Ryan ‘Constantine’ Bunting sets North Country Trail FKT and Becomes Youngest Hiker to Complete All 11 National Scenic Trails
On Nov. 3, Ryan “Constantine” Bunting and his partner, Dana “Magpie” Burkett set the fastest-known-time for hiking North Country Trail, walking 4,833.4 miles in 186 days, 9 hours, 38 minutes and 21 seconds (officially accepted by fastestknowntime.net on Nov. 8).
At the same instant, Bunting, 27, became the youngest known person to have hiked all 11 National Scenic Trails, racking up more than 18,500 miles since completing his first thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail in 2016. Including more than 1,700 miles hiked on other trails, he averaged more than 3,500 miles a year for six straight years.
Not surprisingly, he was ready for a break.
“I was excited for the off season,” says Bunting, who grew up in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, and now lives with Burkett, 30, in British Columbia.
But in true thru-hiker fashion, within a couple of weeks he found himself pining for the trail.
From Hockey to Hiking
Not particularly outdoor-oriented growing up, Bunting’s was obsessed with playing hockey from age 6 until an injury took him permanently off the ice at age 18.
“When I lost that, I wasn’t enjoying life. It felt like a big part of my life was missing,” he says.
Casting around for something to fill the void, he learned that a certain hardy breed enjoyed hiking the nearly 2,200-mile AT from start to finish.
“I’d done section hikes on the AT. I thought it was all right, but I wasn’t a big fan,” he says. “But once I found out you could do the entire thing, I knew I had to pull the trigger.”
He set out March 24, 2016 and reached the northern terminus on the summit of Katahdin six months and six days later. He knew immediately that he wanted more, and in 2017 he set out on a NOBO hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. That year is now widely remembered by hikers as the “year of fire and ice.”
“That whole thing became a piecemeal flip-flop,” he says. “We had big snow in the Sierras, but we got up past Tahoe and realized if we kept pushing north, we might get snowed out of Washington.”
He and his friends flipped up to the Canadian border and got through Washington before wildfires shut down much of the trail through Oregon. They ended up hiking the Oregon Coast Trail, declared by the Pacific Crest Trail Association as an official alternate, before finishing in California.
“It really throws your momentum for a loop when you have to stop going forward, make travel arrangements and go somewhere else,” he says. “I knew I didn’t want to do anything like that again.”
Chasing Hard Miles
An old saw proclaims that thru-hikers usually hike one or three, but rarely just two, legs of America’s thru-hiking “Triple Crown” — the AT, PCT and Continental Divide Trail — but Bunting became one of the relative few who knock off all three trails in consecutive years when he finished the CDT in 2018.
During his first two hikes, he looked askance at “chasing hard miles,” but the CDT fundamentally changed his approach to hiking. Instead of knocking out 20- and 25-mile days and hanging out in town, he began to push 30s and even 40s, and skipped in and out of town after “resting my feet for a few hours.”
As a consequence, the CDT remains his favorite of the big three: “It let me test myself in ways other trails haven’t,” he says.
“Everybody in our trail family (on the PNT) was gung-ho and stepping off miles hard, and we finished quickly,” he says.
He caught a ride with Burkett to Wisconsin, where she dropped him off to hike the Ice Age Trail (1,200 miles) before she continued on to the AT. After he finished, they decided to hike the 800-mile Arizona Trail.
“That’s when I thought, ‘Oh, I have done five (NSTs) and I’m on my sixth now. I’m more than halfway, why not do the rest?’” he recalls. “It took a while to find that goal, but once I did, it became extreme.”
In early 2020, he drew up an ambitious plan to not just pick off a few more NSTs, but also complete a traditional PCT SOBO in place of his patchwork 2017 hike and tackle the Canada’s route-finding romp, the Great Divide Trail, both with Burkett. But in late winter, the COVID-19 pandemic threw all that into disarray, particularly plans to travel to Canada.
“I was really worried about not bagging any NST in 2020. Adding another 400 miles to my plate for 2021 would have made me cry a little bit,” he says with a laugh.
After talking to Luke “Strider” Jordan, the fourth person to complete the North Country Trail and the only person to date to complete the nascent Great Plains Trail, Bunting decided it would be safe to hike the 444-mile Natchez Trace Trail, much of which is road-walking.
Pushing 35 miles a day, he battled rain, cold and constant pain, particularly in his feet. But “that little trail,” as he calls it, pushed him levels of toughness he’d never experienced.
“I’d never woken up and tried to walk and start instantly crying and want to go back in my tent before. I knew for two weeks I would have to consistently stop but I knew I couldn’t just do 20-mile days,” he says. “I had to dip into the ultrarunner mentality … and find a pain threshold I could be comfortable with. It’s the kind of pain you know how to manage, but you have to relearn every time you’re inside it. (Ultrarunner and Marine veteran) David Goggins calls it a ‘mind callus’; that trail gave me more callus for suffering.”
Bunting and Burkett followed up with a brutal hike of the GDT, starting early so they could start the PCT on the date their permits specified.
“We almost died,” he says matter-of-factly. “I don’t think people should be in the Canadian Rockies on June 9, and we got super unlucky with the weather. It rained constantly and the high elevations were so frigid we had to stop after 18 miles; it wasn’t mental, but because our bodies were shutting down with the cold.
