PCT vs CDT

Pacific Crest Trail vs. Continental Divide Trail, (PCT vs. CDT)

 

In an earlier post I compared the Appalachian Trail vs. Pacific Crest Trail, (AT vs. PCT).  That post is one of my most popular gets tons of traffic so I decided to do a comparison of the Pacific Crest Trail vs. Continental Divide Trail, (PCT vs. CDT).  Like the AT and PCT, you can’t really compare the PCT to the CDT (though many love to), or any of the three with the others for that matter.  Each is their own beast and it takes a different approach to complete them.  There is no one best way to hike any one trail.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

In my opinion the CDT was the harder of the two.  I might have joked while hiking the CDT that the PCT stood for Piece of Cake Trail, 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

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 but it has it rocky sections.  The topography shares many features with the CDT but don’t let that fool you.  They are not the same.  The PCT contains six of the seven ecosystems we have.

CDT – The CDT was designed to follow as close to the Divide as possible.  This means you are much more exposed on the CDT than on the PCT.  The average elevation of the state of Colorado is 11,000’!  Combine that with the fact the sun’s UV rays are 40% stronger at 14,000′ and you can see why it’s probably the hardest state of any of the trails.  The CDT is not a complete trail so there is hundreds of miles of road walking.  The tread is much rougher and varied.  Mud can be an issue too.

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High Sierras on the PCT

Weather*

PCT – Weather is never the same so it’s hard to say which has the better weather.  I personally found the weather on the PCT to be tamer than the CDT.  The PCT still gets rain, hail, snow, lightening and more.  Just know it can vary from year to year.  I found the temps to be higher on the PCT but this could be due to the lower eleveations.

CDT – My CDT hike had much more weather than the PCT.  The wind and amount of rain was the biggest difference I noticed.  The CDT also had much more lightening.  Afternoon storms were more an issue for me.  The one bonus is that the weather usually moves through an area fast on the CDT.

Navigation*

PCT – The PCT was much easier to navigate.  The is mainly due to the trail being more complete and more traveled.  Signage was more frequent and consistent in it’s appearance.

CDT – The CDT wasn’t as hard to navigate as I was lead to believe.  As the CDT isn’t complete no one hikes the same route as someone else.  It’s more a “choose your own adventure” hike.  Navigation wasn’t a problem, though many resources will tell you that it’s really hard and you have to look at a map every 10 minutes.  With apps like Guthook, I almost completely stopped looking at my maps.  I did carry both the Bear Creek Survey and Ley Maps.  In a perfect world I would have the BCS maps with Ley’s notes on them.

The signage on the CDT is not consistent in the spacing/frequency or it’s appearance.  You’ll find many types of blazes (wood and metal signs), cairns, metal posts, wood posts and more.  One thing to remember is the CDT is not always the most defined trail.

Knapsack Col in the Winds on the CDT.

Knapsack Col in the Winds on the CDT.

Maps & Guide Books

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

CDT – You have options just like the PCT.  They are Bear Creek Survey Maps, Ley Maps, Delorme Gazetteers (I wish I had these.  They show off trail options like Forest Service roads which can come in hand if snow is heavy.  Highlight the CDT before you go.) Guthook App, Trails Illustrated Maps (These are great for the San Juans.  The other maps don’t show bailouts.), Yogi’s Books, and Wolf Guides.

Physical/Mental

PCT – The PCT was both physically and mentally challenging but compared to my personal experience on the CDT I would say both were less challenging.  This is one of those categories that can be different for everyone.  I would say the order for me goes:  Physical:  CDT, AT, and PCT.  Mental:  CDT, PCT, and AT.

CDT – I found the CDT to be the hardest both physically and mentally.  Like other aspects of the three Triple Crown trails there’s many factors that influence this answer.  To mention a few:  Your age at time of hiking, order you hiked the trails, weather, off trail influences (loved ones and friends), direction of travel, and more.

Planning

PCT – I found the PCT logistically easier than the CDT.  For starters you have less options as the trail is complete.  There is more information and generally it’s better for the PCT.  I found planning easier for the PCT and could plan further ahead on the trail.

CDT – I found it much harder to plan for the CDT.  Like the trail most information out there is only partially complete.  Just sorting the maps, town guides, water report and data book pages is a full day in of itself.  The CDT also presents you with many options and this can make your planning more difficult.  Having so many options can be a limiting factor while on the trail.  The key is to plan for your hike like you hike it.  Tackle one piece at a time and don’t get overwhelmed.

Alpine Wilderness in Washington on the PCT.

Alpine Wilderness in Washington on the PCT.

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.

Time of year*

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.

