In 2019, I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) and in 2022, I thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). I wrote summary posts for both of those hikes (A.T., PCT) and I thought it might be interesting to do a post comparing my experiences on both trails. Note that I normally track both imperial and metric units but to make the comparisons less cluttered I will stick with Imperial measurements.
The most obvious difference is that the PCT is (was, in 2019) 461 miles longer.
Interestingly, despite it being significantly longer, I actually needed three less hiking days to finish the PCT. The number of zeros is probably not a straightforward comparison since I more heavily relied on nearos on the A.T.
|Total Days less Off-Trail Days||125||129|
|Zeros (0 mile days – off-trail days)||5||12|
|Total Trail Days||120||117|
|Total Weeks (minus zeros)||17.1||16.7|
|Total Months (minus zeros)||4.0||3.9|
The following chart is pretty obvious considering I used less days to hike more miles on the PCT, but you can see how those miles were broken down in daily ranges.
|Daily Distance Ranges (Days)||Miles (A.T.)||Miles (PCT)|
|“Marathon” days (26.2+ Mile days)||6||40.0|
Again, this is obvious, but you can clearly see how I consistently did more miles on the PCT (4.4 per day), though interestingly, the maximum mileage days for both hikes was almost exactly the same.
|Distance Averages||Miles (A.T.)||Miles (PCT)|
|Per day (minus zeros)||18.3||22.7|
|Per week (minus zeros)||127.9||158.8|
|Per month (minus zeros)||548.0||680.4|
|Maximum distance in one day||32.1||32.9|
|Maximum distance in one week||170.7||207.4|
|Distance covered days 1-30||437.6||540.3|
|Distance covered days 31-60||578.6||585.4|
|Distance covered days 61-90||606.7||46.8|
|Distance covered days 91-120||546.1||706.7|
|Distance covered days 121-150||23.0||716.4|
|Distance covered days 151-180||0.0||57.7|
My sleeping situations were very different. This was obviously going to be the case since I used a hammock on the A.T. and a tent on the PCT. But, the number of hostels on the A.T. had a huge impact on that hike compared the lack of them on the PCT. Of course, the frequent wet weather on the A.T. had me wanting to stay in a warm bed much more often than the nice PCT weather did, so that was another factor, as was the presence of shelters on the A.T. that don’t exist on the PCT.
|Sleep Situation||# Days (A.T.)||# Days (PCT)|
Looking at the elevation changes on the two trails illustrates how much “gentler” the PCT is than the A.T. Notice it had 31,375 feet less gain than the A.T. despite being 461 miles longer. The per mile stat illustrates that clearly, as the A.T. was, on average, 52 feet steeper per mile. It’s also interesting that my biggest climbing day on the A.T. was almost 1,400 feet more than on the PCT.
|Elevation Gain Stats||Feet (A.T.)||Feet (PCT)|
|Total Elevation Gain||507,925||476,550|
|Elevation Gain per Trail Day||4,232.7||4,073.1|
|Elevation Gain per mile||231.7||179.6|
|Highest day of elevation gain||8,400||7,014|
Looking at ranges, I had 71 days exceeding 4,000 feet of gain on the A.T. vs. 65 such days on the PCT, despite averaging 4.4 miles more per day on the latter.
|Elevation Gain Ranges (Feet)||Days (A.T.)||Days (PCT)|
Looking at the elevation loss, the PCT had 42,992 feet less loss than the A.T., or 46.1 feet less per mile. Unlike the gain statistic, however, my biggest elevation loss on the PCT was significantly greater (2,118 feet) than on the A.T.
|Elevation Loss Stats||Feet (A.T.)||Feet (PCT)|
|Total Elevation Loss||502,171||459,179|
|Elevation Loss per Trail Day||4,185||3,924|
|Elevation Loss per mile||229.1||173.0|
|Highest day of elevation loss||8,960||11,078|
Looking at ranges, I had 64 days exceeding 4,000 feet of loss on the A.T. vs. 53 such days on the PCT, again despite averaging 4.4 miles more per day on the latter.
|Elevation Loss Ranges (Feet)||Days (A.T.)||Days (PCT)|
So, there you have the statistical differences, for whatever they may be worth. Below I’ll offer a more subjective comparison.
Many people on the PCT asked me which trail I thought was harder or better. I think the statistics above show that the A.T. is more physically challenging, though there are a few hardy souls that prefer the more rugged nature of that trail. And, though memory is naturally selective, I do remember the A.T. being more strenuous (physically and mentally). That was undoubtedly due to the countless PUDS (pointless ups and downs) and the frequency of wet weather.
Related to those PUDS, I think the PCT is far superior to the A.T. in terms of views. That isn’t to say that the A.T. isn’t beautiful, because it is, and, obviously, that is very subjective as some hikers actually prefer the “green tunnel” nature of the A.T. And, I think that New Hampshire and Maine had beauty to rival that of the PCT. But, for me, the PCT consistently had more and better views. It also had better diversity of terrain and views.
In terms of weather, there was no comparison for me. The PCT was far superior. That does depend on the year, but 2022 was a low snow year, which made the Sierra section much easier than it can be in a high snow year. Still, I had very few days of rain and only one day of snow (though many days with snow still on the ground). Both trails had plenty of cold nights but I wouldn’t say one was colder than the other, for the months that I hiked.
One possible way that weather could affect which trail is better is if you are a particularly slow hiker. The hiking “season” for the PCT is shorter than for the A.T., enough so that if you start too late and/or hike too slowly, you could run the risk of not finishing before bad weather sends you home.
Another consideration is which trail is more social. Again, that’s subjective and down a bit to luck, but I didn’t notice much difference. They are both very social trails where it is very easy to make new friends and develop a trail family if so desired. I personally experienced far more trail magic on the A.T., but other hikers I met on the PCT ran into it much more often than I did, so that might have just been a luck thing. I had no real problems hitchhiking on either trail.
A final consideration is how easy it is to plan, logistically, a hike on each trail. In prior years, the A.T. was considered far easier in that regard, but in recent years the PCT has gotten much easier. I would say that the A.T. is still easier, mostly because it has more frequent access to towns, resupply options, and hiker hostels.
For these reasons, if you are considering only hiking one of these trails, I would recommend the PCT. The daily rewards (views) simply make it a better option. On the other hand, if you are planning to hike both trails, I would recommend starting with the A.T. so you can finish with the incredible west coast views. Of course, the main risk in that choice is that you may end up only doing one trail and then you would have missed the beauty of the PCT.
Feel fee to leave a comment if you disagree with my assessment or have anything to add.
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