Ten Things to Know before Backpacking the Trans Catalina Trail

The Trans Catalina Trail (TCT) is a trail that should be added to every backpacker’s list! Read on to learn about ten things you must know before backpacking the Trans Catalina Trail!

View of town from the Trans Catalina Trail

Backpacking the Trans Catalina Trail

The Trans Catalina Trail is absolutely a must-do backpacking trip. This amazing Southern California hike is a great trail to knock out in a long weekend.  It has incredible views, great campsites, and is an overall amazing experience.

I backpacked the Trans Catalina Trail in January 2024. While I did a ton of research, there were still some things that surprised me when I was out on trail! In order to plan the best hike for you and your gang, read on for ten things you must know before backpacking the Trans Catalina Trail!

As always, follow the principles of leave no trace when you're out exploring! Pack out all trash, leave wildlife alone, and generally leave it better than you found it - for more information visit the Leave No Trace Center.

You need a permit – no dispersed camping allowed

Unlike other places in California or other trails, backpackers must camp in a reserved campsite. There is no dispersed camping allowed on the island.

The following are campsites that can be reserved for backpacking – I’ve starred the ones we stayed in:

  1. Hermit Gulch
  2. Blackjack*
  3. Little Harbor*
  4. Two Harbors
  5. Parsons Landing

In my opinion, Parsons and Little Harbor were the best campsites because they are right on the beach! I highly recommend planning your trip around getting those campsites because it made the whole experience.

View of Little Harbor – how could you NOT love camping close to the beach??

Permits can be tough to get

Camping on Catalina is super popular, because it’s so awesome!. Because camping is not allowed anywhere expect for specific sites, the good sites book up quickly. All permits for the future year are available Jan 1 at midnight PST – with one exception. If you want to visit Catalina in January, permits are available on Dec 1 at midnight PST. I set my alarm for 3a, but the site didn’t roll over to the next year so I ended up calling the Catalina Island Conservancy to book over the phone later that day. I basically had my pick of campsites, which was great. However, campsites in busy season book out super far in advance.

Additionally, high season requires a two night minimum on campsites. This can be waived by calling the Conservancy and stating that you are backpacking the TCT. Since I called anyway, I didn’t have to deal with this issue.

The Trans Catalina Trail is a logistically challenging hike! If you're stressed about planning, check out my guide on How to Plan for a Backpacking Trip!

Review the ferry schedule before picking your campsite dates

This is especially important if you are traveling to Catalina in the off season (October to March)! Most TCT hikers start in one of the towns (usually Avalon) and end in another (usually Two Harbors). There are multiple ferry locations to Catalina, but there is only one port that goes to Two Harbors in the offseason. You will have to ferry in and out of San Pedro if you plan to start or end in Two Harbors.

Additionally, the ferry only goes to/from Two Harbors every other day. I picked our hiking dates and campsites by working backwards from the days that the ferry could take us from Two Harbors to San Pedro. There is a ferry from San Pedro to Avalon every day in the off season, so that is easy to book once you have figured out how long the hike is going to take you.

The good news is that you can change your ferry tickets online on the Catalina Express website up to 24 hours before the ferry if you book the wrong ferry (which is definitely not a thing I did and know from experience…)

View of Avalon from the ferry

You don’t need a water filter

All the campsites have potable water! This was awesome as it was one less thing to carry over many long hot miles. The water was decent tasting and I drank about 2L a day (but carried 4L because everything I had seen said to bring a load of water).

One exception to potable water at camp is Parsons. There is potable water but only if you purchase water + firewood/starter. Make sure to add this to your campsite when checking out from the Catalina Conservancy otherwise you will have a very dry evening! You will need to get the code for the water locker from the Two Harbors visitor center when you swing through town. Don’t forget that!

Don’t f—k with the bison

This should be self explanatory but some of the videos that come out of Yellowstone every year make me think I should add this. The bison are extremely dangerous on Catalina. Be careful around blind corners, always keep an eye out and never get too close.

The bison will walk into camp in Little Harbor – we had our one bison experience at this campground (and even if we didn’t, all the buffalo chips on the ground would have told us to keep a look out). This is where I would use the most caution because it’s easy to turn a corner and not realize a bison is there.

