Why I switched from the Pacific Crest Trail to the Appalachian Trail

*This post is not written to churn up fear about the PCT this year. It is simply my way of describing how I weighed out the pros and cons and made a personal decision for what I believed to be the best path for my first thru-hike. I still plan to hike the PCT in the future. 

The Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail

The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and the Appalachian Trail (AT) are both popular thru-hiking trails in the US that I have had my eyes on over the years. In short, the PCT runs from Mexico to Canada and covers ~2,600 miles; the AT runs from Georgia to Maine, spans 14 states, and is ~2,200 miles long. For further details about the differences between the two hikes I will direct you to a great post I found by REI.

As a west coast native I have always heard more of the PCT and, thus, dreamt of one day joining the ranks of other thru-hikers making their way through California, Oregon, and Washington. I’ve camped and hiked all along portions of the PCT before and I was in love with the idea of going through all the sections in one shot. When I actually obtained a PCT permit, I thought this year was the year I would finally get to do so.


Why I switched

As some (or many) of you may know, 2023 has been an extremely snowy year for the PCT. In fact, this year is now officially the snowiest Tuolumne Meadows on record. As I wrote in my previous post, “Who I am and why am I hiking the PCT“, while I have backpacked and camped before this will be my first ever extended backpacking trip. I know that as a result, there will be many learning curves along the way as I figure out my gear and what it is like to trek for months on end.

In the same prior post, I wrote about my fears of the snow on the PCT. I generally run cold, and I do not have experience camping and hiking in deep snow conditions.

As news continued to surface about the increasing snow conditions across not only the sierras, but north up into Oregon as well, I had to take a pause and a hard look at what my goals were:

  • I want to give myself the best odds possible at completing my thru hike.
    • While I understand that completion is never guaranteed, I felt that as a first time thru-hiker I had better odds if I switched to the AT than if I stuck with the PCT.
  • I want it to overall be an enjoyable experience I look back fondly on.
    • As a person who runs cold, living, hiking, and sleeping in the cold did not sound ideal. I know that the ambient temperatures would be above freezing, but once again, post-holing and pulling myself through snow did not sound ideal.
  • I want to feel safe on the trail.
    • Safety can mean a lot of things, but with no prior snow training, I knew that simply buying the correct snow equipment (such as an ice ax or Whippet pole) would not be enough. I would need to know how to properly use the equipment and I did not have the time to take the appropriate classes
    • Speaking of equipment, with the levels of snow currently on the trail, PCT hikers will likely need a belay device (such as either an ice ax or a whippet), and to hike with either crampons or (potentially) snow shoes.
    • Furthermore, a high snow year does not just mean cold, it means higher river water levels, which can be very dangerous.

I began to realize that perhaps this year was not the best year for me to attempt a thru hike of the PCT. And to be honest, I really struggled with that. I am not someone who gives up easily. I like to research alternatives, or simply put my head down and push through things until I make it to the other end. Yet I also wanted to be wise, and make the best decision for myself that I could.

Thus, I began to research alternatives.

The Appalachian Trail

Since I’ve always had it in the back of my mind that I was interested in both the PCT and the AT, I began doing research on how feasible a switch to the AT from the PCT would be. In general I found:

  1. I can use roughly the same gear pack.
    1. I do need to switch out some pieces of gear. With the PCT I was planning on a hike filled with lots of snow. On the AT I need to prepare for hot humid weather and lots of bugs.
  2. Even though my schedule would make a NOBO hike tough on the AT, I could still SOBO or Flip Flop
    1.  Typically NOBO hikers on the AT start anywhere between the end of February to the end of April. I am out of the country through April, and the soonest I can get to the east coast is mid-May.
    2. SOBO hikers typically start after June 1 (depending on when Mt. Katahdin opens)
    3. Flip flopping offers a greater range of flexibility in terms of start dates
  3. The AT is shorter, but I estimate I’ll take a similar amount of time on the trail.

My Plan

Since I cannot fly to the east coast until mid May, I decided I would hike the AT as a flip flopper. My plan is to start in Harpers Ferry and hike NOBO, then flop back to Harpers Ferry and hike SOBO to end at Springer Mountain. What are some of the benefits of this plan?

  • Social:
    • I will not be in the bubble of people who start NOBO or SOBO at the typical start times. So campsites, shelters and hostels will be less crowded.
      • This also means I will be a part of having less impact on the trail.
    • I will still get to interact with other thru hikers.
      • I expect to catch the early NOBO crowd on my way north, and meet up with some of the SOBO crowd after I flop.
  • Weather
    • Hiking as a flip flopper allows me to catch sections of the AT at some of their more mild moments. This helps me as I adjust my gear for this new trail

In Conclusion

As I began this post, I want to emphasize that this post is not written to churn up fear about the PCT this year. Many thru hikers are still on, or headed to, the PCT at this very moment. I look forward to keeping up with them on their journey and cheering them on as they face both the highs and lows that this year has to give.

I made this choice after deep self reflection.

This post is my way of describing how I weighed out the pros and cons and made a personal decision for what I believed to be the best option for myself and my first thru-hike. I still plan to hike the PCT in the future and I look forward to what it will be like when I get on the trail then… and yes… no year is “perfect” or without its challenges. But that is a part of what makes thru-hiking so attractive.

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 10

  • Josh : Apr 14th

    I flip flopped in 2015. Started June 1, hit Katahdin mid-September, took a week or so off, started southbound October 1, finished on Springer mid December. Walking south through Virginia in the fall and watching the leaves change was amazing. The solo reflective journey of the southbound leg was just as amazing as the social northern journey. Happy Trails!

  • Bob : Apr 14th

    I think thru hiking the PCT this year will be VERY challenging whether you like the cold or not. In years past people have gotten by with having at most microspikes. This year will require crampons or possibly even snowshoes. I’ve spent time on snowshoes and can’t imagine trying to do twenty mile days on snowshoes in altitude. Also stream crossings will be treacherous. I predict that very few people will complete a PCT thru hike this year.

  • Devilfish : Apr 14th

    yeah, going sobo during fall color change is amazing. i might flip starting from a bit further south, let’s say from roanoke or staunton (bus service to both those places). coming from the west coast … if you wind up setting a relatively fast pace, dealing with august humidity in VA is maybe the only thing you would like to avoid about the AT. starting in shenandoah np, you are passing tons of frontcountry campgrounds, camp stores, restaurants … may ease the transition to trail life a bit 🙂

  • Randy Chase : Apr 14th

    I grew up near the southern end of the PCT and as a kid, dreamed one day of hiking it. I also came to the conclusion that the AT would be a better starting point for me and if I am up to it, I will do the PCT later. I am cold adverse and bit older. It also helps that I moved to near the southern terminus of the AT just outside the Smokies.

    I also concluded after way too much thought, that a flip flop was the better option for me. It means no deadlines really to hit Katahdin. And I get to hike south in the early fall. Instead of one mega celebration at the top of Katahdin, I wil have two celebrations as I finish thru the arch at Amicalola Falls. The extra positive for this is that family can be there when I finish and celebrate. There are some negatives with not being part of the NOBO experience, but I look forward to not having to deal with crowds and competing as much for resources. My plan is April 2024 starting at Harper’s Ferry.

  • Edward : Apr 16th

    I think doing the PCT this year will be difficult as well as the raging river crossings. Just an opinion of course. Enjoy your AT hike and ATB

    • Dakota Churchill : Apr 16th

      I totally agree!

  • Charlotte : May 11th

    Thank you for your posts. I look forward to catching up to your flip flop. Just came across you 5/11/23-your insights will help me assess flip flop vs thru hike.


What Do You Think?