The 4 Major Differences Between the AT and the PCT

Check out our resource for thru-hiking the PCT, Pacific Crest Trials.

Many of us leave the AT with dreams of another trail but instead return to jobs, school, and normal life. Still, the restlessness is always there and becomes stronger over time. I feel it now, and it has led me to do some extensive research on the Pacific Crest Trail, the west coast brother of the Appalachian Trail.

The PCT, which was completed in 1993, runs from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon, and Washington. It is an entirely different beast than the AT: some differences include the terrain and the climate, which necessitate more technical gear and skills. For those of you interested in another bout with trail life, read on!

The Four Major Differences Between the AT and the PCT

1. Terrain Changes


The most obvious difference between the AT and the PCT is the terrain. The AT travels through deciduous forests for the majority of the trail. At times you pass through cattle fields and cropland. The White Mountains introduce you to boreal forests and alpine conditions, and Maine takes on its own special identity. Still, for the most part, you do not see an extreme change in terrain. Just trees, trees, and more green, luscious trees.

The PCT, however, begins in the Mojave desert, where you’ll experience limited water, cacti, sagebrush, and occasional sightings of Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote (okay, that last part is not true). The desert then transitions into the Sierra Mountain Range. The High Sierra, being an alpine region, nearly always means snow for hikers (aka post-holing up a pass and glissading down)—a vast change from the heat of the desert not far behind.

Northern California is lower in elevation with more rolling hills and less time above treeline. Oregon then ushers in the Cascade Mountains, which are considered a temperate rainforest. The trail winds through forests and passes about a billion lakes (with a few side treks to some bucket-list destinations, like Crater Lake). Transitioning into Washington, sweeping vistas return as the PCT circumnavigates three out of the state’s five volcanoes.

Desert to glaciers to rainforest to volcanoes. That is radically different than the “green tunnel syndrome” on the AT.


2. Climate Changes


Left: Forester Pass in the PCT, elevation 13,200 feet. Right: Clingman’s Dome on the AT, elevation 6,643 feet.

The many different types of terrain on the PCT come hand in hand with extreme changes in climate during the average thru-hike, which lasts from April through September.

The desert is blistering hot during the day, but temperatures drop significantly as the sun goes down. The snowpack in the Sierra Mountains is erratic and varies greatly from year to year. Due to daily elevation changes, one can easily sleep in the valley every night, on dirt and grass, and yet spend all day hiking through snow. The weather in the Cascades can be unpredictable at times, especially late in the hiking season. All of these elements keep you on your toes.

On the other hand, elevation changes on the AT are usually not drastic enough to bring about significant changes in climate in a single day of hiking. The elevation of the AT stays between 120 and 6000 feet (in contrast to the PCT’s range of 140 to 13,000 feet), so the climate is similar throughout the whole trail. Still, the weather is unpredictable, and one must be prepared for a wide range of possible situations. The AT is notoriously rainier than the PCT, but on either trail, a simple thunderstorm can easily come with loads of lightning and large hail. Not a fun time to be taking in the views from a high ridgeline.

3. Gear Changes


PCT gear setup on the left, AT gear setup on the right. Note the microspikes, ice axe and SPOT GPS in the PCT setup. These are items you usually don’t need on the AT.

Since these trails have such different climates and terrains, hikers need to change up their gear from trail to trail. Items that are unnecessary on the AT can be essential for safety on the PCT. An ice axe and microspikes are often mandatory to safely cross icy passess in the High Sierra, depending on the snowpack and the time of year.

Navigation can be very tricky on a snow-covered trail—a GPS device or app will keep you from guessing by showing the correct direction even if you see no trail below you.

While the ATC recommends carrying a bear canister on the AT, it’s required while walking through most of the Sierra on the PCT. Rangers may stop you to make sure you have one.


On the AT, the trail is obvious unless there has been a freak out-of-season heavy snowfall. Crampons/microspikes and an ice axe are unnecessary for all but the earliest starters.

