women in the wilderness

Distance Hiking and Body Image

Body image always seems to be in my social media feed - it seems like we're obsessed with it.  A new ad campaign promoting something regarding celebrating your body seems to pop up every month.  As someone who grew up in the age of Title IX but before crazy photoshopping, body image never really played into how I viewed myself.  Granted, like every teen girl on the planet, I learned to point out my flaws for a good 15 years or so.  Recently though, especially after hitting my 30s, I've learned to let a lot of that go.  While I think part of that comes with age, I think another part of it comes with my experience as a distance hiker.  In fact, distance hiking has helped me come to terms with my body more than any body-positive ad campaign ever could. 

When I first set out to thru hike the Appalachian Trail in 2012 I knew I had a few pounds to lose.  Not many, but a few.  When those few pounds came off in the first nine days I knew I still wasn't happy with my body.  In fact, there are still some photos from the trail that make me cringe when I see them.  Sure, I was (and still do) wearing Spandex.  Sure, I had a waist belt cinched tightly to carry the weight of my pack.  Sure, I had just finished camelling up (drinking a ton of water) at a water source so I wouldn't get more dehydrated.  To me though, these photos don't show me at my best.  In a highly curated world, these photos are sort of embarrassing to me even now.  I recently came across a photo like that, seen here:

My least favorite photo from the entire AT. 

My least favorite photo from the entire AT. 

I could nit-pick at this photo all day.  The way my waistband sits, the way my stomach sticks out, the way my hair is in that weird in-between growth stage.  When we took that photo it was just after we ate a ton of food (read - sugary snacks), drank even a ton more of water, and had hiked about 15 miles that day.  When I saw that tree, all I wanted to do was hop on and take a photo.  We camped that night and had an amazing time with our other fellow thru hikers.  It wasn't until months later, when I saw this photo on my Facebook feed (as I often uploaded without editing) that I was horrified at my appearance.  Weren't female thru hikers supposed to look strong?  All the other girls I hiked with looked so thin and confident.  They were all stronger than me, weren't they?  It really put a dark cloud over what I was actually out there accomplishing.  

The same day the photo above was taken, the photo below was taken... yes, the SAME DAY:

There's nothing wrong with this photo (in my eyes) and I remember feeling so great that day.  So, why do I feel so bad about the first one?  

In a world where our images are perfect, photoshopped, and manipulated and curated to fit a certain image, it's important to see our photos for what they are: a memory of a time we wanted to document.  I think people are truly never happy with their bodies, but the truth of the matter is our bodies can do amazing things.  For me, my body has carried me more than 7500 miles - through physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging terrain - and given me a career.  My body has carried me through an ultramarathon and a distance hike.  My body has been grimy, slimy, and scabby from months outdoors.  I've been covered in bruises and DEET.  I've been energized and exhausted all in the same day.  I've walked 30 miles and I've barely moved.  The fact of the matter is that none of this matters because my body is strong.  My body is beautiful.  My body can get out and climb that goddamn mountain.  

With this post, I'm issuing a challenge to all those outdoorsy folks - go ahead and post that photo.  Share the moments you're proud of.  Don't be distracted and disheartened by all those pretty white 20-somethings with colorful tattoos and John Muir quotes on Instagram.  Your experience outdoors is just as important.  Be proud of who you are and what your body has done for you.  I know I'm proud of mine. 

Hiking the Great "Soaky" Mountains - My Flash Flood Experience

I recently had a brand new experience during a guided trip - a flash flood.  While many of us go through our daily lives and hear or see the words "Flash Flood Warning" pop up on our phones or scrolling across the screen during a weather report, none of us ever actually get a chance to see or experience one.  While I hope you never do, I'd like to recount my experience, share a video, and let you know how you can avoid a situation like that while you're out on your next hike.  

