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Jonathan Stull | 08.28.2019

In 2011, Jennifer Pharr Davis accomplished something that few female athletes can: she completed the Appalachian Trail’s 2,185 miles in a record 46 days, 11 hours, and 20 minutes, maintaining an average of 47 miles per day. At the time, she was the fastest human, male or female, to complete the thru-hike. Her record stood for nearly 4 years, and—often overlooked—she was pregnant with her first child when she summited Springer Mountain at the trail’s southern terminus.

An endurance athlete with more than 16,000 miles under her feet, Jennifer owns and operates Blue Ridge Hiking Company, which outfits fledgling hikers in the Smokies of North Carolina, and in 2016 she published a book about thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail, The Pursuit of Endurance.

At Outdoor Project, we've made it part of our mission to celebrate and amplify the voices of women in the outdoors. In our third year of Women in the Wild, we are proud to share our platform again with courageous and inspiring female figures, like Jennifer, who are making a difference in the outdoor industry and the world at-large. They are shaping a new narrative daily, and they show us anything is possible with tenacity, creativity, and purpose.

 

I think we praise the accomplishments that men understand. There are so many things that women are doing outdoors, every day, that are uniquely feminine and just incredibly impressive. And they are taken for granted.

—Jennifer Pharr Davis

 

In this interview, we talk to Jennifer Pharr Davis about thru-hiking, nature as an equalizer, and motherhood.

 

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Pharr Davis.

Jonathan Stull: Tell us about Jennifer Pharr Davis. How would you describe your connection to the outdoors/adventure either professionally or through other pursuits today?

Jennifer Pharr Davis: Oh man, I love it. I’m so grateful for the outdoors. Professionally, I’m a hiker and a speaker and an author. I also own a hiking company in North Carolina called Blue Ridge Hiking Company, but my experience with the trail has fluctuated over the past 15 years. I did a traditional thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail when I was 21, and that completely changed my life.

I explored other trails, but I kept coming back to the AT. I went back a second time and set the women’s record and realized that I had really limited myself by putting myself in a different category from the guys and telling myself that I wasn’t going to perform at the same level. So I went back several years later, a third time, and set the overall record on the trail.

I’ve done a lot of short, slow hikes, and I’ve been on a trail in all 50 states with my daughter. I backpacked 600 miles in my second and third trimesters of pregnancy, and I walked about 1,000 miles across the state of North Carolina while I was still nursing my son.

I think I’m known for the AT record, but there have been so many other adventures and journeys and time spent outdoors, and I’m really, really grateful for all of them.

JS: Tell us about your passion/connection with thru-hiking? You have set records, written memoirs, hiked 600 miles while pregnant? How did your journey get you to where you are today?

JPD: Well I am totally romanticized by a long trail. I love the utilitarian-ness, and I know that seems contrary to being a romantic, but the fact that you can walk someplace else on a trail, someplace completely different—I just love that.

There are a lot of other hiking feats or options to go and do network hikes, or hike all the miles in a national forest, but to me to travel by foot is just so cool. To see how far you can go.

I do love a long trail, and I like to be a sounding board for people who have criticisms of long thru-hikes or section hikes or record hikes, because I’ve done them all. One is not better than the other in any way, shape, or form. They’re all different, we all have different seasons of life, we need different things at different times, and it is a luxury to do a traditional thru-hike on a long, long trail over 2,000 miles. It’s hard to give 5 or 6 months away from our communities and commitments to be able to do that. It’s a really special thing if you get to experience it.

On the other hand, one of the reasons I started going for the record was because I had a business. I had a husband, I didn’t have as much time, and I still had the desire to go really far. I had explored a lot of external environments, and now the exploration was, internally, what I was made of, what I could do, and who I was when I pushed past the bounds of what I thought was possible.

I really emptied myself out on the trail. That was super powerful, and now, I wouldn’t want to do a traditional thru-hike of over 2,000 miles or a record, because I love my kids, and I don’t want to be away that long. I’ve gotten kind of lazier in my old age, and I don’t know that I need to push my limits anymore. I’ve already done it, and I’ll tell you what: kids and owning your own business, those will push your limits in very similar ways as a record hike.

I’m pretty much a true section hiker at this point. I backpack usually about 300 miles a year, and it’s split up. I do trails in the southeast, so I’ll pop away from home for about 3 days, or 4, or 2, do that a couple times a year.

