Hiking can be a relatively simple activity, but one that’s intimidating for a lot of people. “I can identify what I’ve found to be the biggest barriers that keep people,
Hiking can be a relatively simple activity, but one that’s intimidating for a lot of people. “I can identify what I’ve found to be the biggest barriers that keep people, especially women, from going out and hiking and backpacking. It’s this idea that they didn’t receive the education or instruction growing up,” Jennifer Pharr Davis says. “In my experience, my brothers, because they were boys and, you know, were in different programs than I was, they had a lot more backcountry skills than I did when they were adults.”
Davis is far from inexperienced now. She’s completed several long trails, including North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail. She holds the record for the fastest north-to-south thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail by a woman (46 days). She’s also a writer, a speaker, a mother, and runs her own business, Blue Ridge Hiking Company, where she helps people who want to hike, backpack, or camp, but aren’t sure how.
During the coronavirus pandemic, hiking has become extremely popular. A lot of people are hiking for the first time, or thinking of more ambitious trips. So for our Mountains-to-Sea Trail-themed season of our Away Message podcast, we asked Davis about what beginners and experienced hikers need to remember to make their trail trips a success.
Note: Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Jeremy Markovich: At the very beginner level, what are the basics you need to just get started?
Jennifer Pharr Davis: Unfortunately, I think hiking can psych people out. Almost everyone is already a hiker, because Merriam-Webster defines hiking as a walk through a natural setting. So when I meet people and they’re like, not me, not in the woods, not with bears, I usually ask them, “Do you feel comfortable walking on the beach?” And they’re like, Oh, yeah, I can do that. And I say, “Well, that’s a hike.” [It’s about] demystifying the idea that you need full-on North Face gear, or that you have to be climbing ladders on a mountain.
Almost everyone is already a hiker.
Any walk on a greenway or any walk through a natural setting is a hike. If you have a park that’s very forested in your town or neighborhood, walking there can be considered hiking. When people feel like they have some experience and some confidence, then I think it’s more accessible to go on some of these more remote or more challenging footpaths that we have in the southern Appalachians and in North Carolina. But most people are already hiking. That’s really great.
If you can, go with people who have more experience than you. That’s one of the best ways to learn. We all make mistakes, and learning through someone else’s journey and their mistakes is super helpful. And there are great resources online: The American Hiking Society has a great list of 10 hiking essentials that you would want to take with you on any day hike or backpacking trip.
Markovich: Some people think, I don’t have any hiking boots, I don’t have any hiking clothes. That sort of thing. What are some things that are already in your house that’ll make you more comfortable going outside?
Davis: So I love great gear, but it’s taken me 17 years and owning a bougie little backpacking shop to have all the best gear. I wouldn’t trade it. When I started, I used running shoes on the trail. I had my brother’s old Boy Scout gear that had been in our basement for years. You can start on a day hike with just a backpack similar to what your kids would take to school. You don’t need anything super fancy. A heavy rain jacket? It’s going to work. So yeah, just get started with what you have.
I mean, when I was 21, I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail, and I had a $3 mop stick as a hiking pole, and that was to replace a free ski pole that I used as my hiking stick. So I love my great gear. If you have the opportunity to invest, it’s worthwhile, but you certainly don’t need to top-of-the-line stuff to get out there.
Markovich: Let’s say you’ve done a few day hikes, and you enjoy it and you think, I want to go out and try some backpacking. How do you make that transition?
Davis: My three main recommendations for people who want to go from day hikes to overnight trips is, number one: Start in your backyard. Practice setting up your gear at home. I can’t tell you how many times I see people trying to learn a tent configuration on the trail. They have no clue what goes where because they’ve never taken it out of the bag before. So, whether you’re actually sleeping in your backyard or not, you need to do a full camp set up when you’re at home. Test your camp stove, if that’s what you’re bringing. Make sure you know how to use your water filter. All those things. Get familiar before you’re in the middle of the forest.
