Calendar Year Triple Crown – 7800 miles or 12’000 km through the US in one year
There are three long-distance hiking paths in the US: Appalachian Trail (AT), Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and Continental Divide Trail (CDT). The PCT and CDT run from Mexico to Canada while the AT runs more in the east from Georgia up to Maine. Those who complete all three trails in under a year each (doing thru-hikes, one trail per year), call themselves “triple crowners”. Do everything in one year and you have achieved a calendar year triple crown.
Still too short? Try the 12 long walks and you will be occupied one and a half year…
Is it common to do?
While there are more than 6000 individuals per year, who try to achieve a thru-hike of one of the three trails, the success rate overall is under 40 %. There are only a handful attempts to the CYTC in each year. Due to corona, there will not be a single successful one in 2020. From Europe, I know of nobody who ever achieved it.
In terms of sponsoring, expeditions to the poles or to Mount Everest are more attractive, as they leave you with more time to tell the world about your great achievements during the rest of the year and gear companies prefer them also, because it is easier for them to do marketing.
How fast do you have to walk?
Per day you need to achieve something like 28 miles or 45 km. More than a marathon distance but the good news is, you have an entire day to do it. The AT can be compared with the Jura in Switzerland, other sections of the route allow for faster hiking.
It is common to do 50 mile days in Oregon on the PCT as the path is nearly flat and going northbound (nobo) you have collected a lot of experience when arriving in Oregon.
What are the challenges?
Besides walking often more than 12 hours per day, you need to eat between two and three times as much calories compared to normal life, sometimes even more. As you eat a lot of bars you better find a tasty brand…
Normally, when you run or hike a marathon, you take it slow afterwards, so your body can refuel on calories. On a long-distance hike you need sophisticated logistics, as not every trail town has a lot of stores where you can find useful food but it’s possible to do it even on a vegan diet.
The postal service is your friend: Along the trails you can send yourself boxes with food. It is common to do this. When time is an issue, you can even send those boxes to businesses, they are open on weekends. Otherwise you risk to arrive in town on Friday evening and the postal office remains closed until Monday.
On a normal thru-hike you have more time: You can take longer breaks in towns. Every day you stay in a town is called zero, when you arrive by lunch time and leave in the evening, it is called nero. Every hiker needs to do at least a nero all five to ten days, to get resupply, take a shower and wash his clothes or replace gear. Shoes hold more or less for 500 miles – or 20 days. You go through 20 pairs or more.
Because hikers sometimes smell and have the look of a homeless person, they call themselves hikertrash. There are however techniques, to fight the filth when you can’t take a shower everyday.
The entire route needs to be covered in under 10 months as there are seasonal restrictions. Only a handful of individuals managed to survive the PCT in winter, because of avalanches, nobody has attemted to hike the CDT in winter so far. Those who managed to do the PCT in winter were professional skiers with years of ski touring and avalanche experience.
Is there any help?
All trails are well documented. Navigation is done with a specialized app on your smartphone and in some sections on the CDT with GPS devices. On some (unfinished) sections of the CDT, paper maps are used to get a better overview.
Americans are extremely helpful, it is common to hitch down into towns on the PCT. The AT has a lot of support infrastructure right on the trail, there are a lot of shelters in the woods. The CDT is wilder but also well documented.
Some Americans even open their homes for random hikers and they provide so called trail-magic: often you can get a sophisticated meal in the middle of the wilderness for free.
Is it safe to do?
While there are bears, snakes and mountain lions in the wilderness, deadly accidents are extremely rare. The change to get killed in Germany by a vending machine or to drown in Switzerland is much higher.
Bear spray is only needed on the CDT in the north, as there are Grizzly bears. On all other trail sections, black bears are roaming but no long-distance hiker bothers with a bear spray as they are not considered dangerous. Food safety with bears and rodents is achieved by hanging the food in trees but more and more by a bear proof sack. In some national parks, like Yosemite, the use of a bear can is still mandatory.
Some individuals carry pepper spray as a means of self defense in towns or for hitch-hiking. American day hikers sometimes carry handguns, even in Lara Croft style. Nearly all long-distance hikers carry a satellite communication device, to get help when needed. There are long sections without cell network.
The authorities close the trails in case of wildfires and if necessary, they dispatch SAR to search the trail, in case somebody is still on it.
River fording and snow require a careful approach in the Sierras in late spring, an Ice-axe and and being trained to perform self-arrest with it can be important.
As a Swiss, a membership with REGA is maybe not wrong.
Some locals will tell you they carry the usual .700 nitro express all the time, because of dozens of Grizzlys and Mountain Lions waiting for them, on their porch.