I get my miles in, and it’s just totally my rejuvenation and connection with the outdoors, time alone, and time to clear my head. I love it more than ever, I think it’s more important than ever, and I’m so grateful that the trail is not just one thing. Wherever you are in life, you can find a way to experience the outdoors. I just hope that when I’m 80, I’m still going out and just sitting on a stump. Who knows—maybe I’ll hike the whole AT again. Who knows how I’ll feel when I’m 80? I just want to still think that I’ll be out in nature in some way.

JS: How has motherhood changed your approach to thru-hiking?

JPD: Well, I just had more energy before I had kids. I don’t know. That was part of it. In some ways I didn’t need hiking quite the same way before I had kids. I could pour myself out more on the trail. I could spend longer out there, and I could go faster if I wanted a challenge.

Now I feel like every day is a challenge. And not in a negative way, in a really positive way. My life is super full. I have a business that I love, and it demands a lot out of me. I always wanted to be a mom, and I have these two beautiful kids. They look to me to meet their emotional needs, they want to be with me, and I want to be with them. It feels like a lot of days as a working mom that my best is never enough.

The trail is always this time for me now—and again, it’s shorter, it’s usually slower, not that slow—it just depends. Sometimes I’ll do 20 miles, 25, maybe 30, and sometimes I’m just so tired from everything going on at home, I go out and I do 5 miles, read a book, and sleep 12 hours.

I guess the trail before kids was a place that I could go and feel depleted, and that was a really positive thing. I could just pour myself out on the trail. Now the trail is a place where I go to feel rejuvenated, and I remind myself that my best is enough. As a mom and as someone who’s working hard, if I don’t compare myself constantly to other people, and I just focus on loving my kids well and working hard and trying to do the right thing, that’s enough, and that feels good.

The trail just gives you a different perspective, and I think I need it more now probably than I did—no, that’s not true, I’ve always needed it. But it’s really important. It’s really important now!

JS: Where do you draw your inspiration/motivation from? Has that changed over your time?

JPD: Hikers have a quote that says: The trail gives you what you need. And I think I found that to be really true.

My inspiration has always come from spending time outdoors, but in different periods of life the inspiration has come in different forms. So sometimes I go outside and I need solitude, and you can find it. Sometimes you need community, and it’s there. Sometimes you want healing or therapy, and I think the trail and the outdoors is a great place to find both of those. For me, sometimes, being outside has felt very spiritual and impacted my faith in really positive ways. Sometimes it’s been a really good thing for my marriage, if my husband and I go outdoors together. Again, sometimes it’s a place to challenge yourself, and sometimes it’s a place to be still with yourself. 

My inspiration has always come from nature, but to see the way that it provides in so many different ways, that’s one thing that keeps pulling me back. I know it’ll continue to meet me where I’m at and give me what I need, and I think that’s a universal thing.

I experience it personally, but, you know, the trail gives you what you need. And I’ve seen it in a lot of different people’s lives.

JS: What initiatives, projects, or goals are you focused on?

JPD: Well, this was a big year for Blue Ridge Hiking Company. We opened a lightweight backpacking boutique in downtown Asheville, and we’re really proud of it because it features the custom or cottage gear that you see on long trails. So what we have in our shop are brands such as ULA Equipment or Gossamer Gear or Six Moon Designs or Lightheart Gear. It’s really a shop built for lightweight backpackers in a way that you don’t see at a traditional outdoor store. That’s been a really great project.

We also opened a bunkhouse on the Appalachian Trail in Hot Springs, North Carolina. We purchased a double-wide trailer that sits right on the Appalachian Trail and converted it into this really clean, really nice, 10-person bunkhouse, and we call it the Appalachian Trail-er. That’s been really fun.

Both of those projects launched in April, and the trailer is especially unique because we have gear rentals and shuttles there. We’re really trying to attract not necessarily the thru-hikers coming through who already have their gear, but people who can come and get everything they would need to go backpacking, everything from the backpack to the camp stove. We can even prepare a few days of a backpacking menu—so set their food aside for them. We shuttle them down the trail, and they can hike back.

It makes the Appalachian Trail doable for someone who doesn’t have 5 or 6 months or doesn’t have all their gear, but they have work, they have family, and they just want to go backpacking. They might not need a guide, and now they can rent their gear and arrange their shuttles and experience the trail that way.

Those have been big projects for us. We’re also promoting the paperback version of the Pursuit of Endurance, which just came out.

JS: What have been some of the biggest challenges you have had to overcome related to your outdoor pursuits or your career? What helped you overcome those challenges?

