Here’s What It’s Like to Hike the Triple Crown as a Couple
Liz and Collin Blunk already checked off the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail. Now they're on-route to complete their Triple Crown with this summer's hike of the Continental Divide. They share the wisdom they've won over nearly 8,000 miles together.
After graduating from the University of Iowa in 2014, Liz and Collin Blunk decided to stop putting off their dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail. It took them exactly six months to hike the 2,185 route. At the end, the pair got engaged on the summit of Katahdin in a hail storm.
It wouldn’t be their last long trail. After moving to Seattle in 2018, Teton and Moose (as they are known on the trail) set their sights on the Pacific Crest Trail. The pair says the smoother, less-rocky PCT felt easier after the AT, despite being almost 500 miles longer: Using the knowledge and skills accrued on their first thru-hike, they packed lighter and moved faster, even notching one 45-mile day. Five months later, they were standing at the northern terminus.
This summer, Teton and Moose are hoping to put the final jewel in their Triple Crown by hiking the Continental Divide Trail. They recently entered Colorado, heading north to the Canadian border. We were able to connect with Liz and Collin to what they’ve learned from hiking their nearly 8,000-mile journey through the US.
Backpacker (BP): When and where did you start hiking?
Liz Blunk (LB): We first heard of thru-hiking while exploring trails in the Smokies during spring break when we were in college. We immediately started saving up, dreaming of the AT after graduating. We’d never truly backpacked before the AT.
Collin Blunk (CB): We’re both from the Midwest originally, and we didn’t have many outdoor recreation opportunities as kids. We were exposed to small wilderness areas, but didn’t get a real chance to explore it until after college. When we heard about a trail that ran from Georgia to Maine, it seemed unreal. It lit up our imagination; I guess we went from zero to one hundred right out of the gate.
BP: What gear did you start the AT with, and how did your strategy change?
CB: In college I worked in a gear shop, so we were able to get a few discounts. An MSR Hubba Hubba tent, which was really popular at the time. Vasque boots. Lots of classic backpacking gear. Looking back, our gear was a lot bigger and heavier on the AT than it is now. For example, our AT packs sometimes got up to 50 pounds if we had a big resupply. We brought some extraneous stuff on that first thru-hike, like extra pans, a hammock, and a book or two. We still use a lot of it, but mostly for car camping.
LB: Very few things have made it on all three trails with us. One sleeping bag, a deck of cards, and a Snow Peak titanium pot that Collin loves.
BP: What are the easiest ways to save weight in your pack? And what’s worth its weight in gold?
LB: Looking back, carrying a book or even two was pretty silly. Multiple pairs of socks is always worth it; I would never skip that. It helps avoid blisters too.
CB: It’s important to mention that weight is tied pretty directly to the cost of your gear and not everyone has the money to buy the nicest things. Some people just go to Walmart and get all their gear, and still finish and are really happy. You can do the trails with any pack and any weight.
BP: What is an absolute must-have piece of gear?
CB: Thru-hiking a long trail takes about 5 million steps, give or take. So my answer is footwear. I wear HOKA Speedgoats and love the support and cushioning.
LB: Toss-up between a down jacket and down sleeping bag. I like to be warm and comfy.
BP: How do you pace yourself and structure your days?
LB: We build our days around our meals. We make our breakfast right away in the morning and then try to hike at least 10 miles before we eat lunch. And then another 10 miles to dinner.
CB: There is a lot of freedom in thru-hiking but for us it works best to boil it down to how many miles we need to do each day. This gives us some structure to the hike, and then we can get flexible with weather, fatigue and other variables. I don’t get a sense that most people do it this way, but it works really well for us. With this plan in place we’re able to stay more present day to day.
LB: Our style is more focused than most people– we’re cognizant of what’s ahead of us, including weather. We both have to get back to jobs in a certain amount of time, so we are forced to go into these hikes with some structural limitations that dictate our pace.
We were 22 years old when we started the AT, wide eyed, soaking it all in.
BP: What are the biggest differences between the three trails?
LB: Circumstance plays in here. We were 22 years old when we started the AT, wide-eyed, soaking it all in. We’ve grown a lot since then. That said, the AT is probably the most difficult. You go over the mountains, versus the PCT where you go around the summits. We can’t comment on the CDT yet because we haven’t finished it.
CB: Picking a favorite is hard, it’s like picking between your kids. And like Liz said, the order you do them matters a lot. The AT is the shortest, but it took us the longest. It has lots of great infrastructure and the most hikers by far. You’re forced to mingle with others and are grouped at specific camp locations. The AT also doesn’t have switchbacks and it’s not graded well. Very up and down. It doesn’t have the grand views and landscapes of the PCT, but it still has magic to it.
