The AT and the TA compared

I am an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker (left Springer on March 7th 2018). I am currently in Invercargill, New Zealand, a mere 30km away from completing Te Araroa (left Cape Reinga on November 14th). I’ve decided to take a few zeroes and wait for tramily to catch up so that we can finish together. So I’m on a free computer in the local public library, backpack under the desk, poles leaning against the wall, blogging about the trail… because, indeed, hikertrash for life.

Here are my thoughts comparing the Appalachian Trail to Te Araroa.

>>OVERVIEW

The Appalachian Trail (“the AT”) is a 2,200-mile hiking trail in the United States. It is the better part of a century old. It is an uninterrupted walking path, primarily through forest – it’s nickname is “the green tunnel.”

Te Araroa is an 1,800-mile trail in New Zealand. The name means “The Long Pathway” in Maori. It is less than a decade old. It is a semi-contiguous tramping track which is mostly walked, but there are sections of recommended or optional canoeing, bicycling, packrafting, and even hitchhiking. It goes through tropical rainforest, native and introduced woodlands, tussock and meadow, sheepfold and farmer’s fields, private land, Maori land, boulderfield, scree, alpine garden, high mountain pass, sprawling suburbs, highway shoulders, dry riverbed, occasionally dry riverbed, rarely dry riverbed, and a few times you just straight up walk in a river.

One who hikes either trail, from one end to the other, is a thruhiker.

>>LENGTH

Pretty similar. The AT is about 2,200 miles, Te Araroa 1,800 miles.

>>ELEVATION CHANGE

The Appalachian Trail is a rollercoaster. From tip to tail, a thruhiker will climb – and lose – around 464,000 feet of elevation.

I’m afraid that I have no good data on Te Araroa’s total elevation gain. This trail is just too young to have been subjected to rigorous data gathering.

But for comparison, my gut says:

The North Island is similar to the Mid-Atlantic (WV to NY); the Tararuas are the Smokies; the Richmonds and Nelson Lakes are the Whites and western Maine; Canterbury is Virginia; Otago is Tennessee; Southland is the Hundred Mile Wilderness… except with more sheep.

>>TRAIL

The AT is a well-defined trail. You’re either on it, or you’re in the woods.

It has a lot of little side-hikes. “VIEW -> .3 MI.” is a common sign. Most of these blueblazes are there solely for AT hikers (if not necessarily thrubies).

While the AT has some intersecting trails, very few would remotely tempt a thruhiker. They are, at best, more of the same – and are generally seen as little but opportunities to do bonus miles. You know, accidentally.

Te Araroa is different. Oftentimes it is not a trail at all, but a route – there’s a marker or stile or object in the distance, and you are to cross to it however you want or can. Sometimes you get lost. Sometimes you try an approach, find it doesn’t work, and have to double back. Sometimes you get where you’re going in a way the trail might not have even considered.

On Te Araroa, side hikes are pretty much the rule. This includes connector trails – shortcuts, longcuts, and just plain alternate routes. It’s not uncommon for people to hike tens of kilometers extra, or even hitch or bus, to get to a sd ide hike like the Milford or Kepler. On the Deception Track, I strongly advise trampers NOT to follow the trail markers. I once hiked on the wrong side of a river for 2 straight days – and it was lovely.

>>ELEVATION

The high points of the two trails are very similar. On the AT, Clingman’s Dome (Great Smokey Mountains) is 2025m. On Te Araroa, Stag’s Saddle (near Tekapo, Canterbury) is 1925m.

However, while the official Te Araroa trail goes down from Stag’s Saddle, nearly everybody takes a side trail *up* to a high ridge walk for a far more picturesque descent. So you get to the high point and then immediately go higher. Which, like, Te Araroa as.

The low point of the AT is about 200′ (the bear cage at the zoo in Bear Mountain, NY). Whereas Te Araroa frequently has you at sea level – including on the first day, and the last.

>>GUIDEBOOK, GUTHOOK

The AT has an official guide, an unofficial guide (AWOL), and an unofficial app (Guthook) (among others).

Te Araroa has no official guide. The official route is set by “trailnotes,” which seem to average about a page for every 10km. Sometimes they are annoyingly short. Often they are powerfully long. In many places they are basically unusable without Guthook. In most places you cannot rely on Guthook alone.

>>CHANGEABILITY OF TRAIL

The AT changes a bit every year. This year, for example, Mt Justus (Georgia) was off the trail. There are also temporary changes. Hundreds – including some of my tramily – got shuttled around wildfires at McAfee Knob, floods on the C&O towpath, and other interruptions.

