FKTs, records and other shenanigans

Interest, attempts and coverage of record-breaking on America’s long trails is increasing. Here’s my own nickel’s thoughts on why…



In 1948, a young World War II veteran named Earl Shaffer was atop Katahdin in north-central Maine.  After 124 days and over 2000 miles of hiking, Earl Shaffer had finished his trek on the Appalachian Trail.

The trail, at the time, was suffering from many years of neglect due to the Great Depression and World War II.

A single-season hike, since called a thru-hike, was thought to be impossible.

Earl’s feat was greeted with a bit of incredulity and astonishment. So much so that his nickname became “The Crazy One”.

It was an accomplishment that many hikers said couldn’t be done. That this accomplishment was against the spirit of the trail. And this was not meant as to how the Appalachian Trail should be enjoyed.


Earl Shaffer on Katahdin in Aug 1948

Almost 70 years later, and other feats of hiking have hit the news.

The Appalachian Trail in less than sixty days as a traditional backpack. 

Two records for the Pacific Crest Trail set back-to-back.

And many recent records or attempts  in the past month or so for the John Muir Trail, the Long Trail and others so frequently that I am frankly losing track of them.

Seems that in the past five-year or so, setting speed records on the long trails has really taken off. The interest in them, the attempts, the seemingly yearly trend of another record being broken.

Hiking websites give recent updates in the same way people may follow baseball playoffs.

The attempts have become popular enough where a popular website has developed and even coined a term (FKT – Fastest Known Time) and there are now agreed upon guidelines, that, while on the honor system, seem to be pretty much adhered to.

And much like Earl Shaffer’s historic hike in 1948, there are detractors to the hikes. The hikers/runners aren’t keeping in with the spirit of the outdoor ethos. That hiking all day or even  running a trail makes it so you “can’t stop to smell the roses“.   That people with a support crew who are “merely” doing day-hikes aren’t authentic outdoors people.

Then there is the other side of the equation. The, by long trail standards, amount of media and online interest from the outdoor community in these record attempts.  Namely, how difficult the journey may be and the challenges. The awe at the near superhuman athleticism of the record holders. And so on.

So here it is…the year 2014. Why all this interest in FKTs? Be it positive or negative?

A few random thoughts…

  • Let’s deal with the negative crowd first: That an FKT journey is somehow lesser or not as authentic as a traditional outdoor experience.

I never understood this line of thought. How are miles per day covered or speed of travel related to how good an outdoor experience may be?

Is a person who wakes up,  lounges in camp until 9, hikes for five hours and in camp by 4 pm (with a long lunch in between) somehow having a better outdoor experience than a person who is up with the rising sun and walks to sunset?

The first person is enjoying nature quite a bit. I’ve had great pleasure in waking up early, sipping my morning coffee and simply looking out to the scene in front of me. A nice breakfast while looking at the mountains above and the cirque below is simply one of the best  pleasures of backpacking.

On the other hand, the second person is also enjoying the backcountry experience. Seeing the rhythms of the day from dawn to dusk (and perhaps a little beyond) can be an amazing experience. There is something special about walking when the Earth is just waking up. And ending the day when the sun is at twilight is wonderful. The wind is picking up slightly, the wildlife is grazing, the evening birds are singing their song and the light of the setting sun seems to make everything glow. And I am walking with it all.

As I walk, As I walk, The Universe is walking with me. -Navajo rain dance ceremony

More importantly, though, how can someone really make a value judgement on someone else’s outdoor experience?

As I like to say, just because you like chocolate ice cream, that does not mean pistachio ice cream sucks. 🙂

Is a person who is hiking at 2.5 MPH  for 16+ hours or, gasp, running at 4 MPH (it is the mountains after all!) seeing less than a person hiking 2 MPH for five hours total?

Similar criticisms are leveled at supported runners/hikers. That doing what is essentially a day hike is not a “real” outdoors adventure.  Again, not sure of this line of reasoning. While I personally enjoying being outside at night, I’ve also some intense experiences on a personal level while day hiking.  Are these experiences any less because I slept in an  established camps site or even my own bed?  Does a person have a lesser journey on the Pacific Crest Trail because they slept on a cot set up by their support crew? Does a person need to carry a certain amount of weight to make it a “real” outdoor experience?

When people start defining what is correct, real or authentic, it is time to tune them out.

If they are so insecure in their own self that they have to tear down others maliciously, then I am not sure if they are worth listening to.

  • On the other hand, what’s with all the intense (again, by hiking standards) media coverage for the FKTs?

I think the beginning of the modern era of FKTs can be traced to David Horton’s 1991 record-setting pace on the Appalachian Trail. There have been other records held previously. But Horton’s run set the modern standard for FKTs. Namely having a support-crew and running it vs backpacking,  being well documented and well publicized (by pre-social media standards!).

It was a new way of taking a journey on an iconic trail. Some old-school backpackers were a bit aghast. People from a running background were intrigued by a new challenge. And people who already *hiked* many miles per day were made aware that they were part of a new trend.

What is amazing is the amount of coverage (to repeat myself, by long trail standards 😉 ) esp in the age of social media. The people who make these record attempts are lauded. Get lots of speaking invites and magazine articles written about them.

How come?

I think, because, culturally, our society lauds things we can measure, calls the best and rank the highest.

George S. Patton’s speech in 1944 to the Third Army puts these thoughts succinctly:

When you, here, everyone of you, were kids, you all admired the champion marble player, the fastest runner, the toughest boxer, the big league ball players, and the All-American football players. Americans love a winner. Americans will not tolerate a loser….Americans play to win all of the time.

The FKTs are impressive. A remarkable achievement. And something I can admire in terms for the athleticism.

But something like Kristen Gate’s solo traverse of the Brooks Range makes my jaw drop in amazement and with a little bit of envy.  She was solo. Had no defined route, guidebooks, a large network of trail aficionados or iPhone apps. Just some maps she put together, resupply spots she researched and a lot of skill, grit and determination that many people (myself included) don’t necessarily have.

And compared to people doing the major trails? Not much coverage or interest overall.

Part of it is that people can relate to something like the Appalachian Trail more so than a remote range in Alaska.

But I think the larger reason is that when you can quantify something like the Pacific Crest Trail. The PCT has a well-defined path with set mileage, an official route and a trail organization that oversees it.  A Brooks Range Traverse? Seems like a crazy camping trip in friggin’ Alaska to most people. 😉

On a personal level, I’ve done my share of longer hikes. But I’ve also done the NYC Marathon…very slowly.  I’m a terrible runner, but enjoyed the chance to see my friends’ hometown with some local guides.  Good (great!) food, was able to stay in a Brooklyn brownstone, enjoyed being with my friends and their families and seeing a world-class city from a locals’ view.

Liberty at Sunset by Paul Magnanti

Funny thing? When I mention I did the NYC Marathon, people get interested. When somehow my longer hikes come up, I will often get a “ you went camping for a few months?” 🙂

One event has records, times, a known course and is is not camping for four or five months. 😉

  • OK. Fine. But the FKT folks are not really into the outdoors. They are out for personal glory!

Maybe. Maybe not.

I can only speak from personal interaction with some of the record holders I’ve been able to meet.

For example, I was fortunate enough to hear Jennifer Parr Davis speak. Besides being a downright friendly person, she has an obvious enthusiasm for the outdoors. She loves to explore new places and never misses a chance to explore the local areas when she is on a book tour with her husband and daughter.

I have also been able to interact a fair amount with Snorkel currently holds the record for women’s fastest traditional thru-hike. We’ve had the pleasure of her being a guest on our silly little podcast. Besides being an enthusiastic person with a great love for the outdoors, she has excellent taste in beer. 🙂   

Guess what I am trying to say, is that a person attempting or getting a record on the trail does not make them any less of a passionate outdoors person. 