JPD: There have been internal and external limitations, and personally, one of the reasons that I went back to the Appalachian Trail and did it three times is because the second time I did it, I set a record.

When I did it, there really wasn’t a women’s record on the trail, so I told myself, “There should be a women’s mark. There’s a guy’s mark, but guys are faster and stronger, and I’ll be good if I finish about 10 days behind the men.” And that’s exactly where I finished.

I knew by the time I got there that I had put myself in a box and a different category, and the experiences out there, my body showed my mind that I am capable of more than what my mind could perceive. By the end of that second hike, I believed there was no gender difference over 2,000 miles. And so I really had to overcome my culturally constructed ideas of what was possible on the trail for a woman to go back and then be successful at the record.

Externally, I got a lot of criticism, and I got a lot of people who never thought we had a shot at it because I, as a woman and mostly a hiker, was going against men who win, you know, 100-mile races consistently. I had to overcome a lot of external voices.

Similarly, with running a business in the outdoor industry, it’s so very male-driven. There’s still a big “bro” culture. There are a lot of gender barriers, and I think it’s not as welcoming and inclusive as it should be. That’s what I’ve noticed, but I’ve never felt it on the trail. The trail always shows me and makes me believe that I’m an equal.

JS: What advice would you give to young women interested in tackling a 2,000-mile thru-hike?

JPD: Do it! Oh my gosh, it is so great!

It just—ok, this is how I feel: My 5-month journey came right after college. There was more of value in those 5 months in regards to my education than in 4 months of university. And I’m not trying to devalue my college education—I am so grateful; it’s so important. But I learned things on the trail that changed my life, and I would’ve never learned them anywhere else.

I know that people, mostly moms—and I get it because I’m a mom—are concerned about safety on the trail, particularly for young women. But when you take the population of the trail and compare it to cities or towns or college campuses of equal size, the crime rate is actually lower on the trail. If you’re going to give your 16-year-old keys and send them to colleges with frat parties, they are literally probably safer hiking the Appalachian Trail.

The thing that really shaped me at a young age were learning the value of minimalism and having quality relationships with people who are very, very different from me, who had very different ages, backgrounds, and beliefs. Usually, you’re not spending 2 weeks walking next to someone in their 70s when you’re in college. There’s just as much wisdom there as in all the college classes, because there’s a lifetime of experience when you’re on the trail with someone who’s just so much older and so different and sharing their biggest regrets or what they’re most proud of.

And then, yeah, realizing the importance of time alone and time spent in nature. You know, conservation wasn’t that big on my radar. I grew up in the South. It just wasn’t a big part of my culture. I don’t think it would’ve been unless there was an experience and a value placed on the outdoors. And now it’s really important to me to try to make good decisions in regards to environmental health and conservation and protection for public lands. So yeah, I think it should be a part of every education, and it’s not. So if you could choose it, and you have the ability spend time outdoors and thru-hike or have some extended period of environmental education, then I would highly recommend it.

JS: What do you see as the most important issue or set of issues affecting women in your line of work and/or the outdoor industry? How do you hope to have an impact?

JPD: Um. Yeah. [laughs]

I don’t know. There’s just—I mean, like—it’s just still sexist! I don’t know how else to say it. And I want that to change. It’s going to take some females who really excel and put themselves out there, but it’s also going to take a change in culture.

It’s going to take a change from a lot of the males in the industry. There are so many great ones out there, and I’ll be the first to point out that the people who helped me set my record were predominantly men, and they were former record holders. They, in a lot of ways, put away their egos and were super supportive of me and really excited to see me succeed.

On the other hand, I know a couple people who have surpassed my record by a few hours rarely ever mention my name, and if they do it’s usually just my last name. I asked a former record holder: “If you think I were a guy that they would reference me more?” And they were like, “Absolutely.” I think there’s still a lot of ego and macheesmo.

I set the record and that got a lot of recognition, but I backpacked 600 miles in my second and third trimester. I walked across the state of North Carolina nursing a baby. Those got no recognition—not that I did it for recognition, because I certainly didn’t—but I think we praise the accomplishments that men understand. There are so many things that women are doing outdoors, every day, that are uniquely feminine and just incredibly impressive. And they are taken for granted.

I think we need to—what I would say is that any outdoor company that has sponsorship opportunities, they need to put as many women on their roster as men, and they should put equal funding and publicity toward both.

JS: What can the greater outdoor community and companies like OP do to better amplify and celebrate the voices of ALL women in our community?

