How does the TA compare to the PCT?
Having hiked both trails we have been asked this question a number of times, it came up a lot whilst we were on the PCT. We met many eager thru-hikers looking for the next adventure to satisfy their hunger for hiking. The TA and the PCT are very different trails, both of which I loved equally. I really don’t like comparing them, I imagine it’s similar to the feeling a parent experiences when asked to name their favorite child, but for reasons described below, I felt this post needed to be written.
The TA was our first long distance hike and we fell in love… in love with long distance hiking and in love with New Zealand, its ruggedness, natural beauty and it’s down to earth, genuine people. We hiked the trail in the 2018/19 season which turned out to be the first ‘big’ season the trail had experienced. An estimated 1,200 thru-walkers undertook the challenge (the trail saw about 500 hikers the prior season). The hikers we met along the trail generally fell into one of two categories,
- complete thru-hiking virgins like us; or
- seasoned U.S. thru-hikers or triple crowners looking for their next thru-hiking hit.
The former group, like us overwhelmingly loved the trail, New Zealand and the adventure of the experience. Unfortunately, the latter group didn’t seem to speak as highly of the trail or their experience on it. Common complaints included trail conditions, the amount of road walking, lack of trail support, lack of free choice when camping.
I personally found this upsetting on a number of levels, from people submitting themselves to something they didn’t enjoy for the sake of ticking a box, to the negativity these people were bringing to, and spreading about, the trail. It is for this reason that I wanted to write this post. Not to determine which is my favorite baby but to help people understand how and why these two trails are different and hopefully save people from wasting a whole lot of money and the best part of 6 months of their lives on something they don’t enjoy.
There is minimal road walking on the PCT, as I write this there are only two sections which stick in my mind, the Angeles NF endangered species closure and the LA aqueduct. I’m sure there were more but combining the words ‘road walking’ and ‘PCT’ doesn’t dredge up any major emotions for me. In contrast, if you hike every km of the TA you will be walking hundreds of km’s of road.
At first this doesn’t sound like a big deal right? It’s not so different from walking down a footpath, I can handle that! A few things to bear in mind about the road walking on the TA:
- It can be dangerous at times, hiking on major highways with fast moving traffic and narrow shoulders. We found some country roads incredibly pleasant to walk down and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, but not all of the road walking is like this.
- It is incredibly hard on your feet and joints. Expect your feet to be in a substantial amount of pain. It took around 3 months after the TA for my feet to be pain free in the mornings.
- Kiwis are incredibly friendly, generous people. Don’t be surprised if multiple cars stop to offer you a ride. When you are tired and in pain it can get hard to turn these offers down. I felt downright guilty turning them down knowing people were going out of their way to be nice.
So why didn’t the road sections have a negative impact on our TA experience? Simple, if we didn’t feel like walking them, we didn’t walk them. Instead we stuck out our thumbs and hitched. We had as much fun hitching as we did hiking, meeting a broad range of incredible Kiwis whom we’d never otherwise have met, from the quirky to the awe inspiring. By adopting a flexible approach to our hike we experienced true kiwi hospitality, friendliness and enjoyed ourselves more than if we’d forced ourselves to pound the tarmac.
This is the point where purists will be feeling outraged by our approach to our ‘thru-hike’. It is also the point where I challenge you to think about why you are undertaking the trail as this can have a significant impact on your enjoyment of it.
- If you have the goal of walking every km of “the TA” by foot, kudos to you but know that the TA changes constantly, not only year to year but during the hiking season. We hiked the trail in 2018/19 and the maps changed 4 times that I can recall (during the season). Know that the TA which you hike is different to the original trail, which will be different to the trail someone hikes who starts one month later than you.
- If you set out with the goal to walk end to end New Zealand by foot, then be fully prepared upfront to walk a few hundred km’s along highways and roads. Having clear expectations on this upfront is going to curb disappointment later on.
The TA is a rugged trail and involves a considerable amount of Type 2 fun. New Zealand weather is wild and can change in an instant, as a result so can its trails. Expect to encounter thigh deep mud, narrow goat tracks and steep gradients which border on climbing rather than hiking. Expect your feet to be wet, a lot, there are numerous sections where the trail is through a river bed. This means more fun and adventure but a slower pace and less km’s hiked each day. If you have hiked the PCT previously don’t expect to be able to cover the same amount of miles on the TA as you did on the PCT. Slow down, embrace the challenge and take the TA for what it is and you will enjoy the experience. Resources for trail maintenance in NZ are not what are they in the U.S. so don’t expect the trail to be groomed to the same standard.
