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AT vs. PCT.

One of the most popular questions I get asked is to compare the AT vs. PCT.

Comparing the AT vs. PCT is like comparing apples and oranges, as the saying goes. The two are vastly different in almost every aspect. Their cost is probably the only thing that  they share. A comparison of the PCT vs. CDT is more realistic.

No one can tell you which trail is the right for you.  Factors like time available, fitness, one’s hiking confidence, weather conditions and more, effect which trail is right for you. My advice is to do your research (the more you do the better) and know your ability.

If you decide the AT is for you, you can take solace in that there will be many more people on trail. Knowledge can be shared more easily. As the AT is the common first thru-hike for most people you will be surrounded by others just like yourself. Learn as much as you can at home before you go.  With the production of lighter gear and more information online more and more hikers are starting with the PCT.

The PCT is more commonly known to be peoples second hike. As a result, you’ll find more trail harden hikers who bring with them more knowledge. If you start with the PCT make sure your pack is as light as you can get it, (under 15 lbs minimum though I’d shoot for less), prepare yourself to be physically ready for bigger days from the start, and be ready to hike in a desert.

In my opinion the AT was the harder of the two. That’s probably because it was my first but the reality is both can be extreme depending on the year and conditions present. The truth is everyone has a different experience while hiking. Many factors such as time of year, snow/water levels, general weather, fitness, directions of travel and more will effect which will be tougher.

Below I broke down some of the most popular categories one might want to see the difference between the two trails. Remember these are just my take on my experience.  Your’s will be similar but different.

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Comparison

APPALACHIAN TRAIL

Length:  2192 miles

Trail started in 1921; completed in 1937

States: 14

5 Sections: Northern New England (Maine, New Hampshire); Southern New England (Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut); Mid-Atlantic (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland); The Virginia’s (West Virginia, Virginia); South Appalachians (Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia).

Elevation Gain 464,500 ft

Highest point Clingmans Dome (6643 ft)

Lowest point Hudson River (124 ft)

The current unsupported speed record for thru-hiking the AT was set by Joe McConaughy45 days, 12 hours and 15 minutes. (That’s 48 miles a day people!.  I averaged 15.5)

About 1 out of 4 hikers who start the AT finish.  Before 2006 the finish rate was closer to 10%.

In 2014 2,500 hikers started northbound; 653 completed (a 26% completion rate).

From 1936 to 1969 only 61 completions are recorded

The trail crosses six national parks, eight national forests, numerous state/local forest and parks.

It takes approximately 5 million footsteps to walk the entire length of the trail.

More fun facts.

map

PACIFIC CREST TRAIL

Length: 2654.1 miles

First explored in the late 1930’s

States: 3

5 Sections: Southern California (648 miles)
Central California (505 miles)
Northern California (567)
Oregon (430 miles) & Washington (500 miles)

Elevation Gain 489,418 ft

Highest point Forester Pass (13,153 ft)

Lowest point Cascade Locks, Oregon (140 ft)

The current unsupported speed record for thru-hiking the PCT was set by Heather “Anish” Anderson  in 2013, at 60 days, 17 hours and 12 minutes (That’s 44 miles a day people! I averaged 21)

About 1500 people attempted to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail in 2105.

The PCT passes the 3 deepest lakes in the nation:Lake Tahoe (1645′) Crater Laker (1932′)and Lake Chelan (1149′).

As the crow flies the distance is just over 1000 miles; the PCT is two and a half times that!

Passes through 33 federally mandated wilderness; 25 national forests;  7 national parks; and 3 national monuments.

The PCT climbs over 57 major mountain passes; plunges into 19 major canyons and passes more than a 1000 lakes and tarns.

The PCT includes six of North Americas seven eco-zones.

map

TREAD

APPALACHIAN TRAIL

The tread of the AT can be down right nasty at times. It’s often full of rocks or roots.  That’s not to say it doesn’t have smooth parts too. The trail lacks switchbacks making the climbing quite difficult at times. The elevation gain/loss is almost 100,000′ more than the PCT.