During my most recent Women in the Wilderness trip thunderstorms were again in the forecast.  So far this year it has rained on every single trip I've taken.  Granted, after our severe drought last year, the rain is a welcome sight.  Even though I'm grateful for the rain and the fact that we are now two inches over our normal rain level, I'm starting to get a bit sick of it.  Knowing rain was in the forecast I made sure I had packed my usual rain kit for a guided hike, including my uncomfortable and hot rain jacket and a large and incredibly heavy (when it's dry) tarp for my clients to relax under.  While our first day on the trail only gave us a sprinkle or two when we first took off, our second day was calling for afternoon thunderstorms.  It was while we were lunching that we heard our first thunder clap, but after about 45 minutes of all bark and no bite the storm never materialized.  However, just as we arrived at camp, around 3:30 in the afternoon, the sky in front of us was nearly black.  I knew we'd be pushing the rain and we hiked downhill to my favorite campsite in the park, campsite 49 (Cabin Flats).  We walked back to the farthest site from the trail, right next to the river, and immediately put up our tarp to keep us dry.  We assembled all the tents and got underneath the tarp as the first rain drops started to fall.  Our group joked how this would be our trip high point - we assembled the tents and tarp just before it got wet, assuring that when we finally set up our tents on the inside (putting our sleeping gear inside) it would be nice and dry.  

At first, the rain was steady and not out of the ordinary; however, after approximately 15 minutes, the rain began falling in heavy sideways sheets.  The tarp quickly slackened from becoming wet and due to the sideways rain and winds we ended up holding some of the edges, moving to the middle of the tarp with all our gear and hoping the storm would let up.  The sideways rain continued for about a half hour before it finally let up, but the rain continued steadily.  After approximately 1.5 hours the rain had let up to the point where one of my clients asked "so, how much longer will we have to do this?" meaning stand under the tarp before we set up the rest of our gear.  As if on cue, as soon as those words escaped her mouth, we all heard a deafening roar.  Looking toward the river, we all watched the water level rise from normal to just at the shoreline and ready to breach.  After looking at each other and saying "did everyone just see that?" we ran over to the tents, picked them all up, and moved them to a higher point in the campground.  After standing for a few minutes and chatting, we decided I would head up to the top of the campsite, which was higher up, and see how the river looked.  When I got there, the water had risen to above the shoreline and was beginning to cover the upper part of the area.  I instructed everyone to grab their packs and head up the hill, leaving the tents for the moment.  

After bringing all our gear, minus the tarp and tents, to a safe point we came up with a game plan.  We definitely weren't staying at the campsite because it could still be raining upstream and the water could get higher.  We now had a few choices - grab the tents and stay right on the main trail, hike up to a different site about 3.5 miles away and stay there illegally without a permit, or hike out to our cars.  My group was shaken, but not ready to call the trip.  We decided to grab the gear and camp somewhere else.  Staying as a group, we broke down the tarp and three tents quickly and brought them up the hill to pack them up.  On our way back the second time, the water level had risen even more, despite the rain stopping where we were.  We sloppily packed the gear as best we could and decided to make the 3.5 miles trek to campsite 50.  

My biggest concern with hiking down to campsite 50 was the fact that it was at an even lower elevation than our campsite at 49.  I also knew the water would be higher down lower and that we had four bridges to cross to get there.  After approximately half a mile we came to the largest and what I considered the most secure of those bridges and I looked to see the water was only about a foot and a half from the bottom of the bridge.  This water, at normal levels, comes up to about my mid calf.  We paused on the bridge to take photos of the water and I shot a video as well.  You can see that below: 

For reference - this is what the river normally looks like. 

For reference - this is what the river normally looks like. 

Our walk continued along the Bradley Fork Trail and over a few more bridges that spanned the raging river.  We could see several walls of debris that were freshly piled up on the shorelines at the turns of the water.  Thankfully though, the water never breeched the trail.  When we got to campsite 50 we were shocked to find it was empty on a Saturday night.  We set up our tents, cooked dinner, and spent a dry night cozy inside them.  

I would be lying if I told you I felt 100% calm about the situation.  I've never experienced water like this in the Smokies before, although flash floods have been known to happen in other parts of the park.  Now that I've been through the experience, I can be better prepared for dealing with this situation in the future.  Here are my tips for dealing with a flash flood: 

1) Stay Calm:
If you panic your body won't help you make a rational decision.  In retrospect, it may have been safer to break down the tents and the tarp first to avoid taking that second trip down to the site.  Either way it would have taken the same amount of time.  

2) Know your outs:
Even if you're backpacking someplace new to you, having an evacuation plan is key for a situation like this.  The most important thing you can do during a flood like this is getting yourself to higher ground.  Knowing how you can get back to your car is even more helpful, but it's not always possible. 

3) Keep paying attention:
Even though we had a plan to continue onward with our hike, and even though we were still talking, laughing, and joking, I was still paying attention to that water and listening for anything out of the ordinary.  While you want to get out of the area quickly if possible, it's also important to stay safe while doing so.  

