September 22, 2021
A Life of Miles: Introducing Jeff Garmire, and an Invitation to Pick His Brain
Words & photos by Jeff Garmire
Thirty thousand miles, give or take a few yards or inches, all done on foot. At least, that was the current total at the time this post was put together. Jeff Garmire (@thefreeoutside) is still heading out whenever he can to "make up for 2020." Some of these miles were racked up at moderate speeds, some done very quickly, some with the gear for a thru hike, and some in tiger stripes. Jeff has done and seen a lot outside, and any backpacker, thru hiker, or fastpacker is bound to pick up a few tips and tricks from him. That's why we're stoked he's going to join us in The Shakedown section of our blog and our Instagram feed to get all that knowledge out there. We, including Jeff, won't always know what he'll be talking about, though, because YOU'RE going to be the ones with the questions! For some of the inquiries that require more in-depth responses, he'll be using the blog to dig in and get you the answers you desire. Each month, we'll start all over again! Put your thinking caps on folks, and journey into Jeff's brain. Who knows what'll you'll learn!
My name is Jeff Garmire, and while I might have backpacked more than 30,000 miles, my introduction to thru hiking wasn't a smooth start. I arrived at the San Diego airport in May 2011 with an external frame backpack I could barely lift off the luggage carousel. I had no idea what I was in for on the Pacific Crest Trail, and at 20 years old, I expected to easily muscle through any adversity.
My pack frame snapped after 650 miles. The large bar forming the back of the pack was larger around than my thumb and simply sheared off. The ends dug in, and it was a chore to hike. I had to lean to the left to hold it all together. I hobbled my way to Kennedy Meadows with the faulty pack and learned what creativity and flexibility mean in thru hiking.
First, I had way too much gear. I was the center of attention as other hikers tried to help to pare down my insane base weight. Second, I needed a new pack. The Sierra Nevada mountains had a record snow year and were my next obstacle on the Pacific Crest Trail. A castoff backpack sat in a box nearby, and I decided this would be my ticket through the mountains. The hip belt was limply hanging off and one of the shoulder straps dangled from the side. It needed some work, but I was confident I could patch it together.
With a slew of other Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers advising me, I sewed up the hip belt and shoulder straps with dental floss and had the pack ready for the mountains. I got to Mammoth Lakes with the placeholder of a pack before switching to something more substantial. It did its job and officially moved me from an external frame to an internal one, and I haven't looked back. I finished the Pacific Crest Trail with so much new knowledge—both about thru-hiking and myself. I knew it would not be my only thru-hike.
I snuck in one more thru-hike of the 1,200-mile Pacific Northwest Trail immediately after college, then believed the right thing to do was find a position in corporate America. I landed in finance and moved to Denver. But after remembering the joys of peak bagging during a spur-of-the-moment Mt. Rainier summit, I dedicated every weekend of my first summer in Colorado to climb all 58 peaks over 14,000 feet. After each 60-hour week I would hop in the car and drive to a trailhead, sleep in the back of my car, and climb anywhere from four to eight 14ers a weekend. It took 11 weeks, but by the end of the summer, I had stood on top of all of them. It was a goal similar to thru-hiking, but one in which I had the ability to work during the week while also keeping a flexible, weather-dependent plan for each weekend. Some of the mountains were a half day's drive away, and on some weekends, it snowed on me, but overall, the adventure proved I could adapt, think on the fly, and make micro-adjustments while still being successful in a larger plan.
Work continued through the winter, but corporate life was not meant for me, so I gave my notice in January of 2016 and planned to complete the Calendar Year Triple Crown starting in February. It would be the biggest challenge of my life. I began the eight-month journey and was immediately hit by snowstorms in the Smokies. The trip became about learning on the fly and adapting—skills that dated back to the time my pack broke in my first 700 miles of thru-hiking. Deep down, I had the motivation, toughness, and ability, but some days were right at my limits. Throughout the 8,000-mile journey, I encountered all kinds of wildlife and communities, was charged by a moose, and lost more weight than is healthy. But it built on my past experiences and launched me into thinking about what I could do next. First, though, I had to get a job.
Another eighteen months of saving, and it was time to take it to the next level. Andrew Skurka had created a 7,000-mile loop called the Great Western Loop. Skurka had hiked the loop and won National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. It intrigued me, and I wondered if I could do it too. The giant loop encircling the west required perfect timing and big miles. I needed to complete an early crossing of the Sierra Nevada mountains on the Pacific Crest Trail and sneak through the southern Rocky Mountains before winter arrived on the Continental Divide Trail and create a unique cross-country route across the Sonoran Desert. The route I drew ended up having a 70-mile waterless stretch, among other major logistical challenges.
After 208 days of averaging 33 miles per day, I successfully completed and connected my loop. It was an experience that trumped all others in satisfaction. The adventure had a bit of everything and showed me the capabilities of my body. I was ready for new challenges, and after incorporating the ultrarunning challenge: Nolan's 14 into the Great Western Loop, I was ready to attempt trail records, or Fastest Known Times.
I moved to Tahoe and trained at altitude and in the snow. If two long hikes hadn't toughened me up, a big winter of training certainly did. On most runs, my beard froze, and I left microspikes permanently on my shoes. It was the perfect training for the year I had in mind. I planned to fit in as many trail records FKTs as possible and see how things held up. I had spent the last three years going after ultra-long adventures, and now it was time to go fast. I began with the Arizona trail and finished in 15.5 days, setting a time that eclipsed even the supported record. Then it was the Pinhoti Trail and the Long Trail, both of which were successful records. A move to Costa Rica brought 12,000' peaks in Central America in the fold, and I took down several international FKTs before coming back to the states just before the start of Covid-19.
Covid hit my plans hard. My dreams of running the Barkley Marathons and attempting records on the PCT and AT were abandoned, and I ended up stocking shelves in a grocery store. It was not the life or plan I had envisioned. After a few months of maintenance and I yearned for another goal. I started with some shorter records in the mountains of Montana and then cast wider, deciding on the major goal of the Colorado Trail unsupported record. It was a long build to the end of August, but I was ready to carry nine days of food and attempt the longest unsupported stretch of my life. It went as well as could be expected, culminating with 24 hours without food, but I held it together and broke the record by four hours.
Things eased up as 2021 progressed, and my years-long goal of running the Barkley Marathons finally became possible. I managed one loop in a year of record rain and record disappointment. Two runners completed the second loop, and none made it to the fourth. It was an incredible experience and a great physical, navigational, and mental challenge. It was a failure. I hope to go back and avenge to become one of the few ever finishers. Using my peak fitness, I entered a new challenge—a sanctioned multi-day race. I lined up at the inaugural Cocodona 250 and set off on the long push from Phoenix to Flagstaff. Over 95 hours later, I finished the insanely long race, proving to myself I can compete with trail runners and once again opening up new possibilities and challenges in the future. Over 95 hours, I slept for only 1.5 and further developed a love for pushing myself right to the brink. I hope to add tales, advice, wisdom, and a number of ways to incorporate hiking and the outdoors into the lifestyles of everyone I interact with.
So, this is my background, but what does this mean? About once a month, I am going to take on your questions, answering some of them in The Shakedown and some on the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Instagram feed. Through trial and error, I have learned a lot about training, lightening up, gear tricks, nutrition, planning, and a whole lot of other skills. Keep an eye out and submit your best questions every month!
Jeff Garmire is a writer and author. When he isn't adding to his 30,000 trail miles, he can be found on the trails and in the mountains around Bozeman. He is the author of Free Outside, which chronicles his Calendar Year Triple Crown.