8 Reasons the AT is the Easiest Triple Crown Trail for First-Time Thru-Hikers
Let me just come out and say it, the Appalachian Trail is the easiest Triple Crown trail for first-time thru-hikers. I know that this opinion might bristle some toe hairs, but it is also the truth. Between the PCT, CDT, and AT, I believe that the latter presents the greatest odds for a “successful” thru-hike of the trail’s entire length in a single season.
And please understand that I’m not saying that the AT is the best, or worst, of these three trails, which is a different discussion altogether. All I’m saying is that if my non-hiking friend wants the best odds of completing one, 2,000+ mile trail, I’m pointing them to the AT.
Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is by no means an easy feat. Walking all the way from Springer to Katahdin, or vice versa (and don’t worry you filthy flip-floppers, I see you too), takes a special combination of grit, stamina, stubbornness, tolerance for discomfort, and insanity. Not to mention a healthy dose of luck and privilege. There’s a reason that only 25% of prospective thru-hikers make it the whole way, and that’s because it’s hard.
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Not that hiking a section of the AT isn’t a worthy goal in its own right. For many, even just getting to the trail is a major accomplishment, and I am always in awe when I meet a thru-hiker who does not come from a traditional hiking background. Whether it’s completed in a single push, or over the span of decades, anyone who can claim membership in the 2,000-miler Club has persevered through harsh conditions and survived the most rugged terrain of any of the Triple Crown trails. This is an amazing accomplishment, regardless of the path followed to achieve it.
So why do I think that the AT is the easiest of the Big 3? It’s a combination of environmental and human factors that, woven together, form a safety net. Ultimately, this reduces mental and physical stress, which frees up bandwidth to observe, learn, and find a home among the trees. I could rattle off a long list of these factors, but we all have lives to live. Here are my top eight.
1. Weather Window
My strongest argument in favor of dubbing the AT the easiest Triple Crown trail is related to the weather window, or relative lack thereof. Sure there are times of the year when I wouldn’t want to find myself on certain parts of the AT, but for the most part, a hiker with no societal scheduling conflicts will probably have enough time to hike the entire AT during a single year. One might even argue that one’s budget is a greater restriction than the season’s expiration.
Although February is a cold time to be in the southern Appalachians, plenty of aspiring thru-hikers pack the shelters north of Springer this time of year, and by the time the first spring buds begin to glow like emeralds in the forest canopy, the hiker train is already spread for several hundred miles along the trail.
With the right cold-weather gear, an early NOBO start is not only comfortable and quiet, but it also affords a full 7-8 months to reach Katahdin before the arrival of winter risks closing the northern terminus. Add in some flip-flopping, and the timeframe extends even further. For a 2,200-mile journey, that’s a lot of time. SOBOs are limited mostly by their willingness to endure the cold.
There’s no pressure like snow pressure
On the PCT or CDT, however, aspiring thru-hikers must cover more ground in less time, roughly 2,700 miles in 6 months or less. In my experience, the pressure to beat Old Man Winter is pervasive and ratchets up even before stepping on the trail. There, it remains a steady companion, discouraging rest days and pushing hikers to stretch their limits as they adopt a forced-march approach. Ramping up daily mileage too fast, or maintaining an unsustainable average puts one on the path to injury, not to mention burnout.
The sprint to beat the snow puts more physical strain on the body, and it is also a heavy mental burden to carry. When envisioning their first thru-hike, aspiring finishers might imagine relaxing evenings and abundant zero days to rest what ails them. Heck, I carried three books north from Mexican border on my first thru-hike! While these things are possible on all three trails, the AT offers more opportunities for guilt-free indulgence.
The southern miles of the PCT are no stranger to hiker bashes and festival-style vortexes, but partying too hard has real consequences when the margin is so thin. No one knows exactly when the first big snow dump will come, and whether or not one makes it to Canada, or through the Sierra for SOBOS, might come down to a matter of just days. Were those four days at a rave in Belden worth it? The foot of new snow covering the trail 30 miles from Canada says no. Now, if you’re on the AT, then yes. That hazy week at Standing Bear Hostel was worth it. Or was it weeks?…
2. Easier Resupply
Aside from a few locations where a resupply box is recommended, though not essential, the AT is a friendly trail when it comes to finding food to eat. In fact, there are almost too many options. Figuring out a resupply strategy can be a major pre-hike anxiety, and the sheer prevalence of towns, gas stations, hostel resupplies, and trail magic on the AT provides a comforting safety net for anyone questioning how much and what to eat.