JPD: Well. Having equal rosters and equal funding—that.

JS: Is there something the media can do?

JPD: Well, I just think the media’s really slanted. The media tends to tell male stories. And then the women highlighted are often over-sexualized as well. If you’re a man, it’s enough to be good; if you’re a woman, you have to be good and pretty. So that’s not good.

JS: How do you keep your pursuits going? How did you get it all to a point where this is a feasible lifestyle for you? How do you support your adventures/passions? Has this changed over time?

JPD: [laughs] I’m highly motivated, if you can’t tell. I love it. I love helping other people outdoors. I love continuing to explore on my own. My problem is not the motivation, my problem is taking time to breathe and enjoy it and just embrace where I am—and not always look ahead at the next adventure.

I married the perfect guy. He’s always like, “Slow down, you’re wearing me out!” And I’m like, “Keep up! We gotta keep going!” So yeah, I just think we complement each other really, really well and keep each other in check. Our strengths can also be our weaknesses at times. So I’m really grateful to have a partner who helps me appreciate the place where we are right now.

JS: Being on the trail is also difficult from a financial perspective. Is there anything you’ve done over the years, or anything you’ve found over the years, that helps you support your passions in that way?

JPD: Yeah, well again, it was really important for me to find the trails and thru-hiking before we bought a house. We’ve consciously made decisions in our life that can be supported through, you know, less income, and that can support a better quality of life and time away and time on the trail.

My husband, for a while, was a school teacher, and now we work together. But the first couple years that we did have adventures, whether it was a few weeks or a month or two in the summer, we always rented out our house while we were gone. So it covered the bills at home.

We’ve lived very simply at times. I’ll say it’s harder with kids—oh my gosh. I thought I had it dialed in, and then I had kids, and I was like, [gasp] “We will never have enough money!” It changes things!

Here’s a small example I was thinking about the other day: A couple of my daughter’s friends came over for play dates this year, and they made comments about either, “Your house isn’t that big,” or “I have so many more toys.” In your mom-brain, you’re just, “Oh no, why do I deprive my child of all these things?” Then I have to remind myself, my daughter’s been to all 50 states, almost twice! Twice over, now! And she’s been to six countries! We just prioritize different things than most of her friends and their families. Just trying not to be a consumer is pretty huge.

JS: What’s been the most useful advice given to you along your journey? What advice do you wish you were given when you were younger?

JPD: My friend Warren Doyle, who’s hiked the Appalachian Trail 18 times, he’s been a real support and help and friend in my journey. There was a time I was in a lot of pain—shocker!—going for the record on the Appalachian Trail, and I really thought I needed to quit. He told me, “There’s a difference between stopping and quitting.”

I think that one of the negative aspects of the outdoor culture is that you have to finish, you have to keep going. You have to push through every pain and every hardship. I think that we have to remember the times that stopping is the best and healthiest decision for everyone involved. That needs to be praised and applauded more.

The way Warren said it, and he didn’t explain it, he just said: “There’s a difference between stopping and quitting.” When he said that, I knew at that point that if I did not continue, it would feel very much to me like quitting. And I think for me that meant it’s because I can keep going that I want to keep going. Right now, it’s not stopping, it would be quitting, and I don’t want to quit, so I continued.

That was really powerful. I think in those low moments, sometimes people are like, “You can do it! You can keep going! You gotta keep going! You’re almost there!” For him to give me the power over the decision and to know that stopping isn’t a negative thing is what ultimately led me to continue.

Then, growing up, I went to this summer camp that wasn’t outdoorsy, but that was awesome. The director there had this quote, and he said, “If you never fail, then you haven’t set your goals high enough.” And that’s been a really powerful quote for me and my life on and off the trail.

One of the things I am most proud of at age 36 is that I’m a lot less fearful of failure than I used to be. And I think that’s a really important place to get to and a hard place to get to—not that I don’t think it sucks. I don’t want to fail! But I’d also much rather have a life with failure mixed in than trying to always stay within the bounds of success and the image of looking good.

JS: At Outdoor Project, we put a strong emphasis on the phrase “adventure like you give a damn,” which refers to putting effort into responsible recreation. This can come through volunteering with a local conservation group that stewards an area you care about or helping getting an underserved community into the outdoors; educating others on Leave No Trace practices; packing out some extra trash; or even doing things at home that help protect the environment and nature like reducing use of plastics.  How do you “adventure like you give a damn” in your own way?

