Meet Daren Jackson: Thru-Hiker, Navy Veteran, Naked and Afraid Survivalist
Thru-hiking attracts a wide variety of individuals. We all know the stereotypes; the lanky giant with a beard to his chest, the ultralight liberal arts grad who thinks that anything more than a three-inch inseam is too restricting, the indomitable senior who grinds away the miles like the best of them, and so many more. But of course, each story is unique, and the details defy oversimplification. The journey didn’t begin at the terminus, nor will it end at the next. The simplicity of heading SOBO or NOBO works great on the PCT, but there is no Guthook for what comes before or after.
As the outdoor industry rightfully reevaluates issues of inequality and underrepresentation of POC in the places we love to recreate and the representation of such activities in the media, it’s important to remember that POC have their own unique stories too. Daren Jackson (aka Bo-Line) certainly does. Not only has Daren thru-hiked the AT and PCT (’15, ’18), he has served as a Navy Nuke onboard a nuclear submarine and appeared on S11 E10 of Discovery Channel’s Naked and Afraid.
I chatted with Daren to learn about these experiences, focusing on his thru-hikes and background in the backcountry as a POC. As you’ll read, Daren emphasized that his experiences do not represent those of an entire demographic. And while differences distinguish his journey from those of others hikers, there are similarities too. Like so many of us, he’s one more unique individual who likes to hike that no stereotype can come close to capturing.
Interview edited for length and clarity
When were you introduced to hiking and the outdoors in general? When did you decide to tackle a thru-hike?
I was always involved in hiking and camping from an early age. My parents had my brothers and I involved in Boy Scouts at an early age. When I was getting out of the Navy in 2015, I wanted to take some time to myself and process the last six years of my life. I was introduced to thru-hiking via a friend that I served with on the same submarine. After doing my own research I decided that hiking seemed interesting and so I decided to take on the challenge.
Do you have any favorite memories from either of your thru-hikes?
My favorite memory from thru-hiking has to be Thanksgiving 2015 on the Appalachian Trail. I was with a great group of people and enjoyed their company. We all made it to Hot Springs, which is the premier destination for thru-hikers during Thanksgiving. We did the traditional hiker Thanksgiving, but we also did our own Thanksgiving at a cabin. It was just great to spend that time with great friends. A few of the people had friends travel in from out of town to spend the holiday together.
What were your favorite sections of the AT and PCT?
Southern Maine for the Appalachian Trail, Oregon for the Pacific Crest Trail
What is your favorite piece of gear? Do you carry anything totally weird or unnecessary?
By far my favorite piece of gear was my pillow. I didn’t take a pillow in my AT thru-hike, but decided to invest in one for the PCT. Using a puffy as a pillow is great until you actually try a pillow. On the AT I carried a bunch of unnecessary things. On the PCT I figured out what I needed and didn’t need. My unnecessary item was a tobacco pipe plus the pipe tobacco. At the end of the day at camp, after dinner, I would drink hot chocolate and smoke a pipe.
Has your hiking style changed over the course of your thru-hikes?
My style has definitely changed. Between the AT and PCT I got all new gear. On the AT I would slow my pace down in order to stay with a group. On the PCT I made the decision to leave the group I was with after South Lake Tahoe. I enjoyed their company, but I felt like I needed to push myself, so I ventured off on my own. Even though I left the group we all stayed in contact. To this day we all still communicate on Facebook.
Did you have any role models in the hiking community? As a two-time thru-hiker, do you feel like a role model?
Probably the person who most influenced me is a guy called Amplexus. He just had a wealth of knowledge and helped a lot. I believe he hiked the AT in 2012 and did the Discovery Trail the year after. We crossed paths in the 100-Mile Wilderness in 2015 and he just gave a lot of tips and advice.
I don’t think I feel like a role model. I think I have inspired others of color to get out and hike, and just be outdoors. The term role model has always seemed to carry a significant weight. I feel once you label yourself a role model you may inadvertently change your behaviors to please others. Like you no longer are being yourself or the person who people initially admired.
Did you ever feel unwelcome or unsafe during either of your thru-hikes?
I personally have never felt unwelcome or unsafe. I like to believe that most people are good people. Nothing has ever happened to me or people I’ve been with while on trail to make me or them feel unsafe. There was one time when an older white guy called me “colored.” I was shocked when I first heard the word. Like what did he just say? But he said it and kept talking to me. He wasn’t rude or mean. I think that he came from a time where that is how he referred to Black people. It is one of those things that I will always remember.
What do you think are the biggest barriers preventing people of color from accessing the backcountry?
The biggest barrier is probably fear of the unknown. It is hard to get involved with outdoor activities if you do not have someone to show you how things are done and to help guide you. When I started the AT, I had a good idea of how to hike and camp. There was a lot about thru-hiking that I did not know though. Luckily for me, I met a family in the 100-Mile Wilderness that helped out tremendously. Another barrier is cultural expectations. People have a tendency to do things that they are expected to do and shy away from the others. My personality has always steered me toward doing what I wanted to do regardless of others’ expectations.
