The Allure of Long-Distance Hiking: A Conversation with Appalachian Trail Record-Holder Jennifer Pharr Davis

STACK sat down with renowned hiker Jennifer Pharr Davis to learn about the perils and triumphs of long-distance backpacking.

A Conversation with Appalachian Trail Record-Holder Jennifer Pharr Davis

"To me, endurance sports, especially ones in nature without a lot of equipment, just go to the core of athletics, to the core of humanity…But mostly, what I love about hiking is that it meets you where you're at."

Jennifer Pharr Davis grew up in Asheville, North Carolina. At just over 6 feet tall, she played basketball and tennis in high school, then went on to play tennis in college at a small Division I school. Despite a grueling schedule typical of most collegiate athletes, Pharr Davis found herself sneaking in extra runs. She eventually began training for races—the longer the better.

"Basically I discovered at a really young age that I loved feeling exhausted," Pharr Davis said. "I loved playing sports in college, but even that didn't seem like enough."

By the time she graduated college, Pharr Davis had completed several marathons, triathalons and an ironman triathalon, the latter comprising of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a marathon (26.2 mile) run.  After college in 2005, she thought she'd go on one big expedition before entering "the real world." Growing up in North Carolina, she'd always heard about the adventure of the Appalachian Trail, which spans 14 states from Georgia to Maine.

"Piece of cake, just walking," she said of her thoughts at the time. "Like most 21 year-olds are at this point, I was pretty full of myself. I was like, man I'm a good athlete."

Once Pharr Davis was alone on the trail for the first time, she quickly realized it would be the hardest thing she had ever done. Starting in Georgia, she was out there five months, for 2,185 miles, reaching emotional and literal highs and lows she'd never experienced—learning what it was like to "really miss a water source," or be "really, really hungry, or really cold and wet."

"It wasn't just this physical endeavor that lasted a few hours or even a full day," she said. "It was this demanding mental, physical, emotional challenge that just kept going and going. It didn't end." Noting that only 25 percent of the people who start the Appalachian Trail actually finish, she added, "And the trail never got easier either, which drove me crazy as an athlete."

At the end, Pharr Davis found herself transformed into a "completely different person." Although she had always been a terrific athlete and reaped the positive benefits of sports growing up, nothing affected her as much as hiking.

"I embraced the challenge in a way that mainstream sports had not appealed to me, because hiking was so holistic," she said.   "It really fosters that mind-body connection."

A Conversation with Appalachian Trail Record-Holder Jennifer Pharr Davis

About nine months later, Pharr-Davis was back on another trail. Working in an office then, she found herself saving up time and money so she could hike different trails around the country, and around the world.  At 24, she quit her office job and started her own hiking company, which offers immersive backpacking programs and provides backpacking introductions for anyone looking to experience the outdoors.

Six years after her first big solo hike, she decided she needed "a challenge," and set out to break the overall record on the Appalachian Trail. People told her she was crazy, trying to hike 47 miles a day for 46 days with a pack on her back, through bad weather and tough terrain—the ultimate test of efficiency and endurance.

"Going in, I was convinced I'd probably fail. It was unlikely, but I thought there was a chance. But most people didn't think I had a shot, which was nice in a lot of ways because there was no pressure," she said.

Working her way south this time, Pharr-Davis developed a case of shin splints early on, getting as far as Vermont, where she became really sick with a bout of diarrhea and eventually hypothermia. At that point, she nearly quit. After meeting her husband at a road crossing where he gave her medicine, food and water, "he basically drove the car off so I couldn't get in." At that point, Pharr-Davis let the record go and pushed forward.

"Up until that point, I had been haunted by the numbers, so focused on miles per day, miles per hour, how far behind the current record setter I was, thinking ahead. But when I kept going after that, it became just about finding my personal best."

With support from her husband, Pharr-Davis finished in 46 days, 11 hours and 20 minutes, averaging 46.9 miles a day and setting a record.

A Conversation with Appalachian Trail Record-Holder Jennifer Pharr Davis

"The record aside, hiking is liberating and empowering because it puts the challenge in your hands. You're not going against a clock, or until a coach tells you to stop; you keep going until you make the decision to stop for the day, or push a little further."

On the trail, Pharr-Davis typically eats more than 6,000 calories a day, with plenty of protein, in small meals throughout the day, gobbling down nuts, sharp cheese, dried meats, tuna, kettle chips and dried fruit. She said she had more than her fair share of energy bars and a few she can still stomach. "I can still eat a Snickers bar," she joked.

When she's not on the trail, Pharr-Davis cross trains with running, yoga, basketball and tennis. She also focuses on strengthening her legs and stabilizing her core to help her body withstand the weight of the backpack on the trail.

A big misconception, according to Pharr Davis, is that hiking is a completely solitary activity.

"If you need peace and silence, you can certainly find that," she said. "And if you need a community, that's certainly out there as well. You're sharing this common experience and bond with other hikers, even if you're not hiking together." Another beginner's mistake is romanticizing the trail to be sunny and beautiful all the time with birds chirping. Hiking with a 10- to-40 pound pack is like "weightlifting yourself up a mountain," all while you brave the elements.

Pharr-Davis added, "Nature is harsh, and it reminds us that we're not in control but that we're capable of more than we often think. And I think that realization is what draws people back to the trail."

"I think there's something really pure about hiking," she continued.  "An amateur sport, there's no money, no trophies. It's really raw. And I think that's the allure of it, at least for me."

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock