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Thoughts Before a Calendar Year Triple Crown

A backpacker contemplates the challenges of Calendar Year Triple Crown on the eve of his 8,000-mile hike.

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Editor’s Note: Since writing this, the author has departed on his Calendar Year Triple Crown attempt and covered more than 400 miles on the Appalachian Trail in less than three weeks (as of January 19, 2020). You can read some updates here alongside his pre-hike musings. His plan is to hike the Appalachian Trail first before turning to the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. to Follow Sammy and Jackson’s progress on Instagram.

December 28, 2020

I’m writing this three days before my buddy Jackson and I begin our attempt at the Calendar Year Triple Crown. We hope to hike the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail in less than 12 months. We’ll start going Northbound on the AT It’s an elusive and rare challenge that has been completed by only a handful of backpackers. As a college student, attempting this feat is my answer to the emptiness of “Zoom University.” I figure long-distance backcountry travel is one of the safer forms of recreation in a Covid world, so if I’m going to do this ever in my life, now’s the time. It’s taken nine months of planning to get to this point, and with T-minus three days left until the start, there’s still a lot of ifs, possibilities, and variable changes on my mind. So, here is where my head was at prior to setting out on an 8,000-mile hike.

Base Weight

For those unfamiliar, base weight is the total weight of everything on your person—your clothes and everything in your pack except perishables (food, water, and gas). There are tons of varied opinions about what thru-hiker packs should weigh, but generally, lighter is better. I’m no “ultralight” backpacker, but I do know how much of a difference 5 or even 1 or 2 pounds can make over the course of a long trip. Our current base weight is hovering around 19.5 to 20 pounds. This will go down over the course of our hike as we replace winter-grade equipment with lighter summer layers. Twenty pounds might not seem like a lot, but for 20+ mile days, it’ll feel like it. A nagging part of me is worried that one pound could make a difference. Don’t overthink it, dude!

Update: January 19th

Three weeks and 400 miles into our hike and our base weight has already gone down. We swapped our tent for a tarp, and got rid of a few extra layers. 

Covid-19

We want to do whatever possible to avoid interacting with Covid-19 during our Calendar Year Triple Crown attempt. With extra PPE, fewer hostel stays, more resupply boxes, and less time in town, we’re taking every precaution we can. Backcountry camping and hiking is probably one of the safest activities to partake in right now; numbers-wise, I’ll see far less people in the next nine months than I would if I was just living at home. But still, this is at the top of my mind because above all else, we need to be hyper-vigilant about safety.

Team Dynamics

My hiking partner, Jackson, and I have been close friends since we started college together a few years ago. We’ve been preparing for the Calendar Year Triple Crown for upwards of seven months, the last month in person. Through all this, we’ve built a huge amount of trust, love, and companionship. We’re prioritizing brutal honesty, having each other’s best interests in mind, and making everything about us as a team, not individuals. But no matter how compatible we are, spending most of a year with almost exclusively one person is a long-ass time, no matter who it is. How will our relationship ebb, flow, and change over the course of the next nine months?

Update: January 19th

Our dynamic has been awesome so far. We had a few days in the Smokies and the Roan Highlands that felt like hell, but Jackson and I bonded and were able to work together. It’s good that we’ve had some really difficult days right out of the gate—those early tests have put us in a good spot for all the challenges to come. 

Foot Health

In all my time backpacking, I’ve been lucky enough to avoid blisters that lasted more than a few days (hopefully I don’t jinx it). But I have gotten trench foot on day two of a 10-day trip, so I know how much of a damper foot issues can put on an otherwise great time. The scariest thing about foot issues is that you can do everything right—training, planning, staying in your comfort zone—and still get a small blister that makes your foot feel like the world is ending. Yikes. One of the reasons our base weight is higher than I’d like it to be is because we didn’t skimp on foot care products like mole skin, adhesives, salve, and Body Glide. But I’ll still be on the lookout for hot spots.

Update: January 19th

I had a super nasty blister on my big toe the first few days, but it’s developed into a huge callous and doesn’t hurt anymore! My top gear item has been sock liners, which have prevented many blisters so far. 

