5 Reasons To Hike Trails Other Than the Triple Crown
Hiking the Triple Crown is undoubtedly an epic goal, but what about other long-distance trails? Maybe you’ve completed your Triple and are looking for what’s next, or maybe you have no interest in hiking these trails at all. There are myriad reasons why one of these famous trails might not be the right fit, such as the extended time away from home, limited budget, or health considerations, but those don’t need to exclude thru-hiking altogether.
As someone who has hiked 12 trails other than the Triple Crown, I think they are worth the footsteps. Here are five benefits that I’ve discovered while hiking long-distance trails not called the PCT, CDT, or AT.
1. Get your hiking fix without breaking the bank
We all know that feeling when spring comes around. Photos of our tramilies starting another long hike appear in our social media feeds. Then, an itch begins to form in the back of our minds, and that itch becomes a longing for life on the trail.
But what if your bank account still hasn’t recovered from your last long hike? Or maybe you just don’t have the mental reserves for another 2,000-3,000-mile endeavor. Never fear, other long-distance trails are here!
Think Shorter, Save Money
Consider taking a peek at shorter long-distance trails like the Arizona Trail (AZT), Long Trail (LT), John Muir Trail (JMT), or Colorado Trail (CT). If you’re a bit more daring, investigate routes like the Grand Enchantment Trail (GET), or Lowest to Highest (L2H).
These 200-800 mile trails can scratch that itch in less time, and therefore, should be easier on your bank account. And if you already have the gear from your last hike, then stitch up those holes and push it a little further. Although buying new gear can be fun and addictive, there’s no need to start from scratch every time. With a small dose of restraint, short thru-hikes can get you out there and living the dream without forcing you into debt.
There is also a place for medium-sized trails like the 1,200-mile Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT) or 1,100-mile Florida Trail (FT). These offer more time out than the shortest options, but significantly less than the 4-6 month commitment of the Triple Crown trails.
READ NEXT – Trek Trail Guides
- The Arizona Trail: The 800-Mile Backbone of Arizona
- The Colorado Trail Guide: Everything You Need to Know to Hike the CT
- The John Muir Trail: 211 Miles of Bucket-List Hiking
- A Guide to Thru-Hiking the Long Trail
- Hiking the Hayduke Trail: Welcome to the Wild, Wild (South)West
- How to Thru-Hike the Wonderland Trail
2. Find your “beast mode” without breaking down
I love the feeling when I realize that my trail legs have come back. It’s like I can climb anything and crush miles by going into beast mode. But at a certain point during longer hikes, rather than continuing to build endurance and strength, I can feel my fitness declining. My body starts to eat itself, likely due to the extended period of time running a calorie deficit. For me, this usually starts around mile 1,500-1,800.
On the other hand, during a 200-800 mile trail, your body can slowly ramp up and get into beast mode while avoiding the subsequent breakdown. You get to enjoy the best part of trail fitness, that feeling of being on top of the world, but are finished with your hike before entering the breakdown phase.
Consistency is Key
Personally, over the last decade-plus of hiking, I’ve found that I like to intermix short and long trails. In most years, I aim for a minimum of 500 miles of thru-hiking. This pattern allows my body to continue for years without burnout.
Furthermore, I have found that by hiking 500 miles per year, my legs remember how to hike faster with fewer injuries. The phenomenon is similar to taking a break from running or cycling. If you only take a short hiatus, it is easier to get back in the groove.
Twice I’ve taken a two-year break from hiking, and my body suffered for it when I got started again. Pains that I had never dealt with before cropped up. My right hip flexor became aggravated after one extended break, and my left Achilles after the other. Because of these gaps, it took significantly longer to regain my trail legs. So if you can afford to, hiking shorter trails regularly is probably a friendlier endeavor for your physical health than grinding out a single, 2,000+ mile epic.
3. Solitude can be abundant on short thru-hikes
As the Triple Crown gets more popular, it can be difficult to find true solitude on those trails. This is especially pronounced if you hike in “the herd”, or if someone passes you every time you take a break. With some exceptions, such as the uber-popular JMT, AZT, LT, or CT, many short thru-hikes remain relatively quiet.
Not that the Triple Crown isn’t full of opportunities for a remote experience, but their popularity and strong links to concentrated start dates can make them feel like a festival at times.
However, even on the more popular trails, targeting a shoulder-season thru-hike can result in a quiet experience. For example, my partner Karma and I hiked the AZT earlier than most. We started in mid-February and saw very few people.
The downside? Arizona received a massive winter storm, and we hiked in snow anytime the trail was above 5,000ft, which turned out to be a lot of the time. However, with the requisite snow experience, we both felt like the remoteness was worth it, and it definitely made for a memorable thru-hike.
Six is a Party
Now, if you aim for some of the least popular routes or trails, you’re likely to not see many people at all. On the GET, Karma and I hardly saw anyone except where the route overlapped with the AZT and the CDT. And even when we did encounter a GET bubble at the convergence of two route options, it was just 6 people — four others plus Karma and me. Not exactly massive, and since we all wanted solitude, we spaced out again after a quick hangout.
We also encountered hardly anyone on the Hayduke Trail or L2H, and as with the GET, we saw an incredible amount of wildlife due to the reduced human presence. We loved every minute of the remote thru-hike experience.
4. Find spontaneous trail magic
While I do love a large trail magic setup, I find spontaneous trail magic much more memorable. This occurs when someone unfamiliar with thru-hiking provides support, often without knowing it.
Examples from our hikes include someone on an ATV pulling over to offer wine and soda because they’d never seen hikers in the area before, or a birder offering his phone number in case we needed a ride to the better grocery store outside of town. While similar things do occur on the Triple Crown, the right environment for these smaller, more intimate interactions is more common on lesser-known trails.
I find this rings true in many trail towns as well. On the more remote trails, townspeople are generally unaware that a route exists nearby. However, once you spark up a conversation, many are fascinated and ask how they can help. Be open to the experience, and always try to be a good trail ambassador. Future hikers will thank you.
5. Hone your navigation skills
The popularization of hiking apps such as FarOut has made navigation on long-distance thru-hikes easier. Yes, you still need to know the basic trail-following principles, but using an app and sticking to well-established trails can save a lot of headaches. You’d be surprised how many almost-Triple Crowners I’ve met that didn’t know how to orient a map, much less read the topo lines correctly. But considering the growing prevalence of FarOut, maybe it’s not too surprising after all.
However, if you are looking to level up your navigation skills, hiking a less-popular route can be a great opportunity to practice. While you’re at it, purposely pick a long-distance trail not on FarOut.
Depending on the route that you’ve chosen, it might be critical to know how to read a topographic map and use a compass. And it doesn’t hurt to brush up on these essential skills even if you will rely on other forms of navigation, such as your favorite GPS device (i.e. Gaia). Following some test hikes, set out on your less-popular route and find your own way.
Some of my coolest hiking experiences have come while making my own way via cross-country travel, following game trails, and scrambling. For example, a portion of the GET burned and subsequently flooded, so I only saw about 20 feet of tread before it disappeared into a wash of blowdowns and loose rock.
After two miles of this jungle gym, Karma and I hopped on an elk trail rising to a nearby ridge. Our maps confirmed that it rejoined our route a mile later, and while we were detouring, we found a pristine 14lb elk shed! After confirming with a trail buddy back home that packing it out was “fully legal, no permit required,” I strapped it to my pack and kept hiking.
At first, off-trail navigation can be a shock to the system. However, once you get the hang of it (which usually involves messing up a few times), you’ll gain a new degree of confidence. You’ll learn to check and recheck the map, and which plants are easiest to bushwhack through (avoid catclaw at any cost), all while boosting your appreciation for the landscape around you.
If you’re ready for a more remote trail to work on your navigation, but you’re not ready for a true route, look into the PNT. At a little over 1,200 miles, it mixes trail, dirt road, and some cross-country. While a FarOut guide for the PNT exists, the trail remains less traveled than many others and is not always well-marked.
It’s A Wide World
The Triple Crown is a fantastic goal for any long-distance hiker. However, those trails are not the be-all and end-all of thru-hiking. Short thru-hikes provide so much value that extends beyond these five benefits I’ve listed.
International travel goes even further towards opening up a whole new world of opportunities. The Scottish National Trail is one that completely blew our minds. Now Karma and I can’t wait to go back to Scotland and weave together our own route using their wide trail network. So while international travel can severely impact your budget, don’t be afraid to look as far from home as you need to in order to find something exciting.
Trails cover the globe, and your next adventure could be in the state next door, or on a different continent. In short, don’t underestimate the value of a thru-hike other than the Triple Crown. The world is a huge place, and opportunities for exploration and growth abound.
Featured image: Veggie Redpath photo. Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.
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