Many AT thru-hikers with zero dietary preferences or restrictions will mail themselves one or two resupply boxes. Alternatively, it’s not uncommon for PCT and CDT hikers to send 10 or more to the more remote outposts along the trail. Wrapping one’s head around those logistics and investing some serious cash in bulk refried beans is overwhelming for even the most experienced thru-hiker.
By hiking the AT first, hikers can dial in preferences and quantities without risking the sudden onset of explosive ramen-phobia. If preparing 200,000 calories worth of resupply boxes without previous experience, regret and self-loathing are virtual guarantees. Eight years on from my PCT thru-hike, I still avoid split-pea soup, and Lära Bars have yet to regain their pre-CDT luster.
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3. Fire Risk
Although the AT is not immune from the effects of increasingly devastating wildfires that burn millions of acres of western forests each summer, the likelihood of a fire-related trail reroute is historically slim to none. I won’t argue that the smoky conditions this year and in previous years aren’t bad, but they pale in comparison to the ever-present risk of significant and multiple stretches of the PCT and CDT closing due to fire.
In some ways, this risk is even more insidious than that of snow causing the trail to be impassible. Fires can strike any part of the western trails at any time, and the associated unpredictability can wreak havoc on a hiker’s psyche. Planning and mentally preparing for the weeks ahead becomes a dicey affair when all it takes is an errant spark, lightning strike, or lunatic to set the trail ablaze.
At best, a PCT hiker can expect to spend a few days choking down smoke from a nearby fire. At worst, trail closures force the unenviable choice to skip a section or find an alternative route. In recent years, active fires near the US-Canada border have even closed access to the northern terminus. Dodging fires on the PCT and CDT can feel like Russian Roulette, a dynamic that for now at least, doesn’t exist on the AT.
4. Snow on the Trail
Hikers on the AT will probably avoid hiking on snow. By the time the main thru-hiking season kicks off in Appalachia, all but the most stubborn remnants of winter have melted away, meaning that extra snow gear, such as micro-spikes, an ice axe, and the skills to use them, aren’t needed. Damp roots are as slippery as ice, but only the earliest thru-hikers need to worry about the great indignity of post-holing.
Life on the PCT and CDT couldn’t be more different — in particular NOBO life. The nature of hiking north from the Mexican border through desert necessitates a spring start in order to avoid dangerous heat later in the year. This is also important to maximize the amount of time available to reach the Canadian border before it becomes blanketed in snow (there’s that pesky weather window saying hello again).
The unfortunate result is that in all but the droughtiest of drought years, the desert runs out and the big mountains begin before the winter’s snows have completely melted. Buried trail, icy passes, and swollen rivers are just a few of the added hazards that spring in the mountains throws at hikers who have already invested significant energy into the first 700 miles of their hikes and are already far from home. The requisite snow skills mitigate these issues, but for a first-time thru-hiker, this can present another significant obstacle.
A tough call
Historic snow levels this year have sown chaos on the PCT and CDT, forcing hikers to make the unenviable decision to risk life and limb or sacrifice the purity of their thru-hike. Perhaps we should all re-evaluate our preconceptions of what makes one thru-hike “better” than another, but for some, it can be devastating to miss a section or leave their footprints behind even with the intention of connecting with them again. None of this drama exists on the AT. Hikers start, and some will finish, but almost none of them are concerned with snow.
Up and down the entire length of the AT there is a host of people willing to accept money from hikers in exchange for a ride to town or further afield. These enterprising individuals are called shuttle drivers, and they offer a reliable and safe means for hikers to access the amenities of the many nearby towns. In fact, the FarOut comments section for town stops have become defacto billboards for the rubber-tramping entrepreneur to pimp their business at the expense of access to any and all useful information.
I can’t comment on how the PCT’s rapidly surging popularity has affected the pay-for-ride landscape, but I can say that hitchhiking is almost never needed on the AT (it is still a great option, though). If a first-time thru-hiker is squeamish about the prospect of sticking out a thumb and accepting whoever and whatever the universe puts in their path, then the AT will provide.
Hikers on the PCT and CDT, on the other hand, are much more reliant on the free kindness of strangers to navigate the vast distances between trail and fast food. The remoteness of these trails makes it difficult to coordinate pick-ups, so they’re left to do it the old-fashioned way, with thumbs and optimism. Somehow, the system works, although almost any thru-hiker you ask will have a hitchhiking story to tell. A ride is always forthcoming, sometimes with more zest than desired.
