In response to the movie Wild being in theaters, I am featuring some Wild Women who are going against the norm when it comes to people’s perception of what a hiker should be. The women featured are some of the most badass hikers, male or female, out there! Today we are featuring Liz “Snorkel” Thomas. She is most known for breaking the women’s unsupported speed record on the Appalachian Trail in 2011. She has also completed the highly coveted Triple Crown: thru hiking the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail. In 2013 she walked the world’s first urban thru-hike: the Inman 300 in Los Angeles.
TTS: When did you begin thru hiking? How much experience did you have before your first thru hike?
Liz: My first thru-hike was the summer after college. I thru-hiked the Tahoe Rim Trail solo in 6 days. At that time, I had a lot of experience dayhiking solo and doing big peakbagging trips with <24 hour goals. Yet, my overnight-in-the-woods experience was pretty low. I’d car camped and actually lead a 5 day backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon, but thru-hiking felt very different. Thru-hiking was much more goal-centric.
TTS: How much preparation and planning goes into completing a thru hike?
Liz: My first thru-hike took years of prep. I read trail journals to try to figure out how these people managed it. However, the actual mechanics of the thru-hike didn’t take as much time to plan. I decided at the last minute to hike the AT instead of the PCT for my first long thru-hike, so in that sense, I was able to plan for my first thru in 3 weeks (but admittedly, 3 weeks full-time). I researched gear and bought new stuff, I read tips from experienced thru-hikers, and I made a planned itinerary and packaged mail drop food resupply boxes for the entire trail.
TTS: Do you find people treat you differently as a solo female hiker?
Liz: How people treat me when I hike solo really depends on where I am hiking. On a trail like the PCT or JMT, a woman hiking solo is fairly common, especially after Wild came out, so no one bats an eye. On the AT, early on, a few people seemed surprised that I was hiking alone. It’s usually worked to my benefit—a trail angel on the AT made all the other hikers wait to eat ice cream until after dinner, but I given permission to eat my ice cream first—silly stuff like that. When I’m hiking a trail or a route that sees almost no traffic from hikers—men or women—I think people act like it’s a bigger deal. But once again, people tend to be more willing to give me a lift or a place to stay out of the storm because of it.
TTS: What would you say to women who want to hike solo but feel that they can’t because of safety concerns? What about hitching rides into town?
Liz: I would tell women to just go out there and do it. When I first got into thru-hiking, I was worried about hiking solo and ended up taking on a hiking partner who made me miserable in order to deal with my own fears. I had the wisdom then that I have now to be led by my dreams, not pushed by my fears. Statistically speaking though, safety concerns for women on a well-traveled trail like the AT, PCT, or JMT are almost nil. As my fellow she-hiker, Princess of Darkness, says: the trail is much safer than any city in America.
I try to avoid hitching into town alone if I can, but have noticed that often, when I’m hitching solo, I get picked up by older women. I like to be discriminating about who I get picked up by, but haven’t had any really bad problems.
TTS: What do you cherish most about your hikes?
Liz: That’s a hard one. I like having time in nature and getting to rely on myself and my outdoor skills. I like challenging myself physically and mentally. Who am I kidding? I like getting to eat as much as I want as often as I want.
TTS: You set the women’s unsupported speed record on the Appalachian Trail in 2011. Why do you prefer hiking fast and light?
Liz: I started hiking ultralight because I wasn’t physically strong enough to walk very far with a heavy pack. I kept it up because I enjoyed the distances I was able to cover with a lighter pack. I enjoy seeing so much scenery go by in a day. I love seeing ecosystem transitions happen slowly at 3 miles per hour.
TTS: Do you finding thru hiking to be more of a mental or physical challenge?
Liz: Thru-hiking is a mental challenge for sure. To attempt a thru-hike, a person doesn’t have to be in the best shape. To stick with a thru-hike, one has to be mentally strong. When I set my AT record, an ATC volunteer told me half way through that “I didn’t look like much.” That’s true. I don’t look like an ultramarathoner. I don’t have veins popping out of my thighs. But I mentally can push through things and when I’m tired and in pain, my mind is the strong muscle that pushes me through.
TTS: Are there other female hikers you look up to or go to for support?
Liz: For sure. When I first started thru-hiking, I didn’t really know of other female hikers to look up to. Now, the internet and blogging has made it way easier to find and connect with other women. Heather Anderson and Jen Pharr Davis are high on that list. Kristin Gates is, I believe, the most badass female athlete in the US right now. When she received her Triple Crown (the same year as me) she beat me by a year to being the youngest female Triple Crowner. She was the first woman to solo the Brooks Range. This summer, she solo packrafted down the Yukon River. I want to nominate her for National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. She is such an inspiration.
TTS: What’s next?
Liz: Winter is a time for working and squirreling away funds for another summer of adventures. On the docket for next year for sure is the Sierra High Route and probably some guiding. I’m toying with urban thru-hiking Seattle. As far as the big trip of the year, that’s definitely still TBA. Check out eathomas.com, my facebook Liz Thomas Hiking, or twitter @eathomas as I’ll announce it as soon as I figure that out.