Because of the extra gear required out west, thru-hikers on the PCT go to extreme lengths to cut down on their pack weight. While counting ounces is important on the AT, typical AT pack weights are more than what you would see on the PCT. The most popular packs on the PCT are themselves from ultralight brands such as Gossamer Gear and ULA instead of Osprey or Gregory, as seen on the AT (though the third most popular pack on the PCT is from Osprey). Still, gear choices always vary heavily from one hiker to another.


4. Technical Changes


Left: Boundary Monument 78 on the US/Canada border (the end of the PCT!). Right: The sign on Mount Katahdin (the end of the AT!).

On the PCT, you have the same amount of time (six months) to put down more miles (just under 2,700 as opposed to just under 2,200) than on the AT. This calls for higher mileage days on the PCT than on the AT. But the PCT is graded for pack animals, whereas the AT at times seems like it’s graded for mountain goats. This means many of the climbs on the PCT are not as brutally steep as on the AT.

Caveat: keep in mind those miles in the High Sierra; you are crossing those mountain passes at a time when pack mules would be steering clear. “Graded for pack animals” should be taken as seriously as “Virginia is flat.” It in no way translates into “cakewalk.”

The technical differences don’t end at the trail length and grade. On the PCT during high snow years, you have to be competent with microspikes and an ice axe. This can be difficult to learn on the go, and it’s helpful to hit the trail with some snow skills. PCT hikers usually hit the Sierra right around the time of peak snowmelt—during high snow years, this means navigating ferocious river crossings. While you do have to ford some rivers on the AT, the crossings tend to be less perilous than those in the High Sierra on heavy snow years.

The PCT also requires more mandatory planning, mostly regarding mail drops. On the AT, resupply locations abound, many right on trail. On the PCT, hitches into town are longer, so more hikers may prefer to send themselves resupply boxes closer to the trail (though a buy-as-you-go resupply strategy is still more than possible on the PCT).


Don’t Forget The Similarities!


You will experience beautiful places with wonderful humans and share the joy of the hiker trash lifestyle with all you meet!

It’s a thru-hike. It’s going to be hard. You’re going to fall in love with it and hate it at the same time. You’re going to stink really badly and get sunburned and be starving for months on end. You’re going to meet other hikers who become closer to you than your blood kin. You’re going to meet strangers who provide you with what you needed exactly when you needed it just because they have the ability and heart to do so. You’re going to struggle and hurt and fret and want to quit, and you’re going to fight and work hard and overcome. You will be scared, and you will laugh. Regardless of the trail, you will attempt, you may conquer, and you will be a more beautiful human for it.

Other Hikers Weigh In

In gathering all this information, I mainly spoke with PCT thru-hikers whom I have met personally or connected with through AT hiker pals. It helped me prepare for the AT to listen to others’ personal experiences, so I tried to do the same here.

Of the hikers I spoke with, those who have thru-hiked both trails seem to agree that the PCT is physically easier despite the higher mileage days. They also agreed that the PCT is more mentally taxing than the AT. The AT is more draining on the body, but the social culture and more consistent trips into town keep the mind and spirit healthy. The PCT has a way of wearing down the mind before the body, but all the hikers said that the beauty of the PCT was much greater and more inspiring than the AT.

One Last GREAT Resource

AIH PCT Banner

Real-life AT thru-hikers turned real-life PCT thru-hikers Andy Laub and Ian Mangiardi made a stellar documentary following their thru-hike of the PCT in 2011. As It Happens is visually beautiful, tells the honest story of a thru-hike, and also inspires all who watch it.

Ian and I spoke at length when I was doing my research, and he helped shed light on much of the above content despite a busy life full of things that are much more interesting than talking to me. He is the Expedition Manager for his own company (Modern Explorer, Inc.) which provides both production and expedition services. He’s a gentleman and a scholar and a pretty interesting dude, too! Thanks for the help, Ian!

Hiking the PCT in 2023?  Have your journey featured right here on The Trek. Find out how here.

