hiking guide

National Backpacker's Day

In the age of social media it seems we are more aware of the daily holidays that exist in our country.  When I saw there was a National Backpacker's Day I knew I had to get on board with this one!   I mean, how do you NOT celebrate National Backpacker's Day when you're basically a professional backpacker?!  I won't be able to spend the day backpacking, but I'll be out on the trail in just a few days.  In the meantime, I can actually reflect on what being a backpacker means to me. 

As someone who was never deemed athletic as a kid or an adolescent, becoming a backpacker in my mid 20s had such a positive change on my life.  In fact, I can honestly say I wouldn't be the person I am today without putting that pack on my back over Labor Day 2008.  I remember that trip incredibly vividly.  Not owning any gear of my own and the person I was with only having enough gear for one person we did the best we could.  Armed with a sleeping pad, a bag, and a liner, we decided one person could sleep in the sleeping bag and one person could use the pad and the liner.  I carried a day pack with some food, the liner, and the pad.  He carried the alcohol stove, sleeping bag, and some food.  We hiked in a whole 2 miles to the Kephart Prong shelter in the Smokies.  I remember thinking just before we got there just how hard this hike was and hoping it was going to be over soon.  Just before I asked the ubiquitous "are we there yet?!" we had arrived.  I hardly slept at all - I was freezing cold for one thing, and a mouse kept getting in the sleeping bag of the person above me in the shelter, so she was yelling periodically.  The next morning I was chased by bees at the fire pit.  Still, I was hooked.  

Since that trip nine years ago I've learned so much about hiking and backpacking.  In fact, I'm still learning things every single time I'm out on the trail with someone new.  I've gone from carrying a 29-pound pack to a 19-pound pack.  I've upgraded my gear and hiked closer to 10,000 miles than I ever thought I would.  I've learned I'm capable of making critical decisions and doing hard things.  I've discovered that my body is stronger than I ever gave it credit for.  I also discovered that the old adage "Garbage in, garbage out" is truer than you'll ever know. 

For me, backpacking isn't just a way of life.  Backpacking is my life.  I am so incredibly lucky to get the chance to teach people how to do it the proper way.  I get to share my love of distance hiking with wanna-be thru hikers.  I even get the chance to take people out into the forest for what could be their very first trail experience.  National Backpacker's Day, for me, is a way to honor the role it plays in my life. 

Does your favorite hobby or job have a national day? What does it mean to you and how do you celebrate?

So You Want to Be a Trail Guide?

When people find out I'm a trail guide I not only get a few questions, I also get to hear "Wow, that's the best job in the world! I'd love to do that!" followed by attempts to ask about getting hired at the company I work with or how they can start a hiking company on their own.  While working as a trail guide is a wonderful and enjoyable job, I always try to stress to people that working as a guide and hiking in general are not the same thing.  If you've ever thought about getting into the world of guiding, here's some practical advice to help you decide if you'd like to get into the guiding industry. 


My normal comfortable walking/hiking speed is between 3 and 3.5 miles per hour.  As a guide, however, my hiking speed is approximately 1 mile per hour.  Why the difference?  People hiring a guide are doing so to get out and enjoy nature - many of them for the first time ever.  When a mountain mile is approximately equivalent to walking 3 miles in a city on sidewalks, you can imagine people are DEFINITELY not going to be able to walk 3-3.5 miles per hour.  Not only will you be hiking slow, you'll be taking plenty of rest breaks and be reading the cues on your client's faces to make sure they're not exerting too much.  While it's enjoyable to work outdoors all the time, your comfort and abilities don't matter when you're a guide.  If you're a fast hiker, be prepared to slow it down considerably and be prepared to hurt A LOT when you do. 

You Are Responsible For Everyone's Safety

When you're out hiking with your friends, especially if they're adults, they're all responsible for their own decisions and safety.  When you're out with paying clients chances are you're the only one in the group with any first aid training and any first aid items in your pack.  While going out with friends it's a lot of fun to hop up on that giant rock and take photos, with clients it's important to watch their steps and check for rattlesnakes that could be under or around those rocks.  Keeping people safe not only keeps your hikes enjoyable, it also keeps your insurance rates low and your company's reputation high as well.  

