"I got out of the military in 2014, and I wasn't sure what I was going to do with my life," Michelle Revoir, a United States Air Force veteran, confessed.
Revoir had spent 11 years as a Videographer and Aerial Combat Broadcaster for the Air Force, which included deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Having grown up in North Carolina, Michelle had always been familiar with the Appalachian Trail and wanted to give hiking it a try. As she was researching the trail, she came across a newly formed organization called Warrior Expeditions. This organization would soon provide her with the direction she searched for during her transition back to civilian life.
Warrior Expeditions Connects Veterans with the Power of Nature
As the organization's mission states: "Warrior Expeditions is a veteran nonprofit outdoor therapy program that helps veterans transition from their wartime experiences through long distance outdoor experiences." The organization started in 2012 with a veteran named Sean Gobin, who served for 12 years as an Infantry Rifleman and Armor Officer for the United States Marine Corps. Well, really, it started a little earlier than that–in 1948 to be exact.
Following the devastations of World War II, a soldier named Earl Shaffer told a friend that he was going to "walk off the war." Shaffer, indeed, would become the first person to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. When Gobin returned home to the United States following three combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was Shaffer's footsteps in which he decided to follow. After completing all 2,192 miles of the Appalachian Trail, Gobin strongly believed in the powerful, therapeutic nature of, well–nature. He wanted to share that experience with other veterans. Hence, in 2013, Gobin created the Warrior Hike, Warrior Bike, and Warrior Paddle programs, each designed to help veterans transition back into civilian life.
Michelle Revoir Begins Her Warrior Expeditions Journey
After applying and being accepted to the 2015 Warrior Hike program on the Appalachian Trail, Revoir received all of the gear and guidance she needed for the hike ahead. She began her long walk in the woods with a group of fellow veterans. It opened her eyes to resources like VFWs and American Legions, which provided trail support to the veterans along the way and became a point of connection for Revoir and others even after their hike ended.
"I loved my experience so much that I came back the next year to hike with the new year of hikers," Revoir shared. "I was able to give them some insight on how the hike went for me, and just little lessons that you pick up along the way. I really enjoyed that."
Gobin noticed Revoir's commitment to the mission of Warrior Expeditions, and so following her second year of hiking, he asked if she'd prototype the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in North Carolina for him. She enthusiastically agreed and set out on the trail with her brother, a Purple Heart recipient. By the next year, she still wanted more, so she began volunteering with Warrior Expeditions, helping out with both the Appalachian Trail and Mountains-to-Sea Trail participants that year. The year after that, she joined a Warrior Paddle program down the length of the Mississippi River.
"When I was finishing the paddle, Sean asked me if I wanted to work for the organization," Revoir remembered. "I thought, well, I'm already spending all my time here anyway. I believe in what they do. I just think it's such a great program, so to be able to work for them was even better."
Today, Revoir is the Director of Development for Warrior Expeditions, which runs 10 trips each year for 40 veterans to find healing in the wilderness. She personally makes sure each veteran has the gear they need, joins them for the first few days to kickoff their trip, and acts as a point of contact should they need anything after that. Leaving their families again for an extended period of time after already having been away on military duty can be hard on some veterans. Revoir's pre-trip support helps veterans work through those upfront challenges to see the larger picture ahead.
Warrior Expeditions is Making an Impact on the Lives of Veterans
Over 2.5 million veterans have returned home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, and the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that over 20% of these veterans suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Warrior Expeditions believes that this is exacerbated by how quickly modern transportation can move a veteran from combat zone back to "regular" life with little time to process that transition. The trail, they believe, allows for that contemplative march home to occur retroactively–complete with camaraderie and community.
"One of the biggest things that got me actually wanting to continue with Warrior Expeditions was I watched two of the veterans I initially hiked with change," Revoir explained. "When they started the hike, they were incredibly unsocial. People were actually saying, like, man, those Warrior Hike guys are real assholes! But towards the middle and end of the hike, they were actually hanging out with other hikers, not just veterans, but other hikers. That was huge. They wouldn't even talk to other hikers when we started. And now, one of them was giving group hugs and even hiked naked on Hike Naked Day! In the beginning, we never would have guessed he would've done any of that stuff. It was such a huge change that we saw."
In addition to the anecdotal evidence of how the Warrior programs improve veterans' lives, Warrior Expeditions has partnered with two psychologists, and fellow veterans, from the University of Georgia to measure program effects on the well-being of participating veterans. Each veteran takes a survey before and after their trip with questions covering five measures that assess post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, emotional expression, and psychiatric symptoms.
