Meet the Explorer: Emily Pennington

Writer. Adventurer. Photographer. Backpacker. Wanderluster. Travel Addict. Chaotic Good.

First of all, thanks for having me! It’s humbling to be included among all the badasses on your site! I’m a writer, adventurer, and all-around outdoor junkie. I work a full time job in the entertainment industry, which means that once summer hits, I go into hardcore weekend warrior mode, blasting off every Friday night to get to the Sierras and go backpacking. While I’m no old-timer veteran of the industry, I’ve been lucky enough to get to write for some pretty big publications like Outside, Backpacker Magazine, Outdoor Project, The Outbound, and an upcoming series for Modern Hiker. Semi-Rad is featuring me in his new book too, which was literally a dream come true, so be sure to check it out!

You are never more than one decision away from a completely different life.

What do you do for a living, how did you end up in that field? 

I work as a freelance outdoor writer and also an executive assistant in the film industry. I moved to sunny Los Angeles when I was 17 years old to go to USC and basically haven’t looked back since. I studied theater, but I always knew that I was going to go into film once I was out of school. I’m a big believer in the magic and power of good storytelling, so it’s been really rewarding to work for some of the biggest executives in the business while also fostering my own writing career!

When did you first start enjoying the outdoors?

This is a tricky question to answer! I think I’ve always loved the outdoors. When I was 9 years old, my mom sent me off to Sweden for a full summer to visit my grandparents. I was so incredibly bored for 90% of the trip that I ended up wandering the forests alone, dreaming up ways to uncover hidden trolls and faery houses. I never found any definitive proof that they exist, but deep down, a part of me still wishes they do. Cut to 2015 – I was dating a guy for a while who was an Eagle Scout, and he took me on my first backpacking trip. I had the WORST gear, and I barely slept a wink, but I was instantly hooked. I knew it was a hobby I would be coming back to for decades.

What is your favorite place to explore? 

I’m biased, because the Eastern Sierras are only a 3-4 hour drive from my house! I’ve explored scores of trails all over that region, but the crown jewel of the bunch is definitely The High Sierra Trail. It takes about a week to complete, and it’s essentially a shorter version of the John Muir Trail, cramming the best bits and views of the Sierra Nevada into 72 miles of trail before spitting you out on Mt. Whitney. 16 miles in is my favorite lake in the whole world – Hamilton Lake. Look out for my feature on it in Backpacker’s July/August 2019 issue!

How many of the 50 United States have you visited? Favorite?

I think I’ve been to about 22 out of 50 states, but that’s all about to change when I launch my massive van project next year and go to all of them in only 12 months! Of course, the whole thing will be chronicled on my website and social media, if you’d like to follow along. Once again, I’m uber-biased when it comes to picking a favorite state. California is such a dream to live in. We get the best of everything – stunning beaches, towering rock spires, pristine deserts, and massive National Forests. What more could you want?

How many countries, where? 

At last count, I’m at 23 or 24 countries, which is about to get bumped up this year, because I’ll visit Iceland for the first time ever to complete the Laugavegur Trail. My family is Swedish, and I have dual citizenship, so I’ve been traveling to Western Europe since I was a small kid. Most recently, I’ve been enjoying far off corners of the globe and traveling to South America, Thailand, India, and Nepal. I love visiting temples, discovering off-the-beaten-path hikes, and immersing myself in cultures that are wildly different than my own.

Best hike you have ever had? 

Wow. This is a tough one. Hiking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal last year was, hands-down, simply incredible. You hike for 7-14 days along a trail that connects these tiny villages that operate largely without cars or modern technology (though this has changed in the last few years!). The hike starts off in a lush, green tropical environment filled with butterflies, rice paddies, and thousand foot tall waterfalls. Slowly, you ascend towards the highest walking pass in the world, and sweeping views of huge glaciers and gargantuan Himalayan peaks come into view. The highest point is at 17,769 feet above sea level, and from there, you feel like you’re on another planet. The opportunity to get to stay with Nepali families and learn more about Tibetan Buddhism was an experience I’ll never forget.

