National Geographic Adventurer returns to her Arizona hiking roots and sets new Arizona National Scenic Trail record

Lake Powell Chronicle (June 12, 2024) by Paul Ostapuk

Twenty-four days, one hour and 12 minutes. In less time than the moon takes to complete a lunar cycle, Heather Anderson, 2019 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, survived the ordeal of an unsupported 800-mile traverse of the Arizona National Scenic Trail. Anderson finished her record backpacking trip on May 12, 2024, improving by 4 days the previous Fastest Known Time (FKT) by an unsupported hiker, Art Brody, who in 2021 traveled southbound from Utah to Mexico.

Someone who hikes “unsupported” needs to carry all of their gear, food and supplies versus other types of attempts assisted by field crews or other self-supported methods. Anderson could not rely on caches of water, food or other types of support along the trail route. She could not hike to nearby towns to resupply or accept any kind of “trail magic,” which is aid offered by well-meaning hikers or trail angels. Backpacking unsupported is a daunting task. The amount of nutrition and food intake necessary for this record attempt was estimated at 88,000 calories; all to carried in Anderson’s backpack. Water is life and Heather strategically rationed water between sparsely-scattered water resources, relying on a Sawyer water filter to remove bacteria, viruses, heavy metals and other contaminants.

Sirena Rana, Trails Inspire LLC, provided Heather transportation logistics to the trailhead. When dropping her off at the Mexican border she noted, “The amount of weight that she started with was astonishing – not only a big heavy backpack but also two saddlebags full of food slung across her front for the first part of her journey. It would be a lot to carry even on a flat trail, but she was immediately heading up to 9,000 feet in the Huachuca Mountains.”

Heather’s backpack weighed over 60 pounds, nearly half her body weight. On the second day of her journey she tripped and was unable to catch herself…falling face down on the trail and opening a gash on her forehead that bled profusely.

Heather blogged on social media, “Unsupported is a hard discipline. It limits you to what you can carry. You cannot assuage a bad day with town food. Or replace that water bottle you lost. Or buy bandages. I am also keenly aware of the fine line I hike. That, at any given moment, I am one mishap away from being unable to solve it. But I am also equally finding that I am tenaciously adaptable. That it will take a lot more than sweat and struggle to get me to give up. I find value in the simplicity. With every dilemma, there are two choices: give up on the effort or be creative and resilient.”

In 2016, Heather set a different Arizona Trail FKT record of 19 days while hiking self-supported. This is when hikers can resupply themselves with caches of water and food strategically placed along the trail. For the 2024 FKT attempt, Heather expanded the challenge by going unsupported, carrying a heavier pack (food for the entire trip) and going the harder, northbound direction uphill towards the Utah border. From the Mexico border, the Arizona Trail ends at the BLM State Line campground in House Rock Valley. After setting her new FKT record, Anderson visited the City of Page (an official Arizona Trail Gateway Community) to rest, recuperate and reflect on her accomplishment.

“I feel so incredibly relieved to be done, so immensely grateful to have walked this trail twice, so utterly thankful to my body and mind for rallying again and again (and again!). To do something I wasn’t sure was even possible to me. Being unsupported was far more challenging, not just from the weight perspective, but also from the aspect of being completely self-reliant the entire time and requiring extreme mental strength to bypass caches and trail magic.”


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