Liz Thomas I Long Distance Adventure Hiker
“From the backpacking perspective...seeing life at 3 mph just slows things down and makes you appreciate the beauty that’s around you and the people that are around you a lot more.”
A friend recently sent us to the website of Liz Thomas: Long Distance Adventure Hiker, and we were blown away. She rocks! Liz Thomas is a well-traveled adventure athlete most known for breaking the women’s unsupported speed record on the 2,181-mile long Appalachian Trail in 2011 at the age of 22. Did you get that? 22 years old! She is one the the most experienced women hikers in the country having backpacked over 10,000 miles across the US. Liz has been featured in Backpacker Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and LA Magazine and has given talks about her experiences at colleges, hiking clubs, and conferences across the country. We were so psyched when she accepted our invitation to be part of By Way Of. - D + J
Where did you grow up? And how would you describe that place and it’s people?
I grew up in Northern California. It was kind of a typical suburban upbringing. I grew up in a place where we were only an hour and a half from the mountains, but the way the city was designed it wasn’t really that walkable, and so I found myself being drawn towards the open spaces there were. As I grew up and went to college and saw a different world, I kept going to bigger and bigger open spaces. That is kind of how it influenced me to become the adventurer that I’ve become.
How long have you been doing what you do?
This is my 8th season spending the summer walking.
What were you like as a child? What did you want to be when you grew up? Do you think this influenced what you do now?
I don't think so at all. As a child I was really drawn to nature, but I wasn’t really that active. My mom is from Japan, she was born there and grew up there. She grew up in a Japan that (and even now) is not really for equality...not a great place to be a woman. Women didn't really do physical activity, they didn’t run or anything. So having that background I think becoming physically active, becoming adventurous was a way I rebelled as a teenager. And then I loved it and over time it blossomed into this thing, and my mom has become really supportive of what I do.
I don't think I ever thought of this. As a kid I definitely thought “Oh. it’d be awesome to climb mountains and stuff.” Even now the idea that someone can grow up and become an explorer or adventurer is...it’s something kids think about, but when you are an adult you are like “How does that work?”
So yeah, how does that work?
The first few years I was doing it, I was in school during the fall, winter, and spring. I would be able to work enough and I got grants to do some research that had to do with hiking, so that is how I was able to make it work for the first part. And then after that, I was like okay, it’s time for me to buckle down...get a cubicle job and the idea just...I just kept thinking “What about just one more season?” It was like I would do anything it took to make it work. Right now I make it work partly through support from sponsors, gear companies I work with, partially through speaking engagements. I speak at colleges, outdoor clubs, hiking clubs, women's groups, and also through writing about hiking adventures.
What has been your most challenging adventure?
You know, it is kind of hard because everything has a different kind of challenging aspect. Last summer I did a long distance hike in Japan where, my Japanese is pretty good but it was still like you had this language and cultural barrier. Physically and mentally it was not a very hard hike, but there was this added element of something that I had to think about a little bit more.
And then, The Continental Divide Trail is pretty difficult. I started really late because of going to a conference and some work and a memorial service I was going to. There is a two week window to start The Continental Divide Trail because you want to get through before the snows come and you want to start after the snows have melted...except they haven’t. So, I started really late and I ended up going through the big mountains of southern Colorado through a whiteout and a blizzard. And in Colorado’s early snow storms you also get lightening with them...so at 13,000ft, I’m up to my waist in snow, and lightning. Like, WOW, this is pretty scary.
I’ve definitely done some solo things in the Sierra where it’s been cross country navigation on some 3rd class rock climbing stuff in the snow...and you are looking down thinking “Huh, I wish I told mom exactly which route I was taking…” But everything has worked out pretty well.
I think on my blog I have talked about how on The Continental Divide Trail grizzlies are kind of a problem. One of my good friend’s dad is a bear ranger in Glacier National Park. And so I have asked him, “So what is the deal?” And he said, “You know, I have hiked with my kids when they were really young through the most dense grizzly population in the lower 48...and if it’s a problem, just make a lot of noise.” Normally you just call out every 5 minutes “Hey Bear” and you know the bear is not scared, but as long as you are not startling them usually it’s okay. So I got to this section that is kind of on a road block near Levi Spring which is where Sacajawea showed the most distant spring to Lewis and Clark. So there’s some cars coming and I’m thinking, "Okay, this is kind of a busy area there are cars here there are probably won’t be any bears here."
I am going along all happy, I haven’t called out my “Hey Bear” and then like right there there is a grizzly! I was like “OH, uhhh…” I got out my bear spray and called out “Hey Bear..I’m here. go away.” And it stays there. Then it starts charging toward me! And I’m like “uh oh” so I go off to the side, hop a barbed wire fence, and think “Okay, let’s stay cool. Let’s look big.” And then the bear just hangs out and doesn’t leave. It is on the same trail that I am on and on either side there are barbed wire fences. So there is only one way forward for me and the bear is just hanging out. So, I am like “Okay, if I approach slowly...make a lot of noise….maybe it will go off.” But eventually I get a whiff of this horrible smell. And I see this bloated blackened carcass and I think what it was, was the grizzly protecting it’s protein source. It was either a poached elk or cattle that had died. And for grizzlies, especially early in the season, protein is really, really valuable to them. So this grizzly thought that I was trying to take its precious food source.
