Warrior Expeditions is a nonprofit outdoor therapy program that helps veterans transition from their wartime experiences through long distance outdoor adventures. The organization was founded in 2012 by a veteran named Sean Gobin, who served for 12 years as an Infantry Rifleman and Armor Officer for the United States Marine Corps. Since, the nonprofit has served hundreds of veterans in finding healing in the wilderness—including Matthew Fox.

Matthew was born and raised in Ohio and enlisted in the Army as an Infantryman out of high school in 2011. He completed one station unit training at Fort Benning, Georgia, and was then stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. He deployed to Afghanistan in 2014–15 and was awarded a Combat Infantry Badge.

Upon his end time of service in 2015, Matthew enrolled in the University of Cincinnati’s nursing program, but took a medical leave of absence due to the onset of PTSD symptoms and a subsequent diagnosis. 

During this time, he researched wilderness therapy and decided to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail (AT). From there, he became a self-described “trail addict,” completing the AT in September 2018, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in September 2019, and—with the support of Warrior Expeditions—the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) in 2021.

Interview With Matthew Fox, Triple Crowner and Warrior Expeditions Participant

We caught up with Matthew to learn more about his journey to becoming a Triple Crowner, how outdoor adventure can support veterans, the ways his pack weight has changed over time, and what’s next for his hiking goals.

Gossamer Gear: What got you started on your journey to become a Triple Crowner?

Matthew: Often, I think of the quote: “I don’t know where I’m going but I’m on my way.” Little did I know that in the brisk fall of 2014, while on guard duty overlooking a small Afghan village for any potential threats, a seemingly casual conversation with a friend would set off a motion of events that would actively affect four years of my life half a decade later. 

As we scanned the concertina wire in the pitch darkness, filtered green by our night vision goggles, we often passed the time by talking about anything and everything.

One night, the struggle to stay awake nearing critical mass, and, lacking anything interesting to talk about after discussing our least favorite meals ready to eat (MREs)—mine being the vegetarian lasagna—my friend told me of a trail that he heard of which spanned some 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine. 

Not believing him, immediately after the changing of the guard, I went to the United Service Organizations (USO) office and did a Google search. And that is how I came to learn of the Appalachian Trail.

Little did I know at that moment, I was on my way to becoming a Triple Crowner.

How did you learn about Warrior Expeditions and how did the organization support you on your hiking trip?

I first learned of Warrior Expeditions while thru-hiking the AT in 2018. Though I never met any of the veterans that were participating in the program, I would often hear of their experiences by way of the well-known AT grapevine. 

I couldn’t help but think to myself what an amazing organization to be a part of. And three years later, I would be fortunate enough to be selected to take part in the Continental Divide Trail Warrior Hike. To apply to be a part of the program you must be, “any veteran who has served in a combat zone and who has been honorably discharged.”

Warrior Expeditions offers a myriad of support for participating veterans.

Support includes all the gear that is necessary to complete a thru-hike, which is a tremendous cost savings for veterans who are struggling financially. They also offer a small monthly stipend to help cover the costs incurred from a multi-month expedition.

The team also provides a network of wonderful trail angels spanning across the country that help with logistics, whether that be rides in and out of town, resupplying, or lodging for a night. 

Support also comes in the form of mental health services with dedicated volunteer clinical psychologists on standby to help with any mental health crises, while also offering cognitive behavioral health lessons.

In what ways do you think outdoor adventure can help veterans following their service? How has it helped you?

Outdoor adventures, such as a thru-hike, can offer a lot of benefits to veterans following their service. 

One of the most obvious benefits is unparalleled weight loss, or, for those already in shape, maintaining their weight. Having hiked just shy of 8,200 miles over four years, I have lost close to 150 pounds, all the while eating anything I wanted—they don’t call it “hiker hunger” for nothing! Post-trail you do have to be disciplined, otherwise you can pack on weight like I have so many times. 

Many veterans also enjoy the physical challenges presented by a thru-hike, which can help build confidence and instill discipline.

Hiking for twelve, fourteen, sixteen hours a day, you’re all but guaranteed to get 10,000% of your daily dose of vitamin D from the sun. Vitamin D has been shown to help regulate mood, as well as ward off depression.

Thru-hiking also helps with synching your circadian rhythm (internal body clock) to the setting and rising of the sun, which offers a plethora of physical, mental, and behavioral benefits. 

There’s also camaraderie. As a veteran, I craved camaraderie after leaving the Army. Of course, when you join thousands of people with the same singular goal of walking across the country, you're going to build a sense of camaraderie. You will form very deep and lasting relationships while hiking.

Lastly, one of the most cliché answers—which happens to be true—is that a thru-hike will shift your attention to the present moment, as well as learning to not take things for granted. 

Often, you’ll find yourself living day to day, water source to water source, poop break to poop break, campsite to campsite, and town to town. Repeat that a hundred plus days and you’ll begin to gain an appreciation for the little things, such as clean water from a faucet, indoor plumbing, shelter that isn’t susceptible to the elements, and, of course, warm cooked meals. It’s a level of contentment and satisfaction that’s hard to explain without experiencing for yourself. Once experienced, the simple life is a constant fount of glee.

After completing the Triple Crown, do you have a favorite out of the three trails? What about it do you love?

The Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail all offer their own unique characteristics that I love. Before I tell you my favorite of these three, I feel it’s only fair that I should highlight some of the characteristics that I loved about each trail. 

Benton MacKaye’s vision of the AT was, “a new approach to the problem of living, providing opportunities not only for recreation, but also for health, recuperation, and connections with nature in an increasingly industrialized world.” And being the oldest of all the National Scenic Trails it has had a long time to develop a unique social culture. Thousands of people attempt to thru-hike the AT every year and millions more section hike, fulfilling Benton MacKaye's vision. 

