When I started thinking about hiking the Pacific Northwest Trail, I found that information from previous hikers was incredibly valuable. I want to offer this page as help for people thinking about a PNT hike, one more informational drop in a bucket of thoughts on the trail.
First, why the PNT? I loved hiking this trail. The Pacific Northwest is spectacular and varied, and is worth a sustained walk to explore it. Every day on the PNT holds something new, and over the entire trail a hiker will encounter mountains, forests, deserts, rainforest, the ocean, rivers and lakes, bucolic rural settings, somewhat dense urbanity, all kinds of hiking tread, and countless breathtaking views. Because the trail is so unestablished, hiking it feels like a true modern adventure: you are never quite sure what will happen next, where you’ll be, who you might meet, and what obstacles you’ll have to overcome to get there.
That said, the PNT is a difficult thru-hike for a number of reasons. The terrain is challenging: the trail crosses mountain ranges by climbing up one side and quickly plunging back down the other, only to repeat. The route is wildly unpredictable: you may be following good trail, bad trail, old trail, new trail, back country roads in varying states of maintenance, paved roads, busy highways, or nothing at all but a jungle of vine maples in a mountain drainage. The route is pretty much not signed at all: you have to keep a constant eye on your maps and/or GPS to stay on track, and even with a lot of attention there can still be places of serious confusion. It can be isolating: there aren’t a lot of other PNT hikers and you’re unlikely to run into any of them. If you come from the PCT or AT and are used to socially dense trails, this will be a transition for you. Despite all the challenges (and partly even because of all the challenges), the PNT is definitely worth hiking!
There are a few things in particular that deserve mention.
There is a fair amount of road walking on this route. Lacking a continuous wilderness corridor that runs east/west, the Pacific Northwest Trail hops from one stellar backcountry place to another, but in between, roads are often the only way through. Some areas have quite a bit more roads than others, notably eastern Washington until the Kettle Mountains, but throughout roads will be a sometimes-companion. I had more physical trouble on this hike than on any previous, and I’m inclined to attribute that to the roads, which have a much harder surface than trails. Of course, I don’t know for sure the roads are responsible, but I tended to have more pain and tendon problems after extended periods of roads. The roads also present a mental challenge. For some hikers, it’s difficult to walk for hours (or days) what one could drive in minutes (or hours), and the road environment can be less pristine, more dusty, more populated, and generally less attractive. These are genuine complaints about the roads. However, I think the roads are not so trying if approached with the right mindset. Though perhaps not beautiful, they show a piece of the world as it really is. Consider the roads simply part of the adventure of walking from Montana to the Pacific, note your feelings about them (whether those feelings be relief, irritation, frustration, boredom, resentment, ambivalence), and keep on walking.
A second piece of advice about roads: they provide the opportunity to hitch through a lot of the trail, something that should be handled delicately. Do it once and it gets easier to do it again and again until you’ve hitched through a lot of the trail, which for some hikers puts them at cross purposes with themselves. On the other hand, if you are reaching an unsalvageable state of mind on the roads, it might be better to hitch and save your trip. Some hikers do well with a purist mindset and some do better with flexibility. Find what works for you: finding that stuff out it one of the pleasures of a thru hike.
There are two issues here: which route to take, and staying on the route you’ve chosen. The PNT is a smorgusboard of options. Other than the Pasayten and parts of Eastern Washington, every part of this trail has multiple routes to choose from. A common theme is a choice between a nasty bushwack and a road walk, or a choice between a road walk and a difficult high country route. Your choices will often be made in the moment, based on how motivated or tired you feel, how much food you have left, the weather, etcetera. If you are a head-down, get-it-done hiker, this might be a problem for you. It’s very easy to bypass a lot of beautiful trail hiking by taking a shorter and often less attractive roadwalk. Your temperament will change day to day, moment to moment, but I would advise starting with a general commitment to make the beautiful choice when it comes to route decisions. You may not always follow through, and that’s fine, but be on guard against making too many shortcuts, lest you miss the beauty the PNT has to offer.
As far as staying on route is concerned, it will be more difficult than some other long distance trails, but it’s not bad if you pay attention. I carried a GPS, and because I was tracklogging the entire route to contribute to the mapping effort, I always had it on and was able to locate myself pretty quickly in moments of disorientation. However, even with the maps alone, most of the time a hiker should be able to stay found (if they pay attention!). Trail junctions are pretty much never signed, not with PNT blazes, and often not even with a standard trail sign. Turning off a well-used, well-maintained trail onto an unsigned, overgrown bushwack is a common occurrence, and easy to miss (if you aren’t paying attention). Because I carried one and used it extensively, I suppose I would recommend a GPS. There were a few trickier places where it was extremely helpful. But in general, pay attention and you’ll do okay.
