PCT, CDT, or AT
No, were not talking about drugs, its which major US through hike should you try first?
The Triple Crown of Hiking, the most prestigious, unofficial award any backpacker could unofficially achieve in the US. It’s like the Oscars or the Grammy’s for backpackers. Yes, that’s right, the Pacific Crest Trail, The Continental Divide Trail, and the Appalachian Trail. Together they cover over 7,900 miles, 22 states, and will test the full extent of your emotional prowess, ambitions, and fears. Not to mention your physical resilience and mindset. Each are their own beast with a different approach needed to conquer each trail. Everyone does it for a different reason and it’s if that reason is strong enough, it’ll will get you across the finish line. Disconnect from technology and the everyday hustle and bustle. Experience a simple life with your 30-40 necessities strapped to your back. Feel free and refresh. No matter which one you choose first, none of these hikes is an easy task, but if they were easy everyone would do it, right? Take the trail for what it is, not for what you want it to be. Here’s a brief overview to each trail in the order we recommend to tackle these beasts.
The Appalachian Trail
States covered: Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine
Length: ≈2,185 miles/ ≈3,516 km
General Completion time: Five to Seven months
The Appalachian Trail is considered the granddaddy of US trails and is special for many reasons. Covering over 60 different protected parks and venturing through every type of forest on the east coast is just the beginning. The AT is the most traveled of the three with an estimated 2,000 hikers that will set off for their own vital venture. Navigation and supply wise it’s the easiest trail to prepare for. With over 250 three sided shelters and nearly 165,000 white blazes marking the way (one almost every 70 feet), makes for a great introduction trail for newbies. Along with the numerous markers, hikers will pass through many towns and roads along the way that make planning and resupplying less strenuous than the other two. To cap it all off for the most part, there are no park permits needed and if you for some reason run into someone asking for one, it will most likely be a one time thing. But all of this should not cause you to undermine anything about the difficulty of this trek. This is still over 2,000 miles of sleeping outside for 6 months and truly living a minimalist lifestyle. To put it into perspective, of the approximately 2,000 that embark on a thru hike annually, only about 20% or 1 and 5 hikers complete the journey. This is partially due to hikers thinking that the trail is relatively flat. They soon find themselves tested by an elevation gain and loss of over 450,000 Ft or over 89 miles of elevation (that’s ascending Mount Everest around 16 times). And although mountains on the east coast might not be as treacherous as its counterpart, they are steep and have the ability to set your legs on fire real quick!
The Pacific Crest Trail
States covered: California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia
Length: ≈2,659 miles/ ≈4,279 km
General Completion time: Six to Eight months
Although the PCT and the CDT are very similar we suggest taking a shot at the Pacific Crest Trail first. More similar than they are different, both run from Mexico to Canada, cover similar mileage, go through deserts and mountains, have similar wildlife and are both, very, long, walks. The terrain is much more strenuous than the AT meaning daily miles are usually longer in order to make it to the next water source before you set camp. And if your heading north like most thru hikers, you need to have a little pep in your step to finish before the Canadian winter sets in. Trying to finish the trail in the first blanket of Northern snow can add a lot more adventure or difficulty to your trek, depending on how you look at it. Nevertheless be prepared. But the generally less difficult terrain can mean for a much easier trek for most. Navigating the PCT is easier due to more abundant blazers along the way and are actually designed to use pack animals (mainly horses), which usually ends up being the largest path. With the desert comes long waterless stretches of landscape that transitions into the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada and Cascades Mountains. This means that planning your gear, food, and clothing is crucial, especially if you’re on a budget. Thru hikers can get by with a single long distance permit to enter each park but if doing fewer than 500 miles at a time you will need individual permits for each park. Just be sure to research this before hitting the trail. But none of this should veer you away from experiencing what most say is the most spectacular wilderness in all the United States. For roughly 150 people who depart for a thru hike, only about a dozen of trekkers actually make it the entire way. To put that in perspective (because I like numbers) only 0.5% of the US population completes a marathon in their lifetime. When you complete the PCT you will be a part of the 0.000008% of Americans to have competed it! Talk about an exclusive club!
The Continental Divide Trail
States covered: New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana
Length: ≈3,100 miles /≈ 4,989km
General Completion time: Five to Seven months
Considered as one of the most rugged, wild, and scenic places left in the world, the Continental Divide Trail is for the true adventure. Lying along the treacherous Rockies, from Mexico to Canada, only about 85% is completed making this raw, remote trail one of the most difficult trails to navigate. Some serious backcountry navigational skills and keen wits are highly advised in order to conquer this trail from start to finish. Altitude may be an issue for some hikers here as almost the entire trail is above 5,000 feet in elevation but, that’s not all. The trail peaks in Colorado at 14,000 feet but, even a large portion still sits above 10,000 feet. Also, FYI: the lowest part of the trek is 4,200 Ft at Glacier National Park MT so if your hiking north I guess it’s something to look forward too. Along with altitude and navigational barriers, there are few resupply points and with high risk of snow towards the end of the year which call for life threatening conditions if not well prepared. But the fun doesn’t end there. Remember you are walking through a desert for a good majority of the trip meaning a lack of water sources. Research the water caches that are available to hikers along the way to make for a safer trek. Not only is the desert an issue but, the ups and downs of the divide will test your legs and endurance. All of this makes for only around 200 attempting the trail annually with a handful actually completing it. BUT, and a huge but, you will be rewarded almost the entire way by the breathtaking scenery you will call home for around half a year. Having the opportunity to physically walk through so many different types of geography, climates, ecosystems, national parks and forest as well as joining an exclusive list of finishers is well worth any preparation or pain experienced along the way.
With the later two it all comes down to preference. The love, enjoyment, and impact of each trail are different for everyone. Different purposes and current life situations can guide such feelings to where it is impossible to say which is better. It’s completely subjective and for you to discover for yourself. All three, if given the chance, will open one’s mind and soul with times of adversity, perseverance, and reflection and will have a lasting impact for the remainder of your life.
Part of conquering the trail are the bonds you forge along the way. Having someone to share the experience with is bound to happen and you are almost guaranteed to meet great people along the way.
Here are some tips before you head out
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