Starting Big: Brandon Weis’ First Thru-Hike Was a Calendar-Year Triple Crown

Ottawa, Ohio native Brandon Weis first saw the vast open spaces of the Western United States on a road trip during his freshman year at Ohio State University.

“I believe northwest Ohio is one of the flattest areas of the country,” he says. “But on that trip I saw how different the landscapes were. It was eye-opening.”

Although he’d never camped a night in his life, the following year he received a $2,000 grant through a program at OSU to undertake and write about the “transformational experience” of a 150-mile backpacking trip in California’s Sierra Nevada.

Brandon 'Horsepower' Weis in the White Mountains. On his first true thru-hike, he managed to hike a calendar-year Triple Crown. Courtesy Brandon Weis.

Brandon “Horsepower” Weis in the White Mountains. On his first true thru-hike, he managed to hike a calendar-year Triple Crown. Courtesy Brandon Weis.

Weis, now 26, reveled in the challenge. Still, having learned about the 2,198-mile Appalachian Trail and 2,653-mile Pacific Crest Trail during that first adventure, he didn’t think he had that much enthusiasm for long-distance hiking.

“Who would have time to hike a trail that long?” he recalls asking himself. “It would be ludicrous to do it.”

Dreaming Big

But just two years later, Weis, aka Horsepower, became one of the few people (13 at the time of his finish) to complete a “calendar-year Triple Crown,” completing the AT, PCT and Continental Divide Trail in 2021.

“My original plan was to hike one of the trails each summer after graduating college, starting in 2020 with the Pacific Crest Trail,” he writes in his book This Is Gonna Hurt: Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and Arizona Trail in a Calendar Year.

Brandon 'Horsepower' Weis Sierra Nevada Pacific Crest Trail 2021 calendar-year Triple Crown. Courtesy Brandon Weis.

Weis stands amid snowcups in the Sierra Nevada on the Pacific Crest Trail during his 2021 calendar-year Triple Crown. Courtesy Brandon Weis.

But when Covid forced him to cancel his PCT hike in 2020, his plans were thrown out the window. A few weeks after making that decision, he decided to hike the PCT and CDT the following summer and the AT the following year before going to law school.

“That was my new plan, for about an hour. Well, if I’m already doing two of them in a year, why not throw another one in there? I wonder if that’s been done before,” he writes. “I did some research and found out that ten people had done it. So it wasn’t impossible.”

Winter on the AT

Weis started the AT from Springer Mountain on Jan. 13, delaying his start until after OSU’s appearance in the college football national championship game. Like any first-time thru-hiker — though Weis had hiked 500 miles of the AT — he was full of doubt.

What the hell did I get myself into?” he recalls thinking. “I have never even thru-hiked a long trail before. How do I know if my body will hold up?

Looking back, he sees 1,700 wintry miles on the AT as a kind of crucible that toughened and seasoned him for the many miles to come.

Brandon 'Horsepower' Weis winter Appalachian Trail Triple Crown. Courtesy Brandon Weis.

Weis hiked more than 1,600 winter miles on the Appalachian Trail during his calendar-year Triple Crown. Courtesy Brandon Weis.

“I thought (thru-hiking) must always be this cold and wet, so when I started the PCT in a more normal season, I was more prepared for the difficulty,” says Weis, who now works as a financial analyst.

In fact, he knocked off about 150 miles of the Pennsylvania before starting. He hoped to hike straight through to Katahdin, the northern terminus of the AT in Maine. But when he ran into minus-20-degree temperatures in Massachusetts and six-foot-deep snow in Vermont in mid-March, he realized it was time to pivot.

“Vermont is very outdoorsy, but there was not a single footprint in the woods. The whole forest was white and there was no indication of where the trail was supposed to go. I was going a quarter-mile an hour, and that was not sustainable for completing a calendar-year Triple Crown,” he says.

Down to the Desert

He started north on the CDT from the New Mexico border on March 22. When his new trekking poles — and necessary tent poles — failed to arrive, he figured he’d be good cowboy camping.

Continental Divide Trail Bob Marshall 2021 calendar-year Triple Crown. Courtesy Brandon Weis.

