Should a Long-Distance Hiker Do the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail first?

Posted by on September 13, 2012 in Appalachian Trail, Cheryl Strayed, Pacific Crest Trail, Skywalker--Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail, Skywalker--Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail | 0 comments

Which should I do first–the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail?” This is a frequent question I get. Incidentally, it was not a question that I personally had. Being from the state of Georgia, it was only natural that when I became virtually obsessed with attempting a long-distance hike, it would be the Appalachian Trail. I was born and raised in the state of Georgia. Further, Bill Bryson’s bestselling narrative, A Walk in the Woods, piqued my interest (and millions of others!) in our nation’s most popular national scenic trail. To top it all off, I had never heard of the Pacific Crest Trail when I set off north on the Appalachian Trail, so full of hope and fear, never having even spent a single night outdoors.

The Appalachian Trail proved to be a perfect match for me. The terrain was difficult to be sure. But the trail designers philosophy is to create a trail that the average person, given it his or her all, can complete the trail if all goes well. They have succeeded stupendously. Every time I thought, “I can’t go on like this much further,” the trail would let up. This frequently happened in the most difficult sections of the AT in New Hampshire and Maine. Another great aspect of the AT  is the three-sided communitariarian shelters that run throughout the 2,180 mile trail. On average, a shelter is to be found every nine miles. These serve as great places to relive the day’s hike while retrieving water and cooking dinner. Each shelter contains a trail log to allow hikers to record their thoughts and keep up with other members of the hiking community (‘the grapevine’). Adding to all this, the AT is maintained by 31 trail maintaining clubs. The trail is marked with white blazes, precluding the fear of getting lost (although it occasionally does happen. There is always a hiker with the trail name, ‘Wrongway’).

I ended up completing my ‘thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 171 days and lost a total of 33 pounds. This was about my limit in both categories. There is a window of just over six months for a person to thru-hike the AT. It is generally too cold to start before April 1st in the north Georgia mountains or finish in rugged northern Maine after early October. A thru-hiker is exposed to four seasons, lending a touch of gravitas to the entire endeavor. Personally, I would never do it any different.

I was so turned on by the entire thru-hike that the last couple states I began asking, “Hey, is there anywhere a person can go after this for a similar experience.” The response I consistently got was, “Yeah, the Pacific Crest Trail.”  “Where is that?” I asked. ”  “It runs from Mexico to Canada and goes through the high mountains, ” people informed me. “And it’s a lot more difficult to plan.”

They were right. A Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike is a greater logistical challenge. The PCT thru-hiker passes through several hundred miles of desert, before even entering the high mountains. Fortunately, the PCT holds its annual Pacific Crest Trail Kickoff Party, in which ex-hikers provide detailed water reports to the current year’s crop of aspiring thru-hikers. Further, a few dedicated trail angels report as to exactly where they will stash water caches. In other forums at the Kickoff Party hikers give presentations on snow levels in the ‘High Sierra’, as well bear canisters and ice axes. In summation, the Kickoff Party is a great way to begin the PCT and tremendously facilitates the planning process. But the fact remains that the thing that prepared me the most for the PCT was my AT thru-hike.

However, things have changed. The Pacific Crest Trail has since gained greater popularity. For starters, it has become practically de rigeur for an AT thru-hiker to quickly begin planning their next adventure on the PCT. Adding to that, a tidal wave has recently been set in motion with the publication of ‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed. This narrative of suffering and redemption on the Pacific Crest Trail by a well-known author has greatly increased knowledge of the PCT. Many have compared it to the ‘Bryson effect’ that ratched up the AT hiking population a decade ago. Cheryl Strayed’s book has reached well beyond the hiking population to non-hikers. Many of these readers are non-hikers. Yet their human reaction is often, “Hey, I want to try that.” And by ‘that’, they are referring to the Pacific Crest Trail. Anecdotal evidence is that ‘Wild’ has already begun increasing the population of PCT hikers. If that is the case, Mrs. Strayed has done a great service for the simple reason that the PCT is our nation’s most gorgeous national scenic trail. 

However, is it a good idea to attempt the PCT before having done the AT? My answer would be that the average person–and that very much refers to myself–should do the Appalachian Trail first. It is easier to plan and less isolated. The variations in terrain and temperature are less, although that is not to say it is easier. However, many people in the West, as well as new Cheryl Strayed fans, are headed straight to the PCT. Certain ’tilt at windmill types’ have always preferred the PCT to the AT. However, the PCT Kickoff Party, as well as the incresed number of PCT hikers, makes it a more accessible, less perilous journey.

It is all, of course, a win-win situation. I have now hiked all around the world. And without any hesitation I can say that the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail are the world’s two greatest long-distance hiking footpaths. Trying which one to hike first is  healthy problem. Personally, I think most hikers are better off getting their feet wet on the AT. However, given the inherent strong individuality, even iconoclasm, of the hiking community, many will be determined to damn the torpedoes and head straight for the PCT.

Bill Walker is the author of Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail (2008), as well as Skywalker–Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail (2010). His latest book is ‘The Best Way–El Camino de Santiago (2012)’. Walker, who is almost 7-feet tall, is currently working on a whimsical book on the subject of height.

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