Top 5 Reasons I’m Glad I Hiked the AT Before Hiking the PCT
This year I had the privilege of completing the Pacific Crest Trail, my second of the Triple Crown trails. It felt great to be back on the trail, and of course, it was an incredible experience. (If you’d like to hear more about it I’ll drop the link to my Trek Blog here.)
Between my Damascus baseball hat and the rather prominent AT tattoo on my left calf, it was no secret to those around me that I had previously hiked the AT. The questions from fellow hikers asking how the two trails compared started coming before I even left the Southern Terminus in Campo, CA. Trying to pick a favorite would be impossible. You can describe both a rose and a symphony as beautiful, but you can’t compare the two. They’re just different beasts.
That said, I am extremely glad I hiked the AT first, and I’ll tell you why. Here are the top 5 reasons:
1. The Work/Reward Ratio
The PCT spoils you. Every twist and turn in the trail brings you to yet another sweeping vista. The climbs are all reasonably graded. You can hike fast without thinking too much about it. There is nothing easy about walking 2,600 miles, but those trail crews really did go out of their way to find the simplest and most beautiful route to Canada that they could.
The AT, in contrast, tries to break your body. While I believe that the vast majority of the difficulty of the AT is overhyped (lots of fear-mongering regarding Rocksylvannia, The Whites, The Smokies, etc.), it is true that the climbs are absurdly steep. It is simply a physically harder trail.
It also has fewer stunning views. That is not to say it isn’t beautiful. As a SOBO I enjoyed about 1,000 miles of fall colors and enjoyed the beautiful farmland of the mid-Atlantic. However, in terms of sweeping vistas, it just does not hold a candle to the PCT. I’ve never really understood the complaints about “the green tunnel”, but had I hiked the PCT first I could see myself being annoyed by the occasionally monotonous scenery.
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As an AT veteran, I felt that I appreciated the PCT even more than I otherwise would have for both its breathtaking views and its cruisy walking.
2. The Confidence
This one could go either way depending on the order you did them, but having done one thru-hike already is an enormous confidence boost. You know you have what it takes to walk across the country. Even better, you know that you’ll like it.
This helped me tremendously going into the PCT, which to me is a more intimidating trail on paper. It may be because I grew up on the East Coast, but the AT has always felt more like home. Those beautiful deciduous forests and trickling streams still feel more welcoming than the desert or the snowy passes of the High Sierra. Knowing I had what it takes to walk from Maine to Georgia, on what I already knew to be a more physically demanding trail, gave me an immense confidence boost leaving Campo.
READ NEXT — Which Triple Crown Trail is Right For You?
3. The Logistics
One of the most frequent questions I get is how I plan for my hikes, and the truth is I really don’t. That kind of laissez-faire attitude is a whole lot easier on the AT where you can go to town every few days, carry little to no water, and worry a bit less about inclement weather.
Logistically I found the PCT to be more difficult. Longer resupplies between towns and longer water carries in the desert led to some heavy packs and more planning than I prefer. Gone were the days of just camping wherever I got tired without a second thought to either my food or water supplies. Every night, especially in the desert, required forethought and planning. Not a lot of planning, but still more than my easy-breezy fly by the seat of my pants AT hiking style required.
Not only are the resupply points further apart on the PCT, but they’re also often difficult to reach or even buy (affordable) supplies at. I never considered mailing myself food on the AT, but on the PCT it was a regular occurrence.
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4. The Cost
The “West Coast Best Coast” proponents have many strong arguments, but the cost of living simply is not one of them. Thru-hiking is an inherently expensive endeavor, but I found some of the prices along the PCT to be absurd. We’re talking $2 for a pack of ramen in some of those resorts up in Oregon.
Not only did I find the resupplies to be more expensive, but it was almost impossible to find reasonably priced places to stay in town. The plethora of cheap hostels on the AT, especially in the south, really spoiled me, and staying in town on the PCT was a rare treat. I’d recommend joining all the chain hotel loyalty programs because chances are that’s where you’ll be staying a majority of the time.
To give you an idea of the cost difference between the two trails I spent about $5,000 on the AT in 2021 and close to $11,000 on the PCT in 2023. Not including gear. As someone new to thru-hiking the relatively low costs of the AT were extremely helpful, the last thing I would have wanted would have been to have to end my first hike for financial reasons.
5. The Crowds and the Culture*
This requires an asterisk because I am confident I would not feel the same way had I hiked the AT NOBO. I worked the next two northbound seasons at Mountain Crossings, the first civilization for NOBOs on the AT, and thus have gotten an up-close view of just how crazy the NOBO bubble can be.
My experience hiking SOBO was far calmer, and I am extremely grateful for that. A large part of the reason I chose this was to avoid the crowds and the party culture. I still made plenty of lifelong friends and had tons of fun in towns. However, I still got to hike alone in the woods. I spent around 800 miles of the AT in relative solitude, an experience that I was really hoping to find. There was real community among my fellow SOBOs and I got to experience tramily life as well. It was the best of both worlds.
The crowds of the PCT came as a shock to me. Starting April 25th I was in the center of the NOBO bubble and found myself competing for campsites in the desert. I gave up trying to camp near water sources and would carry extra in the hopes of finding some privacy at night, but even then it was no guarantee. The crowds did eventually thin out, but not for quite some time.
Culturally the two trails also felt much different to me. Although I met far more hikers on the PCT it felt like a less social experience. I attribute this to a couple of reasons, including my own attitude as a more experienced hiker. I was moving quickly and spending less time in towns. The crowds of hikers at times were overwhelming and did not feel conducive to making the deep friendships that I formed on the AT.
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Either Way, You Really Can’t Go Wrong
No matter what trail you decide to start with you’re in for the adventure of a lifetime. Both trails have their charm and their own unique character. Both are amazing.
Now that I’ve got these two under my belt, it’s time to test myself on the CDT. I loved the Colorado Trail and the Teton Crest Trail, so I’m really looking forward to getting this one done. Hopefully, I’ve saved the best for last.
Featured image: A Henry Lewis photo. Graphic design by Zack Goldman.
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