Hiking any National Scenic Trail (NST) in its entirety is a feat that most Americans have never considered. Of the few who have thought about walking a NST, hiking the route in its least favorable conditions is rarely considered and hardly ever accomplished.
Take Trauma and Pepper's PCT winter thru-hike – they were the first ever to complete the feat and the second to attempt it (the first party to attempt it suffered a tragic ending). More recently, the Appalachian Trail has seen more winter thru-hikes from those rare and rugged individuals who choose to push their limits, experience solitude on America's most popular NST, or add their name to the growing list of Calendar Triple Crown hikers.
So why am I attempting to hike the Ice Age Trail in the dead of winter, potentially braving temperatures below -40 degrees? While there are a million reasons, here are the ones that matter most to me:
1. It's Badass
I mean, it is. Anyone who has endured a Midwest winter knows how brutal they can be. Google's definition, "tough, uncompromising, or intimidating" applies to this hike any way you look at it. I am grateful for the life I have, so why not do something I find to be "cool" or " badass"? Essentially, I want to be known as the badass who hiked the IAT in the winter.
2. Solidify Winter Camping Skills and Gear Systems
During the National Trails System Thru-Hike, I will be attempting to hike through two winters, one of which will be in the Midwest. Hiking the IAT this winter will give me a chance to work out the bugs in my gear systems on a "lower-risk" outing. Also, it will give me ample time to build on my winter camping skills and gain a greater understanding of how to increase efficiency in the winter months. In essence, its a reconnaissance mission.
3. Conquer the Dreaded "4th Season"
Typically, backpackers hike in the "3-season window" of spring, summer, and fall, therefore avoiding inclement weather that comes with the "4th season" – winter. I wish to destroy the stigma that the 4th season is to be avoided and show that in actuality it can be an amazing experience. Granted, I'm not sure what I'll find out there, but the more I think about it, the more it excites me.
4. Push My Own Limits
I want to find out what I'm made of. When I put myself in an environment that I don't fully understand, my senses heighten, my awareness increases, and I inevitably learn something new about myself, the world around me, and my place in it. The bigger the challenge, the greater the reward.
5. Experience Ice-Age-Like Conditions
The IAT snakes through Wisconsin following the geologic features that remain from the last glacial period that ended nearly 12,000 years ago. Although the Woolly Mammoths, Sabertooth Tigers, and a mile-thick ice sheet will be absent, I will get the closest glimpse into that ancient age that is possible today.
6. Increase Awareness
The IAT remains relatively unknown, despite its large group of passionate supporters and nearly 60-year history. By attempting its first self-supported winter thru-hike, I hope to bring awareness to the existence of the trail as well as its unfinished status (nearly half of the route remains unofficial connecting routes, i.e. road walks). I also wish to promote the National Trails System as a whole as well as my plans to thru-hike it.
7. Interact With Fellow Americans
One of my favorite parts of long-distance hiking are the serendipitous encounters I have on the trail. The stories, hospitality, and encouragement random folks share with me makes the whole experience so much richer. I am given a small glimpse into the different lives people lead and gain a greater and more complete view of the world I inhabit. Long-term relationships can form and, in turn, have a profound affect on my unknown future.
8. Affirm my Love of Hiking
Before I set out for a two-and-a-half-year hike, I better make sure I love hiking, even in the worst of conditions. This hike will test of my passion and mental fortitude and give me a look at how I deal with the difficulties of the trail. If it turns out I don't enjoy long-distance winter backpacking, then it's probably not a good idea to take on the National Trails System thru-hike.
9. Spread Knowledge and Information
There isn't all that much information out there on lightweight long-distance winter backpacking. I intend to do first-hand research and relay my findings to the larger trail community. Those who have achieved long, light, winter backpacking feats and left behind their findings have been a great help to me as I planned a winter journey of my own. I would like to add to this pot of knowledge for those who wish to find the enjoyment of hiking in winter months.
10. I Just Want To
I couldn't tell you when the idea popped in my head, but it began to grow. I now feel as if there is no option other than to give it a try. Over the course of my relatively short hiking career, I have found that big accomplishments are very special me. After walking for nearly two months along the Pacific Northwest Trail in 2014, I felt a deep inner solace when hikers on the Olympic Wilderness Coast in Washington asked me, "where did you start your hike?" and I could answer back "Montana" with an honest absurdity.
And that never fails to bring a smile to my face.