3 Triple Crown Thru-Hikers Compare the AT, CDT, and PCT – Gossamer Gear

Completing a thru-hike is an exciting and challenging goal for many outdoor adventurers. Spending months on a trail hiking thousands of miles is an incredible and life-changing feat. But one of the hardest parts can be figuring out where to start—both in terms of gear prep and training, as well as choosing which trail to hike.

There are three main thru-hiking trails in the United States that long-distance hikers dream about: the Appalachian Trail (AT) in the East, the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) in the Mountain West, and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in the West. One of the best ways to learn about thru-hiking is to gather tips and tricks from people who have done it before. Talking to past thru-hikers can also be a good way to decide which trail you want to hike. 

At Gossamer Gear, we’re lucky enough to have four brand ambassadors who have hiked all three of the big thru-hiking trails in the United States. Since it’s rare to be able to chat with a Triple Crowner, we wanted to bring our brand ambassadors’ knowledge to you in case you’re in the planning stages of deciding which trail to hike.

What Is the Triple Crown of Thru-Hiking?

The Triple Crown of Thru-Hiking refers to completing the AT, CDT, and PCT. The special hikers who finish all three big trails are referred to as a Triple Crowner. It takes a lot of time, planning, and fortitude to be successful in this special undertaking—a totalidade of 7,700+ miles.

One of our brand ambassadors, Heather “Anish” Anderson, has completed the Triple Crown three times. Her last undertaking was in 2018 when she became the first woman to complete a calendar-year Triple Crown—meaning she hiked all three trails within the same year. She did this as part of a quest to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National Trails Act that set the precedent for the Triple Crown trails, as well as several other national trails. 

Becoming a Triple Crowner is an incredible achievement and the hikers who do it leave with a wealth of knowledge about and connection to the three trails.

Overview of the Triple Crown Thru-Hiking Trails: AT, CDT, PCT

The AT, CDT, and PCT are all long-distance thru-hiking trails, but each is unique in its terrain, history, length, and features.

Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail (AT) runs about 2,190 miles along the eastern United States from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine, ultimately passing through 14 states. With its rolling terrain, the elevation gain and loss at the end of a full thru-hike is equivalent to climbing Mount Everest 16 times—for a totalidade of about 464,000 feet. Its lowest point is in Bear Mountain State Park in New York at 124 feet and its highest point is Clingmans Dome in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park at 6,643 feet.

The trail was proposed in 1921 and completed in 1937. It became an official national scenic trail in 1968. It was the brainchild of forester and conservationist Benton MacKaye. It is maintained by more than 30 trail clubs and partners and managed by the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, and the nonprofit Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

Continental Divide Trail

The Continental Divide Trail (CDT) runs about 3,100 miles through the Mountain West region of the United States from the border with Chihuahua, Mexico, to the border with Alberta, Canada. It crosses through five states—Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico—as it follows the Continental Divide along the Rocky Mountains.

The first section of the trail was proposed and established in Colorado in 1962. The CDT was formally established in 1978. It is a fairly remote and wild trail that remains at higher elevations, including the highest point on any national scenic trail, the 14,270-foot Gray’s Peak. By 2019, only 150 thru-hikers had been recorded as completing it.

Pacific Crest Trail

The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) runs more than 2,650 miles along the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges in the western United States, passing through California, Oregon, and Washington. Ninety-five percent of thru-hikers begin at the southern trailhead near Campo, California, and end at the U.S. border at Manning Provincial Park in British Columbia. The PCT’s highest point is Forester Pass in California at 13,200 feet.

Catherine Montgomery was the first to propose the trail in 1926 and Clinton C. Clarke championed it from the 1930s into the 1950s. It was designated as a national scenic trail in 1968 at the same time as the AT.

Meet Our Triple Crowner Brand Ambassador Experts

In addition to Heather, mentioned above as the first woman to complete a calendar-year Triple Crown, we have three other brand ambassadors who have completed the AT, CDT, and PCT.

Zelzin Aketzalli is the only person from Mexico to complete the Triple Crown of hiking. Her trail name is Quetzal, but she has also received nicknames such as The Mexican and the Hiking Queen. One of the things that characterizes her the most is not giving up due to obstacles. Her first hike in her entire life was the Pacific Crest Trail in 2017. She had no experience as a hiker or mountaineer, but had always been a high performance athlete. That year, the PCT had a lot of snow. Zelzin was unfamiliar with snow and did not speak English, which she believes helped her cross the Sierra Nevada in May, recognizing that sometimes it is better not to know more than you should.


Arlette “Apple Pie” Laan is originally from the Netherlands, but is now based in Lowell, Massachusetts. She has completed long distance hikes around the world, including in the United States, New Zealand, Switzerland, Kenya, Japan, Nicaragua, Patagonia, and Jordan. She became the first woman to complete all 11 national scenic trails—totaling more than 18,000 miles—in 2022. Arlette was the first unsupported female to hold the fastest known time for the White Mountain Direttissima, hiking all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4,000-footers in one continuous unsupported backpacking trip in just under nine days.



Gabe Vasquez is a proud first-generation Mexican American from Austin, Texas, and a Marine combat veteran. He proudly holds the title of the first known Mexican American to complete the Triple Crown. Since 2014, his mission has been to raise funds and awareness for injured veterans through extensive long-distance hiking, cycling, and kayaking. He has covered over 25,000 miles, raising over $40,000, and his commitment to this cause remains unwavering.



Below, we asked Zelzin, Arlette, and Gabe some questions about the AT, CDT, and PCT. They each shared their wisdom about hiking these three big trails to help you choose, plan, and dream about your next thru-hike.

In Your Words, What Makes Each Trail Unique?


Each trail is like a new world waiting to be discovered. The Triple Crown of Hiking is not just a physical challenge, it is an epic battle with nature that will take you to your limits and beyond.

  • PCT: Get ready for a varied adventure. One day you’ll be traversing mountainous deserts with giant boulders, and the next, you’ll be atop rocky mountain ranges and huge lakes. And who can forget the impressive glaciers? This trail is a mix of extreme landscapes that will leave you breathless.
  • AT: Welcome to the Green Tunnel! In fall, this trail becomes a festival of colors, with leaves changing from green to red and gold. Going up and down the Appalachian mountains is like doing Everest 16 times. And keep your eyes open for black bears and moose along the way!
  • CDT: Face desolate deserts and vast wildernesses. This trail will test your mental and physical endurance. From lush forests to towering mountains and glaciers, the CDT is home to one of the most powerful animals: the grizzly bear.


What makes each Triple Crown trail so different from the others, in my opinion, is the tread, level of wilderness experience, and views. 

  • The PCT has mostly wonderful trail tread for easier walking, and while it doesn’t summit any peaks, it has the most wonderful views of nearby and distant mountains. 
  • The CDT consists of a patchwork of trail, quiet dirt roads, and cross country. It has wide open spaces, and if you’re lucky, you can see herds of elk and antelope. It feels wilder in that sense. 
  • The AT is the least wild of the three, but it makes up for it in community and history. The tread is much more challenging, especially up north where rocks and boulders lead you up and over many peaks, whether they have views or not.


The trail is the destination. What makes the trails unique will be the people you meet along the way. Not only that, but the obstacles you come across along the way. The trail family you create will make the trail unique in your own way.

What Is One of the Best Things About Each Trail?


  • PCT: Volcanoes! This trail takes you very close to a mountain range of majestic volcanoes. Imagine hiking with those giants on the horizon.
  • AT: The fall colors are simply magical. And the thrill of seeing black bears up close is unforgettable.
  • CDT: The loneliness of the desolate areas and the presence of wild animals make this trail a unique mental and physical challenge.


  • I loved the views and great tread on the PCT—smooth walking is my favorite. 
  • The best thing about the CDT, for me, was the feeling of a real adventure. 
  • The AT provides wonderful wooden shelters, which are great for bad weather, and it’s easier to resupply with many towns along the way. 


  • The best thing about the PCT is that it was my first trail. Not just that, I would say the best thing would be the weather. There are very few rainy days on the West Coast.
  • The best thing about the CDT was the Wind River Range. That has to be the most beautiful place to hike in America. I love it because you cannot drive to it. 
  • The best thing about the AT is the community built around the trail. You will receive so much love and trail magic.

What Is One of the Most Challenging Things About Each Trail?


  • PCT: Snow and river crossings can be a real adventure.
  • AT: The constant elevation and extreme temperatures, from scorching heat to freezing cold, along with endless rain, are a real challenge.
  • CDT: Thunderstorms, avalanches, snow… and let’s not forget the encounters with grizzlies and wolves. This is where the adventure gets wild!


