Safety advice

The freedom to enjoy the Pacific Crest Trail comes with the responsibility to be informed, prepared and alert to our surroundings.

Many areas of the PCT are remote and help may be far away. PCTA has no law-enforcement authority but can readily contact those who do in a particular area and help them help you.

Safety awareness is one of your best lines of defense and your brain provides one of your best weapons.

Three facts of life

  1. There is intrinsic risk in the wilderness. Lightning, cold weather, falling rock, wild animals and a long list of other dangers exist. It’s not 100% safe. A twisted ankle can be life-threatening if you are alone. Learn first aid.
  2. You are responsible for your own safety.
  3. You can minimize most of the risk with knowledge, equipment, and planning. It’s imperative that you are well prepared.

Reporting incidents on the PCT

In an emergency, note where you are and call 911

In an emergency requiring immediate medical or law-enforcement response call 911.  Tell the dispatcher you are a Pacific Crest Trail user and provide your location (include name and approximate distance of nearest town and nearest road if possible).

Contact local law enforcement and use the official U.S. Forest Service PCT Incident Report Form

Suspicious or illegal activity that does not require emergency response should be reported as soon as possible to local law enforcement or local rangers. In addition, report all incidents on the Pacific Crest Trail using the U.S. Forest Service PCT Incident Report Form. PCTA would also like to be informed, so please contact us as well. A seemingly isolated incident may be linked to others—if they’re not reported, no one will make that connection.

Safety advice for the Pacific Crest Trail

The wilderness factor

Travel within your skill level. Leave expert stuff to the experts. Knowingly accepting risk and managing it is quite different than walking into danger blindly.

Let someone know your plans

If you are going on a day-hike, let someone know where you will be and when you plan to return. On a long-distance hike, leave behind a copy of your itinerary, and educate your support people about the trail and your logistics. Check in regularly and indicate when you expect to check in next. Establish a procedure to follow if you fail to check in or show up when expected. If you change your plans, be sure to let someone know; otherwise, family members may worry and initiate a needless search. Be sure your contact knows your trail name, if you have one, as well as details about your gear.

Always carry current trail maps and know how to use them

In an emergency, you need to be able to describe your location. If you need to leave the trail in a hurry, maps can tell you the best way to get to a road or town or someone who can help. Some PCT maps and smartphone applications only show a narrow band of the PCT. Cautious PCT hikers and riders will carry maps that show a larger area that include nearby trailheads. Avoid bushwhacking—getting lost or injured in unknown terrain will compound your problems.

A cell phone or beacon may help in an emergency but they are not guarantees

Carrying cell phones into the backcountry was once controversial and now is quite commonplace. Be aware that carrying a cell phone does not guarantee your safety and is not an excuse for poor planning. Often, cell phones don’t work on the PCT.

There are many stories of people on the PCT who have been rescued because they called for help using their cell phones or satellite devices. More and more, search and rescue personnel are suggesting that it’s a good idea to carry a personal locator beacon or PLB. In the backcountry, various technologies allow for satellite-based communications. Some of these are specifically designed for calling emergency services. SPOT units are quite popular but they’re not the only option. PLBs offer the gold standard of reliability when it comes to getting help.

Even so, it’s important to rely on your intuition and skills, not on your technology. Devices can break down. Batteries die. And electronics might give one a false sense of security, meaning a person may push themselves past their capabilities because they believe that help is closer than it really is.

Be mentally prepared for the risks you may encounter

If you encounter trouble, chances are a law enforcement officer or ranger will not be nearby and a cell phone may not work. Think through scenarios ahead of time and decide how you might respond. Learn to trust your instincts, and be prepared to act on them.

Get training in wilderness first aid

Take a wilderness first aid class. You’ll learn about the common risks, how to minimize them and what to do when something goes wrong. From heart attacks to tick-borne illnesses, there is a broad and deep knowledge base to acquire in order to be safe and prepared in the great outdoors. Learn more on our first aid page.

A dog may or may not provide an additional measure of safety

Beware of a false sense of security that makes you less attuned and responsive to threats.

Carrying firearms is generally discouraged

They could be turned against you or result in an accidental shooting and they are extra weight most PCT hikers find unnecessary. Horseback riders may consider firearms to put down injured and sick animals.

The possession and use of a defensive weapon is a big responsibility with potential consequences. Extra efforts are required to abide by local ordinances and private-property owners’ rules. The trail crosses three states and more than 100 state, federal, or local agency lands, each with its own rules and regulations; you are responsible for knowing and following those rules. State laws vary on the carrying of nonlethal weapons, such as pepper spray. A whistle may scare off a potential threat from humans or animals and will serve to alert others in the area to your location.