You Will Carry a TON of Extra Gear

I don't know about you guys, but I don't carry ANYTHING extra in my pack I won't need on a backpacking trip.  When I'm out with clients though, this level of thinking goes right out the window.  On trips where I have a group of 8, I often am carrying two stoves (Jetboils) and extra fuel canisters, two water filters (Platypus Gravity with two 4-liter bags a piece), a tarp for rainy conditions, extra string, more first aid items, and even homemade baked goods (when you're working for tips, extra touches help!).  I can easily add an extra 10 pounds of stuff I'd never dream of carrying to my pack.  This doesn't include gear that your clients are unable to carry.  It doesn't always, but sometimes will, happen that a client is physically unable to walk with a pack on, but when it does be prepared to carry some of their gear as well.  

You are Working 24/7

If I'm on a trip and during the middle of the night a client needs me, I am on call.  If we are sitting around camp and an emergency arises, I am on call.  I am never not working on a trip.  While I do get some down time to relax with clients around a small campfire at the end of the day, I still need to make sure I'm doing my job and keeping people safe.  "Did she just take food into her tent? Did he just pour grey water into the creek?  Where is that guy's food bag now?" You are continuously monitoring camp and the people around you to make sure your group will be safe and enjoy their camping experience.  Working 24/7 on a trip can definitely be exhausting. 

You Will Meet Incredibly Inspiring People

Just like when you're hiking on your own, even with all the above-mentioned things you'll be doing, you're going to meet incredible people with incredible stories to tell.  I have met inspiring hopeful thru hikers, women leaving abusive relationships, men trying to reconnect with their kids, people celebrating their victory over cancer, and been a part of some incredible celebrations. On a trip I am their guide and afterward I am here to answer their questions if they're ready to get back out and try another trip.  Knowing that I helped people enjoy their trip into the backcountry, no matter their ability level or the trail conditions, is incredibly rewarding. 

While being a trail guide is a physical demanding and mentally exhausting job, it definitely has wonderful moments.  I work incredibly hard on everything I do, be it an hour-long walk or a week-long hike.  Teaching people the right way to get out and enjoy nature and showing them how accessible it can be is one of the most rewarding things I've ever done. 

Have you ever been on a guided hike or trip?  Do you think you'd enjoy being a hiking guide? 

The Post I've Been Putting Off...

Some of you may have noticed it's been quiet on my blog for a little while.  In fact, I've sat down to write posts several times, but never had the heart to finish them.  The short answer to my lack of posting is a simple one - I've been incredibly depressed the past few months.  For those of you following me on social media, you may have noticed I've really dropped the ball on basically all channels the past few months.  I've just not had the heart to do much posting.  In fact, I've only recently begun to start getting active on Twitter and Instagram again.  It's very  hard to curate images that are beautiful when you feel so heavy.  

I've been doing a lot less guiding at my job the past few months.  I love being a guide and teaching people how to see and explore the outdoors in new ways.  The wildfire that swept our region back in November has had devastating effects on area businesses.  Many local places are reporting being down between 20-45% from last year.  In fact, many people are still under the impression that the entire town of Gatlinburg and all of the Great Smoky Mountains are completely decimated.  The truth of the matter is that 1700 homes were lost, but many businesses reopened in the past few months or are rebuilding.  The Smokies only saw 2% of the park damaged by fire and the damage becomes less and less noticeable every day thanks to spring rejuvenating the burned ground.  Getting people to come back to the area, however, has been really, REALLY tough.  

The past few months haven't been all bad for me.  As usual, I focus my off-season months on running.  I ran a PR in both the half marathon (finally running a sub 2-hr half) and full marathon (4:05:30 - nearly 20 minutes off last year) events I entered this year.  I ran a trail marathon without ever having really gone trail running.  I ran my fastest ever mile.  I even decided to start focusing on more endurance and ultra events in 2018.  Physically, I'm in the best shape I've ever been in.  Mentally though, I'm not doing so hot. The past few months have brought up a lot of personal issues I need to deal with and I'm just now dragging myself out of the hole to do it.  It's been really heart-wrenching at times and, if any of you have ever dealt with depression, you know it's not an easy road to recovery.  Add to that the fact that I don't have health insurance and that means I'll be paying for all of this out-of-pocket and you've got an even tougher road ahead.  

