In the world of long-distance hiking, Will “Akuna” Robinson has made history as a thru-hiker. His journey into the outdoors started with an attempt to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 2016. He fell hard for hiking, nature and the community that surrounds the trails, and thought of this journey as a way to help with PTSD from his military service. He enjoyed long-distance hiking so much that he went right back out and completed the PCT in 2017 and the Appalachian Trail (AT) in 2018.
In 2019 Akuna Robinson completed the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), becoming the first Black man to complete the triple crown of hiking. In 2022, he was awarded the George Mallory Award for a lifetime achievement for adventure.
Here, we asked Robinson to share his extraordinary journey, the obstacles he has faced and his unyielding passion for the outdoors.
EBONY: You completed the triple crown of hiking in 2019, becoming the first Black man to do so. What inspired you to take on this challenge, and what were some of the challenges you faced along the way?
Akuna Robinson: My first attempt at the PCT in 2016 didn’t come without challenges. During the first attempt, I ended up dislocating my knee at 1,600 miles and was forced to stop. I had such determination to finish the trail that I completed it the following year. In 2018, I tackled the Appalachian Trail and, in 2019, the Continental Divide Trail—completing the triple crown of hiking.
There were also mental challenges I experienced, especially as I was just getting started back in 2016 and was coming from a dark place coping with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. So just going from this place of isolation to suddenly being around people again was a major adjustment. I had to not only get comfortable with myself mentally but learn how to be comfortable around others on the trail as well.
Can you tell us about your experience hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and how it impacted your relationship with the outdoors?
As a veteran of the Iraq War, I found myself struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder from which greatly impacted my mental health. In 2016, I came across the film “Wild,” an adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about healing by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Something inside me told me I needed to do this – so I got my permit to hike the PCT not even two weeks after seeing the movie.
Hiking the PCT was the first step in my journey to healing, both mentally and physically. If I hadn't taken the chance on myself and stepped foot on the trail, I wouldn’t be where I am today as the first Black man to complete the triple crown of hiking.
Your journey into the outdoors started as a way to help with PTSD from military service. Can you talk about how nature and hiking have helped you with your mental health?
Before I started thru-hiking, I would find myself getting easily triggered and have panic and anxiety attacks. Honestly, I found it hard to live—between my depression, chronic pain, nerve damage and anxiety, I was juggling a lot both mentally and physically. Getting in nature allowed me to live again. I gained back my confidence, I calmed my anxiety, and I found peace in the outdoors.
A survey revealed that, in the U.S., Black participants indicated feeling alert 5% more than non-Black participants when outside. Have you ever felt cautious or on edge while hiking due to your race?
The 5% feeling more alert really surprised me when I first saw those results. I expected that number to be much, much higher. Every POC that I have ever communicated with, including myself, has expressed that the alert level is high. Just like anywhere else in America, when we enter a space where we aren’t known to have a huge presence, caution must be a factor.
How do you hope to inspire others, particularly those who may not feel represented or included in the outdoor community?
I have a new-found purpose in which I hope to inspire people who are like me to get outdoors. As a Black American, a man who suffered from PTSD and a military veteran, people like me may see these as barriers to getting outside. I want to instill an inclusive mindset and encourage more people to simply get outside.
You are a brand ambassador for the outdoor lifestyle brand Merrell. What are some of your trail essentials?
I hiked the Appalachian Trail in the Merrell Agility Synthesis Flex, the first lightweight shoe I ever used, and I fell in love. But as of now, the [Merrell] Nova 3 is my absolute favorite shoe for long-distance hiking and is my everyday wear. Also, when on a long trail, gummy bears are an essential item in my kit. I will not leave town without a few bags.
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