What do you do to prepare yourself for these hikes?
I think in some ways going on these long hikes is more mental than physical. So trying to get myself ready mentally is really important. One thing is preparing..kind of refreshing myself. Worst case scenario...what do I do? I think taking wilderness first aid courses, or wilderness first responder courses is really useful in refreshing myself. Really thinking about mentally how to prevent getting to that point where I need to use first aid. I think the thing about hiking or exploring and adventuring is catching yourself, being able to gauge yourself before really bad things happen. So if you’re cold, maybe you want to warm up before you get hypothermia. That sort of thing. If you feel a blister coming on why don't you take care of it now instead of waiting until it becomes infected and you can't walk anymore.
As far as physical training goes, I usually like to do a lot of yoga and rock climbing. Yoga helps me get into a mental space where I know where my edge is and I know how to not go over my edge, which is really important when you are trying to push yourself. And then rock climbing is the same sort of thing but it is also really good for footwork and also getting myself really comfortable with exposure. When you do things like that in a safe environment, instead of when you are hundreds of miles from civilization where no one is going to be able to help you, it makes you more prepared. And then hiking is the best training for..well...hiking and backpacking. I usually go around with a weighted pack. When the weather is really bad I am like “Well, I am going out” because if I am on a trail near my house and it is snowing on me, or the weather is really bad, or it is below zero, and I get to go back to my car and go home and take a hot shower….then when that happens to me when I am really far away from civilization I can remember back “Like, oh yeah, this is like that time that I went out...and it’s not that bad.”
Can you talk a little bit about Urban Hikes?
I just lead and Urban Hiking trip in Denver on Saturday. My academic interest is in urban planning and trying to make cities more walkable and pedestrian friendly. Especially since I am carless in Denver I think a lot about all the things that you can experience on foot. From the backpacking perspective...seeing life at 3 mph just slows things down and makes you appreciate the beauty that’s around you and the people that are around you a lot more.
When I was invited by the LA stair climbing community to come out there and do their urban thru-hike which is about 200 miles long it was covered in Backpacker Magazine (last September’s issue) the idea was to take all these public stairways that go through LA and connect them. So I think of LA as really flat, but it turns out it is actually really hilly (think Hollywood Hills) and so everyones' houses in the 20’s were up on these terraces on these hills and then the trolley cars would run in the valleys between. When they built the city they had these public stairways that were kind of like “sidewalks” that go down from the hills to the trolleys. Now the trolleys are gone but the public stairways are still there. In Santa Monica there is this really well known public stairway that everyone goes to.
There are a bunch in these really diverse neighborhoods in LA. So the Urban Hike was a really cool way to see distinct neighborhoods in LA and how they are split off by all the highways and thruways that have been built, but these stairways are a way to connect them. A way to get an idea of the flavor but also see the way that they are similar. It was really cool. A way better way to see LA instead of by tour bus or a car. It make the city’s sprawling mass seem really close. This neighborhood is next to this or that and it is all within walking distance. Which is crazy because you never think of anything in LA as within walking distance.
What is your favorite part of what you do?
I really like talking to people, especially young women that are part of the outdoor college clubs about hiking these long trails because I think when I first started there really weren’t that many women, especially women that were vocal about what they were doing. I felt like I was looking at guide information and I didn’t feel like there was a model out there that made me feel like “Hey that person has done it, so I can do it too.” And I really like that. Also, some of the times when I am out hiking by myself and I am somewhere where there is a great view and I am getting into a state of flow..I love that too.
One of the things I love about long distance hiking is that everyone is slowed down. They are not busy doing something for work or they don't have a meeting or something. And because of it we all kinda look the same, we are all kind of grimy, we are all going through the same experience. So hiking long trails is like a great leveler. In the normal world, like in NYC, wouldn't run into people of different socioeconomic classes or different age groups or from different backgrounds. But while hiking our background is - we started in Georgia and we are walking to Maine. It is the best icebreaker ever.
Is there someone that inspires you...a mentor?
Yeah, I didn't really discover that until fairly recently. When I was on the AT (Appalachian Trail) in 2011 going northbound, when I beat the Women’s unassisted record, Jennifer Pharr Davis was going southbound and she beat the men’s and women’s supported record on the AT. I didn't actually get to see her, but i got to see her support crew..it was cool to run into them. She is really amazing. This past year Heather Anderson who broke the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) men’s and women’s unassisted record has also been really amazing. Sometimes she will email me a question about a trail that she hasn't done before and I am like “Oh my god Heather Anderson….” Also Kristen Gates who is just a complete bad ass. She was the first woman to solo the Brooks Range in Alaska. She goes down into the Yukon by herself. She is a straightup explorer..like 17th century...an amazing amazing woman.
What advice do you have for someone looking to do adventures like you do?
