Red Tape - Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail

Part two – Visas & Permits

7 mins

In order to walk (or hike) the PCT you need permission. Actually, you need lots of permissions really. First, the PCTA (Pacific Crest Trail Association) will only allow the first fifty entrants to start their hike on any given day during the traditional April/May period at the US/Mexican border. Also, the numbers of hikers passing through the John Muir Wilderness is also limited.

“Are you planning to be a drug lord whilst in the US?”

Additionally, the release of the PCT permits happens on one day. This year it was November 1st. If it wasn’t for my great chum and BFC partner Nik Stanbridge I would have missed it completely. So, there I am at my computer at 5:30pm (10:30am Pacific time), waiting to join the fray. The bell tolls and the website is immediately swamped, as everyone, the world and his wife are trying to get permits through this one website which is probably in some teenagers bedroom on a laptop in Des Moines.

Furthermore, the PCTA have an enforced time limit in which you can complete your permit application. You are required to select a start and end date for your hike, provide personal information and opt to join the PCTA and donate handsomely. The time limit was 13 mins. I scraped through with one min to spare.  
Almost immediately the PCT forums are awash with complaints, “I tried three times and it bombed out”, “WTF…processing!” and “Only May 17th is left”. Armed with my PCTA email confirmation, I felt pretty smug that evening. I set out, I conquered… Job done.

If it could stop there, all in the world would be wonderful. But the process starts with the PCT Permit confirmation email. Okay, nothing is fixed in stone as yet. The PCTA need to check you aren’t mad and intent on attempting 45 mile days with a push chair on the High Sierras. It takes three weeks to get a confirmation that you have your starting slot. So, I have to wait it out.

Meanwhile, as I am a brit and not a super hero I need a little longer than the US (ESTA visa) grants to complete the PCT. The US ESTA stands for United States Electronic System for Travel Authorisation.  The UK has a Visa Waiver program with uncle Sam which means when you pop to Disney World in Florida you just need to complete a form on the flight and the burly US Homeland Security geezers at the airport will allow you entry. However, this has a maximum length on 90 contiguous days.

Go Josh

The PCT speed record is held by Josh Garrett (above) from Santa Monica CA, in 59 days, 8 hours and 12 minutes. That’s nearly 45 miles A DAY. Whilst I am fit (and sexy according to the missus) a 60-day PCT is rather out of the question, so I can’t make use of the ESTA. My only option was to apply to the US Embassy in London for an official “Non-immigrant B2 Visa”.

Applying for this Visa shouldn’t be taken lightly. It’s tricky. Uncle Sam wants to get to know you. First you need to read the US consulate website. It’s all over the place so I read it all. Then you need to complete a DS-160 application. You can do this online and sort of insert the information as you go. The questioning is comprehensive, names, addresses and dates of family, relatives, jobs, previous visits to the US, they want financial information, reasons for the visit and you need to tick NO to a bunch of questions like “Are you a terrorist?” or “Are you planning to be a drug lord whilst in the US?”. Luckily, I could answer no to the lot.

Then you need to upload a photo, but being Homeland Security the picture has to be exactly the correct size and formation with no glasses, hats or henna tattoos. I must admit I spent ages completing the DS-160. I had to ask a bunch of people stuff that I had forgotten. Then I checked it and checked it again. Next you have to login to another website and part with nearly £130 and book an appointment at the US Embassy at Grosvenor Sq. in Mayfair.

The day of the appointment comes and you pray every little piece of information you provided is correct. I got to the embassy one hour early and there was still a queue. Whilst you are waiting Embassy staff are on hand to triage the applicants checking the appointment papers, passports and DS-160 application forms. To my horror I saw many people being turned away with simple mistakes on their paperwork. Trouble is you need to pay again to get another appointment. This adds to the overall apprehension. Will they grant me a bloody VISA?

The time came and I went to the counter for my interview with a young American chap. He asked me reasonable questions about my trip and my finances and tested my knowledge on the PCT and then approved my application. Yay. I was in / out in two hours flat. Well done America.

You can relax now Darren I can hear you saying. Nope, not a bit of it.

I now need a permit to cross into Canada from the US, Fire permits for California and a camping permit for the North Cascades National Park. Then I guess once the PCT permit is confirmed I’ll start looking at flights and accommodation in San Diego. It never ends.

Keep watching viewers, part three is all about PCT equipment and will be a belter.

Last updated on: 10 Apr 2018 04:27 PM

PCT VISA Permits US Embassy