Going the Distance with Liz “Snorkel” Thomas

With 15,000 miles of trail under her belt, this expert thru-hiker has more than a few tips to share.

Inviting long-distance hiking guru Liz “Snorkel” Thomas out for a four-mile stroll is the rough equivalent of asking Serena Williams to lob a few over the net. Accidentally shuttling her to a closed trailhead, then, is a bit like showing up with a broken racket.

Considering she once set the women’s unsupported speed record on the Appalachian Trail (AT), Thomas is infinitely patient as I slowly wind along the San Gabriel Mountains foothills in search of an open trail. We strike out once more, then finally land at an oak-filled pocket park, laughing at the irony of a note she’d sent me the previous day: “I have a bad habit of getting lost while driving… too many navigation decisions to make at speeds 20x as fast as I walk.”

“Walk” is a bit of a euphemism, of course. Thomas, along with fellow AT record holders Jennifer Pharr Davis and Heather “Anish” Anderson, is one of the country’s most accomplished hikers. Like many high-mileage devotees, she’s a Triple Crowner, having completed the AT, Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), and Continental Divide Trail (CDT). She’s gone far beyond that, though, to finish 20 long-distance routes, including the first thru-hike of the 300-mile Chinook Trail and the first documented traverse of Utah’s Wasatch Range. Along the way, she’s notched over 15,000 miles, the equivalent of walking from the crown of Scotland to Cape Town, South Africa—then turning around and marching halfway back.

Thomas on the Chinook Trail | Photo: Whitney LaRuffa

Growing up in Sacramento, California, Thomas wasn’t always the wandering type. Other than a single family camping trip in Yosemite National Park, her only real outdoor exposure came via a small green space located along the American River, a place she still holds dear. In college, she studied environmental science, a track that offered the opportunity to spend several dreamy summers conducting research out of a cabin in Lee Vining, a small Sierra outpost perched above Mono Lake, just outside the Yosemite boundary.

On one particularly fateful day off, she ventured into the park for a day hike and ended up mesmerized by a group of disheveled PCT hikers sprawled outside of the Tuolumne Meadows general store. Though the group was exhausted and demoralized by brutal trail conditions, their adventurous tales lit a flame and sent Thomas on a path to completing her first thru-hike, the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT), the following summer.

In the chilly silence, she fixated on thoughts of blizzards and bears rummaging through her food.

Upon finishing the 165-mile route, Thomas was excited and emboldened. “I thought I’d been, like, this total badass on the TRT,” she recalls. Despite having done little research or prep work, she made the rash decision to snag a last-minute permit and jump on the John Muir Trail (JMT). (This was in 2007, before the massive crowds, when such sorcery was still possible.) Unfortunately, the season was shifting, with cold nights and fewer hikers, and in the chilly silence, she fixated on thoughts of blizzards and bears rummaging through her food. She lasted two days before she pulled the plug.

She knocked off a week from the previous AT unsupported speed record to cover its 2,181 miles in a blistering 80 days and change.

That initial foray on the JMT was a minor setback; a humbled Thomas internalized that summer’s lessons and began to more carefully plot bigger adventures. She found that long trips afforded an opportunity to, not only explore different ecosystems, but also relish in a certain freedom. “I think I liked the ability to just kind of drop everything away—just totally be disconnected and focused on what you’re doing, having that singular goal,” she reflects.

Photo courtesy of Liz Thomas

After completing a handful of long trails and refining both her methodology and gear, Thomas decided to hike the AT a second time (having already done it once three years prior) to see if she could beat the women’s unsupported speed record; she did, knocking off a week from the previous time to cover its 2,181 miles in a blistering 80 days and change. While most people’s knees might quiver at the thought, Thomas adopts an almost zen outlook. “I actually think that hike was my most fun hike,” she explains. “Nothing was going to distract me from the trail and living in that moment.”

Now that the Fastest Known Time (FKT) field is crowded with ultrarunners, Thomas is less interested in acquiring records than she is in accumulating experiences. She recently completed a “Denver Urban Brew Thru,” a charmingly boozy 8-day hike connecting the city’s 64 (and counting) breweries, and her summer is booked with adventures including a second traverse of the Sierra High Route and an attempt at Corsica’s GR 20, widely considered to be one of Europe’s most difficult long trails.

With a bit of mental and physical planning, anyone can join the unwashed ranks, even if they’re not gunning for, say, 15,000 miles.

While her hiking resume grows, her presence has also expanded off-trail. Thomas still conducts research (though now focused on long-distance trails and nearby communities rather than native plants and chipmunks), acts as an ambassador for the American Hiking Society and a slew of outdoor brands, and serves as Vice President of the American Long Distance Hiking Association-West. She’s also stuffed a decade of high mileage experience into a new book, Long Trails: Mastering the Art of the Thru-Hike, a Backpacker-branded project born from her experience teaching a “Thru-Hiking 101” course for the outlet. The result is a resource that’s not only comprehensive, but also approachable, a suggestion that anyone—with a bit of mental and physical planning—can join the unwashed ranks, even if they’re not gunning for, say, 15,000 miles.