I would first try to gauge their outdoor experience and figure out what they want to do and then I would suggest deciding on a trail to do and getting as much planning information and reading as much about it as possible. and then from there I would start thinking about gear and nutrition. I would highly suggest women go with Ultralight gear. We weigh less than men, so the idea of carrying a 90 lb pack for 2,000mi sounds horrible and you don't have to do that anymore with the gear that is out there. I think that is a great way for women and older people who maybe want to get into it. It used to be an obstacle..but that is totally old school now….obsolete...you don’t have to worry about that anymore.
I would suggest doing a trail like the AT maybe or even a shorter trail where there is support infrastructure. So you can go into town if something goes wrong. That would be where I would start.
And just go out there and do it. It is so mental. So if you are super motivated to do it, do it. I have seen people who have lived through really traumatic events and they are so excited about doing it that it doesn’t matter. They are able to push through. It can be such a healing experience.
What was your first big hike?
Well it depends on how you define big. My first hike I did was the Tahoe Rim Trail which is 165 mi around Lake Tahoe up on the crest. It is a really pretty trail. A great first trail. And then the AT was my first really long trail.
How prepared for that were you?
As far as the camping and stuff goes I wasn't really that great. When I was in Tahoe I had more of a traditional backpack, it was a little heavier. And when I was on the AT I was like “I’m going to have to carry this for 2,000mi, I want something that is a little bit lighter.” The hiking part I was like...I am doing this, this is awesome! Then every night when I had to camp I was making all the stupid first mistakes. I didn't really practice setting up my shelter. I had a night where it rained and I was sleeping in a hammock with a tarp over it. It was like sleeping in a hanging bathtub. It was raining so hard that I didn't want to get up. I thought to myself “If this happens one more time, I am quitting..this is horrible.”
When I went back and beat the record in 2011 I stayed in all the same spots and I was in a hammock and I was like “You know what? If I have any problems, I am rocking this!” In life you don't really have any rewind buttons, but this was a way to hit the rewind button.
What is the next adventure you have planned?
Yeah, I have a couple things planned. I think I may go back and do the Tahoe Rim Trail. I am doing a talk up in Truckee at this resort and was like if I am up there it would be cool to do the Tahoe Rim Trail again. The first time I did it, it was my first hike, and I did it pretty fast. I think I averaged 28 mi per day, which is insane for your first hike. Now I want to go and see if I can do it any faster. So that is something I would like to do.
In July I have a route set up through the desert in Washington and Oregon that hasn't been done before that I am really excited about. And then I have a few other things up in the air like a traverse that hasn't been done before through Utah.
Is there one terrane that gets you off more than others? a favorite?
Alpine can be really invigorating with great views. I also like up in Maine, some of the balsam firs and when you get above treeline there..there is just something really powerful about that. Two weeks ago I was doing a route through the Adirondacks across the park (which was way too early to do that..I would not suggest it) and the smelling of the balsam fir and the views were really incredible. And I like high desert a lot too. I spent a lot of time in the eastern Sierra..that sage brush. Yeah, I guess the answer is I like it all!
What does the word authentic mean to you?
I used to spend a lot of time thinking about this. I think it is doing what you love and not worrying about what other people think. Sometimes that is really hard to do. My parents are really worried about if I get injured or how will I retire off it...but I have so much momentum because I love doing what I do.
What tools do you use to keep you mentally in it? That bring you back?
Getting into the right space is really important. Building treats into my day. Either in the morning saying “I am so excited to go over this alpine area..it is really beautiful” or as simple as “Okay, at lunch, if you make it to here you get to have a candy bar” or something. Sometimes it is about little motivations. Breaking the day into things I can get really excited about is useful. I also do breathing exercises on downhills or flats..it helps clear my mind and puts me in a peaceful spot. Occasionally I bring an Ipod, sometimes listening to a podcast where people are laughing a lot helps. Or when I go into a resupply town, sometimes calling a friend helps. Or seeing another person, instead of zooming past even if they are going at a slower pace, walking with them for a little while because they have a really great story to tell that is going to energize me and get me excited about what I am doing.
Do you often reconnect with people that you have met on the trail?
Totally. The trail community is so fantastic because you will meet someone for an hour or two, hike with them and then split off and go ahead, and then you will see them on another trail or you find each other on Facebook and talk. It is so fantastic how that works out. Some of my closest friends are people I have met on trails. When we finish hiking we find out oh we both live in Denver or something.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years? Is this something you want to grow? Or is it more of a personal endeavor?
It is definitely personal. But I think the more I do it and the more I talk to people about it the more I realize there is a need for people to talk about their experiences. I think getting people to realize that it is not as scary as it appears. It is so doable. I would like to talk to more people about it. This class that I taught on saturday was a really great way to get people talking and learning new skills so they can feel confident going out there.
How did you find sponsors? Did you seek them or did they seek you?
It is kind of a mix. Some of the companies I reached out to and some reached out to me.
Is there anything else you would want to be doing?
The thing about what I am doing is that there is the mix of doing the hiking, talking to people, but also doing some writing. I would really like to cultivate the writing part of it all. I enjoy that. I think it is a great way to contemplate what I have just gone through and to process even. It becomes something more than just the hiking.