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Jennifer Pharr Davis Discusses Speed Hiking, Long-Distance Hiking, And Youth in the Outdoors


Jennifer Pharr Davis has used her experience on a 2005 thru-hike of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail to grow a business revolving around hiking. Courtesy photo.

For some, hiking can be addicting. For Jennifer Pharr Davis, it became both an avocation and her vocation.

Ms. Davis, author of Becoming Odyssa, Epic Adventures on the Appalachian Trail, completed her first AT thru-hike in 2005, and that led to a record-setting thru-hike in 2008, and long-distance treks on the Pacific Crest Trail, Vermont's Long Trail, the Colorado Trail, up Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya, and quite a few other trips.

So, not surprisingly, she has developed some opinions about hiking and nature. During Traveler's recent interview with Ms. Pharr, she shared some of those opinions.

Traveler: Why speed hike? Isn’t the AT about escape and getting into nature. It seems that when your goal is to see how fast you can go from Maine to Georgia, doesn’t that take some of the significance away?

Ms. Davis: "A lot of people would say that or think that, but the funny thing was I felt more immersed in nature on my record hike (in 2008) than I did on my first thru-hike because I took out all of the extras. I took out the errands, I took out going into town, I took out doing my laundry and staying in hotels.

"I was on the trail hiking basically from 5:30 or 6 a.m. every day 'till 8 or 9 o’clock at night. Again, that’s the difference between seeing zero bears my first hike and seeing 30 bears on the record attempt.

"In a lot of ways I felt like I was just immersed. I was seeing every sunset, every sunrise. And it did feel a lot more solitary, even though I did have my husband there to help me, because I wasn’t talking with all the other thru-hikers and doing it in a big pack. It was just a different way to experience the trail, and it was really good and I loved it.

"One thing I try to promote or advocate is the trail really doesn't have rules about how to do it. I think a lot of people get the idea that if you want to do the Appalachian Trail you should do it in six months with a pack on your back, and that doesn’t mean I think speed hiking is better than thru-hiking, but I also think section hiking is a great way to do the trail. I think day hiking is a great way to do the trail.

“... I feel like there’s no right way to hike the trail. And it is what you take from the trail and it's what you take from nature and what you see out there. For some people they’re going to have a really great experience going out there for a day or a weekend, and other people it’s going to be six months. For a very, very rare few it might be doing the whole thing in two months."

Traveler: What advice do you have for hikers considering a long-distance trek, be it the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail or something in between?

Ms. Davis: “I would tell them to do it, because it is such an amazing life-changing experience. But one thing I like to tell potential thru-hikers, especially because the questions they want to ask about gear, I think they get so bogged down in the right gear to bring, and your gear is not going to get you to Maine, or to Georgia, depending on which way you go. It’s really your heart and your soul, your willingness to work hard that will get you to the end. My first thru-hike I had horrendous gear on the trail and I was still able to make it, and people who had spent thousands and thousands of dollars on gear stopped in Georgia.

"I do believe in trying to get in shape before you start the trail. A lot of people say, 'Well, you can go out there out of shape and you’ll get in shape as you get going.' And that’s true, it’s certainly true. But you’ll make the transition a lot more pleasant if you try to get in decent shape. Before the trail.

"The best thing probably you can do before hiking the Appalachian Trail is to go to a shorter trail. You know, there are several 80-200 mile trails all over the country, and do one of those shorter long-distance trails first before you set out on the Appalachian trail.”

Traveler: Any thoughts on how we can get younger generations involved in the outdoors?

Ms. Davis: “It’s something I’m really passionate about, because when I headed out on the Appalachian Trail I didn’t know the difference between an oak tree and a maple tree, I knew very little about the forest and the environment.

"I really think that if we want to preserve these places and we want people to be able to experience them, we’re going to have to get to them while they’re young, and get into the schools and start working with them. There are several great initiatives popping up through the National Park Service, and one that is coming out for the Appalachian Trail -- I think it’s actually been going now since 2006 -- but it’s called Trails for Every Classroom, and they hold professional development workshops for teachers, and the teachers come and learn about the Appalachian Trail, and learn how to implement it into their curriculum, and learn how to take their classes to the Appalachian Trail.

"I’ve been able to work with it a little and it’s an amazing program. It’s so fun to see kids light up when they hear about the Appalachian Trail, or when they get to go and see their first white blaze and hike on the trail. They love it and it’s so neat and I know it's making a lasting impact. My goal is to get to them as young as I can. I love kindergartners, I love first-graders, and just encourage those kids to get out and start hiking and exploring the out doors."

To learn more about Ms. Davis, her long-distance treks, her writing, and her efforts to get youth into the outdoors, visit her website, the Blue Ridge Hiking Company.

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I've been around and on national scenic trails for a decade and a half. I've met a lot of Celebs, as their called, and often their names become larger then the trail itself. I'm sure there is great satisfaction in all their accomplishments. I am a five time though hiker. I've taken my time when I'm out on the trail. Averaging five months. My thoughts on speed hiking is why end your through hike two month earlier for the fame of record? Why not mingle and experience more of the wild. I've seen 15 bears, every sunset (as I'm a photographer) and experience great commodores with fellow adventurers in most of all my hikes. I've heard when I asked, "Why speed hike?" Often the reply was "because I see more of the trail in a single day or I'm a runner not a hiker." I think since the record is there and so is the ambition of the speed hiker, there will always be hikers attempting a speed hike. I would not change a thing about my approach to through hiking. Oddessa is a machine who will out pace anyone with her average paced super-human skills. They may claim fame, because its a great accomplishment. There is cause for celebration. For me, I don't need that kind of celebration, the articles, the fame or the satisfaction of a speed hike. I'm just happy being alive and out on a trail and knowing that its there when I'll come back. I wouldn't even know how to act, if everyone I encountered on the trail would glorify me because I'm out trying to break a record. My question is... why focus speed hikes on the national scenic trails and not enter a footrace with other likeminded speedsters. Better yet, how would our heros sack up against legit competition?

I'm with Anonymous - my feeling is, if you're going to do this trek, it's worth taking your time. Over the years I've only been able to do sections of the AT - time limitations - but I do a different section every time and I'm never disappointed. Good on Ms. Pharr for her accomplishment, but I don't see any real value in trail running, or "speed hiking".

I'm a 60-year old AT section hiker and am at the half-way mark of this multi-year adventure. If my body holds out, I'm hoping to finish the trail in the next 2 - 3 years. In my many section hikes, I've met all sorts of folks and I've learned that there are as many ways to hike and to enjoy the trail as there are hikers. As long as an individual hiker practices the normal courtesies of the trail and neither interferes with or adversely affects another hiker's experience, then I'm not sure it's anyone's business how that individual chooses to hike the AT. Obviously Ms. Davis finds something in speed hiking that is important to her. So be it. I wish Ms. Davis success in all her hiking endeavors.

Right on Flathat! There are so many ways to have fun hiking, who's to say which way is best? While I have to admit that I'm a smell the roses kind of guy, there are times I find joy in a good a death march. As we used to say in Jersey, to each his calzone! Congratulations on breaking the record Jennifer Davis! Keep on truckin'.

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