On our hike through the oak trees, I talked to Thomas about her book, her experiences, and what she hopes other hikers can learn from both.

There are other long-distance hiking guides out there—books by Andrew Skurka and Justin “Trauma” Lichter come to mind. How is yours different?

It felt like a lot of the guides that were out there focused more on gear. It’s cool and sexy to talk about gear, and everyone wants to read about gear, but ultimately, if you want to get down to the nuts and bolts of thru-hiking, you’ve got to start thinking a little bit wider.

The other thing I really wanted to do was appeal to people who were section-hiking or intimidated because when I think of Andrew Skurka or Trauma, I think they’re both amazing athletes and they look like ultrarunners… It’s just really intimidating when you’re starting off to see these people who are specimens of physical ability, being like, “OK, so I want to hike, but do I need to look like that person?” Or “I want to hike, but I can’t get second place at Hardrock on my first try—or ever.” Or “I want to thru-hike, but I can’t do the PCT in the winter.” I felt like there was such a big mental chasm between the skill levels of these people and people who were starting out, and because I had gotten into thru-hiking and backpacking as an adult, I totally remember what it was like starting off being like, “OK, where do I put my feet?”

Thomas’ book | Photo: Shawnté Salabert

You dedicate a lot of space to not only preparing yourself but also preparing those around you. Why is that important?

Maybe because I’m a woman, but that’s something that I was concerned a lot about when I was first getting into long-distance hiking. Even now, my parents are like, “Oh, I’m so worried about you every time you’re gone,” and I’m like, “Hey, I’ve got this.” But in some ways, I don’t think men get that as much, and because that was something that was always on my mind, it was really important for me to include that in the book. Especially as I get older and I have a partner and I have friends who are married, certainly thinking about the family aspect of making sure not only that your partner doesn’t feel you’re just abandoning him, but also that things are going to be taken care of. It’s not something people think about a lot, but problems at home really do take people off trail. I met this woman who was like, “Oh, I got a letter from the city that I need to fix my sewer by such and such date, so I have to get off trail!”

I actually got an eviction notice when I was on the PCT, even though I paid my rent in advance!

I think in the book I talk about my car getting towed. Trying to get the car out of being impounded while I’m on a mountaintop was so bad!

You also talked a lot of about the mental game of thru-hiking, and of actually understanding why you’re out there.

I think thru-hiking is really sexy right now, but it’s also a sacrifice. There’s an opportunity cost involved. The last thing I want is for people to think, “I’m going to quit my job,” and then two weeks later, quit the trail and be like, “Can I have my job back?” You know, there’s a big commitment: Some people sell their houses. It’s a big jump. I mean, you can enjoy a long trail by going out for weekends or as section-hikers, and I definitely want people to think about those as options before they drop everything to go for a thru-hike.

Speaking of, what’s been the hardest trail you’ve done, mentally?

Wasatch was pretty hard. CDT was really hard, too.

What was so hard about the Wasatch Range Traverse?

No one had done it before. I ended up doing it in September, which was okay, but it was really hot and the springs drying up was a big problem. The unknowns on it were difficult, and because the springs were really far apart, the unknowns were at kind of a high stake. And, you know, my car getting towed in the middle of it! The biggest mistake that I made on that trip—I try to tell people not to do it in my book, but I still do it—was not giving myself enough time, buffer room to make mistakes. I had 10 days off between my jobs at that time, or maybe it was 2 weeks off, and I think I had to put in like 28 miles a day. It’s the sort of thing where the mileage was so high that if I got lost, that totally messed everything up, or if I had to walk a couple miles out of my way to go to a spring, that totally threw everything off. I really should’ve given myself more time on that one.

Along that line, are there any close calls or bad situations you’ve experienced on the trails?

There have been other people who’ve written about preparing mentally for a trail, but one of the things maybe some of the other books don’t have is that I’ve failed on trails, or that I’ve quit trails before. It’s a super sticky, ugly situation to be in and it feels horrible, at least it did for me. I hate talking about quitting trails, because it sucks. I’m totally ashamed of it, but you know, I did learn a lot from those situations.

Photo: Shawnté Salabert

So, when I hiked the Mountains to Sea Trail, I was not in super great shape. I’d been working a desk job and it was the summer after I’d set the AT speed record, so I still mentally had this—it was kind of like the football player in high school who always thinks that he’s that strong, even though he’s gained 200 pounds. I was kind of in that same situation where I was thinking that I was a lot stronger than I actually was. I didn’t have super supportive shoes at the time, and I was trying to save money, so I was carrying a week’s worth of food when I was going through town every day. I did not have health insurance at the time, which was also another mistake of sorts. I ended up spraining my ankle. It got super swollen and turned purple, and felt like it was about to fall off. It was another situation where I could have taken a week off to see if it got better, but because I had penciled it in very closely with another thing, I ended up quitting that trail. That was really hard.

Your sidebars in the book were named for the famous trail maxim “Hike Your Own Hike.” What does that phrase mean to you?

