In this Hiker Spotlight Waymark Ambassador Alexa Shapiro shares her story about her PCT Thru Hike, talks about her work passions, gives some insight into what the trail means to her, and talks about her upcoming Superior Hiking Trail thru hike.
Where do you call home?
o I’ve been very fortunate over the years to live in a number of amazing communities, all of which I consider home. My original home, however, is in Encinitas, California. Encinitas is a relatively small beach town in North County San Diego, so I grew up with the sun and on the beach. In the last three years I traded in the ocean beach for lake beaches as I transitioned to a new life in Minnesota. The visible change in seasons was a welcome change after twenty-one years of life having never seen snow!
What do you currently do for a living and how did you get into this field?
o I just began a position at the YMCA working in after school care and as a yoga instructor. After school care isn’t my long term goal- I would love to work in program development for outdoor recreation and environmental education programs to help get people outside more often and in sustainable ways. I just earned my yoga teacher training certification this fall after working towards it for a year (including while hiking the PCT!). I’ve been practicing since 2007 and fell in love immediately, setting my sights on eventually earning my certification to teach. Teaching in a studio instead of on the trail is quite a change but I’m enjoying the challenge of working with individuals outside of the backpacking communities.
So you hiked the PCT this year, what a challenge that was! What was your biggest take-away from hiking the PCT this year?
o This is a question I constantly struggle to put into cohesive words. The PCT was the most incredible experience I’ve ever had, and I’m continuing to learn so much from my trek even months after it has ended. Hikers are generous, they are enthusiastic, they are compassionate. I was filled with so much joy during my hike as I watched these qualities radiate out of my fellow hikers, for no reason other than a pure love for our shared experience. Being surrounded by such an incredible community taught me how to be more compassionate and more present with the people around me. It showed me the possibilities of what human connection can look like and how we can all watch out for the wellbeing of those around us, regardless of how well we know one another. These are qualities I’m still learning how to integrate into off-trail life, but I’m fortunate to have a number of open-minded, loving individuals in my life who seem just as spellbound by the possibilities as I am.
What Trail are you hiking for your upcoming Thru hike? Why did you choose this trail?
o I will be hiking the Superior Hiking Trail, a 310 mile trail in Northeastern Minnesota. The trail runs along Lake Superior from the Wisconsin border just south of Duluth all the way to Canada. I chose to hike the SHT for two major reasons. Since moving to Minnesota, I’ve become much more active in the outdoors. When we first came here, we moved to Duluth and I was constantly hearing about the SHT. I even worked along it occasionally leading volunteer groups from the City’s Parks and Recreation department. When trying to decide what trail to do it, it felt right to chose one in my new home state so that I can continue to explore and know Minnesota better. The second reason I chose the SHT is due to user impact. While on the PCT, it was hard not to notice how many people were using the trail. I think often when people are struck by the idea of a thru hike, they default to one of the three long trails, and incidentally the most well-used in our country (the PCT, AT, and CDT). There are so many incredible trails in the United States and although I may develop aspirations to hike the AT and CDT someday, I think it’s important to raise awareness about other, lesser used trails in an effort to improve the sustainability of our entire national trail system.
Tell us a little bit about your involvement in The Trek.
o I joined the Trek as a blogger in March of 2017 to document my experience on the PCT. I mostly wrote updates about my partner and I on trail, but occasionally would contribute articles about backpacking culture or advice. After I completed my hike, the Trek reached out and asked me to join their writing team. I now contribute occasional articles about backpacking and am excited about the idea of writing more feature-like articles about incredible people in our community and their accomplishments. The Trek is a great resource for backpackers, amateurs and veterans alike, so I highly recommend checking out their website. You can find my author page here. https://thetrek.co/author/alexa-shapiro/
What will be your starting base weight at the beginning of your trip (all carried weight in your pack, minus consumables like water, food and fuel)? What will your Max weight be with everything?
o Most of my gear on the PCT was shared with my partner, so I’m still accumulating the gear I’ll use on the SHT, but I plan to transition to ultralight gear and hope my base weight will be around 10 lbs. The SHT is much shorter than the PCT and I already had my gear listed pretty honed in by the end of my trek, so I can’t envision it weighting more than 20 lbs at any point along the trail.
What are the Top 3 pieces of gear you can’t live without?
o On the PCT, I was hiking with my partner and I absolutely loved having our Enlightened Equipment Accomplice- 2 person quilt. I was never cold, despite being covered in frost most mornings near the end, and it was so compressible and lightweight. The other two pieces are also sleep related; after sacrificing comfort for most of the trail, I switched to a Neo Air ProLite sleeping pad and a Therm-A-Rest compressible pillow. I went from waking up in pain each night to sleeping completely through the night, nearly every night. At this point, the extra ounces I have to carry to be comfortable are well worth it and I can’t envision myself backpacking without them.
What Luxury items will you be carrying that aren’t critical to your survival or safety?
o It’s very likely that I will carry a journal and pen. I’m very old school when it comes to writing, I much prefer to use a pen and paper. I carried a journal with me most of the PCT, from around mile 550 until the very end, and never regretted having it.
