Taking a year off to conquer the Triple Crown of long-distance trails

Sammy Potter and Jackson Parell
Sammy Potter and Jackson Parell hiked the 20.4-mile Presidential Traverse Trail in New Hampshire’s White Mountains to begin their Triple Crown training (Image credit: Courtesy of Sammy Potter)

You couldn’t blame the cashier at the local grocery store when she gave Sammy Potter and Jackson Parell a strange glance. 

After all, they were only purchasing 38 boxes of Brazil nuts and 16 family-sized bags of Skittles from the Shaw’s in South Yarmouth, Maine. Why shouldn’t she seem a bit skeptical?

No, Potter and Parell aren’t planning to snack their way through the holiday season. They’re planning an ambitious hiking adventure in 2021 that has rarely been achieved. The Stanford University students are taking the year off to hike America’s Triple Crown of long-distance trails all within the same calendar year. That’s the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail, the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail and the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail.

They’ve spent the past several weeks organizing boxes of snacks and other provisions that will be sent to them along at pre-determined resupply points along the way.

“We are going into this Triple Crown attempt with a sense of humility knowing that anything can go wrong and a large part of our journey is subject to weather, which is something we cannot control,” Parell told the South Florida Sun Sentinel newspaper. “There is a chance that one of us could get severely injured and have to call off the hike. Our schedule can be thrown off very easily. Every day has to be a race day. It will feel so good if we can hopefully reach the end.”

When Potter left Stanford after the Covid-19 pandemic hit last spring, he returned home to Maine and started thinking about taking a year off from school to embark on a meaningful, life-changing adventure. He immediately began planning for a trek of the Appalachian Trail, which starts in Maine and passes through 13 more states on the way to its southern terminus in Georgia. 

But as he was doing research for that quest, he stumbled upon the Triple Crown and decided to add the Continental Divide Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, which each stretch across several states from the US-Canadian border to the US-Mexican border. 

He shared his adventure ideas with Parell, who immediately decided to join him.

“I told Jackson my plan and asked him to join me for a section, maybe a week. I wasn’t going to ask him to do the whole thing. That’s kind of an insane ask,” Potter told the Portland Press Herald . “Then when he said, ‘Sign me up,’ I thought, if he wants to do it, he’s just as crazy as me.”

A calendar-year Triple Crown is an unusual feat, although it’s unclear how many hikers have achieved it because none of the long-distance trail organizations keep such records. But based on several interviews with Triple Crown hikers, Potter, 21, believes he and Parell, 20, would be the youngest to do so if they finish.

Parell started hiking as a hobby during his sophomore year at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire when he was introduced to the activity in a wilderness class. Hiking became a substitute athletic endeavor in college.

“This year, the pandemic has been complicated, to say the least,” Parell said. “For me, there is nothing simpler than getting on the trail and hiking every day, so I guess it’s a return to simplicity in a way. Long-distance hiking is one of the most underrated long-distance sports there is. Sammy is trying to seek out as deep a human experience as possible and the trails offer the opportunity for both euphoria and difficulty in their purest forms.”

Potter and Parell plan to document their adventures on  Instagram.

The two have secured sponsorship from outdoor companies, including LL Bean, which has agreed to supply them with a lot of gear and apparel. The rest of the adventure will cost roughly $18,000, which includes their food, resupply packages that Potter’s family will mail, some stays in hostels, plane tickets, and a rental car between the second and third trail.

“When we heard about Sammy’s Triple Crown plans, we were inspired and wanted to help outfit him for the adventure,” LL Bean’s Amanda Hannah told the Press Herald.

Potter and Parell have spent the past four months training, obtaining dozens of permits for National Parks, and assembling more than 50 shipping boxes that will hold close to 100 day’s worth of dehydrated meals. They hope to complete their odyssey in 10 months.

“The big lesson I’ve gotten from other Triple Crown hikers is no matter how much you plan, things will go wrong. I’m trying to avoid all possible ways that can happen. But you just never know,” Potter said. “The trail does what the trail wants to do.”

Backpacking in Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia

The Appalachian Trail goes through Grayson Highlands State Park at Elk Garden, on Highway 600 (Image credit: Getty)

While the hope of becoming among the youngest calendar-year Triple Crown hikers is a goal, both men said the real aim is to pursue a big adventure and set a precedent for doing so.

Potter grew up hiking in Maine with his parents and two older sisters. His mother, Dina, first took him up Mt. Katahdin along the challenging Knife’s Edge at age six. He’s also hiked through parts of Michigan, Northern Ireland and California.

“My primary goal with this is personal growth, to see what my limits are,” he said. “These days in school, I feel dissatisfied. The end goal there is a job. And I feel something is missing. I have felt deep meaning a few times in my life. Those times have all been outdoors.”

Last summer, Parell thru-hiked the 500-mile Camino de Santiago Trail in Spain after a summer internship and found it an insightful break from the “hamster wheel at Stanford that funnels you into the tech industry.” He said because of the pandemic, there has never been a better time for that kind of “return to simplicity.” And Potter is the right guide to get them there.

“A lot of stuff we’ve done in preparation the past month has been very tedious. But I’ve spent the last month laughing,” said Parell, who lives in Florida. “Our kindred philosophies and his humor is going to make this trek that much easier.”

According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, more than 3,000 thru-hikers each year attempt to complete the AT – and roughly a quarter succeed, most in five to seven months.

Potter and Parell will fly to Georgia on December 29 and start the trail on New Year’s Day – with the goal of summiting Mt. Katahdin by March 29. Then it’s on to New Mexico to begin the Continental Divide Trail in mid-April.

If all goes well, they’ll finish that trail by mid-July and then they’ll drive a rental from Montana to Washington to begin the Pacific Crest Trail by late July.

“At the core, the biggest goal is purpose and adventure,” Potter said. “But, by most hiking standards, we’ll be going very fast.”

Potter said he and Parell will be respecting social distancing regulations, wearing masks when necessary and respect Covid-19 precautions. But Potter believes with their self-sufficient approach – by using resupply boxes that include personal protective equipment, by limiting stays at hostels and opting to camp most of the time, and by cutting out at least one airline flight – they can keep others safe, as well as themselves. 

Both Potter and Parell are certified Wilderness First Responders.

“I will have less contact with people than if I was home working remotely,” Potter said. “Obviously, we don’t want to spread COVID. If we feel any symptoms, we plan to stop and quarantine.”

Brian Metzler

Brian is an award-winning journalist, photographer and podcaster who has written for Runner’s World, The Times, Outside, Men’s Journal, Trail Runner, Triathlete and Red Bulletin. He's also the author of several books, including Kicksology: The Hype, Science, Culture and Cool of Running Shoes. He lives in Boulder, Colorado, and loves to run, bike, hike, camp, ski and climb mountains. He has wear-tested more than 1,500 pairs of running shoes, completed four Ironman triathlons, as well as numerous marathons and ultra-distance running races.