  • The PCT was my first long distance hike, and braving the desert heat with “soft” feet was challenging. Dealing with the heat in general was very challenging for me. 
  • On the CDT, navigation was the challenge. I hiked it before smartphones and GPS apps and got off route several times. 
  • The AT was challenging for me because the tread was often not that great, steep climbs led to many viewless summits, and the rock scrambling up north was not my thing.


Obviously, each trail will have its challenges. It depends on what you’re used to that will prepare you for the trail. 

  • When it comes to the AT, I would say that the weather and level of difficulty are the most challenging parts. The humidity and amount of rain there is totally different compared to the other two trails. If you’re looking for a real challenge, then hike the AT. The amount of elevation gain in such a short span will test your hiking abilities, and it stays that way the entire trail. 
  • The PCT is the totalidade opposite of the AT. There, you will have great views and weather. The challenging part about this trail would be the sun exposure. You will spend a lot of time under the sun. There will be stretches where there aren’t many spots to catch shade. The water carries can be more than you’re used to, as well, if it’s a dry year. So, follow the rain and snow reports as it gets closer to your start date
  • The CDT, to me, was similar to the PCT with fewer hikers and less community built around the trail. There is a long desert stretch and a longer snow section. The most challenging part of this trail was the amount of snow and the high elevation. If it’s a heavy snow year, be prepared for that.

Was Any Privado Gear Extra Useful to Have on Each Trail?


Investing in good equipment is essential. A quality backpack, like the Gorilla 50, can be your best ally on different long-distance trails. But do you know what made all the difference on the Appalachian Trail? A poncho! The constant storms made this little accessory a lifesaver.


For the desert sections of the PCT and CDT, you want to make sure to have a larger water carrying capacity, and if I’d known then what I know now, I would have brought an umbrella for the sun. For the AT, I would make sure to have a better rain jacket perhaps. An umbrella would be hard to handle on the rough and often narrower trail.


I carried the basic gear required that most hikers carry. I would say that an umbrella for the sun, and rain if you’re hiking the AT, is one of the most underrated items out there. I used one last year hiking across Europe, and I have to say it was definitely a game changer.

What’s Your Advice for Someone Trying to Decide Which Trail to Hike and How Would You Recommend They Prepare?


My advice to you is to be honest with yourself about what you want to achieve and what you enjoy. Make a list of what you like and what you don’t. This will help you choose the trail that best suits your preferences. 

Set your goal and set short-term objectives to achieve it. If in doubt, seek advice from professionals who have completed a thru-hike. We are here to help you succeed! And remember, training your mind and body is key.


If they can only hike one trail, I’d ask them if they want more of a wilderness experience or more of a social experience. The AT has more support, more towns, more options to change out gear, so it’s a good beginner trail. The PCT still has a good amount of people but less amenities and you have to do bigger miles because of fewer water sources. The CDT can be a solitary experience and more challenging logistically with food supplies. Additionally, if they prefer views and big mountains, the West Coast trails would be a better option. If they prefer trees and lots of water, the AT would be the better choice. 

For any long distance hike, it’s a good idea to do some gear research and a few practice hikes to make sure you’re comfortable with the gear you selected. Fitness wise, you can start the AT a bit more mellow since there are more resupply and campsite options, whereas the PCT and CDT require more fitness and bigger miles from the start. So, for the latter, I would want to have done more hiking to prep in order to toughen up the feet.


When it comes to picking which big trail to hike, I would say just read about each trail and compare it to your hiking capability and the amount of time and money you have.

I would also say invest time into using your gear beforehand. Go on weekend hikes. You don’t want to start your thru-hike and find out you’re not satisfied with the gear you chose or don’t know how to use it properly.

Another tip I would recommend is to not overthink the trail. The hardest part is getting out there, but once you start, it becomes a routine.

Find Unique Adventure on North America’s Triple Crown Thru-Hiking Trails

The Triple Crown of Thru-Hiking is a scenic, challenging, and remarkable adventure. If you’re considering taking on this feat yourself or just trying to decide which of the three trails best suits your style, we hope that our Triple Crowner brand ambassadors have provided some insight that will help you on your journey.

Whether thru-hiking, section hiking, or day hiking, we’d love to see your adventures on the AT, CDT, or PCT! Make sure to share the fun with us by tagging Gossamer Gear on social media (@gossamergear) and using the hashtag #takelessdomore.

Hungry for more backpacking gear and planning knowledge? Check out some of our other articles on the Light Feet blog:


Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button