Six month ago, I posted a comparison of Te Araroa and the Appalachian Trail. Then I went off to Campo. Now here’s my comparison of Te Araroa and the Pacific Crest Trail. I hope it’s of use to future trampers and thru-hikers.
(IG: @daxelkurtz if you want the gag reel)
The Pacific Crest Trail (“the PCT”) is a 2,650-mile hiking trail in the United States. It is over half a century old. It is an uninterrupted walking path through desert and forest and high mountain. It is also referred to as the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, That Trail From Wild, and The Cheryl Strayed Highway. #reesewitherspoon
Te Araroa (“the TA”) is an 1,865-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 thru-hiker. Though in NZ you might also be called a thru-walker, a thru-tramper, or just plain tramper.
Comparable. The PCT is 2,650 miles (4,300km); the TA is a bit shorter at 1,865 miles (3,000km).
It’s worth noting that most trampers will spend a couple hundred miles of their thru on canoes, bicycles, and/or packrafts, and many trampers will skip between thirty and three hundred miles of roadwalking – all without considering that they are compromosing their thru. Likewise, most trampers will add at least as many miles of additional hiking – either on roads to resupply, or on sidequests to see even more of New Zealand.
The PCT goes from very low (140 feet at CLocks) to very high (13,200 feet on Forester Pass in the Sierras – or, more commonly, 14,500 feet on Tumanguya). But it is rather gently graded – it is famous for its switchbacks. From tip to tail, a thruhiker will climb and lose around 464,000 feet of elevation.
The TA goes from sea level (several times), to a maximum altitude of 6,315′ (Stag’s Saddle, near Tekapo, Canterbury). According to Guthook (as calculated by Ondi), the TA’s total elevation change is 274,000 feet.
However, trampers will often go higher on mountains like Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe, Taranaki, or any of a number in the Southern Alps. Trampers will often go lower, too, by renting scuba gear in the Bay of Islands… or by falling off their canoes on the Whanganui.
The PCT is a very well-defined trail. You’re either on-trail or you’re off it.
At times there are intersecting trails. Most of these intersections are labeled with physical signposts. Most common side trails connect right back to the PCT.
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 side hike like the Milford or Kepler (or make their own connector, like Mt. Aspiring into the Roteburn). 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 two straight days – and it was lovely.
The AT has official maps (USFS); unofficial maps (Halfmile); unoffical apps (Halfmile, Guthooks); and semi-official resources (PCT Water Report, Postholer, SanJacJohn, the PCTA itself). However, most thruhikers use Guthook – either primarily, or solely.
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.
>FROM YEAR TO YEAR
The PCT changes a little bit from year to year. Some of these changes are intentional (reroutes to improve the hike or prevent erosion), some are not (fire reroutes) (…fire reroutes).
In 2019, people who went through the Sierras during the meltout would often go miles out of their way to find a safer place to ford Evolution Creek. In 2018, some people walked five hundred miles of road in order to avoid being smoked out or burned alive.
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 forest fires. 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. It can be frustrating to walk on all that road or find yourself staring down an unposted obstacle or reroute. But I found it pretty exciting to be part of, not just the hiking of the TA, but the making of it. I actually thought it was pretty fucking special indeed.
>HITCHING AND ROADWALKING
To be a PCT thruhiker, you have to hike every inch of the trail. Emphasis on Every Inch. Emphasis on Hike.
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 – at least. 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 PCT, the answers would be obvious. In New Zealand, every tramper has to answer these questions for themselves.
On the PCT, you will backcountry camp almost every night.
Sometimes you will be at a designated campsite, accessible by car and equipped with a water-pump and privy. Sometimes (Oregon) you’ll be at an actual campground by a lovely lake. Sometimes you will be at a pretty developed campsite where hikers of another trail (cough the JMT) have made their afternoon camp. There are plenty of hostels (CA) and cheap motels (everywhere but SoCal). A few times there are even backcountry huts – a few of which even have nonmetal roofs so you can be inside them when there’s lightning! And… well, I guess there used to be Hiker Heaven, and Casa de Luna, and Scout & Frodo’s. Good Lord. End of an era. So long and thanks for all the tmaj.