This article was originally published on 9/8/2014. It was updated by Penina Crocker on 12/22/2022.

Featured image: Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.

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Comments 24

  • AT only : Jun 7th

    PCT thru hike is nothing but joke. Just do the AT or take a hike. No matter how many times you do PCT thru hike, you are still a loser. AT is the only way to know “what is hike”.

    • ZZ : Feb 5th

      That comment is very inappropriate. Every trail is meant for different people and different accomplishments. There is no “only” hike. Every through hike no matter how long or were is a personal accomplishment and whatever hike you hike you should be proud of yourself to not just take the time but to get out of your personal comfort zone and leave everything behind. Experiencing different states of emotion and physical challenges. It doesn’t matter how long or where you hike every hike is a personal accomplishment and should never be judged.

    • Ranger : Mar 7th

      Hike your own hike like we say on the AT. Every trail is different and wonderful if your mind is right. A good man named Nimblewill Nomad’s hiked them all BTW. Happy Trails

    • Marce Branniff : Mar 8th

      I’ve done both. You clearly haven’t. Go away, troll.

    • andre : Mar 12th

      Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail are easy trails for us Europeans who are accustomed to hike in the Alps and Pyréenés. Really no need to do it proud with the Appalachian Trail.
      I invite you to come to the GR10, GR11 and the HRP. The climbs are steeper than on Appalachian Trail.

      • Paul : Jan 10th

        Andre…really? We want to hear “us Europeans” about as much as you want to hear “us Americans.” The post is about PCT vs AT. I’ll put the CDT over here in the US through the Rockies against anything in Europe…Pyrenees or Alps. The Rockies are brutally steep, rugged & isolated. Just saying. The length of these trails over here are between 2 & 3,000 miles. You aren’t hiking those kinds of distances over there. Europe is Europe. It has its own beauty & challenges. This is an American post.

    • Robert H Nation : Oct 25th

      Hike your own hike.

    • VexedWeasel : Jul 4th


  • Tom Kennedy : Oct 25th

    If you want to hike do the PCT. If you want to rock climb, do the AT

  • Paul Wylezol : Dec 29th

    There is a 5th difference as well. The AT leads to the IAT, the International Appalachian Trail, which extends from Mount Katahdin, Maine through eastern Canada to Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, England, Spain, Portugal and Morocco. There is no IPCT.

  • Paul Boulay : Mar 7th

    The International Appalachian Trail adds about 600 miles from Baxter State Park in Main to the shoreline at the end of the Gaspe Penninsula in New Brunswick, Canada. I did the AT in ’78-’79, but I would love to finish that route with thi IAT. The IAT was only an idea; nothing was on the ground in 1978.

  • eddie : Mar 9th

    I’ll take “things white people do” for 1000 alex

    • mkt : Oct 23rd

      I’m “white” and I think your comment is hilarious!

  • Sheryl Savage : Mar 9th

    The AT is amazingly beautiful. I have done different parts of it. Never had the opportunity to do a thru…….maybe someday!

  • Alvin : Mar 22nd

    I have been planning to hike the AT for over 10 years. After many setbacks, postponements and vast disappointments, I finally set out in 2014 to do a NOBO of the AT. After 31 days on the trail I had to come off for several reasons including a knee injury and financial issues. Durin my 31 days on the AT, I found that the AT is truly a mystical and spiritual place. The people you meet on the AT, other hikers, trail angels and the like, all add to the special experience. There is something magical about the AT, and it draws you into it. Every experience I encountered was right on time.
    I am returning to finish the NOBO hike this year and leaving a few days from now. And I have been entertaining the idea to do the PCT after, and maybe make the triple crown.
    The brief differences outlined in the article seems challenging in their own way. So to begin again and continue to trek on … Here it goes. I plan to enjoy my hike and make my experiences an addition to my enriched Life no mater what the differences are among different trails. Each surely has something to experience in different ways. Experience all you can and enrich your life. Then share it. And don’t give up on your dreams.
    Lil Cub / aka crestview_Hiker

  • Gator : Mar 26th


  • Randy T : Jun 6th


    There is no IPCT (yet), but the PCT does connect to the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail (PNT) near the US-Canada border, which you can hike east on to its eastern terminus in Glacier NP and then go north on the Great Divide Trail (GDT) up through AB and BC almost to Prince George.

