT and LT, it’s frequently hot and humid, and everything gets wet, sticky, smelly, and doesn’t dry out easily. On the PCT, though, this wasn’t a major concern. Generally, everywhere south of Washington was dry. Most anything wet dried out fairly quickly, and sweat didn’t tend to soak my clothes much. That led me to putting the bottom half of one of my pants in my bounce box in Bishop. Eventually, its top half followed.
I also brought along an extremely lightweight short sleeve shirt, pants, and underwear, which I only used in camp, and in town. I did that for the first time on the Long Trail, as a reaction to my hiking clothes being wet and uncomfortable in camp on the AT. They didn’t get as much use on the PCT because it was so dry, but it was nice to have my own clothes in town. Whenever I needed to do laundry, I didn’t have to borrow clothes, or wait around in my rain gear (which is somewhat uncomfortable when it’s warm out).
I didn’t use them in camp anywhere near as often as I expected, but they got more use in Washington when the weather was less pleasant and my hiking clothes wetter.
You can never have too many socks.
I started the trail with four sets — eight pairs — of socks, and I think I had a fifth set included in bear can that was sent to Kennedy Meadows.
As with my previous hikes, I wore thicker socks over thin sock liners as a method of blister-prevention. This was largely effective (only a few small ones), but I think it probably worked out better than I thought it would. Because of all of the dust in the desert and near burn areas, my feet were frequently far dirtier on the PCT than they were on the AT and LT. Having an extra layer (however thin) between the outside world and my feet helped cut down the amount of dust — and thus, blister-causing friction — that made it to my feet.
After running through a few pairs of Smartwool and REI brand socks (which, as expected, developed holes and were eventually discarded), my main socks on the trail were Darn Toughs. They were easily the best pair of socks I’ve had in terms of longevity, and by the end of the trail, they, and one pair of thick, fluffy Smartwool socks that I usually only wore in camp were all I had left. It seems very likely that my future hikes will all be Darn Tough-powered. In fact, I’ve switched to wearing Darn Toughs on a daily basis, rather than only for hiking.
But, why so many sets of socks?
Well, I expected them to be as wet and not-drying as they were on the AT, so having extra pairs would let me rotate to dry pairs. (I also fully expected several of them to develop holes, so having way more than I needed let me get rid of bad socks and not have to go shopping for more.)
But having as many pairs as I did turned out to be incredibly helpful in the Sierra, where I rotated through three pairs of socks thanks to all of the stream crossings.
While it was always dry out, it was a rare day in the Sierra that didn’t involve fording a creek of some sort, getting my feet wet in the process. I usually arrived at camp with wet socks, and I’d change into a dry pair once camp chores were done.
The wet socks usually didn’t dry out by the next morning, and they weren’t always dry by the evening, but by the second day after, they were always dry. So I wound up taking three days cycle through three pairs of socks, and leaving a fourth pair worn exclusively in camp as an emergency pair.
I reused this strategy again in Washington, where my shoes and socks were constantly wet due to rain.
I went through five pairs of Merrell Moab shoes on the PCT, and they will likely become my new standard hiking boot.
On the AT and LT, I used the Lowa Renegade boot, which is a (somewhat heavy) waterproof boot. But on the PCT, waterproof is a bad idea. If they get wet (such as through sweat), they don’t dry out quickly, and I anticipated a lot of sweating in the desert. In the Sierra, there’d be no way to keep them dry: even waterproof boots can’t keep water out when they’re fully submerged.
The Moabs, by contrast, were very well ventilated (which, no doubt, allowed in lots of dust). That allowed them to dry out reasonably quickly, even when they got completely submerged. They were also not quite as tall as, and a little lighter than the Renegades. They’re not as lightweight as trail runners, but I don’t like trail runners because they don’t feel substantial enough: I’m prone to scraping my feet against rocks and roots, and I need my shoes to be able to stand up to at least a little abuse.
I also carried a pair of Crocs. They primarily functioned as camp shoes, which allowed my boots to air out more, and gave my feet a break from being completely enclosed. I occasionally used them to cross water when I didn’t want to get my shoes wet. I didn’t do that all the time, though; the Crocs didn’t have much traction, and it was time consuming to swap them for my boots, and then swap back.
Sandals would have been lighter than Crocs, but I prefer camp that still let me wear socks: I found that wearing liners with crocs worked out amazingly well in letting my feet air, while still providing enough cover that twigs and leaves don’t get on my feet. I’ve also seen people use Chacos sandals as a camp shoe; while not especially light, they can serve as a backup hiking shoe in an emergency.
I started the trail with a pair of gaiters, ostensibly to keep sand and debris out of my shoes in the desert. But, I never got around to using them. I didn’t really have a problem with large things getting into my shoes, and dust would still have been able to get in via my boot’s ventilation mesh. They wound up being the least useful gear I brought, and I was quite happy to put them in my bounce box in Bishop.
So after all that, here’s what I’d recommend, and be likely to take myself on a future northbound PCT hike:
- hat or buff
- down jacket (if starting early in the season; but send home after the Sierra)
- rain jacket
- one light-colored (though not white) long-sleeved shirt
- one pair of convertible pants
- three pairs of Darn Tough socks
- three pairs of liner socks
- one pair of convertible pants
- your favorite shoe
- one set of lightweight camp/town clothes
- Crocs, or some other lightweight camp shoe
This isn’t an absolutely minimal list. One could easily get by without a down jacket, a set of town clothes, or camp shoes. It’d really depend on the season and weather you’re exposed to. I feel, though, that having only one set of clothes is tantamount to gambling. Only the trail knows what weather conditions or mishaps it’s going to throw at you, and it’s better to be prepared, than sorry.