The outside office: Tips for working on the trail

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One of the things that I like most about working on a hiking guidebook is that it forces you to move thoughtfully — and slowly — through the wilderness. Completing my first guidebook took twice as long as I had anticipated because I couldn’t hike more than one mile-per-hour while taking notes, taking pictures, and making sure that my GPS was working properly. This is great and even crucial when writing a guidebook, but sometimes as outdoor communicators
we have to chase someone physically fit to chase the story. We don’t want to be the one slowing down a trip when on assignment in the field.
In 2011, my love of endurance and long-distance hiking allowed me to set a speed record on the Appalachian Trail. For 46 straight days, I hiked close to 47 miles a day. I didn’t stop to take notes or to take pictures; I had to take in my surroundings while I was in motion. It was a very fluid and extreme way to experience nature. But the intensity of the experience allowed me to write about it afterwards with amazing clarity and uncanny recall. While many people won’t need to work at a pace that intense, what I’ve discovered are strategies that work at whatever pace you need to move making sure you can keep up with your assignment and still get the story.
Whether I am headed out to record information or headed out to set a record, I still have to focus on pre-trip planning and physical preparation as well as organization and a high level of awareness on the trail.
I always try to be a student of the trail, before I even set foot on it. Before I attempted the Appalachian Trail record I studied the blogs and journals of other record setters so I could learn from their mistakes as well as their innovations. When I write guidebooks I try to research the history of the area, the flora and fauna, and even the best season or time-of-day to experience the trail. This research leads to an enhanced experience for me — and for my readers. Doing a little research before setting out has allowed me to discover synchronized lightning bugs in the Blue Ridge Mountains; it has allowed me to interview the children and grandchildren of folks who lived near the trail nearly a century ago; and it has enabled me to pack appropriately for the trip.
Tip: Consult with a local expert before you start a new project in an unfamiliar place. Take that person to lunch and pick their brain.
Physical preparation
Physical preparation is imperative when trying for a record on a long distance trail, but it is equally important when you are reporting from the field. On any given assignment, your fitness will affect your productivity and enjoyment. I know a person who agreed to take on a project covering hundreds of miles of trails. She went into the field out-of-shape and carrying too much weight and suffered an injury the first day. The project was reassigned to someone else.
Tip: Walking is a great way to get exercise and prepare for time in the woods. Try adding a pack or some extra weight on your walk around the neighborhood to increase your strength and stamina.
When people ask what my most important pieces of gear are on the trail, I respond by saying “Everything!” If it is not essential to the hike, then I leave it at home. Organization is equally important. On my A.T. record hike, my daypack was organized so that I could grab my food and water without stopping. I knew exactly which pocket held my Benadryl and epi-pen, and I knew where in my rain jacket I could find the zip lock bag that held my cell phone. Hiking as a field reporter is no different. I always wear clothes that have lots of accessible pockets. My GPS, pen and paper, voice recorder, camera and map are all easy-to-reach. And no matter how far or how fast I hike, I always have snacks and water close at hand.
Tip: Think of your clothes and your pack as a filing cabinet. Make sure everything is in the right spot — and in the best spot — before you hit the trail.
Being on the trail requires some multi-tasking. You may have to take notes while shielding your paper from the rain, take photos while trying to identity a wildflower in a book, or (my personal favorite) snack while hiking. But to be as effective and efficient as possible, you must make sure all your tasks are trail tasks. When I first started writing guidebooks, I would invite friends to hike with me. When I got home, I knew more than I wanted about relationship drama, but very little about the path I had hiked. When I was going for the A.T. record, I never carried a camera. I love taking pictures — too much in fact — and I knew that a camera would slow me down and keep me from my ultimate goal. Pictures are good, and friends are great, but remember — even though your job takes you into the woods — it is still a job. So make sure you give it the focus and attention that it requires.
Tip: Turn off your cell phone before hitting the trail. If you use it as a work tool, then turn off the notifications so the tweets you hear come from the trees and not from your pocket.♦
— Jennifer Pharr Davis has logged over 12,000 miles of long-distance hiking on six different continents and she was named a 2012 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. She is the owner of Blue Ridge Hiking Company ( and the author of five books, including her newest title “Called Again.” Davis lives in Asheville, North Carolina, with her husband Brew and their 1-year-old daughter Charley.

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