How to get a name like Snorkel

One woman’s 15,000-mile journey

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Alejandro P./Courtesy of Liz Thomas
Thomas at the top of Feather Pass, part of the Pacific Crest Trail.

More people have traveled to space than have completed the “Triple Crown” of hiking, the cumulative mileage of all three of the U.S.’s premiere long-distance trails: the Appalachian Trail (AT), the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Liz “Snorkel” Thomas is one of the 296 dedicated souls to walk each of the 7,970 collective miles.

If that isn’t impressive enough, she didn’t stop there. Over the past eight years, Thomas, 31, has hiked more than 15,000 miles — essentially marching from Pearl Street in Boulder to Buenos Aires and back.

This, plus the fact that she once crushed the unsupported woman’s speed record on the AT by a full week, has made Thomas an expert of sorts in the world of long-distance hiking. But when she started, she says she knew close to nothing about the preparation needed for a multi-month backpacking trip, let alone how to physically do one.

While Thomas was in college, about 10 years ago, and first coming to understand her newfound love for hiking, there wasn’t much organized information out there that catered to her needs as a never-been-backpacking-before kind of woman. Thomas, who grew up in California but lived in Colorado from 2011 until just this past fall when she moved back to the sunny coast, didn’t come from an uber-outdoorsy home.

She had to research classic long-distance hiking methods and terminology, like the differences between thru-hiking and section-hiking — the former being one long, continuous hike from a trail’s beginning to end, and the latter, splitting up the trail in smaller chunks, eventually hiking them all, but maybe in a mismatched order or over the course of many years.

Courtesy of Liz Thomas
Thomas in Montana along the Continental Divide Trail

Thomas says she wishes she could have just picked up a book that would’ve helped answer her many questions. There were some guides, but nothing written by a woman, let alone anything to offer advice on women-specific logistics, like how to deal with your period while “leaving no trace” and walking thousands of miles in a row. All of this, and much more, she had to learn on her own.

Weeks before she left for her first major thru-hike in 2008 (she chose to take the AT’s 2,181 miles from Georgia to Maine), she started sewing the sleeping bag that would keep her warm in Virginia’s rain and New Hampshire’s below-freezing nights. But the night before she caught her red-eye across the country, the final stitches were far from sewn.

She left anyway, snagged the plastic-wrapped blanket from her flight and rolled that up in her pack instead. She lasted three nights before ducking into a gear shop a few miles off-trail to buy a real down sleeping bag, and hopped back on the dirt path. After a few days, she almost ditched the sleeping bag and went back to the thin cotton blanket, though, because she kept waking from a claustrophobia-inducing wetness surrounding her head.

After asking another gear shop to help troubleshoot the issue, they told her it was likely the condensation from her breathing dampening the down. She’d been sleeping with her head tucked in.

“Growing up in the West, the air is so dry,” she says today with a laugh. “I didn’t know.”

Situations like this — blunders on the trail — often have a way of giving birth to a new identity for new thru-hikers. These are the moments when other hikers give that most coveted of gifts: the trail name.

And so Thomas became “Snorkel,” as they poked fun at her need for the underwater instrument to breathe while sleeping. It’s stuck ever since.

Thomas hiked the 3,100-mile CDT in 2010, the last notch on her Triple Crown belt. The trail starts at the New Mexico-Mexico border, winds through five states up to the Montana-Canada border, hits two of Colorado’s fourteeners and never dips below 4,000 feet. It was on this trail that she decided she’d try breaking the AT speed record. She fine-tuned her gear assortment, packing order, planning routine, hiking attitude and mental fortitude — all of which she has made available as advice to other hiking-hopefuls in her recently released book Long Trails: mastering the art of the thru-hike.

Courtesy of Liz Thomas
Liz Thomas has not only achieved the “Triple Crown” of hiking, she also once held the woman’s unsupported speed record on the Appalachian Trail.

She firmly believes that anyone, especially those like herself, a solo woman starting with zero experience, is capable of completing any assortment of mammoth-sized hiking projects.

“One of the things that is great about hiking is that it doesn’t require speed or super muscle or other things like other outdoor sports,” she says. “It’s not super technical, so it’s much more accessible than other activities. I want people to feel thru, section and long hiking is something they can do.”

So, after developing and teaching a six-week “Thru Hiking 101” course for Backpacker Magazine, she wrote her book.

“I wanted to put together a book that shares the ideas of community and welcomeness and humor of our tribe,” she says. “I’m not just telling my story of thru-hiking, but also telling the stories of people’s backgrounds that I meet on the trail, all different ages and from different parts of country.”

The age, economic and personality diversity on the trails was something Thomas sought to capture and celebrate.

“People come at long hikes in different ways, even though we end up doing some things similarly,” she says. “On trail, we think of not having just one right way [to do the hike], but many wrong ways. So I really wanted the book to be not about my experiences, but this collection of tips and tricks from all different kinds of people.”

Whitney “Allgood” La Ruffa, president of the American Long Distance Hiking Association-West (ALDHA-W), says to be a good distance hiker, “You need to genuinely like being outdoors… and you have to have a certain amount of a masochistic personality.

“You beat up your feet and your body, and plenty of time the weather is bad,” La Ruffa says. “You need a real adventure spirit, and if you can’t appreciate all of that…” he trails off, implying these mammoth feats are not for the light hearted.

LaRuffa would know; he too has logged his fair share of trail miles over the years, including many alongside Thomas, whom he describes as a “billy goat on rocky scrambles.” Together they pioneered the Chinook Trail, a 300-mile traverse of the Columbia River Gorge in Washington and Oregon.

Courtesy of Liz Thomas

“We had to piece together a combination of roads and trails to make a continuous route… the worst part was scouring for water. We were unsure of everything because no one had ever done it before,” LaRuffa says. “Liz is a great hiking partner. She’s fun no matter the situation. She’s kind too, like she’ll adjust her pace for those she’s with. She reads weather well and is a great navigator.”

These skills also translate to what Thomas calls her “urban thru-hikes,” or her “training in the off season.” This past March, Thomas finished an eight-day, 88-mile trek across Denver, visiting 60 different breweries along the way — making sure to stay hydrated and portioning her tester flights. She’s walked her way across Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle and Portland, and doesn’t plan to stop any time soon.

“I know few people as passionate about long distance hiking as Liz,” LaRuffa says. “The backbone of her passion lies in her advocacy for public lands and a desire to help educate other hikers and members of our community.”

As vice president of the ALDHA-W, Thomas regularly gives presentations and talks about Leave No Trace policies and general education to help hikers not only enjoy, but stay responsible on the trail. Encouraging people of all ages, athletic ability and socioeconomic status to embrace the outdoors is paramount to her mission as a hiking ambassador.

“It’s really important to get out and appreciate our public lands,” she says. “Since I’ve started [long distance hiking], it’s really awesome to see how many more women are embracing hiking and women going solo. I’ve started seeing more communities of women and those of color being forthright about their experiences, too.”

Thomas says she used to feel like she stuck out on the trail, “Now there’s a bunch of us just doing our thing.”