37,000 Miles and Counting: Meet Christine Thuermer, the “Most Hiked Woman in the World”
After a 2004 PCT thru-hike, 36-year-old Christine Thuermer was hooked on hiking. She quit her job in 2007 at age 40 and has been hiking, cycling, and paddling around the world ever since. She is probably the most hiked woman in the world, logging almost 60,000 km (37,282 miles) to date. For a full list of her trips, see here. She has also published three books about her adventures, which sold over 150,000 copies in German-speaking countries and were on the Spiegel Bestseller list. Unfortunately, they are only available in German (for now).
We spoke with Christine recently to find out more about her transition from full-time career woman to full-time adventurer.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve done a million and a half trips hiking, biking, paddling. Do you have a favorite trip that you’ve done?
I’ve hiked 60,000 kilometers, so it’s very difficult to answer. If you press me for an answer, my first love was the Pacific Crest Trail. And the trail that most recently impressed me was the Via Transilvanica in Romania.
Did you do you have a trip that was the most challenging for you?
Yes. The Greater Patagonia Trail in Chile. Most Americans who go there give up. Because it’s not only technical, you’re basically always trespassing. It really helps to be a woman over 50 because nobody sees any problem. But if you can’t speak fluent Spanish, if you’re a guy in your 20s or 30s, you’re in big trouble.
Yeah, I feel like we talk a lot about the physical risks of hiking, and like we don’t talk as much about the geopolitical risks.
That’s a good point. Because what was very challenging, for example, in Romania, was that it’s one of the poorest countries in the EU. You go to the countryside, and they don’t have water in the houses. They really are the poorest of the poorest. Most of my American friends tend to stay in the US; they never venture outside. The US trails can be technically challenging, but it’s only the technical challenge. You don’t have any geopolitical challenge, whereas once you venture outside the US, you can a lot of that.
What inspired you to do the PCT in 2004?
I wrote a book about it called Laufen. Essen. Schlafen, which means “Hike, Eat, Sleep,” which was on the German bestseller list for nine months. I used to be a career woman. I worked as a turnaround manager. So I would go into the bigger companies, lay off all the people, find all the new people, restructure the whole team, blah blah blah. It was a really high-stress job. I liked the job, but I didn’t like the environment.
Then for my birthday, which is in July, I splurged and went to the US. I did a hiking trip in Yosemite. At this campground, I saw some very late PCT thru-hikers. They were so exuding so much happiness, this power and glory of thru-hiking. So I went back to Germany, and I really wanted to do the PCT. But, of course, nobody quits a career job like that. So I always say like destiny, or God, or whoever, had to kick my ass.
I was fired, which is quite normal if you work as a turnaround manager, but I didn’t know that back then. So I was still licking my wounds. And then a good friend of mine, who was 46, had a stroke. He was exactly 10 years older than me. He survived the whole thing, but he couldn’t speak, he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t swallow. And I was like, “Okay, what would he have done if he had known, at my age, what would happen to him?” I was pretty sure he wouldn’t have continued with his business career, he would have done something completely crazy.
One day he had a second stroke, and I had to go to the ER to visit him. And when I left the hospital at midnight, I had made my decision. I said, “I’m not going back to work. I want to hike.” And honestly, I didn’t think I could do it. The idea was not to finish. I wanted to see what I could do. And I could do it. I finished the PCT in five months and one day. I came back to Germany and I knew I was going to do the Triple Crown. It wasn’t a question of “if,” it was a question of “when.” I worked for two more years, and I set off the CDT. And I have not worked ever since. Hiking is my work now.
I saw that you’ve done really extensive hiking, biking, and paddling. What are some of the things you like best about each of those different methods of adventure? What are some of the greatest differences between them? And do you have a favorite?
Hiking, definitely hiking. Hiking, your range is very small. You can do just 20-30 miles per day, but it’s easy, you can usually go wherever you want, and there’s hardly anything that can stop you. There’s a lot of things that can stop you when you’re on a bike and even more things that can stop you when you’re on a boat. Or as my friend said, “once you’re in the boat, it’s the greatest thing in the world. But fuck you, if you have to get out. You’re screwed.” Your bike can break, your boat can break. Generally being in the elements is easiest when you’re hiking. It’s very difficult to fight against the wind in a boat or on a bicycle.
I also saw the importance of intensive planning and research in your preparation. And I saw you talking about how to always be prepared for the unexpected. How do you balance regimented planning with the in-the-moment flexibility that’s so necessary on trips like this?
I used to be a manager, so you can’t get that out of me. I’m a very structured person, generally. Everything comes down to PowerPoint slides and Excel spreadsheets. In the US, you just buy FarOut and everything is in there. In, for example, Romania, Google Maps doesn’t show the little mom and pop stores. So I’m in the middle of nowhere and I’m trying to find out if there is a shop where I can buy food. So in the end, sometimes I have to go there with Google Streetview to see if there is something remotely resembling a store. It’s really that difficult.
If I plan a trip in Europe, I prepare for 1/3 of the time that I’m going to be hiking. I know every store along the trail, every gear shop, every shoe shop, even opening times and telephone numbers. This gives me peace of mind and a lot of flexibility because once I’m on the trail, I don’t have to think about that. I can’t predict every situation that can arise but it gives me some sort of skeleton I can work along.
