Mother Nature and Aunt Flow: A Thru-Hiker’s Experience with Gender on Trail

By Allison Eggert

The Thru-Hiker’s 10 Essentials:

1. Shelter 2. Pack 3. Sleeping System 4. Durable Footwear 5. Food System

6. Swimsuit 7. Makeup 8. Hair Straightener 9. Smile 10. Partner

My Journey Into Thru-Hiking

My first exposure to thru-hiking was when I was 5 years old and my dad’s cousin Bob walked the Pacific Crest Trail south-bound from Canada to his home in Lake Tahoe. I remember hearing about the trip while my dad and uncle buried a metal canister, filled with nonperishable treats, along the Washington/Oregon border for Bob to find using the treasure map-like instructions that my dad had designed. Then, my 5 year old mind didn’t think about thru-hiking as a girl thing or a boy thing — everyone walks — but as a crazy thing that only super humans were capable of doing.

Nothing about my childhood sport’s history led me to believe that I was that super human. I was easily the smallest kid on any team, afraid of other kids, and terrified of even the slightest form of physical exertion or aggression. Any sport my parents put me into, I would cry for the entire length of the game until they pulled me out. I didn’t want to play sports, all I wanted was to read with a plate of snacks gently resting atop my belly. I wasn’t an athlete, and I didn’t want to be one.

It wasn’t until I took a course on the Camino de Santiago, a historic pilgrimage stretching from the south of France across Northern Spain, that I seriously pursued the idea of thru-hiking for myself. Our class, evenly mixed with women and men, walked a week along the route. Some of the women returned via taxi the last few days due to sore feet, and some of the men shipped their packs ahead due to sore shoulders. At the time, I had yet to ever run a mile straight without stopping and still didn’t consider myself an athlete, but I had made it through the week, and I loved it. Immediately after returning from the trip, my uncle took my brother and I out to the movies to see Wild, the movie about Cheryl Strayed and her experience on the Pacific Crest Trail. My belief that you had to be a super human to thru-hike began to disappear.

Then, last year, while working in the North Cascade Mountains along the Pacific Crest Trail, I met countless badass women and men who had just backpacked anywhere from four to six months. So many of the women looked just like me and were out on the trail hiking not just in pairs, but solo. The previous season, two of my coworkers had backpacked the entire trail themselves, even though they had never backpacked before, and they reassured me that I was capable of thru-hiking. I decided thru-hiking was something I wanted to do for myself, and bought one-way tickets to Spain and New Zealand.

Within a week of successfully walking almost a month by myself across Spain, I committed to backpacking across the North Island of New Zealand on the Te Araroa trail. Heading in, my dad and brother doubted I’d last more than a week, but I did too. They doubted it not because I’m a woman, but because of my lack of experience. I had only backpacked four nights total ever before, and never by myself. While I had just walked 600 miles, now I was planning on backpacking anywhere from 40 to 80 days by myself, with a pack that was three times heavier than it was in Spain. Not to mention I was putting the trip together in less than a month when others had thought about it for years. I’d be resupplying, crossing rivers, and navigating — all things I had never done before. I hadn’t even tried completely setting up my tent before my first night in New Zealand, so I don’t blame people for doubting me for my lack of experience. Now, after receiving gendered comments on trail, I wonder if anyone was doubting me because I am a woman.

Addressing Gender on the Te Araroa Trail

Being biologically female was glaringly brought to my attention when I started my period a day into the forests from Ahipara to Kerikeri. Having not had a period for over a year with my IUD, I didn’t even think to bring tampons or a diva cup. This period made up for the months without, and while I walked four more days to town, painstakingly slow through deep mud, I had to just let myself bleed through. Even after getting supplies and washing clothes in Kerikeri, my period didn’t let up for two more weeks. Especially the first week, it was more than a slight added nuisance, but I felt like I couldn’t write about it in my trip’s blog that my friends and family were following. To some people, periods are still taboo to talk about and I didn’t want to bother or gross out anyone by writing about it, even though it was MY pain and figured massively into that first week. Even though my gender on trail didn’t bother me, I wanted male readers to take me seriously as a hiker. I didn’t want to be“just another woman complaining about her period.”

As I continued my trek, people who I met off trail and those reading at home, started regularly commenting on my appearance. The more I hiked, the more my tiredness or growing tan became apparent, and it felt like those aspects were being commented on more than the hiking itself. I was told I looked tired, I was asked why I didn’t carry makeup, and even once, after seeing a picture of me before my trek, a woman told me that I ought to go home because the trail hadn’t been “good for me.”

It was so frustrating to have my appearance commented on when all I was thinking about was how much I had accomplished and how far I still had to go. Throughout my experience, my looks were the least of my worries. I thru-hiked for almost 7 weeks. I backpacked over 700 miles on roads, through sand, in mud, and over streams. I carried all of my belongings. I ate mostly granola and couldn’t sleep from scratches and scrapes and mosquito bites. I slept outside. I pooped outside. I fell every single day. I was always incredibly exhausted and just trying to make it through each day. I didn’t realize that I was supposed to look cute on top of that.

People didn’t need to applaud my achievements, but they also didn’t need to comment on what I looked like on trail. In general, trail or no trail, insult or compliment, I’m finding it more and more bizarre that people comment on other people’s appearances at all. I’d like to say that the only people who commented on my looks were strangers in New Zealand, but most were comments from people back home and even from close friends. When reaching out to people back home, the most common response I would get was a comment on my looks, more specifically, some variation of “You’re so tan” with an added “lol” or “omg” thrown in there.

I was tired and genuinely hurt that after being away for so long, and after working so hard, this was the first response I’d normally get. So I voiced these frustrations on Instagram, where a man tried to hit on me in the same post, and again on my blog when I continued to receive the same comments. One to normally avoid conflict, it was hard for me to voice myself and ask for the comments to stop, afraid that people would judge and think I was overreacting. It’s hard to think about how comments or views toward my adventure would have been different if I were a man.

The morning after I posted my blog entry, my Dad’s cousin Bob, the one who originally planted the idea of thru-hiking in me, sent me a beautiful email in response that I think captures why comments on my tan face felt especially problematic from a thru-hiker’s perspective. He said,

“Long journeys melt excess fat from our bodies, tone muscles we seldom use, and darken our skin. And for people who are unfamiliar with all that goes into long journeys and all that the explorer must endure, blisters and sprained ankles, burns from spilled ramen noodles, chaffed thighs from ill-fitting underwear, bruised wrists from falls and bruised egos from turning around short of the summit, loneliness and genuine despair from sleepless nights and torturous exposure to endless days of foul weather, the ‘tan’ face is all that is available for outsiders to gauge the condition of the explorer.

The tan face doesn’t record the hours we cried. It doesn’t capture the inexpressible joy we felt when we could sit in a chair and eat at a table, instead of groveling on the ground. It doesn’t register genuine fear when we questioned every choice we’ve ever made and looked back in horror at all our past mistakes and shortcomings.

The tan face falsely and inaccurately records happiness and health. But it’s not the color of your cheeks that determines or marks the depth of that health and happiness. It’s the sparkle in your eyes. It’s the pride in your heart. It’s the fulfillment in your soul.”