We outside! Well, Will “Akuna” Robinson is, at least. He’s the first Black man to complete the coveted Triple Crown of hiking. It’s an amazing feat by any standard, and not everyone is cut out for the physical and mental demands.

Travel Noire spoke with Robinson about his decision to take on the Triple Crown challenge and how navigating the great outdoors has contributed to his growth and healing.

Photo Courtesy of Merrell

Wait, What’s The Triple Crown?

The Triple Crown refers to the Appalachian trail, the Continental Divide trail and the Pacific Crest trail. Between the three, that’s about 8,000 miles spread across 22 states. If that doesn’t seem daunting enough, hikers are at the mercy of the elements, which can change without warning.

Less than 600 people have completed the Triple Crown hike, according to The Trek. Those who have done it, either split up the trails over several years, or hike one or two trails a year over a short period of time.

“I never intended to attempt the Triple Crown of hiking,” Robinson told Travel Noire. “Honestly, I had zero clue that other trails besides the Pacific Crest trail even existed. While attempting the [trail], I became aware of the other trails that make up the Triple Crown. By that time, I noticed how much surrounding myself in nature improved my mental state. I became hooked on the thru-hiking lifestyle, so it was just natural for me to explore the other long-distance hikes.”

Robinson’s achievements resulted in a partnership with Merrell, a hiking apparel company.

His Military Origins Led Him To Discover Hiking

Born in Germany, Robinson is the son of an Army veteran. From a young age, he had the chance to live in many different places. His interest in hiking was sparked while he was in Iraq.

“I got into hiking because of a guidebook I read when I was stationed in Iraq,” he said. “Thirteen years after reading this book about the Pacific Crest trail, I stumbled upon the movie, ‘Wild.’ I knew that hiking was what I needed to help me leave the darkness that had become my world because of PTSD.”

Triple Crown
Photo by Scott Longerbeam

When The Outdoors Aren’t So “Great”

The Triple Crown trails take hikers through hostile territory, and that doesn’t just mean the terrain.

“I’m a 41-year-old Black man in America,” Robinson said. “I may be spending all my time in nature, but it’s still America, and that comes with some people I encounter not thinking very kindly of me. I navigate hostile territory outdoors the same way I do when I’m not on the trail. I mentally prepare myself for having to deal with people who have a problem with me taking space.”

He encourages people to not let the ignorance of others keep them from their dreams. Staying vigilant on the trail is a must, as is having a backup plan in the event things go south. Robinson carries satellite communication when cell phone service is spotty.

As part of their effort to break down barriers, Merrell conducted a study focused on people of color in the outdoors. The results showed a discrepancy between white participants and everyone else. Black people said they felt the need to be “cautious” while outdoors and that they experienced discrimination. Other variables beyond race, such as being a woman, can also be cause for trepidation.

“A history of racism, perceived judgment and feelings of anxiety and fear are particularly pronounced within the Black community,” one of the contributors wrote. “Our study found that the experiences of people of color are not one-dimensional. A fondness of the outdoors, coupled with perceived and deep-rooted barriers, have resulted in complex experiences.”

Triple Crown
Photo by Kelly Bork

The Trails Are A Perfect Escape

In the social media era, it’s easy to become addicted to our devices. We can squander hours scrolling through news feeds, while real life rolls past. However, for Robinson, disconnecting from these distractions is a non-negotiable.

“I think the major benefit of outdoor activities, is simply having the time to unplug from the normal routine,” he said. “I turn the cell phone to airplane mode, and take much needed me time. With work, family, friends, emails and social media notifications, we tend to not take the time we need for self-care. The outdoors provides the arena for me to do that.”

Keep up with Robinson’s adventures on Instagram @akunahikes.