“Looking back, we realized we should have just quit. We were pushing the limits of what was safe,” he says.
A 6,000-Mile Year
Those dual ordeals persuaded Bunting that the PCT was out, but he and Burkett still managed to hike the 480-mile Vancouver Island Trail — officially designated only in June, the pair found it a “navigational nightmare” a month later — and 111-mile Sea to Sky route in British Columbia to wrap up their pandemic year.
After tallying just 444 miles toward his NCT goal in 2020, Bunting crafted a plan he hoped would allow him to walk nearly 6,000 miles and complete the four remaining trails.
The 1,300-mile Florida Trail was up first. He hiked with Hardy, a friend who would soon enter the military, and battled lots of wading and roadwalks. Within the first week, his knee had swollen to the size of a grapefruit.
“This year was supposed to be giant, and that had me really worried,” he says.
But his knee improved and soon the pair were routinely hiking 30 to 40 miles a day. Almost immediately after finishing on March 13, he hitched a ride north with his mother to walk the 710-mile Potomac Heritage Trail. Though it was flat and easy, following bridle, bike and canal paths, Bunting had to hike big miles to keep to his schedule.
As soon as he finished, he skipped up to start the 233-mile New England Trail.
“I underestimated it because it’s short. But it has some chunky trail through there, rock faces and you’re on jagged terrain a lot of the time,” he says. “I didn’t get the miles I thought I would, and by the time I (tried for) a 50 on the last day, my body was shutting down.”
While he enjoyed both trails, he missed Magpie and Hardy.
“I like hiking by myself, but that’s not really what I go out there for. I don’t necessarily like stepping them off completely by myself. I want to share it,” he says.
Going for the Record
Though he believed he’d set unofficial fastest-known-times for both trails, Bunting didn’t register his attempt or document it per guidelines established by the founders of fastestknowntime.net. Believing they could set the record for the NCT, he and Burkett went through the process to ensure it was official, if they did. They set out from the border of New York and Vermont May 1.
With the FKT goal on the table, the longest of the NSTs was perhaps the most business-like hike for Bunting.
“The scenery was kind of secondary. It wasn’t a mind-blowing, epic view all the time,” Bunting says. “But we were religious about that tracker and we did everything by the book. I would start yelling when the satellite (link) went away with data points stored in clear sight. I stressed about that until I realized they got saved.”
The trail was sometimes comically roundabout, he says.
“We had a joke that the NCTA (North Country Trail Association) secretly wanted to see how much of a circle hikers will walk before they say ‘no,’” he says with a laugh. “Sometimes you’d walk three-quarters of a circle for 18 miles when you could have just walked a mile across.”
The pair found that people in New York and Pennsylvania sometimes grasped what they were doing, perhaps due to the reputation of the AT. But that changed once they reached Ohio.
“If we went into town, we were having to educate people,” Bunting says. “A lot of locals see backpackers coming in and they have thoughts that aren’t kind, ‘What are you doing here? Why are you wandering through?’ We had a lot of interactions like that until Minnesota. It’s a privilege to educate, but it can also be taxing.”
The trail itself offered a wide spectrum of challenges. In much of Ohio, he says, “If you weren’t roadwalking, you were bushwhacking through really thick stuff.” But from “Michigan westbound to North Dakota, it was a beautiful trail.”
Ninety percent of the time, Bunting and Burkett were able to buoy one another’s spirits. But sometimes, they knew to give one another space.
“Sometimes our fuse was just a little shorter. But in our partnership we really understand each other and what we need, so words wouldn’t even have to be said,” Bunting says.
Their final weeks on trail were often cold and windy, but starkly beautiful as they traversed the wide-open spaces of North Dakota. Setting the FKT was gratifying, but Bunting does not expect it to stand for long. The record was theirs for the taking more because of logistics and miles than speed.
“Magpie joked that our time would not be hard to beat. We took a lot of nearos, especially in the beginning,” Bunting says. He’s even heard rumors that a well-known thru-hiker and FKT-holder is poised to go after it as soon as 2022.
Despite his twin feats, Bunting plans to keep hiking. He and Burkett are looking toward some 100- 500-mile routes such as the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier and Northern California-Oregon’s Bigfoot Trail. Depending on the course of the pandemic, they’d like to hike New Zealand’s 1,800-mile Te Araroa Trail.
But first, they plan to take a road trip to the Southwest in the spring, to fuel up on hiker camaraderie.
“We want to do trail magic and give back for a couple of months,” Bunting says. “We really love that feeling, but we really hiked with no other people this year. It’s kind of sad, but this will give us a chance to hang out with a new class of hikers.”
Somehow, Bunting managed to keep his ultralight outdoor-apparel business, Elevenskys, thriving via cell phone throughout his monster 2021. It’s now on a “growth trajectory” and he expects to partner with athletes and cut deals with big-name retailers in the coming year, he says.
After 20,000-plus miles of hiking, Bunting says he’s had far too many experiences to pull out specific highlights — except for meeting Burkett — or low points.
“Sometimes, you feel super low. But an hour later you eat a granola bar, find your third wind and keep pushing. The lows get washed away,” he says. “For me, the highlight is just finding different depths of my own mental endurance. Sometimes, I’m able to find that and push through and sometimes, other people push me and we find that mentality together.”
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