When to go
I would HIGHLY recommend not starting earlier than the beginning of July. I started mid-July, and had almost no snow trouble the entire trip. Some hikers made a bid this year starting in mid June and had a lot of weather and snow trouble, enough to push them off the trail. On the flip side, I felt like I was pushing it a little trying to get through the Olympics before it rained there. September is a finicky time in the Pacific Northwest, and the weather can be stunning and clear or miserably wet. I had a very wet August and a dry hike through the first half of September, but the day after I finished a storm came through with buckets of rain. It’s hard to predict, of course, but finishing by the middle of September is a good idea and even then you may still encounter a lot of rain and possibly snow in Olympic high country. I took two months to finish the trail, and given that time frame, mid-July to mid-September worked well. I could have started a week or two sooner, dealt with a bit more snow on the eastern end of the trail, and felt a little less pressure on the western end of the trail.
I don’t think of this as a particularly dangerous trail, save for a few exceptions.
Remoteness: There are some extremely remote bushwacks (notably, in northern Idaho) where its likely no one would find an injured hiker for a very long time (possibly until next year’s PNT hikers come through). Carry a SPOT if you want. I didn’t, but next time I might.
Traffic: The traffic on roadwalks is a concern, especially on the few busy highways the route tangles with. In fact, this may be the most substantial danger on the route, at least as far as statistics are concerned. Not that I’m aware of any PNT hiker injured by a vehicle, but on a long highway walk, there are lots of chances for an incident.
People: This was the biggest issue for me. As a woman traveling solo, I felt exposed, particularly when on or near a road. There are some strange people in the world, but for the most part I encountered the nice ones. I carried my bear spray longer than bear country would have dictated, but it helped me feel more protected in case of a bad encounter with a person.
Animals: This trail goes through a lot of bear country. In Glacier National Park, you are required to hang your food or use a bear can, and you get to watch a bear safety video to even get your backcountry permit. Bear country continues from Glacier to at least Metaline Falls in eastern Washington. I carried bear spray, initially for bears, and later because it helped me feel safer in the settled parts of eastern Washington. I sent the spray home when I got to Ross Lake Resort, and could have sent it back in Oroville. I’m glad I had it up to there though. I also hung my food until Metaline Falls, and then off and on depending on where I was. I did not have a bear can. I had no bear problems. I did have some rodent issues in heavily abused forest service sights, and I did have a mountain lion encounter near Oroville. People were constantly asking if I was afraid of animals, and the answer is a solid No. Read my post on statistics here. Be observant, think clearly, and make thoughtful decisions. You’ll be okay.
Weather: I had ongoing problems with storms on my hike. For the eastern half of the trail, fierce thunder storms kept up a consistent and unpredictable assault on the mountains. It made an impact on my route decisions, many times pushing me off the high routes I had hoped to take into lower and safer terrain. On the western half, there was just a lot of rain. Though not really dangerous if you know how to keep your important gear dry enough and stay warm enough, it’s still a little demoralizing. That said, I lucked out and had the best weather of the trip through the Olympics. Ultimately, you never know what will happen. I had some abnormal weather on my hike, but it seems like most years are abnormal anymore.
Snow: I did not have snow trouble, but it seems like most years people do, at least a little bit. It was a decent snow year and early summer had volatile weather, but July was warm and in Glacier the high country melted out sooner than typical. I was able to take a route that is typically snow bound until mid-August, and I had some snow travel over a pass, but for the most part my hike was snow free. That said, some hikers tried to hike this year and started in June, and encountered miserable storms and snow conditions. Don’t start before the beginning of July, unless its an exceptionally low snow year.
A few pieces of gear that I especially appreciated.
GPS: I loved my GPS. I used it extensively, both to map the route and to stay on the route.
Smartphone: An invaluable piece of equipment, it turns out. This was my first trip with a smart phone, and only my second extended trip with a cell phone. Despite how thoroughly connected we all are these days, cell phones still don’t work in the backcountry. Even though I couldn’t make calls with it until I was in town, it was the only way to stay in touch with my husband and subsequently I developed a strong attachment to it. It also allowed me to write this blog. I also stored important information on it, like permit numbers, trail updates, route notes, and the PNT Digest. I even cut and pasted detailed trail notes from previous years’ hikers and was able to access them as necessary without additional paper weight. See my gear page for more thoughts on how to make the most of a smart phone for a thru hike.
A bug proof tent: There were terrible bugs for easily the first month of this trail. A fully enclosed shelter was critical for my sanity.
