In September, not long after he turned 60, Bill “One Gallon” Nedderman finished the Pacific Crest Trail and quietly became the first person ever to complete North America’s big three hiking trails (the PCT, Appalachian Trail, and Continental Divide Trail) four times each—a distinction he calls the Quadruple Triple Crown, if you can get him to talk about it.
Nedderman loves to talk about hiking and his passion for human-powered travel. He freely shares his philosophy and advice, and happily reels off the trails he’s hiked and the continents he’s crossed by bicycle and boat. But when it comes to his historic Quadruple Triple, it’s hard to get more than a sentence out of him.
“It was never a goal, it was just a consequence,” he says. “Whether I’m first or not doesn’t matter.”
And with that, the conversation drifts back to the trips. Nedderman describes his travels in a kind of stream-of-consciousness, the thread rounding back time and again to the question that seems always to be on his mind: What next? He tells of the 740-mile canoe trip that led into a southbound thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail. He talks of paddling the 6,000-mile Great Loop around the eastern United States, then turning upstream for another 235 miles, just because. In summer 2019, he tacked a 400-mile-plus hike onto the end of the PCT.
He says he added the extra miles to bring his lifetime hiking total across the 50,000-mile threshold, but you get the sense he just wanted to keep moving. “I just like to hike,” explains Nedderman—and paddle and ride. Over the last 38 years he’s also racked up some 44,000 miles paddling and 64,000 bicycling. In a typical year he spends eight or nine months traveling and the balance visiting family, planning trips, and mending or making gear.
People ask how he can afford to live as he does, and the answer is simple. He doesn’t own a car or buy high-tech equipment or pay to camp. In the winter he goes south, or back to the 12×16-foot cabin he owns in his hometown of Lovilia, Iowa. When he’s traveling he stays on the trail and out of town.
“I just keep lowering my standard of living,” he says with a little laugh that suggests he’s doing nothing of the sort. “And I’m still happy.”
Adventure Journal: Take us back to the beginning. How did you get started on this path?
Bill Nedderman: The whole traveling thing started with bicycling, because I was starting my first real adult job in August of ’79. I always think of that as the defining moment, because I bought a bicycle on August 19th of 1979, on a Sunday afternoon. The bottom line was I needed to get to work the next day and I didn’t have a car or the means to buy one. But I must have had a nice tailwind or something, because I just fell in love with the whole bicycle thing.
I started with bicycle commuting and that led to this cross-state ride in Iowa called RAGBRAI, and I did that in the summer of 1980. It was a weeklong ride from the Missouri River to the Mississippi River. I thought, This is really cool, so in 1981 I did my first human-powered trip.
It was a six-month bicycle trip, and everything has kind of wonderfully linked up off of that. I went from Des Moines to the North Carolina Outer Banks, and in doing so, I crossed over the Appalachian Trail in Smoky Mountain National Park—Newfound Gap, if you know where that is. So I walked a couple hundred yards of it and thought, That’s cool. I want to hike that some day.
What did you do for work in those days?
I made my living as a telephone installer. Telecommunications in 1979 was being deregulated and that created huge employment possibilities for a lot of people like me. It’s not really a job I picked; it picked me. You could make good money at it and I never had any problems getting work.
I quit four times in the early ’80s to do major trips, and each time I could come back and basically say, ‘Do you want me to start now or after lunch?’
How do you make ends meet now?
I’m now 60 years old and I’m calling myself retired. I don’t have a pension or anything—I’m just calling myself retired.
I’ve saved well and always lived within my means. I did bicycling trips, which led to hiking trips, which led to long-distance paddling trips. Those are all frugal sports if you want them to be. It’s quite easy not to spend any money once you have the equipment.
You know, people ask how do you fund this whole gig, ya know? Maybe I’m a bit more extreme, but I don’t necessarily think so because I don’t think I’m sacrificing that much for what I get out of it.
As the generations have changed, you know…just coming off the Pacific Crest Trail for example, most of the hikers are in their twenties. And it’s a little softer generation. They’ve grown up with different ways of dealing with life, whether it’s with their smartphones or how they handle their finances.
Some of the quieter times on these major trails now are the day before and the day after I go into town, because most people are staying in town. I’ve never really been into the whole motel club thing. I just like to camp out.
Take us back to that first bike trip. You said you went from Iowa to the Outer Banks. Did you stop there?
When I started I’d never even heard of the Outer Banks. I just kept saying I’m going to go to the East Coast, and as I got closer and closer, people would say, ‘You should check out the Outer Banks.’ So I did, and then I cycled up to Camden, Maine. I met a lot of bicyclists up that way who were headed to Nova Scotia, but I still had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to go to the West Coast. I had to make a decision and it just happens I made it in Camden, Maine. I ended up going all the way to the West Coast, to Anacortes, Washington. Then I cycled down the coast to—what’s the name of that town? Hearst had a castle there—San Simeon [California], and then over to the Dallas, Texas, area. It ended up being a 33-state, six-month tour.