    So, another 1,500 or so miles of continuous hiking across the two countries.

    It is currently illegal to cross the border from Canada into the US on the PCT, due to US policy as there is no legal entry point there:

    So, until that is fixed, a thru and true IPCT can’t happen, but hopefully that will change:

  • Zod : Oct 25th

    First and foremost, hike your own hike! Don’t fall into the traps. Take a shuttle if you want, skip a trail if you like, or make sure you take every step of whatever trail you’re on if that makes you smile. It’s your time, life, and hike. Make sure it’s yours! These trails are very different from each other, but they both will change your life in the end. You really can’t go wrong. You’ll meet some of the best, and most amazing people of your life on either. Anyone who tells you one of these trails isn’t worthy is simply insecure about something. Don’t decide your trail on other people’s short comings. Decide it by what feels right for you. Hike your own hike!

    • Noelle : Mar 8th

      This was such a wonderful comment, I appreciate you taking the time to say it! A lovely way to end the comment thread. Thank you!

  • Willi Pyro : Dec 30th

    First of all, The Trek needs to eliminate the troll comment at the start of this set of comments.
    Second, I agree with the comments of the author, although the AT can also become invisible in the Fall when the leaves are very thick and the blazes are far apart. (Personal experience through Roller Coaster, admittedly, but had to mention.)
    Third, for good VLOGs of both the AT and the PCT, check out “Goob’s Adventures” on YouTube. I met Goob in April of 2021 when we both started NOBO. His videos focus on the Trail, stealth campsites, shelters, water sources, resupplies, etc, as opposed to social aspects, introspective sermons, etc. The latter can be interesting, but if you want to see what you might be hiking, what the terrain looks like, where the rocks are bad, what many hostels & restaurants look like, etc., check Goob out.
    Have a good hike!

  • Frank : Dec 30th

    The value of this article is apparent in the opening line “The PCT, however, begins in the Mojave desert,”, say what or better, where? The PCT doesn’t start in the Mojave which is a fair number of weeks north of the start. Try the Cleveland National Forest near the Mexican border and San Jacinto mountains for the start. Then back up into the mountains around Big Bear lake and ski area then many miles later eventually to the Mojave.
    I’m guessing for the author geography and actually knowing where the trail is aren’t priority items on planning a long thru-hike.
    One might think there would be some form of editorial work on this website so that it could stand above more than just more internet drivel.

  • Aryn Freeman : Jan 2nd

    As a recent AT hiker who just moved a stone’s throw from the PCT, I read this closely 🙂 thanks for the advice! One thing I keep wondering about with the PCT is how resupply compares — the route seems much more remote than the AT, except perhaps in Maine, and getting into town seems like it could set back your pace quite a bit.

  • Dave Bishop : Jul 10th

    Um, you all seem to have either forgotten about, or never heard of, The Colorado Trail. Chatfield Reservoir (SW of Denver) to Durango. Twenty Eight (28)
    segments travelling 480 miles, passing very close to about 25 of Colorado’s FIFTY FOUR 14 ers ! Neither AT, PCT, European Trails go that close to that
    many 14 ers ! Period. About a 6 week hike from start to finish ! I have hiked segments 7 and 10. The Latter of the two (2) I hiked to celebrate my 60th
    Birthday, with two of my three children. Spent the next day at Mt Princeton Hot Springs. What a celebration. My wife and youngest child met us
    at the south end of segment 10 and headed to our hotel room in Nathrop, CO. Spent the next morning in the hot springs ! Try it sometime instead of
    running off at the mouth about which of the others are better !


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