The Long Haul

What does it take to plan a for a record-setting thru-hike attempt? A Calendar-Year Triple Crown hopeful spills.
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To thru-hike just one of America’s long trails is to accomplish a lifelong dream for many hikers. To tackle all three—the AT, PCT, and CDT—is to enter an exclusive club of Triple Crowners and gain hiking superstar status. And to hike all three in a year? That’s nothing short of legendary.

Only a handful of backpackers have completed a Calendar-Year Triple Crown. Among them are thru-hiking icons like Heather “Anish” Anderson and Flyin’ Brian Robinson. Together, the trails add up to nearly 8,000 miles of hiking, and to cover them in a single year requires trekking through snow and freezing temperatures. It’s no wonder only a few elite hikers have been up to the challenge.

So when our very own intern, Sammy Potter, told us he’d be gunning for a Calendar-Year Triple Crown in 2021, we were amazed. If Sammy and his hiking partner accomplish their goal, they’ll be the youngest (at 21 years old) to have completed the feat to date, and the first people to ever do so as a duo.

We chatted with Sammy about his motivation and how he’s preparing for a year on the trail.

BACKPACKER: What inspired you to try for a Calendar-Year Triple Crown?

Sammy Potter: After seeing a few people I love pass away in the last couple years, I started to really think about what makes me feel alive. There’s quite a few, but the biggest are testing my limits, challenging myself, and finding purpose in the outdoors.

This was compounded by the impact of coronavirus on my life, and I figured the ultimate way to take my fate back into my hands is to go for the goal at the top of my bucket list: The Calendar Year Triple Crown (CYTC).

How long before you are set to hit the trail did you start planning?

When the pandemic forced me to leave school in March, I realized pretty quickly that it was unlikely we’d be going back in-person anytime soon. I had been planning to mount a Triple Crown attempt after graduating in a few years, but with this new time frame open, I figured I should send it now. I started planning it as a solo trek at the end of March, and in May I recruited my buddy from school, Jackson, to join me.

What are the biggest challenges of planning a full year on the trail?

I think I could fill a whole article with the challenges of planning the 9 to 10 months that we’ll be on trail. The three biggest we’re grappling with right now are weather, order in which we tackle the trails, and budget.

There’s going to be a huge range of weather throughout this trek (from freezing snow to desert heat), so planning when we will need what gear is critical to staying safe on the trail, without carrying too much weight. To stay on schedule, we want to minimize hiking in snow and maximize time in good conditions. With unpredictable snowfalls, it’s hard to know when is the right time to hike certain sections, so we’ve got to make our best judgements and be flexible.

And at the end of the day, we’re two college kids. Cost-of-living while on trail is actually relatively low, but gear, transportation between trails, and the vacuum of employment adds up quickly. (Although we do have the slight advantage that we’re already very accustomed to eating Ramen!)

Some other interesting challenges I didn’t anticipate when I started planning the trek: caching water on the first stretch of the CDT before starting because the trail coalition does not fill the water caches until mid-March (we plan to start in January), getting permits from individual agencies along the PCT because it is unclear whether the PCTA will be issuing trail-long permits in 2021, and taking as few plane rides as possible to limit potential exposure to COVID.

What goes into gear and food prep for such a long hike?

We’re attempting to walk almost 8,000 miles. 8,000. That means every little gear issue, no matter how little, is a HUGE issue! We started out with a massive master spreadsheet of gear, then narrowed it down after shakedown hikes, conversations with Triple Crowners, and transitioning to some more ultralight gear.

As for food, we’re planning our daily food intake to around 3,500-4,000 calories per day, and have been working with a professor at our university to develop a tailored diet that will allow us to perform at a high level for a long stretch. We’re sending more resupply boxes than the average thru-hiker does because it’ll allow us to eat really healthy and keep costs relatively low. Our diet is also limited by two factors: I’m allergic to peanuts, and Jackson is allergic to wheat. Yet another challenge to tackle!

How have you been training to get in top hiking shape?

We’ve both been running marathons and training for ultras over the past few years, so we’re starting off with a relatively solid base of endurance. We’ve been following a 26-week training plan we built with about 60 to 80 miles of running per week, strength training, hill-focused training, and calisthenics. Outside of our daily time devoted to training, we got the tip from former CYTCer Jeff “Legend” Garmire to just stand as much as possible during regular daily activities to get used to the sheer amount of time with pressure on our feet.

I’m also carrying a 20 KG kettlebell in my backpack at all times right now (it started off as a dare, but it’s good for training!). And finally, to prep for the cold of the early months of the year, we’re taking ice baths three times per week.

What tips have you picked up from planning for a calendar-year Triple Crown attempt that translate to planning a smaller-scale backpacking trip?

First of all, study the maps: I think the more familiar you are with the terrain, landmarks, and general area before hitting the trail, the better. Especially in higher-risk areas, knowing the terrain and your bailout option(s) are good practices, and could be the difference between life and death. I’m also a fan of nightly debriefs while on the trail. Regardless of trip length, I think it’s super important to debrief before bed about what’s going well, what isn’t, and what the exact plan is for the following day.

Planning only goes so far! How do you expect to be adaptable on the trail?

One former Triple Crowner I spoke with gave me arguably the best advice I’ve gotten through this endeavor so far: “plan, plan, plan some more, then that first day, throw away that plan and go with the flow of the trail.” We can’t be married to absolutes if we’re going to make this work. We have our parameters—to hike every mile of each of these three trails—but beyond that, we’re going to need to be comfortable with change. We have a general idea of what areas of the trail are going to be hikeable during which sections of the year, but if we have to adjust our plans, we’ll roll with it. We’re trying to embrace the ambiguity and adventure, but not lose sight of the goal.