But most nights you’ll make your camp on a random patch of ground near the trail. Sometimes a cleared little spot where others have camped before. Sometimes even a spot marked in Guthook. Sometimes – if you’re me – just a bit of bare rock or leaves to cowboy on, found after dark and left before dawn.
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 of those times were before the Richmonds. In total I think I spent 60 nights in huts. Many of which involved the building of a roaring fire.
It changes your plans. Some days I 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.
As Heinlein reminds us: “Climate is what we expect; weather is what we get.” Discuss any thruhike as a whole and the climate will be mostly good most of the time. But you don’t thruhike the average. You thruhike the ups and downs. When you’re out in the open, all day, every day… all night, every night… you remember every thunderstorm. Every snowstorm. Every windstorm. Every heatwave. Every cold snap. And relatedly: every fire, flood, mudslide, and record !@#$% mosquito hatch.
The climate on the PCT is generally “hot and dry.” Most years, most thruhikers will start (nobo) in the high desert. Daytime temperatures might average in the triple digits. Sun will be constant and unrelenting. Once they hit the Sierras things will be a bit cooler, and there might be afternoon thunderstorms. NorCal is back to full-blown desert. Oregon will give you shade, but also, humidity. Washington will be cooler but might be rainy. Early hikers might encounter snow on the ground in the Sierras; late hikers, powder in the Cascades. Not ideal hiking, but still hiking – not route-finding, not climbing, certainly not mountaineering.
That is the climate. The weather that I experienced was A BIT DIFFERENT.
2019 on the PCT was an unusual year. When a year on a thru was “unusual,” this means the weather was unusual. Which usually means that the weather was unusually bad. Time will tell, but the general consensus seems to be that 2019 on the PCT was legendarily bad.
In the SoCal desert, I experienced eighteen days of rain. Eighteen. So, seventeen more than some hikers get on the entire PCT. I also had four days of snow. In the SoCal desert. I crunched ice under my feet in the MOJAVE. I also got multiple windstorms that were tent-destroyers. You know the LA Aquaduct? I wore my puffy. At noon. Until it started raining.
In the Sierras, the snow was so high that early nobos were crossing in snowshoes. That was actually easier than later on, when hikers had to posthole through feet of soft wet snow – for 500 or 600 miles. Earlybirds also tended to be able to cross rivers on snow bridges, whereas later nobos had to ford. Which, in 2019, often meant “swim.” Fucking swim across hundred-foot-wide rivers with high snow on either bank.
I postholed for twenty miles… flipped up, and went sobo.
In Washington, I was rained on 20 days out of 21. It was mcmiserable. In northern Oregon it was rainy and cold but nothing like WA. In southern Oregon it got hot, fast, and the mosquitoes came out at what we were told were historically high numbers. I am from Maine, where we often joke that the mosquito is our state bird, and still I had never seen anything like Oregon. I wore a bug shirt. I wore long pants and a long-sleeved shirt with the hood up. I used permethrin. I put DEET on my skin and on my clothing. I still basically couldn’t stop hiking by day, and had to stop hiking as soon as it was dusk. IT SUCKED.
But then, at last, I got my reward. From the OR-CA border all the way back to Lone Pine, it was sunny and beautiful. Not too hot in NorCal. Not too cold in the Sierras – and all that snow had been replaced by wildflowers. Lovely. Absolutely lovely. 10/10. Actually would hike again.
The TA’s climate is generally this: warm wet springs in Northland, leading to hot dry summers and cool dry autumns. Cold wet springs on the South Island (which sobos will likely miss), leading to warm but very dry summers, and cold coming quickly in autumn to spur you on to Bluff. Basically, generally… pretty good.
The weather that I experienced on my sobo was on the pleasant end of even this. Dry and mild in Northland, only a few rainy days in Waitomo, dry on the river, then almost no rain the entire South Island – and no snow the entire hike. No floods. No fires. No earthquakes. chefskiss.jpg
On the PCT, you need a Long Distance Permit.