"Short trips out in the woods are always really good, but having the time to spend eight hours a day on the trail for three to six months is a whole different story," Michelle described. "You really have the time to process everything that you went through. And when that's your only goal–to find where you're sleeping for the night–and when you only have the stuff on your back, it makes life simple. It makes it easier to–for lack of better terms–deal with your crap when you have less distractions."
The extended time on the trail to decompress is coupled with support from a licensed clinical psychologist who offers psychoeducational services to Warrior Expeditions veterans at any time during their journey. Once per week, participating veterans also receive strategies based on the framework of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to help normalize post-combat reactions and reintegrate back into society. This therapy is a problem-focused and action-oriented approach to help veterans recognize and alter dysfunctional or maladaptive emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.
The survey data have shown significant positive changes in veterans following this supported trail journey.
How Warrior Expeditions Supports Veterans Long After the Trail
"We had a woman in her forties who when she started the trail was incredibly closed off–really didn't talk to anybody, was super uncomfortable, cried at the drop of a hat, just had all of these emotions that she couldn't deal with," Revoir reflected. "Within four days of hiking, she had a complete breakdown, and was just like, 'This is what I should have been doing, trying to deal with my stuff. I couldn't do it on my own.' And then she just changed. From that moment, every time I saw her, she was more open and more social and more talkative. It's hard stuff to describe."
Talking with Revoir, reading the testimonials of veterans who have participated in a Warrior program, and reviewing the program data paint a heart-warming picture of healing. It all shows the power of nature and long distance adventure in a way that is both extreme and relatable. But, what happens after the trail ends for veterans like the one Revoir described?
Well, for starters, every veteran gets to keep all of the gear they used on the trail–from backpacks and sleeping bags to first aid kits and backpacking spoons.
"If they are suffering, they can take that gear and go back out and kind of get away from regular life again," Revoir explained.
In addition, all alumni of the program are invited to a reunion hike held each Veterans' Day where they can reunite with fellow hikers from their year and also meet some others they may have only been able to follow on social media before. Veterans are also encouraged to reach out to local veterans' groups, such as the VFWs and American Legions that provide support along the way, to establish connections within their hometowns.
The healing and transition veterans need may begin in the wilderness with Warrior Expeditions, but it continues at the end of the trail through the community and new skills veterans receive along the way.
Gossamer Gear is proud to support veterans through Warrior Expeditions. Each year, Gossamer Gear donates Cuben Q-Storage Sacks that Revoir uses to organize first aid kits for every veteran in the program. As she shared: "Nothing has ever gone wrong with those bags you guys give us. They're one of the pieces of gear where I know when I give it to the veterans, I'm not going to hear about it miles down the trail."
To support Warrior Expeditions in its life-changing work, make sure to head over to its website to give a donation or find other ways you can volunteer.
And, today, and every day, we thank our veterans for their service and wish them happy trails ahead!
Gossamer Gear Brand Ambassadors are an incredible bunch, if we do say so ourselves. Not only are they completing incredible physical feats in the great outdoors, but they're also always finding ways to give back to the public lands we all love so much. Nancy East, who previously shared about her work doing search and rescue in the Smokies for the Light Feet blog, is one of these bonafide badasses. Her latest undertaking? The Tour de LeConte Challenge.
Mt. LeConte is a 6,594-foot tall peak in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Five trails lead to its summit, where the hike-in only historic LeConte Lodge meets tired and hungry hikers. The Tour de LeConte Challenge involves hiking each of these five trails, which adds up to about 45 miles with over 11,000 feet in elevation gain, within a 24-hour period. So far, only around 22 people are known to have successfully completed the challenge. Nancy has had a blast watching them succeed, and is now ready to add her name to that list of Tour de LeConte Challenge finishers.
The sunsets from Cliff Tops on Mt. LeConte's summit are some of the best in the entire Park.
Photo credit: Up 'N Adam Adventures
While this challenge will be a fun and rewarding undertaking on its own, Nancy is adding another element to her Tour de LeConte Challenge attempt to make sure she's hiking with a cause. She'll be raising ( hopefully with your help!) $5,000 for trail restoration efforts in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a public land that she says has already given her so much.
Interview with Nancy East on Preparing for the Tour de LeConte Challenge
We caught up with Nancy to learn a little more about her journey to deciding to take on the Tour de LeConte Challenge, as well as how she's making this an opportunity to give back to the park she loves. She plans to begin her attempt at midnight on October 26, 2019, though the date is somewhat tentative depending on weather conditions.
Gossamer Gear: Can you share some of your history exploring the Great Smoky Mountains and why this public land is so special to you?