Have you ever struggled with injury? How do you make sure that this level of physical exercise doesn’t have negative effects on your body?
I’m the least athletic person you can think of. One of my slogans is, “okay, look at me, I’m flat-footed, cross-legged, I’m at least five to 10 kilos overweight but I’m still probably the most hiked woman in the world.” This is actually what made me so famous in Germany. If you look at most people who are famous in their hiking world it would be Andrew Skurka or Heather Anderson. I have no way I can compare with that because I’m so horribly slow.
But on the other hand, long-distance hiking isn’t done with speed. It’s done with perseverance. You just do it every day again, again, and again. Usually, I do 20-mile days and that’s really enough. And this prevents a lot of injury because lots of injuries come from people over-exerting themselves, which never happens to me because I’m just so damn unfit. So I actually never had any serious injury. Knock on wood.
Do you ever struggle to stay motivated?
No. I really love this lifestyle. Right now I have the perfect balance for me because since I worked very hard, now I can live off my savings. I’m not sponsored by anyone. I really do whatever I want. Half of the year I’ll be hiking, usually from spring to fall. And the other half I’m in Germany writing books. I’ve just been on a speaker tour. That’s one way to earn money from hiking. It’s a great balance because when I’m hiking I can look forward to coming back to Berlin, my home base where I have a kitchen, supermarkets, a shower, a bed. And then I’m also not sad leaving home and going on another hike because I know in half a year I go back.
Does it ever get lonely to be traveling so much, especially on some of these pretty isolated trails?
This is another question I get a very asked very often, and the answer is, “No, I don’t get lonely, I like myself very much!” It’s meant to be humorous, but there’s also some truth in it. Many people, especially here in Europe, go on pilgrimage. They say “if you have a problem, just go hike a trail, and all your problems will be solved.” That is not going to happen. If you’re looking for yourself, you have already lost yourself. If you have a psychological problem or burden, and then on top of that it rains, or you’re dirty, or hungry, then you will break down.
I’m generally a very happy person, and I really like myself. So I liked my company. I also listened to a lot of podcasts. I listen a lot to Backpacker Radio, to Juliana and Zach, so I know the poop stories and all that. And I listen to audiobooks. In Europe, we have roaming data. Let’s say I have a German carrier, once I’m in Romania, I can call to Germany, and they can call me for no extra cost. So during the day, I listen to four or five hours of podcasts and audiobooks. I make phone calls for one or two hours. And as I said, like if I don’t have reception, I really like myself.
Do you have an accomplishment that you’re proudest of?
Actually, yes. See, I’ve when I started hiking, I was flat-footed crossed-legged, 10 kilo overweight. And I just said, OK, let’s see how it goes. And I ended up being probably the most hiked woman in the world. I’m still totally unfit. I’m still five to 10 kilos overweight. But I still keep hiking. This combination is something I’m very proud of.
The second thing, I’m actually super proud of writing books that became mainstream. People like Andrew Skurka and Heather Anderson are really impressive people. And I really admire them. But everybody looks at them and says “no fucking way I can do that.” Because they are just beasts. And then comes little Christine, flat-feet, cross-legged, and says, “Hey, if I can do it, you can do it too.” And this is really convincing because I look like your normal, comfy housewife. People say, “Oh, because I read your books, I got inspired to give it a try.” And I’m really proud to be such a source of inspiration.
What are some of the biggest differences between hiking in the US and hiking in Europe?
First of all, Americans are horribly afraid of wild camping in Europe, because officially, it’s forbidden. The fact is, nobody really cares. This is very difficult to get into American brains, because in America, if you trespass, you’re probably going to be shot. In Europe, if you trespass, you’re probably going to be invited for dinner. I wild camp wherever I go, whether it’s the US or Europe, you just have to know how to do it.
And the other thing is the different mentality. When I hike in Europe, I hike fewer miles per month than in the US, and this has nothing to do with terrain. In Europe, there’s so much more to see. In Europe, I do double the number of rest days, because I want to do sightseeing. I think it’s a pity if you rush through Europe, because nature-wise, the US is better, you have much more wilderness. Europe is much less of that. But we have a lot more culture. It’s not better or worse. It’s just very, very different.
In the US, you can basically only walk on public land. If it’s private property, you’re generally not allowed to go there, which limits your hiking choices a lot. In Europe, if there is a trail, you can safely assume that you can hike there. Even if it’s a private property, you have the right of way. So Germany, which is the size of Montana, has about the same number of trail miles as the US in total. I’m so surprised that the Americans are missing out on this. I like the Triple Crown, but it’s so much more to the world.
Is there anything else that you want to get across to US readers?
Come to Europe, because the Euro is so low, so now’s a very good time to come!
Hopefully someday your books will be available in English so that American hikers can learn more about your journey and experiences.
I’m actually currently writing my fourth book about 25 trails across the world, but mostly in Europe. So I’m hoping that this book could actually be translated to English, as a”thru-hiking Europe 101.”
If people want to follow you, where can they do that?
Follow Christine’s next adventure hiking the Oregon Desert Trail, the Superior Hiking Trail, and packrafting the Boundary Waters in 2022!
All images, including featured image, courtesy of Christine Thuermer.
Featured image: Christine in New Zealand.
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