Record-setting long-distance hiker Jennifer Pharr Davis slows down to help bring families outdoors—including her own.
Most parents can recount at least a few dirty diaper fiascos. However, it’s a rare breed that can cop to handling a poop-filled nightmare during the darkest hours of a brisk September night in Alaska’s Denali National Park. Jennifer Pharr Davis is one of them.
“No matter how quick you are, no matter how good the baby’s clothing layer system is, you feel like you’re racing the clock when you’re trying to change a dirty diaper and it’s 10 degrees outside,” she laughs.
If anyone can speed-clean a soiled baby, it’s probably Pharr Davis. After all, she wields two of the fastest hiking legs in the world, having knocked out records on Vermont’s Long Trail, Australia’s Bibbulmun Track and the iconic Appalachian Trail (AT), where she not only logged the unsupported women’s Fastest Known Time (FKT) in 2008, but also pushed through illness and shin splints to shave well over a full day off of the overall FKT three years later—the first woman to top the AT leaderboard.
Of course, some people don’t see the appeal of bombing along one of the most famous footpaths in the world, but Pharr Davis has a surprising response. “People like to criticize the record pretty often, saying ‘How could you enjoy it?’ or ‘How could you appreciate it?’—and I did,” she explains. “But I also like to point out that I’ve hiked more slow miles than almost anyone I know.”
Jennifer Pharr Davis hasn’t always been fast, but she’s always been ambitious. Dreams of completing the Appalachian Trail first materialized during her freshman year of college, and the novice hiker was so determined to bring them to fruition that she plowed through her coursework and graduated a semester early. She headed north from Georgia’s Springer Mountain, the trail’s southern terminus, in March 2005, a growth-filled journey documented in her memoir, "Becoming Odyssa: Adventures on the Appalachian Trail." The experience was transformational. “I recognized right away that my life was different,” she recalls. “I learned the value of simplicity, and that is such an important lesson at age 21, because it changed what I wanted out of life. I no longer wanted stuff and things and status; instead I wanted experiences and adventures and relationships.”
Pharr Davis was hooked. She carried those lessons across 13,000 miles (and counting) of the world’s long trails, including thru-hikes along the Pacific Crest Trail, Colorado Trail and Tour du Mont Blanc. While those experiences were deeply personal, her 2011 FKT launched Pharr Davis into the public sphere, earning her worldwide acclaim and the honor of being named National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. From there, she built a motivational speaking career, providing inspirational presentations to universities and corporate entities like Google and L.L.Bean. Perhaps more importantly, the newfound fame offered an opportunity to double down on her biggest goal: help others connect with the healing power of the outdoors.
"Well, I’m not going to be a therapist, I’m not going to be a minister, I’m not going to be a social worker, but darn it, if I can get people into the woods, I think I can help them have a healthier lifestyle."
One of the lasting effects of her first AT hike was that Pharr Davis felt a strong pull to help facilitate for others the same kind of transformative experience she encountered—albeit without requiring them to travel 2,190 miles. “I saw that the trail has this way to give people what they needed, whether it was a social connection, solitude, a spiritual experience, or just general life therapy,” she explains. “I thought, ‘Well, I’m not going to be a therapist, I’m not going to be a minister, I’m not going to be a social worker, but darn it, if I can get people into the woods, I think I can help them have a healthier lifestyle.’”
To that end, Pharr Davis and husband Brew founded the Blue Ridge Hiking Company in 2008, with a mission “to make the wilderness accessible and enjoyable” for all. In a similar vein, she’s written a handful of guidebooks including the recent "Families on Foot: Urban Hikes to Backyard Treks and National Parks Adventures," co-authored with Brew in partnership with the American Hiking Society, where Pharr Davis is an ambassador. Although it would have been easy to adopt an authoritative tone given her experience, she insisted on including a diverse array of voices throughout. “I feel like it’s really powerful to be able to see families from all across the U.S., of all ages, with all different backgrounds, demographics, and special considerations, and see how everyone’s getting outdoors in different ways.”
Family is important to Pharr Davis. In fact, her AT record was meant as a final hurrah to pave the way for creating her own. “I wanted one last big adventure, and I wanted to know the feeling of being light and fast and free before being pregnant for nine months,” she says. “I think I got my ‘fast’ out on the record.”