Food

I don’t think “hiker hunger” is talked about enough. It takes a while to come on, maybe a week, maybe more depending on the person, but man, it’s hard to kick once it sets in! I’m a 21-year-old, and still growing (I hope), so I already eat enough to make most people sick. My hiking partner Jackson is the only person I know who eats more than me. We’ve planned our meals to eat about 5,500 calories a day at the start, but with how much mileage we’re putting in, I have a feeling we’ll still spend a fair amount of time hungry. The question is, how hungry? Hopefully not unbearably so, because that would mean having to add extra food (aka pounds) to our packs at resupply points. Yep… we’re right back to the base weight conversation!

Update: January 19th

We’ve upped our calorie intake to 6,000 a day. We had to ration a bit when snow in the Smokies set us back a day. A trail angel dropped off an extra resupply—without the help we would have been way hungrier! 

Weather

This list is in no particular order, but if it were, weather would probably be my first worry. More specifically, snow. Attempting the Calendar Year Triple Crown means hiking during part of winter, either at the beginning of the trek or the end. We’ve chosen the beginning. Most sections of these trails aren’t conducive to winter travel at a fast pace because of snow, with the potential exception of a few areas such as the New Mexico section of the CDT, southern California on the PCT, and much of the Southern AT. It’s looking like a mild winter, but there’s already some snow in the Smoky Mountains, and could be more by the time we get there. I love snow. But postholing all day makes for slow travel… not great for us. If there’s a lot of loose snow, we may have to skip ahead of the Smokies and come back to them later. That’ll have to be a game time decision. 

Update: January 19th

The snow in the Smokies and the Roan Highlands surpassed what I was worried about. We postholed through knee-deep snow through these sections, which slowed us down and forced us to hike at night to keep up with our mileage goals. But we got through them without diverting our route, and we’re headed into lower elevations where snow shouldn’t be much of a problem. We may need to transfer over to the CDT later on if there’s too much snow in Pennsylvania. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there! 

Missing Friends and Family

It goes without saying that we’ll miss our friends and families dearly. It’s my hope, though, that it isn’t the type of debilitating loneliness that makes doing basic daily tasks feel unbearable without new human contact. I’ve felt that in the wilderness before, and it’s tough. We’re looking for simplicity and solitude, no doubt, but I don’t have any experience that approximates hiking in the wilderness for 9 months. It’s impossible to know if I’m prepared for what it will feel like to be away from loved ones for so long.

Permits

Permits on the AT and CDT are not a huge deal, as there are very few, and they’re either walk-up or easy to obtain. The PCT, however, is a different story. There are a plethora of national forests and state parks along the PCT that require permits. There’s a “thru-hiker” permit that the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) offers which supersedes the local and state ones, but as you may have heard, the PCTA has yet to announce whether they will release thru hiker permits for the 2021 season, and when they plan to announce their decision, we’ll already be on trail [Editor’s note: the PCTA has since released permit applications for the 2021 season]. My gut tells me they won’t be releasing permits, but my gut has been wrong plenty of times before. Regardless, we’ve done the prep work needed to get the other permits, I’d just really like to not have to deal with that while on trail. But hey, if we gotta do it, we gotta do it.

Update: January 19th

Good thing my gut was wrong. We were able to secure our PCT permits today after waking up at 4:30 a.m. and sprinting about 15 miles to reach cell service. Jackson and I were both able to select July 5th as our SOBO start date. We filled out applications and are confident we’ll be granted permits for that date. 

Where Will My Mind Go?

I’ve been asked a lot—by myself and others—where I think my mind will go after one, two, or nine months of hiking. Will I fade into a flow state, drift into memories I’ve long forgotten, or experience a new level of presence? Truthfully, I don’t know, and I don’t want to force anything. I do know that my mind, like anyone else today, is accustomed to near-constant stimulation. Now, all of the sudden, I’m taking all that stimulation away… what will be the effect?

What Are We Forgetting?

I’ve lost a lot of sleep over spreadsheets in the last seven months, tried countless pieces of gear on shakedown hikes, explored every corner of the Guthooks app, and stuffed about 75 resupply boxes full of food we will eat months down the road. Point is, I feel like I’ve prepared about as much as possible. But I woke up the other night in a cold sweat… what are we forgetting? There must be something. A piece of gear, a tactical mistake relating to the trails, something in our blind spot that’s escaped my grasp. At this stage, I think only the trail has the answer to that.

I’m beyond excited to begin this odyssey in the next few days. What’s left to do is what we came to do: hike.

You can follow Sammy and Jackson’s Calendar Year Triple Crown attempt on Instagram @CYTripleCrown.