So that first bicycle trip hooked you on this way of life?
Yeah, it all linked up really well, because like I told you I stopped to check out the AT a little bit there in the Smoky Mountains.
I remember lying about it when I was reapplying for my job. They were thinking, ‘Oh, you had this one big adventure, now you’re ready to settle down and have a nice 45-year career with us.’ And I was already planning to do the AT.
I just couldn’t see going back to a normal life.
I finished the AT on the 27th of September and I didn’t want to go home, so I hiked the Long Trail, an additional 166 miles north from the end of the AT. Then it was getting cold and snowy so I went back to Iowa.
Back to the telephone gig?
At that point I was letting on that this was going to happen on a routine basis. I was already planning to do a major bicycle trip in ’83, which ended up being a seven-and-a-half month bicycle trip. I quit the telephone job in the spring and bicycled from Iowa out to Seattle and then ferry-boated and cycled up to Haines, Alaska. I’d met a guy on the Appalachian Trail and he had been planning this trip. The idea was to go diagonally across the North American continent. So our turnaround point going north was Fairbanks, Alaska and then we headed to Key West, Florida. And then once we got to Key West, I cycled over to Dallas, Texas, again for Christmas.
You’re in Dallas now for the holidays. Is that your routine—hike, bike or paddle for three seasons, then head south to recuperate and reconnect?
Yeah, my mom always put a bit of pressure on me to show up for Christmas. I’ve only missed a few in my 60 years. It’s always hard for me to figure out how to fill this gap between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I’ve been on a couple of trips where I’ve gone a year and a half straight, but I find that basically about eight, maybe nine months is the length of trip I like to do.
The quadruple Triple Crown is an even dozen thru-hikes: the Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and Pacific Crest Trail four times each. After so many hikes, is each trip still unique?
Well, it’s evolved over the years. My first thru-hike was on the AT and I guess you could say it was crowded even back in ’82, but only 110 people finished that year, I think—and that included section hikers. So the popularity has gained over years, even before the books came out, like A Walk in the Woods and Wild.
The demographics have changed, too. It used to be mostly males in their mid-twenties. Now there’s certainly a lot more women on the trail, but then you see the early retirees too, the 55- or 60-year-olds that had it as a retirement thing or a bucket-list thing.
There’s pros and cons to everything, I guess. The popularity of the trails has brought more money into it, and the money has made the trails better, I guess. So you can’t complain too much.
Nowadays, since the advent of the internet, there’s so much more information out there as to how to do it or what to expect. Even so, the dropout rate is still pretty high because you really don’t know what you’re getting into it until you actually get out there and start doing it.
Is any particular trip that was especially memorable to you?
Well, the PCT in ’84. There was maybe a dozen people that finished that year. That was like a turning point in my life, actually, because there’s not a whole lot of scenery on the East Coast. The PCT just blew me away. The whole trail is fabulous from Mexico to Canada. And you know, if I could only do one thing in my life, I’d just hike the PCT.
How are these three iconic trails different? The terrain varies of course, but is there a different culture on each of the trails?
The AT would probably be the most social trail. Nowadays, with people traveling so light, people are rushing between towns and they like the town experience more. All the trails are different.
A lot of people who do the Continental Divide Trail are still kind of afraid of it. It’s good that it’s not as popular yet, but it’s getting there. A lot of the people who are gravitating toward it are wanting to get their name on a plaque for having done the Triple Crown.
Well you’ve got four of those plaques, at least metaphorically. Was the quadruple-triple always a goal of yours?
Well I guess you can say I finished my first Triple Crown in ’92 when I did the CDT, and the Triple Crown didn’t even exist at that point. Ray and Jimmy Jardine started that whole gig the following year, in ’93. So there was no plaque, if you will.
Then the second Triple Crown came about mostly because I had a German girlfriend that wanted to do it. Not because it was the Triple Crown; she was just interested in hiking in North America and so we did the three trails in ’02, ’03, and ’04.
I’d always wanted to do all three trails in both directions. When I did the AT the third time, I was actually finishing up another trip, the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. It’s a 740-mile canoe route that starts in New York and finishes up on the Canadian border on the Saint John River. So I did that in the spring, then sent the boat home and walked from Fort Kent, Maine, down to Mount Katahdin to start the AT.
