At the beginning of 2022, Carl “Professor” Stanfield called his shot and swung for the fences. An accomplished thru-hiker, he’d decided he wasn’t only going to complete hiking’s Triple Crown—the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail—within the calendar year. In and of itself, that combined distance of approximately 7,875 miles is a lofty one that only a few attempt, let alone complete.
But, no, the record he wanted to beat wasn’t even an easy one to track down: the highest number of miles in a calendar year that anyone has ever hiked. The answer he uncovered seemed to be 10,244, which Australian outdoorsman Cam “Swami” Honan had covered in 2012.
It might sound like an insane undertaking, but 29-year-old Carl was an experienced long-distance backpacker “obsessed with America’s long trails.” He first hiked the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail (AT) in 2018, then the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 2019. Perhaps it’s in his blood: Carl grew up in Maryville, Tennessee, just outside the Smoky Mountains, and still calls the general region home.
Goal: The most miles ever hiked
Carl set his goal for 2022 to hike 11,000 miles, more than enough to surpass Honan for the record. If all went well, this meant he would start from Key West going north, along the Florida Trail and the Pinhoti Trail to meet up with the Appalachian Trail, then push a little bit past Mt. Katahdin to touch the Canadian border. Next would be the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs along the west coast from Mexico to Canada, and the Continental Divide Trail, which runs along the Rocky Mountains. Ideally, he would finish those in late November. Then, he’d fly cross-country the Mountains To Sea trail in North Carolina, near his home, for his final 1,200 miles over the holiday season.
There had been 13 months of preparation—the longest he’d ever prepared for a hike—which is saying something for the man dubbed “professor” as his trail name for always having a plan.
“To prepare logistically, I fully mapped out and planned every single day of the year,” he said. “I never intended to stick to that plan, but it was helpful to have a rough idea of when I’d be places and to have already looked ahead to see what towns might be best to send myself things when I needed to.”
He adds, “Physically, I’d been in a steady habit of trail running for about a year, though to be honest, that fell off 4 to 5 months before I set out and I wasn’t in the shape I was hoping I’d be in by the time I got to Key West.”
But the day came. On January 1, 2022, Prof was at the southernmost point of the continental U.S. watching the sunrise. He began to walk.
Going for the record seemed to save Prof some explaining. When a stranger asked what he was doing, he didn’t have to tell them “the hiking Triple Crown.” All he had to say was that he was trying to hike the most miles ever.
Leg 1: Florida Trail + Pinhoti Trail
January 1 – March 1, 2022
Other than the Sunshine State, there aren’t a lot of other places in the country where it’d be nice to be hiking in January. The Florida Trail is growing in popularity, but when thru-hikers discuss it amongst themselves there’s often an air of, “Maybe I don’t really need to do that one.” Depending on the year’s precipitation, hopefully there won’t be too many miles of trudging through swamp. For his part, Prof had positive things to say about one of the more notorious trails in the nation. Then again, Prof has a mental toughness that is, to say the least, uncommon.
This undertaking as a whole requires a fairly regimented lifestyle—early mornings, long days. Your pace is important in thru-hiking, but what ends up being more important than your speed is simply time spent on your feet. A common goal is “10 by 10,” i.e., completing 10 miles by 10 A.M. That puts you in a good place to get up to 20 for the day, and if you’re focused, up to 30. Prof’s “initial goal … would have averaged out to 30 miles a day for the year that [he] turned 30, or [his] 30th year of life.”
Prof earned his trail name in part by tracking stats about his thru-hikes as he went. He planned to track just about everything he could bear to keep count of throughout a day. This included miles hiked, liters of water consumed, animal encounters, free beers consumed and so on.Leg 2: The Appalachian Trail to Canada
Leg 2: Appalachian Trail to Canada
March 2 – June 7, 2022
Prof knew he wanted to prioritize a social experience in what would be a pretty isolated year. Even on a populated trail like the AT, the vast majority of his days would be spent alone. After your body adjusts to your pace, thru-hiking is a mental game in many ways. The long-term goal of reaching Canada in 2,000 miles is hard to keep in mind during hard, rainy, exhausting days on the trail. He would need short-term, more immediate things to look forward to, such as meetings with family and friends, along the way.
Seventy days in, as he pulled into Knoxville—his hometown—he took his first day off. It was a break that he had planned since January and coordinated with his sister. It just so happened that this first moment of rest lined up with the last big day of snow up in The Smokies.
“My first night I spent off trail … it plummeted like 80 degrees within 24 hours and just dumped a foot or two of snow up on the trail,” he said.
By virtue of the weather, it ended up being a couple days off. It would also be his last day off of the year that didn’t come as a result of injury or travel.