The thing about “Hike Your Own Hike” is that it’s something that everyone says, and at some point, it becomes kind of cliché. But I think it’s really easy, especially when I’m the authoritative voice, for people to think there’s only one way to do things. “Hike Liz’s Hike” can be the case that happens in some of the other how-to books out there. Hiking is so based on your own experience and your fitness level and what trail you’re hiking and what time of year and who you’re hiking with and what your goals are, so this was all set up to make people reflect on all of those questions before they go on a thru-hike.

You also make a point to include other voices throughout the book—why was that?

As far as I know, this is the only long-distance hiking book that’s still in print by a major publisher that’s by a woman. So, in some ways, I felt this responsibility to include not just my voice, but the voices of other women out there. Also, I think that because of my work with the hiking community and the American Long Distance Hiking Association, we’re so big on sharing the voices that are in the community, and it goes along with not wanting people to feel intimidated. Even if you get the book and you don’t necessarily identify with me, there’s going to be someone in the Hike Your Own Hike sidebars that you’re going to be like, “Oh, this person is exactly like me!”

You not only included other women’s voices, but also a section called “Special Concerns for Women”—why was that?

I’m a woman and I get a lot of questions about “How do you deal with this? How do you deal with that? Are you worried about that?” I think because that’s something women are often thinking about when they go out, having it in the book was so important for me.

This person on reddit very kindly put something up about my book and was like “All these books that are written by men. It’s kind of weird because they’ll have a woman write this section. It’ll be on a sidebar, and it doesn’t feel super authentic—and it doesn’t really blend into the rest of the voice of the book.” In this book, because I’m a woman and I wrote it, it’s just there and normal.

You talk about safety in this section. Have you ever felt unsafe as a woman while thru-hiking?

In some ways, I feel like I’ve been at an advantage because when guys are being maybe a little aggressive, hitting on me, I’m fast enough that I can get away! But I’d really like to think that things are getting better. When I hiked the AT in 2008, I think women only made up around 10 percent of the people who were hiking. It really seems like the numbers are starting to get more balanced and that gives me a lot of hope.

The first views of Loch Lomond | Photo courtesy of Liz Thomas

You also included a section called “Special Concerns for Older Hikers.” Why was that important?

A big chunk of my friend population in the long-distance hiking community is people who have retired and just decided to thru-hike every year after that. The thing is, I don’t even think of them as older people because they’re young and they’re doing what I’m doing—and they’re doing it better in some cases. But some of the things that they talk about are finances: What do I do with my 401k? Also, when I do talk to older hikers, they’re like, “You know, I can tell that my body’s not repairing as quickly, so I do this, this, and this, and I’m slower ramping up my mileage,” and it doesn’t bother them because they’re able to crush miles and go out and do this every year.

Speaking of finances, you discuss them very realistically in the book. How do you make it work to spend so much time on trail?

I ended up lucking out. There was a pretty significant period of my life where—now that I’m not doing this, I can talk about it openly—I was living with my parents or I was living with my boyfriend’s parents, and I was super unemployed, so there was a huge sacrifice I was making that was not sexy at all.

Transparency’s important so people don’t idealize thru-hiking or think that everyone on trail must be independently wealthy to be able to take off so much time to hike.

When American Hiking Society shared my book on social media, someone was like, “Oh, that’s easy to do if you’re a trust fund baby or if you don’t have a family,” and I was like, “Well, actually, this whole chapter talks about saving up, how to make smart decisions, and how to talk to your family.”

Denver Urban Brew Thru | Photo: Bob Inman

It’s not the sort of thing that a lot of guides discuss because the cool things about backpacking are, like, fighting bears with your trekking poles. Ultimately, the skill you’re going to need on trail, a lot more than being able to fight a bear with your trekking pole, is knowing how to budget your money in town.

One thing you didn’t talk about, but that we all know happens out there, is sex on trail. Any guidelines for trail romance?

Romance on the trail definitely happens. In some ways, it can make or break a hike, for sure, and I touch on that in some ways in the hiking partner section. Just because someone makes a good romantic partner doesn’t mean they’d necessarily make a good hiking partner, and some people learn that the hard way. As far as sex on the trail goes, I’ve talked to a lot of people about it and a lot of people are just so tired that it’s not even on their minds. I think the most important thing I’d say about sex on the trail or using a vibrator on the trail is making sure everything is clean; it’s really easy for things not to be clean and for horrible things like infections to ensue because of it.

Your book includes a lot of advice, but what’s the one thing you hope your readers really take away from it?

Well, certainly that it’s possible! That’s something that I’d like people, even if they don’t have the book, just to know about long-distance hiking in general, is that it’s possible. And it’s possible for people at all different stages of life, with all different sorts of careers and backgrounds.

I would think that in addition to being possible, it will end up giving back more than you put into it. It will change you. You don’t have to make whatever goal you set for yourself, and you don’t have to walk all the way from Mexico to Canada to get something huge out of it and to have it change your life.

[ed. note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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