Essential items for summer hikes/winter hikes in your opinion.

Ok, so for summer hikes, my absolute must-haves are: trail runners or lightweight hiking shoes, bug spray/sunscreen, multiple pairs of wool socks (to keep my feet dry), and “salt stick” electrolyte pills (to keep me from bonking!).

For winter hikes, I’m absolutely in love with my Salewa Mountaineering Boots, my Patagonia Down Jacket, and my wool mohawk hat! I did a whole series on the most important gear and clothing to pack for backpacking on my site that you can find here.

Most comical hike/adventure story? 

When I was still a beginner, a bad break up drove me to try to hike The Backbone Trail in Malibu solo and in only 3 days. That meant hiking 23 miles a day with a pack on for three straight days. Several pieces of critical gear broke or failed on my first day. I lost my hat and my trekking poles in a thicket. A monsoon-like rain washed over me on day two, drenching everything I owned. Skin fell off my feet in these big, gross, white patches. My boots and pants were covered in mud. I was a mess. The funny thing is that I decided to bail in the middle of the rain storm at 9pm on the second day, and I was only 1 mile from a fancy restaurant in the hills. I befriended the valet, charged my iPhone, and called a friend to come pick me up!

Scariest hike/adventure story?

One of the scariest things that ever happened to me was when I was still a newer rock climber. I was at the top of an 80-foot tall cliff face, and I clipped in with a quick draw to clean the route. I quickly learned why you never want to do that! As I was leaning back and flaking the rope, I saw the gate of the quick draw opening… the one, small piece of metal keeping me from falling 80 feet to my death/dismemberment was opening up. My heart sank into the pit of my stomach, and I instantly got dizzy. I took a few deep breaths, stood very still, and clipped an opposing quick draw into the anchor as a backup (I had no PAS at the time). I was able to rappel back down to safety, but I learned how easy it is to mess your life up in the mountains if you don’t have a back up (preferably a locking caribiner) and triple-check your systems before making any big movements!

Upcoming trips planned?

So many! I just pitched and sold a series of hiking guides to Modern Hiker, which I’m thrilled about, which means that my summer will be spent traipsing around alpine lakes in the High Sierras. I also have a trip to Iceland coming up in July, which will entail 6 days of hiking the Laugavegur Trail and staying in tiny mountain huts along the way! I’m also planning a solo section hike of the JMT.

Favorite outdoors gear/lifestyle companies? Any local? 

It’s pricey, but I love Patagonia’s commitment to the environment, even when it doesn’t benefit them financially. Outdoor Research makes great stuff and has an amazing lifetime warranty on their products. As far as smaller brands go, I love Parks Project’s shirt designs – funky, vintage style, plus you know a portion of the proceeds goes to protecting the parks! Also, Wildbird Threads are a great little company. They have an amazing commitment to using eco-friendly dyes and supporting the local artists who help design the shirts!

What does conservation mean to you? 

For me, conservation has to begin with awareness. Awareness of how you, your belongings, your movements, and your trash can impact a space. Nothing will ever truly be “leave no trace,” but if we work hard to become more conscious in our personal lives about things like single-use plastic, our carbon footprint, and consumerism, we’d all have a head start on the road to a more sustainable planet.

What can we do to make sure our parks and wild lands stay clean and pure forever?

We can start by educating our friends and our children! We need to create more nature lovers and encourage more people to get outdoors so that there’s more funding for the protection of the wild spaces we love. But, we also need to make sure there’s a solid education in Leave No Trace principles behind it. I am constantly packing trash out of hot springs and backcountry campsites. I constantly seeing illegal fire rings. We all need to get into the habit of asking ourselves: “If everyone who came here did what I am doing, would the landscape be preserved?”

Emily, thank you so much for answering the questions in such detail and providing your insight and $0.02 on the outdoors and what it means to you. I cannot wait to see how your career grows and I hope to explore with you someday!

Follow my tracks: @Gtcarden

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