Weis hikes the Bob Marshall Wilderness on the Continental Divide Trail during his 2021 calendar-year Triple Crown. Courtesy Brandon Weis.

“It was the desert; I thought it wasn’t going to rain,” he says. “But it did.”

With heavy snow still blanketing the South San Juan Wilderness of southern Colorado, he took a road alternate to reach Monarch Pass, just over 1,000 miles along the trail.

On April 26, he headed north from Mexico again, this time on the PCT. He was thrilled to finally be around other hikers.

Mount Mica on the Arizona Trail

Weis on Mount Mica on the Arizona Trail. Courtesy Brandon Weis.

“On the AT I ran into three hikers, goofballs like me who started Jan. 1,” and just five people total before starting the PCT, he says. “I was so stoked that I broke my own code, camping early to hang out. It hurt my mileage but I took the tradeoff while I could.”

He entered the Sierra early in a relatively light snow year, and managed to stay ahead of multiple summer wildfires that played havoc with other hikers’ plans. Despite a fire burning near the northern terminus of the PCT, he plunged ahead and finished July 24 after exactly 90 days of hiking.

The AZT on Top

From there, Weis took a train to Montana, where he started south on the CDT from Glacier National Park on July 30. Due to severe fires along the Montana-Idaho border, he hiked a “Big Sky” alternate. When he reached Monarch Pass in mid-September, he did about “300 bonus miles around Colorado” after deciding he was well on track to finish before December  31.

Goat Rocks Wilderness of Washington

Weis in the Goat Rocks Wilderness of Washington. Courtesy Brandon Weis.

He climbed Katahdin on October 2 and added 30 extra miles to finish at Stratton Mountain, Vermont on October 25.

“With that epic view, I couldn’t see five feet because of the rain,” he says. “It was a perfect way to finish the AT.”

With so much time left to complete his goal, he decided to hike the 800-mile Arizona Trail. After hiking well over 8,000 miles, he called it a day and went back to Ohio. He was tired in every way imaginable.

My body was in rough shape all year, especially my feet. … More so than all that, my mental strength was wavering,” he writes of running out of gas on the AZT. “I began to doubt myself for the first time all year in the Mazatzal Wilderness, and once that started, it grew like a cancer inside me.”

Weis watches the sunset from the Continental Divide Basin of Wyoming. Courtesy Brandon Weis.

Weis watches the sunset from the Continental Divide Basin of Wyoming. Courtesy Brandon Weis.

Exhausted, he flew to Florida to spend Thanksgiving with his parents. But after a week of rest, he decided to attempt the 1,444-mile Buckeye Trail, which would bring him up to 10,000 miles in a single year. He would have to average 40-mile days to finish that trail by January 13, the anniversary of his start. His body wasn’t having it. After just one day, he called it.

“I declared my year of adventure over and walked into a pizza place,” Weis writes.

From Hike to Book

“A lot happened. I had stories of things that had gone wrong, funny things. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, so I started to write a book and never really stopped,” he says.

He finished a draft in 90 days and hoped to self-publish the book that spring.

In the meantime, he started a 5,000-mile hike of the Benton McKaye, Pinhoti, Oregon Desert, Bigfoot, Pacific Northwest, Hayduke and Colorado trails. (Of all the trails he’s hiked, Weis says AZT and CT have the highest ratios of reward-to-effort, while the AT has the lowest.)

After numerous rounds of editing by Weis and a schoolteacher friend, the book was published Nov. 21, 2023.

“It’s a story about 8,292 miles of hiking. But I hope people read it and see that, three years earlier, I had never camped, never hiked, never backpacked. Then I became No. 13 to complete this pretty incredible feat,” Weis says. “You don’t ever have to let anything intimidate you into not doing something you want to do.”

Brandon Weis will be selling his book at Appalachian Trail Days 2024, May 17-29 in Damascus Virginia.


Featured image courtey of Brandon Weis

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Comments 2

  • Heather Yeary : Mar 28th

    This is a really great book! I would highly recommend it!

  • Chris : Mar 30th

    Great article! His book is so good, I highly recommend it!


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