What happened to his schedule when he took days off, though? Prof casually mentioned that he knew his limits, and he knew he could make up some miles if he had to. In layman’s terms, that translates to potentially more than 30 miles a day to make up any deficits. Though not quite uncommon among thru-hikers, 30 or more is a difficult target to hit consistently.
Prof began from the southern terminus of the AT on March 2. He touched Canada for the first time that year in early June. He was pretty well on schedule, but he hadn’t come out unscathed. The harsh inclines and declines of the AT had taken a toll on his knees, and while the trails out west would have more joint-favorable grading, the foot pain he was experiencing was there to stay.
“It felt like there was, like, a little pebble in my shoe,” he said. “And I took my shoe off to try to get it out and realized there wasn’t anything in my shoe, there was just this sharp pain kind of on the ball of my foot.”
Leg 3: Pacific Crest Trail to Canada
Northbound from mile 700 to 2,650
June 18 – August 16
“It’s square one, but it’s not even actually square one, I have to go back to get square one later,” Prof said about starting the PCT northbound. Transition periods were hard for him, especially after a few days of travel and rest for his feet after the AT. June wasn’t the best time to be in the Southern California desert at the Pacific trail’s southern end, so he started about 700 miles north from Kennedy Meadows in central California. He didn’t know anyone out there, and there were a whole lot of miles left to hike.
The beauty of The Sierra Nevada felt rejuvenating, but no part of thru-hiking is necessarily easy. In Northern California, Prof was lucky enough to have his dad come out and support him in a rented RV. Among PCT thru-hikers, they often refer to the “NorCal blues”—the feeling that comes with covering over 1,000 miles on foot and still being in California. It’s a beautiful section of the trail, but perhaps it doesn’t quite stand up to the majesty of the Sierra, already in the rear view, or the Cascades, too far in the future to daydream about. It was nice to have support through that section, but then, when Dad left, Prof had his own blues to contend with.
“I knew that there was still nothing that I’d rather be doing, even on the tough days…I knew that in the long run, I would much rather have this year devoted to this than have left and gone home and wondered what if.” This is another hallmark of an experienced thru-hiker: The only thing worse than the hard days on trail is not being on trail at all.
This was his longest leg—nearly 1,900 miles—and most people can’t quite conceive of how that mileage feels in the body. Prof shot a few online messages back and forth with someone who might understand, a hiker dubbed Horsepower, who had completed The Calendar Year Triple Crown in 2021.
Horsepower, birth name Brandon Weis, was doing the Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT) in 2022, and had promised to leave Prof some trail magic where the trails overlapped. “Trail magic” is another strange normalcy in thru-hiking. Iit can be as simple as a stranger giving you a cold drink in a parking lot. It could be a tent set up at a trailhead with a nice couple making pancakes, or somebody opening up their home to you, giving you a bed, a shower and a home-cooked meal. It’s rare to find trail magic further out in the backcountry.
Prof and Horsepower hadn’t spoken in weeks, neither had had phone service in days. As Prof walked the 12 miles where the PNT and the PCT overlap, he heard someone calling his name. There was Horsepower. He gave Prof a beer that went into the “free beer” tally. They sat and talked about doing this extra-ridiculous thing. There was that air of serendipity, of the world backing you up on your big adventure. That same day, Prof touched Canada once again.
Leg 4: The Continental Divide Trail
August 18 – October 28, 2022
A large part of thru-hiking is putting up with physical discomfort. You may see folks out on national scenic trails popping ibuprofen like candy, limping into camp after having just pushed a big day. Sometimes a “zero” day, as it’s called—a day where you don’t hike any miles at all—is not something the mind chooses but something the body demands.
Prof had been hiking on what was most likely achilles tendonitis since March. Aches and pains come and go on treks like this, but one thing had been consistent—his feet were getting pretty beat up. His hips felt it, his calves felt it, his knees felt it, but his feet were taking the fullest brunt of this year-long undertaking.
“Toward the end, it started to feel like stress on my bone in my foot, and I was worried I was gonna break my left foot just from overuse,” he said. The CDT is notorious among the “Big 3” for its road walks, the hard surfaces of which were not any kinder to his body.
Perhaps the most important factor to overcoming this self-imposed misery is an element of mental toughness. Almost anyone can do a thru-hike, they just have to really, really want to do it.
In the midst of this discomfort, Prof had found some fame. By the time he hit the CDT in August, a lot of the people he met on trail recognized him. He was doing what he loved and his reputation among other hikers preceded him—he was getting some of those short-term encouragements he’d been counting on.
As he made his way along CDT, the most isolated trail of The Triple Crown, the numbers started to get a little funky. Roadblocks kept coming up, his body kept demanding rest and he was forced by lack of days remaining to drop his target mileage dropped from 11,000 to 10,300—still barely above the record he’d had in mind. And to get to that, the daily mileage he needed to hit went up to 35. In the final 100 days of the year, after many months of pushing as hard as he could, there was even more being asked of his aching body.