I’ve done fast hikes (at a much more modest 25-30 mile per day (MPD)!), slower bushwhacks off-trail with a map and compass and no guidebook, leisurely backpacks with my someone at 5 MPD and even camping trips where someone and I simply gazed across the ruins of the Ancient Pueblos while seeing the sun set over the Utah desert.

Which activity is more pure? More rewarding? More “true” to the spirit of the outdoors?

To answer, of course, is just silly. Because there is no truly right answer.

There are many ways to enjoy the outdoors. If there was only correct and proper way, it would be a boring world.

So HYOH, run your own run, enjoy your own trail. Go as slow or as fast as you’d like. But please, don’t expect people to “HMHDI” !


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Jim Bullard
9 years ago

IMO It’s a matter of mindfulness, or in contemporary terms, where your head is at while hiking. Arguably a person who is intent on making XX miles before dark is not going to have the same experience as someone who is entirely focused on enjoying the experience of being in the outdoors. Of course that is not to say that one experience is ‘better’ than the other. It’s just different and we all experience things differently even when we hike togather. I’ve done hikes where my objective was to get from A to B and others where the objective was… Read more »

9 years ago

The one thing about fully supported attempts that niggles at the back of my mind is the amount of resources consumed and waste produced to have a “nature experience.” I realize this concern has a definite element of hypocrisy as I certainly drive to trail heads and own sweet gear that is made out of God knows what. I guess something I always strive for in my adventures is a bit of elegance and simplicity and the thought of someone driving a small house all day to keep me comfy is a little strange.

9 years ago
Reply to  JT

I have to agree on this for the supported hikes. I find it kind of silly that there are support vehicles out there. If there’s one thing I have appreciated about long-distance hiking, it is the return to living a simplistic lifestyle. Having a support vehicle follow you all the way from one border to the other is a bit lavish, and dare I say, unsustainable. I love the idea of FKTs, especially when they are unsupported.

Tony McGuire
Tony McGuire
9 years ago

I love hearing about other’s adventures, be they fast, slow or in between (of course, I would rather be out on my own adventures, but that’s not always possible). However, I am in full agreement about Kristin Gates and her Brooks Range traverse, as well as her kayaking the Yukon river to the Bering sea this summer! Truly fascinating!

9 years ago

If you’re being true to whatever it is that you’re doing, have at it.
I do find myself wondering more and more if it is okay to jump on a plane and fly cross country to do a hike or drive hours to get to that lovely place that I like to do a weekend hike. But that’s a different subject.
Just getting out there is a good start!

psyco heiko
psyco heiko
9 years ago

hi mags
i hold a record nobody can beat. i am the first male triple crowner from Germany.but i like to know who hiked the trails the slowest.
greetings from germany

Paul from Scotland
Paul from Scotland
9 years ago

Interesting topic. I sometimes think of trail running, ultra-running and backpacking as cousins, and maybe that’s why people are interested in FKTs. If you are on the trail, you are on the trail. I like taking it slow, and savouring my surroundings, and I often backpack this way (in part because of those I hike with). But I also love to run. And, there’s a buzz on a good descent off a big hill. So it’s all good. On a recent trip to the Grand Canyon, backpacking slow, I met a runner at Phantom Ranch (that is, at the bottom… Read more »

9 years ago

This may seem like a nuance but I see infinite degrees of hiking speed. That is, there are many degrees of speed hiking and many degrees of sloooowweer hiking. However, I see no clear cut determination of what constitutes a speed hike or sloooowwer hike recognized. I’ve done variations of both from my own perspective. It seems though we are only concerned about superlatives – the FKTs. No one wants to know or make a big deal about who holds the 7th fastest AT thru-hiking time. For me, a speedier hike can, and often does, change the way I experience… Read more »