Backpacking with Emily Ford


This winter, Emily Ford hiked approximately 1,200 miles through Wisconsin’s Ice Age National Scenic Hiking Trail (IAT).

This winter, Emily Ford hiked approximately 1,200 miles through Wisconsin’s Ice Age National Scenic Hiking Trail (IAT), making her only the second known person to make the trip in the winter. Additionally, she was the first woman, first Black person, and first openly queer person to cross Wisconsin’s IAT during the winter season. The trail starts in the Potawatomi State Park and goes all the way to the St. Croix River next to the state border with Minnesota. 

When not backpacking, Ford works as the head gardener for the Glensheen Mansion. She started backpacking after a dog sled and ski trip made her realize her passion for being outdoors in the wintertime. Today, she has over five years of backpacking experience.

Ford started planning her trip through the IAT in the summer of 2019 after a friend recommended the trail. She gets laid off for three months every winter due to the snow, which influenced when she did her backpacking trip. To her, “it was the perfect mashup of midwest meets thru-hike.” Ford made the 69-day trip with her four-legged companion, Diggins, who is a sled dog. 

Read the following Q&A with Emily Ford to learn more about her trip and her advice for getting involved with backpacking for beginners.   

What was the hardest part about your trip?
Post-holing for hours in the deep snow in the cold (Post-holing is when you sink into the snow instead of easily walking on top of packed-down snow). It was pretty tough to get my feet warm in the deep snow!

What was one of your favorite moments during the trip?
Oh man. One of the highlights was a spectacular sunset. I found a spot to sleep on this hill beneath some hemlocks. I pointed the door to the west to watch the sun set in the trees. The moon was so bright that night too! Then, the cherry on top was the wolves that were howling in the distance. I think I’ll remember that forever.

How did you schedule your days? Did you have set rest times or just listen to your body?
There were a couple of things I planned. I wanted to be up hiking by 0730 for sure and I had to finish my day snacks before the day ended so that I knew how my calories were doing. Other than that, I listened to my body. Some days we could push a bunch of miles and the other days only 15 or so.

What kinds of food did you bring and how did you transport it all?
For dinner, I ate freeze-dried meals. That was always nice since it was my one hot meal of the day. I ate heaps of Snickers, M&M’s, dried fruit, and nuts. Lots of bars and such too. I set myself up to have box drops along the way. It was super nice to be able to have a fresh restock of food!

Do you have any advice for people who are new to backpacking or interested in starting?
Always ask questions. There is YouTube and heaps of backpacking forums. Just look up goofy topics. Before I left, I looked up “How to set up a tent in a blizzard.”

You’ve made some great videos on Instagram that highlight your trip and the gear used. For students who are interested in getting involved with backpacking, where should they start?
Just go little by little. Join a group of folks going and see what gear they use. Borrow gear and rent it if you can. You will find what you like. You might be uncomfortable in the beginning, but meh, we’ve all been there (case in point: I brought my kitchen supplies in glass jars my first time out… my pack was super heavy for no reason). Also, chat with folks at gear shops. Trailfitters is awesome! And Great Lakes Gear Exchange

Can you recommend any good starter trails for beginner backpackers?
There are a ton of spots on the Superior Hiking Trail. I love Lake Agnes up by Lutsen, the Split Rock River loop, and McCarthy Creek. All are simple miles with some challenges, but not terrible.

What are your thoughts on the barriers to backpacking? Alongside expensive gear costs, there is also discomfort and fear about being in the outdoors for extended periods of time, particularly for people of color, who have been repeatedly made to feel unsafe and/or uncomfortable by white people in outdoor spaces.
On gear: Borrow as much as you can until you can afford your own stuff. So many people have gear in their basements! Just ask around. I really think that the biggest barrier is the barrier of just doing it! Like I said before, go with someone else or a group of people. It will be helpful! Also, if you just really want to ease into it on your own, start in your backyard. Start somewhere you feel safe. Maybe try sleeping in your living room on a sleeping pad in a sleeping bag. Take your time.

As far as being a person of color, it’s our time to take back the wilderness. It’s been our time for a while. I know it’s scary. I know our history. But our future is up to us. Don’t be stifled by others who tell you you can’t be a part of the outdoor culture. 

What do you enjoy about backpacking?
Oh man. Everything. I love carrying my life on my back, hiking long distances, and feeling my body change over time to meet the challenges. I love being able to see nature in a way most people don’t get to see. I get to see the weird little movements of nature since I catch onto patterns as the days go by. I love sleeping under the sky without obstruction. I love that my only responsibility is to feed myself, walk, and sleep.

Is there anything else you want people to know about your trip or backpacking in general?
It’s worth it :) I promise. 

To follow Emily Ford’s next adventure, you can check out her Instagram @emilyontrail.