• Hayden Seder

Wild Woman: Thru-Hiker Katelin Reeser

Thru-hiking has been around long before Reese Witherspoon threw a boot over a cliff in the movie adaptation of Wild. 33-year-old Katelin Reeser (@katethewild) has been an avid hiker since a life-changing hike in 2014 in Lake Tahoe, California. Since then, the jewelry maker/metalsmith and photographer has thru-hiked the John Muir Trail in 2019, the Long Trail in 2020, and hopes to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 2021 after plans to do it in 2020 were canceled due to Covid. The Ohio native is currently living in Cincinnati, planning her next adventures and hoping to eventually find a home on a beautiful piece of land.

What made you want to get into thru-hiking?

Kate: I remember the first time I hiked in the mountains, the hike that truly lit a spark for exploring the outdoors. It was 2014 in Lake Tahoe, California. I had participated in a craft show selling my jewelry in San Francisco, drove up to Tahoe, and spent the following days in a cozy cabin. I was blown away by the scenery and the fact that people could simply walk from their front door and end up somewhere so beautiful. When we reached the end of the trail, I felt this nagging desire to keep going. A few hundred yards in, I saw a blue and white emblem almost swallowed whole by a tree, dripping with sap and covered in bright green shaggy moss. I felt a sense of excitement, empowerment, and curiosity. It read: Pacific Crest Trail. I had heard about the PCT a few times and always wondered what it would be like. I felt a strong pull that day to keep walking on the PCT, to see what lay beyond. That pull never left, and in 2020 I got a permit to hike the PCT. One week before I was to fly to out, California went on lockdown due to Covid.

Tell me about your experiences hiking the John Muir Trail in 2019 and hiking the LT in 2020? Did you go by yourself? If so, what was it like hiking as a solo woman (in terms of other people’s views toward you and how you felt about yourself)?

Kate: In 2019, I was working as a freelance photo stylist in addition to metalsmithing. I didn’t quite make time to hike the Pacific Crest Trail that year, but the pull was still there. As I watched other hikers begin their journey, I realized I deeply longed to experience at least part of the trail even if I didn’t currently have time to hike the whole 2,650 miles.

The John Muir Trail continually came up as one of the most beautiful (and challenging) sections of the PCT. After seeking and failing to obtain a lottery permit from Yosemite Valley, I decided I would add an additional 20+ miles and hike the trail the less traditional way—from south to north. This route is less desired because instead of gradually acclimating to altitude as you would from Yosemite Valley, you begin at 11,000 feet and continue to climb some of the highest passes on the trail. Although I spent time acclimating in Colorado and in the Sierras, it was not enough coming from the low elevation of Ohio and I ended up suffering some effects of altitude sickness on the first day! This lasted several days and resulted in having to make the decision to skip hiking up the highest point on the JMT and in the contiguous United States at 14,505 ft, Mt. Whitney. I had educated myself on altitude sickness and knew what to expect and when to turn around. I feel confident I made the right decision in skipping Whitney, but I’ll be back for her one day. My body made the needed adjustments and after a few days I was feeling much better at elevation.

Being my first thru-hike, I wanted to make sure we were prepared. The JMT is very remote and there are no towns for up to 8 days at a time. I did a ton of research and estimated our mileage for each day based on elevation loss and gain. With this information, I sent well calculated food resupplies to towns along the trail. These packages included a combination of pre-packaged and home-dehydrated meals. I even went so far as to count calories, keeping in mind that there would be long stretches without access to food and we would be hungry. It worked out very well, but it turns out I like a LOT of variety in food and would prefer to resupply at a grocery store if possible rather than send a full resupply.

I remember being concerned about little things out of my control, but it turns out those little things never came to fruition and the things that hadn’t once crossed my mind popped up. A month or so before the hike, I switched my footwear, hiked many training miles in them and all was going well until about 1 week into the hike. I developed a bad case of plantar fasciitis and hiked the next 2 weeks with horrible foot pain. I was determined to finish the trail since I could still walk, but I caused a good deal of damage by continuing in those shoes. I dealt with PF for another 6+ months after the trail, going to physical therapy multiple times a week. I finally got it under control by switching back to my old shoes with arch inserts and that has been a lifesaver for me! I still deal with the occasional PF pain, but now I know the tools to alleviate it, to listen closely to my body and not ignore when it’s screaming at you.

Although I had my share of struggles, there was never a moment that I didn’t want to be there. It didn’t matter if I was sore or tired, I’d just get up and walk. I was so happy to be surrounded by amazing scenery for days on end, exploring what the trail had to provide. I am enamored with photographing majestic outdoor scenes and the Sierras are quite photogenic.

The John Muir Trail was a magical dream. In 21 days over about 275 miles, it didn’t rain once and we awoke every morning to beautiful golden light bathing the mountain tops. We drank water from mountain springs and soaked our aching feet in icy lakes. Smelled the beautiful wildflowers and watched fawns chase each other in meadows. The JMT offered a sense of calm in our chaotic and busy world. It’s almost as if time slows down and we are back where we belong, close to nature. Living in the outdoors for weeks on end, I felt more safe than I ever have in the city!

It took some convincing, but I got my partner, Darren, to join me on the John Muir Trail as well as the Long Trail. In March of this year, I had thoroughly planned to hike the PCT solo. Maybe it takes too much convincing to persuade someone to hike 2,650 miles over 6 months! I knew I would eventually meet people on the trail, so I was not concerned about going alone. In a way, I think I pushed any fears to the back of my mind and would deal with them as they came. I’ll admit that I do have fears, but I believe there is no sense in being afraid about something that has yet to happen. I prefer to deal with it as it comes.

The JMT solidified any question I had about hiking the PCT. In January of 2020, the studio I worked for closed its doors. This would be the final push I needed in realizing my dream. Fast forward to March, I have my gear packed and ready to go, permits in hand. T-minus one week before I was to fly out, the pandemic hit and California went on lockdown. Practically until the day before I was to fly out, I tried to convince myself that things would change and I would be able to go, but that didn’t happen. I canceled my hike and was pretty bummed for awhile. All of my craft shows were also canceled, and this left me with lots of time to plan another hike, of course attempted with appropriate quarantining and virus testing protocol

I have a soft spot for Vermont with its lush green mountains and beautiful countryside. This piqued my interest in Vermont’s Long Trail. I had read that it was the most rugged long-distance trail in the US, and they were right. The Long Trail was much more difficult than the John Muir Trail—no switchbacks, steeply graded ascents, and literal climbs straight up rocky, root-covered mountains. Oh, and instead of climbing between mountain peaks (aka passes), you climb OVER every single peak. It was a blast. We hiked at the very end of summer into fall, heading north, and experienced temperatures from 80 down to 20 degrees. We watched the leaves change colors as we hiked farther north, a truly memorable experience.

There are shelters all along the trail on the LT to stay for the night, but since we were hiking during Covid-times we planned to tent camp the whole way. An unexpected delight was meeting people on the trail from all ages and walks of life. I was inspired to say the least. It was so nice to be able to connect with others, especially after not socializing or going out for months due to Covid. We met a few people that we ended up hiking with for the second half of the trail which made for a lot of great memories.

The Long Trail surely tested my determination and grit but left me feeling so fulfilled. The days of solid downpours, whipping wind, trail turned to river, covered in mud, locked deep in the forest with the only thing to stare at for hours is the ground (don’t trip!) proved to be more worthwhile than one would think. The harder times make the good times that much better.

I could go on and on about the details of these adventures, but for now, the challenges I’ve faced have taught me invaluable lessons. Lessons in self-worth, confidence, companionship, and how to live. That life is short and to do what you love no matter what it is or how hard it may be, because what else do we have?

How do you think the PCT is going to stack up against the hikes you’ve already done?

Kate: I think hiking the PCT will prove to be a challenge, but I am thankful I have gained the experience with previous hikes. I have learned so much about my hiking style, the gear that works for me, and to listen to my body when it’s trying to tell me something. Instead of going in to the hike thinking, I have to hike this whole trail end-to-end no matter what, my mindset will be a little bit different. I do plan on completing the whole trail in one thru-hike, but I’ve realized it is about the journey and not just about the end because, let’s face it—when it’s over, it’s over. If we only focused on the end, we’d be left feeling a little empty. The funny thing is when all is said and done and you’re back home from this crazy, amazing, life-altering journey, no one really cares that you hiked some long trail. It may sound cruel, but I think it’s tough for people to wrap their heads around what it means to live so fully for 6 months. So if you’re doing it, make sure you do it for yourself!

Hiking from Mexico to Canada can seem like a daunting feat, almost impossible many would say. It’s going to be tough, but in reality it’s a dream that I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to attempt and going into it with a lighthearted attitude will make it that much more enjoyable.

How do you physically prepare before a thru hike?

Kate: To prepare for a thru-hike, I hike as much as possible. When I can’t get to the trails, I walk as much as possible. I’m still hoping to hike the PCT in 2021 and even though the hike would be 5 months out, I try to set little goals. Currently I’m challenging myself to walk at least 10k steps a day for 30 days, and it’s tough when the majority of my work is done at a desk, but I know how important it is to condition your body to prevent injury. When on trail, I end up walking 30-50k steps a day!

Living in Ohio, there is not much elevation gain to train with. In 2019 I would use the stair machine or treadmill on incline at the gym to train for hill climbing. Gyms are out for me in pandemic 2020, so I’ve been trying to do outdoor activities as much as possible in addition to high-intensity interval workouts at home. I include strength training and trail running for cardio. I also do yoga a few times a week for flexibility and strength.

A few weeks leading up to a thru-hike, I make sure to hike with a weighted backpack so that my body can get used to it. You’ll be carrying the pack everyday, so it’s a good idea to know if you can or want to carry everything you’ve packed. I will head out for a few overnight trips prior to the hike to test new gear and make sure it’s going to work for me on the trail.