LB: The PCT and CDT are less social with more dispersed camping. The CDT especially has very few designated campsites. Right now we’re just trying to avoid putting our pads on cactuses. The CDT often is the last in any Triple Crown attempt, which is evident in the people you meet. Everyone knows what they are doing, the trail etiquette is much better and more respectful.
CB: Logistically, on the AT you’re in a town every three to five days. For the PCT and CDT, it can be much longer than that, which makes them feel a bit wilder and more remote.
BP: What’s your typical day on the trail like?
LB: We’re not super early risers, like some hikers. We’ll wake up slowly with the sun and spend a couple hours making breakfast and packing up, which is kind of slow. We’ll make drip coffee and oatmeal or granola and sometimes grits.
CB: There are two types of hikers, those that are rushing from town to town, or those that are more comfortable out there. We’re in that second group. Although we do long days and have some structure, we’re much happier out on trail than at the resupplies.
LB: We try to hike for about two hours or roughly five miles before our first break. Then rise and repeat. We get out a small tarp for lunch and spend about an hour there, maybe do some stretching, then plan the rest of the day.
CB: We’ve figured out that we know we need three liters of water for an evening and morning combined. This allows us to camp away from water when necessary, but it’s nice to be by a river or lake. We typically do freeze-dried meals for dinner, which are a lot of beans, rice, and veggies. When you’re thru-hiking, you live to eat. The first few days after a resupply you just can’t wait to eat the pack weight down and the two days before you reach a resupply you’re rationing things really closely. It’s all a game of food.
BP: What is your go-to meal after long and hard days?
LB: If we’re at a resupply, pizza and beer. On trail, sometimes we’ll add cheese to our dinners if we have extra from lunch and that makes them much better. Avocados and carrots are a treat, too. Collin has to eat 2 bags of candy per day.
CB: Honestly, I could probably live off candy if I had enough. In reality, anything hot and warm in your pot after a rainy day is great. Fresh veggies are really nice, which we’ll have for a few days after a resupply.
BP: What happens when the two of you disagree on something?
CB: We’ve gotten pretty good at accepting our differences. There are always disagreements between us, but it’s important to remember the bigger picture and not get caught up on the smaller things. We’re both naturally patient people and have learned it’s all part of the journey.
BP: Are you able to make space for each other on the trail?
LB: On the AT and PCT, we would split up once in a while and hike a little by ourselves, but it’s harder on the CDT because this trail is less established and we want to navigate together. Sometimes we split up on steep climbs and descents. I hike faster uphill and Colin usually goes faster downhill, but maybe only a hundred yards. Broadly speaking, we’re together almost 24/7. He’ll even sometimes dig my cat holes for me.
BP: What were your biggest surprises while hiking each trail?
CB: The AT is full of wildlife. We had our most bear encounters there, which was surprising to us. In the Mid-Atlantic states you’re chasing off bears almost every night.
LB: The kindness of the people in town. They’re always so interested in your adventure and genuinely want to help, give you a hug, feed you, and support you in any way they can. We thought the CDT wouldn’t have this as much because it’s the least established, but we’ve only encountered great people that want to help.
Lean into the hard things, that’s where the magic happens.
BP: How has your relationship changed while hiking the Triple Crown together?
CB: I would say we’ve gained a sense of the bigger picture. It’s hard for us to take any day for granted on our third big trail. This is the best life you could ever live. All the crap and nonsense is taken away. You have a purpose every day. You experience something new every day. So we try to take this mentality with us back to everyday life. We try to forget the small, tedious stuff that doesn’t truly affect us.
LB: We’ve spent almost a year and a half in a tent together. That’s a lot. In that time we’ve learned what makes each other tick. It’s a big give and take and we know that really intimately—’Hey, you’re grumpy and that’s ok. I’m here for you.’
BP: If you could offer just one piece of advice to a new hiker, what would it be?
CB: Lean into the hard things, that’s where the magic happens. The worst part is when the hike is over so don’t race through it. Focus on the present.
BP: What is your favorite section of each trail?
CB: Maine felt magical. It has an innate magnetism to it. And the Kings Canyon part of the PCT was maybe the best section of trail we’ve ever hiked.
LB: The Colorado section of the CDT is exactly what you expect when you think of a long trail– picturesque views, fewer people, and a general wild feel to it. It’s like opening a new storybook every day.
BP: The Triple Crown has been a long-time goal for you. What do you think it will feel like to finish?
LB: Sometimes I think of thru-hiking like women and having babies. You can’t remember the pain of the last one and you just want another. My guess is that we’ll be really happy for a bit, then start planning the next long trail we want tackle. There’s always going to be something exciting. We’ll always have goals.
CB: It’s already emotional. I cried four times the week before we started the CDT because I knew in 6 months we’d be totally done with the Triple Crown. We got engaged at the end of the AT and now we’re married on the CDT. Maybe the next thing for us is having kids and bringing them on a long trail.