The boots of female hiking pioneers such as Cheryl Strayed are large ones to fill — and increasing numbers of women are taking up the challenge.
In 2017, almost half of the people who undertook on the world’s longest ‘hiking only’ footpath — the Appalachian Trail — were female. What inspired them? What precautions did they take? We take a look at the whats, whys, and hows for taking on this stunning slice of America.
In 1955, Emma Gatewood (better known as Grandma Gatewood) became the first woman to hike the full length of the trail from Georgia to Maine solo — at the age of 67. A mother to 11 children, grandmother, and great grandmother, this remarkable lady first took to the woods to flee a violent husband. The trees and nature became her lifeblood.
The Appalachian Trail Museum says that she inspired two distinct movements in long distance hiking: women through-hikers and the ultra-lite movement. People along the trail used to come out to see Grandma Gatewood, such as at Georgia’s popular Springer Mountain, at the southern end of the trail.
Grandma Gatewood went on to through-hike the Appalachian Trail another two times, showing others that it can be done without a tent or sleeping bag. Nowadays, there are huts every six-to-eight miles along the trail, where hikers can stop to rest or sleep for the night, and carry on the ultra-lite tradition, which means less burden on the environment from discarded items.
Grandma Gatewood might not be a household name, but the modern incarnation of a female hiking hero in Cheryl Strayed certainly is. At the age of 26, when her life had unravelled after the premature death of her mother, Strayed took to the 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), from Mexico to Canada, to deal with the grief and find purpose in her life.
Her 2012 memoir, Wild: From Lost To Found on the Pacific Crest Trail has gone on to become a New York Times bestseller. It was also turned into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon, inspiring people with her honesty and fearlessness:
“Uncertain as I was as I pushed forward, I felt right in my pushing, as if the effort itself meant something. That perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of the regrettable things I’d done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me. Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.”
Strayed finds clarity on the Pacific Crest Trail, but she writes almost as longingly about food. Living on miserable, dried portions (and often running out), the cravings of her soul were at times overtaken by the cravings of her body. And with good reason. The average woman hiking 15 miles per day on the trail will need to consume about 5,000 calories — around 3,500 more than she’d need sitting at home.
In other words, if you’re tempted to trek the Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trails (which we hope you are), you’ll need to bring a few of your favourite chocolate bars and other treats along for the journey.
Only one quarter of ‘through-hikers’ — those attempting the 2,200-mile journey through 14 states — will make it to the end of the Appalachian Trail.
One of those who didn’t quite make it all the way was Bill Bryson, whose wildly popular 1997 book A Walk In The Woods chronicled the journey of an unfit writer taking to the Trail. Summing up his experience, he says:
“I wish that just once I had truly stared death in the face (briefly, with a written assurance of survival). But I got a great deal else from the experience. I learned to pitch a tent and sleep beneath the stars. For a brief, proud period I was slender and fit. I gained a profound respect for wilderness and nature and the benign dark power of woods. I understand now, in a way I never did before, the colossal scale of the world. I found patience and fortitude that I didn’t know I had. I had discovered an America that millions of people scarcely know exists … Best of all, these days when I see a mountain, I look at it slowly and appraisingly, with a narrow, confident gaze and eyes of chipped granite.”
Bryson, like Strayed, was comically under prepared for his hiking journey. It makes for great reading, but isn’t nearly as amusing when you’re out in the wilds. There are some great hiking stores at popular points along the trail, such as Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, that can help you with equipment and advice.
Though the Appalachian Trail means precious time away from being connected to the world through your screen, the internet is still a hiker’s best friend. The rise in women hiking the Trail has seen some fantastic blogs written by female hikers, with practical safety advice for your trip, including:
- Appalachian Trail Girl, who says safety wasn’t an issue, but you have to be prepared: “I always kept my knife and pepper spray in my hip-belt pocket for quick access. I never needed them for protection though. It’s just nice to be prepared.”
- Rahawa Haile, one of the few black women to attempt a through-hike of the Appalachian Trail, who says that climate change is becoming a challenge for hikers: “There was no water [in Pennsylvania]. Fewer people would have finished the hike if there hadn’t been trail angels leaving huge caches of water at road crossings.”
- Danielle, who says that there are benefits in hiking solo as a woman: “Most importantly, the trail community really does look after everyone. The majority of people I met on the trail treated me as an equal and I valued this experience.”
Hiking the Appalachian Trail is a life-changing experience, but hiking it from end-to-end takes a huge investment of time and energy. It’s no easy undertaking, but thanks to Grandma Gatewood’s ultra-lite pioneering, dedicated tourist infrastructure along the Trail, and Intrepid’s new Appalachian Trail itinerary, which takes hikers on a stretch of trail between Maine and New Hampshire, there’s more help than ever to get you across the finish line.
Inspired to take on the Appalachian Trail? Check out our 9-day trekking adventure now.
Feature image by Jonathan A. Mauer.