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It is time. I am going to compare my experience thus far of hiking the PCT vs. the AT. Each person that finds out we hiked the PCT always follows up with the question, “How do they compare?” It’s a very good question and one that I answer in my head almost daily and discuss with Optimist nearly just as often. One is definitely not easier than the other, but they are certainly very different.
Before I start, I’d say the two caveats are that I hiked the PCT four years ago, and when looking back on a life changing experience, no matter how hard it was at the time, somehow all the good memories float to the top and the bad ones sink to the bottom, not to be remembered again as quickly. So perhaps I have a bias looking back on the PCT because the good memories are front and center, and I’m looking at the AT as I’m going through its hard parts. I haven’t had time to siphon out the good stuff because I’m still in the thick of the experience. I’m also not even halfway through the AT, so this is only a comparison thus far, as I’m sure it will change down the trail.
I have to say that the AT is physically harder in the sense that the trail nearly always goes over the tops of the mountains, while the PCT takes you along the side and gives you the option of going to the top. It’s wonderful to have to option to torture yourself on an uphill, which so far we haven’t had very often on the AT. The AT also uses switchbacks sparingly to go uphill; it just attacks them head on, thus creating a steaper, shorter climb. I think the PCT is 500 miles longer due to the fact that it uses so many switchbacks to go uphill since the trail is made for pack animals. So while it takes longer to go uphill on the PCT, it sure doesn’t hurt as much because of the steepness of the climb. Because I hate going uphill, I prefer the PCT on this one. Also regarding the actual trail, this may seem like a strange comparison, but there are more rocks on the AT. Rocks are my enemy – they slow me down, tear up my shoes, and cause me to trip all over the place, looking like a pinball just being tossed around and catching myself before I fall completely. I know the PCT had less rocks because nearly every day I could see all the shoe prints of the hikers in front of me, so there was nothing blocking the path. I hate rocks, and therefore hate that aspect of the AT, and I heard they are even more plentiful in PA…I never knew rocks would affect me so much!
The PCT is harder in two senses – less water and less towns. While there were 20+ mile stretches on the PCT without water, and we were carrying up to a gallon at a time (8 pounds), we carry a liter at the most on the AT (2 pounds), and sometimes that’s even unnecessary because water is so plentiful. Having to worry less about water and carry less weight are definitely a plus for the AT. Regarding towns, so far on the AT, we have not gone more than 5 days without a town, and often could stop each day if we like in a town that’s 1-5 miles off the trail. It’s almost ridiculous how many towns there are, while we would go 10-12 days without town on the PCT. This again means a lower pack weight for the AT. Granted, we only went in towns that were within a mile of the trail on the PCT, but many towns were still a 15+ mile hitch, which is pretty rare so far for the AT. I love this aspect of the AT because I can have creature comforts such as shower, food and a bed, so much more often. I don’t get town crazy on the days into town because I most likely just left one a few days prior and have a planned stop a few days later. Water and towns are wonderful.
Lastly, it’s a different social experience on each trail. There are simply more hikers on the AT, and the shelters lend themselves to crowds, so if you want to be in the thick of people all the time, the AT is for you. Less people attempt the PCT, and I can remember only two shelters, so it just doesn’t seem as crowded, which I would say Optimist and I prefer. There was a lot more tenting alone for us on the PCT simply because there were no central meeting places like shelters, so it made for a lot of Optimist and Stopwatch time. Out here on the AT we have to make an effort to not stay at a shelter since that’s where the water is and where most people stop, though we still tent it even at shelters unless the weather is bad. For the last few days we tented in random spots along the trail, either camping alone or with just one to two other people, and we loved it. I believe that lends itself to quality friendships and relationships with others to simply have less of a crowd.
So there it is, my comparison thus far. I could probably write much more, but I’m interested to see how my view changes as we go, especially years down the road when I’m not in the thick of the hike.