Use the trail and registers

If something happens to you or you need to be located in case of a family emergency, your register entries could help others find you. Beware that they are not generally intended for this purpose, are a mostly unorganized system and are not a substitute for leaving an itinerary and staying in touch with your support person.

Stay on the trail. The moment you leave trail tread, you’re truly in the middle of the wilderness. If something goes wrong, you may never be found.

The human factor

Although the Pacific Crest Trail is safer than most places, it is not immune to criminal behavior, including crimes of violence. Acts of kindness and “trail magic” are so common on the PCT that it’s easy to forget you could encounter someone who does not have your best interest at heart or who may even seek to harm you. This is more likely to occur near roads or occasionally at shelters, but it can happen anywhere. Read our information about sexual harassment and similar crimes.

The trail is not insulated from problems of society

No matter how much kindness, friendship, sanctuary, and beauty the trail may show you, remember that the trail is not insulated against the problems of larger society.

Maintain awareness at all times, and remember you are responsible for your own safety.

Stay alert

Pay attention to details of your surroundings and people you encounter, and look for anything that does not fit or sends a red flag. It is easier to avoid getting into a dangerous situation than to get out of one. Trust your instincts about strangers and conditions.

Use extra caution if hiking alone

When you hike alone, you are more vulnerable. Hiking with a partner may add a measure of safety but should not lead to complacency and a false sense of security. Being prepared and alert at all times is essential. If you are by yourself, there is no need to broadcast that you are hiking alone or give information about your plans. Use the pronoun “we” instead of “I.” If you encounter someone who makes you feel uneasy, avoid engaging them and put distance between you. Find a group you can tag along with and let them know your concerns. Note details about the suspicious person and report your encounter to local law enforcement, the U.S. Forest Service and PCTA as soon as possible, even if no crime has been committed.

Be wary of people who make you uneasy

Avoid or get away quickly from people who act suspicious, hostile, or intoxicated or exhibit aggressive curiosity or any other behaviors that just don’t feel right, even if you can’t explain why. Trust your instincts, even when someone claims to be an authority figure or “trail angel.” Don’t worry about being judgmental or hurting someone’s feelings—your safety may depend on it. Don’t stay in a camping area or engage in conversation with anyone who makes you feel uncomfortable. Criminals are often opportunistic—even engaging in polite conversation with someone who is overly aggressive may signal to them you are an easy target. Don’t reveal your itinerary. Make note of as many details about the person as you can, and report them to law enforcement, the U.S. Forest Service and PCTA.

Trail angels exist up and down the PCT. They are self-appointed volunteers and are not affiliated with our organization or the U.S. Forest Service. Anyone can call themselves a trail angel and offer a ride or a bed. PCT hikers and riders should use caution and good judgment when coming in contact with new people.

Don’t camp near roads or trailheads

Plan ahead so you are packed and ready to hit the trail immediately. Leave your vehicle door open and keys handy until you’re ready to hit the trail in case you need to make a quick exit. Drive away from the trailhead if there are people there who make you feel uneasy or the appearance of the parking lot indicates it could be a problem area (broken glass, trash).

Eliminate opportunities for theft

Don’t bring jewelry. Keep money and credit cards well hidden on your person. Don’t leave your equipment unguarded. Don’t leave valuables or equipment in vehicles (especially in sight) parked at trailheads.

Make yourself inconspicuous

Camp away from roads, and be aware that anywhere people congregate— including campsites—may have greater risk. When tenting, find a location not easily seen from the trail. In town, dress plainly and be aware that conventions that are accepted by PCT hikers may be viewed differently by others.

Using gender-specific names or revealing personal information may make you more vulnerable

Be wary of posting your location or itinerary online in real-time. A password-protected blog or website can offer more protection.

Avoid hitch-hiking or accepting rides from strangers

Hikers needing to get into town should make arrangements beforehand and budget for shuttles or a taxi. If you must hitchhike, be sure to have a partner. Make a careful evaluation before entering a vehicle. Size up the driver, occupants, and condition of the vehicle. If anything just “doesn’t add up,” decline the offer. Maintain enough distance between you and the vehicle so as not to be in a position to be pulled into the vehicle. If you do accept a ride, don’t let your gear get separated from you. Keep your wallet and ID on your person. Memorize the license plate and note the make, model, and color of the vehicle.

Thank you to our friends at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy for letting us use and adapt these safety tips.

↑ Back to top