A nearly 400-mile-long coastal path that, for half its distance, is on the beach itself. Constantly changing scenery: wide open beaches giving way to forested headlands, remote shorelines giving way to busy tourist towns. A fairly benign climate, at least during the spring-to-fall hiking season. The option of inn-to-inn hiking along much of the route. I’ve hiked other long distance trails, in the US and Europe, and I keep coming back to the Oregon Coast Trail.
It’s also still evolving. Where steep seaside cliffs or private property have created gaps in the trail, you will have to hike along the highway shoulder for a mile or even several miles (or catch a ride, a bus, or a boat where available). You must be prepared to hike some long days and, sometimes, stealth camp (or grab a motel room) in sections where legal campsites are few and far between. To stay on the beach as much as possible, you’ll want to arrange boat shuttles at some bay mouths—which sometimes requires advance planning and will cost you a few dollars. And you may end up making a long walk around a big bay (or calling a cab, or catching a bus) if your boat shuttle arrangements don’t work out due to weather or some other circumstance. OCT thru- and section-hikers must be both self-reliant and flexible.
Here are a few key facts about hiking the OCT; find more detailed info in my guidebook Hiking the Oregon Coast Trail:
PLAN YOUR THRU-HIKE JUNE THROUGH SEPTEMBER. Just because it rarely snows on the Oregon Coast doesn’t mean you should, or can, hike the OCT in winter. Even if you don’t mind rain and cold, river levels are the major limiting factor; fall through spring, many rivers you must cross are too high to safely wade. This is especially important on the south coast (basically, south of Florence), where you might have to bushwhack inland through private property for several miles to reach a bridge. An April or May hike north of Florence is possible, but the earlier you go, the more unsettled the weather.
HIKE SOUTHBOUND. Some people do hike the OCT northbound, mainly out of ignorance. Winds in summer prevail from the north-northwest, and they can be strong: 15- to 20-mph winds are common. It’s not much fun hiking into that day after day. (If for some reason you insist on a northbound hike, start walking early in the morning before the wind really kicks up).
DON'T COUNT ON CAMPING ON THE BEACH. Newbies may assume that an OCT hike means camping on the beach every night, but beach camping is not allowed on many parts of the OCT. Plan to use developed hiker-biker camps where you can and beach camp primarily on the south coast, where there are fewer cities (and fewer restrictions).
KNOW THE TIDES. Some headlands can be rounded only at low- to mid-tide. Many creek and river mouths can be waded only at low tide. Use your smartphone or a printed tide table to stay on top of the tides. And note that the timing of high and low tide varies along the coast; there's a two-hour difference between high tide at north and south ends of the OCT.
BEACH ACCESS SIGNS SERVE AS WAYFINDING LANDMARKS. These numbered neon yellow-green signs are now posted at beach access points all along the Oregon Coast.. They were designed as emergency access guideposts, but they also function as very helpful aids to wayfinding on the OCT. Sometimes they are obscured by a dune; look sharp to see them.
DON'T COUNT ON GETTING WATER FROM CREEKS. I recommend against drinking even filtered surface water while hiking the OCT, as backpackers typically do from headwater streams high in the mountains. By the time water has trickled down to the shoreline, it may have been contaminated by highway runoff and by herbicides or pesticides from agriculture and industrial tree farms, not to mention the usual contamination from animal (and human) feces. Fortunately, there are a lot of sources of potable water along the OCT, at state parks and other public restrooms. Only on certain stretches south of Florence (especially south of Gold Beach) will you need to carry more than a day's supply of water.
PLEASE USE PUBLIC TOILETS! The Oregon Coast is not a wilderness area. And feces don't break down in sandy dunes like they do in soil. There are plenty of public toilets along the OCT; locations are noted on maps in Hiking the Oregon Coast Trail. Just in case, be sure to carry the means to make an emergency pit stop: a lightweight trowel for digging, toilet paper, a resealable plastic bag for used TP, and hand sanitizer. If you don't know the proper way to dig a "cat hole," look it up.
DO YOU WANT TO LEAVE A CAR AT THE TRAILHEAD? Oregon State Parks will provide overnight parking permits by prearrangement. Call the park's main office number (not the campground reservation number) in advance. At the north end (Fort Stevens State Park) you may be required to leave your car in the vicinity of the park office, not the actual trailhead at parking lot C. Find specifics in Hiking the Oregon Coast Trail.