After that — same thing as with day hikes — if you can go with someone who knows what they’re doing, do it. It’s just such a great way to learn. A lot of people have friends or family members that can take them out and teach them skills. At our company, Blue Ridge Hiking Company, most of the clients we work with on backpacking trips are either beginners, or they haven’t done it in a really long time. Our goal is to give them the skills and information they need. So, if they want to do this on their own, they’ll feel confident. It is an education. There is a learning curve. You need someone to be able to teach you. And it’s possible to do it off of YouTube videos, but it’s much better in person.
And then the third thing is, you’ve got to limit your weight if you’re carrying an overnight pack. The number one mistake is bringing too much stuff. People take all these luxury items from home that they think are going to keep them more comfortable, and once the get out on the trail, it makes you super uncomfortable. So be a minimalist and pretty conservative. Take everything you need, but nothing else. Plus, don’t be overly ambitious with your miles or itinerary as a beginning backpacker.
Markovich: There are a small number of people who actually attempt to complete an entire long trail, including the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. What kind of planning and training and gear and forethought goes into that?
Davis: What you’re talking about is actually called a thru-hike: The completion of a long trail within a calendar year. It does take more planning, for sure. It actually would take additional planning for a path like the Mountains-to-Sea Trail because it’s still not officially completed. It’s sort of a work in progress, but you definitely want to start by going to the trail organization where you plan to hike. For the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, look at the information that’s put out by the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. They have recommendations as far as how to approach the trail, what to pack, and what resources to use. They have wonderful guidebooks that you can get in print or online. They walk you through the trail mile-by-mile. They also have resources for places where you can resupply or stay along the way.
If you’re hiking a trail that’s going to take you more than a week, several weeks, or several months, you don’t carry all your food and all your water with you the entire time. So the guidebook is going to list, for example, water sources where you can collect water during the day that you would treat and then carry. And then every few days, it also typically lists towns, road crossings, businesses, hotels, or hostels where you would be able to pop in and either buy provisions, food, and supplies. Or places to pick up packages that you’ve mailed to yourself — packages with additional food, maybe fresh socks, maybe more vitamins. It lists places to spend the night and get a shower, or do laundry.
When I approach a long trail, I really I like to get in a rhythm, if possible, of being on trail for about three or four days and then looking for a resupply point. Then, I go out for another three or four days and then look for another resupply point. So even though it’s really intimidating for a lot of people to think, oh, my gosh, how am I ever going to do a thousand miles? How am I ever going to do two thousand miles? If you can do a three-day backpacking trip, followed by another three-day backpacking trip, followed by another three day backpacking trip? If you can do that over and over and over again, then you can hike a long trail.
Markovich: One of the phrases I’ve heard is “getting your trail legs.” I’ve heard this before about people who, over time, adapt to doing a long trail. Can you physically prepare for something like that, or is it something that your body also adapts to naturally as you get out there and walk long distances every day?
Davis: It’s both. I mean, the best way to really train for a long hike is to be out there hiking. A lot of people do get into trail shape once they start their journey. They just plan to start very slow and be very conservative until they feel like they’re in trail shape and have their trail legs. But certainly any preparation you can do at home will help.
We have people who rate themselves as extremely, extremely healthy. They say, I go to the gym five days a week, I do the elliptical 30 minutes every day. And we always brace ourselves when we hear that. We’re like, oh, no. They are healthy and fit, but they’re not trail fit, especially when people are coming from a flat land or if they’re not used to carrying any weight on their backs.
So when people want to get in shape and train for backpacking and long trails, the two things we always encourage is add weight and add elevation. That’s going to help you out. When you’re on the treadmill and you’re doing your fast walking, or when you’re on the greenway, put a pack on your back. Put some weight on it. Backpacking is a weight-bearing exercise, you need to get used to that weight.
The best way to really train for a long hike is to be out there hiking.
And in any place you can, add vertical gain and loss and elevation. Whether it’s a bridge at the coast or a football stadium and you’re doing stairs. It could be on a stair-stepper at the gym or a tall skyscraper in Charlotte. Walk up and down the stairs to get that up and down training. It’s so critical because it’s never flat where we hike. You’re always going up and down. And you want to train those muscles, which are very different than pounding out a 5K on a coastal greenway, or going to the gym and doing a treadmill.
Markovich: Is there a good gauge or way that you can sort of figure out how long it might take you to do a long trail?
Davis: You can look at the average amount of time it usually takes someone to complete it. That’s a great starting place. If you don’t know your ability and you’re thinking, OK, it typically takes someone two or three months to hike the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. And you think, well, I’ve never hiked a long trail before. I’m not in great shape. I have to get in shape on the trails. So then you start to think, well, maybe it’ll take me three to four months. Or you think, I want to challenge myself. I’m in pretty good shape. I’ve hiked some other footpaths. I’m going to try to finish in six to eight weeks. Knowing yourself, and then knowing the average on the trail, is going to help you.
I also think on most long trails, if you plan to hike pretty consistently and not take a lot of time off, you can budget your time. Like, an average hiker is usually going to make 13 to 15 miles a day, and that includes maybe a low-mileage day or a day off. But if you take a long trail and divide it by 13 to 15 and figure out how many days that is, that’s sort of an average time frame that it might take to hike a trail. A six-month hike on the AT is about 13 miles a day.
I find that people do a lot better when they’re not in these really rigid, rote schedules on the trail. If you have flexibility, give yourself flexibility. You don’t necessarily have to have an end date in mind. And a lot of times, it can take the fun out of the journey and the trail when you’re very, very scheduled out there. You can never anticipate the weather, or how you’re going to feel on a certain day. Maybe you want to do 25 miles one day, but there’s a hurricane coming through. Or you sprained your ankle and you’re hobbling along. You have to expect those things. You will be, you know, in pain at some point. You will have bad weather at some point. And having the flexibility to navigate that is important.
Markovich: We focus on the folks who are able to complete long trails. But, especially with the Appalachian Trail, a lot of people set out and don’t finish. Are there things we can learn from those people?
Jennifer Pharr Davis: Yeah, absolutely. I hate the idea of failure on any trail, because you’re doing more than you would do if you sat at home, right? So the folks who try the MST or the Appalachian Trail, and they make it 200 miles and have to get off, like, isn’t it incredible? You just did 200 miles. That’s more than most people are going to do this year, or in their lifetime. So certainly celebrate the experience that you have, whatever that is. The trail’s not going anywhere. You can come back to it at some point, or do it differently.
I also think it’s really important to acknowledge there are right reasons to stop — it’s not always failure or quitting. As a mother and a daughter and someone who loves to hike, if I wanted to do a long trail and I got out there and my family needed me, you know, for more than just typical drama or runny nose or whatever, I would get off. My family is more important to me than a long trail. If you have a dream job offer that comes when you’re out there hiking, go take your dream job. The trail is gonna be there. You can do it in a few weeks. You can do it in 20 years. It’s going to be there.
So, yeah, taking away the fear or idea of failure is important. But when people quit, a lot of times it’s not because they have the wrong gear. I mean, injury forces people off trail for sure. And there’s a lot of chronic overuse injuries that come with hiking and backpacking, especially shin splints, Achilles tendinitis, plantar fasciitis, you see all of those on the trail a lot. So doing stretches and, again, getting in shape before you’re starting, that helps decrease your risk of those injuries.
But I think, mentally, most people choose to get off because it’s not the adventure they had in mind. So put your expectations in the right light before you go out there. Accept that it’s going to be hard. It’s going to be uncomfortable. I had two good friends who did the Mountains-to-Sea Trail this year during COVID. And if they had had set expectations that they were going to go and hike the trail in two to three months, they never would have finished because they had to hop on, hop off, go to certain sections that were open when they were open. It was very different than they thought it would look like.