The same is true on Te Araroa. Two northland forests were closed this year to prevent the spread of Kauri Dieback. Another was closed south of Auckland, resulting in a roadwalk of something like 80km. Likewise, several people were shut out of the Richmonds due to forestfires. And don’t even get me started on lambing.

But changes are far more common on Te Araroa just because it is a new trail. For example, when the AT first opened, it was almost half roadwalking. Now it is well less than 1%. But that took decades to accomplish, piece by piece. Only a few years ago did they open a forest path above the Creeper Trail (side note: WHY?). Te Araroa is on the same path, but it is slow. Will it ever eliminate roadwalks? Probably. Will it take decades? Absolutely. It’s just how long trails get made.

>>HITCHING AND ROADWALKING

To be an AT thruhiker, you have to hike every inch of the trail. Emphasis on Every Inch. Emphasis on Hike.

You can’t skip a section. You can’t hitchhike around it. You can’t ride a horse down the Smokies or rollerblade Skyline Drive. You walk. Every inch. That’s thru hiking.

On Te Araroa, things are different.

First of all, there’s all that road. Some stretches are over 50 miles long. Some of it is highway. You are walking on the narrow shoulders of a road where cars go 70 miles an hour. Some stretches have no camping the length of them, so you *have* to do a marathon or more. And most of it is, shall we say, not memorable hiking.

Some people bike the roads. Some people hitch them. Some even hire shuttles or take a bus.

These people are still seen as thru hikers on Te Araroa.

Some questions are ripe for pond’rin. Is biking a section less pure than hiking it? More pure than hitching? Is hitching more pure than a bus? How about kayaking instead of canoeing? How about taking a bridge rather than fording a river?

On the AT, the answers would be obvious. In New Zealand, every tramper has to answer these questions for themselves.

>>SHELTERS AND HUTS

On the AT, there is a shelter about every 5 miles. Almost all of them are lean-tos, open to the night air, with little more than wood platforms on which you can lay your NeoAir.

There are a few exceptions, the most notable being the Whites – full-service huts that cost $140 a night, and are still usually full.

I started the AT early in the year, and pushed through bad weather. As a result I hardly ever used my tent after Georgia.

I also did work-for-stay at every single hut in the Whites. Which, like, acceptable.

Te Araroa is far less regular. There are almost no shelters anywhere. There are designated campsites, paid campsites both public and private, seaside campgrounds, mid-city holiday parks, hostels, resorts, homestays both official and random, and huts.

There are over 1500 backcountry huts across New Zealand. Near a hundred are on or near the trail.

The average hut is basically a small house: four walls, windows and a door, bunks with mattresses, often a fireplace, sometimes an indoor faucet leading to the raintank. First come, first served – most sleep 6-8, a few less, a few more.

Some were built mainly for TA walkers. Some, like Greenstone, were built for those on an intersecting path. Some were built for hunters, or foresters, or shepherds, or gold-miners. Some were built *by* those people and were later taken over by the Department Of Conservation (DOC). And some are still private; put some cash in the koha box, and you can stay.

Some are ancient. Some are pretty terrible. Most are totally great. A few are AWESOME.

I think I slept in my tent a total of five times on the South Island – and three times were before the Richmonds. In total I think I’ve spent 60 nights in huts this trip. About 10 of which involved a roaring fire.

It changes your plans. Some days I have definitely hiked less than my all because I wanted to stop at a hut. A few times I’ve pushed on because a hut was full but the next one might have room.

Hut zeroes are free and awesome. Hut neros are great in snow or rain. And remember, any hut that isn’t on the TA is likely to be empty most of the time. I know a hiker who spent 5 days alone in a beautiful wooden hut on a mountaintop and it didn’t cost her a dime.

>>THE WEATHER

The short answer is: they’re terrible on both trails.

Parts of the AT can see snow at elevation any time of year (hi, Katahdin). In July, 100 degrees and 100% humidity is not uncommon almost anywhere on the AT; in March or November, even in Georgia, below-zero nights might be augmented by gale-force winds and snow. While this might not be common, it is possible – and to survive a thru-hike, you don’t pack for probabilities, you pack for possibilities. All of them.

I had a very unlucky AT hike. Blizzards, hail, freezing rain, brutal cold, a microburst not 5 miles away, gale winds, trees down like threshed wheat, then 24 straight days of rain and floods, then a record heat wave and wildfires.

But now, I’ve had a pretty lucky time on Te Araroa. Dry and mild in Northland, only a few rainy days in Waitomo, dry on the river, almost no wind on Mt Crawford, then only 2 bits of rain the entire South Island – and no snow the entire hike.

But: pople just ahead of me had horrible rainy months. People just behind me are in snow. I’ve been lucky.

