10 Reasons Why the AT Is Better Than the PCT
Do you already know why the AT is superior to the PCT? Are you trying to figure out if you want to hike an east coast trail? Or just want to read something controversial? Take a look at this mostly tongue-in-cheek article and learn why the AT is so much better than the PCT.
I’ve walked over 10,000 miles, including a NoBo PCT thru-hike in 2016 and a NoBo AT hike in 2018. So who better to tell you why the AT rules and the PCT drools? (Well, probably lots of people, but you’re stuck with me.)
1. The Permits Are Easier
The PCT permit process is incredibly important to protect a sensitive trail from overuse, and the PCTA manages them as best they can. But they are a nightmare to deal with from a thru-hiker standpoint. PCT permit applications are due in November and January. Did you decide you want to hike the PCT in March? Tough luck unless you score a cancellation. Don’t get the date you want? Too bad. Sudden late-season snow that falls after you’ve picked your start date? Better pack your ice ax and microspikes. And that’s if you even get a permit at all.
AT permits are much easier to score, especially for northbounders. Sure, you need three, but you can apply for all of them straight from the trail. You need a permit for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which you can apply for online up to 30 days in advance. However, most thru-hikers wait until the Nantahala Outdoor Center to apply, which has a computer and printer for thru-hikers to use. Shenandoah National Park permits are acquired at the park boundary from a self-service kiosk, and thru-hiker permits to climb Katahdin in Baxter State Park are easy to get at the ranger station in Katahdin Stream campground.
2. Better for First Timers
The PCT starts with a 20-mile dry stretch, with no reliable water until Lake Morena. If you’re not on your game straight out of the gate, you’re going to have a bad first day on your thru-hike. In comparison, the AT features multiple shelters and water sources in the first 20 miles. You’ll probably meet a ridgerunner who can help you out if you’re missing some Leave No Trace knowledge. There’s even a friendly gear store located on-trail 30 miles in at Neels Gap for hikers that have forgotten something essential or want to swap something out.
On either trail, having more experience going into your thru-hike will make your life easier. Still, the AT is much more forgiving for first-time thru-hikers, with plenty of bail-out options, water, and friendly faces in the first few miles.
You still need many skills to hike the AT, but the intimidating challenges of the PCT—long water carries, snow, river crossings, etc.—require more expertise. The consequences of a mistake are pretty high. If you aren’t already an experienced backcountry traveler, the AT is a more forgiving trail on which to develop your skills.
3. The Services Are Better
An entire support system exists around the AT. You can find shuttle drivers, hostels, and gear stores in almost every single town in addition to trail angels. The services on the AT are so good that it’s possible to slackpack almost the entire trail (if you have the money and logistical know-how). If you need almost anything, someone will help you get it.
The PCT also has services, but they aren’t as well developed as the AT. Hikers will have to hitchhike, mail themselves boxes, and generally be a bit more self-sufficient. There are fewer hostels designed around solo thru-hikers, so town stay costs can add up a bit more if you don’t have a trail family to split a room with.
4. You Don’t Need All that Heavy Snow Gear
There’s a lot of extra gear you need for a PCT thru-hike, especially if you reach the Sierra Nevada early or during a high snow year. You’ll need an ice ax, microspikes and a bear canister. Not only is all of that stuff heavy, it can also get a little pricey. Sure, you only need to carry it between Kennedy Meadows and Lassen National Park, but that’s still a long way.
Unless you’re hiking the AT well outside of the normal season, you won’t need crazy snow gear. The ATC recommends thru-hikers carry bear canisters, but it’s not required anywhere along the trail unless you’re camping in a very short section around Blood Mountain in Georgia. This makes it much easier for AT thru-hikers to keep their pack weight down and their gear costs lower.
5. You Can Take Your Time
There’s only a short window to hike the PCT. Most hikers complete the trail in under six months. Start much before April and you’ll hit the Sierras early enough that they’re impassible. If you don’t finish before October, you’ll be forced off trail by winter snows. Winter conditions on the PCT are even scarier than on the AT since hikers can face avalanches, dangerous snow traverses and sketchy high water crossings. Hikers die every few years due to falls on snow or drowning in snowmelt streams.
The AT has a much wider window of time to hike. Some hardy hikers start as early as January, although cold and snow deter most people until March and April. Hikers can continue northbound until October, or even later in a good year. Flip flopping is much more common on the AT, which can extend the hiking season even further. Most hikers will still complete the trail in under six months, but there’s plenty of opportunities for slower hikers (or those who are just having too much fun to stop) to complete longer hikes.
6. Better for Purists
If you want to hike the PCT from border to border without skipping fire closures or hiking boring detours, you’re going to be disappointed. Especially in recent years, large sections of the trail have closed due to either active wildfires or the effects of fire from previous years. Many thru-hikers in 2022 didn’t even finish at the Canadian border since the trail was closed. It’s pretty disappointing to walk over 2,000 miles and then not finish due to circumstances beyond your control.
Climate change still affects the AT, but not to the same extent as western trails. Closures still happen, but not like they do on the PCT. Want to see every white blaze and walk every inch of trail? The AT is much better for purists.
7. It’s Easier To Relax
On the PCT, you’re rushing from a scary river crossing to a high pass to a sketchy snowfield (at least in the Sierra in a “bad” year). On the AT, you’re wandering in the woods with a bunch of friends. There’s no real rush, and there’s not a whole lot to be scared by. It’s much more chill, and you can slow down and enjoy your hike without any real consequences.
8. You Really Earn Your Views
The PCT is well known for having high-quality trail tread that goes up and down at a gentle grade with a switchback every few steps. Where’s the fun in that? On the AT, you get to scramble up and down steep slopes, some so extreme that trail crews have added ladders or rebar rungs to help hikers out. Sure, it can be a little harder to get up a steep slope, but the sense of accomplishment when you get to the top is much greater.
Katahdin is also arguably the best terminus on any trail. The PCT finishes at boring borders—sandy desert at one end and a cut line in the woods at the other. You can’t beat the view from Maine’s highest peak, and it’s even sweeter if you’ve walked 2,190 miles to get there.
9. It’s Harder (In Some Ways)
The AT is the easiest of the Triple Crown trails for 1,800 miles. Those other 300 miles are some of the most challenging miles you’ll hike anywhere in North America. Scrambling through Mahoosuc Notch over and under house-sized boulders earns you serious bragging rights. The mountains may be smaller, but the elevation gain is intense throughout New Hampshire and Maine. There are no switchbacks, and you frequently have to grab rocks, roots, and rebar to haul yourself up the hills. Sure, towns might be more accessible and the trail less remote than on the PCT. But if you really want a physical challenge, you can’t beat the AT.
10. You Get To Hike for an Entire Summer
The argument between the AT and PCT is a moot point. Choose whichever trail appeals to you more and go spend a summer exploring the Appalachians or walking between Mexico and Canada. Either way, you’ll get to meet some amazing trail people, see some cool nature stuff, and gain a whole new perspective on life. You won’t regret spending a summer walking thousands of miles, no matter where you do it.
If you’re horrified by the suggestion that the AT is better than the PCT, check out our article on why the PCT is better than the AT. If we missed your favorite reason why the AT is the best, let us know in the comments below.
Featured image: Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.
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