JPD: I definitely think we try to empower both women and children. You know, children are the future of conservation and the outdoors. We work specifically with that through our hiking company.

Our vision statement is that the trail is there for everyone at every phase of life. We are a commercial guiding outfit, but we offer scholarship positions on almost every group hike that we run. So we really try to expose new people to the trail to increase the value of the outdoors in their life to encourage them to think about conservation.

Honestly, maybe the biggest impact I have is just raising children. It’s intimidating to think about conservation because, being a parent, your best just never feels like enough. Each year, we try to make one change to our family lifestyle and stick with it. So that you know we can reduce our impact or be more conservation minded. One year, we got solar panels. One year, we started eating more local and organic food. One year, we got a hybrid car.

Also, we work closely, personally and through our company, with the local trail-maintaining club. Where we live, it is the Carolina Mountain Club, and we also work with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. We volunteer time to those organizations who help build and maintain trails in sustainable ways and acquire land for conservation and work on protected easements. We give a lot of time and energy to all that.

So it’s not one thing. It never feels like enough. But I feel like we try to do a lot of positive things in that way.

JS: What’s been your favorite adventure/hike to date and why? What’s on your adventure bucket list and/or coming up for you?

JPD: Well, the Appalachian Trail is my favorite because I’ve spent the most time out there and it’s had the biggest impact on my life. I really love everything—I love the mountains and how old and resilient they feel, I love the biodiversity and the complex forest, I love the history of the trail, I love the communities nearby. So there’s a lot I love about the AT.

But it’s interesting because I’ve hiked, obviously, a lot of other trails, and people are like, “Well why don’t you ever talk about the Pacific Crest Trail? Why don’t you have a book about that?” And I’m like, “Because it was lovely!” My experience out there was like, “Oh, this is a really beautiful, amazing, enjoyable hike!” Not to say that the AT is not, but I think my favorite and most memorable trails are often ones that test you the most. And that can be very much more about where you are in life than necessarily the trail you are hiking. Yeah! The AT is my fave.

JS: Is there a trail that’s calling to you? Maybe the Camino de Santiago or the Hayduke Trail?

JPD: I’ve done some chunks of the Camino, and I would love to do the Hayduke, but I was working on section hiking the Continental Divide so I could be a true triple-crowner, and I think I have about 1,000 miles done. After having my daughter, I would go out there and hike, and it was so beautiful.

But I remember being in the Wind River Range in Wyoming, and I was just so sad. I was so teary, because I was away from my 2-year-old for 2 weeks. And I felt very remote and very removed. My 2-year-old was absolutely fine, but I just realized I didn’t want to hike a trail right now to check off a box. I didn’t want to miss out on my time as a mom with young kids to do these long-distance treks.

So my adventures right now are: I’ve been picking 200- to 300-mile trails in the southeast and trying to complete one of those every year. And it feels so good. And it feels so right. I think adventuring in your backyard is really important. And I know that’s where I want to be right now.

But long term? Yes! All of it! Everywhere! When those suckers hit 18, momma’s gone. She’s done her job, you know?

JS: What is the message you would like to share with the world, the outdoor community, and other women in general? Or what is a story you hope to tell in your lifetime?

JPD: To not limit yourself based on gender. To step outside these cultural and societal constructs that we put ourselves in. To feel beautiful and wild because we are a part of nature. So go out and get away from billboards and magazines and commercials and don’t take a mirror and realize that you are a part of all the beauty that surrounds you.

To hear more from Jennifer Pharr Davis, follow her on Instagram @jenpharrdavis and Facebook. Take the time to read her book, Pursuit of Endurance, published by Penguin Random House and available at JenniferPharrDavis.com, Amazon, and wherever books are sold. You won’t regret it.

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Women in the Wild 2019

Women in the Wild is a movement that recognizes the amazing women who enrich the outdoor community with their passions, inspirations, and accomplishments. Outdoor Project is proud to grow this campaign in 2019 with the help of guest editor and 2018 #womaninthewild Georgina Miranda, adventurer, entrepreneur, mountaineer, and founder and CEO of She Ventures. We're proud to open our platform once again for the incredible stories and photography of women throughout our community. From in-depth interviews with outdoor advocates, influencers, and athletes to female-focused content from the community, Women in the Wild 2019 aims to amplify the voice of women in celebration of female fortitude, strength, and camaraderie in the outdoors.

For a complete list of content published in correlation with Women in the Wild 2019, visit Women in the Wild 2019: Amplifying Women in the Outdoors.

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