For nobos, these are issued by lottery. There are two draws (fall and winter of the preceding year). Fifty permits are issued for each calendar day. Everyone I spoke to got close to the starting date they wanted.
Starting in 2020, sobos will also need to lottery for permits. Fifteen will be issued per day – which should spread out the bubble a little, but I’m guessing will not make it difficult to get on or near one’s ideal start date.
On Te Araroa, you do not need a thru-hiker permit. You just show up, and start trampin’.
You’ll need to pay a few quid to hike the Queen Charlotte. That’s the only time you’ll need to pay to tramp.
You will need a Backcountry Hut Pass to stay in the huts. It costs about $40 USD for 6 months of unlimited use. For me that came to under a buck a night. I, ah, recommend it.
There are some huts near the TA – and even a few campgrounds – that require advanced registration and payment. You never need to stay at one of these places. On a side quest, you might want to – or you can just walk a little ways away from them and stealth camp, legally, for free.
On the PCT, food carries are short, and resupply is easy.
In the early desert, you can resupply pretty much every day. You can basically live off of hikerboxes and trailmagic. After that you will resupply every 3-5 days for the rest of the trail. Logistics are a little more complicated in the Sierras, and then again in northern Washington – but like, not very complicated. If you’ve got trail legs and you ever find yourself carrying more than 5 days of food, you are doing it wrong.
On Te Araroa, there is no average. On the North Island you can often go from dairy to dairy (like Waysides in the Shennies). Town food is basically the norm. Then for the Richmonds you are suggested to carry 11 days of food – 7 for the hike, 4 in case of bad weather and/or flooded rivers. Then you have to mail food parcels ahead to cover over two straight weeks of hiking. (Except it turns out you really don’t have to.) (Don’t get me started.)
And what about resupply? On the PCT, I never had to walk into town. I never had a lick of trouble getting a hitch – even for a length of road that I could have walked – even for a town that I did not strictly need to visit.
In New Zealand, I walked 3-5 miles offtrail, several times, in order to get to town. Or to a spot where I could hitch to town… 40 miles away.
On the PCT, every trail town has at least a basic resupply. Most are fabulous. They know where their bread is buttered. Also, the PCT has many other little resupply points located right on trail. (I’m looking at you, Oregon.)
NZ is, again, varied. On the North Island there are several towns that the trail just cuts right through. Most towns have food (hot and packaged) and many have small outdoors stores. On the South Island some trail towns are just as good, and some are outdoorsy and have truly world-class outfitters. Whereas some don’t even have a gas station, and hiker supplies – even canister fuel – might mean a hitch of a hundred miles.
More than anything, Te Araroa requires logistical planning. You can’t just look at Guthook, think “100 miles to Fish Lake, so 3 dinners 4 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.
…I’m not going to talk about water carries. On the TA you don’t really have any. On the PCT I didn’t really have any either – but that was very much a 2019 thing, and is so unusual that it’s probably nonhelpful to even talk about it.
>OUTFITTERS AND GEAR
On the PCT, they’re pretty common. In SoCal they’re everywhere. The resupply points on trail in the Sierras tend to be pretty well stocked, and the nearby towns have excellent outfitters (or three). Every little trailtown in NorCal has at least a place to get canister fuel and fresh DarnToughs, and most have more. The on-trail resupply points in the PNW all sell casual hiking gear, and more and more they’re selling what thruhikers need.
Also… and I can’t stress this enough… Amazon Prime. Which is fast making outfitting – and even resupply – a triviality on an American thruhike.
On Te Araroa, outfitters can be scarce. Many outdoor stores in NZ 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. Also, there is no Amazon service in NZ, and online ordering generally involves a long phone call and an even longer wait for delivery.