…and I’ve zeroed strategically :)

>>PERMITS

To hike the AT does not require a permit. I never got a tag or number. You need a permit for the Smokies, but its cheap and there’s no cap. You need a tag in the Shennies, but it’s free. That’s all.

On Te Araroa, you need a cheap permit for the Queen Charlotte. That’s it.

You also need a Backcountry Hut Pass to stay in the huts. It costs about 40 USD for 6 months unlimited. For me that will have come to under a buck a night. I, ah, recommend it.

Would both benefit from stagnated start times a la the PCT? I think maybe. But that’s just my 2 boxings.

>>FOOD CARRIES

The average common food carry on the AT is about 70 miles – 4 days.

The longest is the 100 Mile… though that’s about 4 days for most nobos at that point. And, there are food drops available.

The shortest are under a day – thank you, Waysides.

On Te Araroa, there is no average. On the North Island you can often go dairy to dairy. Town food is basically the norm. Then for the Richmonds you are suggested to carry 11 days – 7 for the hike, 4 in case of bad weather and/or flooded rivers. Then you have to mail food parcels ahead for over 2 weeks of hiking. (Except it turns out you really don’t have to.) (Don’t get me started.)

And what about resupply? I think the longest hitch I even considered on the AT was 9 miles (Buena Vista, VA). I have walked almost that far in NZ just to get to a spot where I could get a hitch 40 miles away.

On the AT, pretty much every town has a workable resupply, and most hostels can reup you well enough. In NZ some trail towns don’t even have a gas station, and hiker supplies – even canister fuel – might mean a hitch of a hundred miles.

But more than anything, Te Araroa requires research. You can’t just look at AWOL, think “80 miles to Damascus, so 4 dinners 5 lunches.” You have to look at the DOC estimates of how long each upcoming section will take to hike. You have to consult the weather. You really should look at the elevation map. You definitely need to examine the river crossings. Anc you have to know your abilities, your needs, your will. And how sick you are of OSM bars. In short, logistics and resupply are far more complicated on Te Araroa.

>>OUTFITTERS AND GEAR

On the AT, they’re pretty dang common. On Te Araroa, they can be scarce at times – and many outdoor stores here are 20 years behind (say) REI. Lost a titanium tent stake? You’re replacing it with aluminum. Ripped one of your DCF overcompensation devices? You’re patching it with ducktape.

Fortunately there will always be merino aplenty.

>>DIVERSITY WITHIN THE HIKE

The AT is not really known for its diversity of trail. There’s a saying that, if you can hike the approach trail, you can hike the whole AT. A corrolary is that, if you’ve hiked the approach trail, you *have* hiked the whole AT – and this is said only half in jest.

The AT is lovely. Rich forests, waterfalls, 2000m mountains, alpine zones up north. But it can get a bit… samey. And then stay samey for 1800 miles.

Te Araroa ain’t like that. It is a wild ride. It is a fucking potpourri. Beach and bush. Forest snd tussock. Scree and slate. Trail and field. Paddock and highway. City and village. Streams and rivers, lakes, oceans. Giant swingbridges. Tiny little ropewalks. Desert and rainforest. Rift valley. Volcanic waste. And the waterfalls are *insane*.

For my money, there is more diversity of terrain on the first *day* – the first *7 miles* – than there is in the AT from Springer to Moosilauke. Just from Ship cove to St. Arnaud is like, without hyperbole, 20 COMPLETELY DIFFERENT HIKES… in 8 days.

>>DIFFICULTY

The AT has a few tough bits. But, 1, it is never really dangerous – and 2, most of the tough bits just slow you down a bit. They don’t require particular technique or planning. They’re just an extra serving of the same.

Te Araroa is harder. It presents lots of big changes in terrain, climate, and what is required of you. Jumping locked fences. Testing roaring rivers. Sliding down scree slopes. Running from bulls. Shooting rapids in wide canoes. Getting hitches on gravel roads. Crushing 70 mile roadwalks. Tenting in the middle of a busy town.

There are several places I noticed where a less fit, less focused, less experienced, or less lucky person, could have badly hurt themselves or just straight up died. After Te Kuiti I almost fell to possible death 3 times (only 2 for Christie, clearly I’m winning). Helicopter evacs happen all the time here – and sometimes it’s body recovery.

Did I ever feel like I should have stopped? No. It was dangerous, but slow and steady was sure to survive the race. Still, it was often a significant increase in difficulty over *anything* on the AT.

>>DANGER

The AT has bears, copperheads, black widows, brown recluses, wildcats, leeches, crazies, Confederates, and The Doyle.

Te Araroa has… weka.

New Zealand FTW.

>>DAY- AND SECTION-HIKERS

In 2018, something like 10,000 people started a thru-hike of the AT, and several million people put boots down on at least some part of the Trail.

