Both are excellent choices, so whether you’ve finished hiking one of them and are ready to take on the next, or are simply deciding which one to hike for your first-ever thru-hike, the elements comprise one of several discernible differences that make each trail unique.
The Elements: The Appalachians and the Pacific Crest are different mountain ranges with distinct landscapes and climates that influence these elements: earth, wind, fire, and water.Earth: On the A.T. the world beneath your feet is red clay, rocks, and roots (from Georgia up to the mid-Atlantic), or boggy and bedrock (in the northeast). As a 480 million year old mountain range, it's stable ground.
|Bedrock of the White Mountains of New Hampshire|
The PCT is sandy and shifts beneath your feet. Yes, sandy sidehill slips out from under you along canyons; additionally, the ground may literally sway beneath you as you drift to sleep. If you aren’t accustomed to quakes before your PCT hike, you will develop a sense for them. I felt three earthquakes in two-months.
Wind: The A.T. doesn’t have anything on the PCT when it comes to wind. This PCT element is a force to be reckoned with. I read recommendations for wind shirts or jackets in Yogi's PCT planning guide, but I should have taken the advice more seriously, very seriously.
|It's no wonder you hike in sight of windmills on the PCT.|
Fire: Gathering around a fire with friends is a primal and communal activity. It’s nostalgic, but it’s generally not practical on a thru-hike. After all, who wants to hike all day, and then collect firewood? But I’m writing more than just about campfires when I talk about fire. It relates to camp stoves, too.
If you like a hot meal, if you like gathering around a campfire, and if you like hot coffee on trail, the A.T. has a lot more to offer. Why? Because, as my friend Morph has said, the PCT is a tinderbox.
|Burned forest. It's a frequent occurrence on the PCT.|
In 2012, there were 11 fires that effected or closed sections of the PCT. Given that conditions are drier in the west, coupled with the aforementioned wind, it can be dangerous and unwise to build campfires, and sometimes even cook a hot meal on what would otherwise be a safe camp stove. It’s your judgment call once you’re out on the trail, but I signed and took seriously a permit to hike on the PCT that said I would be responsible to pay for containment and clean-up of any fire I caused. Sometimes this meant giving up the option to warm my instant mashed potatoes.
Water: Call me a water angel because it seems that in the years I chose to thru-hike, water was abundant. I hiked the A.T. in the rainiest year on record, and the PCT in 2010 was experiencing a very wet spring. That being said, water resources are always more abundant on the A.T. than the PCT. There are long stretches of the PCT through the desert where natural sources can’t be relied upon; this generally requires hikers to carry more water for longer distances.
(More about my initial impressions on PCT elements are found on my Trail Journal site. Please excuse the typos, I haven't edited it since my transcriber originally posted it. Sometimes she just couldn't make out my scrawl.)
This is part two of a four part series on the differences between these trails:
Part One: People
Part Two: Elements
Part Three: Trail terrain, views, snow
Part Four: Resupply