AT vs. PCT

Appalachian Trail vs. Pacific Crest Trail (AT vs. PCT)

When deciding to hike any of the Triple Crown Trails (Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail) it can be hard to know which is the right one to start with.  Typically it used to be the AT, then PCT and finally the CDT.  Now with lighter gear, better maps and navigational tools a lot of people are starting with the PCT, or even the CDT.  Curious about of comparisons checkout my PCT vs. CDT post.  Also check out my Pack vs. Pack or Cutting Pack Weight posts.
No one can tell you which is right for you.  Time available, fitness, hiking confidence, weather conditions and more effect which of the three is right for your first trail.  My advice is to do your research (the more you do the better) and know your ability.  
If you start on the AT you’ll have many more people on trail to help you along the way.  Knowledge can be shared more easily.  That said most hikers start with the AT so they probably will make the same mistakes as you.  Learn as much as you can at home before you go.  This is changing with more people hiking the PCT first.  They bring much more trail harden knowledge with them.
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 shot for 10 lbs), be physically ready to have to do 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.

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.

Remember these are just my take on my experience.  Your’s will be similar but different.

 

Tread

AT – 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.
 
PCT – 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 actually tread is much smoother too.  Don’t get me wrong sections like the Alpine Wilderness in Washington State are rocky as hell.
The topography it’s more similar to the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) than the AT.  The PCT contains six of the seven ecosystems we have on earth.

 

Weather*

AT – 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 hike the whole state of Virginia with only a half hour or 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.  
 
PCT –  I personally found the weather on the PCT to be tamer 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.  
 

Navigation* 

AT – Navigating the AT is very easy.  The white blazes are so predictably reliable compared to any other trails.  Other trails use multiple types of signage making it confusing at times.  If I hiked the AT again I wouldn’t even carry maps.  For the novice hiker that might be scary.  Guthook’s app would be enough.
 
PCT – When I hiked in 2007 map options were limited and not very good.  Even so navigating wasn’t terrible.  The PCT is marked well but not as consistent or as frequent as the AT.  At times you have to follow your “Hiking Instinct” as I call it. 
Today there are many more map options and they are much better in quality.  IMO if you have basically hiking skills and map reading ability you should do fine, but know your limits of course.
 

Maps 

 
PCT – PCT – Halfmile’s MapsPCTA Guide BooksPostholer Maps,  Tom Harrison Maps for JMT (These were great to have in the Sierra.), US Forest Service Maps, and Guthook App.
 
 

Physical/Mental

AT – 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.
 
PCT – 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

AT – 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.
 
PCT – 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.  
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*

AT – 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.
 
PCT –  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

 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*

AT – 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.
 
PCT – 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

AT – 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.
 
PCT – 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

AT – 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.
 
PCT – The PCT has strong hiking community due to it’s 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.

 

Finishing the AT 2001, on top of Mt. Katahdin, Maine

Finishing the AT 2001, on top of Mt. Katahdin, Maine

 

Mt. Whitney, Scatman, Pacific Crest Trail

PCT 2007 – Scatman on top of Mt. Whitney

 

Hot Long days on the Pacific Crest Trail

Look at those legs!

 

 

 

Pacific Crest Trail Appalachian Trail
Length: 2655 miles Length:  2180 miles
First explored in the later 1930’s Trail started in 1921; completed in 1937
States: 3 States: 14
5 Sections:  Southern California (648 miles); Central California (505 miles); Northern California (567); Oregon (430 miles); and Washington (500 miles). 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 Virgina, Virginia); South Appalachians (Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia).
Elevation Change Gain/Loss 824,370 ft Elevation Change 917,760 ft
Highest point Forester Pass 13,153 ft (4,009 m) Highest point Clingmans Dome 6643 ft
Lowest point Cascade Locks, Oregon (140 feet) Lowest point Hudson River 124 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) The current unsupported speed record for thru-hiking the AT was set by Heather “Anish” Anderson in 2015, at 54 days, 7 hours and 48 minutes (That’s 42 miles a day people!.  I averaged 15.5)
About 1500 people attempted to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail in 2105. 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 route passes through 33 federally mandated wilderness; 25 national forests;  7 national parks; and 3 national monuments. The trail crosses six national parks, eight national forests, numerous state/local forest and parks.
The PCT climbs over 57 major mountain passes; plunges into 19 major canyons and passes more than a 1000 lakes and tarns. It takes approximately 5 million footsteps to walk the entire length of the trail.
The PCT includes six of North Americas seven eco-zones. More fun facts.
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!
map map

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

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**

*This 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 miles

PCT – 22.5 miles

*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)

 

Useful Links:

AT:

PCT

 

Books about the AT and PCT


 

