Over the past five years, Christian Thomas has hiked nearly 8,000 miles, completing the three trails that make up the Triple Crown of United States hiking. That in itself is a very big deal. But even more jaw-dropping is this: Christian is just 9 years old!
He didn't set out to become the youngest hiker to complete the Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide trails. It just sort of happened — one step at a time — starting shortly after his fifth birthday in April 2013.
"We thought it was going to be like a fun two-week trip," the Colorado fourth-grader said of that first long hike with his mom and stepdad. "And then we just kept going and going." Nine months later, they'd finished the Appalachian Trail. "And then we thought, 'Why not do the other two?' "
So the next year, when Christian was 6, the family spent eight months on the Pacific Crest Trail, crossing snow-lined mountain passes and scorching deserts. He finished the Triple Crown by completing the Continental Divide Trail two months ago.
Other hikers often call out "Hey, buddy!" when they see Christian on the trail, which led to his nickname, Buddy Backpacker. He is well known in the hiking community, and the shoes and Superman T-shirt and cape he wore when he was 5 are displayed in trail museums.
When hiking, Christian keeps up with schoolwork by listening to podcasts and other educational material on his headphones. He misses his friends, he said, but his Winnie the Pooh bear is "always in my backpack. Sometimes I use him as a pillow."
One time, Christian saw a real bear on the trail.
"I thought it was cute, so I went to pet it," he said, "and my mom pulled me back."
Christian says hiking is fun and "keeps you in shape." He's not sure if many 5- and 6-year-olds are ready for a months-long adventure, but as for other 9-year-olds, he says "lots could do it if they just tried."
The Appalachian Trail runs from Georgia to Maine, with 550 of its 2,190 miles in Virginia. The trail attracts 3 million visitors a year — some for a day, others for months. About 300 to 400 hikers go the full distance in a single season.
The Pacific Crest Trail spans California, Oregon and Washington. Challenging conditions can include deep snow in the mountains and extreme heat in the deserts. Fewer than 500 hikers completed this 2,660-mile trail in 2014, the year Christian did it.
The Continental Divide Trail runs 3,100 miles from Montana to New Mexico. (In geography, "divide" refers to a natural boundary where the rain and melting snow on each side flow in different directions.) A few dozen hikers complete this trail each year.
Few people have the time and physical fitness to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. But why not try it for a day? The trail passes within 70 miles of Washington, D.C., so it's an easy day trip.
Once there, complete a National Park Service adventure guide and become a Junior Ranger. Teen and preteen guides are at nps.gov/appa/learn/kidsyouth/beajuniorranger.htm. Always check with an adult before going online.