Nancy: I started hiking and backpacking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the late nineties while I was in college, and a love affair with the park was born from those experiences. I moved to western North Carolina after I graduated from veterinary school, so I could hit the trails on a more regular basis. I eventually hiked every single trail in the park (currently 803 miles worth of trails), and it was one of the most meaningful endeavors of my life.
The last stretch of Alum Cave Trail leading to LeConte's summit is a visual treat at the end of a long climb!
What sparked your initial interest in taking on the Tour de LeConte Challenge?
I've known about the Tour de LeConte Challenge for quite awhile, but my interest piqued this past spring when three friends, who all happen to be named Adam, completed the challenge together. They have fun personalities and are amazing photographers, so they received quite a bit of attention on social media and in news outlets, and that's how I heard of their attempt.
After they finished, I couldn't stop wondering if I was capable of hiking that many miles in a day, and especially with that much elevation gain. I'm very I have a good friend and hiking buddy, Chris Ford, who thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail this year. He's the kind of friend who loves to push his physical limits like I do, so I was thrilled when he agreed to do it with me!
Chris on the PCT this summer.
How are you making your attempt of the Tour de LeConte Challenge about more than just a personal pursuit? What does it mean to you to hike with a cause, and how can others help support that?
After I finished hiking all the trails in the Smokies, I wanted to channel my energy into giving back to a place that has given me so much. In particular, I wanted to pay it back to the trail network of the Smokies.
About the same time I decided I wanted to attempt the Tour de LeConte Challenge, I heard about Friends of the Smokies, a nonprofit that supports the park, beginning extensive restoration work on the Trillium Gap Trail (one of the trails leading to Mt. LeConte's summit). Attempting the Tour de LeConte Challenge in an effort to raise awareness and funding for the restoration project felt like a perfect match!
Hiking with a cause is something near and dear to my heart. Our public lands give us so many rewarding and meaningful experiences when we visit them, and reciprocating that love simply feels like the right thing to do.
We are hoping to raise $5,000 for the Trillium Gap Trail restoration project through this effort, and donations can be made through this special link on the Friends of the Smokies website, where the funds will be earmarked for this project.
How have you been training for the Tour de LeConte Challenge?
I've been training for the Challenge primarily by increasing my mileage on hikes. A typical day hike for me used to be in the 15-20 mile range. I knew I needed to click it up a notch in order to do the Challenge, so I've steadily increased my mileage to upwards of 30-mile day hikes.
This past weekend, Chris and I both completed our longest day hike ever of 42 miles! It included two of the more challenging trails in the park–Jenkins Ridge and Eagle Creek. We both felt strong at the end, and it was a huge mental boost to know we could still walk after tackling some of the toughest terrain the park has to offer, as well as finishing the hike in under 16 hours, which is well below the 24-hour time limit of the Tour de LeConte Challenge.
I've also been incorporating some weight and high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which is a mainstay of my exercise routine on a regular basis. I feel that this type of training reduces my risk of injuries and makes me a stronger hiker overall, especially as I get older.
Still smiling at the end of our 42-mile training hike!
How are you feeling leading up to the Tour de LeConte Challenge? Nervous? Excited? Completely Zen?
After our 42-mile hike, I feel much more confident that I can complete the Challenge successfully; however, I've hiked long enough to know that just because I felt great on one hike doesn't mean I'll feel as good on a different day. Uncontrollable factors like weather and temperature fluctuations, especially in the higher elevations of the Smokies, can also derail the best laid plans of any hiker!
So, overall, I'd say I'm excited with a healthy dose of humility for Mother Nature and my body's whims on any given day.
Will any Gossamer Gear items be hitting the trails with you?
Absolutely! My Kumo pack has been a mainstay through my training efforts. My Liteflex Umbrella is also a constant, and it has been invaluable during the summer on my hikes of the Bullhead Trail, one of the trails leading to LeConte, which is incredibly exposed to the sun since the 2016 fires in the park. And my LT5 Trekking Poles have protected my joints from the abuse I'm putting them through as I train!
What's the best way people can follow along with your journey?
On the day of the Challenge, I'll provide a link on my blog's Facebook page, where people can track us in real time through my Garmin InReach Mini.
I felt like I truly understood the phrase 'Less is More.' Now that I found minimalist backpacking, I don't think I would do it any other way. In fact, it inspired me to try and find other ways to minimize my footprint and lower my impact, and really help preserve the earth for years to come.
–Krista, Hiking with a Cause participant
This past February, one of our Brand Ambassadors, Duncan Cheung, helped us kick off a new blog series about hiking with a cause: What does it mean? How do we do it? Why is it important? This month, we wanted to share one of the stories from Duncan's initiative, Off Trail On Track, that gives a tangible example of hiking with a cause, and the profound impact doing so can have on the individuals involved–and beyond.
