Jennifer Pharr Davis may have set a blistering pace in 2011 when she broke the world record for hiking the entire 2,185-mile Appalachian Trail (AT) in just 46 days, but the tall, lean wife and mother has made it her life’s work to introduce novices to the slow, beautiful and instructive world of the trail, one step at a time.
Pharr Davis, 30, has been taking beginners into the wild since 2008, when she founded Blue Ridge Hiking Company in Asheville, N. C. It’s a natural sharing of passion for this adventurer, who has hiked more than 12,000 miles on six continents, including three thru-hikes (covering a long- distance trail from one end to another) on the AT, one thru-hike of the 2,663-mile Pacific Crest Trail, plus 600-mile hikes in Australia (setting another speed record) and Iceland (during her second and third trimesters of pregnancy).
While Pharr Davis has drawn deep lessons from hours alone on unforgiving terrain, she says there are riches for all hikers, regardless of age or ability. “The trail is there for everyone at every phase of life,” she says. “It’s the best, cheapest therapist I know.”
The author of the 2013 memoir Called Again: A Story of Love and Triumph, who has spoken about teamwork, faith, conservation and perseverance to groups from college students to Fortune 500 executives, shares advice for making the most of your time on the trail.
First things first. Pharr Davis advises getting in shape before you go out, and not just because it will build fitness for the challenges of the trail. “You’ll enjoy it more,” she says. “It builds some anticipation, that you’re invested in the experience.” Hike stadium bleachers wearing a backpack loaded with the items you plan to carry for 30 minutes several days a week to get started, or hop on a stair-stepper at the gym. Yoga and cycling are great cross-training activities, she says, to build leg and core strength.
Easy does it. Choose a day hike of three to six miles on moderate terrain to begin with. “Make sure you’re not making a huge leap outside of your comfort zone,” she says. “Stretch your legs and see how you feel afterwards. Maybe you’ll need to scale it back next time, maybe you need to go for more.”
Consider safety. Even on relatively short excursions, bring safety essentials including extra layers for warmth, a rain jacket, a map and a compass. If you have health concerns, consult with your doctor about extra items that you might want to carry with you.
Do your homework. Smart phones can make navigation easier, but they’re unreliable in the backcountry. Outdoor and hiking clubs will often conduct workshops on map reading and navigation; ask your local camping/hiking retailer for clubs nearest you. Also, national outdoor retailers like REI and EMS often conduct courses.
Listen and learn. Take in every sunset, every waterfall, every blossom and bird call. “There are universal lessons of the trail,” she says. “You relearn the value of simplicity. You don’t need a lot of stuff to be happy or content.”
Live in the moment. When you’re on a daunting hike, try not to think about how far you have to go. Instead, focus on the present: “You can always take one more step!” Pharr Davis says.
Take the trail home. “The trail teaches self- confidence and self-reliance that can carry over into your career or any goal.”