>DIVERSITY WITHIN THE HIKE
The PCT offers a wonderful variety. There’s low desert, high desert, the Inland Island that is San Jacinto, the otherworldly variety of the High Sierras, dirtbag heaven around the TRT, the burn zones of the Trinity Alps, the FUCK YOU of the Hat Creek Rim, the Disney-like perfection of the Marble Mountains, the Green Tunnel of Oregon interrupted by Crater Lake and the Sisters and Mt. Hood, the lushness of Indian Heaven, magnificent Goat Rocks, and the profound sense of distance and majesty of the North Cascades. Generally the changes between zones are gradual, giving you a few days to experience each in full.
Te Araroa has even more diversity – and it comes to fast your heads will spin. 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. Truly preposterous waterfalls. And what’s crazy is, you might see three or four of these things in a day.
From footstep to footstep, the PCT is easy. Straight up.
The PCT is graded for a three-legged musk ox floating along on pool noodles. There’s no scramble. There’s no bushwhack. There’s no route-finding. Unless you hit a high snow year – and decide to push through – you’ll probably never cross snow. The river crossings too will be trivial – chances are you’ll never even get your feet wet. And, yes, every single climb is switchbacked.
The big difficulties on the PCT are weather and distance. Weather because it’s usually really really hot (with associated long water carries), or else really really cold (with long snow traverses). Distance because – not only is the fucking thing 2,650 miles long, but the window of completion is pretty short. Even in a good year, it’s hard to start a nobo before April (or get to the Sierras before June, which, ~). It can be very hard to be in the Cascades after mid-September. And not only can bad weather shorten that window, it can also slow you down for large chunks of the trail. It may not be a technical challenge from step to step, but it will become a race, day in, day out, for weeks and even months on end.
The trail might be easy, but it’s still difficult to make the Big Miles necessary to complete it. If the trail were more difficult, it would not really be possible. The PCT isn’t mountaineering. It might not even be fair to call it hiking. It is a trail run. A multi-month trail run. With a full backpack. And lots of elevation change. If that sounds easy – get your ears checked.
Te Araroa is shorter, and the weather is generally less extreme. However, the terrain from step to step is much more challenging. You will rock-hop. You will scramble. You will jump locked fences. You will fight across roaring rivers. You will slide down scree slopes – including when you’re trying to go up them. You will run from bulls in their paddock. You will shoot rapids in wide canoes. You will walk on pavement and gravel and mud for miles on end.
The logistics is also a bit more cumbersome. You will go from hut to hut. You will tent in the middle of a busy town. You will look for lodging in the middle of a big city. You might hitch a hundred miles in an afternoon. You will plan your resupply for weeks at a time.
Any given section of the PCT is pretty easy. A full thru-hike is a sum’bitch. Most sections of Te Araroa are difficult. A full thru-hike presents additional difficulties – but also periods of rest and recovery that make it possible.
The PCT has bears, diamondbacks, scorpions, brown recluses, mountain lions, earthquakes, meth heads, temperatures hot enough to denature protein, and in some years, avalanches, horrific river crossings, and forty-mile water carries in the desert sun.
Te Araroa has… kiwis. ^.^
About 5000 people were issued a thru-hiker permit in 2019. The completion rate is generally about 25% – this year, it is commonly expected to be a lot less.
In the desert, you will see fifty people per day. It’s a bit crazy! But they spread out quickly. You might camp with a dozen people. Or half a dozen. Or alone. You might meet some wonderful people while you’re hiking. You still might go hours and hours without seeing another hiker.
I was a sobo for most of my PCT hiker. I didn’t hike with anyone for about 600 miles. I barely *saw* anyone for 600 miles. I then didn’t hike with anyone but my tram (shoutout Arc, Woodpecker, Raspberry. Je t’adore guys. Je t’adore.) for all of NorCal, and was alone for most of the Sierras. But there was a two-week period where I ran into a bajillion nobos that I knew from the desert. Whether it was a casual fistbump, or sitting on the trail and talking with Baguette for like 5 hours, it was always wonderful – really, a very special part of being a flipflopper.
