To Be Seen: Life as a Nonbinary Hiker
I’m the second of four kids. I grew up on a backlot of a rural road in Connecticut and spent my summers chasing frogs up and down the creek in the woods out back of my parents’ house. The family dog would follow on my heels as I tramped deeper into the woods (but never so far that I couldn’t see the house through the trees—my mother’s one rule about my summertime wanderings).
I longed to explore further and deeper into the woods, to find the edges and outward boundaries. I always knew where I was—I never got lost; if I broke the rules and wandered away, I would always be able to find my way back. But I was limited by my parents, told I couldn’t stray far from what they knew. This restrictive attitude applied to all other areas of my life; they made it clear to me that to keep their conditional love, I would be required to stay on the narrow path they’d laid in their minds long before I was born.
I was happy in my body and my gender in those early days, covered in dirt and leaves, joyfully playing in the creek. I fully inhabited myself; my body was a reliable vessel to take me place to place, always in a hurry, always on the move. I had friends, all boys; we caught snakes, raced cars, had squirt gun fights, and scraped our knees when we fell while playing tag. Even though their parents thought I was a girl, they welcomed me with complete abandon: I was one of them and they knew it – we loved the same things and belonged together.
But when my first puberty came at age 10, it hit me like a truck. As my body rapidly changed shape, growing four inches of height in a year, other parts changed and suddenly my body was no longer my own, no longer reliable. It became something foreign, something to be hidden away under baggy clothes. I was intensely distressed by my body’s development of thighs, hips, and breasts. I felt a deep sense of shame when, as soon as I learned about breast cancer, the first thought that came to my mind was “I don’t want cancer but maybe it would be worth it to get rid of these things.”
As my body changed, the boys who used to be my friends and playmates withdrew, leaving me completely alone. Some of them blatantly refused to play with a girl, being as rude and cruel in their dismissal of me as possible; while others stopped meeting my eyes and would get up and walk away when I tried to join in their games like I used to. I was heartbroken and didn’t understand why everything in my life was falling apart—my body had betrayed me by changing without my permission and my friends were all rejecting me.
I eventually overheard one of their mothers as she loudly and defiantly explained to my mother why she wouldn’t schedule another play date: while it was fine I played with boys before, it was something I needed to grow out of. I heard the message loud and clear, as everyone in my life pulled away – there was something odd about me, and no one wanted to be near me because of it.
It took me more than a decade after my first puberty to figure out who I was and find a word to describe the internal difference I felt. People screamed “DYKE!” out of a car window at me for the first time when I was 15. I was chased out of the women’s bathroom by a mother screaming at me when I was 16. I had a girl give me her number and ask me out when I was 17. In high school and college, everyone told me I HAD to be a lesbian in denial – that was why I felt most comfortable in boys’ clothes and short hair. People persecuted and harassed me like I was one. But I’ve never been attracted to women, so that held no answers for me and only gave me more people to disappoint.
I’d also never felt like a boy, even though I knew I wasn’t a girl, and so I was left with no answers, feeling lost and alone, until I discovered the term “nonbinary” online in 2011. I had never considered there were genders beyond boy or girl; just knowing there were other people out there who were nonbinary opened up a whole new world of possibilities. I knew as soon as I saw the description of nonbinary that I’d found my gender. I felt a deep happiness rise inside my chest, a sense of gender euphoria, as my core sense of self resonated and gave a resounding “YES!” I threw myself into reading everything I could find about nonbinary genders and my world was turned upside down.
While I knew without a doubt that I was nonbinary, the world predominately assumes there are only two genders – man or woman; I had to decide which one I wanted people to assume I was. I had to decide which one made me most happy, while also factoring in my safety. Which bathroom would I use? Did I want people assuming I sat or stood to pee? What gender marker did I want on my driver’s license? When wait staff greeted me at a restaurant, would I rather be ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’? Which set of gendered expectations would I rather contend with? Did I want to get invited to the bachelor party or the baby shower?
It took me six months of agonizing soul searching to decide that following my joy and fully inhabiting my body again would involve medical transition and a second puberty—taking testosterone to grow facial hair, deepen my voice, and flatten my curves; and having top surgery, to give me back the flat chest I missed with every fiber of my being. I knew this decision would end my relationship of six years (my boyfriend was a straight man) and dissolve the remaining thread of connection I had with my parents. I also knew transition wasn’t optional for me; it was something I needed to continue being alive. And so over the course of a year, I started hormones and changed my legal name, the pronouns I used with friends and at work, and my gender markers on my driver’s license and passport.
