APPALACHIAN TRAIL VS PACIFIC CREST TRAIL: MAJOR PREPARATION DIFFERENCES

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MARK SIREK
MARK SIREK Administrator Posts: 313
edited January 2 in EXPERT ADVICE

Words and Photos by Abbigale Evans @abbigator53

The Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail are two of the most popular thru hikes in the United States. After thru hiking the AT, I've set my sights on the PCT this next summer. My preparation for the AT paid off—I was able to complete the trail with a few hiccups while maintaining a low base weight, and most of my gear lasted the entire way (except for the trekking poles.) 

A FEW BIG DIFFERENCES

However, there are a few key differences to the PCT. There is a shorter weather window if you want to hike all the way through and maintain a consistent footpath. I've made my peace with the fact that a consistent footpath will not be as simple to maintain as it was on the AT. On the PCT, you have to start when the desert is at a bearable temperature while also timing your hike to hit the Sierra when the snow levels are perfect. High snow levels mean the trail is harder to navigate, and river crossings can be swollen well past a safe level to cross. Fire closures are a likelihood and can force hikers to flip around them. I went into the AT with the mentality that I had to hike through every single section of every state because it was possible—and why not? There were very few weather-specific barriers to push through other than the nonstop rain. On the PCT, I am mentally preparing to be grateful for any time I get to spend out there—even if I do have to skip around. The important part is that I still get to experience a beautiful trail in the unique and immersive form of thru hiking.

PHYSICAL PREPARATION

To prepare for the AT, I mainly trained through endurance running. I joined an ultra-marathon club, ran an ultra-marathon, and injured myself. I was able to recover in time for the AT—but it added so much extra stress that I've decided not to train through endurance running again. Although long-distance running is similar to hiking, it has a high injury rate out of all the different ways you can train. For the PCT, I will be training in moderation, especially after realizing how quickly my body adapted to the AT on its own. So far, I have found Blaze Physio's thru hiker strengthening exercises to be the most helpful. She is a previous thru hiker who now spends her time traveling up and down the PCT to provide care for injured hikers. As a physical therapist who witnesses most of the overuse injuries that hikers get—it's very helpful to follow along with her strengthening exercises to avoid those same pitfalls. 

Before I started the AT, my physical therapist also gave me a list of strengthening exercises for my hips, which are usually what cause me the most problems. These exercises include bodyweight squats with a resistance band, clamshells with a resistance band, and crab walk squats with the band. I have also been researching a variety of exercises to help strengthen my Achilles tendons, as they gave me the most trouble. I do calf raises and heel stretches daily and roll out my feet to prevent plantar fasciitis.

If you have injuries that usually come up for you in daily life or in athletic endeavors, I would recommend finding strengthening exercises or stretches for them before you embark on your next thru hike. This could be the difference between you completing the hike or not, or even just the difference in how much pain you go through. It's easier to enjoy the beautiful scenery when you're not hurting as much. 

BUYING SHOES IN ADVANCE

For the PCT, I decided to buy all my shoes before the hike. On the AT, I went through a long and arduous trial period of trying out two different pairs of shoes. The first shoes, Altras, gave me terrible pain in my heels and caused my plantar fasciitis to flare up again due to their zero-drop (the entire shoe being level with the ground.) I was not experienced with zero-drop shoes and I didn't realize my heels weren't adjusted to them. I had been running six to ten miles in them prior to hitting the trail, so I thought I would be fine. However, running six to ten miles is not the same as walking upwards of twenty miles daily and existing in those shoes at all times. The second pair of shoes gave me terrible blisters on the tops of my toes. I bought them at an outfitter along the trail because I was desperate for any other kind of shoe than Altras—but they turned out to be just as bad. I finally switched to Brooks Cascadias at the Damascus Outfitter where they were able to evaluate my stride and suggest trail runners for me. I've never switched to another trail runner since. I figured if my feet didn't grow that much on the AT (they remained 8.5 women's the whole time) then they wouldn't grow much on the PCT either.

Between both trails, I make sure to do my research before heading out. Between figuring out what gear I need for snow, deciding which start date gives me the best chance of safely hiking the most amount of trail I can, or figuring out which exercises to do—Backpacker Radio, Halfway Anywhere, and The Trek are awesome at providing me with resources and thru hiker's first-hand advice. I make sure to reach out to friends who have already thru-hiked the trail to see what they wish they had known before starting their hike. In all thru hikes, you'll find yourself in a weird situation where you have to make the best of it—so the best you can do is prepare yourself as much as possible beforehand.


Abby Evans (Sh*twater Fireball Queen of the Salamanders) hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2023 and loves to write about gear and outdoor misadventures. They look forward to hiking the Pacific Crest Trail this coming summer and hope to triple crown before they're thirty. You can find them cutting their toothbrush in half, eating cold ramen and embracing the struggle on a trail near you! You can follow their journeys through their Instagram: @abbigator53.