Having thru hiked both the AT in 2012 and PCT in 2014, I am frequently presented with requests to compare the two trails to each other. I’m often hesitant to do so, as I have very strong feelings for both of the trails and believe that they are both incredible experiences that should be viewed individually. In my mind, I see the trails as a set of complimentary colors, you shouldn’t have to choose between them. That said, if you’re deciding which trail to start with, or which trail to focus your limited time on, or maybe your just curious as to how the trails differ, this info may help. Keep in mind, most of this information is based on my experiences (Nobo thru hikes on each trail) and opinions. What follows is part one of what will likely be a two (possibly more) part post. Please ask any questions you might have and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Mental / Physical Challenge

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When considering thru hiking, most people immediately focus on the physical challenge of hiking all day every day. While it’s true that these trails are physically demanding, most thru hikers will tell you that success on a long trail is ultimately determined by how you can stand up to the mental challenges presented to you.

AT: The AT is the more physical of the two trails. With it’s very steep trail grades and frequent ascents and descents it is very demanding. While the PCT tends to gently wind up and down ridges on it’s mule-travel graded trail, the AT often opts to traverse straight up and down a mountain. This steep up/down takes a toll on your body, and leads to shorter days of hiking. I probably averaged 18 miles a day on the AT and 25 miles a day on the PCT. I remember being much more sore at the end of the day (and the end of the hike!) on the AT.

PCT: The PCT presents a slightly steeper mental challenge than the AT for several reasons. First off, you are a little farther from civilization on the PCT than the AT. This means that if something goes wrong (which ideally won’t happen) you are farther from help/town/being spotted. This can be unsettling for a solo hiker or the inexperienced. Additionally, the PCT takes a little more planning than the AT. There are times on the PCT when you must actually plan ahead, whether it be planning a food drop for the resupply-less stretch ahead, determining the optimum time to cross the snow fields or high-streams, or just determining how many miles you need to hike every day to beat the fast approaching snow in Washington. Speaking of snow, the hiking window on the PCT (determined by weather/snow) is a little tighter. This means you’ll need to push a little harder than on the AT and this can weigh heavily on your mind if you let it.

 

Trail / Topography

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The trail and its topography tends to vary throughout the length of a long trail. That said, the AT and PCT have pretty distinct trail and topographical differences between them. They are on separate coasts after all.

AT: As mentioned previously the AT tends to have steep, direct climbs to the tops of mountains. Switchbacks are regularly cast aside in favor of steep, rocky ascents and descents. The benefit to this is that your climbs are short and sweet, you’ll see a summit and head straight for it. The trail itself is incredibly well maintained, seldom being overgrown. In addition to its tidiness, the trail is very well marked, with white blazes adorning trees every 1/4 mile or so. You should not get lost on the AT, unless you just aren’t paying attention. You really don’t even need maps either. Lovingly known as the “Green Tunnel”, the AT is more often than not covered by trees. Occasionally, you’ll break free above tree line, but normally you be seeing the forest around you as you hike. I should say that nearly every summit has an epic view though. For most of the AT you’ll be ascending and descending mountains daily, though there are some flat states in the middle of the trail.

PCT: Unlike the AT, the PCT tends to slowly wind up and down the ridges it follows. Because it is graded for mule travel, switchbacks are the name of the game. This makes for very easy hiking and you’ll seldom be stopping to catch your breath. In fact, you’ll be stopping much less for breaks in general on the PCT, given its less intense nature. These switchbacks can also be slightly infuriating however. Seeing the trail wind for miles and miles up to the summit of the mountain, when you know you could easily just trudge up to the top, can be upsetting. Directly opposed to the AT’s corridor-like experience, the PCT is a much more open trail. The trees and shrubs of the AT are replaced by wide open views often from above tree-line. This vastness makes for some incredible hiking with views of ridges and lakes coming constantly, though it also brings a certain level of exposure with it. Being out of tree cover for extended periods of time means that you are almost always exposed to the elements: sunlight, rain, lightning, wind, snow, cold, hot, and other factors all feel much more present on the PCT, and you might not have a way to escape them. As far as the trail marking goes, the PCT is much less frequently marked than the AT. This is normally not a problem, as the trail is very easy to follow. It may cause some instances of confusion though and you’ll definitely need to check in with your maps or GPS on occasion. And yeah, you’ll likely wan’t maps or a GPS app to help you navigate the trail.

 

Weather

 

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Though weather can vary dramatically on trail, there are definite and distinct weather patterns that dominate these two long trails.

AT: You really never know what you’re going to get on the AT. Every day has a chance of bringing a new challenge. Rain is common throughout the trail, and frequently drops in to remind you how great sunshine is. Snow can come early in the trail or late in the trail but may occasionally pop in unannounced. Wind is seldom a factor, as you’ll normally be sheltered by the trees around you. Early and late into the trail temperatures will be cold, sometimes below freezing depending on your elevation and location. Temperatures in the flat, low-elevation middle sections of the AT can be hot in the summer months, but are seldom unbearable.

PCT: The PCT has fairly reliable weather patterns on which you can generally (NOT ALWAYS) rely. In California, especially the desert regions, rain is a real rarity. Until Oregon, I cowboy camped nearly every night and experienced maybe 3 or 4 days of light rain. Oregon brings slightly more frequent rain, and Washington can be torrential some years (I lucked out with minimal rain in 2014). Of more concern is the snow. Late season snow in Washington can be hike ending if you are unprepared or if it happens to be a heavy year. You may get some early season snow in California, but more than likely you’ll just be dealing with previously existing snow pack in the Sierra Nevada range. Wind can be brutal at times on the PCT; a problem which is exacerbated by the open nature of the trail. Temperatures vary depending on elevation/location but are generally pretty mild. Again, the open-nature of the trail and wind can make these temperatures feel much worse. The desert can get HOT, sometimes it is smartest to avoid hiking during the hot part of the day and take a siesta. Umbrellas provide great shade where there may be none (and there typically isn’t).

 

Questions, Comments, Concerns??? Leave them in the comments! Also, stick around for part two soon.

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