PCT vs CDT: Comparing the Long Trails

A reader, wrote with questions about the PCT vs the CDT. Here, in my own words, I compare them.

First off, here are general impressions with a slant towards not repeating others. In life, we’re faced with summarizing huge topics in few words. This isn’t that. But when asked how the CDT was, I sometimes answer: “It was superb. I was surprised with how consistently beautiful it was.”

And now.. In too much detail… I delve into it.

What’s the difference?

They are both very similar. The Pacific Crest Trail runs about 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada. The Continental Divide Trail runs about 2,700 miles from Mexico to Canada. The PCT is in the western states of California, Oregon and Washington. The CDT is in the mountain states of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. Those in the know might object to my distance of the CDT. People say that it’s 3100 miles long. It is not! I’m not fully sure what the distance is, but the consensus amongst 2010 Sobos was around 2,700 miles. Feel free to leave a comment if you want to know more. Both trails are really long walks. Both go through desert and mountains. Both have bears and snakes. Both have dry and wet sections. Both have lots of information published about them. Both have reasonable resupply opportunities. They are more alike than they are different.

Which one’s better?

There isn’t such thing as a stupid question. Except that one. I don’t have an answer. I loved the PCT. At the time, it was “the best thing that I’ve ever done.” The CDT has not surpassed that, other things have. The CDT was not that quality of an experience for me. The PCT was a paradigm shift. It was a radical affirmation of my love of freedom, my love of backpacking, my love of the west, the wilderness and adventure. I’d already known all of those things. The PCT tattooed them on my soul. The CDT is another imprint. While not as impactful, hiking the Continental Divide was even more enjoyable than the PCT.

Why did I like the CDT so much? Well, it was consistently beautiful. It has been said that the CDT has few “connector” segments. That’s true. So much of it is truly worthwhile backpacking. The PCT has the Sierra, hands down my favorite place on earth. It also has other remarkable places like the lower 48’s volcanoes and Northern Washington. Jim Wolf’s divide trail just has more of it. More beauty. More solitude. More adventure. I liked the CDT for those reasons. Part of that adventure comes from a slightly unjust quirk. The CDT has a reputation of being harder. It scares people. It has as a motto, “Embrace the Brutality.” Yogi also publishes that it’s “the PhD of backpacking”. Such a reputation is intimidating. I was scared. Now, I think it’s baloney. I don’t think that long distance hikers should be scared off from hiking the CDT. It’s not that bad! More on this later.

Importantly, I’d learned more about myself on the PCT and in the living I’ve done between the two trails. I know what brings me happiness (the outdoors and relationships). I know what it feels like to death march. I know when a relationship works for me. I know when to be alone, and when to be with others. So, it’s for personal reasons that I enjoyed the CDT more than I enjoyed the PCT. The PCT was more amazing and impactful, the CDT was more enjoyable.

On the PCT  I hiked with many different people. I made great friends, but I also spent a lot of time keeping pace with people who I’m no longer close to. Relationships were hard out there. They weren’t as fulfilling. Yes, I had many great ones. I hiked with Pepi for a thousand miles. I met Snail, She-ra, Nemo and loads of other cool people. I was a social hiker. But on the CDT, I made a great hiking partner and that’s what made the trip. It’s that pairing of the outdoors and relationships. It’s that golden ticket. Lost is pretty quiet, but I pried her open and squeezed the juice out. We had fun. We didn’t death march. We compromised. We respected each other We laughed. And we stuck together. It was a great hiking partnership, and it made the trail for me.

So, is the CDT harder?

Probably, but they’re both ridiculously hard. The CDT has some steep climbs. Lots of uuuppp and dowwwnnn, especially along the Montana/Idaho border and in Colorado. On the CDT you find yourself hiking really steep sections. Sometimes, it’s because you are going cross country right on the divide. Ridge walking is never graded. Sometimes it’s because you’re walking an ATV track and thrillcraft love steep slopes. In comparison, the PCT has none of that.

Southbound, I hiked a little faster on the CDT. It’s impractical to start much earlier than the middle of June. Right from the start, I felt the pressure of needing to make big miles to get out of the San Juans before it started snowing. On the PCT, you’re supposed to hike slow at first. There is no need to rush into the Sierra too early. On the CDT, we were all doing about 25 miles a day the entire hike. On the PCT, I had a month of 17-21 miles a day to start the trip.

Speed and terrain are only some of the reasons that trails are hard. For me, the CDT was hard because of physical problems. I hurt my leg. I hurt my ankle. I hurt my foot. I got sick. I walked hundreds of miles when I should have been on bed rest. That’s what made it hard. And that’s what it takes for me to be a thruhiker. Perseverance

I also endured more bad weather on the CDT. Generally, it was good. But sometimes, we had really cold rain while walking right up on that crest. It’s high and exposed. It can be harsh. We had some snow. I got hypothermic. I got FAR too close to being hit by lightning. On the PCT, I had less bad weather. On both trails, it was generally, simply beautiful.

