She was 21 when she first thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. That was 17 years ago. Since then, Jennifer Pharr Davis has hiked more than 14,000 miles on 6 different continents, achieved the fastest known finish of the AT (46 days, an average of 47 miles a day), and achieved her goal of hiking in all 50 states with her now 4-year-old daughter.
Jennifer has seen dramatic changes in the hiking and outdoor community in that time. When she first started her adventures, there was a distinct lack of resources for women in the outdoor space. Most gear companies at the time designed women’s gear with the “Pink It & Shrink It” philosophy—taking men’s gear and simply making it smaller. Women were rarely seen in outdoor marketing, and if they were, they were car camping with a camp stove in front of them. Jennifer recognizes the same struggle today for representation of minority groups: people of color, people who identify as LGBTQ, people with disabilities.
It’s a matter of belonging.
This is why she’s dedicated her life over the past 17 years to expanding the sense of, “Who belongs outdoors?” to everyone. She launched her hiking company Blue Ridge Hiking in 2008 to help introduce people to the outdoors. She encourages outdoor life for everyone as a speaker at conferences, corporate events, and has spoken on National Geographic Live and TED Talks. She’s published 9 books on hiking and the outdoor experience, including guide books, memoirs, and her recently released Outdoor School: Hiking & Camping.
To say we’re thrilled to have Jennifer as part of our community—well that’s a vast understatement. We sat down with her to talk about breaking down people’s barriers to getting outdoors, advice on hiking and camping with children, and what’s next for her and her family.
TO START OUT, TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOUR MISSION. WHO ARE YOU TALKING TO AND WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO SAY?
My mission when I started Blue Ridge Hiking Company was basically an extension of myself: to make the trails accessible and enjoyable, that the trail is there for everyone at every phase of life. Based on my personal experience starting out, one of my questions was, “I’d love to help get more women outdoors and more youth outdoors. Why aren’t there more tools and services to help this demographic?” And that’s expanded now to minority groups, people of color, people who identify as LGBTQ. They don’t always feel included or welcome, especially people who might not have grown up with it, or maybe feel like culturally, it’s not a natural fit for them.
I speak mostly at conferences, schools, corporations—to people who have never spent much time outdoors before. I try to share this life-changing message of what it is to get outdoors and how it’s not that difficult. You can do it where you live. Let’s identify the obstacles that stand in your way and come up with tools to overcome them.
ARE YOU MOSTLY ENCOURAGING PEOPLE TO HIKE OR BACKPACK? DAY HIKES OR LONG TREKS?
A big part of what I do is facilitate the connection between individuals and nature. It can be hiking; it can be backpacking. It can be a challenge. It can be sitting on a log. So many people tell me, “I’m not a hiker.” And I ask them, “Have you walked on a greenway? Have you walked on a beach?” Because the definition of hiking is a walk in a natural setting. When people realize they’ve done more than they think they can, then they think, “Okay, well, maybe I could go to a national forest trail, because I’ve done this.”
With my story, I have all these things I’ve done, and I’ve needed them all. There have been times I needed to know what my body could do. And there have been times where I just needed to go chill out by a stream all day and picnic and read. The trail doesn’t care. It just likes that you’re out there.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY SPECIFICALLY TO PEOPLE WHO AREN’T COMFORTABLE YET IN THE OUTDOORS? BECAUSE I HEAR THIS ALL THE TIME FROM MY FEMALE FRIENDS, THAT THEY DON’T WANT TO GO TO THE BATHROOM IN THE WOODS, OR THEY’RE CONCERNED ABOUT DEALING WITH THEIR PERIODS?
We just ask, “Is it worth it?” We talk about pees, poops, and periods all the time, because it’s a barrier. I like to introduce it personally, and say, “You know what, when I’m dealing with my period on the trail, I basically manage it like I manage it at home. I have hand sanitizer with me, and I pack everything out. I take an ibuprofen for my lower back pain, and I’m slightly annoyed at every guy who passes me on the trail.” But I don’t let being a woman prevent me from doing what I love. And I love being out there. The benefits of spending time outdoors are worth the inconvenience of learning to deal with a period or how to pee and poop in the woods.
SO, THAT SEGUES INTO KIDS AND EDUCATING THEM AND RAISING THEM IN A WAY WHERE THEY FEEL COMFORTABLE IN NATURE. TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT HOW – IF YOU HAVEN’T RAISED YOUR KIDS THAT WAY – HOW WOULD YOU GET THEM INTO HIKING?
Kids and adults are actually pretty similar in that they connect to the outdoors in different ways. One thing I love about hiking and backpacking is yes—it’s walking—but that’s the baseline. Then people connect with the outdoors through these creative extensions of who they are: picture taking or journaling or sketching, interacting with other hikers, identifying plants and wildlife, or becoming a total gearhead. We bring our personalities with us to the trail, and the trail is very welcoming.
With kids, recognizing their personalities and how they connect with outdoors is half the battle. For example, my daughter does not love forward motion. There are days she wants to push herself, but usually she’s the resistant member in the family when we’re going out to do 3 miles. But she’s super artistic. She loves camping. So, we bring a little set of watercolors or crayons, and we involve her in the camp chores. We make it so she connects in a way that’s more than just walking, because that’s not her top reason to be out there.
Connecting those activities with your kids’ personalities helps them embrace the experience and make it feel like it’s theirs, too—that it’s the family experience and not just, “Mom or Dad want to go hike.”
