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Thru-Hiker Emily Ford Wants You to Know the Trail is for Everybody

Late last December, Emily Ford, 28, of Duluth, Minnesota, took her first steps on Wisconsin’s 1,200-mile Ice Age Trail with a borrowed sled dog named Diggins. “I was laid off from my job as head gardener at the Glensheen Mansion, and I took full advantage,” she says. Ten weeks later, she became the first woman and second person ever to thru-hike the IAT in winter.

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My first solo backpacking trip was five years ago. I hiked about 30 miles, and I bet my pack weighed as much then as it did on this IAT hike. I brought the dumbest stuff, like jars of cooking oil. I had no idea what I was doing, but I had the bug. That’s all you need to get started—the bug. But, forego glass jars, all right?

Minus 37 was my coldest morning. “How did you survive those cold nights?” is the most common question I get. My sleeping bag was an amazing -30F° Western Mountaineering Kodiak, but on brutally cold nights, I’d stay inside with locals I’d connected with on Instagram. I’d vet them, and Diggins was very protective. 

I hiked with Diggins the sled dog. I messaged a Facebook group asking for a sled dog to hike with, and a kennel replied. She carried her own food and gear and was attached to me via a skijoring harness. So if you want to get technical, I completed this trail via canicross, or hiking harnessed to a dog who helps pull you along. 

When I got back, I just ate salads. Huge bowls of greens. You start craving what your body has lacked.         

Put your phone on airplane mode. I shut off the outside world—unless I need connectivity for maps—and it keeps me in the moment. It can just be a camera, you know.

There’s nothing like waking up under a blanket of stars. The only way to see and feel what I’m talking about is to go do it. Period. Have money? Start with an outfitter. No? Find someone and ask them to join. Just do it, man. 

I hope people see this hike and feel it’s totally possible for them, too. I grew up in a sea of white folks, so it wasn’t strange not seeing any people of color. I just like backpacking, but the lack of diversity outside is real.

I applaud brands shifting to be more inclusive. Please, keep doing it. But ads stop when you put your phone down, and I’d like to see representation in the real world, so it can become a lifestyle for people of color who want to do it. I can’t be the only one. 

To think the outdoors is not a place for you is like thinking the front of the bus is not for you. It don’t matter if you only see white people out there. Sit on down. The view is great.