Hiking with a Cause in the Ventana Wilderness
As a part of Off Trail On Track, Duncan leads courses in minimalist backpacking. In 2017, he began co-leading these trips with his friend, Diana Oppenheim, who is a yoga teacher. During one of these courses, Duncan and Diana helped six yogis develop minimalist backpacking skills through a backpacking training curriculum and complimentary wilderness practicum in California's Ventana Wilderness.
This event went beyond your typical backpacking trip. All participants were hiking with a cause. The group collected a total of $1,700 in donations for the pre-trip course, which was then donated to the Vital Action Project. This nonprofit used that money to support job training within the conservation field for three families in Nicaragua. The work of those families then stopped 2,000 endangered baby sea turtles from being poached and sold in exotic animal markets.
Gathered around a campfire in the evenings, trip participants pondered the meaning of hiking with a cause even further. Duncan and Diana would provide prompts for trip participants to consider while writing in their journals, and then lead those kind of life-affirming conversations that so often occur when forming community in the wilderness:
- What do you appreciate deeply about yourself?
- What do you appreciate deeply about the other people here who you have just met?
- How do we amplify this goodwill to all of the life around us?
Through hiking with a cause, these six yogis were able to have both a global and local impact. They could talk about conservation and how to shape the effort in a meaningful way–all while being held by the very nature they longed to protect.
Reflections on Hiking with a Cause
Gossamer Gear was honored to sponsor this event with backpacks, shelttrekking poles for the backpacking course. We hope that the trip photos and testimonials from this event below inspire you to start hiking with a cause, too.
I recently had the pleasure of going on a yoga and backpacking retreat with Duncan, and I have to say that it far exceeded my expectations. I was a little nervous at first because I had never been backpacking before, but Duncan made it so easy. He hosted a gear clinic, provided us with an amazing packing list, and let us borrow a bunch of stuff. By the end of the trip, I felt like I not only had the skills and inspiration to go again, but I also had the confidence to do it again maybe even by myself. Aside from all that, I feel like immersing yourself in nature is so grounding. There's an energy that's invigorating and kind of addicting, actually. I love that we were able to do all of it with minimal impact. I felt like I truly understood the phrase 'Less is More.' Now that I found minimalist backpacking, I don't think I would do it any other way. In fact, it inspired me to try and find other ways to minimize my footprint and lower my impact, and really help preserve the earth for years to come.
I've been practicing yoga and backpacking for over 10 years, but have never enjoyed them together and didn't fully understand how intertwined the activities were until this trip, which deepened my love and appreciation for both. Diana is one of the best yoga instructors I've ever had–her knowledge of the body and mind is vast, her instructions are purposeful, and practicing with her is energetic and challenging. Duncan's lessons on minimalist backpacking and venturing off trail have changed my approach to nature forever. I am so thankful for whatever force brought these two wonderful human beings together because their combined love for nature, life, and yoga is infectious–you will come out of this experience inspired and re-charged (and maybe a little sore).
A truly magical weekend! The space created by Duncan and Diana to experience the outdoors in a rigorous and challenging way was diligently balanced with mindfulness, yoga, and collective learning that deeply infused our backpacking adventure in the wilderness.
What an amazing trip with Diana and Duncan! As someone who hasn't backpacked in over a decade, I wasn't sure what to expect. Duncan and Diana are such a wonderful team though. They created a supportive and welcoming environment where I could safely play with the edge of my comfort zone. I would definitely go on another trip with them if the opportunity ever presents itself.
Sharing More Stories of Hiking with a Cause
If you'd like to join Duncan on an Off Trail On Track adventure, check out the Off Trail On Track website for more details.
We'll continue to share more stories on the Gossamer Gear blog about the power of hiking with a cause–so stay tuned and get inspired! If you have your own story about hiking with a cause that you'd like to share with the Gossamer Gear community, please feel free to send your idea to firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to learning from each other and making a positive impact through our adventures.
Take Less. Do More. It's not just a catchy company slogan for us at Gossamer Gear. It's a way of life. It's an ethos that drives our community, both on and off the trail. Through his work Brand Ambassadors, is a perfect example of the Gossamer Gear spirit in action.
Duncan has been teaching and guiding backpacking for over six years, and hikes about 750 to 1,000 miles each year. He also enjoys taking his son hiking and orienteering in the great outdoors. While he worked for over a decade in the corporate world, he's since left to pursue deeper fulfillment in life and drive environmental progress. We caught up with Duncan to learn more about Off Trail On Track and why he's choosing to hike with a cause.
