Over the past several years I’ve talked to a lot of people who planned to hike either the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail. Usually, those who haven’t hiked a long-distance trail before seem to hike whichever trail is on their side of the Mississippi River. For those easterners who decide to hike the PCT first, the most common reason I’ve heard for that choice is “the Appalachian Trail is a social trail,” which, I guess, means that the Pacific Crest is not. And that is the biggest misconception about the PCT I have yet heard. In fact, any comparison with the Appalachian Trail that I heard out there was so grossly inaccurate that I started to get a little angry whenever I heard one (I sometimes had a reputation for being surly on the PCT, which I think is funny because I had a great time).
I’ll start by saying that there are NO SIMILARITIES between the PCT and AT aside from the people that hike them. Yeah, that’s exactly what I said. No similarities. Nothing. At all. The type of walking, the climate, the towns, the plant life, the dirt underfoot, the guidebooks, the planning, the scenery, the challenges– they are all so different you can’t even make a decent comparison.
But I can compare a few things, and I can knock down several of the most annoying stereotypes I heard. The first, and most aggravating, is the social aspect. The Appalachian Trail has a reputation for being crowded, and the PCT has a reputation for being lonely, but neither of those are true unless you want them to be.
Hikers on the Appalachian Trail commonly start northbound in March or April, then take five to six months to finish. When I hiked the AT, I started in February and took four months to finish. If I were to do it again, I’d start in May and take four months. Why? When I hiked the AT, I only encountered a full shelter once, and met almost nobody on the trail after the first month. It was far more solitary than my PCT hike because I did it differently than most people. During my warm-up hike for the PCT on the AT this spring, I was in the middle of the crowd, and shelters were jam-packed, but there was a very simple way to avoid those crowds– don’t camp at shelters!
By contrast, I started the Pacific Crest Trail with the herd at Kickoff. Hundreds of other hikers started with me, and I hiked with people almost constantly until northern California, some 1500 miles later. If someone wanted to hike alone, they could. The easiest way would be to leave Mexico before or after Kickoff to avoid that bunch of people. Later in the trail, there is a time crunch from Kennedy Meadows (just before the Sierras) to Canada. Most people leave Kennedy Meadows sometime in mid-June, and the latest you can plan on getting to Canada is mid-October, so that’s about four months to make 1900 miles. The result? Almost all through-hikers are in the same general area together north of the Sierras. This doesn’t make for a big herd, since there are, in fact, less people on the PCT, but since they are all within a couple hundred miles of each other for most of the trip, the trail is no less social than the AT. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s more social. The through-hiking community forms a tighter bond because there are less of them out there, and it’s much easier to meet almost everyone within a few hundred miles of you.
If you don’t believe that, I’ll just give one numerical fact. My AT hike lasted 127 days, and my PCT hike lasted 157 days. On the AT, I spent three weeks hiking completely alone. On the PCT, I spent less than four weeks completely alone. Virtually the same amount of time alone on either trail. I won’t go into the number of people I hiked with for more than three days, although you can guess.
Before this post gets to the status of “rant” there’s one other thing I have to mention, just because the trend was so prevalent. For some reason, all along the PCT I heard two things so frequently that my blood started to boil when I heard them.
First, people would ask after they’d heard I’d hiked the AT as well, “so which do you like better?” In every case, the person was obviously fishing for this answer: “Oh, the PCT is SOOOO much better than the AT.” The answer I gave them? “Neither.” There is no comparison. They are two entirely different experiences, each with their own highs and lows, pros and cons, reasons for hiking, and so on. Note what I said earlier in this post– there are NO SIMILARITIES.
Finally, and this got my goat more than anything, I ran into at least a dozen people on the PCT who would mention out of the blue how much they hated the AT and loved the PCT. With one exception, these were all people who had never hiked in the East. Do I even need to explain what’s wrong with this? The West Coast isn’t perfect, and neither is the East. I’ve never heard anyone in the East talk trash about Western hiking trails, though. Does it seem a little bigoted to just assume one isn’t worth hiking because, as one of these folks put it, “California’s got everything I need.” Don’t feed into the hype.