In 2018-2019, over a thousand people started a thruhike of Te Araroa. Most of our trails are primarily or exclusively for us alone. I rarely saw more than half a dozen thru hikers in camp at night, and it was uncommon to meet more than a couple non-thrubies all day long. Some days I saw not a soul for hours – or even all day. It is a much quieter trail.

Except Tongariro. >:|

>>LASHERS AS THRUBIES

On the AT, a thru-hiker is someone hiking every durn foot of the AT within a year (contiguous or calendar). Anyone doing less is treated differently by the vaaast majority of thrubies.

On the TA, a significant percentage of walkers will only walk the South Island – a distance of only about 40% of the total trail. Yet these people are generally considered thru-hikers. And generally they’re treated just the same.

(I’ve never met someone just hiking thf North Island. It seems… unlikely.)

>>ERO

On the AT, you are strongly encouraged to Stay On The Trail, lest you cause erosion.

As I’ve said, there often is no trail in NZ. You have to make your own way. Erosion isn’t even a consideration. (And when it happens, it’s just another part of the world.)

>TMAJ

On the Appalachian Trail there is trail magic. Someone will bring a gift to those hiking the trail. This usually = food. A folding table with snack cakes. An open car trunk with hot ir cold drinke inside. A box of beer hidden under a picnic table. A guy cooking hot dogs on top of a mountain.

In the South especially, tmaj can be real common. Once I got it twice in one day. A few times I basically did a resupply off what someone brought. Once in New York, on my pre-thru lash, a jug of water was near to life-saving.

On Te Araroa this basically never happens. There is no culture for it. The trail is too new, has too few alumni. Also, most thruhikers are nonlocal – from a different hemisphere, like as not. So nobody’s around to cook hamburgers.

I will say, however, that I cannot overstate the kindness and generosity of kiwis. They might not do trailmagic per se, but that’s little loss when they’re inviting you into their homes for supper, or letting you sleep on their spare mattress or in their caravan, or taking you fishing, or boating, or offroading in their utes, or taking you on a magical woodworking adventure (it’s a long and AMAZING story), or just giving you advice about the trail ahead – because it seems every other kiwi has hiked at least twice as much as you ever will. Because this is EnZed, and that’s how kiwis roll.

>>DOGS

On the AT, traildogs are common. And they are GOODBOYES.

On Te Araroa, much of the trail goes through conservation land.  This usually = native birds, which usually = kiwis. Apparently a dog will just chow right down on a kiwi. As such, thrupuppers are mostly not allowed.

>>FINAL THOUGHTS

I’m terribly glad I did the AT. I loved it. I loved the suck and the suffer snd the people and the world. Also, it got me in shape. It kicked my damn ass around the schoolyard. Without it, I don’t think I could have done Te Araroa at all.

I’m terribly glad I did Te Araroa. I liked it more than the AT.

I’m glad I did the AT first. I’m afraid that, after Te Araroa, much of it would seem easy… and most of it would be boring.

I would probably recommend Te Araroa to a more experienced hiker. It can be hiked by a less experienced hiker to be sure. But I would not recommend Te Araroa to an immature person, a scatterbrained person, or someone looking to find themselves – that is better done at Trail Days.

I would recommend the AT to someone looking to get into hiking, to get in shape, or to really get into the zone and crush some fuckin’ miles.

I would tell an AT hiker to hike Te Araroa – but to consider hitching the roads, doing sidehikes, and possibly just skipping from Whangarei to Tamarunui.

I would tell a Te Araroa hiker to hike Hanover to Katahdin – but not to be surprised if the Prezzies are pretty cruisy. Maybe Springer to Hot Springs for a fun section. Otherwise, I’d tell them they probably wouldn’t like it. Also there aren’t nearly enough mutton pies.

If I do the AT again, it’d be as winter sobo, or a trailrunner caring solely about speed.

If I do Te Araroa again, it’ll be only doing sections – and even then, there’s still so much of NZ I’ve got to hike first.

Alright, I ended up writing most of this on my phone and boy are my fingers tired. Time for bed.

<3

-Silver

IG: @daxelkurtz if you want pics

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~ by davekov on 14 March 2019.

3 Responses to “The AT and the TA compared”

  1. Thanks for the summary. I’ve found it hard to find an accurate depiction of what I’m getting myself into, and this goes a long way to help me prepare. I thru-hiked the AT in 14 and spent a few months on the PCT during summer break. I have finally found some free time later this year to tackle another adventure and the Te Araroa seems like the right thing to do.

  2. […] the TA Trust), or very detailed (Trailnotes, Guthook comments). A lot of the info is heavily referential to other trails. There’s not much info in the middle, which makes it hard to plan a […]

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