The Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT as it is commonly known runs from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. It’s an impressive 2,650 miles (4260 km) long although there are still a few sections that run alongside the road but there is work being undertaken to change this.
I haven’t completed this trail yet but am preparing for it; after finishing the Appalachian Trail I wanted something that was going to be just as challenging. The usual approach is to start in the south in April and finish in the north around September.
Of course, as an avid hammock camper the first thing I need to know is:
Can you hammock camp the PCT?
The great news is that a hammock is ideal for the PCT; you simply need to be prepared for each section and what it may throw at you.
There are those that say you shouldn’t use your hammock until you reach the mountains. You may also wonder about the logistics of using a hammock in the desert. But, what is certain is that it is possible in most, if not all sections of the trail.
Check out this page if you want to see and interactive map.
The majority of people start in the south so that’s where we’re going to start!
The Mexican Border
This is potentially the hottest part of your trek and it can prove to be very difficult to hang your hammock as you travel through the desert.
Most people start right by the Mexican border in the middle of the desert. The official start point is a mile outside of Campo and it’s not sign posted. You’ll probably need help getting there! You are given a few words of advice; including not to camp within 30 miles of the border; for your own safety.
The first 700 miles will take you across southern California. You’ll head towards Lake Morena Country Park, under Interstate 8 and then go up through oaks, pines and scrubland until you reach the Laguna Mountains.
From there you’ll slip back into the desert of Anza-Borrego and then weave your way up the San Felipe Hills and climbing to 9,030 feet above sea level in the San Jacinto Mountains.
You’ll then go downhill fast to return to just 1,190 feet above sea level in San Gorgonio Pass.
The only issue you’ll have on this section is the desert. On occasions there are shrubs that will take your weight but there is a good chance you’ll be on the ground for most of the nights.
You may be surprised to find some trees in the desert section as well; these can be perfect for your hammock.
However, it is important to note that this is the most difficult section in terms of using your hammock. Many hikers decide to simply sleep under their tarp with a sleeping mat.
My plan is to take the tarp and a sleeping mat with me in the desert. I will use my trekking poles to hold the tarp in place. I will send my underquilt and hammock to the first town that’s out of the desert. When i’m there I will send my sleeping mat home and continue with my hammock and underquilt.
The next part of this section will start you heading into the mountains; you shouldn’t have any problem getting off the ground in this section.
California is a big state; your first 700 miles have only moved you into the middle of this state. Now you’ll be crossing through the Sierra Nevada.
The start is gentle before you climb back up to 3,300 feet and Cottonwood Pass. Much of the route actually switches between vast green meadows and conifer forests. You simply need to choose the right place to stop in order to make the most of your hammock.
If you glance north you’ll see the impressive High Sierra with its glaciers. The view is of thousands of small lakes; it’s unlike anything else you’ll see in your lifetime.
You can share the same trail as the John Muir Trail from this point to the world famous Yosemite National Park. There are 8 passes in this section which will mean you’re going to spend most of your time climbing or descending. The tallest of these passes is Forester Pass and it’s actually the highest point on the PCT at 13,153 feet (4000 m).
The great news is that you’ll have no problem setting up your hammock almost anywhere on this section of the trail, trees are in abundance.
But, you will need to be prepared for long water carries. The landscape is rugged, unforgiving and there is often a heavy wind. This makes it important to get just off the trail when choosing the right spot for your hammock. Unless you’ve got a lot of experience the wind can be quite unsettling at night.
You’ll also be climbing up through the mountains. If you’ve started in March or April there is still the possibility of snow in these mountains. While you should always be able to find a hammock spot on a campsite or in the tress; where it’s allowed; you will need to be prepared for the cooler temperatures.
Of course, you’ll also be rewarded with some truly stunning views.
You’ll now move pass the mountains and into the Cascade Range. The soil here is volcanic and the perfect growing material for lush rainforests. Combine this with the right amount of rain and you’ll see some of the most impressive and largest forests in the world. There are certainly plenty of places to put your hammock up and unwind.
If you keep your eyes open you’ll probably see bears, deer, badgers, foxes and even some bobcats.
Now you’ll go up again as you cross the Lassen Volcanic National Park and cross highway 89 in the south of the Cascade Range. You’ll have a great view of Mount Lassen which is 10,457 g=feet above sea level. But, you won’t be high enough to lose the trees; hammock camping is still definitely possible.
There are established campsites on this section of the trail but in general you’ll be able to find your own spot each night. However, you’re in California and the risk of fire is generally greater. You’ll need to look out for burned sections and pay particular attention to your use of lighters.
As you cross over the Cascade Range you’ll find yourself in Oregon and the ups and downs will be vastly less dramatic. In fact the only real big drop is the 3,160 feet that takes you down from the Cascades and into the Columbia River.
You will get to see an array of volcanoes, including Mount Mazama, Diamond Peak and Mount Washington.
The mixture of lakes and volcanoes is enough to motivate you to keep walking. All of these features are surrounded by trees; again you’ll find somewhere to use your hammock without an issue. IN fact this is definitely the best section of the trail for hammock camping. You’ll be spoilt for choice every night.
For many this is considered the highlight of the PCT. From a low elevation on the Columbia River you’ll climb 4,000 feet to reach the finish line at the Canadian border. Here you’ll find monument 78.
But, this section is not as easy as it sounds! The initial part is a steady climb to the Indian Heaven Wilderness. Here you’ll be able to see the 12,276 ft peak of Mount Adams and be glad you’re not climbing it.
You can then witness the beauty of the Goat Rocks Wilderness and move carefully across the Packwood Glacier.
You’ll pass many lakes along the next section; between White Pass and Chinook Pass. There are a lot of clear outs on this section which can make it more difficult to find cover from rain and a spot to hang your hammock. However, there should always be something in the vicinity to help you.
You’ll then start climbing again, up canyons and down again several times. This is the most rugged and wettest part of the trail but also some of the best views, such as Glacier Peak.
If you get here in September you’ll enjoy a stunning view of Western Larch as their needles turn yellow.
The good news is that there are very few spots where you’ll struggle to hang your hammock. But, there is a large amount of vegetation which can make it difficult to get to the best spots. You’ll probably find that the best and easiest spots are next to or near the established campsites.
At this stage you’ll definitely appreciate the additional company.
Hammocking tips on the PCT
Some of the trees, particularly in the later sections are very large; you’ll need big straps to wrap around the tree.
You can set up a hammock with 1 tree; practice before you leave home.
When moving through the Sierra it is advisable to hammock camp in the passes; there are far more opportunities for a successful hang than on the higher, more open ground.
read another article on our website about hammock camping the Appalachian Trail.