They ended up doing some of the hottest road walk sections in July and getting heat rash everywhere. That was not what they had planned, but they were willing to be flexible and embrace discomfort. They finished, and it was pretty awesome. Being stubborn, being adaptable and then getting your head in the right place? That’s hard, and that’s a reason why a lot of people quit. If you want to keep going, you’re going to have to work through that.
Markovich: What are the important things that people don’t seem to ask about, and end up discovering once they’re out on the trail?
Davis: That’s a really good question. I can identify what I’ve found to be the biggest barriers that keep people, especially women, from going out and hiking and backpacking. It’s this idea that they didn’t receive the education or instruction growing up. Some people are brought up with that. And other people grew up in families where being outside is dangerous or scary. Education and instruction is huge.
[Related: What’s it like to go on a hike across North Carolina? Listen to Season 4 of our Away Message podcast, which is all about the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.]
Fear is a huge hurdle for people. Identifying the real risks of the trail and how to handle them? That’s important.
I see guilt a lot, which keeps people from hiking or backpacking. How could I leave my children and spend a night in the woods? How could I do that? They need me. How could I? I see this again a lot from women who are caretakers. How could I leave my mother? How could I take time off for myself? Guilt is pretty big.
And then just the basic essentials of like, well, what do I do with my body in the woods? And maybe that’s one where where people get on, and a lot of them figure it out for themselves, because they’re too intimidated or they don’t have the right person to ask. Like: What do you do with the pees and poops? How do I handle my menstrual cycle in the woods? I’m chafing in a really uncomfortable spot. How do I treat this?
I think people sometimes are intimidated to ask those questions about how to take care of your body on the trail. But you should! There are great blogs and information and tips online about how to handle all those things. I recommend that people research that, because it’s not very fun on the trail to have to figure out how to stay clean and take care of yourself. With hygiene and nutrition, it’s very personal. But it’s important to do some research and try to have a game plan before you head out there.
Markovich: You’ve been hiking long distances for a very long time. How has that changed how you look at other things in your life?
Davis: I always say that hiking and backpacking has been my best education, and I really mean it. There are so many lessons that I’ve embraced on the trail that I just use in my everyday life. I think the top one has got to be endurance. Like you just realize on the trail that you can get through more than you think, and that it doesn’t always get worse. There are valleys you never think you’re gonna get out of. But then there are mountaintop moments. And if you just keep going, you’ll get through both.
There’s the minimalism. When I started my company at 24, I thought like a backpacker. I was like, “I need low overhead.” I had $2,000 in the bank. And I was like, I really need to start this in a way that’s conservative and minimal and allows me to get my trail legs and learn about business over time. So learning how to be minimal, be happy with less, and create low overhead? That’s been a trail lesson.
There are valleys you never think you’re gonna get out of. But then there are mountaintop moments. And if you just keep going, you’ll get through both.
Also, there’s the whole concept of being adaptable but stubborn. That’s how I try to approach my life when I set a goal. I really usually want to get there, but I know that the path is not going to look like I think it will. And so being willing to pivot, pause, take new trails? All those things are important mindsets.
Being outdoors has also really helped my self-image and my sense of peace and faith. I feel like I’m a part of nature, and that’s really important for me. It makes me feel beautiful. It makes me feel wild. I know when I’m outdoors, I feel very present. Very connected to God. Very connected to people around me when I go hiking. It’s such a genuine connection that so naturally fostered outdoors. And there are very few distractions, whereas off-trail, we’re multitasking and there’s technology and distractions and all sorts of things going on. So it’s just that ability to be present, to feel beautiful and have the connections that make me feel healthy. I try to take that stuff off-trail and implement it in my everyday life.
The reason we promote hiking is not just because it’s fun and it’s awesome, or to get people outdoors, or because it’s great exercise. It’s also really awesome therapy. And it’s a great way to encourage conservation. Until people experience something, they’re not going to value it and want to protect it. There are so many reasons to go outdoors. A common hiker saying is: The trail tends to give you what you need. If you take a hike, I think there’s a really good chance you might find something that you need.