Breaking Trail For The LGBTQ+ Community

Breaking Trail For The LGBTQ+ Community

Having never backpacked, Cal “Starburst” Dobbs (they/he) set out on the Appalachian Trail in 2018. As a first-time thru hiker, Cal reflects, “I was a fearless optimist, but I made a lot of mistakes that undermined my enjoyment on trail.” After completing the AT, Cal returned to their fulfilling job as a teacher. However, this first thru hike made them hungry for a re-do with lessons learned along the way.

Like many of us, when The Pandemic hit, Cal began to reprioritize, “I would be a hypocrite if I showed up to class each day and told my students to honor their wild and crazy dreams if I didn’t do the same.” After finishing the 2021 school year, Cal headed southbound on the Continental Divide Trail (CDT).

Many thru hikers along the CDT had never knowingly met a trans person, much less a trans hiker. With all “the firsts” to Triple Crown, no one could name a trans person to claim this title. “I knew in that moment…that I had to complete the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) - the final jewel in the Triple Crown… so people would see a visible and vocal advocate for the LGBTQ+ community outdoors.”

On August 9, 2022, with the help of their favorite Copper Spur 3, Cal successfully completed the PCT claiming the title as the first transgender Triple Crown finisher. With this accomplishment, Cal has helped others in the queer community feel more welcome and included on the trail. “I see the trail community changing and it’s encouraging to be a part of the effort to move the needle towards love and inclusion.”

We sat down with the Cal Dobbs, the first openly trans person to complete the Triple Crown of thru hikes. Check out our conversation below.

Congrats on being a badass! What made you want to pursue the illustrious Triple Crown?

Initially, I never intended to complete the Triple Crown. When I decided to attempt a thru hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2018 I had never even been backpacking. I was a fearless optimist but I made a lot of mistakes that undermined my enjoyment on trail. I clawed my way from Springer to Katahdin but a year later I felt like I realized I wanted a re-do. The AT left me hungry for something I hadn’t tasted yet so I planned to thru hike again in a few years. Shortly after, the pandemic hit and society was forced to reconsider its priorities.

I was working a teaching job I loved and was deeply passionate about but the pandemic forced me to reconcile how short and fragile life truly is. I would never forgive myself if I died without facing my fears and attempting another long hike. Beyond that I would be a hypocrite if I showed up to class each day and told my students to honor their wild and crazy dreams if I didn’t do the same.

I finished out the school year and began my southbound CDT thru hike in June 2021. On the CDT I met several brave and unique individuals but in all my 3,000 miles of hiking experience up to that point I did not meet a single transgender person like myself on trail. I knew of several venerable hikers who were “the first something” to Triple Crown but no one could name the first transgender person to Triple Crown. The more I polled the community I found most people couldn’t name any trans hikers. I knew in that moment on the CDT that I had to complete the PCT - the final jewel in the Triple Crown and be vocal while doing it so people would see a visible and vocal advocate for the lgbtq+ community outdoors.

What was a lesson learned on trail and how did you adapt?

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned on trail is hike your own hike (HYOH) but that phrase took on new meaning unrelated to hiking for me. People use this phrase to describe the experience of choosing the trail experience you want over other people’s expectations or invitations no matter how tempting. Many times on trail I was faced with a choice to follow other hikers plans, which I would if they were consistent with mine but other times they conflicted with my plans and idea of my hike and I had to reconcile my values and choose myself.

I see HYOH as a maxim that illustrates finding your truth and standing in it. To me, HYOH means being uncompromising in your values and resolute in your commitment to them. HYOH is a metaphor for being trans in the outdoor community and in society at large. All queer and trans people have to learn how to live authentically in a society that teaches you to hate yourself and passes dangerous legislation to suppress your existence. HYOH means being yourself bravely, even in the face of resistance.

How is the experience on trail for folks in the LGBTQIA+ community on America’s most famous trails?

Each lgbtq+ person in the outdoors has a different experience. Sexual orientation and gender identity are intersectional and impacted by several other factors such as race, class, ability, etc. In my experience as a white trans masculine person in America’s backcountry I am faced with a variety of challenges. The main experience I have is with ignorance, which I see as a beautiful opportunity for connection with our fellow outdoor enthusiasts through dialogue and learning.

I am often the first transgender person many people on trail have ever met, especially in more rural or politically conservative towns. As I speak up about lgbtq+ inclusion in the outdoors however, I find not only more people getting curious and learning about these issues, but more queer and trans adventurers coming out to the community. Several people have shared with me that they didn’t feel safe being queer in these spaces but now that they see other people like them being represented, they feel more welcome and included.

I see the trail community changing and it’s encouraging to be a part of the effort to move the needle towards love and inclusion.

Where do you find support in the outdoors?

I am very fortunate that I have a robust online and in person queer outdoor community. It’s moving to receive such positive feedback when I am vulnerable about my experiences being transgender in the outdoors. I feel supported when queer and trans people tell me I empowered them to move freely in these spaces and I am inspired by allies in the outdoors who are trying their best to create welcoming community for everyone. I am galvanized by the strangers who reach out to encourage me and by my loved ones in my inner circle who have gotten me through all the emotional and mental challenges of being a trans hiker.

What is your favorite piece of BA gear and where do you take it?

I absolutely love my Big Agnes Copper Spur 3 person tent. It is somehow large enough to fit me, my hiking partner, and my two dogs while still being lighter than other one person tents I have carried!

It has lasted me through two rugged hikes totaling nearly 6,000 miles without tearing or breaking. It has withstood the harshest winter storms, summer downpours, violent winds, and hail showers without leaking or breaking. I take my BA tent everywhere!

What would you tell other LGBTQIA+ folx before they hit the trails? Advice?

The most important thing I want other lgbtq people in the outdoors to know is that you are not alone. You have a big beautiful queer community who is always here to lift you up and support you. Whatever you are feeling or experiencing, no matter how hard, someone has experienced before you and their spirit is there with you. I personally am also always here for you to reach out to on social media @cal_hikes

Finding role models and community is important and we are here waiting to welcome you with open arms.