If I did it again – The Big Three Trails

What if I did the Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide trails again? Here’s what I’d do



A fairly common question on the hiking forums  from people new to thru-hiking is asking “What would you do differently on your thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail (or the Pacific Crest or Continental Divide) ?

I can honestly say I would not change a thing. The experiences I had shaped my view of the outdoors and life in general.  I met some great people who I still see or talk to on a regular basis today. And would I would not want the memories I have to be any different.

Now, if were to do any of the trails again, some items would indeed be different. What  I would do it differently is outlined below. In brief, I loved my time on the long trails and doing it in a linear fashion. Something to be said for the long distance pilgrimage in one un-broken line.  But, I’ve “been there, done that“.  I’m more interested in just getting out for a long walk at this point.

I should also state that if I  were fortunate enough to get another block of time, I don’t think I would do any of the three trails again. There is so much to do, see and experience out there and something new always appeals to me.

But these ideas may help other people plan their own long hikes.

In General

Smart Devices

For better or worse, seems that electronics of some sort are part of the trail experience and life in general.  So many guide books, maps and other information for the trails are in electronic form now. While I would not depend upon them exclusively, they are convenient.

Then there is time in towns. So much of my correspondence is email or social media based. I’d rather not wait in line at the library and have limited time to maintain my website, check in with family and friends and so on. Phone calls, needless to say, are much easier, too.

So what does all that mean? I’d probably go with a smart phone and a blue tooth keyboard combo. It would be about the same size and weight of the Pocket Mail device I used in the past but with much more functionality.   I can deal with a smaller screen, but need a keyboard for more than just a short sentence or two.

I would also keep the device in airplane mode unless in town. It would save battery life and, frankly, I do not want to stay connected on the trail itself. That’s just my personal preference.


On the AT and the PCT, a GPS is not really needed. On the CDT, you can argue for the utility of a device. However with the new trail markers, more defined tread and more resources for the designated route in terms of maps and guides, not really sure if it is truly needed.  Very much a YMMV-type issue.  I do not own a GPS. While I doubt I’d win an orienteering meet, my LandNav skills are more than solid enough for the navigation done in the wide open West.


I do love photography and would probably take a good camera. Not sure if I’d lug my DSLR for hundreds of miles, but plenty of nice options in the compact camera realm.

Whatever camera I do take, though, I’d simply buy a bunch of SD cards in bulk. They are rather inexpensive now and very light. I’d simply mail them home via certified mail as needed.  I doubt I would process all my photos while on trail, but with an SD card reader for a mobile device, easy to cherry pick some choice ones to share as needed for articles, with friends and family, etc.


When I did my thru-hikes, I was in the mountain man mode.  My dark, black beard grew out rather bushy. Couple that with my light olive skin that turns darker olive along with bushy eyebrows  and I looked rather “ethnic”. 🙂   Alas, a  few years later, my black beard has a lot of gray in it now. Sigh.

The gray in the beard and the realization that having a heavy  beard requires more maintenance to keep trim and neat, means that I’d probably shave more often while on trail. Easier to get hitches,  I’d look more clean-cut, feel a bit cleaner,  and playing “mountain man” in my twenties was a novelty. As I approach forty, the need for play acting is less and less. Nothing wrong with a beard.  But, for me, it just does not fit.   (And my someone does not like beards! Let’s get to the real reason. 😉 )


I doubt I’d really swap out my gear too much from what I have/used since I’ve done the PCT. The specific gear is different, but the overall gear is the same: frameless ruck sack, foam pad, trail runners, tarp or tarp-like shelter and a good down bag or quilt.

Hiking the PCT had a revolution in my hiking gear; post-PCT was more of a gradual evolution.

OK..those are the overall differences.

On to the specific trails!

Appalachian Trail

My time on the Appalachian Trail was a milestone event in my life. As I like to say, those white blazes did not just lead north to Katahdin, but lead to the life I lead now.

