7 Badass Woman Thru-Hikers Who Inspire Me to Hit the Trails
March is Women’s History Month. There are a lot of reasons I am proud to identify as a woman, and this month is a time to celebrate and reflect on womanhood. There are times in life I feel meek, insignificant, and timid. Sometimes it can be easy to fade into the background and follow the current. When I am in nature, though, I feel powerful. I am confident in my ability and trust my body to meet the challenges that lie further up the trail. After climbing a mountain, I stand on the summit, my heart races, and I know that my body, a woman’s body, can do amazing things.
Women deserve to be celebrated every day, but this month I am reminded of several women whose stories have captivated and motivated me. Here’s a list of badass female thru-hikers who inspire me—because if they can do it, so can I.
I grew up in Western North Carolina and spent many hours day hiking on the AT. I don’t necessarily remember when my interest in the AT started, but I know my desire to thru hike was sparked after reading Becoming Odyssa by Jennifer Pharr Davis. This book chronicles JPD’s first thru-hike of the AT at the ripe age of 21. It is a coming-of-age story about the self-discovery that took place on the author’s journey north.
I saw myself in the pages of Becoming Odyssa. Reading about a young woman defying all odds, both physically and mentally, to walk from Georgia to Maine was awe-inspiring. Until that point, I thought there were few females brave enough to make the trek. Jennifer was relatable in a way that helped me to see that I too was capable of thru-hiking. JPD certainly wasn’t the first woman to hike the entire AT, but her book showed me that women have a place in the outdoors.
Since her debut book, JPD has become one of the biggest names in the trail community. Not only is she a critically acclaimed author, but she is also a mother, successful businesswoman, speaker, and record holder. JPD set the Fastest Known Time (FKT) for the Appalachian Trail in 2011 when she finished the then 2,185-mile trail in 46 days. She later wrote about what it takes to be an elite athlete in Pursuit of Endurance.
These days, you can catch Jennifer leading trips with her company Blue Ridge Hiking Company, working in the BRHC’s outfitter in Asheville, NC, or on the road at speaking events. You can connect with JPD on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube.
If you decide to go down the rabbit hole of FKTs, one name quickly stands out. Heather “Anish” Anderson’s name pops up SIX TIMES on the Fastest Known Time’s website. She is the current record holder for FKTs of the Appachalican Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, calendar year Triple Crown, along with three other trails.
Like a lot of us, Heather set out to thru-hike the AT in order to prove to herself what she was capable of. Since then, she has proven over and over again to be one of the greatest athletes of our generation. Her first book, Thirst: 2600 Miles to Home, gives a play-by-play of her record-setting PCT thru-hike. She discusses her “unathletic” childhood and talks about finding herself on the AT before discovering her love of ultra running. Her second book, Mud, Rocks, Blazes: Letting Go on the Appalachian Trail, is written about Heather’s FKT on the AT. Riddled with internal questions about whether or not her first FTK was a fluke, Heather took to the AT to dispel her feelings of imposter syndrome.
Heather is just as active on the literary scene as she is on trails. Heather teamed up with Katie Gerber (you can follow Katie on Instagram here) to write Adventure Ready. Anderson and Gerber’s book is set to be released later in 2022 and “covers everything an aspiring backcountry athlete needs to know for planning their first… or third… thru hike.” You can connect with Heather on Instagram and Youtube.
3. Grandma Gatewood
Emma Gatewood was a window from Ohio whose life was remarkable. She suffered years of abuse at the hands of her husband, all while rearing 11 children. Emma often sought solace in the woods, and in 1955, at the age of 67, Grandma Gatewood was the first woman to thru hike the Appalachian Trail alone.
In modern times, the AT is not as rough and tumble as it once was. There is cell signal on most ridgelines, ample resupply opportunities, and civilization is never far away. Grandma Gatewood was blazing the trail in 1955. Ben Montgomery’s book, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail, tells Emma’s story. There were many nights she foraged for dinner, slept on strangers’ porches, and encountered wildlife. The trail Grandma Gatewood experienced was much more rugged and unpredictable compared to today’s trail conditions.
Emma Gatewood was one of the first trail celebrities. News of her voyage spread like wildfire, and reporters camped out at road crossings along the trail in hopes of snapping her photo. Grandma Gatewood traveled in Ked’s tennis shoes and carried a hand-sowed drawstring sack. Her story inspired women all over America to take interest in hiking, and some believe that her lightweight style of travel opened the floodgates for ultralight hiking. I don’t know many other words to describe Grandma Gatewood other than “badass.”