The fourth time…I didn’t think I was ever going to do the AT again, but I’d always been interested in the Florida Trail, which links up with this thing called the Alabama Roadwalk, which goes to the Pinhoti Trail, which goes to the Benton MacKaye Trail to form the Eastern Continental Trail. And then at Mt. Katahdin you pick up the International Appalachian Trail to Cap Gaspé, Quebec.
I was kind of interested in doing all of that, but not doing the AT again. But logistics-wise, it’s too soon to go up north if you’re still down in Georgia in the spring, so I ended up doing the AT the fourth time just because it was in the middle of the darn Eastern Continental Trail!
Hiking the Continental Divide Trail for the fourth time was a total fluke. I was actually hiking the Grand Enchantment Trail, which goes from Phoenix to Albuquerque. That was in 2018 and I’d just finished that trail, which is like 800 miles long. I was in great shape and had gotten used to the heat, but more importantly it was an absolutely ideal year to go northbound on the Continental Divide Trail, which tends to favor going southbound. And I was already in New Mexico! So I just jumped on it at the last minute, basically. And the PCT, I did it again last year, mostly because I hadn’t been on that trail in 14 years.
I never really set out to do a fourth Triple Crown or anything. The third one, I don’t even know how that got started. Probably from breaking up with my girlfriend in ’04 on the PCT. We’d been traveling together for 12 years and she kind of wanted to have more settled life. So, that was an ideal year to go southbound in ’05, so I just hiked the PCT for the third time as therapy, I guess you’d say.
It’s just the desire to be out walking.
You have a pretty exact accounting of your mileage over the years. Are you an obsessive record-keeper?
Actually, I don’t journal at all, either on my own or on the internet. Basically I guess I’m too lazy. It gets to be a burden I think—definitely for me and I think it gets to be a burden for a lot of people. As a journalist, maybe you don’t consider writing a burden.
No more than that rock Sisyphus keeps pushing uphill.
I don’t even keep that close of records. The PCT, it’s pretty well known how long it is, and the AT for sure. The Continental Divide Trail’s got a lot of alternates, so every time I’ve done it I’ve tried to do it a different way, so the milage has been anywhere from about 2,650 to 2,750. It’s kind of a rough guesstimate, but in the back of my mind I kind of have a running total.
When I was 50, I did a major paddling trip up the Inside Passage just because Alaska and I were both turning 50 in ’09. It was kind of an all-summer celebration.
And this year for my 60th I was trying to figure out what to do and I was thinking, I guess I could do the PCT to wrap up the fourth Triple Crown. That would be something fun to do, plus I was nearing 50,000 miles of hiking. My timing was a little bit off. I was 355 miles short when I got to the Canadian border and I kind of still wanted to knock it out this year. So I went and hiked this thing called the Oregon Coast Trail. I hit the 50,000-mile mark at Cape Blanco, Oregon.
I think the paddling total is in the 42,400 area, but I would probably have to look that up. It could be 44,400. The bicycling is 64,000 miles, I think. I don’t do so much bicycling anymore because I don’t like to be on the roads. These days, people drive down the road and the last thing they want to do is pay attention to the road.
I love bicycling. It’s just not relaxing enough anymore.
You mentioned your first bike being like a dream to ride. Do you recall the make and model?
That first trip was on a Viscount Aerospace Pro. It’s not a touring bike. It was just a road bike that a bicycle shop in Des Moines must have got a good deal on a couple hundred of them. When I realized it was something I wanted to get more serious about, for the second bike trip in ’83 I bought a Trek 720. That was an $800 bike, which was quite a bit of money to spend on a bike in ’83.
It was a very nicely designed and built bicycle. Fully loaded coming down off a mountain pass, I could stand up and take my hands off the handlebars. The bike was just rock solid.
Do you still have that bike?
Yeah, I still have that bicycle and I have a mountain bike—a Diamondback Trail Streak I bought back in, I don’t know, ’85 or ’86.
On the subject of chariots, what boats do you use for your paddling trips?
I have a cedar-strip canoe that I made, and a Klepper folding kayak I got in Germany when my girlfriend and I were traveling over there. We did a trip down the Rhine River and then the next year we went down the Donau or Danube River. We portaged between the two hauling the boats on a bike trailer, because I wanted to do all by human power across Europe.
On that first trip down the Rhine, I found a real good deal on a used Klepper, which are very expensive boats. Nowadays I think they’re 5,000 bucks or so, but I got this for a couple hundred. Granted it was 35 years old, but it’s prime German engineering.
I actually prefer the canoe mostly because it’s easier to load and unload, and it’s a hell of a lot more comfortable. I haven’t been tripping with a canoe since 2016. I’m just itching to get going again on a canoe trip. I love having a paddle in my hand. I like to make stuff, and boy I’m really anxious to build some boats.