If I had not done the Appalachian Trail (AT) , I doubt I would have moved to Colorado, seen the canyon country of Utah, learned to ski, hiked the other long trails, started to enjoy alpine climbing and many other things.  Needless to say I would not have met the good friends I have now nor would I have met my someone.   One step heading north from Springer changed my life in many ways.

Because of all the changes in life since I’ve done the AT, I doubt I could do a traditional thru-hike again. Be it north bound or south bound.  The AT during peak thru-hiking season is a bit more crowded. And I doubt I’d enjoy hiking with that big of a community for many weeks at a time. I’d want to my own thing, see fewer people and cherry-pick the optimum times.

I’d do a flip-flop hike using the “Cool Breeze” plan. (Scroll all the way down) This itinerary lessens the crowds, has good weather in New England and would have me walking with the fall foliage down south.  All in all, seems like a great way to enjoy a long hike on the Appalachian Trail.

Pacific Crest Trail

To me,. the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is perhaps the perfect balance for a thru-hiking trail. Well maintained tread so you can simply walk, easy enough logistics without being overwhelmed by constant road crossing/towns like the AT and some beautiful scenery in many parts.

I’d re-hike the PCT in a linear fashion. Flipping around does not gain you as much as the AT or even the Continental Divide Trail (CDT).  However, I would not do a northbound thru-hike.

With “The Herd” and more people starting the trail in general (partially because of Wild), the initial start of the trail in SoCal can be crowded. Many camp sites and town stops have hikers using the limited services. Many popular hostels have a limit on stays due to the amount of people and some trail angels have limited their services. I am not complaining. Just recognizing that the PCT, going north bound, is perhaps not the right experience for me.  I’ve always said you should take the trail for what it is and not what you want it to be.  Since I tend to enjoy hiking with fewer people and something a bit less Camino-like in terms of people, a northbound thru-hike would not be appealing for me at this point.

I could start later and hope The Herd is thinned by the time I catch up.

Or I could do something I have not done before and hike southbound on the PCT.

From my Quick and Dirty PCT Guide:

Though approx 90% of all thru-hikers do go north bound, going south bound (SoBo) does have some appeal in addition to unique challenges. A typical SoBo journey starts in late June/early July.

In brief, the pros of a SoBo journey are:

  • More of a remote and wild feeling experience
  • Cooler weather in the desert
  • Longer weather window
  • Less rain in the Pacific North West

The cons of a SoBo journey are:

More information:


http://francistapon.com/Travels/Pacific-Crest-Trail/Why-go-southbound-on-the-PCT  (Strongly suggested you read this if thinking of going SoBo)
Fewer people, more of a wilderness feel and less stress on the hiker services appeals to me at this point in my hiking “career”.
The other difference is rather than hiking the John Muir Trail  (JMT) portion of the PCT,  I’d do the Sierra High Route (SHR) instead and connect it up to the PCT. Exploring this rugged stretch of the Sierra would be awesome. I would not do it solo, however. For safety reasons and it is something some friends and I have discussed doing for a while now.
A south-bound hike on the PCT would be a more subtle end, but I think it would be an enjoyable journey overall.
Continental Divide Trail
The Continental Divide Trail is the most raw, remote and wild of the “The Big Three” trails. If not quite as un-tamed as in years past, it is still an adventure more so than then other two trails.
While I enjoyed my thru-hike on the CDT, I will be the first to admit that unless you are exceedingly lucky, a thru-hike that does *not* force compromises is unlikely. Early winters, trail closures due to fires, flooding or even a government shut down affect the trail and can cause a person to make route choices that aren’t always optimal.
So, if I was to do the CDT again, it would be in long section hikes aka “chunk hiking”.
As I wrote earlier:
As the CDT is becoming more of a well-known trail, section hiking the trail is becoming a more popular option.A thru-hike can be a wonderful journey.  Something romantic about putting on a pack, and walking the length of the country on your own power, grit and resolve.But, that is not an option for everyone.  Financial obligations, family, job, etc. makes taking off ~5 months to walk a long trail difficult.So, much like hiking on the Appalachian Trail, section hiking the Continental Divide Trail can be a viable option.  Unlike the Appalachian Trail, section hiking the Continental Divide Trail is logistically more difficult. Most hikers who section hike the CDT, hike in larger chunks of 2 or 3 months each rather than say the 2-3 weeks of section hiking the AT. I’ve heard this method of larger blocks of time called “chunk hiking.”
.The advantages of “chunk hiking” the CDT are as follows:

  • Fire and flood closures are now an annual occurrence of the CDT. It is no longer IF a section is going to be closed due to fire or floods, but WHEN. (Sigh) Chunk hiking lets you avoid these closures a bit easier. Hike the sections when a fire is less likely to happen.
  • Pick and choose the sections at optimal times. Glacier or the San Juans when the wild flowers are in full bloom? Fall in New Mexico?  Good stuff!
  • Less of a time crunch to “beat the snow”.  A more leisurely hike can be had. Take that extra day off to see Logger Days in Darby!
  • Do all those alternates you wanted to try out but could not see if on a tighter thru-hike schedule.
  • Sure there are others, too…

There are more logistical challenges, but not as bad as it may seem if hiking larger chunks. For example, if you hike from Glacier NP to Rawlins, WY, there is public transit avail to get to Denver.  Likewise, if you were to hike from Rawlins, WY to Cumbres Pass (Chama) you can take public transit to Santa Fe and then Albuquerque.  

Thru-hiking the CDT has its own rewards, but so does chunk hiking. :)


Overall Thoughts
That’s how I’d do the trails again given the opportunity.  I am less concerned about purity or what is considered a thru-hike and just would love to be out there again for a bit.
Other trails call to me more so at this point in my life. But there is something undeniably powerful surrounding the mythology of the Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide trails. 
Lots of wonderful memories in those months of my life.  And those journeys are never really that far from my thoughts.
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Jim Owen
10 years ago

Why not think about the GDT?

Some other thoughts occurred to me, but they’re just variations on details.

10 years ago

I think you expressed everything that I think about hiking the three trails. I would definitely do the the PCT southbound for a thru-hike. Needless to say I am rehiring it now in sections. I may do the CDT again in 2016 with Allgood… maybe… If so, I will be going northbound. Hey, I am kind of shooting for a double-triple!

10 years ago

Off the top of my head, sandwiching the SHR into a PCT thru is going to be logistically challenging on the south end. North end I initially see that as rather easily doable but trying to do an actual complete SHR thru-hike while staying true to the main goal of thru-hiking the PCT will be a challenge. Now, if you would be willing to not do all the SHR to the southern terminus in Sequoia Kings Canyon NP I see that more realistic logistically although resupplying will be ???. If you did a true SHR thru it would leave you… Read more »

Bob Bankhead
Bob Bankhead
10 years ago

Re: JMT vs SHR.

I’d suggest an alternative – the Theodore Solomons Trail. It is essentially a 271 mile lower elevation version of the JMT and like same, begins in Yosemite Valley, albeit from Glacier Point. It ends at the Cottonwood Roadhead at the end of Horseshoe Meadows road below Mt. Whitney. You can easily jump on the PCT from there.

Wandering Bob

10 years ago

Hey! That’s what I’m doing. I’m chunk hiking the CDT. This year Chama to Rawlins (and thanks, I didn’t know there was public (a bus?) to Denver. Last year NM. Next year Rawlins -Canada! BUT I didn’t know it was a “thing” !

Chunk Hiking. I’ll tell my wife I’m not just slowing down at 65.

William Kollar
William Kollar
4 years ago

Thanks Paul for your thoughtful, rational summary. I can’t add anything to it but for some reason your piece triggered some thoughts about my own solo section thru hike of the PCT. I finished the PCT in 2016 over a five year period. My only constraint was that the trail sections had to be contiguous. Transportation logistics drove a NOBO or SOBO run. The trek paralleled a very difficult period in my life and kept things balanced to say the least. I definitely have a “hike your own hike” philosophy. I was grateful for everyone out there, however they traveled.… Read more »