AT and PCT Gear Comparison

Gear Comparison
Item AT Wt. in oz. Cost Wt. in oz. Alt. Wt. in oz. Alt. #2 PCT Wt. in oz. Cost Wt. in oz. Alt.
Pack Arcteryx Bora 65 96 350 96 96 ULA Catalyst 47 250 47
Shelter SD UL Clip Flashlight 48 180 48 48 Spin Twin Tarp 10 175
Contour TT 199 24.5
Ground sheet SD 10 10 10 10 tyvek 2 0 2
Pad Thermarest Guide lite 22 75 22 22 Therm-a-rest Z-Lite 10 39 10
Sleeping bag FF Raven 10 38 470 FF Hummingbird 27 439 27
Marmot Arroyoro  30 280 27 27
Filter Katadyn Hiker 13 75 13 13 Aqua Mira 2 12 2
Pot Evernew 1.2 liter 6 60 6 6 Evernew .9 liter 4.9 65 4.9
Stove MSR SuperFly 5.9 60 5.9 5.9 Soda Can Stove 1 0 1
Kitchenware Kitchenware
sponage 0.1 0 0.1 0.1 None 0
lexan spoon 0.3 1 0.3 0.3 lexan spoon 0.3 0 0.3
Soap 0.2 0 0.2 0.2 None 0 0 0
bandana 1.1 3.5 1.1 1.1 bandana 1 0 1
Cooking oil Olive oil in 16oz Gatorade blt 10 10
Water bladders MSR Dormatory 4l 5 32 5 5 Platapus 2 liter w/ drink hose 3.6 22.95 3.6
What u drank from Nalgen 3.5 10 3.5 3.5 32oz Gatorade bottle 1.5 3 1.5
Nalgen 3.5 10 3.5 3.5
Electronics Electronics
Headlamp Petzl Tika 2.9 30 2.9 2.9 Petzl TakTikka Plus 3.1 55 3.1
Camera Cannon 9 300 9 9 Cannon A710 7.4 250 7.4
Journal Pen and notebook (6) 3 21 21 21 Pocket Mail 8 100 8
Zune 5.6 0 5.6
Solio (solar Charger) 5.6 50 5.6
Cell Phone 0 0 3
extras extras
bandana 1.1 3.5 1.1 1.1 bandana 1 0 1
pack towl MSR Pack Towel 1 1 1 MSR Pack Towe1/2 of towl 0.5 0.5
Feed Bag 5 20 5 5
bug juice Deet 2 8 2
Film 2 2 2
First Aid assortment 5 5 5 assortment 5 5
Clothes in Pack Clothes in Pack
Pants MHW Pack pant 13 110 13 13
Rain pants MHW Full zip 13 90 13 13 O2 4 25 4
Rain jacket Marmot Precip 14 90 14 14 O2 7 32 7
Bug protection Simpl. Hednet 0.3 15 0.3
Gloves Fleece 3 25 OR PS 150 1.8 29 1.8
Polypro liners 1 9 1 1 OR Rain mitts 0.5 25 0.5
Camp Shirt Patagonia 5.5 35 5.5 5.5 Ibex Woolie L/S 5.3 35 5.3
Jackets Fleece Pullover 0 8 8
TNF Denali 21 180 Montbell UL Down Jacket 6.7 110 6.7
Hats Turtle Fur 1.5 20 1.5 1.5 Ibex beanie 1.5 0 1.5
Socks Smart wool (1 pr) 2 18 2 2 Feetures (1 pr) 1 0 1
Boxers Patagonia 2 2 2 Ibex Boxers 2 2
Total Weight Carried oz 357.6  $ 2,568.00 348.6 348.6 188.6  $ 1,938.95 206.1
Pounds 22.35 21.79 21.79 11.79 12.88
Clothes Worn Clothes Worn
Shoes Full leather 50 180 Montrail CD (5pr) 30 500 30
Garmot Ortero 85 30
Lowa 150 31
Socks Smart Wool 2 18 2 2 Feetures 1 0 1
Insoles Super Feet Green (2pr) 3 70 3 3 Super Feet Green  (5pr) 3 175 3
Gaiters OR Rocky Mtn. Low 4.8 30 4.8 4.8 Simpl. Leva Gaiter 1.8 27 1.8
Shorts/Pants MHW Pack Short 7.5 70 7.5 7.5 MHW Convertible Pack pant 16 95 16
Shirt S/S MHW synthetic 4.2 35 4.2 4.2  Ibex Woolie 0 5.3
Shirt L/S Ibex 17.2 5.8 0
Gap Button Down 10 0
Hat/visor OR Bucket Hat 3 45
Visor 3 20 Nuun Visor 0 1.5
Defeet Arm Warmers 30 1.5
Total Weight Worn 74.5  $    658.00 51.5 52.5 70.6 872 60.1
4.7 3.2 3.3 4.4 3.8
Grand Totals  $ 3,226.00  $ 2,810.95

Comments are closed.