Table of Contents
- 1 About Will ‘Akuna’ Robinson
- 2 On Shaky Knees
- 3 Trail Salvation?
- 4 Town & Terminus
- 5 Finding Traction
- 6 On Sponsorship & Representation
- 7 Future Trails
Will ‘Akuna’ Robinson found salvation through hiking. Since then, he’s earned the Triple Crown and built a following around his good-vibes attitude and sharing his mental health healing.
You know the metaphor: Put one foot in front of the other. Will Robinson has walked that mentality since he was a child. When he returned from service in the Iraq War, it was the only way he got by.
When he took his first steps on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), he began an adventure that would change his life in many ways. It was on the trail that he met his partner and eventually, improbably, hiked his way to become a Merrell ambassador.
We talked to Robinson about Akuna Hikes and the new trail adventures he has planned.
About Will ‘Akuna’ Robinson
It was in 2016, during Robinson’s first attempt at the PCT, that a trail veteran taught him to savor the trail and focus less on finishing fast. He was given the trail name “Akuna” by some fellow hikers, and he took it on with pride.
It’s a riff on the phrase “hakuna matata,” made famous in “The Lion King.” It roughly translates from Swahili to “no worries.” Or as Robinson puts it, “good vibes.”
Robinson explained that if he finds good vibes among a group, he’ll adjust his pace accordingly to spend more miles with them.
He left the trail after 1,600 miles that year due to nagging knee pains. However, the physical setback was overshadowed by his mental salvation. He’d found a calling and a community where he could feel like himself and at ease.
On Shaky Knees
Robinson’s first backpacking hike came in basic training. Like everyone else around him, he hauled an outdated 100-pound pack all over. He served in the U.S. Army working on the electronics in Apache helicopters during the Iraq War.
His service time came to end, a medical separation, leaving him with service-related chronic pain in his wrists and knee.
And he returned home to Slidell, La., with more figurative baggage: PTSD, anxiety, and depression.
Robinson was only 23 years old and spent more than the next decade trying to navigate his physical and mental pain. The weight of it led him down a dark path until, one night, he took more than the prescribed amount of medication in an attempt to end his life. His body rejected the attempt, and his mother made him promise he’d never do it again.
After his mother’s death, amid the return of dark thoughts, Robinson was struck by a spark of inspiration. He was watching the movie “Wild,” based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, and just like that, he decided to hike the PCT.
At first, Robinson said it was hard to pack like he’d see civilization again.
“When you first start thru-hiking, they say you pack your fears and you really do,” Robinson said. “I remember packing 8 L of water every day for the first 454 miles of the PCT. I refused to carry less because I was terrified of running out of water.”
He slowly learned to streamline his packing list. He found the long miles put distance between himself and thoughts that lingered on his past.
“I like the sound of nature, time to reflect, and lack of distractions,” he said.
While experience makes him feel welcome on the trails, he knows he still stands out. He learned to turn his regional Cajun accent off and on during his time in the military, but he’s still often the only Black hiker he sees on or around the major trails.
“There’s not many guys who will come into your town with long locks, tattoos, and speaks with a country accent,” Robinson said.
He also caught the attention of Instagram followers and even an outdoor brand.
Robinson was nearly halfway through the Appalachian Trail when someone from Merrell reached out with an offer to try out some new shoes. The brand sent ahead a pair of Agility Synthesis Flex, and he loved them.
Later, at home again, he looked at old photos of himself at the Southern Terminus of the PCT and noticed he was wearing Merrell shoes back then too.
Town & Terminus
On these long hikes, Robinson tries to duck into town once a week to clean up and let his knees rest. “I’ll come to a town and go bowling and talk to the locals and have a few drinks,” he said.
It provides rest for his soul too.
“Once it all becomes about miles, you lose a lot of what you can get out of a thru-hike.”
One of his favorite stops is the town of Idyllwild, Calif., whose canine mayor, Max, recently died. Others include Salida, Colo.; Landers, Wyo.; and “nearly every trail town in New Mexico was really nice too.”
One of Robinson’s favorite shoes right now is from Merrell’s Nova series. He first put them on for a photoshoot and immediately felt good vibes, as it were.
“It’s a comfortable shoe and handled any type of terrain I’ve thrown at it, from rocky to manicured trails to roads to wet forests,” he said. He also loves that there are several color options, even in his size 15.
Robinson reaches for all-terrain footwear that can work wherever he goes. After that, he looks for fast-drying shoes because thru-hikers tend to plow through water. He said, “There’s nothing quite as awful as waking up from your tent and sliding your feet into some wet shoes.”
He advises people to test out some shoes and find one they like before they hit the trail. Once you’re on the trail, stick with that shoe for the entire trail. It may be tempting to change shoes according to different trail conditions and climates, but it opens up the potential for blisters on your feet or even straining an Achilles or leg.
For Robinson, the lighter the shoe the better. This helps offset the extra pound he carries in the form of the knee braces that keep his knee caps in place.
On Sponsorship & Representation
There are definitely more people from marginalized communities coming into long-distance hiking. As far as the business goes, the push for more inclusivity and diversity has pretty much stalled.
Robinson explained that some brands, like Merrell, have had a range of ambassadors and supported different causes. Then Black Lives Matter protests came to the forefront amid the COVID pandemic and brands jumped on the bandwagon with minimal shows of support, like posting a black square on Instagram. After that, there really wasn’t much follow-through.
Even brands he saw do the minimum have since stopped. In particular, Robinson said brands tend to support nonprofits and organizations rather than individuals from less-represented communities that are out hiking.
“That’s something I can’t quite understand because it’s the individuals that are out here doing it who are usually the people inspiring folks to seek out those organizations,” he said.
Robinson, the first Black man to tick off the Triple Crown, is sponsored by Merrell only.
“As far as the Black community goes, we’re out there,” Robinson said. “I think companies aren’t looking in the right place or a lot don’t want to invest what they need to invest in these people, which would be their funds and their platforms.”
To Robinson, representation can simply mean getting out there and being on the trail. This is especially true with the power and prevalence of social media.
He shares his stories and thoughts through his Instagram page and knows that his presence on the trails challenges broad perceptions. Within the Black community, he said he’s heard the opinion that hiking and being outdoors is “white people stuff,” which he sees as self-limitation.
“We’ve got to stop limiting our world. Society is doing that enough,” he said.
Next up, Akuna plans to hike the Buckeye Trail, taking the same kit and shoes he’s been hiking in this summer.
“By now, my kit is dialed. It will suffice for most conditions,” Robinson said. “If anything, I may add a midlayer or hoodie in between my puff and base layer. Maybe I’ll carry a little less food with me since I’ll have more access to towns on this trail.”
On the horizon, Robinson wants to turn his audience on to several international hikes.
His bucket list hike is the Great Wall of China. Until then, he hopes to tackle Te Araroa Trail, which runs 1,864 miles through New Zealand, in the next few years.
Beyond the trail, his long-term goal is to save up enough to buy a few acres of land in Maine to homestead.
He said, “I’ve realized that I do better with PTSD, anxiety, and depression when I have places where I can just unplug. Where I can deal with social norms and things when I want to but I have just a place where I can be away from it all for me time.”