For those of you still looking for trail advice and reading trail journals, I'm still reachable by email and by Facebook.  I'm still loving answering your questions and helping you plan your journey.  Just know that the posts will be coming back slowly and it might be a quick minute before I'm feeling up to the task.  For those of you who are regular readers, please note that I'm writing posts for you guys!  It's very hard to continue coming up with new ideas, graphics, and formatting that makes sense.  Drop a comment every once in a while and let me know you're reading.  It's very tough to continue writing if you feel like no one is out there!

I'll be back at it again soon.  Happy Trails!

Five Things I Love About Being a Hiking Guide

With summer hiking season in full swing it seems like I'm hardly ever indoors anymore!  If I'm not out on the trails for work you can usually find me out in a state park or national forest with my dog and NoKey.  I recently had a client ask me what it's like to have your passion and your job be the exact same thing and if I found it hard to find a balance between the two.  For me the balance isn't tough because I do my guiding in the Smokies and I do my hiking for pleasure outside of the national park.  There are a few reasons for this - heavy traffic near the Smokies, the fact that no dogs are allowed on trails, and the fact that the trails I hike for work are usually incredibly popular day hikes are some of them.  For me though, being a guide feels like a natural thing and it feels like it is truly where I need to be in life right now.  I feel incredibly fortunate to be doing what I do for a living.  For today's Friday Five post, I'm going to tell you the five things I love about being a guide.  

1) Teaching 

It might sound cheesy, but there is something really incredibly satisfying about teaching someone how to find what they're looking to learn out in the woods.  Whether it's taking a one-hour  nature walk and showing someone they can chew on a particular leaf or taking someone out for a customized backpacking trip and seeing them become more confident with their gear, the fact that I've taught someone a lesson they will remember is incredibly satisfying. 

2) InTroducing People to Nature

Sometimes I'm guiding a nature walk for a hotel or resort.  While these nature walks aren't strenuous or even long, by taking these groups out on a gentle walk away from the hustle and bustle of gateway towns around the park I'm showing them something they've possibly never experienced in life - and something they may never experience again.  We often get people from flatter places in the midwest or from large cities like Chicago or New York who don't make it out to the woods often.  Showing to people how much beauty you can find just beyond the concrete jungle can be such a rewarding experience. 

3) The unpredictability

It's pretty fair to say the outdoor industry is incredibly unpredictable.  Over the winter several of my hikes had to be canceled altogether due to weather-related road closures.  Sometimes my high ridgeline day hikes have to be rescheduled or even moved to a low elevation route due to thunderstorms.  Living in the mountains of East Tennessee will definitely keep you on your toes weather-wise!  Some days I'll only be scheduled for a short 2.5-hour walk only to be working an additional 8 or 9 hours due to unscheduled hiker shuttles or last-minute getaway hikes.  The unpredictable nature of my job always keeps me on my toes!

4) The Unexpected

Like the weather isn't the only thing that can throw curveballs at me out in the woods!  Sometimes it can be difficult to predict how our clients will react outdoors as well.  Even though we are filling out waivers and doing health questionnaires the physical ability of our group on a hike can keep us on our toes.  I had a scheduled hike up a difficult mountain where the first two miles were faster than usual and the clients were laughing and having fun.  The next two miles up, while not any more difficult, quickly fell apart and turned into me having to decide to make the call to turn around.  It took me 11 hours to hike approximately 7.5 hours on that trip and we never did make it to the top.  The clients, however, were still happy with the hiking and the interpretation I provided during the walk so it at least helps you feel better about making a difficult call. 

5) The People

There is something incredibly satisfying about introducing yourself to a group of people you're going to see over the next several hours and knowing that you're going to be able to show them things they've never experienced before.  Even though my job relies heavily on being able to do interpretation on the things around me, I often get to know my hiking clients on a more personal level, especially on a longer day hike or an overnight trip of any length.  Getting to learn things about people on such a personal level and connect with someone on a trip is the single greatest thing about my job.  Building a close report during such a short period of time really can't be done in any other setting.  