4) Report the incident to the proper people ASAP:
I had no cell phone service on this entire trip.  For me to report what I had seen I actually had to talk to the backcountry office at the park once I drove to it.  Letting the proper people know will get someone out there to check the site for anything unsafe and possibly close it to keep other people safe as well.  

While I hope I never have to deal with a situation like that again, I know that hiking for a living in a park with more than 3,000 miles of flowing stream it is a distinct possibility that I will.  I'm hoping to be better prepared and even more in control if I ever do. Have you ever experienced a flash flood?

Women in the Woods - Why More Ladies Should Quit Being Afraid and Get Outdoors

Recently on my trip up and over Mt. LeConte I saw something that incited rage. I saw the one thing I hate more than anything else when I'm hiking.  Trash? Toilet paper strewn about? People hiking in flip flops?  Not even close.  I saw college-aged girls acting like walking up a hill was the hardest, most soul sucking, worst thing they've ever done in their lives. For more than 4.5 miles this group of three men and three women leap-frogged us on trail.  Each and every time we got in ear shot one of the women would be complaining, whining, or generally wishing death upon her boyfriend for "making me do this hike!"  As a woman who discovered hiking later in her 20s, nothing makes me angrier than to see women act like they're damsels in distress when in fact they are perfectly capable of doing anything they set their mind to!  Here's why I advocate for women to stop acting like they're delicate ladies and start acting like the badasses they always knew they could be. 

Climbing Baker Peak on the Long Trail in 2015 (in a skirt, like a boss!)

Climbing Baker Peak on the Long Trail in 2015 (in a skirt, like a boss!)

Despite it being the year 2016, we still live in an era where women are seen as fragile.  When I meet people during a long-distance hike or even a short and simple backpacking trip the most common question I'm asked is if I'm scared when I'm hiking.  The second most common question people ask me is if I carry a gun.  The truth of the matter is I am rarely scared and I would NEVER advocate carrying a gun on a hiking trip.  Not only would it be added weight I'm not willing to add to my gear, a gun is not necessary out on the trails.  A handgun especially will do nothing in ways of protecting me from wild animals.  These answers always tend to shock people and I often get a head shake and a million reasons follow as to why I should be afraid (rape, murder, blood-thirsty bears) and how if I was their daughter I'd never be allowed to do what I do.  I always just smile and thank them and go about my hike.  I wasn't aware that as a woman in my early 30s I needed anyone's permission to do ANYTHING, let alone do something that brings me great joy!  As a hiking guide who does a multitude of trips ranging from hour-long nature walks to week-long customized backpacking trips I have this conversation often. 

Lets expand on the topic of being a woman out in the woods.  Since the publication of the book Wild and the subsequent movie of the same name, seeing women in the woods is more and more common.  While it was estimated only 10% of Appalachian Trail thru hikers were women in the early 2000s, that number is now closer to 25%.  My recent week out on the AT in Georgia is showing me the number will be even higher this year.  I am grateful for this in so many ways.  As a woman who loves backpacking and distance hiking, nothing makes me happier than seeing a duo or group of women out on the trail enjoying themselves and supporting each other.  As a woman who loves backpacking and distance hiking I can also tell you that nothing makes me feel stronger, sexier, or more beautiful than the challenge of completing a day on trail - covered in dirt, sweating, and maybe even with a few new scratches and bruises to show for it.  After spending several years growing up and into my identity on long-distance trails I've never felt more beautiful and confident in my abilities than I do right now.  

While I would have never considered myself an athlete in years past, recently I've come to terms with the fact that I am indeed an athlete, and a strong one at that.  Covering near-marathon distances nearly every day for weeks on end makes anyone an athlete.  Spending day after day after day in a cycle of cardio makes you an athlete.  Challenging your physical abilities for even a weekend at a time makes you an athlete.  Crying during your lunch break on a physically challenging day on trail?  You guessed it - you're an athlete.  I walked 2184.2 miles from the state of Georgia to the state of Maine and still didn't consider myself someone with any type of athletic ability.  Backpacking and spending time in the wilderness had me come to terms with the fact that my body is strong and capable of taking whatever I can throw at it.  I even recently decided to run a marathon and I'm even considering running an ultramarathon in early 2017.  I even have proof that hiking has physically changed my life.  