Despite the AT never getting above 6,643 feet, it is often cited as the most physically challenging of the three trails, due to its “climb or die” philosophy. You’ll be hard pressed to find a more physical challenge, and, likewise, a greater sense of accomplishment than thru-hiking the AT. 

Though it’s physically the hardest, it has the lowest learning curve of the three due to an abundance of water, the presence of shelters, frequency of towns, and possible bailout points. And the popularity of the trails ensure that you will hardly ever find yourself alone. 

Due to the increase in popularity of thru-hiking, the PCT is now inundated with hikers wanting to hike it. Though the PCT does not have the same social culture as the AT due to the lack of shelters, it can be a great experience to meet and develop lifelong friendships. 

If starting early, there is a possible high learning curve for those who do not have winter mountaineering experience. Upon approaching Idyllwild (NOBO) and encountering San Jacinto and eventually the Sierra or the Cascades (SOBO), if hiked early in the season, it will require the use of traction devices and ice axes. It is strongly recommended that you learn how to properly use this equipment before you head out as it can save your life. The snow conditions, as well as the possibility of wildfires can dramatically alter your thru-hike, which will require patience and creativity, unlike the AT where you rarely would have to worry about these conditions. 

If you can handle these challenges, you’ll be rewarded with some of the most picturesque alpine hiking in the country. 

Lastly, the wildest of all trails, the CDT has, in my opinion, the most difficult learning curve of the three. If going NOBO, you’ll be starting in the bootheel of New Mexico with only seven alligator juniper trees spread out across the first 80ish miles, fighting cows and other humans for shade. Also, with there being no natural water sources, you’ll be fighting cows for water in cattle troughs, solar wells, and earth tanks. This ain’t for the faint of heart. It will make you a resourceful thru-hiker. You’ll learn how to be disciplined with water and time management and hone your navigational skills due to the lack of a dedicated trail, often navigating cairn to cairn. Overall, I loved this because it made me feel far more confident in my outdoor skills. 

The CDT is unique among the three because it offers a plethora of alternative routes that you can take. Most CDTers will not hike the same hike, usually hiking anywhere from 2,200 to 3,000+ miles. For those who love to choose their own adventure instead of sticking to the “red-line,” this can make for a great experience. 

I’m certain I’m going to offend someone, but the east coast is the best coast! Due to preferences outside of my control, I can’t help but feel like I’m home on the AT. Though the mountains are relatively small, they are intimate. And to think that you’re walking along one of oldest mountain ranges on earth certainly can elicit feelings of awe! 

Did your pack weight change over time as you worked on this goal? Any tips to share for folks looking to go lighter?

My pack weight has changed over time, as it does for a lot of experienced thru-hikers on the quest to “dial in” to that optimal base weight, balancing what appears to be an ever-increasing fine line between a need and a luxury. Thanks to the rise of the ultralight philosophy. 

I often tell people I began the AT with a three-pound bag of lemons thinking I’ll get scurvy and a 16-pound base weight. I quickly realized I needed to be more weight conscious—if not for my sanity, for my knees. 

Hands down the best way to go lighter is to buy a scale and to weigh out each individual item. Like a budget for financial planning, weighing out each item will give you an idea of where you can cut weight. The biggest weight saving is in your big three, which are your pack, shelter, and sleeping bag. It is recommended that you buy your pack last after you buy all the rest of your gear. This way, you can gauge the most appropriate literage. No sense buying a 60L bag when you have only 25L of gear to fill it with. 

Following these methods, I was able to get my base weight to nine pounds for the PCT, but quickly realized that I was sacrificing comfort and versatility with a 30L pack. No way I was going to carry seven days of food plus the addition of snow gear and a bear canister in a 30L pack and not hate my life. 

I took it to heart that on the CDT, with a 12-pound base weight, that though a lighter pack is always preferred to a heavier pack, you shouldn’t be sacrificing items that have psychological or practical benefits just to shave a few grams or even a few ounces here or there. Case in point: upgrading a shelter from a one to two person can have profound effects on mood and not feeling as claustrophobic. After all, you’re spending half your time in the damn thing, might as well enjoy living in it! An added benefit of a bigger shelter is the ability to host slumber parties only at the cost of adding another 6 to 18 ounces. 

Another practical example would be opting for a bigger external battery, especially on the CDT as the stretches between towns are longer. It’s hard to put a value on peace of mind. But knowing that you’ll have extra power for when that inevitable cold spell comes creeping in at night and drains your phone battery to 2% is a huge relief. I assure you, you don’t want to be that person begging your tramily for power 83 miles from the next town because you didn’t want to carry an extra four to six ounces. 

Being light is good but in my experience I would never again be beholden to an arbitrary number that will cause me to sacrifice comfort or versatility in exchange for an insignificant weight savings on base weight. You will have to judge for yourself what you deem a necessity and a luxury, and the more experience you get, the easier that decision will become.

Support Veterans on the Trail and Follow Along With Matt’s Journey

Matthew is one of many veterans who has benefited from the services Warrior Expeditions offers, and he has plenty of future hiking ahead. He aspires to one day complete all the U.S. National Scenic Trails and bike the entire Great American Rail-Trail. You can follow along with his journeys on Instagram at @hikertrash_gray.

If you’d like to learn more about the origin story of Warrior Expeditions, check out our past blog highlighting Michelle Revoir, a United States Air Force veteran and the Director of Development for Warrior Expeditions.

To support Warrior Expeditions in its life-changing work, make sure to head over to its website to give a donation or find other ways you can volunteer.

And, today, and every day, we thank our veterans for their service and wish them happy trails ahead!

November 10, 2021 — Korrin Bishop