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Nicki Klein: Living Harder and Loving Stronger

Ambassador Nicki Klein is in the final moments of prep and anticipation ahead of her Pacific Crest Trail Thru-hike! Whew! We caught up with Nicki to chat about last minute gear tweaks, the winding backstory that has brought her to this moment, and why adventure for a good cause resonates with her. You can follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

On April 28th, you’re setting out on a 2,650 mile thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). This is a truly epic first-ever thru-hike! Tell us about the process of preparing for something that you’ve never done before.

The process of preparing for a five month trip, especially one where you’re carrying everything you might need with you, can be overwhelming! But it’s also SO exciting. I’ve spent the last couple months dehydrating food, getting resupply items ready, testing out gear, and getting all the “real-life” stuff (car insurance, bills, etc) in order. I’m fortunate that I know a number of people with long-distance hiking experience, and their help has been invaluable. Still, you have to remember that in the end, you can only listen to so much advice and do so much planning. Eventually you have to just go out there and do it! I don’t think you’re ever going to feel fully prepared for something like this. Or at least I never do. It’s when you get out there and put one foot in front of the other, that’s when it all really clicks. Even then, you always have to expect the unexpected, and be ready to adapt.

I don’t think you’re ever going to feel fully prepared for something like this. Or at least I never do. It’s when you get out there and put one foot in front of the other, that’s when it all really clicks.

How did you pick the PCT as a challenge for this year? What aspect of the route are you most excited about? What part gives you the most butterflies in your stomach (knowing that sometimes, butterflies are a good thing!)? 

I grew up with the Smokies in my backyard, and learned about another long trail, the Appalachian Trail, and thru-hiking, many years ago. It’s been something I’ve aspired to do for a long time, but there never seemed to be a right moment. In 2016, I was in a relationship with someone who also wanted to complete a thru-hike. Although the AT had been my original plan, a roadtrip out West a couple years before had piqued my interest in the PCT, the same trail my partner was interested in. We took tangible steps in planning a hike, together, but life got in the way again when my partner got accepted into a PhD program in New Zealand, and in January 2017, I found myself moving there to join him. Unfortunately, that relationship eventually ended, and those thousands of miles from “home” quickly felt much bigger than they previously had. But I’d just committed to a job working in Fiordland National Park, and it seemed like an opportunity I needed to follow. Less than 24 hours after the breakup, I was on my first solo roadtrip, traveling from the North to the South Island, in a country that still felt relatively foreign. The next seven months were a crash course in learning to travel and backpack alone, heal through nature, and grow through struggle. I’m sure there are easier ways to learn those lessons, but I wouldn’t change a thing. My decision to attempt a PCT thru-hike solo is a testament to the personal growth and confidence that can come from spending time alone in the backcountry.

Nowadays, I’m back in the States, and have some time between seasonal jobs that I feel I have to capitalize on. There’s that saying, there’s no time like the present. And I agree. But there’s more to it than that. I picked my start date for a specific reason. On April 28th, 2011, my cousin Steve Anderson died from complications of leukemia, less than 36 hours after his diagnosis. He left behind a wife, and a 9 month old son. We still feel his absence every day, but the loss of my cousin propelled me to live in a way I never could have imagined. On the one year anniversary of Steve’s death, I ran my first marathon, the Country Music Marathon in Nashville, with Team in Training, an organization that raises money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. My cousin had lived in Nashville, he’d run the Country Music ½ before, and on that day I ran for him . Since then, I’ve run countless races, traveled the world, and made every attempt to spend each day living harder and loving stronger. When Steve died, he was 33 years old, the same age I am now. This hike, starting on this date, during this year of my life… just seems right.

My decision to attempt a PCT thru-hike solo is a testament to the personal growth and confidence that can come from spending time alone in the backcountry.

In regard to what I’m most excited about, I’m taking the easy answer-ALL of it. I love the desert, especially in Spring, and the Sierras are stunning, so I’m really looking forward to re-visiting both of those areas. I’ve spent very little time in Oregon and Washington, so I’m looking forward to new experiences there. I’m also excited about meeting new people-people with vastly different experiences, backgrounds, and ages, but who all share this common dream of hiking the PCT, or helping those of us who are out there trying. AND, even though I’m hiking solo, I’m looking forward to a couple friends and family members that will hopefully come out to join me for small sections. Finally, I’m looking forward to the simplicity of it all. There’s nothing like getting out and away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life to make you remember exactly what’s important, and appreciate it all the more.

Right now, less than THREE days from when I start my hike, I can tell you, the butterflies are a real thing! I’m a little nervous about everything- the difficult and complicated terrain and weather I’ll encounter, the gear malfunctions I’ll have, the way my body will ache, the homesickness I’ll feel. Essentially, the unknown. All of this is inevitable though, and being nervous is completely normal. I just have to remind myself, once I get out there, those concerns will fade away, just as they always do.

You described your decision to thru-hike solo as a celebration of the personal growth and confidence that comes from spending time alone in the backcountry. Can you tell us about some of your first experiences with solo backcountry travel? In your experience, what are the highs and lows of solo adventuring?

