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Do you dream about hitting the trail for a long—really long—hike? In Ask a Thru-Hiker, record-setting long-distance hiker Liz “Snorkel” Thomas answers your burning questions about how to do it. Normally, you’d need to be an Outside+ member to read it, but we’re sharing this column with everyone to give you a taste of what you’re missing. Get Liz’s advice, plus all of Backpacker’s members-only skills coverage, in-depth stories from the trail, destination reports with interactive maps, full-length gear reviews, and more by becoming an Outside+ member today.
What are the Triple Crown of Hiking trails, and what are the major differences between them?
The Triple Crown of Hiking Award is a distinction bestowed to hikers who have walked the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail in their entirety. Just as the Oscars are presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Triple Crown is awarded by our own organization with an overly long name: the American Long Distance Hiking Association-West (ALDHA-W). Each fall at the ALDHA-W’s annual gathering, a board of past Triple Crowners verify and present the award.
You’re probably familiar with the trails that make up the Triple Crown: the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail.
The Appalachian Trail is the oldest and the most famous of the three trails. While it is the shortest (2,190 miles from Georgia to Maine), it has the most elevation gain; sometimes, it seems like the trail was purposefully routed over every possible hill. While mountains out east are smaller (the high point of the trail is a modest 6,643’ on Clingman’s Dome) the climbs are steeper than any of the other Triple Crown trails. ascending via ladders and rocky, root-covered scrambles. Frequent white blazes make navigating the path a snap, and three-sided shelters about every 10 miles make dealing with weeks of rain more manageable. While hikers’ average pack size tends to be larger on the AT, it needn’t be (I hiked with a guy who carried 3 pounds of gear, plus food and water). The trail runs closer to civilization than the other trails and the distance you need to hike between resupply towns is less than the other trails. About 1 in 4 who attempt the AT complete it, and they take nearly 6 months, on average, to do it.
Pacific Crest Trail
The Pacific Crest Trail runs 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada, and passes through a huge range of ecosystems, from desert to alpine to temperate rain forest, along the way. Originally built to accommodate pack mules, the trail is generally not as steep or rocky as the others. When it’s not covered in snow, it’s fairly easy to follow and marked at intersections, and it was built for pack mules, which means a smoother walk. The trail has experienced a surge in popularity, but since there are almost no shelters for hikers to congregate around, you’ll likely find more solitude than on the AT. It’s a more remote trail than the AT, with bigger distances between resupplies, so hikers pull bigger miles each day to make it from water source to water source. The window for starting and finishing the PCT is smaller than on the AT—so “hikers gotta hustle” to finish before the Canadian winter sets in. If you’re hiking the PCT, you should become especially versed in Leave No Trace—the harsh climates you travel through can be severely damaged by a few uneducated hikers’ poor decisions.
Continental Divide Trail
The Continental Divide Trail is the boss of the Triple Crown Trails, running 3,100 miles from Mexico to Canada. Imagine the PCT on steroids: The CDT climbs to the highest point of any of the trails—above 14,000 feet—and you’ll be above treeline for days. Many hikers experience weeks of snow travel, dangerous lightning storms daily, and encounters with grizzlies. A wild adventure, the CDT requires hikers to have great navigation skills, including some off-trail travel through cactus right off the bat. Distances between resupplies can be long, and there are few hikers who can help you in case of emergency. The CDT is very remote—you’ll be carrying more food and water on this trip than the other trails. The weather window to start and finish the CDT is smaller than the other trails, too. This is not the trail to get your gear and thru-hiking style dialed in: Most who tackle this trail have already completed the PCT.
What these three trails have in common is the experience. Tackle any of them, and you’ll experience highs and lows. You’ll be hungry, smelly, euphoric, and frustrated. You’ll meet other hikers who may become lifelong friends. And your feet are going to hurt—a lot.
All the trails are open to dayhikers, overnighters, and backpackers of any distance—you needn’t attempt to walk the whole thing to experience the greatness. To learn more about any of these trails, check out the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, Pacific Crest Trail Association, Continental Divide Trail Coalition, and American Long Distance Hiking Association-West websites. To learn more about how to thru-hike, check out Thru-Hiking 101 with Backpacker, taught by yours truly.