4. Nancy East
One of the most iconic sections of the AT is through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. About 70 miles of the AT runs through America’s most visited National Park, but there are nearly 850 trails in the Park. In order to access certain trails, a hiker must backtrack multiple miles, bringing the total trail mileage up to 900 miles. People spend lifetimes checking off miles in order to complete all the trails in the Park, earning themselves a spot in the 900 Miler Club.
In 2020, Nancy East and her hiking partner, Chris, set the record for the FKT of all the trails in the Smokies. Nancy’s endeavor was fueled by her passion for outdoor education. As a member of her local search and rescue team, Nancy has seen what can happen when people embark on adventures unprepared. In 2018 Nancy was part of one of the most publicized search and rescue efforts the GSMNP has ever seen. After the body of Susan Clements was discovered, it was determined that Susan succumbed the hypothermia. This death was tragic and preventable, and Nancy decided to use her FKT attempt as a platform to raise awareness of trail safety in order to help people be “safe and found.”
Nancy has written a book, Chasing the Smokies Moon, that walks readers through each day of her and Chris’s record-breaking hike. Nancy is a self-proclaimed “middle-aged everyday athlete” whose inspirational story promotes awareness while inspiring others to make positive change and pursue their far-fetched dreams.
She is an outspoken advocate for proper equipment and encourages all hikers to carry the 10 Essentials with them on trail. Her blog offers multiple articles ranging from backpacking advice, resources, gear review, and trail recipes. You can follow Nancy on Instagram, Youtube, and Pinterest.
5. Lyla “Sugar” Harrod
A lot of hikers find their true identity on trail. For Lyla Harrod, the trail has been a place to confirm her identity. Lyla is a “sober queer poly trans woman” and absolutely owns who she is. She is outspoken on trans rights and has written extensively about her experiences as a trans woman on trail.
I had the pleasure of hiking around Sugar on the AT in 2021 and can attest to what a badass woman she is. In 2021 she thru-hiked the AT, Arizona trail, and set the FKT on the Bay Circuit Trail in Massatuchets. Lyla has big plans in 2022 and will be tackling the PCT and CDT this year. You can keep up with her adventures on her Instagram.
6. Shilletha “Dragon Sky” Curtis
Shilletha Curtis, better known as “Dragon Sky” is a woman on a mission “to change the narrative of the outdoors.” Shilletha writes extensively about her experiences as a black hiker on trail. As a white woman, my ability to hike has been questioned because of my gender, but never because of the color of my skin. Dragon Sky has demanded attention from the hiker community and continues to be an outspoken advocate for the black community.
Upon finishing the AT in 2021, Shilletha is quoted on Instagram saying “my goal is to become the second Black woman to achieve the Triple Crown. The 1st lesbian Black woman at that. Here’s one chapter of my story completed.” Obviously, she is someone to follow for inspiration! She is setting out for the CDT in 2022 and even has a book in the works. You can follow her on Instagram.
7. Christine Reed
I am a sucker for a good book, so I’ll close out this list with another badass woman adventure author. Christine Reed is someone I think everyone can relate to. In her debut memoir, Alone in Wonderland, Christine tells the story of her solo thru hike of the Wonderland Trail. After college, Christine set out to thru hike the Appalachian Trail alone. During the trek, Christine had to come to terms with the unexpected death of a loved one. Her book is raw and touching as she moves through grief while also struggling with self-doubt, navigating relationships, and the growing pains that accompany adulthood. Ultimately, Christine found herself on the Wonderland Trail and tells the story of this life-changing adventure.
This is another book that I felt a connection to because of how much I related to the author. Everyone comes to the trail with something, people carry baggage in all shapes and sizes. Walking for days on end acts as a form of release. We battle our demons, discover our inner child, and learn to smile again on trail. We heal by means of hiking. Few people are willing to be as vulnerable about this process as Christine. While we may not always see ourselves as such, Christine invites other women to see themselves as “Rugged Outdoor Women”. You can connect with her on Instagram.
In the short film Positive Forward Motion, Jennifer Pharr Davis says “showing everyone, and especially women, that they have a place out here, they’re valued out here. That’s important to me.” Women belong in the outdoors, period. Get outside and do something that makes you feel like a badass today.
Featured image: Graphic design by Jillian Verner (@yourstrulyjillian).
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