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
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
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.
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4. Technical Changes
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!
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
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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