How to plan a multi-night PCT hike with kids

If you backpack with kids, your family will eventually become interested in tackling an iconic backpacking route such as the Pacific Crest Trail. Unless you have a lot of time and stamina, you probably aren’t ready to through-hike the PCT, but a shorter PCT hike with kids is absolutely possible.

backpacking-trail

Planning a PCT backpacking trip is complicated, so we turned to the experts before planning ours. The folks at pcta.org put us in touch with trail expert Dana Hendricks, who has led volunteer crews for AmeriCorps, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and the American Hiking Society. She has through-hiked much of the PCT herself. We asked Dana the following questions as we set to work planning our hike.

Who should go?

Dana recommended anyone planning to hike a section of the PCT ‘warm up’ with day hikes or shorter overnight backpacking trips. Our family backpacks regularly, but never more than four days at a time. Because this trip would be at least one week on the trail, we decided two adults and the teens would backpack the entire trip, and another adult and the youngest (10 years old) would meet us for three days of the trip.

Where should we go?

The PCT is three states long, and not all sections are created equal. Our first question for Dana focused on where we should spend the seven days we decided to devote to the PCT. The good news: many people opt for day or section hikes on the PCT, so there’s a lot of research out there. Dana suggested we pick up PCT books at pcta.org to find the best section for our needs. The Day and Section Hikes series are excellent: we found detailed information on starting and ending points, and trail conditions and elevations.

Dana told us the PCT was designed as a stock trail, so the grade is 10% or less. This means most sections are suitable for kids who are used to hiking. There were no sections she felt were ‘off limits’ due to terrain. There are, however, dry sections which require carrying more water, and sections where snow may be a factor. For the sake of simplicity, we decided to eliminate these areas (the CA desert, Crater Lake, and the high Sierras). We also eliminated any areas without many landmarks to make the hike interesting, or areas that may be crowded with day hikers.

stuffing backpacking bags

After studying day and section hike books, and looking at our own needs for bodies of water (lakes or streams) and forest, we decided on a section in Central Oregon. Our route, which we’ll tackle in July, spans approximately 90 miles from Elk Lake Resort, through Sisters, to Olallie Lake. Here’s a screen shot of our route:

PCT-section-hike

How long to stay out?

How long our 90 mile route would take us depended entirely on our hiking speed, of course. While many PCT hikers crush the trail, hiking up to 20 miles a day or more, we wanted a more leisurely pace. We used PCT Planner (above) to gauge our distance and time on the trail. It was easy: we just input our starting and ending points, then added our planned hiking time per day. At the pace we felt comfortable with, we’d spend seven days on the trail. This would be longer than our longest backpacking trip so far, which led us to our next question…

How to plan food drops?

backpacking with kids bear canisters

Dana explained that most PCT hikers arrange to have food drops well before their trip. Hikers can mail food to themselves to post offices along the trail, but the idea of leaving the trail and restarting during such a short trip didn’t appeal to us. Instead, we’ve decided to have friends and family meet us on the trail with a resupply of food. We have this luxury because the PCT section we’ve decided to hike is within a few hours’ drive of our home. We know we can comfortably carry four days’ worth of food from previous trips. We will be met on the trail by family members at the end of Day 3, which will coincide with our path through Sisters.  We couldn’t arbitrarily decide when they’d meet us, however: there are set places where it’s easy to access the PCT, and we needed to plan our reunion accordingly. Another way to tackle food drops is to have a non-hiking friend or family member meet you with food at a designated trailhead en route. All re-entry points along the trail are listed on PCT Planner.

How light should we pack?

While we backpack regularly, we’re not what you’d call ultra-light backpackers. We like our luxuries, like hammocks and coffee presses. While Dana agreed with me that some of these items will need to be left at home to leave room for more food, she did remind me not to compromise on any items that keep us warm and dry. A full list of tips for backpacking with kids can be found here. In short, we needed layers, waterproof clothing, shelter in the form of a lightweight tent, food and cooking supplies. We will bring books and a deck of cards, but no other major luxuries. By keeping our packs light, we’ll adjust more quickly to seven days of hiking. Tip: For basics in backpacking gear for kids, check our Backpacking Gear page and How to Plan a Multi-Day Backpacking Trip.

How best to follow Leave No Trace principles on the trail?

We always practice Leave No Trace while in the wilderness, and we wondered whether it would be harder than usual to find established camp sites en route on the PCT. Dana says no: we’ll be able to find established sites virtually everywhere on the trail. She reminded me to camp 100 feet from water sources, and to leave recovering sites alone if possible.

Additional PCT hikes suggested by Dana and PCTA:

There are many other route options for families looking to hike a section of the PCT, of course. Dana also suggests Mt Hood National Forest from Lost Lake to Wahtum Lake to Eagle Creek (a PCT alternate) into the Columbia Gorge or Rock and Snag Creeks, near Bridge of the Gods in Washington.  Dana describes the latter as kid-friendly, as either a short out and back day trip or a 22 mile section hike. Find additional staff recommendations here.

About the author

Amy Whitley AUTHOR: Amy Whitley is the founding editor of Pit Stops for Kids and content editor of Trekaroo. She writes on staff monthly as a family travel expert at Go Green Travel Green and Practical Travel Gear, and contributes to Outdoors NW as an outdoor adventure traveler. Find Amy at Google.

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  1. Love this Amy! Outdoor adventures like this are such amazing experiences for families. Especially these days, when a digital detox is required for all …

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