Do you have any advice to aspiring thru-hikers who feel blocked by these?
My advice would be to find someone that you trust to introduce you to the backcountry. Specifically for people of color, I always try to steer them toward Outdoor Afro. They have many chapters across the country and do a very good job of introducing people to outdoor activities. I am not a leader in the organization or anything. I just feel like the events that I’ve been to have always been planned well and are good at introducing POC to the outdoors. Anytime I have time to go to an event that they are sponsoring, I usually go to it. I just like to encourage others who want to get involved in the outdoors, but are hesitant to just try to find a local group and get involved.
What considerations convinced you to shut down an attempt on the CDT this summer? Are you considering an attempt in 2021?
There were a few things that shut down a CDT attempt this summer. I will say that before the COVID, I had made the decision to postpone the CDT. It takes a lot of planning to pack up your life for a thru-hike. Even though I wasn’t going to thru-hike this summer, I wanted to go on trail for a couple months while my friend, Loppers, attempted her CDT thru-hike to complete her Triple Crown. I don’t think a 2021 CDT thru-hike is realistic. I’m actually back in college now so I probably will not attempt it until after I graduate.
How do you expect the CDT to be different from the AT and PCT?
I expect the CDT to probably be the most mentally challenging. At this point I have no doubt in my mind that I can physically hike the trail, but there is no prize at the end of these hikes. You come back and very few people actually get what all goes into it. They think you were on vacation for 5-6 months. Thru-hiking isn’t fun every day. You don’t see cool stuff all the time. A lot of the time you are physically hurting and uncomfortable. There are plenty of times, while hiking, where I ask myself why I am doing this.
So why do you thru-hike?
I thru-hike because of the people that I meet on trail. Something in me changed when I started to get to know people on trail. When I started the AT on June 11, I technically was still in the Navy until June 30. One of the things I told myself when I got out of the Navy was that I was going to live life. I was not going to be a slave to a job. Meeting people on trail and hearing their stories showed me that I could live life a different way. I thru-hike to chase adventure and to meet people that I would not normally come in contact with. At the end of the day the people that you meet on trail make the uncomfortable times worth going through. Also, it is just cool to say you’ve hiked thousands of miles.
As a Navy veteran, can you describe any similarities or differences between your time in the service and thru-hiking?
On a thru-hike you can go home whenever you want. You can do what you want, when you want. To me thru-hiking is the complete opposite of being in the military, which is why I chose to hike when I got out. There is definitely more camaraderie in the Navy just based on the circumstances that you are in. Hiking is an individual activity. Being in the armed forces you are working together as a team.
You appeared on Discovery Channel’s Naked and Afraid. Did thru-hiking help prepare you for the experience?
The opportunity to do Naked and Afraid came about because of thru-hiking. I was sent a message on Instagram because someone had seen my hiking pics. I was just comfortable being outdoors because of thru-hiking. Simple things helped, like being able to block out all the random noises you hear at night and get some sleep, or knowing how your body feels when you’re dehydrated or not getting enough calories. On the show I had no issue with not showering for days or just being covered in dirt all the time.
What is something you wish white people / readers of The Trek would understand about your experience backpacking?
I would like people to understand that while I may not come across as someone who has felt unwelcomed in the outdoors, others may not feel welcome. Do not take my experiences and say, he felt comfortable so why can’t others. Everyone has their own experiences in life that lead them to feel a certain way. I was fortunate enough to have parents who put me and my brothers into activities where we were introduced to the outdoors early on. Historically, POC have been excluded from certain outdoor spaces. The outdoors has not always been open to everyone. Outdoor spaces were segregated; the effects of that are still present in people’s minds today.
The biggest thing for me is that I would like to highlight my achievements as an outdoorsman first. I am a person who enjoys the outdoors, and I just happen to be Black. I don’t want to come across as someone who thinks that white people are somehow consciously preventing POC from accessing these spaces, but at the same time acknowledge that there are misrepresentations in the outdoor community.
What are some areas or topics that you would like to see companies such as The Trek focus on more?
To me, the biggest thing is to provide a space to have conversations that allow those who may feel blocked to feel welcome.
What’s next? Are there any future hikes or adventures that you are excited about?
As of right now, I’m just waiting to see what else life is going to put in my path. I will definitely be completing another thru-hike in coming years. I want to get more into learning survival techniques. I enjoy the outdoors and hope that I can do more to help those who may feel unwelcome or unsafe find a safe place to explore the outdoors.
You can follow Daren wherever the next adventure takes him on Instagram or Facebook (2). All images, including the feature image, courtesy of Daren Jackson.
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