Many of us enjoy hiking in the great outdoors, sometimes for days at a time. But could you imagine doing it for weeks and even months at a time, perhaps, for example, to walk the length of an entire country – almost three times? That is, if you can believe, what some people do.
Thru-hiking or walking the continuous length of a long-distance trail from end to end, is considered one of the most challenging and rewarding outdoor adventures. For many people, it’s a once in a lifetime experience that takes months if not years of preparation and planning.
Yet, for a few people, it not only becomes a goal to complete one thru hike in their lifetime but three. To accomplish this so-called thru-hiking Triple Crown is considered one of a long-distance walker’s greatest achievements.
So, what exactly is the thru-hiking triple crown? The thru-hiking Triple Crown is the award given by the American Long-Distance Hiking Association to someone who has completed all three of the greatest thru hikes in the United States; namely, the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail.
The Triple Crown is one of the most coveted accomplishments within the long distance hiking community. Let’s dive in and learn more about the specifics of this awesome feat…
The three thru-hikes of the Triple Crown
1. Appalachian Trail
Most people have heard of at least one of these popular thru hikes in the United States that make up the Triple Crown. The Appalachian Trail (AT) is the oldest of the three, as well as the shortest at 2190 miles stretching from Georgia to Maine. However, what it lacks in length it makes up for in height with the most elevation gain and the steepest climbs out of the three thru hikes.
Also read: Is the PCT Harder than the AT?
It’s usually tackled first because it’s widely believed to be a good starting point with trail shelters available and shorter distances between resupply towns. However, only about 1 in 4 people actually succeed in completing the trail, so it is certainly no walk in the park.
2. Pacific Crest Trail
Meanwhile, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) has emerged as perhaps the more famous of the thru-hiking trails thanks to Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild, and Reece Witherspoon’s subsequent film adaption. It runs from Mexico to Canada for 2650 miles through vast ecosystems, national parks and terrains.
It was originally designed for pack mules and so the trail is generally smooth, well-marked and not as rocky as the others. However, the weather window is considered much shorter than the AT and often snow cover on the trail hinders a lot of people’s plans.
3. Continental Divide Trail
The final piece of the crown is the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) which is undoubtedly the least known of the three hikes. It’s also the most wild, rugged and challenging and covers a 3100-mile distance between the Mexican and Canadian borders through incredibly remote and unpredictable terrain.
It’s not even technically finished with only about 85% of the trail established, meaning for the remainder of the sections one must be able to self-navigate to connect the trail. It sees much less people than the other two more popular thru hikes with only just over 100 people completing it per year.
The distances between resupplies are long and poorly marked in some sections, making it a true adventure for even experienced hikers.
History of the Triple Crown
The first person to complete these three thru hikes was Eric Ryback in the early 1970s, which was long before the idea of the Triple Crown existed. It wasn’t until 1994 that the ALDHA-W was founded and established the idea of officially rewarding those who had completed thru-hiking’s hat trick at annual ceremonies.
Since then, the organisation has recognized a total of 440 people as Triple Crown recipients, including the most recent awards in September 2019.
The organisation defines a true completion of the three thru hikes as entirely walking from terminus to terminus. This means that if anyone was to detour off the trail for any reason such as a wildfire, they either submit a detour as an alternate but still continuous route taken by foot or go back to complete the missed section at another time.
Youngest and oldest to complete the thru-hiking triple crown
As with any kind of award or significant achievement, there are also those competing to be the youngest, fastest or oldest to complete the Triple Crown. The ALDHA-W does not distinguish their awards based on factors like age, race, nationality or speed, but it is still widely celebrated outside of the official award ceremony when an age or speed related record is seemingly broken.
Christian Thomas (age 9)
In 2017, nine-year-old Christian Thomas became the youngest person to complete the three trails, after finishing much of them with his mother and stepfather. After completing the AT in 2012 at the age of five, he went on to do the PCT in 2014. He finally completed the CDT in 2017, having done it in long sections.
Mary Davidson (age 76)
At the other end of the age spectrum, Mary Davidson is considered the oldest to be awarded the Triple Crown at 76 years old. She only discovered long distance walking at age 60 and then went on to complete the PCT and AT in sections over many years before tackling the CDT and finally completing all three in 2017. More info: maryedavison.com
A Calendar-Year Triple Crown
Generally, each of the three thru hikes are attempted at least a year a part as in order to catch the best weather, a northbound route beginning in April or May for all three of the hikes is considered most ideal. The average hiker takes around six months to complete each of the trails, as despite their varying lengths, it’s often the terrain and remoteness that affects one’s average pace.
However, as men and women try to break marathon records to unfathomable times, so too are people trying to achieve a thru hiking Triple Crown in record time. These people generally attempt to complete the three trails within a single calendar year, now dubbed the Calendar-Year Triple Crown.
This incomprehensible feat requires someone to walk nearly 8000 miles across 22 states with one million feet in elevation gain all within the same 12-month period.
Although it’s not an official award, achieving a Calendar-Year Triple Crown has become the new benchmark as to which avid hikers dream to one day achieve. However, completing the three trails within a year is by no means a comfortable accomplishment and it takes a lot of logistical planning and determination to pull it off.
The most pressing challenge of completing it is chasing the best weather windows across the three trails. In order to avoid the bad weather and unfavorable trail conditions at certain times of the year, the three trails are generally broken down into sections.
For example, it’s been successfully done by starting northbound on the AT, then jumping across onto the CDT for a while, to then go across to complete the PCT end to end, before going back to the CDT to walk southbound and then finishing up on the AT to end – phew!
The Calendar-Year Triple Crown’s exclusive club
The challenge is such a demanding feat that only about seven people are known to have accomplished it – making it a very exclusive hiking club.
The first to do it was Brian Robinson in 2001 when he did it in about 300 days. The next few people have since continued to shave days off his overall time, with the fastest record now held by Cam “Swami” Honan who completed the Triple Crown in 236 days as part of his 12 Long Walks journey in North America in 2012.
The most well-known Calendar-Year Triple Crown-er though is Heather “Anish” Anderson who was the first female to achieve it, doing it in 251 days in 2018. It was not new territory for her though, as it was the third time she had completed the Triple Crown (making it a triple Triple Crown) and another record to add to her already fastest times for a self-supported female on both the PCT and AT.
To complete the thru hikes within a year, Anish was required to average an astounding 30 miles per day across the three trails, with some days going upwards of over 40 miles. She rose before first light and continued walking even after dark, proving the sheer determination and stamina to complete the feat.
So, while us humble hikers dream of perhaps completing just one of these thru hikes in our lifetime at a relatively modest pace, the addictive nature of being out on the trail lures many to go back for more, again and again. The inevitable question of – “so, what next?” plagues most people after having completed their first thru hike, and so completing the Triple Crown has seemingly become the next obvious pursuit.
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Elisha is an Australian freelance writer and photographer, having written for Lonely Planet, Remote Lands, Matador Network and Travel Play Live magazine. You’ll usually find her in offbeat places, hiking wherever there are mountains and always with a camera in hand. She also documents her travels and treks on her blog called Going Somewhere.