Life-Lessons Taught by the Trail

Hiking can be a transformative experience. Here are five thru-hiking alums who shared the wisdom found within those many miles.

Barney "Scout" Mann

Barney “Scout” Mann (@journeys_north) is an elder statesman of the trail community. He’s been backpacking for 50 years, has completed the Triple Crown, and is a long trail historian. Along with his wife (and hiking partner) Sandy, he’s hosted thousands of aspiring thru-hikers at his home near the PCT’s southern terminus.

Backpacking taught me how strong I am and how strong others can be. I was a scrawny kid, and my parents were not outdoorsy. But at age 13, I went on my first backpacking trip with the Boy Scouts. I quickly learned that if I could keep up, I was as big as anyone else.

People in town smile at me more because I make eye contact, just as we do on the trail. A hiker is excited to see another hiker. This has carried over into my daily life, where passing without acknowledgment is too common.

The hiking community envelopes you in a hug. I want more people to see themselves in the trail community and to feel that. I always tell new hikers staying with us, “I love you. Make good decisions out there.”

Running water is a miracle. Forget searching and purifying, just twist the knob. Hot and cold, too!  

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Eric “E” Johnson & Roshanda “Roe” Cummings

Eric “E” Johnson & Roshanda “Roe” Cummings had never backpacked before thru-hiking the 211-mile John Muir Trail last summer. The couple took their experience to Instagram (@brownkids) where they’ve cultivated a following around the gospel of minimalist living.

E: I saw the film Mile... Mile & a Half and knew we had to thru-hike.
R: I thought, “He’s crazy, but E’s made many of my dreams come true. Why don’t I make one of his come true?”

R: There’s not enough emphasis on the weather. There’s so much about gear, food, and training, but getting over passes before afternoon? The unpredictable nature of storms? How global warming increases fire danger? That’s scary stuff and a daily aspect of thru-hiking.

R: Thru-hiking is minimalism and intentional living and liberation. You always have an awareness of what’s in your pack, unlike a house. We’d have conversations every zero-day of, “do we really need this?”

R: We are hikers of color, and we had a unique experience. If we hitchhike, as black folks covered in trail dust, we could be interpreted as dangerous. As a white person, that just means you’re free-spirited. We also had a particular hiker saying, “It’s so funny to see black people outside!” After accomplishing so much as newbie hikers, I felt back to square one. But there were also moments of great camaraderie and support.

E: I’ve lived in this skin for a while, and the weird moments don’t negate anything. It’s amazing that any of us get to be out there, isn’t it? Everyone on that trail represents an ancestry who should clap with joy at us all being together.

E: All we had was each other, and that’s all we needed.

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Jade “Darth Jader” Cabrera

On a SoCal day hike in 2017, Jade “Darth Jader” Cabrera (@pb_n_jade) bumped into a PCT thru-hiker “with infectious stoke.” She wanted that too, so she spent the next two years saving money and finishing nursing school. She completed the PCT in 2019 and now happily identifies as “trail trash.”

Before my hike, I never went outside without makeup. I feel much less stress now about my hair, career, or car. Family and friendships are my new priorities.

You see true, authentic selves on the trail so easily. Everyone has a common goal, and that creates a strong sense of community, unlike anything I’ve experienced.

We have a lot of waste in society. On the trail, you realize what you need and what you don’t.

You gotta be 100 percent in. I worked like crazy to save money, then quit my job to hike. Hiking the PCT requires total commitment, and the sacrifices I made motivated me every step of the way.  

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Douglas “Deep Doug” Hurdle

Douglas “Deep Doug” Hurdle (@douglashurdle) completed the Triple Crown in 2017. Along the way, he became a photographer and found his muse. He now calls North Carolina home.

Embrace the suck. On Instagram, it seems glorious. In reality, it’s raining and your food’s running low. It’s not all rainbows. Embrace it, or you’ll never get anywhere.

Trail maintenance crews are unsung heroes. We all need to give them thanks and volunteer our own time, too.

Skip scenic shots. The photos I cherish most have other hikers in them and capture the gritty moments of thru-hiking, like summit winds and blistering cold.

Ice cream fixes everything. When you’re feeling down, roll into town, get some Ben and Jerry’s, mentally reset, and you’re good.

A weekend backpacking trip is a nice break, but taking the hiking mindset back home with you can be life-changing.

Written by Backpacker Editors for Backpacker and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.