"Which trail was your favorite?"
I've heard that question many times since I completed the Triple Crown. It's not an easy one for me to answer. The order I hiked the AT, PCT, and CDT influences my impressions of them.
The Appalachian Trail was my first long-distance thru-hike. That reason alone earns it a special place in my thoughts. I was well-prepared when I began hiking the AT in 2017, but I still had a lot to learn. Until then, I had never spent more than a week on a trail. I didn't know what it was like to hitch into a town and resupply. I hadn't experienced trail magic or the culture of the trail community.
Though I wasn't naive about the challenges of a long-distance trail, the AT was still harder than I expected. In my mind, it was the hardest of the three, yet I wonder if I would think differently if it weren't my first.
As I've said before, by the time I finished, I couldn't imagine doing something that hard again. The high ankle sprain I suffered on my second day never fully healed. I struggled with it at various times throughout the hike.
Some useful lessons came from my struggles, and I'm certain that affected my view of all three hikes. By the time I started the PCT in 2019, my mental and physical stamina was stronger. And even though a year-and-a-half had elapsed since I finished the AT, I could tell my body was better prepared.
A physical trainer once told me that when your body does the same activity for an extended time, you tune your muscles to that activity. It takes a long time to reach that condition and also a long time to lose it. This kind of conditioning seemed to be proven in my hikes. The second one was easier than the first. The third one was easier than the second. That's not to say any long hike is easy all the time. I'm just saying I was better adapted to the physical rigors.
An analytical look at the three trails won't help me answer the question of which trail is my favorite. Still, taking a side-by-side look at the three trails offers some evidence of how I adapted to thru-hiking as I gained experience.
|Start date||Apr 3, 2017||Mar 14, 2019||Apr 13, 2021|
|End date||Oct 8, 2017||Oct 25, 2019||Sep 18, 2021|
|Avg. miles per day||12.2||15.6||14.8|
|Median miles per day||13.4||16.6||15.5|
|Avg. miles without zeros||12.9||16.9||15.9|
|Days 5 to <10||33||15||15|
|Days 10 to <15||69||35||39|
|Days 15 to <20||53||56||56|
|Days 20 to <25||5||45||32|
|Shortest mileage day||1.5||3.7||0.5|
|Longest mileage day||21.1||26.4||28.7|
Looking at the table above, there's an obvious difference between my AT thru-hike and my PCT thru-hike. The distance of the PCT was nearly 500 miles longer, yet I hiked it in seven fewer days. The 50 days I hiked 20 or more miles per day made a big difference in the average miles per day I hiked on the PCT.
By comparison, the CDT's averages and the number of 20-plus-mile days are slightly lower than the PCT's. I am unsure of the reason for that, and honestly, I'm skeptical it's possible to find one. Maybe the CDT was more challenging than the PCT, but I can't prove it.
Many factors can affect the number of miles hiked per day besides the obvious ones, terrain and weather. For instance, going off the trail to resupply can affect the mileage. If the distance is far, I'll have less time to hike that day. Also, towns and campsites aren't evenly spaced apart. The locations of these may force me to stop sooner than I might otherwise choose.
A note about zero days: I didn't include in the above numbers the week I took off while hiking the AT so I could attend a work-related convention. For the same reason, I didn't include the weeks I went home from the PCT to allow time for Sierra snow to melt. I could have done the same for the flip-flop travel days I did on the PCT and CDT, but they're included in the zero-day counts. I justified including those days because I was moving to other parts of those trails. To get a clearer look at my average miles per day, I added a row that averages only the days I hiked.
Just for fun, I also took a look at where I stayed on each thru-hike.
|Tent or cowboy camp||122||133||122|
|Trail hut (work-for-stay)||3||0||0|
|Trail angel's house||1||4||8|
The number that jumps out for me most is for the night I spent in a baseball dugout in Creede, Colorado.
While I'm looking at numbers, it seems worthwhile to note that it was improbable for me to complete the three trails on my first attempts. The year I hiked the AT, only 19 percent of us northbounders finished. That was an unusually low year for successful hikes. As a rule, about 75 percent of those who attempt a thru-hike will fail.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy is the only organization that collects and publishes annual completion rates. It seems likely that the rate is roughly the same for attempts of the other two trails. It looked to me there were fewer first-time thru-hikers on the CDT, so the completion rate may be higher for that trail.
To complete the Triple Crown, I walked 7,231.5 miles and through 21 states. The combined elevation gain was the equivalent of climbing from sea level to the top of Mt. Everest more than 34 times. Although I feel proud when I think about these numbers, they are still just numbers. There's no way to measure feelings with them. I can't count the times I felt joy while seeing a beautiful sunset and pain after falling hard with a 30 lb. pack on my back. Likewise, there's no way to enumerate the friendships I've formed.
And most of all, I can't say how many times I was helped by my wife, another family member, a friend, or a stranger. Each time, their kindness told me they wanted me to be successful.
Maybe I can't tell you which trail was my favorite, but there's no doubt the support I received was the favorite part of my hikes.
River gonna take me
Sing me sweet and sleepy
Sing me sweet and sleepy
All the way back back home
It's a far-gone lullaby
Sung many years ago
Mama, mama, many worlds I've come
Since I first left home
Special thanks to Kevin "Blue" Scott for the photo that appears at the top of this page. He also took my portrait, which appears on the home page of this site. Find more outstanding hiker and trail photos on his website, milesformoments.com.