This is my final week at Mountain Crossings before I head out to California to start the Pacific Crest Trail! This post is going to tell you about some differences between the AT and the PCT. I will also give you my gear list so you can see how it compares to what you might take on the AT.
Appalachian Trail vs. Pacific Crest Trail
Mileage is the first big difference. The AT is close to 2200 miles, whereas the PCT is 2650 miles. The AT travels through 14 states but the PCT only goes through three, California, Oregon, and Washington. Another big difference is the terrain. The AT is deciduous forest pretty much the whole way. “The green tunnel” is how some people refer to the trail. Rolling mountains and covered in trees, there aren’t too many changes along the way. Once you get up into Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, there are more extreme mountains and exposed ridges, but the forest is similar. Out West, you start in the desert, with cacti, little water, and heat! After around 700 miles of desert, you ascend into the Sierra Mountain Range, where there is usually snow. Snow melt also means larger stream crossings, which can be tricky especially for a big snow year like this year. Once you hit Oregon and Washington you enter into the Cascade Mountains, which are considered a temperate rainforest. This change in the landscape also contributes to the change in the temperature and weather. The AT has very little climate change. Of course it depends on when you start and finish, and there can be crazy cold days, but for the most part, you have similar gear and clothing the whole time. It does rain more and will be more humid, but in the warmer months, rain will be welcomed. On the PCT, you definitely start off with less, but you need more sent to you at Kennedy Meadows before the Sierras.
Even though the PCT is longer, and the mountains are taller, it takes about the same time as a thru hike on the AT. The trails on he PCT are graded for horses and pack mules, so even though you are climbing a tall mountain, the trail gradually ascends the mountain rather than going straight up and down like it would on the AT.
The AT doesn’t have many permit requirements. There is voluntary thru hiker registrations on the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s website, but you do not legally need a permit for the trail. You will need to acquire a Smoky Mountain National Park permit before you enter the Smokies. You can do this at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. You will also need to fill out a form right as you enter the Shenandoah National Park, but this is free and easy to do. New this year is a the Katahdin permit. They have plenty of permits set aside for thru hikers and again, they are free.
The PCT has a few more requirements. You need to apply for a thru hiker permit. They only issue 40 a day and the registration date opened in January. When I applied for mine, the website kept going down and it would show the date I chose had filled up. After refreshing the page over and over, it finally worked. It seemed a lot of people wanted to secure their permit so everyone was trying at the same time. You will also need a permit for entering Canada. There is an application online for you to fill out and carry with you. There are several other areas where you will need a permit such as a side trip to climb Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the continental US. These areas you can get permits on the trail a little ahead of time. As long as you have your thru hiker permit, you will be fine going through the John Muir Trail and other areas.
The AT and the PCT have great communities that want to help hikers and provide trail magic or hiker feeds. That community might be slightly larger on the AT just because the trail is so accessible. There are also more towns along the AT than on the PCT. You can pretty much go the whole way on the AT without any mail drops. On the PCT you will definitely need to look ahead and send yourself a few along the way because some stops won’t have any sort of store or a very limited selection.
Hitchhiking is popular on the AT but sometimes you walk straight through a town, or within a few miles where you could just walk to town. You will definitely need to hitchhike on the PCT to go to town. Towns will be more spread out and farther away from the trail. Calling a shuttle service might work if you aren’t able to get a hitch.
I will have Halfmile Maps on my phone. It’s an app that has all the points of interest on the trail. This will help me determine when to go to town.
I’ll just give a brief overview of my gear list for the PCT so you can get an idea of what to expect out there. I will be carrying the ULA Circuit pack.
Sleep system – ThermaRest Z-Lite pad, Western Mountaineering Alpinlite sleeping bag, ZPacks Duplex tarp.
I prefer the foam sleeping pads because they are easier to set up and they are light weight. I’m taking a 20 degree bag because the desert can still get chilly at night, and I can have a liner sent to me before the Sierras in case it gets colder. I will be hiking the trail with my boyfriend so we will share the tarp.
Clothing – I will hike in shorts, t-shirt, injinji socks, and one sports bra. I will be wearing Altra Lone Peak trail runners with small gaiters to keep the dirt out. I will sleep in MontBell merino wool long underwear pants and shirt, and one pair of sleep socks. Other clothes will be a rain jacket (windbreaker), and a fleece. My camp shoes will be Teva sandals and I will have two bandanas, one as an all purpose rag, the other as a pee rag.
Cook system – Pocket Rocket 2, 900 ml Toaks pot, 4 oz fuel canister, titanium spork.
My boyfriend and I will share the actual stove but will each have our own pots so we can keep our meals to ourselves.
Hydration – Sawyer Squeeze, two 1-liter Smartwater bottles, one 2-liter Platypus with a hose, one 2-liter Platypus.
This is six liters total. Hopefully, I won’t have to carry that much at once but it’s precautionary for the desert. I will likely send the 2-liter bladder home at Kennedy Meadows.
Toiletries – toothbrush, paste, floss, retainer (I know), sunscreen, hand sanitizer, baby wipes, trowel and small hairbrush (I have very long hair).
First Aid – moleskin, Advil, Benadryl, duct tape, tweezers, Neosporin, athletic tape, gauze.
Miscellaneous – Umbrella, headlamp, external battery charger with cord, phone charger, phone, pocket knife, trash compactor bag (to line my pack), ThermaRest seat pad, notepad and pen, sunglasses.
Kennedy Meadows Box – I will have my winter hiking boots, tall gaiters, thicker hiking pants, thicker socks, Microspikes, ice axe, hat, gloves (two pair), puffy jacket, trekking poles, and bear canister.
Hopefully this gives you an idea of the differences between the two trails! I know the AT is awesome from experience, but now I can be a part of the PCT. I can’t wait! Thank you to Mountain Crossings for being so awesome this past year.