An umbrella: I didn’t start carrying this until the civilized lowlands of Puget Sound. I’m ambivalent about umbrellas for the mountains because bad storms tend to have a lot of wind which makes the umbrella difficult or impossible to use. On this hike, trail is so frequently overgrown that an umbrella can’t keep you dry anyway, since the underbrush will soak you through. While crossing Puget Sound, though, it was excellent. I had a lot of steady rain days on roads, which are wide enough to easily accommodate an umbrella, and the hiking was so easy that I never needed to use my hands (you use your hands on this hike a lot).
Water filter: I almost never used it but was really glad I had it the few times I did. Lots of cows. Enough said.
The only areas you are required to have permits are Glacier National Park, North Cascades National Park, and Olympic National Park.
Glacier: PNT hikers will likely be some of the first into Glacier National Park for the season, so the rangers may either doubt your sanity or discourage you from going. Don’t be discouraged, since this is their job. Get the permit before you start in person at one of the permit ranger stations, and work with them to pick a route based on how much snow lingers at high elevations.
North Cascades National Park/Ross Lake Recreation Area: Get your permit for North Cascades National Park/Ross Lake Recreation Area while you are resupplying in Oroville. They will issue one over the phone for thru hikers. You’ll have to pick your campsites around Ross Lake and west through the park in advance, which is kind of pain because it’s five to seven days from Oroville and that’s far enough away that predicting stopping points is difficult. The Ross Lake sites are more likely to be full than the park sites, and once in the park it will be easier to stay in a different site than your permit states.
Olympic National Park: This is probably the most difficult permit to acquire. Think of it like a mini-quest in your PNT adventure: before you can continue into the last level, you must defeat the Bureaucracy Boss and retrieve the permit. Call for this permit in Port Townsend (or sooner). The number you call will be a recording telling you that you have to either get permits in person in Port Angeles or send for them in the mail. Obviously you can’t do either of these. Press “0” to during the recording to reach a human being, and explain to them your situation. I was able to get my permit this way. Note that by the time you get to the Olympics, the rangers will be at the end of their season there. The Olympics receive a lot of backcountry visitors every year, and the rangers can seem angry/tired. You may encounter some angry-tired rangers in your quest to obtain a permit, but stay calm, explain your situation over and over (many will not immediately understand what you are talking about), and it will work out.
Because of the mishmash nature of private and public land in and around National Forests and the lack of a continuous public corridor, this is occasionally an issue on this route. The official route is always routed to avoid trespassing, but sometimes the official route is undesirable (aesthetically, in terms of length, or because it misses somewhere you’d like to go). In these cases, there are sometimes alternate routes that involve trespassing. Most hikers have their own ethics around this: some never do it ever, some are very casual about it, and some are reluctant but willing. I’m a cautious trespasser, but whenever I do it, I move quickly, I leave no trace, I avoid trespassing in already inflamed situations, and I get permission whenever possible. If you decide to trespass while hiking the PNT, do so with the greatest care and respect to the future of the route. So few people hike this trail every year that each of us are very real ambassadors on behalf of the trail’s future.
Ron Strickland’s guidebook “The Pacific Northwest Trail Guide”. Hard to find because it’s out of print. I found a copy but ended up not using it because it’s so out of date.
Tim Youngbluth’s “The PNT Digest”. I did use this when routefinding got tricky. Initially I carried pages of it, but since I wasn’t using it all the time I resorted to just using the electronic copy on my smartphone and that worked very well.
Melanie Simmerman’s “Pacific Northwest Trail Town Guide”. Mixed reviews of this among 2013’s hikers. I used it and generally felt like it did okay. This is a resource I would have preferred an electronic copy of, since I didn’t need it unless I was in town.
I used Li Brannfors’ maps. His maps are excellent, well-annotated, and updated every year with comments and information gleaned from thru-hikers. I had planned to carry large atlas pages for overview purposes, but never did and was able to use my GPS or my phone’s GPS app to get the larger picture when necessary.
GPS tracklog and waypoints:
Li Brannfors. His waypoints are reconciled with the PNT Digest, which is very useful.
GPS app on my phone:
I had Gaia GPS. Though it was a bit buggy when initially loading Li’s GPS tracklog and waypoints, with his help we sorted it out and it was a great help. I didn’t use it as much as my primary GPS, but had I not been tracklogging on my primary GPS I would have used it much more.
Brian Tanzman’s Postholer.com 2012 PNT trail journal here. At the end he has very helpful planning advice.
Greg Thompson’s extended trip summary of his 2012 post to the PNTA forum here. Very specific information about trail conditions from 2012.
Other sources of information:
The Pacific Northwest Trail Association. Check out the forum, where a lot of knowledgeable people answer questions.