These are just a few of the things I really love about being a hiking guide.  When I first got into guiding I had no idea what to expect but now I can honestly say that I have found where I need to be right now.  

Is your passion your career?  What is it you love about what you do?  Would you be able to work at a job that closely mirrors the hobbies you have?  

I'm linking up with CourtneyCynthia and Mar and some of the other folks who link up with us – and please don’t forget to link to your hosts if you are participating!

Hiking Mt. LeConte - A Tuesday Adventure

If you've ever been to the Smokies chances are you've heard of Mt. LeConte.  The big mountain with three peaks looms over the towns of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg and is visible as you drive towards your vacation destination as soon as you hit the 407 exit.  While this mountain in the park isn't the tallest (it's the third tallest, after Clingman's Dome and Mt. Guyot), it's definitely the most famous!  In fact, when the writers of the song Rocky Top, the University of Tennessee's fight song, got together to write the song they were sitting in Gatlinburg looking at Mt. LeConte!  If you're wanting to hike up one of the five different trails going up Mt. LeConte, chances are you'll choose Alum Cave Trail.  This trail is the shortest route, although not necessarily the easiest route, up to the summit.  I recently hiked up the Alum Cave Trail and down the Rainbow Falls Trail on the opposite side of the mountain for a guided hike.  Here's a recap of the new and improved Alum Cave Trail. 

When we first stepped on trail I was definitely impressed at all the hard work the crews have put in on this trail.  Alum Cave Trail is in the process of being rebuilt and is wide enough for the large crowds it attracts now!  The first 1.2 miles up to Arch Rock were pretty uneventful and the new staircase inside is easy to  navigate and looks amazing (sorry I didn't get a photo of this one). From here we had a little more climbing before stopping at Inspiration Point - a heath bald with views of the natural arches over on Little Duckbill and the Eye of the Needle.  At this point, we're still climbing what is known as Peregrine Peak, named for the bird that is also nesting here over on Little Duckbill and at the Eye.  There is an incredibly hefty fine for going off trail to that area and disturbing the birds.  After our break, we climbed up to the namesake of this trail - the Alum Cave Bluff.  This sandy "cave" is a microclimate here in the Smokies and is actually considered a desert! It's hard to believe in a park with temperate rainforest you can still have a desert.  The "cave" also has a big of a sulfuric smell, like that of spent matches.  This soil is full of oxalates and contains minerals that can be found nowhere else on earth. 

A dry streamed where once a flash flood roared down this mountain. 

A dry streamed where once a flash flood roared down this mountain. 

After continuing uphill from the Alum Cave Bluff the crowds began to thin a bit.  We mostly saw college students climbing up or down the mountain now being that it's spring break time for most colleges along the east coast.  We continued to climb, now being aided with steel cables in places to help hikers along in winter, and finally reached a flatter spot in the trail.  The forest type has now changed from old growth to boreal - meaning most of the forest is evergreen spruce trees and fir trees.  The sun shining made it smell like we were hiking on a mountain of Christmas trees and we had finally reached our destination for the day - the summit of Mt. LeConte.  We took a break up top and watched the seasonal workers scurrying around stocking the cabins and the office for the upcoming season.  The lodge isn't open year-round and is just now getting ready to open for the season.  

A view of the AT from the Alum Cave Trail.
A view of the AT from the Alum Cave Trail.

When we were ready to head downhill we took the Rainbow Falls Trail down to Cherokee Orchard.  This trail has been one of my favorite routes up or down this mountain for a long time due to the easier grade and the views into the valley and Gatlinburg.  It was fun getting a glimpse of town, knowing it was so busy down there and we were realtively alone on this part of the mountain.  Rainbow Falls Trail doesn't see the crowds you'll get on the Alum Cave Trail and, until we hiked down to the falls, we didn't see any other people.  On the way down we found a patch of teaberry that actually still had their berries.  It's always fun eating wild red berries that taste like peppermint instead of fruit. We took our final break at Rainbow Falls and saw relatively few people there, but that may have been due to the fact that it was getting late in the day.  

So many creatures living on one rock - rhododendron, moss, spray paint lichen, and crepe myrtle! 

So many creatures living on one rock - rhododendron, moss, spray paint lichen, and crepe myrtle! 

About half a mile down from the falls we spotted people illegally camping in a patch of rocks next to LeConte Stream.  Given that this mountain has seen a wildfire from this type of activity only a few years ago, we did let the campers know they weren't supposed to be camping there and certainly weren't supposed to be building a fire inside a hollowed out log in a rock pile!  The Smokies have strict rules as to where you can and cannot camp due to it being the most visited national park in the country.  Our park has been loved to death in generations past and the rule helps protect the park and keep it from becoming a giant, scarred wasteland of former campsites and garbage.  After this encounter however, we had an uneventful walk down LeConte Creek to the vehicles we had in the parking lot.  

I love hiking Mt. LeConte and it's especially fun when you can hike up one side and down another.  To do the hike we did you'll need to have two vehicles or use a local shuttle service to help you get from your car to your starting point.  Here is a map of the direction we hiked the trail. 

We started on Alum Cave Trail (the bottom) and hiked to Rainbow Falls Trailhead (the top).

We started on Alum Cave Trail (the bottom) and hiked to Rainbow Falls Trailhead (the top).

Have you ever hiked up Mt. LeConte or stayed in the lodge at the top? The historic lodge dates back to 1925 - before the Smokies even became a national park!  I'd love to hear about which trails you hiked up or down and what you thought of the them.  Leave me a comment below or find me on Facebook or Twitter to get the conversation started. 

Sunday Runday - Week 5 of Marathon Training

I don't know how the weather looks where you're at right now, but here in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains the weather has been looking better each day this week!  While earlier in the week running felt like it was a bust, later the temperatures rose and the sun made an appearance to round out an active week in training.  Here's how it went: 

Monday - Active rest day.  I took the day off after my long 12-miler the day before, mostly because it seems like I've been reading a LOT lately about the importance of truly resting your muscles leading into a race week.  I did a Yin Yoga class by Leslie Fightmaster and made sure to foam roll twice today. 

Tuesday - Total Adrenaline (NTC - 30 min.) It was spitting rain all day long today and wasn't much more than freezing.  I chose to skip my run and stay indoors for cross-training instead.  I followed it with a slow vinyasa yoga video. 

Wednesday - 7 miles.  I took a new running route today and made a loop on what our city calls a Greenway.  It is what most other places would call a sidewalk on the side of a busy 6-lane road.  The smells of the car exhaust for 7 miles was kind of obnoxious, but I ended up running strong and pulled off negative splits, so I'm very happy!

A good and easy run! 

A good and easy run! 

Thursday - 7 miles.  After running with the traffic the day before, I went back to my old faithful running path.  It was chilly, but my legs felt incredibly strong despite running just the day before.  

Friday - hiking 9.5 miles.  I took my friend Shannon hiking for the very first time on this gorgeous sunny day!  She had the day off and had never been hiking, so we did not one, but TWO hikes!  We hiked up to Courthouse Rock and Qulliams Falls before deciding we hadn't had quite enough trail and did a second off-trail hike to the stone house in the Sugarlands.  I'm so incredibly proud of my friend for being a bad ass and pulling off so many miles!

Saturday - hiking 4 miles.  Today I had hiking guide training in the Greenbrier section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  The hiking today was what we describe at our company as "hideously slow." And I mean it.  It took us nearly 6 hours to complete an incredibly easy 2 mile hike during the morning.  We did a lot of interpretation and had a short lunch break before tackling a second trail - this one went much quicker as we didn't want to lose any daylight!

Even with temps in the high 50s for a few days, the ice from Jonas is still sticking around! 

Even with temps in the high 50s for a few days, the ice from Jonas is still sticking around! 

Sunday - hiking 4.5-5 miles.  Another day of hiking guide training means I didn't have time to get in my 9-mile taper long run this weekend.  I was hoping to have the time after training, but it has been running long, unfortunately.  I did get to see some new parts of the trail and a really cool cave, and of course I got to spend the day outside when the temperature was in the high 50's and the sun was shining all day.  

Well, even though I didn't get in the running miles I'd hoped, I was active all week.  How is your training going?  Do you have any events coming up soon? 

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