Ashley Hill on Thru Hiking the Pacific Northwest Trail

Ashley Hill on the Pacific Northwest Trail with her Southwest Pack.
Ashley Hill on the Pacific Northwest Trail with her Southwest Pack.

Meet Ashley Hill, a Hyperlite Mountain Gear Trail Ambassador. Born and raised in San Jose, Calif., she has traveled around the world, worked for both the United Nations and Amnesty International and earned BA in Peace and Conflict studies. At a young age, she decided to go abroad, and so bought a one-way ticket to South America, where she visited Colombia, lived with a shaman in the Amazon and traveled the Caribbean Coast. But, in 2012, her life changed when she learned her mother’s cancer diagnosis had taken a turn for the worse. She packed up and went home. But the wanderlust returned after her mother passed away, and despite having very little outdoor experience, she decided to do a thru hike. Hill figured walking in the wilderness would help her both grieve and grow. So she set out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail Southbound from Canada to Mexico on July 12, 2014. “It was the best decision of my life,” Hill says. “After hitting the Mexican border, I knew I would be a hiker for the rest of my life.” Hill is currently hiking the Pacific Northwest Trail. She recently answered a few questions for us on a zero day.

Ashley Hill at the Southern Terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Ashley Hill at the Southern Terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail.

What’s unique about each of the trails that you have thru hiked?
The Pacific Crest Trail and Pacific Northwest Trail are two completely different hikes, providing two completely different experiences, neither outshining the other. The PCT is a wonderful “first timer” hike. It has an easier grade, it’s well marked, there are countless resources to help you plan, and it has an established hiking community both on and off trail. Did I mention the world -class views? It is, however, more than double the distance than the PNT. The PNT, on the other hand, is still very new in its creation. I’ve met Ranger’s who oversee sections of the trail and have never heard of it. Instead of thousands of thru hikres attempting the trail each year, the PNT sees fewer than 50. Trails are often unmarked and bushwhacking is a new term you will become painfully familiar with. I find the PNT to be much more challenging both physically and mentally, but this is why I signed up for it and why I love it. I’m developing my navigational skills, relying on topo maps and a compass rather than a phone App with an embedded GPS. I feel like I get to push my limits and help pioneer the way. I haven’t seen another hiker in three weeks, and there is something beautiful about this remote, untouched trail!

How did you start the process of going lighter? And why?
I was lucky to be mentored by several experienced thru-hikers for my first hike and got the full shakedown before I hit the trail. With little to no outdoor experience, I took their advice on going light to heart. I returned my new three-pound tent, gave up the ridiculously large knife and cut off all the useless straps from my pack to save myself pounds of burden. I cannot imagine carrying over 14 pounds (base weight) on a thru hike, and even that seems heavy to me. I have everything I need, and I am able to hike more miles more comfortably.

Are there things about thru hiking that are unique to women versus men? Or is this a pretty equalizing “sport”? Do you call it a sport?
Is thru hiking a sport? This is a question I ask myself often while hiking. When you’re on the trail for five months, it starts to feel more like a lifestyle. Sleeping on the dirt, cooking my meals under the stars, going for a dip in the river on a sunny day, making friends in town … these are all parts of thru hiking with little athleticism included. However, I’m still backpacking a marathon a day, which has certainly toned me into an athlete, in my opinion. I think thru hiking runs on an equal playing field. Men and woman do it just the same, with both sexes breaking speed records around the country. However, I do think there is something special about being a solo female hiker on trail, and it comes with peoples’ judgment. I often hear, “All alone, aren’t you scared? There’s no way! Do you have protection? Do you feel safe? You shouldn’t be doing this.” I wonder if my male counterparts receive the same kind of concern and disbelief. I take these comments with pride and with a sense of responsibility. Sometimes I feel like it is my duty to show others that we women can do it, too!

What are your current goals?
I have the same goal everyday: to share my smile and inspire others to live with purpose. Somehow, thru hiking has helped me meet this goal. I have a bucket list I will work towards in the future, ranging from sailing across the world, to motorcycling to Argentina’s tip… oh, and don’t forget about Antarctica… I will have to spend some time there, too. I hope to have my own book published one day, perhaps to pursue a Masters Degree, but mostly, my goal is to have a handful of wonderful stories to share with my grandchildren and make them smile in disbelief.