After five-months of joy, challenge, struggle, and laughter, I reached Canada on my 2006 PCT thru-hike determined to find a way to get paid to hike. I felt freedom and exhilaration in waking up each day, facing the obstacles of the trail, overcoming those obstacles, and making tangible progress towards my goal to walk across the country. I couldn’t imagine going back to the “real world” and my desk job, no matter that I had recently finished graduate school; I wanted to live and work outside and hike forever.
Sound familiar? Many thru-hikers get bitten by the hiking bug and decide to try and make hiking a career...try being the important word here. Making a career that lasts (and pays the bills) in the outdoors can be as daunting as the first step on a long trail, but as I learned from my varied career attempts (guiding, leading trail crews, working in wilderness therapy, organizing logistics for Outward Bound, starting a small hiking brand, freelancing as a writer and graphic designer, and finally to developing a new long-distance trail) I have tried almost everything to get paid to hike and live outdoors. That pursuit can be a struggle, but the rewards it can bring are so worth it, especially if those jobs give you the time and space to keep hiking.
Renee is currently the Trail Coordinator for the Oregon Desert Trail, and started the brand hikertrash. Photo by Robert Curzon
Many times these careers start as a side-hustle...as a way to stay engaged in the hiker community while still being able to pay rent, but they can lead to more if you are willing to get creative and tackle the challenges of employment the same way you tackled the 4,000’ climbs, the flood-stage river crossings, or the two weeks of rain on your hike: through determination and showing up each day.
I talked to a few of my favorite “career hikers” to learn more about their journeys into the profession, and discovered we had many things in common. Liz “Snorkle” Thomas is an author, speaker, and owner of the gear-review company, Treeline Review, with fellow long-distance hiker Naomi “The Punisher” Hudetz. Mandy “Purple Rain” Bland makes hikers look good with her line of Purple Rain Adventure Skirts, skirts, kits, and dresses. Jennifer “Odyssa” Pharr Davis is an author, National Geographic Explorer of the Year and owner of Blue Ridge HIking Co in Asheville, North Carolina, and Heather “Anish” Anderson has made a career as a writer and speaker, breaking many FKT records along the way, and has also been named a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year.
Many themes emerged among these five women as we talked about the why and how of trying to get paid to do what you love.
Connectedness to the world
What about thru-hiking is so compelling that someone would want to make a career out of it? The overwhelming answer from these incredible women came down to: realizing I am a part of nature.
Liz shared, “[Thru-hiking has helped me realize that] I'm a small part of the bigger ecosystem and universe. It puts everything I'm working on in life into perspective.” Naomi expanded, “nature accepts me for who I am at that moment. I truly feel alive, part of the world, and where I am supposed to be,“ and Jennifer commented, “Feeling the interconnectedness between humans and the environment has changed how I see the world and move through it.”
That connectedness to the greater world has truly been one of the best outcomes in my life since setting foot on the Appalachian Trail almost 20 years ago. Developing my relationship with nature and the world has been transformative, and thru-hiking has helped me understand that I am capable of much more than I would have imagined.
Realize your potential
“Thru hiking helped me find my strength,” Mandy explained. “We're made to do hard things and hiking pushes you to that limit. So many times in my life I have looked back to my long hikes to find the motivation to get through the sticky stuff.”
Mandy with her son, both wearing Purple Rain Adventure Skirts
Those of you who have read Healther’s books will recognize these sentiments: “The thing about hiking that has impacted me the most is the self-reliance, courage, and resilience I've found within,” she said.
Helping others develop that connection
Something that keeps me motivated to contribute to the thru-hiking community is the thought that I can help others find true joy and fulfillment in moving their body through space and time while deepening their relationship with nature. This driving force was mentioned as a pivotal factor among the other hikers as well.
“I think the world would be a much better place if everyone could feel that sense of belonging to the world, Naomi said. “So many of our societal problems come from a place of not feeling accepted. And if I can help even one person along the path to experience that feeling of complete acceptance from Mother Nature herself, I would feel like I made a difference. So that's what I want to do – help people get outside and feel comfortable doing it.”
“I had a great job at a museum that let me hike and come back and work, but I never loved it as much as I loved teaching and encouraging people to hike and backpack,” Jennifer shared. “I figured if I was going to stay in the museum world I would probably need to go back to grad school. I decided to follow my heart and try to start my own hiking company, telling myself that if I didn’t work I could always go back to grad school. It’s been 14 years and I still tell myself that.”
Jennifer had help with the opening of Blue Ridge HIking Co.
Liz shared, “For me, part of being a hiker and enjoying hiking is also about giving back. Being outdoors is about being happy and feeling like you're truly living life. Having a career where I can help more people feel the joy of being outside is honest work and I'm proud to do it.”
My priorities were different after hiking
“I had a lot of trouble with transitioning back to 'normal life' after thru-hiking,” Mandy said. “I left a desk job hell bent on not going back there after the AT. I didn't know what lay ahead but I knew I wouldn't be going back to the daily 9-5. I think once you start living for yourself like you do on trail it's hard to imagine following someone else's schedule. I love the lifestyle of owning my own business, it's full of freedom and adventure, what I love so much about trail! I found my strength and confidence on trail and transformed it into a skirt. I want to share that with everyone!”