At first, I told people that my pronouns were they/them or he/him, in an effort to be “easier” for other people. But despite many people using he/him pronouns for me for years, they have never felt right. If I hear someone talking about ‘him,’ it takes me a full 3 seconds to realize they are talking about me, and by that point, I’ve missed half of the conversation. My pronouns are they/them but those pronouns aren’t commonly assumed, and so I have to tell people my pronouns in order for people to use them. This can make it very difficult to be seen fully as myself.
At the end of that year of growing self-awareness, I found myself on the Appalachian Trail on Labor Day weekend in 2013. I’d vaguely daydreamed of hiking the AT someday, maybe when I retired. It had always seemed like something a more adventurous person would do, but I was rapidly evolving. My partner was gone for a week at a destination wedding in Vegas, and I didn’t go so I could save money to pay for my transition-related medical bills. I had never backpacked a day in my life before, but with a weekend to myself and no other obligations, I decided I would solo hike the 92 miles across Massachusetts on the Appalachian Trail in four days.
I didn’t understand what I was endeavoring to do nor how much it would hurt, which was perhaps a good thing: I wouldn’t have tried if I knew how easy it would be to fail. But I ran to the woods, hoping to find pieces of my young self still wandering among the trees. And somehow, I succeeded, logging 19 to 27-½ miles a day, wearing tight road running shoes, and lugging a goldenrod yellow JanSport backpack I’d bought off the internet for $25. I hurt so much and cried every day, but on the last day, standing on Race Mountain, looking back and just barely being able to see Mt Greylock 76 trail miles away, I fell in love with backpacking.
I tried to go back to my usual life after that, but I couldn’t shake the growing, all-consuming desire I had to hike the entire AT. I thought of my childhood self chasing frogs across the creek and wondered, why wait until I was retired to have this adventure? Why not now, when I was finally starting to get back in touch with myself? So I feverishly started planning how to section hike the AT. In the end, I finished the trail on the summit of Katahdin exactly 4 years to the day from the first time I set foot on the trail.
Despite living fully as a nonbinary person in my personal and professional life, using they/them pronouns, and wearing a combination of men’s and women’s clothing, I didn’t feel safe walking the AT openly as my nonbinary self. Even keeping my head down, wearing all men’s clothing, trying to be read as a straight man, I still had bad experiences. I never told anyone I was transgender, nonbinary, queer, or gay, and I hiked in the off-season to avoid other people, but that only helped so much. People often read me as gay or suspected something wasn’t “quite right” about me. I heard violent anti-gay comments in Virginia and had a terrifying experience in Pennsylvania when a hostel owner harassed me in the evening and then waited for me in an idling pick-up truck at the first road crossing the next morning.
I even had to watch the way I talk to stay safe on trail. If I allow myself to become more relaxed while talking, the pitch of my voice varies – I become less monotone; I use my hands; I smile more; I talk more rapidly and my voice isn’t as deep. If I spoke in this more relaxed way while talking to male thru-hikers in shelters, they would tense up and start watching me very closely; I had some of them sharply ask me, “You gay, or what?” while aggressively staring at me. It was made clear that if the answer was “yes,” then we would have a problem. When I allowed myself to speak in a more relaxed way with female thru-hikers, they would relax, assume I was gay, and immediately treat me like their “gay best friend.” In neither case was I seen as myself. I quickly learned to never relax around other people, particularly in shelters.
READ NEXT – 7 Ways to Be “Trans Competent” On Trail.
I overheard online and in-person hiker conversations declaring that being a queer, nonbinary, or transgender hiker meant having ‘an agenda’ or trying to force people to be “more PC.” For me to live openly as myself was an invasion and an attack upon them. I wanted to hike the AT as myself, with community and camaraderie, without fearing violence or harassment, but I was not given the same opportunity as straight, non-transgender hikers. Traditions like hiking naked on summer solstice were not safe for me to participate in. Hikers often celebrate the idea of a trail family, but the rules of belonging on trail turned out to be just as narrow as my parents’ had been when I was a child. Once again, my true self was seen as straying too far from the expected path.