Getting back to that group of girls I mentioned earlier - I get why they acted the way they did.  Hiking up Mt. LeConte is hard.  It's really hard.  They're young and pretty.  I get it.  My first real hike was an 8-mile round trip to Ramsey's Cascades and I did it because I wanted to impress a boy. I probably acted obnoxious too.  We teach girls that it's okay to be whiny as long as you look adorable doing it.  We teach little girls that being pretty is a great goal in life.  Sure, looking your best is a great thing!  Who doesn't want to look and feel great about themselves?  But I'm here to advocate for change.  I'm here to tell you that we should be teaching girls to get down in the dirt and play rough.  I'm here to tell you that we should be teaching girls skills to be self-sufficient.  I'm here to advocate for teaching girls we don't have to be afraid and we don't need someone protecting us all the time.  If I had it to do all over again, I would have told those girls to quit their bitching, woman up, and climb that goddamn mountain (to paraphrase Jack Kerouac). While it would have been harsh, I can guarantee you that getting to the top and taking it all in would have made their misery disappear instantly.  

What do you think about hiking or running alone as a woman? Would you let your daughter take a backpacking trip?  I'd love to hear your opinion! Leave me a comment below or find me on Facebook or Twitter to get the conversation started!

Lessons I Learned From My First Solo Hike

Even if you've been backpacking for years, chances are you have been going with a friend or a group.  When I first began backpacking back in 2008 I was either going with my boyfriend or our local hiking group on trips.  When I first decided I was ready to attempt an AT thru hike I also made the decision to take my first solo backpacking trip.  While you are rarely ever alone on the 2189.1-mile Appalachian Trail, taking that first solo trip was really important for my self-esteem and it also taught me a few lessons. Here are a few things I learned on my first solo trip.

Be Flexible

Be prepared for your plans to change during a trip. My first solo trip was in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Back in those days a permit wasn't required for all campsites - you just filled it out at the trailhead and placed it in the permit box.  Since my campsite, Campsite #15, wasn't a reservation campsite, I filled out my permit and put my copy in the top of my pack and headed out on my way. When I reached my destination on that warm September day I discovered the spring feeding the campsite was dry. I made the decision to head back to Campsite 16 instead.  When I reached this site it was also dry, so I headed down the trail a little way until I found some running water.  I then backtracked up to Campsite 16 for the night.  I didn't get to follow my plan, but I stopped and thought for a few minutes before making a decision.  Learning to be flexible is incredibly important when you're backpacking!

Things That Go Bump in the Night

Despite being on a trip in the most visited national park in the country, I didn't see a single person the entire time I was out on my trip, which is incredibly rare.  After setting up camp for the evening, I kept hearing things moving around the campsite. I kept hearing knocking sounds. I stood stone still for several minutes, heart thumping out of my chest, before realizing it was a squirrel running around and dropping nuts.  It was crazy to me to hear something so loud come from such a tiny creature!  Thankfully I was able to learn this lesson before the sun set. I was definitely extra careful that night when I hung all my food and hygiene items in my bear hang though!

Expect the Unexpected

Remember I said above how I didn't see a single person the entire trip? Well, I did actually have company the entire trek out to my first destination: a dog.  The Smokies are a national park and therefore no dogs are allowed on trails.  This little guy followed me from the parking lot all the way out to my campsite, followed me back to the second campsite, accompanied me to get water, and then headed home when I started unpacking.  I named him Buddy and he definitely made me feel more at ease - a way to say "hey, you're not alone - I'm here."  Fun fact about this dog - I saw him again in the park a few months later.  He had on a name tag - his name was actually Buddy!

While my first solo backpacking trip wasn't long and strenuous, it was a major confidence builder for me while I was mentally and physically prepping for my AT thru hike.  I feel like being out there alone really helped me to realize how strong I truly was and helped me to understand that I am strong enough and capable enough to make good decisions when faced with a problem on a long hike.  I was totally prepared to be afraid or call it quits.  I was convinced an ax murderer would sneak up to my camp in the middle of the night and no one would ever hear from me again.  I was terrified a bear would climb a tree and steal all my food.  In reality, it was a completely uneventful and confidence-building experience. 

Do you backpack alone or with friends?  Have you dreamed of taking the leap to do your first solo trip?  I'd love to talk about how you like to backpack.  Leave me a comment or find my page over on Facebook to get the conversation started!