Cover image: Sage Clegg makes her way on the trail. She hikes alone but carries with her the wisdom and support of her mentors. All images: Sage Clegg.
The snow was beautiful. It was dense and wet, but the huge flakes fluttered in the wind and had transformed the world I was walking through. My feet made a lonesome statement in the two-inch blanket of white, leaving evidence of a person with size 9 shoes walking solo up a mountain in the middle of nowhere New Mexico on Thanksgiving 2008.
"Walking is warmth" was my mantra for the day, and really for the whole hike. Early winter on the Grand Enchantment Trail is cold. Far colder than I imagined a desert could be. A mentor & friend, Shawn "Pepper" Forry, had shared this mantra with me a few days earlier in an email after I had mentioned the chilly temperatures.
My eyes had gotten so cold one night that I was temporarily blind when I woke in the morning. I was worried and wrote to Shawn to see if he had any ideas for me to stay healthy while living outside in frigid weather. He shared a few great tips along with the magical mantra that helped keep me moving.
Thanks to his advice, I started sleeping with my hat pulled over my eyes, a habit I still use, even on sunny summer trips. He mentioned how racks of fig newtons fit perfectly in a pack's side pocket and are for sale in every little grocery & gas station I might be resupplying from along the way. I tromped through the snow, munching on fig newtons, feeling warm on a cold day.
I often thru-hike alone, but I don't feel very lonely while I'm out. I know I have a support network I can reach out to when problems I can't solve on my own pop up. Having creative and experienced friends like Pepper to talk my trail issues over with has been hugely helpful for me in my hiking life. Knowing I was not alone in my suffering was comforting.
While not everyone seeks a mentor, I encourage it—for reasons both practical and emotional. They’ll help find solutions when you need them, and they will also give you unconditional support as you strive to reach your goals.
Here are a few ideas for finding a mentor:
1) Join a helpful Facebook group. You can find advice and support from the whole group, or you can reach out to individuals via personal message. Warning: There are some hurtful FB groups out there, and I have seen some unfortunate carnage, anti-mentorship, occur. Test the waters first and be ready to deal with trolls (i.e.: ignore them and/or leave the group for something better). If you happen to be a woman, the women's groups are often much nicer about giving help rather than criticizing. Start small with questions before divulging your hike plan or gear list to the whole community. If FB had been a thing for me in 2008, I'm sure I would have been warned away & discouraged from my late fall 2008 Grand Enchantment Trail hike. You want to find a group that you trust with your dreams and can support you to follow them safely.
2) Follow blogs like this one for inspiration and tips. The Oboz Trail Tales blog has over 20 ambassadors from a diverse adventure background. Seeing what type of adventures other people go on & how they plan them is a great way to learn without going through the learning curve yourself.
3) Find a local. Here in Bend I have discovered a wonderful hiking community, and am convinced most towns have at least a few thru-hikers hanging around. Put the word out & meet up for beer & pizza (hiker bait) somewhere- look around the table at your new group of friends & teachers!
4) Hire a hiker! A few of us thru-hikers offer consulting services for nominal fees. I share basic tips for free, and personalized packages to help plan a trip, work on gear selection, and learn skill sets (like hygiene & map reading) for an hourly rate. Liz "Snorkel" Thomas is working with Backpacker magazine to bring the world an online hiking course! Jen Pharr Davis offers trips & classes through the Blue Ridge Hiking Company. Outward bound and NOLS offer great courses to get you started & help to build the basic skills to take care of yourself on a long journey. This summer Outward Bound is offering a thru-hiking course on the PCT in Oregon (I’ll be a guest instructor on it- come join us!).
5) Pick up a paper mentor: There are some excellent books out there to help you learn some of the secrets of long hikes. Yogi’s guides are unique because they are compilations of advice from a variety of hikers who have hiked a specific trail. I found these guides very helpful on the PCT and the CDT. Justin “Trauma” Lichter is an impressive hiker with three books filled with quality trail advice, and one book is even pocket sized! Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips, and pretty much anything Mike Clelland writes or illustrates about backcountry travel will help you learn. I have used his fun illustrations to teach students everything from blister taping to water treatment, and now he has created this super informative book about ultralight trail living.
On that snowy solo 2008 Thanksgiving, I chanted the mantra my mentor gave me, "walking is warmth" and felt the warmth of thankfulness push away the winter chill. I certainly had it within myself to go on a huge adventure, but I really needed the support from my friends & mentors to help me have success.
Walking still provides me warmth, even when I’m sitting on a couch at home, typing up a blog post. Walking has warmed up my life, and I hope it can warm yours too. Happy trails!
Sage Clegg is a biologist, educator, and thru-hiker who loves taking long walks through little known places. Discover more about Sage & see some of her hiking advice at sageclegg.com. Follow Sage Clegg Adventures on Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram