Getting a Pacific Crest Trail permit is the first step of any PCT thru-hike. A lot of future thru-hikers stress out over this process since it's essentially a lottery. That said, your odds of getting a permit are excellent. However, your odds of getting a permit for one specific date are less excellent.
Despite the permit allocation being randomized to a certain extent, there are still a few things you can do to ensure you maximize your PCT permit success and minimize your PCT permit stress.
1. DON'T STRESS
Honestly, the best piece of advice I can give you regarding Pacific Crest Trail permits is to not stress over which starting date you're going to be able to get.
According to the PCT Survey, each year approximately 65 to 80% of hikers either get the start date they wanted or are happy with their start date. Around 10 to 20% of hikers get a start date within five days of when they wanted to start, and each year fewer than 10% of hikers (oftentimes under 5%) are unhappy with their permit's start date.
Basically, chances are pretty good that you're going to get a permit for a date you're happy with. It's not like you're trying to get a Grand Canyon rafting permit.
2. Be flexible with dates
Since I know a lot of you are going to ignore Pacific Crest Trail permit tip number one, the next best thing you can do for your PCT permit is to not have a day that you must absolutely begin your hike. Is it possible to get a permit for a specific date? Absolutely. Will it save you a lot of stress if you don't have to begin on a specific date? Absolutely.
And remember, only 70% of the permits are released in November of each year. The remaining permits are (generally) released in January (as in two months after the initial permit release), so if you don't get the date you want the first time around, there's always a chance you can try again in a few months.
The first half of April will likely be the first slots to fill up each year. I've had success starting both my PCT hikes in May, so don't be afraid of a later start. And remember to not start too early.
3. Arrive before the scheduled opening time
Pacific Crest Trail permits are distributed online via a portal that opens (usually at 9 AM Pacific) on the morning of the date permits are to be distributed. You will only be able to navigate to this webpage the day permits open and arriving at this page early will not earn you any benefit. However, arriving late will put you at a disadvantage.
What happens is that at the designated “opening time”, everyone in the waiting room on the PCT permit page will be randomly assigned a place in a queue. It doesn't matter if you've had this page open for three hours or three seconds before the start of the permitting process. Everyone early has equal weight in the random assignment of order. Anyone who arrives at the permit portal following the opening time will be placed at the end of the line.
So if 1,000 people have the portal open before the opening time, all 1,000 have an equal chance of being either first or thousandth in line when permitting opens. The next person to arrive at the portal will be in place 1,001.
4. Have your information ready
Once it's your turn to choose a date and submit a Pacific Crest Trail permit application (i.e. when you've reached the front of the line), you'll have ten minutes to complete your PCT permit application. This is plenty of time to complete the required fields, but if for some reason you're unsure about any of the personal information you'll be entering on the application.
The information required on a PCT permit application is as follows.
- Start date
- Start location (drop-down menu)
- End location (drop-down menu)
- Phone number
- Date of birth
- Method of travel (foot or horse)
5. Use multiple browsers (or private browsing)
Honestly, I'm not sure how the browser-based software used by the PCTA does as far as handling multiple requests from the same IP address, but I do know that you can have simultaneous sessions in different browsers or private/incognito windows. At least this has been the case in previous years.
Will this give you an advantage or will it simply treat you as a single entry (as per your IP) and relegate your other sessions to the back of the line? I'm not entirely sure, but it can't hurt? Some people will likely cry foul at my mentioning this, but I guarantee you there are plenty out there using this strategy – you might as well level the playing field (if it makes a difference).
6. Have the entire morning free
Just because you aren't first in line for a Pacific Crest Trail permit when the application opens doesn't mean you're not going to get the starting date you hoped for. Have hope! You may have to wait as many as three hours after permits open to get a chance to fill out your application.
You'll have an estimated wait time provided to you and you'll be able to enter your email to receive a notification when it's your turn, but you need to be ready when your turn finally comes.
You don't want to be elsewhere when you get to the front of the line.
7. Print your permit (or at least save it locally)
Lastly, once you have your Pacific Crest Trail permit (I know, not a tip for getting a PCT permit, but this is important), print it out before your start date. Ideally, print it out (or save it locally) as soon as you're able – three weeks before your start date.
You will no longer be able to access your PCT permit following your permit's start date, so be sure that you have a copy either printed or saved (or both) in advance of your PCT journey. This information is also on the PCTA's website and will be in the email you receive regarding your permit. I don't know that there will be much sympathy from the PCTA (i.e. no reissued permits) for those who choose to ignore this part of the instructions.
That said, once you print your permit, you lose access to making any changes or canceling your permit. You can print your permit at any point before your start date, so if you might want to make changes or cancel, it is wise to hold off on printing.
If you have more permit questions, head over to the PCTA's permit page.
Ready to fill out a permit application (or get in line)? Here's the link for the Pacific Crest Trail permit.