I tend to go in spurts, like I’ve been hiking for the last three years and now it’s time to go paddling for a few years now. I’m leaning toward going up to Canada next year on a paddling trip. I haven’t worked out the details, because I usually do my major planning in January and February. It doesn’t take me that long to put together an idea, and the logistics of doing these trips has changed a lot over the years, I’ll tell you that.
Since the internet, you got everything available from your smartphone now. There’s just so much information about everything. It makes it easy to do. Before, I was always getting maps at the University of Iowa Map Depository and photocopy maps for my canoe trips. Nowadays you can just pull them up on the internet anywhere.
We talked about improvements in gear over the years and now it’s a lot easier to get stuff, right? You can just find it on the internet and order it. You don’t have to find the one shop in America that has the pair of boots you want.
Exactly. For shoes I just call REI, because I’m still not that good at working the internet, and when you’re having stuff sent General Delivery, I like to talk to someone and be sure they’re getting it right. I just call and they already have it in their database—‘Oh, you want a size 13 narrow Moab again?’ It makes it easier.
But you still have to walk the miles. At 60, have you had to slow your pace at all, or change the way you approach these big trips?
Maybe I’m dreaming, but I wouldn’t say my pace is any slower. Part of that is I’ve been able to keep up the pace because the gear’s gotten lighter over the years. I started with leather boots and a Kelty frame pack, and now I’m wearing tennis shoes and a pack that weighs less than a pound.
I like making things, and I’ve kind of taught myself to sew. So over the years I’ve made three or four different packs that have evolved into what I like. It has no frame, no padding in the shoulder straps and no hip belt. So it only weighs 12 ounces.
My base weight, not counting food and water, is around 12 or 13 pounds or a bit more if it gets colder. I’m stove-less nowadays on hiking trips, so I just carry around a titanium spoon. My sleeping bag is still too heavy, but it’s important to sleep good at night and I’m not going to get a new sleeping bag till this one wears out.
So basically go light and go far?
Yeah. I’m basically a 20-mile-a-day hiker and to do the PCT and CDT you have to be at least a 20-mile-a-day hiker. I can do 25-mile days, I just prefer not to. Every once in a while I’ll knock out some major miles just for the fun of it. I did a 50-mile day this year just to see if I could do it.
So I don’t think my pace is that much slower, but my recovery time is slower. I envy these 20-year-olds who recover so fast.
You know they envy you too. Just for the way you’ve lived your life, let alone the Quadruple-Triple.
Well, I guess, umm, yeah. I try not to brag too much about it. But it comes up in conversation from time to time, and I’d like to think I’m a good role model.
What advice do you give them?
A fair number of them want to know the logistics behind how I afford it. We’ve already covered that. I also notice I’ll give them that advice and they’ll pay no attention to it whatsoever. They say, ‘How do you afford to do this?’ and I tell them, ‘Stay out of town!’ And the next thing you know they’re spending 50 bucks on pizza and beer.
Most of them know more about hiking than I do, but just being steady is what I tell most people. Maybe this is true more of older people than the young people, but they start out with a schedule in mind and fall behind right from the get-go. Basically everybody does. As you get in shape and the body gets used to the pounding it takes, you can make up all kinds of miles later.
Your trail name is One Gallon. Is there a story behind that?
Yeah, I’m glad you asked because I have seen on the internet that other people have explained it wrong. Like I told you before, if you read something on the internet, I didn’t put it there.
This was in 1982 when I was first doing the AT. There’s a challenge at the halfway point, basically you eat a half-gallon of ice cream at this place called Pine Grove Furnace State Park in Pennsylvania. Well, on the bicycle trip the year before, I was often eating a half-gallon of ice cream at the end of a day. You know, I’d go into a supermarket, buy a half-gallon of ice cream and go sit down in some park and eat it. So I did the half-gallon and I said to the guy, ‘That wasn’t any challenge. Has anybody ever done a gallon?’ So I ate a gallon of ice cream.
You do something stupid like that, you get a trail name out of it, I guess.
Well, that’s not the only thing you’re known for now. Do you ever think about your legacy?
Not really. I mean, it was never a goal; it was just a consequence. The same with the miles. Yeah, I keep track, but whether I’m the first or not doesn’t matter. I like flying under the radar.
What about the example you set in the way you live your life. You’ve saved enough to live simply and on your own terms, without ever entering the rat race.
Yeah, I love that financial freedom. I mean, it’s very liberating. Nobody ever put on their tombstone, ‘Boy, I wish I would have worked more.’ I just keep lowering my standard of living, and I’m still happy.
Top photo: Nedderman on the Continental Divide Trail in 2018.