Name 1 thing you will miss most about leaving civilization for your hike.
o My fiancee was with me every step of the way along the PCT and, although it was a challenge for our relationship, I couldn’t imagine having done the trail with anyone else. The SHT will be my first solo thru-hike, and I know at times I’ll really miss his company and our time together at the end of each day.
What skill you would like to learn that would help you on the trail?
o My partner is our navigator and I often relied on him for help when it came to maps. I’ve been trying this past year to be more directionally competent, learning about topographical maps and how to find my location on a map, etc. I’m hoping to continue expanding on this skill so that by the time I set foot on the SHT, I’m confident in my ability to navigate myself from start to finish.
What is 1 personal strength you feel will help you most on the trail?
o The SHT will be such a different experience from the PCT in that I’ll likely run into significantly less people, and at the very least much less people who are hiking the entire trail at once. I’ve always been an introvert and thrive when I have alone time, so I believe my ability to be alone will really be a strength during this hike.
What is 1 personal weakness that will conflict with this strength?
o While I love to be alone, I am a TOTAL wimp in the dark. I remember many nights on the PCT where I was happy to have a tent-mate in case something or someone was lurking around camp. The SHT can be pretty remote, so I’m sure at times fear will keep me up at night spinning tales about every little noise I hear. This is actually one reason why I was so intentional to choose a solo hike. I’ve had a lot of people ask if they can join, but I think it’s important that I do this alone in order to reaffirm my own independence and ability to do things I love without the support of another person.
Name 1 person, a trail celebrity or other, who has inspired you most to get on the trail.
o My parents have inspired me a lot in the outdoors. Growing up, we camped every summer and they often brought us on hikes. I remember hating those hikes as a kid, but as I grew older I couldn’t imagine spending my free time anywhere but outside. My parents began section hiking the PCT in 2012, and it was their first experiences along the trail that encouraged me to think more about long distance backpacking. Incidentally, the year they began the PCT, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. My parents hiked the trail in between chemotherapy and radiation treatments, using the trail as a reminder that they still had some control over their lives. Watching the strength the trail gave them and our family during that time really inspired me to consider more fully a PCT thru hike.
Name 1 person you’d like to meet on the trail.
o I’ve been expecting the SHT to be a really lonely experience so I haven’t thought too much about the possibility of even meeting someone on trail. However, I would love to meet someone who is a more seasoned backpacker than I am and have the chance to swap stories with them about their experiences on various trails. I love hearing about other, lesser known trails and feeling inspired to pursue a specific hike, not to mention it would be nice to have some occasional company at camp.
Name 1 animal you have seen or would most like to see on the trail.
o I would love to see a bear on the SHT. I only saw one on the PCT, despite having heard them countless times wandering through the woods. While I lived in Duluth, I heard a few times about bears wandering into the more touristy areas in town, so I’ve got to imagine I’ll run into at least one in their actual neck-of-the-woods.
Are you looking more for solitude or for a social experience on your next hike?
o I’m definitely looking for more solitude on this upcoming hike. One of the hardest things about the PCT was I struggled to pursue my goal of clearing my mind because I almost always had company. I loved my trail family on the PCT and having others to connect to, but I want a new challenge of learning how to be only with myself for a longer period of time. I think being alone will force me to really pursue clearing my mind, not allowing my thoughts to constantly spin and wander, so that I can truly appreciate my surroundings and the experience of backpacking.
What lessons can we take from the wilderness, and how can we apply them to Urban life?
o Wilderness can be a really profound way to learn to be more present and connected with both the natural world and other people. It’s so easy to live minimally in the wilderness, focusing on just the phenomenal beauty around you or the company of loved ones. However, when we enter back into civilization, we’re met with so many distractions that it becomes hard to maintain that sense of inner stillness and peace. To do so, we have to learn to be more intentional with our words and actions, and more dedicated to the integration of these values into our own lives. I’ve struggled with this since completing my first thru-hike. The real world is so different from the trail that it’s hard to envision the two blending seamlessly into one. It’s taken a lot of reflection on my part to think about my values and how to stay true to them, and to recognize when I’m slipping back into old habits.
Tell us how we can connect with you and your organizations on all of your social networks:
o You can find my author page for The Trek at https://thetrek.co/author/alexa-shapiro/, and my personal blog is https://thirtysixgoals.wordpress.com/. You can also follow me on instagram @alexamshapiro. Instagram is the social media I use the most and will likely update the most during my hike, so if you’re interested in following along I recommend adding me on Instagram.
A Note from Alexa:
"During my PCT hike, I thought a lot about wanting to give back to the trail, and that's motivating a lot of my ambitions for my SHT thru hike next year. Volunteerism has always been really important to me, and I try to incorporate it into all aspects of my life. During my hike of the SHT, I plan to volunteer with various organizations that contribute to the protection and stewardship of the trail. I want to promote the idea of traveling with a purpose and encourage others to be more active participants in the protection of the land they love most. I’m still ironing out the details of this and what my own experience will look like, but I do know that near the end of my hike I would like to host a clean-up along the Duluth section of the trail. Illegal dumping and littering is a big problem in Duluth, especially along Skyline Parkway (a 26-mile road that the SHT intersects with at various points). It’s my hope that I can get a group of people together willing to walk a section of the trail, cleaning up some illegal dump sites and restoring the trail to a more natural condition."