CDT – Typically it’s the same as the PCT for a Northbound thru-hike, April to late September.  Southbounders generally start in mid June and go through to October.

Water*

PCT – Water varies from year to year.  Typically water is an issue up to the Sierras then in a few places in Oregon.  Where my next water was a concern on the PCT but not as much as on the CDT.

CDT – Water can be a issue in any of the five states.  It’s most scarce in New Mexico but you’ll find places high on the Divide in Colorado where you don’t come off the Divide for 20+ miles.  In Wyoming the Great Basin has long stretches without water.  Idaho/Montana also have some sections that poise a challenge.  On the CDT you can’t assume they’ll be water, conditions are too varied.  I constantly thought about water during my thru-hike.

Resupply

PCT – My average resupply was between 4-5 days.  The longest stretch being in the High Sierra from Kennedy Meadows to Independence, CA.

CDT – My average resupply was 4 days. This equaled an average of 90 miles between resupplies. The longest being 155 miles.

Glacier National Park on the CDT.

Glacier National Park on the CDT.

Community

PCT – The PCT has a much larger network and stronger hiking community.  There are more Trail Angels and more maintained water caches.  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.

CDT – There are less Trail Angels on the CDT than the PCT.  Though the number is growing the CDT has the least amount of hikers attempting to thru-hike.  In 2015 there was only about 250-300.  The CDT community is one with a vast knowledge of hiking and help is easily found.

*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.

Comparing the PCT and CDT on paper.

Pacific Crest Trail Continental Divide Trail
Length: 2663 miles Length:  2700-3100 miles
First explored in the late 1930’s Trail started in 1978
States: 3 States: 5
5 Sections:  Southern California (648 miles); Central California (505 miles); Northern California (567); Oregon (430 miles); and Washington (500 miles). New Mexico 775 estimated miles, Colorado 800 estimated miles, Wyoming 550 estimated miles, Idaho/Montana 980 estimated miles.
Elevation Change Gain/Loss 824,370 ft Elevation Change Gain/Loss 917,470 ft
Highest point Forester Pass 13,153 ft Highest point Gray’s Peak 14,278 ft
Lowest point Cascade Locks, Oregon (140 feet) Lowest point Waterton Lake 4200 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) There’s no speed record as the trail isn’t complete and no one hikes the same route.
About 1500 people attempted to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail in 2105. About 250-300 people attempted to hike the entire trail in 2105.
 The overall success rate was about 30% in 2014.  The overall success rate is about 70%.
 In 1995 less than 50 finished the trail.
The route passes through 33 federally mandated wilderness; 25 national forests;  7 national parks; and 3 national monuments. Travels from Canada to Mexico through 25 National Forests, 21 Wilderness Areas, 3 National Parks, 1 National Monument, 8 BLM Resource Areas
The PCT climbs over 57 major mountain passes; plunges into 19 major canyons and passes more than a 1000 lakes and tarns. The CDT is routed on the actual Divide as much as possible making everything harder.
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!
The CDT is on 76% done, meaning lots and lots of road walking. At times it’s more amply called the CDR (Continental Divide Road)
map map

My Numbers:

 

PCT

CDT

Zero Days

7

13

Nights alone

34

15

Tent

63

65

Tarp

7

13

Friend’s house

2

7

Cowboy Camped

34

8

Motel

10

20

Hostel

7

4

Shelter

1

2

Rain

12

44

Hail

?

19

Snow

1

9

0 miles hiked

7

13

1-4 miles hiked

0

1

5-9 miles hiked

6

6

10-14 miles hiked

8

9

15-19 miles hiked

21

15

20-24 miles hiked

38

30

25-29 miles hiked

25

35

30-34 miles hiked

15

20

35-39 miles hiked

4

1

40+ miles hiked

0

1

 

 

 

Total miles*:

PCT – 2655**

CDT – 2751***

*This does not include side trails, town miles, or walking to from towns

**Mileage has changed since I did the trail.

***Mileage on CDT is different for everyone as no one takes the same route.

Total Days:

PCT – 125*

CDT – 131

*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:*

PCT – 22.5 miles**

CDT – 23.3 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:

PCT – 34*

CDT – 15

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

Longest stretch with precipitation:

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

CDT – 4 days 103.2 (Ghost Ranch to Cumbres Pass)

Longest stretch without a day off:

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

CDT – 26 days, 553.5 miles (Mexico Border to Ghost Ranch)

Most mileage hiked in a week (7 days):

PCT – 200.1

CDT – 201.7

Longest mileage in a single day:

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

CDT – 40 miles (Knoll M1954.7 to Fish Lake Mountain M1994.7)

Books on the PCT and CDT

Useful Links

PCT

CDT

 

 

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