In 2018-2019, over a thousand people started a thruhike of Te Araroa. I’m guessing that completion rates are over 50%. This is in large part due to the higher competence (including, but neither limited to nor necessarily derived from, previous thruhiking experience) of TA hikers. I expect it’s also due to the fact that most TA hikers traveled a long, and very expensive way, to undertake the hike. It’s harder to bail out when you’re on the other side of the world.
I found the core of a great tramily at Pirongia (Christie, Ondi, Bram, Baptiste, Helga, Sabina, magical G-String). This only grew on the Whanganui (Chloe, Veera, Justin, Michaelangelo), in the Tararuas (Matt, Steph, Bin, Amy, Dom), and in the Richmonds (Leo, Sundown, Babyshark, Tati, The Priest) – and even from there just kept growing. For the South Island I was with, or at least in a general bubble of, about twenty people who were all excellent and really bloody lovely. It… did not suck. Not at all.
On the PCT, there were times where I saw almost no day hikers. I once saw only one person in 96 hours (nice ta meet ya, Dixie). Whereas around Mt Hood, Sisters, the TRT, and especially the JMT, I saw dozens of day- and section-hikers every day.
Most TA 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. There were exceptions – I’ve seen fewer people on 5th Avenue at rush hour than I saw on the Tongariro Crossing. And it was always fun to have a hunter roll into a hut and be shocked to find anyone else there, let alone half a dozen trampers from all around the world. But in general, the TA is mostly for thru-hikers.
>LASHERS AS THRUBIES
On the PCT, a thru-hiker is someone hiking every durn foot of the trail 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.
On the PCT you are strongly encouraged to Stay On The Trail when hiking, lest you cause erosion. There are signs on some slopes telling you not to cut the switchbacks. (And some days, boy howdy will you wanna.)
As I’ve said, there often is no trail in NZ. You have to make your own way. Erosion isn’t even a consideration – not in a place where rock-slips and mudslides are happening left and right.
On the PCT there is trail magic. Sometimes a lot. Sometimes, even, too damn much.
Trail Magic is when someone gives a gift to a thruhiker. This usually = food. A folding table with snack cakes. An open car trunk with cold drinks inside. An unattended box of beer hidden under a picnic table. A guy cooking hot dogs on top of a mountain.
For the first few hundred miles of the PCT, there is so much tmaj. I once got it four times IN A DAY. It’s preposterous. In the Sierras the hikerboxes at MTR and Red’s Meadow were basically tmaj – I did full and delicious resupplies out of both, including whiskey and tequila respectively. It happened several times in NorCal and Oregon. An American trail can be a wonderful thing to hike.
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.
There aren’t really dogs on the PCT. The desert is usually too hot. The Sierras, this year at least, were too cold. The whole trail is often too dry – carrying water for yourself is bad enough! But most of all, dogs just can’t do the Big Miles needed to complete the PCT within the window. To complete in 5 months (mid-April to mid-September) you’d have to average eighteen miles per day, which is more than a lot of dogs can do… and that’s every single day, without zero or nero. It’s just not feasible.
On Te Araroa, much of the trail goes through conservation land. This usually = native bird habitat, which usually = kiwis. Apparently a dog will just chow right down on a kiwi. As such, thrupuppers are mostly not allowed.
I really, really liked the PCT. I liked being able to stretch my legs on the flatter sections. I liked fighting the climb and the elevation in the Sierras. I liked the variety of such a preposterously long trail. I count myself very lucky to have been in the desert in superbloom and the Sierras when they were covered with wildflowers. I’d hike the JMT again. One day I would very much like to hike both the Sierra High Route and the Wonderland, and to complete the Timberline and the TRT.
I really, really liked Te Araroa. It was more compact, and more obstructed, but also more challenging, more varied, and presented entirely different sorts of beauty. I’d rehike several parts of it, and I’d love to explore more in the Richmonds and Otago (as well as Fiordland and the Coromandel).
The two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I recommend both. Probably the PCT first – but there’s no wrong answer. Hike either. Hike both.
After all – trail won’t hike itself.
AT – TA – PCT – ???