If you had to, you could hit the trail straight from the couch, but to prevent injury and to thoroughly enjoy your hike, staying active is key.

What would you say are the most underrated or best thing to bring thru hiking?

Kate: As a photographer, I’d have to say my camera. I love taking photos of my adventures and it gives me little projects to focus on while working on the longer-term goal of completing the thru-hike. I usually carry an extra 2-3 lbs of camera gear. Many people may not want to carry that much extra weight but having the images to look back on is such a joy for me.

How do you balance your jewelry making and photography with doing thru-hikes?

Kate: After receiving my degree in fine art photography, I decided to take up a new hobby and business venture—making jewelry. I’ve experimented with many techniques beginning with repurposing vintage materials to now metalsmithing. I began participating in craft and art shows in 2012, branching out and selling my work at various events across the country. This was a way for me to travel and experience places I had never been. I would stay for about a week, working in the city for a few days and then retreating to the mountains to explore.

Turns out, I loved the exploring more. I began taking photos of our trips and sharing them as time went on. Although I do freelance work in photo studios, I never felt passionate about it. Photographing beautiful outdoor scenes of my adventures never gets old. There is always a new scene or emotion to capture.

I’ve had a few ideas brewing for awhile: to hike the PCT and to get a vehicle that can take me around the country to craft shows, making both jewelry work and photo work while on the road for stretches at a time. For now, I work out of my home studio in Cincinnati, Ohio and travel when I can.

What kind of camera/lenses do you like to shoot with?

Kate: I currently shoot with a Fujifulm X-T2. The main lenses I take on thru-hikes are the Fujifilm XF 10-24mm F4 (for those wide angle landscape scenes) and the Fujifilm XF 18-55mm F2.8. When traveling, I will also take my telephoto lens and fixed wide angle for night photography.

There are 2 newer versions of this camera, but I am still happy with the quality of the images. It’s also a plus that this version is lighter than its predecessors making for a more comfortable setup while backpacking. I also take photos and videos with my iPhoneX. Don’t underestimate the iPhone! There have been a few times where I actually liked the photo shot on my iPhone better than my camera.

Where are your favorite places you’ve traveled?

Kate: Each place I visit holds a special memory, but the places that stand out are Switzerland, the state of Washington, the southwest, the Sierras and the Long Trail in Vermont.

In 2018, Darren and I went to visit his friend in Switzerland and traveled around the country. I planned an epic trip that included lots of hiking, eating cheese, and drinking wine. We stayed at a mountain hut with a view of the Matterhorn, with a Swiss grandma in Appenzell, and in an adorable bed and breakfast in Lucerne. We discovered rösti, which is a giant potato pancake smothered in cheese. These were often served at mountain huts and were the perfect post-hike meal. The mountains there are breathtaking, and I feel like we barely scratched the surface. We’ve decided that when we go back, we will hike the Tour du Mont Blanc which goes through some of the most beautiful scenery in Switzerland, Italy and France.

In Washington, I explored the Olympic Peninsula and Mount Rainier. If I could choose one place to live right now it would be Washington. I feel like I have so much to explore in this state.

In spring of 2018, I was so obsessed with the idea of traveling out of a van that I rented a Vanagon and we traveled around the southwest. This trip only fueled my obsession and I still have plans to own an adventure vehicle one day. I loved the freedom of being able to explore on a whim.

Last but not least, the Sierras and Vermont where I’ve completed thru-hikes have been some of my favorite places. The memories, experiences, and the extended time I’ve been able to spend in these mountains has resonated with me in a way I can’t explain.

What was your relationship to the outdoors like growing up?

Kate: Growing up, my family wasn’t the most outdoorsy, but they surely let me explore. My mother reminds me that when I was 7 months old I began walking. The very next day I ran. I was a kid with a ton of energy, so much so that I’d disappear and she would just about have a heart attack trying to figure out where I went. One of those times on a windy day as a storm was about to roll through, she found me clutched to the top of a 20ft skinny tree swaying back and forth in the wind laughing and having the time of my life.

We didn’t have the means to go on fancy trips, but we occasionally went camping. My sisters and I loved it and convinced our parents to pitch the tent in the backyard and leave it there for weeks. I spent a lot of time outside, just exploring our own backyard or biking around with the neighborhood kids. In high school, I often went on hikes and explored the nearby artsy town of Yellow Springs.

Once work and college began, I lost touch with the outdoors, but am so happy to have rediscovered it again.

What’s your favorite trail snack?

Kate: My favorite trail snack definitely varies with my mood and need to satisfy a craving vs needing fuel. I’ve realized I like a variety and will tire of the same food quickly. On trail, I’ll often crave fresh fruit, vegetables, and salmon, foods that are really nutrient dense to power my body. My favorite trail fuel is avocado; it will keep me energized for hours with plenty of healthy fats. My go-to not-so-healthy snacks consist of salt and vinegar chips, brown sugar cinnamon pop tarts, and snickers.

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