I hear navigation…

You don’t really need to know how to navigate on the PCT. The trail is almost always obvious. It’s well marked. You’re hiking with others. You’re following footprints. It’s generally the widest path. Most PCTers hardly consider their maps. Many PCTers don’t know squat about navigation.

Many CDTers also don’t know squat about navigation. But that doesn’t fly so well out on the divide. It’s not well signed. It doesn’t have a lot of footprints. It’s definitely not always the most major path. It’s often on roads with networks of road intersections. And there often isn’t a single way to hike the trail. On the CDT though, we have GPS. Most CDTers are using GPSs. Yes, it takes the challenge out of it. You look at your screen, see where you are, and see where you need to go. As long as your GPS is working well (it’s not broken, it has batteries, maps and a track), navigating on the CDT is pretty brainless. Hiking the CDT without a GPS requires navigational skill. Having one, not so much. Most people don’t use their GPS all the time. They keep it off and navigate with Ley’s maps and/or Wolf’s guides. Both are outstanding, and if you keep on top of them, you’ll find yourself found.

My experience was quite unique. Since I was collecting information for a map, I had my GPS on all of the time. At every intersection, and every time I was misplaced, I’d have to be working with my GPS anyways. I used my GPS for navigating more than anyone. But I’m also a good navigator. I’ve taught classes and guides about it. So for me, I don’t think that navigation on the CDT is hard. Yes, it requires some skill and attention. But hardly more than a general stout backpacking adventure does.

The CDT has a reputation for more wildlife.

One thing that I’ve realized pretty deeply through my travels is that we’re royally screwing the environment. Yes, the CDT has more wildlife than the PCT. But it doesn’t have much! The PCT is pretty barren of animals. The CDT has some more, but it’s no Serengeti Does the myth of the wild seregeti still hold? The myth of wild america is tottering in my eyes. I saw nine bears. One was a grizzly. I saw about as many hunters as elk and deer. I saw about two hundred pronghorn antelope but no herds of hundreds. I saw half a dozen wild horses. Two rattle snakes. Lots of evidence of beavers, but no beavers. Lots of evidence of coyotes, large cats and badgers, but none of them either. I know that wild animals hide. I know that they’re often more active at night. And I know that their population has dwindled greatly. It’s our fault. I’m changing the climate. I’m encroaching on their homes. I’m letting toxins enter the environment. I don’t hunt, but MILLIONS of Americans do. It’s no wonder that the myth of the wild CDT is just that to me, a myth. The best wildlife encounter from the summer was truly remarkable however. I stood and stared for many minutes as four juvenile martens scampered, screeched and stared back from only four feet away.

What about money?

I spent about $1,000 more on the CDT. Hotels were a little more expensive and I shared them with fewer people. I went to a doctor. I replaced my shoes more often, replaced my camera and payed more to get to and from the trail. Personally, I’d be fine with $4500 for the PCT and $5500 for the CDT, but I spent about five hundred dollars more than that.

Let’s talk gear…

What worked for you on the PCT will probably work well on the CDT. Sobo, I stupidly prepared for October at 14,000 feet (Colorado) when I was hiking in June and July in Montana. Go light. It’s not that bad. Except Colorado. Bring more warm clothes for Colorado. I do a light fleece under my rain jacket. I think that’s critical when it’s foul out. That’s a garment that I don’t normally carry in the summer. But September in Washington and September in Colorado? Be prepared.

Otherwise, gear can be the same. Ultralight, fringe stuff works well enough. Go light. Know that there were a few more times on the CDT when I set my shelter up without a tree to be seen. That could be a problem if you’ve got a shelter that requires trees to set up. Some hikers manage it though.

CDT as first long hike?

Doing the CDT as your first long hike is very uncommon. It’s commonly said that you’ll learn skills on the PCT that are useful on the CDT. Sure! One problem with doing the CDT first, is that you might not know some of the tricks. Does that mean that you’ll fail? Probably not. It’d be more of an adventure, it might be too much of a kick in the pants, but you’ll probably be fine. Know that there might not be anyone out there to “show you the ways”. You might flail along without the accumulated knowledge of the long distance community. If you’re someone who like to figure things out for themselves, I think it’d be a grand adventure. Long hikes teach you about your physical limits, your ability to hike through hardship, how to resupply, how to save money, how to be efficient, what informational resources are available, what gear works and is light. If it’s your first thruhike, hopefully you’re not heading out there with 60 pound packs, big leather boots, the CDTA guidebooks, a faulty resupply schedule, not enough water and food and no wilderness skills. You might just have a grand adventure though!

Northbound or Southbound?

My guess is that 55% of people go northbound. People are excited to get started and don’t want to wait until June. Northbound, if there is snow in Colorado when you get there, you might have problems. Many nobos flip ahead, or walk around some areas. A few go through. I haven’t done it, but it seems like there would be some seriously sketchy and steep snow slopes to cross if you are doing Colorado in the snow. Southbound doesn’t have that obstacle. Glacier can be problematic. But there are decent alternates. And it’s short, just south of Glacier, snow shouldn’t be a problem.

Solitude?

There is plenty of opportunity for solitude on the CDT! People sometimes choose to intentionally stick together because if they don’t, they’re not really going to see anyone else. The CDT really is quite empty. The PCT is more social.

How about town?

Both the PCT and CDT have great towns. Enjoy them!

Thanks for reading! Any more questions? Leave a comment and I’ll be happy to try to answer them.

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14 comments

  1. Angela

    Nice article, Jack. I’ve been 90% ready for PCT this April, I’ve applied a permit (April 25th) already, but I suddenly changed my mind and wants to go CDT, not sure if the gears will be suitable for CDT, and if i will have enough time to get prepared in less than 3 months.

  2. Jacob McCown

    Hey Jack, I loved the article, it really cleared up a lot of questions I had. One question I do still have though is what were your resupply methods? I know a lot of people send packages to towns they plan on getting to, ahead of time; was this also your method? Thank you for your time.

    Jake

    • Jack

      I used a mixed strategy. Some places, I mailed resupplies. Some places I bought. When I’d receive maps and gear, I’d usually have bags of dehydrated vegetables included. This let me eat specialty items that otherwise aren’t available in normal stores.

  3. thf2

    Jack,

    Thanks for spending the time writing this! Great stuff! I am doing my 1st thru-hike this Spring, the PCT, and just this last week realized…”Oh, no…It’s inevitable now, I’m going to do the CDT, too, and I have no idea what to expect!” It was a funny revelation, since I haven’t even started my PCT thru.

    Just found your blog, going to take a further look around! Thanks again!

    Dug
    http://thf2.wordpress.com

  4. Ryan

    Whoops, I thought I commented on this earlier. I love the bit about “which one is better?” I heard this question so much on the PCT in regards to the Appalachian Trail, and I couldn’t stand it. Such a simplistic way of looking at things when there’s really so much that goes into the experience. I hope I’ll hike the CDT someday, and this is the first really fair and honest description of it that I’ve seen. Thanks!

  5. Ryan

    I love it. On the PCT this past summer I heard so many people comparing the PCT to the AT, especially with the question “which one’s better.” I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks that question is really, really stupid. I put a little rant on my blog about that exact topic. I can see why people feel the need to think that one thing is better than another, but I much prefer enjoying everything for its merits rather than its comparison to other things.

  6. Freefall

    Great write up on the differences here. Funny thing is that my PCT experience was more of a solitude experience that the CDT – I finished with 16 others in 2009!

    • Jack

      I heard about that. Crazy! I think that the CDT has the ability of condense groups. It happened in 2010 as well. I was wanting to write about it, but got lazy. I’ll probably add it. What happened with the SOBO herd in ’09? Had most of you been around each other for a long time?

  7. Dirk

    Jack –

    Great article, just what I was looking for in regards to the CDT. I really appreciate your candor and level-handed comparison, especially the comments in regards to the impact the PCT had upon you. I think that makes it hard for any long trail to live up to the experience of your first one – weather your first trail was the PCT, AT or CDT.

    The discussion regarding the depth of relationships is interesting – almost reminded me of high school in the sense that while on the trail these people mean everything, but upon the end it seems difficult to make those relationship lasting.

    I have more questions – did you start the CDT as a solo hiker and forged a partnership on the trail? (I think that’s what you implied). Was there any trepidation on your part starting a relatively untraveled trail alone? Obviously there are hundreds on the PCT and thousands on the AT.

    Having now completed the CDT, what would you do differently? Are there other routes on the CDT you’d elect to take now? I believe you had some gear challenges on the CDT, could you expand more on that? And finally, did you carry any microspikes or crampons early in the trip?

    Thanks for the fantastic article, it is tremendously helpful.

    Thanks,

    Dirk
    Sumner, Washington

    • Jack

      Thanks for the comment Dirk!

      I left for the CDT solo and was full of trepidation. I hoped that I’d meet others to hike with, but thought that there was a fifty-fifty chance that I’d be alone nearly the entire hike. I was nervous about to solitude, but was prepared to do the whole hike alone. It turned out that I met a half a dozen others on the train to Glacier. By the time we organized to get a permit, there were nine of us traveling together. I ended up clicking well with a few of them, and hiking with most of them for nearly a month. Some times in Montana, twelve of us hiked together. I saw most of these people in towns all the way until New Mexico when I started slowing down. Two of us split off and hiked mostly as just the two of us from the Winds onwards.

      I’d been planning on writing in detail about what I’d do different. You’ve motivated me to actually get it done.

      I carried crampons (old ULA ones) in Glacier. I’d carry something for that first week if I did it again too. The ULAs were horrible, microspikes or other ultralight crampons would be more suitable.

      Cheers!

      Jack

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