Gossamer Gear: Can you tell us, briefly, what exactly Off Trail On Track is and what it does?
Duncan:The goal of Off Trail On Track is simple. I want to help people find fulfillment in life by recognizing what we need and what we don't. I accomplish this by guiding minimalist backpacking trips off trail.
When you're backpacking off trail, and especially around the campfire, you open up. You open up to nature, to your trail buddies, and to yourself. It's a rare moment of vulnerability in a world that teaches us to always be on our guard. We take advantage of that state to reframe our perspective on what's actually important to us.
Off Trail on Track empowers people with the skills and experience to travel smarter, easier, lighter, and more mindfully - both in the wilderness and in life.
In what moment did you realize you wanted to embark on this new initiative?
I found myself in a position where I was successful by external benchmarks, but I didn't feel satisfied. I had degrees from prestigious universities, a burgeoning career in hot industries, and a number of professional accomplishments under my belt. But something didn't feel right; I wasn't feeling fulfilled.
So I set out to reexamine my priorities; to understand what it was that made me happy and made accomplishments feel impactful. Once I reoriented my internal compass the answer was so obvious:
I had mistakenly conflated success with fulfillment. I needed to stop measuring myself by society's report card and I needed to create my own goal posts and milestones toward fulfillment. Overtime, it clicked. Setting my sight on fulfillment (rather than success) was actually a shortcut toward happiness. I could do good and feel good by pursuing my passions and helping other people to start the same process.
In your eyes, how do the advances in technology over the past couple of decades increase the importance of connecting to nature? How does this fit into your goals for Off Trail On Track?
These days, you have to "disconnect to reconnect." As cliché as that sounds, it's the truth.
Don't get me wrong–I don't hate technology. I use it everyday. Technology is a tool like any other; the only difference is in our relationship with it. Occasionally we lose perspective, and thus, we lose control over our technology and its influence in our lives.
That's where minimalist backpacking comes in. "Minimalism" doesn't mean intentional austerity. It means being intentional. We critically examine our relationships with "things" - both on our backs and in our heads. Only by taking a critical physical and mental inventory of things we carry with us can we begin to realize what we need more of and what we should let go.
What is your favorite part about being a minimalist backpacking instructor?
t to lead me towards fulfillment. I learn so much from all of my students, especially when I observe personal transformation from them! For instance, Afshin, a backpacking student and now a dear friend of mine, said to me while driving back from our adventure in the Sierra: "I realized that I need to stop focusing on building my resume for others, and start building my own legacy." Absolute gem.
In what ways has Gossamer Gear supported you in your goals with Off Trail On Track?
Fortunately, my mission aligns closely with Gossamer Gear's. I love your motto "Take Less Do More" because it perfectly embodies the spirit of minimalist backpacking.
We aren't just taking less gear. We're taking less mental and emotional baggage too. Freeing up space in our minds and our packs so that we can be fully present. That lightness of spirit enables us to look beyond ourselves to our neighbors and nature–and how we can effect a positive change on them.
So, what does it mean to hike with a cause? How is this different from your typical walk in the woods?
You're familiar with the concept of "Leave No Trace?" We do that, of course, but we take it a step further. We practice "Leave No Trace + Leave A Difference."
Every Off Trail On Track trip is dedicated to a preselected conservation effort. In 2018 alone, my students raised over $4,000 that went towards preserving our natural resources and increasing their availability to underserved demographics. With that money, we saved 2,000 endangered sea turtles from being poached, supported 3 Nicaraguan families' food and education expenses, and funded wilderness education and trail maintenance programs for the Sierra.
This giving back isn't some feel-good or tax-benefits measure. It arose naturally as part of the minimalist backpacking mindset. We recognize that we're living in a world of abundance, not scarcity, so we're glad to give back as we, in turn, receive from each other and nature.
What advice do you have for others looking to make an impact in 2019?
You need a solid foundation if you're going to make waves, so I suggest you get yourself squared away first, then turn outwards.You can refocus yourself in three simple steps:
- Determine. What brings you true joy? Fulfillment? What will make you proud when you look back 20 years from now?
- Inventory. What in your life brings you joy? What takes away from your joy? Be honest.
- Act. What are you going to Take Less of and Do More of?
Want to join Duncan on an Off Trail On Track adventure? Spring 2019 courses begin in March, with the application opening on February 1, so make sure to check out the Off Trail On Track website for more details. Also, stay tuned to the Gossamer Gear blog for more upcoming posts about what it means to Hike with a Cause!