By contrast (and depending on snow levels) the PCT is an extremely well cared for and well graded trail. After all, it was primarily developed as a horse route. We hiked the PCT in 2019, a high snow year, and our pace through the Sierra’s and Northern Washington was similar to our pace through many parts of the South Island of New Zealand.
Whilst we experienced what felt like an annoyingly large number of downed trees on the PCT it was not as much of an issue on the TA for the most part.
Snow is a major consideration on the PCT, it has a major impact on season length and trail access. It required us to learn new skills, acquire new equipment and extend ourselves to taking on new challenges (neither of us had walked on snow prior to the PCT). In a way the TA helped us to mentally deal with the challenges the high snow year presented on the PCT, learning to be adaptable and expect the unexpected. Depending on what time of year you begin your hike, snow is unlikely to be an issue for you on the TA. The season is longer than on the PCT so some of the pressure is taken off. It’s nice to be able to take your time, have an extra town day and not feel pressure of potentially getting snowed out.
Also worth mentioning here is that some sections of the TA can be paddled and ridden. Yup, that’s right. It’s not all about the hiking. This was something we absolutely loved, changing things up and using a different medium of transport for a while but we also found that some purists struggled with this.
Support and trail community
The TA is a young trail, most locals we met along the way had never heard about the trail. There was something beautiful in that, the feeling that you are on an epic journey that very few people have been on. People helped us out and welcomed us into their homes off the cuff and from a very genuine place. Bear in mind that being a young trail means the community and resources surrounding it are not as well developed as they are on the PCT. You can not rely on there being a Trail Angel to bail you out or receive your food parcel, you need to be more self reliant and put more effort into your planning. This will in no doubt change as the years roll on and more people become aware of the trail. This means hikers have a responsibility as advocates of the trail to plan appropriately, be spot on with leave no trace (camping in particular) and be mindful that most of the towns you pass through aren’t accustomed to ‘hiker trash’.
The amount of support we experienced on the PCT was overwhelming, from the maintenance of water caches, spirit boosting trail magic, to Trail Angels who bail hikers out of precarious places and those who give you a place to crash in town. It is almost impossible to get stuck because there is so much support around the trail. I felt that many hikers abused this support, relying on it rather than treating it as a back up resource (water caches, in particular) and whilst it was very much appreciated I did sometimes feel like just another number when I came into town. Being at the back of the pack there were a few times I felt the strain from those hikers who had come before me and at times I felt like a burden to Trail Angels or trail towns.
Camping on the PCT is easy, free and for the most part unrestricted. Once you have your permit you can camp anywhere along the PCT corridor (with a few exceptions). Each day you hike as far as you can and when you are feeling ready to settle for the night, find a suitable campsite.
Things aren’t as simple on the TA. There is no single permit so you must be aware of the differing camping restrictions in each section of trail. This requires you to plan out your days in advance to make sure you can make it to a legal campsite each night. Often the trail passes through private land and small towns which the TA Trust has spent years negotiating access through. Failure to comply with the conditions of passage agreed to between private landowners and the trust has caused a significant amount of strain on these relationships and is putting the future of the trail at risk. Often on the North Island you will need to pay for camping in holiday parks and campgrounds, this gets very expensive very quickly. We spent more money than we expected to on the TA so think seriously about your budget before you set out. You can read more about TA budgets on our planning post.
Length and time
The PCT is about 4,200 km and took us about 5 months to walk so it’s easy to look at the 3,000 km of the TA and think you should be able to finish it in 3 months. The TA also took us about 5 months to finish. Granted we took more zero’s but generally people find it takes roughly the same amount of time to hike each trail. This is largely due to the difference in trail conditions I mentioned above. Shorter definitely doesn’t equate to quicker.
Research, research, research
I’ve touched on some of the major differences between the two trails but the best advice I can give is to do your research. Fully understand what it is you are getting into before committing to hike either trail. My goal in this post is not to put people off hiking the TA but to have clear expectations of what it is they are committing to before they set out. I want to see people have fun on the TA and I also want this trail which I so dearly love, survive the years so many more can experience it.