We had to walk around this guy to get back on trail and I was not thrilled

Some bison safety tips:

  1. Put something physical between you and the bison (a tree/rock/picnic table, etc)
  2. If the bison is exhibiting signs of aggression, back away slowly but deliberately
  3. Do not ever approach a bison. Ever. Seriously. Just don’t.
Bison are dangerous!
Unsure what to pack for backpacking the Trans Catalina Trail? Check out my list of Must-Have Backpacking Gear! You can also check out exactly what I brought for my trip in my Rockporch Locker (affiliate link - if you purchase something, I get a smaller percentage, at no cost to you!)

You don’t need to pack that much food

If you plan well, you can have food stops along the trail. This was one of my favorite parts of the trail because I (obviously) love food. I came home with three chicken packets and six tortillas that I had been saving for lunches but ended up not needing. I could have saved myself the weight!

Here are the main areas to get food on trail:

  1. Avalon – if you’re hiking from Avalon, grab coffee and a sandwich for the very steep first two miles out of town
  2. Airport in the Sky – only a couple miles from Blackjack, this café has coffee, burgers, breakfast burritos, and snacks galore!
  3. Two Harbors – unfortunately the restaurant was closed when we were there, but the general store also has snacks and pizza

My favorite place to get food was at Airport in the Sky, but I bet if the restaurant in Two Harbors had been open, that might have topped it. My hiking companions both got bison breakfast burritos, but I stuck with a regular meat-free burrito. It was amazing! (It was also nice to use running water toilets that day!)

Enjoying a breakfast burrito at Airport in the Sky

No stove fuel allowed on the ferry

The ferry does not allow you to pack fuel on the ferry as it is very flammable. The good news is that you can purchase fuel from the camp store in Avalon. We didn’t know this rule until we had already purchased fuel on the mainland. Please respect the ferry’s rule and purchase fuel once you are on the island.

Use the critter boxes for all food and don’t leave food unattended

The island critters are very sneaky. Foxes, squirrels, and birds will actively steal your food. I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t see it happen. At Parsons, a crow was trying to eat a fellow hiker’s dinner when he stepped away for one second!

Each of the campsites have large critter boxes that fit our entire backpacking bags for our three-person group and would fit food bags for a much larger group. Make sure to guard your food when actively eating and put it in the critter box if you’re not going to be around it, even for just a minute.

I didn’t see any foxes at camp, but the FarOut reviews said they steal your food!

Pick your Hiking Month Carefully

I loved hiking the TCT in January. I think I would have hated it in the summer. There are some very long, very hot climbs with zero shade that would have been absolutely brutal had it been any hotter. I also would have needed a lot more water. Since there are limited sources on trail, the water carry + heat would have been brutal.

I also loved hiking the trail in January because there was almost no one on trail! Parsons would have not been as fun of a campsite if it hadn’t been almost completely empty. There was only one other person there! While I do like the social aspect of thru-hiking, I also enjoy solitude of nature and don’t love sharing my campsites with people who don’t respect hiker midnight (also known as 8pm).

Additionally, I was able to combine the trail with MLK day, so I only used two days of PTO to be on trail for four days. I am always conscious of my limited time off, so it was nice to combine with a holiday weekend and save that time for a future adventure!

There were only a handful of other people in camp with us to share this view!
Trying to figure out your TCT itinerary? Check out my post on the Best Trans Catalina Trail Itineraries!

Bring Trekking Poles

I am an intermittent pole user – I will usually use them for backpacking trips but skip for day hikes. Since the miles we did each day on Catalina were not too high, I considered skipping poles and I am SO GLAD I didn’t. There are some very steep climbs and, even more vital, some STEEP descents where I probably would have had to butt scoot the whole way had I not had poles. The section down into Parson Landing is one of the steepest descents I have experienced (and that’s saying something, considering I did the Rachel Carson trail challenge two years in a row).

Would not have survived some of those massive climbs and descents without poles

Overall, these tips should help you have the most success backpacking the Trans Catalina Trail! Let me know about your experience or any questions in the comments!

Updated March 16, 2024

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