Honorary Gearhead Spotlight
As one of our Honorary Gearheads, Kristen Nelson will be putting gear and apparel Built By Backcountry to the test on the trails around her home base in Los Angeles, CA. Kristen is an experienced hiker and backpacker whose online presence provides a dose of joy and authenticity thanks to her many adventures by foot. Below, she answers some of our questions about how she came to love backpacking and where she hopes to grow from here.
How did you start backpacking?
Learning how to backpack didn’t happen over the course of one trip for me. It wasn’t until my fifth trip (my second trip as an adult) that I finally felt like I knew how to backpack on my own. The very first time I backpacked was when I was 12 at a Girl Scout Camp in Colorado. We only went for one night and carried only our personal gear, and yet my pack seemed to dwarf my body. I used an external frame pack (I don’t think internal frame packs were a thing yet) and a lightweight summer sleeping bag that—when compressed—was still twice the size of my head. I don’t remember much from that trip other than being happy.
Then I went backpacking again a few times as a young adult. With each trip, I made comical mistakes like the difference between summer and 3-season sleeping bags, and why you shouldn’t hike in cotton socks. The fifth trip was when everything I had learned finally clicked. I felt self-sufficient, intentional with my gear packing, knowledgeable about safety in the backcountry, and—of course—happy.
Tell us about finding connection, and celebrating individuality, outside?
The beautiful thing about both nature and humans is the individual. No two pinecones or mountain peaks are exactly alike, and no two humans are exactly alike either. The people I meet on the trail are often similar to me in a lot of ways: a love of adventure, an eagerness to grow, genuine kindness, and authenticity. Where we differ is in how we got to the trail in the first place. My journey has been full of self-confidence struggles, anxiety, and a slow introduction to the outdoors. It’s also been a journey of growing into my own strength, leaning into vulnerability with courage, and encountering incredible places and people.
What are you most proud of, when it comes to outdoor pursuits?
When I first got into outdoor adventures, I never did anything by myself. I was worried I would be too lonely, or too isolated if I were solo. And to be honest, I was scared to venture outside alone. But the more I wanted to travel and be outdoors, the more I ran into issues coordinating schedules with friends. I found myself starting to put off trips waiting for others to be available in the same time frame.
While some trips were worth the wait to be able to share them with friends, there were others I wanted to challenge myself to complete solo. In 2019, I took the plunge with a 10-day road trip from California to Colorado and back. I drove 2,500 miles in 10 days across five states. I spent nights in Moab photographing the night sky and meeting kind strangers, tried dispersed camping for the first time, and traversed the Via Ferrata in Telluride.
I stepped outside of my comfort zone every day and saw places that had been on my bucket list for years. I practiced trusting my gut, learning when to push myself and when to ease up, and finding peace and comfort in being independent and alone. It was the most empowered I had felt in a long time and inspired me to stop dreaming about the life I want and go after it.
How do identity and outdoor pursuits intersect for you?
I was adopted from China as a baby and grew up in Colorado. Being Asian in a predominantly white community, I struggled a lot with self-confidence—and still do sometimes. As I started to get into more outdoor activities, I struggled to find role models who looked like me that were doing the things I did or the things I one day hoped to do.
If I chose to see myself in outdoor spaces first as Asian-American, I felt different from everyone else and alone in my journey. I dreamed of doing the kind of expeditions, climbs, and adventures that other women had done, but it was hard to believe I could actually do it because I could never picture myself in their shoes.
Without many Asian-American role models in the outdoors growing up, it was challenging to see what my relationship with the outdoors could become. There is so much power in seeing someone who looks like you, participating in what you aspire to do, whether that is backpacking or a career path.
How have you been getting outside lately?
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to hike the Trans Catalina Trail (on Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California). We did roughly 40 miles over the course of 4.5 days going from one end of the island to the other, making it the longest trip in both days and miles that I have ever done. It went better than I expected, but not without its challenges. I tend to have trouble staying present, but being outdoors is very meditative for me in the way it forces you to stay in the moment.
The other major challenge was a lot more physical. For as long as I can remember, my feet have never enjoyed walking more than six to seven miles a day. In the past, I could always tell when I had hit that mark by the way the soles of my feet felt at that point in the day. I tried seeing a podiatrist and switching shoes and insoles multiple times to no avail. So it seemed to me that I had two choices when my feet hurt: stop walking or push through the pain. On the TCT, I chose the latter. Even though it was hard at times, this trip showed me that my mind and body are a lot stronger than I thought, and I’m looking forward to even longer trips in the future.