Heather Anderson was the first woman to complete the Triple Crown of Hiking — the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail — in a calendar year. We caught up with her in one of her rare off-trail moments.
Heather Anderson hiked 8,000 miles in eight months, or roughly 30 miles a day every day for 251 days, becoming the first woman to hike the three major long-distance trails in the U.S. — known as the Triple Crown of Hiking — in a calendar year.
The Triple Crown of Hiking consists of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. Only 396 people are known to have accomplished this feat, according to the American Long Distance Hiking Association — West (ALDHA-West). Seattle resident Anderson has done it three times. Only five others have done it in a calendar year. Hiking the three trails in just eight months — from March to November 2018 — Anderson became the first woman to do so.
But that’s only one impressive first on her résumé. In 2013, Anderson set the Fastest Known Time (FKT) for completing the Pacific Crest Trail, the first woman to do so. She also holds the women’s FKT for a self-supported hike on the Appalachian Trail. She’s a mountaineer, a thru-hiker and an ultramarathon runner, and she’s just written a book about thru-hiking, “Thirst: 2600 Miles to Home.” Here’s what she said when we caught her in one of the rare moments off the trail. This interview has been edited.
Is there any one accomplishment you’re proud of?
I think for me, personally, the FKT I set on the Appalachian Trail, I felt like, was the culmination of a lot of dedication and the biggest challenge. That was the one I feel like I brought my best self to. I had all of the learning experience of my first FKT on the PCT, and so I was able to take all of the application of everything I learned on that effort and bring it to the Appalachian Trail. So I felt like I was the most prepared and the wisest and had to work the hardest for it.
What have you been doing since becoming the first woman to complete the Triple Crown in a calendar year?
Nothing. Nothing physical, just resting and recovering and working on my book and gearing up for a year of doing that.
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How do you reintegrate after spending eight months on the trail?
I’ve gotten kind of used [to] it. I’ve definitely pared down my life that isn’t hiking so that there’s not a lot of things to do. I work from home and everything. You just take it one day at a time and you just work your way back slowly … give yourself just as much leeway to work your way into life as you did when you first started hiking to get into the trail. You can’t just set out doing 30 miles a day. You just work your way up doing it, and it’s the same thing coming back.
How long does it take you to recover?
It usually just takes a couple of weeks before I feel like I’m back to normal.
How did you make hiking your life?
I got comfortable with the idea that I might literally only ever be living out of my backpack. You have to be willing to sacrifice a lot of the things that you traditionally might want in life to be willing to do that. My life off-trail isn’t that different from my life on-trail. Choosing to have very minimal possessions and not be certain where you’re going to be living or working, giving up a lot of financial security … in order to spend most of your time on the trail.
What about money?
I come back and get a job. You get a job when you run out of money. That’s just kind of been the way I’ve always lived. Make money, save money, hike. Run out of money, get a job. Make money, save money, go hiking. So yeah, just being comfortable with that is what a lot of people who spend a lot of time on trail have learned. When you’re not comfortable with it you stop doing that and you do something else.
What’s the difference between when hiking fast for an FKT and hiking at a more normal pace?
I think it’s a [misconception] that hiking fast is necessary. I hike pretty much the same speed as everyone else. I only hike like 2.5-3.5 miles an hour. There’s lots of people who actually hike much faster than I do. I don’t take a lot of breaks, and on my FKTs I hiked longer hours. I would hike upward of 18 hours a day. I hiked through the night. So I feel like I see more because I see all of the animals that come out at night, instead of just the ones that are out during the day … If I’m not trying to set a record, I don’t usually hike into the night. So that would be the only difference. I hike the same speed, and people pass me sometimes. I don’t walk that fast.
Who inspires you?
Section hikers are always my heroes. People who take two weeks off every year to go and pick up exactly where they left off the year before and hike for two weeks, and then quit and then go home and then come back the next year on their two weeks off. They piece together a trail, like the Appalachian Trail, and it might take them 20 years. These people are my heroes because the first two weeks on a trail are always the worst, that’s when you have the blisters and the chafing and you’re tired and the pack hurts. You’re finally in shape after two weeks on the trail. Every year they have to go through that initial two weeks again.
Any advice for new thru-hikers?
The thing to keep in mind is that everyone started out there at some point, and to just keep building their skill set by going out and gradually extending the amount of time or the distance and work their way up to overnights before they do a long trail. Experiment with their gear and not be afraid to try new things. Get rid of things that aren’t working and try something else. It’s taken me well over a decade of hiking to know exactly what kind of gear works for me.
There’s this constant learning curve. You’re not gonna know everything the minute you step on the trail. You’re gonna probably make a lot of mistakes and the key is to just learn from them and keep going.
What is your number one favorite piece of gear aside from the essentials?
Definitely on overnight, I always carry an inflatable pillow. I’m very much a princess sleeper. I always have to have a pillow and ear plugs so I get a good night’s sleep.
Favorite trail food?
It changes. After last year, I think I’m kind of sick of absolutely everything, but one of my big go-tos is nut butter.
What’s the first thing you eat after you finish a thru-hike?
After I’ve been on a thru-hike I crave vegetables, because you just don’t get to eat fresh food when you’re out on the trail for months on end. I think I ate salads for three meals a day for like a month straight when I got done with my calendar-year Triple Crown last year.
What do you miss most when you’re on the trail?
I think I miss temperature control. I get cold pretty easy so anytime it’s cold and raining, I just really miss indoor heating. When it’s really hot out I’m just like “Wouldn’t it be nice if it was cooler right now?”
What is your favorite place?
There’s a lot of places I love to be. I’d say just anywhere in the mountains, I’m probably just gonna be happy as a clam.
“Thirst: 2600 Miles to Home” by Heather Anderson, Mountaineers Books, 208 pp., $17.95
Heather Anderson will speak on Tuesday, March 12, at 7 p.m. at The Mountaineers Seattle Program Center, 7700 Sand Point Way N.E., Seattle; $12; anishhikes.wordpress.com