Woman on the Trail: Jennifer Pharr Davis Breaks Barriers for Females in the Outdoors

Woman on the Trail: Jennifer Pharr Davis Breaks Barriers for Females in the Outdoors

By: Faith Holley

“It’s grueling and merciless.  That’s probably the best word for it.  Merciless.  There’s no mercy on the trail.”

2,190 miles of ragged, winding Earth makes up the Appalachian Trail, stretching from Maine to Georgia and Jennifer Pharr Davis completed it in just 46 days 11 hours and 20 minutes.  Jennifer set the world record for the fastest time on the trail until just recently, and still holds the fastest female time.

Jennifer is a pioneer for women in the outdoors.  When it came to setting a record, there were no women doing what Jennifer was setting out to do.  “I kind of thought, ‘you know, there’s a guy’s record.  There should be a girl’s record too.  I am going to try to set one, darn it.’  And that’s what I did.”  But Jennifer didn’t always set out to break a record.  In fact, her first thru hike had nothing to do with a record at all.  It was for “leisure,” or as leisurely as you could make a 2,190 mile hike.  On the trail, there’s no such thing as leisure.  “There’s no mercy on the trail.  Or in nature, really.  It’s not adversarial.  It just is.  But we’re so comfortable in our air conditioning and duvet covers and all the things that I love at home.  We just can’t appreciate the grind that something like a thru-hike can become.  There are times when it’s easy and perfect, but that’s not the norm.  The norm is really difficult and never letting up.”

The challenging nature of the trail did not stop Jennifer for a second.  In fact, it woke her up.  It pushed her.  It fueled her.  It led her to inspire women from all over the world.  

Jennifer didn’t do this work for nothing.  She is now an author, speaker, entrepreneur and a pioneer for women in the outdoor space.  “Just get out there,” Jennifer advises.  “You should always hike within yourself.  Meaning, if you’re not comfortable going solo, don’t.  But also, don’t live in fear.”  It’s so often that women find themselves straying away from the outdoors, especially solo hikes, because of this impending fear.  “You have just as much right to be out there as any burly old hunter.  Own it.  Be wild!  Be free!  Be safe, but realize that you’re part of nature.  You were made to be outdoors.  So claim your part of that and embrace it.”

You didn’t have to grow up hiking in the mountains with your parents to have this appreciation for nature like Jennifer does.  In fact, “my dad ran a boys’ summer camp in the Western North Carolina mountains when I was little.  I didn’t grow up backpacking or hiking or even really appreciating the outdoors in the way you might think.”  This fascination with the wild grew as Jennifer grew.  And it grew a lot.

Before Jennifer started college she had the dream to hike the Appalachian Trail, and she was going to follow that dream.  “I told my advisor the very first time we met in the fall of freshman year that I wanted to graduate a semester early so I could pursue this dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail.”  While her friends were going on their senior year spring break, Jennifer was starting the trail.  “In a strange way, I just felt like my education wasn’t complete until I had gotten to know the mountains around my home.”

Once the trail had been started, it really was like learning a whole new subject.  This was something that no school could ever prepare you for.  “I saw it as a physical endeavor that was challenging, the way playing tennis at Samford was challenging, facing opponents one on one, having nowhere to turn except to dig deeper inside yourself.”  Training for this trail was a challenge in itself.  Jennifer was going up and down the steepest trails, or bushwhacked paths she made herself, in the mountains surrounding her home in Asheville.  “Sometimes I carried a pack and filled it with wood or gallon jugs of water, stuff that I could dump if it got to be too much for me.  I just beat my body into submission so when it was time to start the hike I was ready to roll.”

With so many physical obstacles awaiting Jennifer, she never once pulled back.  “I was always just excited about it.  People are sometimes amazed that I just took off as a 21 year old and a female, and ask me if I was ever scared of being alone.  I’ve always felt like your instinct and intuition are your best resource for getting out of trouble and I had faith, misguided or not, that it would help me and be enough.”

When it came time to actually be on the trail there was really only one time when Jennifer truly felt unsafe.  “I was hiking through New Jersey early one morning before most hikers were up and I got up to this pavilion on Sunrise Mountain.  I could see something under the roof but couldn’t tell what it was until I got closer.  Then I realized it was a body.”  After seeing this and meeting with the police Jennifer was able to meet up with the hikers she had camped out with the night before to provide some comfort.  Even with this unnerving situation, “99.9% of the time, I feel safer on the trail than I do in civilization.”

Throughout this, Jennifer stayed persistent with her goal.  After finishing her first thru-hike, the idea of breaking a record creeped in.  After a break up from a long term relationship with a guy Jennifer had met her first time on the trail, she decided to hike the extremely tough, 280 mile Long Trail in Vermont.  “I wanted to just punish my body and force the tears and the pain out of me.”  Jennifer set an endurance record on this trail.  Soon after she met her now husband, Brew, she told him that she wanted to pursue a speed record for the Appalachian Trail.  Jennifer was “more or less throwing down the gauntlet and letting him know what he was getting himself in for.  But he was all in.”

Brew has supported Jennifer the whole way and has been an ample part of her success.  Just after their honeymoon, they started training.  “Isn’t this great?  We’re out here all by ourselves spending so much quality time together away from everything else” Jennifer exclaimed.  “Yeah, but we could be away from all that stuff in Fiji, too,” Brew responded.  

Jennifer decided she wanted to set a record and Brew said “It’s not something I want to do, I mean it’s not my dream.  But if it’s important to you, yeah, I’m 100% behind you and will support you again.  So let’s do it.” And so the team started up again. 

Brew was backing Jennifer the whole way.  Sometimes this looked like Brew “cleaning out my campsite, packing up tents, sleeping bags, you name it” so that Jennifer could keep trudging on.  “Other times he was out in front of me, waiting at road crossings with a folding chair for me to sit in, fresh socks and shoes, food to eat, a pack with snacks, rain gear, that sort of thing.  He was amazing.” 

Jennifer’s record breaking time had so much to do with her team.  “We had people that came out randomly to support us or heard about what we were doing and signed on to hike with me at night or during the day.  It was a team effort and I really don’t think there’s any way we would’ve been successful if it hadn’t come together just that way.”

When Brew saw Jennifer’s hand touch the rock at Springer Mountain, the southern tip of the trail in Georgia, signifying her completion of beating the record he said “you did it.”  To which Jennifer responded with “no, we did it.”

This joint effort between the two still continues on to today.  Years later and a successful career has led to Brew “still supporting her while she ‘hikes the trail’ so to speak.  Giving talks around the country, writing books and things like that with me editing, booking her talks, and supporting her in other ways.  But still supporting her just like I did on the Appalachian Trail all those years ago.”

Jennifer has been a pioneer in the outdoor space by encouraging women to get outside and do whatever it is you’ve dreamt of.  Since breaking the world record in 2011 she has stayed consistent in her place in the outdoors.  “My love for the outdoors just keeps growing.”  Now that Jennifer has kids, she gets to introduce them to an environment that she and Brew love so much.

Aged 10 and 6, “They’re at that perfect age where they love hanging out with us but are also able to hike 6-7 miles on their own, or even more.”  

Looking back on a career that has pushed Jennifer past her limits, it is easy to see why so many women feel inspired by her.  “Some of setting the record was about being a female and wanting to beat the boys.”  But more than anything, “I loved using my body in this way and pushing myself and wanted to see what I was capable of.  I had plenty of time to dream up scenarios where I hiked fast.  It was never about trying to set a record.  It was always about being my best and seeing if my best was good enough.  In this case, it was.”