November 7, 2014 / Comments (1)

A Closer Look: TrailSigns

For the month of November I am highlighting some of my favorite hiking based companies, giving readers a closer look into the people who make the gear they love on the trail as well as products that remind us of the trail when we can’t be there. Today we are featuring Phillip Ouellette, Appalachian Trail thru hiker turned entrepreneur; owner of TrailSigns: a replica hiking trail sign shop.

One of Phillip’s replica trail signs; Photo courtesy of Phillip Ouellette


When did you begin hiking? What was your inspiration?

Phillip: I got serious about backpacking about four years ago, with a multi-day trip along the Appalachian Trail in the White Mountains [of New Hampshire]. After that, I knew I wanted to thruhike. I spent most of 2012 climbing the 4000 footers in the Whites, and finally decided to make the leap and hike the AT in 2013. I couldn’t say what inspired me to do it. It was nothing in particular, other than hiking and spending extended time in the mountains made me happy again, and I felt like I hadn’t been happy in a long time. I had been battling anxiety and depression for years, and the mountains fixed me. There’s no other way to say it. And when you find something that works that effectively, and is that powerful, it’s almost useless to try to resist its calling. Putting your life on hold, quitting a good job and moving out of a nice apartment is scary, for sure. But not doing it finally became more scary, and the scales tipped. At that point, it was clear what I had to do. I put all my stuff in a friend’s basement and started hiking south from Katahdin on June 10, 2013.


You hiked the Appalachian Trail Southbound which is not the popular direction. Why did you choose this route?

Phillip: As much as I like to give NOBO’s a hard time by saying “Southbound is the proper way to go, don’t you know, the official motto is ‘Maine to Georgia’!”, choosing to go South was basically a timing thing. The sign shop I worked for was moving to a new location in May, and I had to help move and set up in the new space. I was originally going to NOBO, since, as you said, it’s the most popular direction, but I decided to go South since I couldn’t really start til June. Turns out, circumstance made the best decision for me; SOBOing definitely suited my personality better, and it turns out most Southbounders also went the non-traditional direction due to timing issues as well. I hope more people decide to go South for it’s own sake, it’s a very unique experience with a lot of advantages. Fewer hikers vying for room in shelters and hostels is definitely a plus.
Phillip thru hiking the AT; photo courtesy of Phillip Ouellette



What were the challenges of hiking Southbound?

Phillip: Well, obviously tackling Maine and the Whites first thing is insanely hard, I’m not going to sugarcoat it. There were times where I was so tired I felt ill, as my body tried to adapt to my new hiking routine. I dropped ten pounds in the Hundred Mile Wilderness alone, and twenty by the time I got to Gorham. There were mornings where I would think “This is going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”, and sometimes it was. I would curse the trail, and the rain, and felt inadequate compared to the NOBO’s who were flying by me, effortlessly (or so it seemed), doing twice my mileage. But I kept plugging away, justifying 8 or 10 mile days by saying to myself, “I’ll make it up the miles in the Mid-Atlantic and Virginia.” Turns out, that’s exactly what I did. I averaged 10 miles a day from Katahdin to Killington, but as the terrain smoothed out I started doing 20’s, 25’s, the occasional 30, and I got back on track.
In a way, though, I would rather get my trail legs in New England than tackle New England after being beaten up by the trail for 4 months. When I did Maine I still had meat on my bones, and was in good health, and even though I went slow, I had the fortitude, physically and psychologically, to push through it. I can’t imagine getting to the Whites when I’m 30 pounds down, emotionally worn out, emaciated, and the weather is getting cold – I give NOBO’s all the credit in the world for that. SOBO’s get it out of the way early, which is a blessing and a curse. Not that there aren’t a million challenges South of New Hampshire; anyone who says “It’s all a cakewalk after the Whites!” to a Southbounder is a damn liar!
Maine to Georgia; Photo courtesy of Phillip Ouellette


Your AT thru hike ended abruptly. Can you tell us about what happened? How and when did you finish the trail?

Phillip: I was hiking with a few people in our group – we’d grown to a troop of almost ten SOBO’s, hiking in various configurations on any given day, and dubbed ourselves, ridiculously, the Trail Kittens – and we were hiking down into Indian Grave Gap, close to Erwin, TN. I’d been on the trail for a week shy of five months, and we were coming down a normal hill, like a million others on the trail, when I stumbled and fell on my knee. I was wearing pants, and when I knew it was probably bad when I saw they were torn and bloody. When I pulled my pant leg up we saw the extent of the injury – it was a 5” gash just below the kneecap, all the way to the bone. I had torn it open on a sharp stick, I suspect, but I’m still not sure.
We got it bandaged up with my pack towel and duct tape, and [my hiking partner] Magnet called 911. We kept pressure on it, and it stopped bleeding quickly. I remember sitting on the hill waiting for the rescue and saying to Magnet, “That’s it, isn’t it? That’s the thru-hike.” She feigned optimism, weakly. We’d hiked together the longest, from New York, and we had 350 miles to go to Springer, and it ended in a split second, with no warning. It was heartbreaking, but at the moment I just wanted to get to a doctor.
We were lucky to be close to the road, maybe only a quarter mile, and about 45 minutes later an EMT showed up, followed by a group with a stretcher with a single wheel mounted on the bottom, designed for just such a rescue. They strapped me in, carried me down to a waiting ambulance, and got me into Johnson City, where they X-rayed it and amazingly, I hadn’t injured any bones or tendons. They washed it out and stitched it up with 31 sutures, gave me a brace to wear while it healed, and sent me on my way. I stayed with some wonderful trail angels for a few days, and my folks came and picked me up and drove me back to Little Rock, my hometown, where I recuperated for 6 weeks.
The Trail Kittens finished twenty days after I got hurt. I was still on crutches when they called me from the summit of Springer; I was so happy for them but it was heartbreaking not to be there with them. I came back to Boston and got settled and worked for a while, planning to finish in the spring. In that time I was also diagnosed with Lyme, which happened to manifest itself by inflaming my injured knee. I was again on crutches, and unsure if I’d be able to hike, but after starting the Doxycycline, I improved rapidly. Against the doctor’s recommendation, I decided to stay on track and finish my hike.
Magnet, Nectar and Revolver, three of the Kittens, came out and hiked with me; Nectar accompanied me all the way to Springer, re-hiking 350 miles. We started where I got hurt on April 19th, and summited Springer Mountain on May 15th, 11 months after I’d begun the year before. It was all the more satisfying, having overcome a gruesome injury and Lyme disease. Springer may not be the most beautiful or remarkable summit, but when I saw the plaque all I could do was weep on Nectar’s shoulder. It had been an intense journey, and the people I met and the obstacles we overcame together will be a part of me for the rest of my life.


