SANDPOINT, Idaho -- After enduring six months backpacking the Appalachian Trail, Phil Hough and Deb Hunsicker were pretty sure their relationship was good for the long haul.
They confirmed they could go the distance a few years later with a five-month trek on the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada.
Keeping the natural romance alive, the Sandpoint, Idaho solemates finished the 3,000-mile Continental Divide Trail in three legs during as many summers.
The trilogy didn't go unnoticed.
Last fall, the American Long Distance Hiking Association-West recognized the couple among a record 33 hikers who earned the Triple Crown Award for completing the 7,820 miles of the three major National Scenic Trails.
Since 1994, the group has awarded only 155 Triple Crown Awards.
But Hunsicker and Hough stand out even in this elite footloose crowd because they walked the routes together -- and remain together.
"There are a lot of ways a relationship could go sour out there," Hough said, noting that only four or five couples share the distinction.
No wonder: Couples on a long-range trail must negotiate the same pressures of a couple at home, but with the added stress of extreme heat and cold, bugs and bad water, highs and lows of the geographic and emotional nature, not to mention long-mileage days punctuated night after night by sleeping on the ground.
Hough said he still pinches himself to think about the lucky day Hunsicker walked into his life.
In 1994, he was making his first through-hike on the PCT.
Hunsicker was dating an acquaintance who had offered to provide a resupply for Hough and then hike with him for a week.
"Deb was intrigued with the concept of long-distance hiking and asked to come along," Hough said. She fit right into his pace even though he already had been hiking daily for three months.
They found a bond they couldn't ignore in the hard but scenic miles from Mount Hood to Cascade Locks.
After five days on the trail, Hunsicker was convinced she wanted to do a through-hike, the term for hiking one of the major scenic trails in one season.
"We got together after I finished the PCT and it was clear I'd be doing the trail again someday -- this time with her."
The Appalachian Trail
First, they set out in 1997 to walk the 2,170-mile Appalachian Trail, a backcountry route for foot-traffic only. Passing through 14 states, it runs from Springer Mountain, Ga., to Mount Katahdin, Maine.
"The AT is by far the most sociable trail," Hough said. "It has more people and more of a trail culture. It's been around longer and has hostels and businesses geared to hikers. It's a good place to cut your teeth on long-distance hiking because the infrastructure makes it more forgiving."
Mountains might be bigger in the West, but the trails are steeper on the AT. "They didn't know how to make switchbacks when the AT was built," he said. "It wasn't designed to accommodate stock animals. You find more ruts, roots and mud. It takes as much time to hike 2,100 miles on the AT as it does for 2,700 miles on the PCT.
"One of the most noticeable differences is the signage. You don't even need a map to find your way on the AT.
"It was a good start for us. We got some patterns and rhythms down that we took to the PCT."
Moments on the AT
"McAfee Knob in Virginia, the classic overhanging rock outcropping that everyone gets their picture on, is spectacular," Hough said. Weather-battered Mount Washington in New Hampshire sticks in his mind.
"The Great Smokies would be memorable even if I didn't have family history. My grandfather -- also Phil Hough -- was the first park ranger there, 1930-1938. His main job was to run out bear poachers and moonshiners. They named a minor peak after him: Phil's Butte."
The PCT is a completely different animal, running the length of California, Oregon and Washington.
"Deb had a taste of the PCT and wanted to do it all, so I did it again," Hough said. "I enjoyed it more the second time, partly because I was with her, of course. I didn't think it would be as exciting as the first time, but it was just the opposite.
"I didn't have to worry whether I could make it through the heat, snow, desert crossings and lack of water. I enjoyed the beauty on another level because my mind wasn't obsessed with the hazards of survival."
The PCT is the opposite of the somewhat "civilized" AT. "There's a lot of wilderness and the trails were largely designed for stock with relatively easy grades and lots of switchbacks. Sometimes too many switchbacks.
"I counted 54 in just a couple of miles up from the Methow."
The extremes hikers must endure in the first two months take a heavy toll. "In the desert near the Mexico border, there's a 38-mile stretch with no water with temperatures hovering around 100 degrees," he said.
Getting an early spring start to complete the trail before the snow flies up near Canada, backpackers hit the Sierra-Nevada Range in June when slopes are still covered with snow and stream crossings are treacherous with snowmelt.
"You time stream crossings early in the day; and use ice axes on the high slopes."
Altitude is an issue for hikers who must cross 10 passes more than 10,000 feet in the Sierras.
Moments on Pacific Crest Trail
"The High Sierras take my breath away," Hough said. "And the Goat Rocks Wilderness (south of White Pass, Wash.) ranks among the top five scenic places I've seen. I almost quit the hike after three weeks when it rained every day but one. Stehekin on Lake Chelan is special because my dad came in to hike with us.
"We hit the area near Harts Pass in September, with the alpine larch and other colors booming, then we moved into the Pasayten Wilderness, which is off the beaten path and almost void of people.
"Despite all the beauty, the most special place is Mount Hood, where I first hiked with Deb."
The Continental Divide Trail along the Rocky Mountains through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico is the longest of the Triple Crown, ranging 2,800 to 3,100 miles, depending on which map you use.
To maintain their work and lifestyle, Hough and Hunsicker hiked the route in three segments in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
With more than 800 miles of links yet to be made, the route involves considerable road hiking and variables, Hough said.
But it has some incredible attractions, starting with Glacier Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Chinese Wall and Yellowstone Park.
"The CDT seems to combine the best and the worst of the other two trails," he said. "It has steep sections; it has cross-country routes; you might be following a ridgeline or an old mining road or just bushwhacking.
"It has some of the physical challenges of the AT, all the mental challenges of the PCT plus its own set of navigation problems."
In Colorado, the trail stays above 10,000 feet most of the way.
"You have to be really careful about storms -- but we lucked out on the weather and connected five peaks over 12,000 feet in one day."
Moments on the CDT
"The major national parks everybody knows about are highlights, but so are some lesser known places, like the area near Butte, Mont., and the Anaconda Pintler Wilderness (near Drummond, Mont.)."
Hough is especially fond of the Gila Wilderness area in New Mexico, the nation's first official wilderness area.
"The CDT heads up the Gila River in this incredible canyon with ancient cliff dwellings, crossing the stream a couple hundred times going from 4,000 feet to 9,000 feet through different habitat zones.
"However, if I had to rank the top 180-mile stretch of the whole bloody trip, it would be the Wind River Range in Wyoming, hands down."
Long-distance hiking has left Hough and Hunsicker with countless memories, about 20,000 photos and their trail names: Nowhere Man and Walking Carrot.
"Deb has this thing for carrots, and it's very practical," Hough said. "Carrots are virtually indestructible in your pack; eat them raw or cooked; they'll pick up your blood sugar when you need it, and you can find them almost anywhere.
"Even a restaurant will give you a couple in a pinch."
Food tends to be the fixation that haunts most through-hikers. "You need a lot of it and you have lots of time to think about it," Hough said.
"When you get to a town, you want to go for it -- cheeseburgers, Snickers bars, ice cream. I love coffee and I like a beer after hiking. One time I had coffee with a beer chaser."
Hough's advice for anyone planning to follow their footsteps:
"There's only so much preparation and training you can do in advance of a long-distance hike. But the only real way to prepare is to do it. After hiking a couple weeks with a pack, your pace and gear strategies all come together. There's no looking back after that."
* On the net: The American Long-Distance Hiking Association-West,www.aldhawest.org.