How is the weather?
A possibly realistic attempt starts for example on the AT in February and in winter. Often the trail is covered in snow, thats why hikers carry micro-crampons. Winter in Georgia can be chilly, a 0 F or -17° sleeping bag is not a bad idea. Enough layers are important, otherwise it can get life-threatening fast.
The AT sees most of the rain. It can rain 10 or more days straight.
On the PCT the climate is mostly dry. Desert sections can be windy. In summer it can get hot to the point where hikers need to search shade in the desert and wait out the hottest time of the day. Most hikers simply sleep during this time and hike on in the night.
Some hikers experience problems with the altitude in the Sierra. Sometimes thunder storms need to be waited out below tree line. On some sections there are bugs in summer. Proper netting is better than get overdosed with DEET.
What about injuries?
Unfortunately it is impossible to simulate a long-distance hike in normal life. Even when you walk to your job at the other end of town for two hours every day, the stress on your joints is less.
Some times people prepare for years to do a thru-hike, they have their gear dialed in to perfection, they train how to eat, drink and go to the bathroom on trail. They run marathons to get in shape, just to find out on trail after 6 weeks that their body isn’t able to walk 10 hours per day for more than 2 weeks straight, because they have an undetected abnormality, for example in their hip joints.
To avoid such a heartbraking experience you could theoretically do a CT scan of your body but this is extremely expensive, when there is no medical diagnosis and you have to do it anyways – in this case you often need to postpone your hike. In most parts of the world CT-Scan equipment isn’t available easily and it should be left to use for urgent cases. If you can find a private sports clinic it is maybe possible but to go to such extremes may raise to psychological pressure to unwanted levels.
Once out on trail and without undetected problems, it is important not to hike when you feel tired or exhausted. You should never let your watch down below a certain point, because this is when you fall or twist your ankle. Walking with poles helps your knees.
Sleepiness can be avoided by properly fuel your body. Younger hikers may get away with eating trash and sugar, older hikers sometimes drop out after 1500 miles, nearly dying from exhaustion and even getting severe psychological problems in the aftermath because they think they failed.
It is possible that an AT thru-hike is your first backpacking trip ever. There is even a gentleman who did a CYTC as his first thru-hike. However, he worked for the PCT Association before, so he was confronted with thru-hiking on a professional level.
How do you hike?
First of all it is important that there is no right or wrong. To believe you are an elit-hiker because you do a thru-hike is stupid. It just means that you managed to accumulate more savings, often because of privileges in society or even because of racial privileges. Less than 10 % of the hikers on the long distance trails in the US are people of color.
Most hikers embark on a long-distance trip, because they enjoy the outdoors and they want to have an adventure of some sorts. It is common to attempt a thru-hike in a middle year before college or university.
Often so called tramilies form in this age-group. Members of tramilies often hike some hours per day together and they often camp in the same spot.
When on a CYTC attempt, the social aspects of thru-hiking need to be pushed back. It is still possible to hike with others but you need to be prepared to say goodbye often, because you need to make more miles and you better do neros instead of double-zeros.
Sometimes there is an unhealthy competition around speed and mileage. Thats why faster people sometimes fly under the radar, telling others that they are just on a section- or even a day-hike.
What about environmental and social impacts?
While I believe that long-distance hiking itself is one of the most sustainable form of existence, the travel to and from the trails can enlarge your environmental impact and your footprint. However, European hikers started already to organize their travels to the US by boat. Not on board of a cruise ship as these types of ships have just started to implement greener propulsion technology but most of them are still powered by Marine (Residual) Fuel Oil. Something, which shouldn’t be used in the recreational sector and be replaced in commercial shipping ASAP.
I try to get a place on a cargo ship or even on a sail powered boat. As I have the possibilities (again because I am incredibly privileged, even when living from social welfare) I try to advance the use of sustainable gear. To be even considered, it needs to be produced out of sustainable raw materials and to be manufactured as locally as possible (in my case in Switzerland or Germany).
Compromises I will make when there is no gear available in my weight range or there is no useful gear even produced in the US or Europe. Example: My tent is made in China, as only Chinese manufacturing companies at the moment are capable to weld Dyneema and make it available on the market. There is no European tent maker who is able to weld its Dyneema.
For UL-hiking, there is no suitable alternative to Dyneema in sight. I try to keep my Dyneema stuff alive, as long as possible and I make sure that it gets burned in a incineration plant, specialized in waste disposal when at the end of life, as Dyneema is the perfect nightmare for everybody dealing with plastic in the environment.
However, as soon as I get aware of more sustainable alternatives, I will use them, even when it means to use a prototype or similar.