FOR KIDS, OBVIOUSLY A LOT OF PEOPLE ARE WORRIED ABOUT SAFETY. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE BIG LESSONS YOU CONSISTENTLY TAUGHT YOUR KIDS TO BE SAFE ON THE TRAIL?
One thing we go over a lot is what to do if they get separated from us. We always emphasize, “If you can’t see Mommy and Daddy, you have to stay put, and you have to yell for us. Don’t try to find us, and don’t run farther down the trail, and don’t run back.” So they know that.
We also have a pretty beefy first aid kit, and we’ve added kid-specific medicine like Children’s Benadryl and Children’s Tylenol. Most first aid kits you buy don’t include children’s medicine. Then we also have our day pack that has snacks and water bottles in it. Always having those packed and ready to go so we know we have everything we need is a big part of the battle.
With safety, a lot of it is specific to place or season. Where we live in Asheville: in the winter, we don’t talk about snakes, but we talk about holding hands over icy patches because it’s going to be slick. And in the summer at the end of the day we say, “Stay close to Mom and Dad. Hold a hand because we do have rattlesnakes and copperheads that come out on the trail late in the day to sun themselves.” Know the common risks where you are, and when you’re hiking with kids, plan for them and point them out.
YOUR SON IS FOUR, AND YOUR DAUGHTER’S EIGHT, RIGHT? AND YOU’VE BASICALLY BEEN HIKING WITH THEM SINCE THEY WERE NEWBORNS. DO YOU FIND PEERS AND OTHER PEOPLE WITH THE SAME EXPERIENCES? OR DOES IT FEEL A LITTLE ISOLATING FOR THEM?
I don’t think we’re that unique. I mean, I think we do way more than 99% of the population outdoors. But also, we live in Asheville and have friends who are like-minded.
I think our question is, “What’s fair for our kids?” Because our goal isn’t necessarily to have them grow up to be hikers, right? We want them to find something that brings them the joy and confidence that spending time outdoors does for me and my husband. Maybe it’s paddling, maybe it’s art, maybe it’s theater, maybe it’s a corporate job. Who knows where they’re going to find their joy? Hiking is part of our family culture. It’s like our second home, so they need to be able to spend time there and feel comfortable there. But what they end up doing with it long term is up to them.
Hiking is an activity you get to experience as a family, which I think is more and more rare these days. It’s more differentiated where, this is mom’s time. This is dad’s time. This is mom’s friend, that’s your friend, this is your activity. With hiking, it can be solo, but it can also be a shared activity. And I think that’s really important to have as a family.
I WOULD LOVE TO HEAR A LITTLE BIT ABOUT HOW YOU GOT CONNECTED WITH ASTRAL AND WHAT REALLY ATTRACTED YOU TO THE COMPANY.
Maybe 7 or 8 years ago, my husband Brew was like, “Did you know there’s a shoe company in Asheville, and they’re focused on sustainability? And they have a shoe called the Brewer,” and I was like, “That’s great.” (laughter) He really wanted to try them. I had been hiking for a really long time, and I had gone through a lot of different models and brands. I put on the Junction, and it was immediately the sort of the shoe I’ve always been looking for: not over built, not too heavy. It’s not built for trail runners. It dries really quickly. It’s got great tread that lasts forever. It was a Cinderella shoe for me. I get scared every time you announce a new model because I’m afraid you’ll discontinue my favorites.
Then we met Philip and we heard the history of Astral—how you’re really trying to make the footwear industry better and cleaner, and how a lot of these outdoor brands are promoting conservation and then using really poor practices environmentally. We were really impressed with Astral’s authenticity to sustainability and that commitment.
I’D LOVE TO HEAR ABOUT YOUR NATIONAL PARK TOUR AND WHAT YOU’RE UP TO. I KNOW YOU HAVE YOUR BOOK COMING OUT. WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE PEOPLE TO KNOW THAT YOU’RE WORKING ON?
I still feel like a big part of what we’re doing is trying to get our feet under us from the past year. Just like most companies, we have different revenue streams, and different things have responded uniquely under COVID. Right now, our backpacking company is having the best spring we’ve ever had, but a lot of the work I did as a public speaker is just starting to come back. As a writer, I haven’t had the capacity to work on another book project, because my kids haven’t been in school. So there was this pressure to go back to the status quo, or pursue things that were there before COVID. We just felt so wrung out for the past year that we were like, “We need to go outside.” And we did and it was the best thing we’ve done as a family in a really long time.
So right now, our focus is really on healing and spending time outdoors and reconnecting—then tying that into work as much as we can. Because really, that’s how all this got started in the first place. Thirteen years ago, I started my business to encourage people to get outdoors, and that grew into writing and speaking. And it was because of all the positive benefits that you get when you’re outside. There’s this saying that hikers use that goes, “The trail gives you what you need.” Different people need different things. But right now, we’re going back to our roots. I’m usually very driven and goal oriented, and I always have five things I’m trying to accomplish. I have my book coming out. I’m doing some speaking, and we’re taking part in some volunteer and charity events. But right now, just trying to heal and spend time outdoors feels right.
ASTRAL IS PROUD TO HAVE JENNIFER ON OUR ATHLETE TEAM. TO FOLLOW ALONG ON HER JOURNEY, CHECK OUT HER INSTAGRAM.