Ever since I first started hiking, I have measured successful hikes by speed. On my first thru-hike, done solo with heavy equipment and almost no knowledge of backpacking, I averaged 28 miles per day. My first long hike on the Appalachian Trail was quick as well, completed in 100 days. Thru-hike after thru-hike, speed became my measure of success, culminating in 2011 when I broke the women’s unassisted Appalachian Trail speed record. This season, I finally stopped to reflect on why I was in such a hurry. For perhaps the first time, I’ve decided to experiment with different styles of backpacking and see what I could learn from walking the world a little more slowly.
I love hiking because it is challenging and it lets me design increasingly difficult adventures, customized to my growing skill and strength. Yet, this season, I acknowledged that speed is just one way to make a hike challenging. Walks that emphasize navigation, technical skills, capturing awesome photos, or overcoming language barriers can try my skill without a stopwatch.
The season kicked off in the slot canyons and slickrock of Escalante, Utah. With a group of six others, we set off for a week on the Boulder Mail Trail, only 30 miles long—an easy day hike for me solo. I kept an open mind to the relatively low mileage and soon discovered a way to enjoy the outdoors devoid of the number-specific indices I had used before. Every day we hiked a few miles on the trail, base-camped and then spent most of the day trekking cross-country, exploring the desert free of the go-go-go mentality that drove my thru-hiking. “Constant Forward Progress,” a thru-hiker mantra immortalized by Andrew Skurka, ceased to be our goal, as each day of hiking was about developing and then navigating scenic loops.
At the peak of summer, I backpacked on the Tokaido Nature Trail, a 1000 mile long footpath from Tokyo to Osaka, Japan. On this trip, my mental and physical energy went towards overcoming language and cultural barriers—a pursuit even more exhausting than fastpacking. Instead of covering trail swiftly, my goal was to meet people, immerse myself in the culture, and experience pedestrianism in another country.
In September, I hiked the Bailey Range across Olympic National Park with my friend, local expert and minimalist backpacker Barefoot Jake. The Bailey Range is considered by many to be the most difficult route in the park that does not require ropes. The cross-country route spans glaciers, rivers, and semi-technical rock and gullies. To add to the challenge, we tacked on additional difficult traverses to both ends of the traditional route. Although the plan was aggressive, especially given the route-finding requirements, our itinerary allowed for two of our ten days to be spent base-camping.
Initially, the idea that I would be spending 1/5th of my time not making Constant Forward Progress frustrated me. On our first rest day, an uncommon sunny day in coastal Washington, it seemed a waste to spend the afternoon exploring a basin instead of tackling the next tricky part of the traverse while the weather held. Usually when I hike, I’m used to spending every minute eating, sleeping, or walking towards my end goal. Yet the Olympics seemed so massive, so epic in grandeur, that having a bit of time to reflect and think “I’m really here” was a blessing.
A requirement this season was recognizing that it’s OK to set off on a hike with goals other than just finishing in great time. These goals include taking photography, testing out gear, and making new friends—of course, all things I already did on my speed hikes, but also aspects I never thought of as goals unto themselves. By changing my perspective this season, I enjoyed hiking in a more nuanced way than my old style.
This season, I realized that for years l had made the mistake of equating fast hiking with being the best hiker I can be. I was happy to adopt other sports’ metrics for “difficulty,” equating speed—the easiest to quantify measurement—with skill. Ultramarathoners and running companies are starting to think of long distance hiking as just a longer place to run. I’ve heard old school climbers complain that indoor climbing competitions turn a hobby inherently about a man vs. rock into a sport that is man vs. man. I suspect hiking is headed in a similar direction.
Fastpacking isn’t the only way hikers can challenge themselves. What of Mike “Cimarron” Caetano who keeps long distance hiking at 91? Or of the men who hiked the AT with a cello/cat/tuba? Or the sisters who thru-hiked barefoot? There are numerous people who thru-hike in the winter, which requires a persistence, skill, and determination much greater than my summer speed hike. By boiling hikes down to Fastest Known Times, part of the spunk of our “sport” is lost.
I’m not about to quit speed hiking or trying for Fastest Known Times, but this season made me more aware of the questions we as a hiking community are facing. Does comparing times on the internet steal authenticity from a pastime of communing with nature? Does the challenge of fastpacking allow us to experience nature in a differently intense way? Regardless of our favorite hiking style, when we experiment with new ways of walking, we can become aware of the many joys of being on foot. This season I learned: Hike your own hike, and try out new hikes, too.
About Liz Thomas
Liz Thomas (aka Snorkel) is a thru-hiker most known for breaking the women’s unsupported speed record on the Appalachian Trail in 2011. She has also completed end-to-end thru-hikes of the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail (the so-called “Triple Crown”). Known for backpacking light, fast, and solo, Liz has also walked a bunch of other North American trails including the “Little Triple Crown” (Long Trail, Colorado Trail, John Muir Trail) in one season. In 2013, Liz walked the world’s first urban thru-hike, the Inman 300 in LA. It was surprisingly pretty rad. You can follow Liz’s adventures at eathomas.com, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SnorkelHikes and on Twitter @eathomas.