So, back to those “slow miles.” Pharr Davis notched over 500 of them in Europe while walking Iceland’s Laugavegur Trail and Spain’s GR11 in 2012, beginning while six months pregnant with daughter Charley. Less than a year later, she embarked on a book tour that allowed for saunters in every state, baby in tow. Now the entire family—including one-year-old Gus—is traveling along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST), a 1,175-mile path that spans their home state of North Carolina between Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Jockey’s Ridge State Park in the Outer Banks.
Their focus is on advocating for the 40-year-old route through blog posts and speaking engagements. Pharr Davis has long dreamed of hiking her “home trail,” and the opportunity arrived when advocacy group Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail offered its support to allow her entire family in on the adventure. The crew set out in mid-August and will finish later this month. [Ed. note: As of publication (Nov. 14, 2017), Pharr Davis and family were within 130 miles of the finish line.] The family starts together most mornings, Gus snuggled up in a carrier while Charley explores, sometimes nudged along with a few M&M'S or more often, by the promise of discovering intriguing flora and fauna along the way. The day progresses with diaper changes and snack breaks, and both parents tend to curious little minds and tired little feet before Brew eventually whisks Charley away to meet mom later down the trail. Hardly the stuff of speed records.
But it’s a pace Pharr Davis prefers. “The cool thing about hiking or backpacking as a family is that it kind of solidifies you as your own little team,” she explains. “I think it really forms this cohesive bond that you don’t feel at home when everyone’s going in different directions.”
In the background, Gus grows loud and restless. Pharr Davis, however, is unfazed. This is the reality of parenthood, of life on trail with family—and reality doesn’t care whether or not you’re an elite athlete.
Whether it’s taking her children on a journey through North Carolina, writing about outdoor adventures, leading hikes, speaking to students, or advocating for conservation and trail protection, Jennifer Pharr Davis has found a purpose far beyond what any record book can provide.
“Giving people an emotional connection to the natural world is hugely important if we want to protect it going forward,” she says. “If I get other people outdoors, I feel like I’m doing what I was made to do.”
Jennifer Pharr Davis's Tips for Getting Outdoors With Your Family
Start 'em young. “It’s easy to carry a baby down the trail and their needs are minimal: They need love and shelter and food and a clean diaper, and that’s about it,” says Pharr Davis. An early start can also help normalize the idea of spending time outdoors, so moving into longer hikes and overnights will feel natural to a child who’s been outside their whole life.
Begin with what you know. “Remember that by definition, a hike is a walk in a natural setting—it doesn’t have to be scaling a fourteener in winter in Colorado,” explains Pharr Davis. Before setting off on grand adventures, visit your local parks and green spaces to dial in your family’s comfort in the outdoors. Similarly, before committing to an overnight trip, consider a trial run in your backyard—it’s good to see how kids respond to sleeping in a tent while close to home.
Look for community. “There’s a wealth of knowledge and experience that you can tap into to help you feel more comfortable and be more safe as you start getting outdoors as a family,” says Pharr Davis. Look for local hiking clubs, Meetup groups, outfitters and gear shops that host workshops, clinics and other events to help build not just skills, but also connections.
Don’t let gear hold you back. “Some people have a notion that it’s a really expensive endeavor to get into hiking and backpacking, and that’s really not the case,” explains Pharr Davis. She recommends checking out the American Hiking Society’s “10 Essentials of Hiking” list, then scanning your home to see what’s already on hand. When moving toward longer hikes and overnight trips, consider borrowing or renting gear while determining whether or not these are activities your family will enjoy.
Involve kids in trip planning. “Let them dictate the adventure,” suggests Pharr Davis. “The more they’re included from the beginning to the end, the more ownership they have over the experience and the more fun they have with it, as well.” Ask your kids for their input: Would they like to hike in the forest or at a lake? Are there any games or favorite toys they’d like to bring along? Do they have a special snack they’d like to eat along the way?
Let go of expectations. “Most people, when they go out into the woods or onto a trail, they sort of have a loose goal in mind,” says Pharr Davis. “I really think you’ve got to let go of control when you go hiking and backpacking and camping with kids.” Instead of fixating on a specific destination or certain mileage, accept that you’ll need to remain flexible in order to minimize frustration and maximize fun—even if that means only making it halfway to your intended target.