Leg 5: Pacific Crest Trail to Mexico
Southbound from mile 700 to the terminus
October 29 – December 18, 2022
Prof flew up to Portland to clean up a section in Oregon he had missed for a fire closure, and the difficulty of that section put the remaining mileage into perspective. He knew it then—but waited a few days to post publicly—that his record attempt was over.
He wrote: “The balls of my feet have visible bruises. My hips are too sore to hike much faster than 2 miles per hour. I’ve taken enough ibuprofen that my nose regularly bleeds from it.”
That said, he intended to finish the remaining 700 miles of the PCT that he’d deemed too hot to traverse back in June, and finish his border-to-border Calendar Year Triple Crown. He went back down to California and set out southbound from Kennedy Meadows, where he’d begun this journey months earlier.
Every end implies a beginning, and Prof was finally approaching the end. Could he see the difference between the person he was in January and the person he was now? He made a good point—that certainly he had changed, but few things change a person like their first thru-hike.
Almost exactly five years before, on December 10, 2017, Prof’s life direction had shifted dramatically; in one 8-hour period, all of his responsibilities disappeared. He left a job at a kids’ camp in Washington, got news that his next job prospect had fallen through, then his girlfriend broke up with him. One minute he was set to take the next logical step in his life and move to Seattle, and the next he was heartbroken and aimless. A voice in the back of his head told him that this was his moment to go hike the AT for the first time. “It really felt like I was pointed towards this thing,” he said. “I had just saved up money to go to Seattle, so I had no responsibilities and plenty of money and infinite time.”
So on December 18, 2022, when Prof reached the Mexican border on the PCT, it was not just the year of 2022 that he pulled along with him, but every day since that moment five years before, and every day of his life before that. Finishing any thru-hike is not just a culmination of the five months it took you, or the 11 months and 18 days Prof spent on the trails in 2022. It’s the culmination of your life to that point and a promise to your future that you can accomplish almost anything.
As a fellow thru-hiker, I was thrilled that I had the chance to catch up with Prof on the night he completed the Pacific Crest Trail in San Diego. He had finished his hike with some friends—perhaps the last group of people finishing the PCT that year. There was Prof, Chimney, Real, Sauce, and Queen Bee. They were all sitting at a bar in San Diego when I walked in, half-finished trays of fries in front of them and plenty of empty glasses. I hugged and congratulated Prof, who had been a friend since we’d both done PCT in 2019. Chimney, another triple crowner, I had met on the CDT the previous year. I offered to buy them drinks, but they had all reached the end of their night. They were tired.
Prof spent the night at my house, limping up the stairs to shower before turning in. I brought him to the airport in the morning and treated him to his last trail magic of the year—a breakfast croissant from Rose Donuts, the best in San Diego. He made it home on December 19, in time for his 30th birthday on the 23rd. Rather than hiking through North Carolina for the holidays, as he’d planned back in January, he spent them with family, resting and recovering. “It all felt right as it was coming together,” he said, “in a lot of ways.”
Total mileage: 8,451.7 miles
January 1 – December 18, 2022
In the months since, Prof has been prioritizing rest, family and good food. We spoke a little about post-trail depression, a common phenomenon among thru-hikers.
“On trail, most of the time, if you want to continue to live, basically, you need to get to the next town to get your food and your water and your sleep,” he said “Whereas now, it’s up to me and my level of motivation . . . and that feels a lot harder in a lot of ways.”
Even compiling all his stats for the year is an undertaking he hasn’t yet completed. He ran the numbers on his free beer tally, though, which came out to 150.
I asked him what his childhood self might think of all that he’d done.
“I don’t know if I would have believed it. It’s so far from what I grew up being, and what I thought I was capable of,” he said. “I was also fairly overweight growing up my whole life and more mentally than physically limited by that in how I kind of interacted with people.”
To then be lauded for these athletic achievements, and to take this mental endurance he already had and to push it to new limits, he thinks his younger self would be “stoked.”
Prof called an ambitious shot, and he stuck after it long enough that the things he wanted to come from it came from it. He’s still readjusting and considering how to approach the rest of his life, hoping to make a career out of experiences like this, writing and community-building.
“It was cool to see the rewards of that and to know that that’s possible,” he said. “That, you know, sometimes when you have crazy dreams and go after ‘em, you get there.”
So interesting!! I can’t wait to get out on the trail!
What an adventure!
Absolutely inspiring! 👏🏽👏🏽
Agreed! This article is very well written and the story is motivating in so many ways. Highly recommend this read!
Enjoyed the read, Matt. Excellent article about an incredible journey and admirable achievement. Wow.