What made you decide to start a business making replica trail signs?

Phillip: I had worked in the sign business for 10 years prior to thruhiking. I really like the craft of creating something that is both aesthetically pleasing and functional; engineering signs to withstand the brutal winters of New England is a fun challenge. My friend John, who originally got me interested in serious backpacking, commissioned a sign from me as a Christmas present to his dad, a copy of the Zealand Hut sign. It turned out well, and I opened an Etsy store to do more. I got a lot of orders from all over the country, and found that I really enjoyed making them.
I feel like there’s a real connection to signs on the trail. Seeing that shelter sign after hiking for miles in the cold rain is just about the most beautiful sight you can imagine. Or that sign at the summit, and you know your hard climb is over (for a while). Signs are milestones, landmarks, an indication you’re moving forward or moving into a new part of your journey. There’s that sinking feeling when you think it’s the summit sign and it’s just a sign that says “alpine zone, stay on the trail”! Signs mark crossroads, they show the paths we take and the ones we skip, the views that are too far away. The termini are marked by signs; we take pictures next to them to document our position on the trail. They are exceptionally important. “Welcome to Damascus” was a big one for me, along with the sign welcoming me to New Hampshire, and the one at the border of Tennessee and Virginia, when we knew our unending trek through the longest state was over. So making these reproductions is fulfilling for me, I think, because signs have such an emotional connection to our journey, they bring back a little of those intense feelings from our time on the trail.


Where did you learn to carve wood?

Phillip: I’ve worked with wood and a lot of other building materials for 15 years, working as a carpenter, painter, and signmaker. Since vinyl cutters and CNC routers are reasonably affordable these days, which is great, the art of hand-carving and hand-painting is all but lost. I took an incised letter-carving workshop at the North Bennet Street School a couple of years ago, because I wanted to know how to do it. For those who don’t know, NBSS is an amazing institution in the North End, specializing in crafts like violin making, piano repair, cabinet making, wood carving – truly old-school. I am by no means an expert carver, I have many more years of practice before I could claim that, but I enjoy it immensely, and getting lost carving wood is great; it’s meditative and calming… a bit like hiking. I also enjoy the craft of reproduction itself, looking at a piece and deciding how to make a convincing copy requires a knowledge of techniques, processes, and materials. I also make signs with more modern automated methods, but hand-carving is a special – and time-consuming – thing.


What has been your favorite project so far?

Phillip: I love making the Katahdin signs; I’ve made several for people all over the country, mostly former thru hikers. I got an order for a couple who thruhiked together a few years ago and are now expecting a baby boy. His middle name will be Katahdin, and they ordered a sign to hang in his nursery. Knowing that the piece I made will be there as he grows up, and hopefully he will always keep, was a pretty awesome concept, and I was very happy making that one.
Replica Katahdin sign; Photo courtesy of Phillip Ouellette



Can you tell us a little bit about what goes into making each sign?

Phillip: I like to use repurposed materials, like old barnwood or house clapboards. They have character, and mimic the look of wood that has been exposed to the elements (often because it actually has). Oftentimes I have to create a sign panel by attaching lengths of board together with vertical stays, and then sand it down to create a workable surface. I lay out the sign on the computer, picking fonts – or sometimes creating my own – to match the look of what I’m reproducing. I use a vinyl cutter to create a pattern, which I apply to the panel and then carve. For larger or more ornate lettering I’ll carve by hand, with a V-groove technique, and sometimes use a little hand router for smaller text. I’ll then prime the sign and paint fill the letters with whatever color they are – usually white or some variation of off-white – and then when that’s dry roll the “background” color with a roller, which is usually dark brown. That way you’re not stuck painting the letters individually, the roller “misses” the incised or routed parts, leaving them white. This is the routine for say, the Katahdin or Washington signs, but this will all be modified depending on the project.


Are customers limited to the signs on your site or are there other options?

Phillip: If you can provide a good photo, I can make just about anything. Obviously my prices will vary with complexity and size. I have a lot of “stock” things on my Etsy page that just seem to be popular, but honestly I prefer doing custom work, I don’t really like making the same thing over and over again. Often I’ll just make a one-off piece, like the “Trail Love” carving, if an idea comes to me and I have some free time. I’ll put it up for sale, that is, if I don’t want to keep it for myself!
The tallest peak in New England! Photo courtesy of Phillip Ouellette


If you love what you’re seeing, check out more of Phillip’s work on his Etsy page or connect with TrailSigns on Facebook! With the holidays right around the corner, a replica trail sign is the perfect present for the hiker on your list!
Appalachian Trail love; Photo courtesy of Phillip Ouellette

Also check out A Closer Look: ZPacks

Last modified: September 2, 2017

One Response to :
A Closer Look: TrailSigns

Join the discussion