My first solo backcountry trip was in August 2017, when I completed the 70km (~44 mile) Hilary Trail on the North Island of New Zealand. It was sort of on a whim, and even though I got turned around a couple times and my pack was way heavier than it needed to be, that four day trip (including the day of hitchhiking back to my car) was life-changing. Each night I was completely alone, and I quickly realized I was okay with that, that I actually selfishly enjoyed having the stars and sounds all to myself. It was less than a month later that my relationship ended and I was suddenly thrust into the solo traveler world.

It wasn’t something that I chose, but what a blessing in disguise. Recognizing that you’re comfortable adventuring alone opens up a world of opportunities. Think of all the times you may have wanted to go on a trip, but couldn’t find someone to join you. That’s no longer an issue! Granted, there are benefits to traveling with others. When you backpack with someone else you get to divy up gear, split camp chores, share decision making, and my favorite, have someone to laugh and reflect back with. But when you complete a solo trip, the sense of accomplishment is unmatched. You did all those things that are difficult even when shared, all by yourself. And in my opinion, the greater the challenge, the greater the reward. Even though I truly enjoy traveling and backpacking by myself, I make sure to take plenty of trips with friends and family too. Each is an entirely different experience, and I love the balance those opportunities provide.

Your hike is raising support for The Cairn Project’s programs expanding access to the outdoors for more young women. What about this mission resonates with you?

Back in 2016, when I was originally planning a PCT hike, I liked the idea of using my journey to give back. I even consulted with a friend about starting my own non-profit. It’s still an idea I toy with, but I also recognize it’s a lot of work. Fortunately, a friend introduced me to The Cairn Project, and it immediately seemed like a perfect fit. By teaming up with them, I hope to help them achieve the goals they’ve set out to reach, and encourage their growth in the Southeast, an area of the country that often gets overlooked when it comes to outdoor outreach.

There are so many young girls that don’t have the opportunities I did, and through my partnership with The Cairn Project, I hope to help rectify that.

When I talk about my travels, frequent questions and comments include “As a women, aren’t you scared to be alone?,” “Oh, I could never do that,” and “How do you do it?” Through this hike, and this partnership, I hope to SHOW people that it doesn’t have to be scary, that they can do it, and how it can be done. I was fortunate enough to grow up close to the mountains, and be part of a family that valued the outdoors, and had the means to share that with me. Those early experiences of playing and learning in nature helped nurture a sense of self confidence and an appreciation for my surroundings that I may not have otherwise achieved. There are so many young girls that don’t have the opportunities I did, and through my partnership with The Cairn Project, I hope to help rectify that.

A lot of people have helped to bring this dream to life for you. Who do you want to send thanks out to? 

I wouldn’t be where I am today, just a few days out from the adventure of a lifetime, without a lot of help from a lot of people.

This time last year, my Dad and youngest brother were attempting their own thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail, while my Mom, my brother’s girlfriend, and my other brother supported them from home. Although “Batman and Robin” left the trail after ~700 miles, their journey was absolutely inspiring and a catalyst for my own undertaking. Watching their (all five of them) adventure helped me recognize that a thru-hike attempt isn’t a solo endeavor, it’s something that takes sacrifice from many people. My family has already sacrificed so much for me in this quest, and I know they’ll do anything they can to help while I’m out there, just as they have with every other “crazy” dream or goal I’ve had previously.  Words can’t express my gratitude for them and their unwavering support.

I have two friends that comprise a dynamic thru-hiking couple, Dormouse and Dirt Stew, who have provided PCT-specific advice, lots of inspiring stories, and even let me borrow gear for my journey. We’ve talked over pizzas in Alaska, burgers in Asheville, and along the trails of the Smokies. As seasoned thru-hikers, they’ve helped bolster a level of preparedness and confidence I might not have otherwise had.

There are hundreds of other people that have inspired and supported me. I couldn’t possibly name them all, at least not today while I’m trying to get everything in order before I leave! But, please know each of you are appreciated and loved.

I’m grateful for the organizations that have partnered with me on this endeavor. Their donations of gear and products have no doubt saved me money, but more importantly, will make my time on the trail more pleasant. Thanks to Sea to Summit for setting me up with a comfy, cozy, sleep system; to Body Glide for making sure I stay as chafe, blister, and sunburn free as you can on a thru-hike; to Walker Higgins and Altra for hooking me up with the pair of trail shoes I’ll take my first steps of this journey in; to The Backpacker for helping me out in any way they can, long after my employment with them ended and even after I left Louisiana; and of course thanks go to The Cairn Project for selflessly giving their time and support to women like me so that we can help nurture the next group of women like us.

And finally, a HUGE thank you to those of you that have, or will, donate to my fundraising campaign. I set out to raise $1 for each mile of the PCT, but within weeks, my $2,650 goal had already been achieved. I’ve now raised the goal to $5,300, $2 for every mile! Let’s see if we can complete this journey together!

Tcp Team Nicki Klien
Nicki Klein
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Nicki has made a career out of adventuring, working as a ranger in Fjordland National Park in New Zealand, as an archaeologist in Denali National Park, and on fisheries projects in the Grand Canyon. She’s currently outposting in Knoxville, TN while she awaits her next adventure. See her ambassador page.