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- Accessing the Appalachian Trail: A List of Shuttles and Taxi Services
- The Thru-Hiker’s Guide to Safe and Effective Hitchhiking
Even being the mouse nests that they are, the system of shelters along the AT is a marvel, and unique among the Triple Crown. Although the firehose of snoring, unclaimed farts, and crinkling plastic repelled me from even the coziest of shelters, they are a boon to thru-hikers on the AT. From particularly stormy nights to sunny afternoons, they provide some degree of separation from the elements in situations where hikers would otherwise be at the whim of the fickle east coast weather.
In addition to providing a comfortable communal space to hang out and mark the miles, the shelters are a safety net, of sorts. If a tent springs a leak, or if poles are accidentally left behind, one can usually rely on a nearby shelter to keep them protected until finding a safe resolution. First-time thru-hikers aren’t destined to find themselves in desperate need of a shelter, but the extra security they provide is a nice feature that can assuage even the most debilitating pre-hike jitters.
Water stress is real on all three trails. Each has its own unique challenges and horror stories abound. While many are exaggerated, most are rooted in truth. However, relative to the PCT and CDT, water along the AT is generally abundant and reliable. The long ridges of Pennsylvania do dry out early in the hiking season, but there are no 40-mile dry stretches between mucky cow troughs as there are in the deserty portions of the western trails.
Water is a hiker’s most essential consumable resource, and maintaining proper hydration through the heat of summer is no easy task. Water is also heavy and a pain to filter, so naturally we ounce-counters push the limit, often too far, rationing our neon Mio swill to the point of delirium. In the dry sections along the Pacific crest and continental divide, a miscalculation can be deadly. Running dry will hurt on the AT too, but it’s easier to camel up when a big load of water is 4 liters, versus the 9+ liters it takes to cover some stretches in the desert.
Similar to shelters, the vast and enthusiastic community that surrounds the AT can make a first thru-hike of this trail both less intimidating and a safer alternative to the others. Don’t get me wrong, the PCT and CDT each benefit from a cadre of dedicated acolytes, however, the AT’s consistent proximity to large population centers makes accessing that support network both easier and more reliable. Hostels are everywhere, trail magic is abundant, and everybody knows an AT hiker when they see one.
The strong community vibes also exist on the trail to an extent and consistency that even the PCT can’t yet match. First-time thru-hikers need not worry about being lonely on the AT, provided they hike during the “normal” season. Finding life-long friends on the AT is no guarantee, but the odds are good, even if the goods are odd.
But Don’t Call It Easy
I said it already, but I’ll reiterate it here. Thru-hiking the AT is not easy. In fact, it is the hardest of the bunch in a lot of ways. Bugs, humidity, boredom in the green tunnel, Lyme, rugged scrambles, lack of switchbacks, proximity to populated areas and all their unsavory characteristics. These are some of the factors that contribute to the unique and challenging flavor of the AT. They test the limits of even our most hardy. And generally speaking, this trail lacks the epic visual payoff of its western siblings. The AT is a beast, mile-for-mile as tough as they come.
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Personal Preference Matters
What this list fails to include, is the matter of personal preference. Everyone is different, and so will harbor an affinity for one environment over another. Having grown up on the west coast, my flight to Georgia at the beginning of my AT thru-hike felt like traveling to a different continent. Even though it was the last trail on my Triple Crown journey, the AT was no easier than my first. For different reasons maybe, but I was out of place, far from the familiar landscapes that I called home, and that mattered.
The sportsball term, home-field advantage, is as important as any of the factors listed above. Perhaps even more so. I would have hated thru-hiking if I had attempted the AT first. In reality, the easiest trail to thru-hike will be the one that you want to hike the most. All the hostel movie marathons and roadside trail magic won’t make a difference if you lose interest in the daily grind, because that’s what the majority of thru-hiking is — time on the dirt.
It’s Your Hike
So if you’re not sure which trail to hike first, or next, think about what you want. What excites you? What do you want to see, to feel, to achieve, to learn? It’s your hike, no one else’s, so make it yours. And take all of my thoughts with a healthy pinch of salt because thru-hiking isn’t supposed to be easy. That’s not the point. Who cares which of the Triple Crown trails is easiest? Well, probably plenty of people, and I’m sure that I’ll be hearing from them soon.
Featured image: Owen Eigenbrot photo. Graphic design by Chris Helm.
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