Emily Ford Completes Historic Winter Thru-Hike of Ice Age Trail

Emily Ford completed a winter thru-hike of the Ice Age Trail on March 6th, 2021 after 69 days on trail. She is the second person—and the first woman—to ever thru-hike the trail in winter.

When Emily Ford set out to thru-hike Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail this winter, she wasn’t nervous. “I tend to lean away from worrying, probably to a fault,” she says with a laugh. It’s an optimistic attitude that served her well on the snowy trail as she hiked 1,200 miles through temperatures that routinely fell into the negative double digits over the course of 69 days. 

 

The Ice Age Trail traverses Wisconsin from East to West, roughly following the glacial reaches of the most recent Ice Age period, known as the Wisconsin Glaciation, which ended about 10,000 years ago. The trail is a work in progress, with road walks connecting yellow-blazed trails that wind through geological marvels and directly through towns. 

emily ford

Map of Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail and major glacial features. Courtesy of NPS.

Emily’s choice to hike the trail in winter was mostly a logistical one. She’s a gardener for Glensheen Mansion in Duluth, Wisconsin, and gets furloughed from her job every winter. “The biggest dump on my dirtbagging dream is that I have such a cool job,” she says, “and I’m just not ready to leave it yet.” When she decided to hike the trail, it had been three years since her thru-hike of the Superior Hiking Trail, and as she says, “I just wanted to get back on the trail. I was determined.” 

Confidence in the Cold

Growing up in Minnesota and spending a lot of time gardening, snowmobiling, hunting, and ice fishing, Emily is no stranger to having fun in the cold. But it was a backcountry dog sled and ski trip with Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge that gave her the winter backpacking itch. “That’s where I got in touch with the deep desire of wanting to sleep outside in the wintertime,” she says. That trip, combined with a winter camping trip in a canvas-walled tent with a friend, gave her the confidence that it could be done, and for Emily, that’s all she needed.

Borrowed, Used, and Youtubed

While preparing for the trail, Emily leaned on borrowed and used gear as well as Youtube videos and online forums to fill in gaps in her knowledge. “I’m 28, so I’m still in the throes of paying off my student loans,” she says. “And I have a mortgage. And I have a vehicle. I’m not rolling in millions of dollars over here.” 

Emily’s pack weighed in at 60 pounds and she slept in a Sierra Designs tent from 1989 that she borrowed from a former boss. “It’s the same age as Taylor Swift if you’re wondering,” she says with a smile. “I feel like finances are one of the biggest stoppers for people being able to do rad trips like this,” she adds. “So if you have a buddy that has stuff they’re willing to let you use, 100 percent borrow it. That’s my philosophy.”

Emily Ford’s camp setup, including her Sierra Designs tent. Image courtesy of Emily Ford.

A Friend on the Trail

Those who followed Emily’s trip on Instagram know that she wasn’t alone out there. Emily hiked with an Alaskan Husky named Diggins that she borrowed from a musher who she met on Facebook. “Talk about borrowing! I mean lending someone your gear is one thing…” Emily says. “Letting someone borrow your dog in the dead of winter…like, she didn’t even know me!” 

Emily Ford and her borrowed Alaskan Husky Diggins. Image courtesy of Emily Ford.

Despite being virtual strangers, Diggins and Emily became fast friends. “Have you ever seen Castaway with Wilson the volleyball?” Emily asks. “She was my Wilson, 100 percent.” More than being a vehicle for one-sided conversations, Diggins gave Emily a purpose on the trail. “It made me a lot less selfish on the trip because I had to think about taking care of another being.”

Sharing the Experience

When Emily left for her hike, she created an Instagram for her friends back home to follow her trip. A week in, she took her phone off airplane mode and was stunned to see that she had over 1,000 followers. Today, @emilyontrail has 11.5k followers and her story has been covered by dozens of media outlets. 

Emily hadn’t originally planned to share her hike with the outside world. “It was tough at first,” she explains. “But then I began to understand the importance of this trip, not just to myself but to other people. And the impact that this trip could potentially make. And that became more important than this being the Emily show you know what I mean?”

The online attention translated to real-world experiences for Emily as she crossed Wisconsin. School kids left welcome messages along the trail and invited her to speak to their classes. Families took her in and shuttled her around. People even traveled to walk with her and experience a small piece of the trail. 

Trail magic abounded for Emily, which also took some adjusting to. “Getting help from people was definitely an ego bust,” she says. “Everything I packed for this trip, especially the food, was packed as if I wasn’t going to see anybody. So when people started offering different kinds of help I was like, ‘No I’m gonna do this on my own.’”

But doing it on her own took a back seat for Emily after she injured her knee in the first week. “I got injured and I had to rely on people,” she explains. “So it was just taking that egotistical side of myself, setting it aside and focusing on the purpose of this trip which was to finish. Then it was a lot easier to accept help.”

Emily Ford is the First, But Not the Last

Emily Ford’s hike is historic in more ways than one. She’s the first woman, first Black person, and first LGBTQ+ person to thru-hike the Ice Age Trail in winter. While she didn’t intend for her hike to be anything more than a backpacking trip, Emily embraces the chance to inspire others to get outside. “I just want people to feel cool outside,” she says. “That it’s okay for them to be out there, no matter who they are.” 

“There’s such a deficit of people of color outside that it’s silly. It shouldn’t be that way. If you don’t check the normal boxes that you feel like should be checked to be an outdoorsy person, it doesn’t matter. You deserve to be outside too.”

When asked how she feels about making history, Emily pauses and references the school kids she spoke to during her trip. “I don’t think I’m gonna feel the weight of it until some of those kids are in their 20s and they’re doing the thing they heard me talk about in fourth grade,” she says.

“Here’s the thing,” Emily continues. “I’m just a backpacker. I just went on a trip that sounded fun…It’s just something I like to do. Which is pretty cool, when your passion becomes a thing that makes history.”

 

Related

Featured image: Emily Ford and Diggins via Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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Comments 6

  • Avatar
    Samantha Bennett : Mar 19th

    Not sure how I feel about a dog on a trail for 60+ days with temps regularly in the negative double digits.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Anthony : Mar 19th

      Yeah, I feel bad for that poor dog. Dogs do not belong on long hikes. Unlike humans, they have no choice in the matter, and they are not built for those types of conditions.

      Reply
    • Avatar
      Eric : Mar 22nd

      The dog is an Alaskan Husky. Those dogs thrive in the cold.

      Reply
    • Avatar
      Shannon : Mar 31st

      I think you need to put it in perspective and remember that this dog is a Husky and that Emily got it from a musher so trust me this dog is more than physically capable of handling a hike like this in this climate. I’m sure being out there feels more natural and enjoyable to him than being stuck inside. Also, I have faith that she took excellent care of him on their trek so let’s give her some credit. Speaking of which, props to Emily for this major accomplishment, she is an absolute BEAST in my eyes. To hike this in 69 days in the dead of winter in those temperatures is an extremely impressive feat. I also love that she was able to speak with kids along the way and undoubtedly inspired some future thru-hikers. And to inspire kids who look like her and who share her background is especially awesome and meaningful. I wish her all the best in her future endeavors!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    beat yourself up. Thanks for the review. At least you finished it and can breathe now! : Mar 29th

    Loose tee

    Reply

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