PACIFIC CREST TRAIL

The PCT was designed and built so one could use pack animals on it. As a result the trail has a much easier grade and meanders up/around climbs. The actual tread is much smoother too. Don’t get me wrong, sections like the Alpine Wilderness in Washington State are rocky as hell.

WEATHER*

APPALACHIAN TRAIL

Weather is never the same so it’s hard to say which has the better weather. The AT is wetter and much more humid. That said I hikeD the whole state of Virginia with only a half hour oF rain. Two years later I met a thru-hiker who never saw the sun for the 750 miles of Virginia  I got snow on April 1st on Roan High Knob.

PACIFIC CREST TRAIL

I personally found the weather on the PCT to be much better than the AT. The temperatures are higher on the PCT but it lacks the humidity of the AT.  I’m reluctant to use the term “predictable” to describe the PCT’s weather. The PCT still rain, hail, snow, lightening and more. Just know it can vary from year to year.

PHSYICAL / MENTAL

APPALACHIAN TRAIL

I think most would say the AT is the more physically challenging of the two. You could argue that a big part of that is because most start with the AT, making it seem harder.

Mentally it’s easier though. Distances between towns are smaller, there’s more people and trail registers make you feel connected to other thru-hikers

PACIFIC CREST TRAIL

The PCT has a better tread and grade but don’t forget you will carry more water, go further each day and distances between resupplies are bigger. In the end they’re equally hard but in different ways.

Mentally the PCT is tougher in my opinion. Longer days and more extreme weather can be tiresome. There is also less hikers and the thru-hiker community is smaller.  Without shelters people camp anywhere and you see others much less. Solitude is not something today’s individual is used too.  It can be tough for some to accept.

PLANNING

APPALACHIAN TRAIL

Planning for the AT was hard as it was my first big hike but with the number of forums and resources out there planning really isn’t that hard.  The AT has the most resources of the Big 3.

With distances between towns being larger than on the AT and less of them you have to plan more.  (AT average distance between towns is about 3.5 days, PCT is more like 5).  You also have to think about things like warmer clothes, ice axes, crampons and bear canisters.

PACIFIC CREST TRAIL

You also have to look at the water report and gain access to updates as you hike.  Snow levels have to be monitored as well.  As is the case with the PCT and CDT, doing a Flip Flop is a possibility to consider.  These cause logistic nightmares or it did for me on the CDT.  Your maps, data book, and water report will be out of order. The maps you were to keep in a town as it was in the middle and was needed for the next section will contain the last day or more of your now southbound Flip.  You’ll hike into town blind, unless you have GPS or Guthook.

TIME OF YEAR*

APPALACHIAN TRAIL

The hiking window for the AT is large.  I started Feb. 28th.  Most start in March and finish by Oct.  Finish times depend on the closing of Katahdin due to snow.  Southbounders start in June/July depending on snow and finish in November.

PACIFIC CREST TRAIL

April to late September is the normal window for a Northbound thru-hike.  Southbounders start late June or July and finish in October/November.

COST

APPALACHIAN TRAIL &  PACIFIC CREST TRAIL

Cost on both trails is about the same.  I have heard of people doing any of the Triple Crown trails for anywhere from $3000-$8000.  It all depends on the gear, food, number of hotels, mode of travel to and from the trail, amount of postage, and amount of money you spend in towns.
The AT does have more trail towns increasing the chance you may spend more money and is longer meaning more time off work.

WATER*

APPALACHIAN TRAIL

Water is almost never an issue on the AT.  Of the three trails it has the most sources available.  Unlike the PCT or CDT water isn’t as high a priority on the AT.

PACIFIC CREST TRAIL

Water varies from year to year.  Typically water is an issue up to the Sierras then in a few places in Oregon.  Compared to the AT you’ll have to carry much more water on any given day.  It will be or should be a main concern throughout your day.

RESUPPLY

APPALACHIAN TRAIL

Resupplying on the AT is by far the easiest of the three trails.  You can resupply on average about every 3 days.  Heck, if you plan right you can eat your way through the Shenandoah without carrying any food.

PACIFIC CREST TRAIL

My average resupply was between 4-5 days.  The longest stretch being in the High Sierra from Kennedy Meadows to Independence, CA.  There were less people on the more remote roads the PCT crossed than the populated east coast.

COMMUNITY

APPALACHIAN TRAIL

The AT has by far the largest trail community of the Big 3. There’s probably more resources for the AT than the PCT and CDT combined. The community surrounding the AT is vast and been in place for a long time. You will find plenty of off trail support.

PACIFIC CREST TRAIL

The PCT has strong hiking community due to its harsh environment. Trail Angels maintained water caches and offer rides to the trailhead on top of what you’d normally expect. Due to the vast growing interest in hiking the PCT from books and movies of late numbers have soared. 1500 attempted to thru-hike in 2015. These numbers have put a lot of stress on the community and some Trail Angels have had to close their doors. Be respectful when you stay with them and support them if you can.

*Note that every year these four items can be different as each effects the other.  It’s never the same from one year to the next.  Expect your experience to be your own and don’t try to compare it to others before you.  Expect the unexpected.

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MY NUMBERS

PCT

AT

Zero Days

7

10

Nights alone

34

3

Tarp Tent/Tent

63

16

Tarp

7

0

Friend’s house

2

11

Cowboy Camped

34

0

Motel

10

11

Hostel

7

20

Shelter

1

94

Rain

12

35

Snow

1

4

PCT

AT

0 miles hiked

7

10

1-4 miles hiked

0

3

5-9 miles hiked

6

17

10-14 miles hiked

8

37

15-19 miles hiked

21

63

20-24 miles hiked

38

22

25-29 miles hiked

25

1

30-34 miles hiked

15

0

35-39 miles hiked

4

0

Total miles:

AT – 2168

PCT – 2655

The above does not include side trails, town miles, or walking to from towns.

**Mileage has changed since I did the trail.  To protect the trail it’s constantly being added to and moved to protected land.

Total Days:

AT – 153

PCT – 125*

*This does not include the 31 days on bike from Seattle to Mexico or the 4 days from Manning Park to Seattle. 161 total days.

Average miles a day:

 AT – 15.2

PCT – 22.5*

The above does not including zero days.

*This does not include the 31 days on bike from Seattle to Mexico or the 4 days from Manning Park to Seattle. 161 total days.

Number of nights in camp spent alone:

AT – 3

PCT – 34*

*A couple were while on my bike, maybe 3.

Longest stretch with precipitation:

AT – 7 days 99.5 miles (White Mountains,NH to Sugarloaf Mtn.in Maine)

PCT – 3 days 99.7 miles (just south of Snoqualmie Pass to Cathedral Rock, in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness)

Longest stretch without a day off:

AT – 32 days, 447.1 miles (Hanover,NH tom Baxter Peak; northern terminus of trail)

PCT – 42 days, 1032.7 miles (Enta, CA to Manning Park,BC; northern terminus of trail)

Most mileage hiked in a week (7 days):

AT – 135.7

PCT – 200.1

Longest mileage in a single day:

AT – 26.3 miles (Winthuri Shelter in VT -Hanover,NH)

PCT – 36.1 miles (Jake Spring – Crater Lake Mazama CG)

MORE RESOURCES

Read these next or checkout the main resource page.

MY PROVEN GEAR LISTS FROM THE TRIPLE CROWN

Gear lists from the AT, PCT and CDT; Pros & Cons; Things I’d do different; and Tips.

IF I HIKED… SERIES

In depth look at what I would bring for gear and why, if I hiked the AT, PCT and CDT.

Long Trail Guide
Appalachian Trail sign

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