I like to say thru-hiking ruined me for “normal life,” and once I’ve felt that freedom and exhilaration, spending 40+ hours a week on something I wasn’t as excited about felt dull and boring. I agree with Liz’s sentiments wholeheartedly, “Hiking as a career path feels like the most honest expression of myself. It's something that I can give my whole heart to and honestly feel like that the work that I'm doing makes people's lives better.”
Liz with her book, Long Trails: Mastering the Art of the Thru-Hike. Photo by Whitney LaRuffa
Not everyone I polled looked at the topic of careers in the same way. Heather commented, “I actively decided that I would never make the thing I love so much into a job because it would kill the joy. Instead I focused on developing a career that would allow me to spend as much time as possible engaging in outdoor activities. There were a lot of things I tried along the way, but finally found my niche several years ago as an author of hiking books and a professional speaker who focuses on connecting the lessons I've learned through my hiking experiences to daily life.”
Heather’s book Mud, Rocks and Blazes chronicles her 54-day thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail
Don’t be afraid to hustle and be honest about your priorities
“Look for problems and use your skills to find a solution, Liz explained. “Treeline Review was born to solve a problem I saw in outdoor gear writing. I wasn't seeing outdoor gear reviews that felt objective...instead, gear reviews felt like they were pushing readers to buy the newest and greatest thing... “I wanted gear reviews to show people of all backgrounds, ages, and levels of experiences pointing readers to trusted gear and ‘can't go wrong’ choices, like giving advice to a friend.”
Naomi advised: “Choose your career path very carefully. Don't assume that because you love long-distance hiking that you'll love doing it for your career. For example, I personally would never want to be a hiking or backpacking guide. My thru-hiking time is invaluable to me, and I don't want to risk jeopardizing that by turning it into my job. Not to mention, it would take a LOT of hustle to earn enough to live on as a guide. So don't rule out careers that are peripherally related to long-distance hiking, and get REALLY good at your job.”
Naomi regularly hikes, tests gear, and writes in-depth reviews for her business Treeline Review
“Decide if building a business or building a lifestyle is more important to you before you get started, Jennifer said. “There are lots of freelance and entrepreneurial jobs that will allow you to live simply and maintain a thru hiker lifestyle. If you want to build and grow a consistent business it’s probably going to take you off long trails for a bit.”
Mandy encouraged, “Go for it! The cottage gear industry is having its day and as consumers we are more conscious about where we spend money,” she said. “Start small, and have a side hustle to make ends meet. If you're tough enough to love long distance hiking, you're tough enough for business.”
Heather also suggested: “I would advise others to be honest with themselves about their skill set and get creative. Careers these days are much more varied than in the past and there's constantly room for innovation and self-expression that results in meaningful, impactful work.”
Some final thoughts
“Don't be afraid to take risks. One of the scariest things I ever did was take time off for my first thru hike. I don't know how I found the courage to do that in the middle of a recession, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I've ever made in my life. There's never a perfect time,” Naomi advised.
“Starting my career and motherhood are very much intertwined for me. Having my own business allowed me to stay home with my kiddo through the early years and it still does today,” Mandy said. “Not to say that it was easy, but I feel fortunate to have built my life in that way. I'm still hikertrash at heart and often run my business as such, but maybe that's not such a bad thing.”
“Running a small business is a lot like hiking a long trail. That should be a confidence boost for any thru-prenuers! It also allows you to call your own shots. I’ve guided backpacking trips pregnant and with an infant strapped on my chest. We’ve had other female guides lead trips pregnant or with their nursing infants. I think that’s pretty awesome and I doubt it would have been possible working for someone else,” Jennifer said. “Feeling responsible and providing financially and emotionally for a family and/or employees is not lightweight.”
Wherever you are in your hiking life, or career path, it’s never too late to explore how to transition your love of trails into a profession, but as explained above, it’s worth diving into your motivations. Do you want to hike forever? Perhaps focus on creating the lifestyle that allows you to take large chunks of time each year to hike like Heather has done. Want the freedom to call your own shots and integrate being a parent into an outdoor business? Jennifer and Mandy have found creative ways to do so. And finally, one of the pieces of advice that resonates with me comes from Liz’s comment about finding a solution to a problem. Have you ever wished a certain piece of gear existed, or a service was available somewhere along your hike? Listen to that wish, it just might be your ticket into a new career path.
About The Author
Renee "She-ra" Patrick has always placed more emphasis on having experiences and challenging herself than keeping a steady job and padding a bank account. Her sense of exploration led her to join the Peace Corps after college, and hike her first long trail soon after. Eleven thru-hikes and 11,000 miles later she is still in love with discovering her surroundings on foot and now is able to use all those experiences in her current endeavor to develop the challenging 750-mile desert route: the Oregon Desert Trail. "I will never stop hiking, and I like to say my favorite trail is the one I haven’t hiked yet.”