After hiking the AT, I explored other trails. I thru-hiked the Long Trail, the Tour du Mont Blanc, and the Tahoe Rim Trail. I told no one on these trails that I was queer, nonbinary, or transgender; I continued to be unseen. As the years went by, I became more settled in my skin and more confident in myself. I became more comfortable with my ability to handle the possibility of verbal or physical confrontations. I began peak-bagging in the northeast on the weekends, all year around. I pushed the boundaries of my physical comfort further and further, gaining more experience and confidence in my abilities. I did things like snowshoeing 20+ miles, breaking trail through 2-3 feet of snow in -20 degree bitter cold by myself. Sometimes I scared myself as I studied under the tutelage of mother nature, but I always found my way back home.
I read books and watched TV shows with trans and nonbinary characters. I explored Instagram and connected with other trans, nonbinary, and LGBQ hikers and backpackers. I finally saw reflections of myself, out on trail. I no longer felt like the only one. So when I headed out to hike the John Muir Trail in 2019, I was tired of hiding who I was on trail and decided to be more open.
I found myself incredibly lonely halfway through my 11-day SOBO thru-hike. Due to weather-related flight delays, I’d started my hike without sleeping in over 24 hours. I was also hit hard with the altitude in spite of doing all of the right things. I was doing 25+ mile days while feeling like I was dragging my corpse over the mountain passes. I wasn’t sleeping well, my emotional state was a complete mess, and I didn’t have cell service. Of all the trails I’ve hiked, I was most miserable for the first five days of the JMT.
On day five, I met Zakiah, a white woman in her late 20s from California. We were both feeling incredibly down, lonely, and homesick. As we hiked together, we talked about our lives back home. It quickly became apparent that we both had backgrounds in social work; I have my Masters in Social Work and she was in a Marriage and Family Therapy graduate program. We were both deeply interested in mental health care, family systems, sexuality, gender, and alternative relationship structures.
We hiked and chatted for a few hours and then set up camp next to each other, so glad to have company and a friendly face for our evening meal. Hiding from the mosquito hordes in our individual tents, she and I talked until sundown about our relationships with our boyfriends and our families, and why we had decided to hike the JMT. We had deep conversations that were incredibly meaningful to me. We were both exhausted and lonely, and we supported each other without judgment. I didn’t have to pretend; I felt completely comfortable being authentically myself.
On day eight, I met Emily and Cassidy, best friends who go on epic backpacking trips together for a few weeks almost every summer. We all worked in the medical field and enjoyed comparing notes about our jobs. We talked about boyfriends and relationships, pets, and medicine. We hiked together for a number of hours and I pushed myself an extra four miles (and an extra mountain pass) to camp with them for the night. As we sat around cooking dinner after we’d set up our tents, Cassidy casually looked over at me and asked, “Oh, by the way, what pronouns do you use?” Just like that.
My heart leapt at being asked such a familiar question, but there, out on the trail. It felt like my two halves were coming together; I felt seen as my true self in a way that I hadn’t before. I felt so happy and settled in who I was, and so joyful to be asked so kindly to bring my full self into the space, to not have to hide or pretend to be someone I wasn’t. I looked up into her smiling eyes, smiled back, and said “I use they/them pronouns.”
It took me decades to rekindle my connection with my body, to fully inhabit my skin again, just like I did as a kid tramping around my parents’ backlot. It’s taken me years to integrate that sense of myself into the person I am when I hike. It’s taken so many years, but I’m finally home in the woods again, happily living in my body.
I didn’t have a supportive trail community to help me when I was a beginner, so I had to learn my lessons the hard way. Now I act as a mentor to other trans, nonbinary, and LGBQ people who long to get outside as hikers and backpackers. I get to be a trail angel, supporting other LGBTQ hikers so they can succeed and find their own way. It is a joy to help other people avoid some of the pain and pitfalls I couldn’t and watch them grow into strong hikers who can fully be themselves.
While I didn’t feel seen by other people on the Appalachian Trail, I did find myself. I rediscovered and nurtured my six-year-old self that reveled in being covered in dirt and leaves and splashing in the creek. I was finally able to take my young self on the forest wandering I’d always dreamed of: we hiked to the edge of the forest, out of view of my parents’ house, and we kept on walking—all the way from Springer to Katahdin.
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