Super Camper: Danielle O'Farrell
Look familiar? Danielle gear tested and modeled for our Mantis all-in-one hammock tent campaign. This month, we’re getting to know Danielle even better. She shared her story and some expert advice with me as we covered everything from outdoor education to time on trail.
An educator, entrepreneur and avid hiker, Danielle O'Farrell embodies our core values of adventure, community and love on trail and off. This year, you can find Danielle thru-hiking the Continental Divide Trail and Great Divide Trail with Kammok’s very own Andrew Glenn.
How did your passion for spending time outside develop?
I grew up as a city kid, so the way that I like to say that my love for the outdoors began is in the cracks of the sidewalk in the city… I was lucky enough to have my dad walk me to school in the mornings when I was little. He’s a biologist, and so we would stop and talk about all the plants and animals we would see as we were walking. That was kind of how my love for the outdoors began.
I didn’t go backpacking until I was 18. I like to tell people, too, that I didn’t fall in love with it immediately. I wasn’t like, “Wow, backpacking is what I want to do for the rest of my life!” I was like, “This is… ok.” It was through continuing to be involved in an outdoor community and spending more and more time outside that I realized backpacking allowed me to spend as much time as possible outside, and eventually I grew to love it.
After college, I started guiding and teaching environmental science and outdoor education for kids from the Bronx [through the Christadora program]. That was how I delved into the outdoors as a profession.
In 2017, Danielle hiked and completed the Pacific Crest Trail - 2,650 miles of hiking from Southern California to the northern terminus across the Canadian border.
I wanted to know how she made the leap from leading outdoor education to hiking the PCT in 2017.
My path is not really a straightforward one. I did [outdoor education] and I loved it. The ability for someone who doesn't usually go outside to start falling in love with outdoors, and who didn’t really believe in their abilities as a backcountry outdoors person, was really cool.
Eventually, I left to get more certification in Wilderness First Aid, so I became a Wilderness EMT and moved out to San Francisco where I started working for REI and another environment education group that worked with under-resourced schools in San Francisco doing after-school programming.
I had always dreamed about doing a long distance hike. When I first started guiding I thought that the idea of staying out longer would be amazing. I was on the Appalachian Trail on the first trip I guided, which was for university students, and I thought, “What if I just didn’t go back?”
Obviously, I had to go back because I had these students, but that was the first time I ever really thought about it. I thought it was one of those dreams that was never really going to happen. You meet people that say, “Oh yeah, someday I’m going to hike a long trail.” I was going to be one of those people, but I don’t know, for some reason… I was working at REI, I was working at the insect lab, and I decided I’m going to go for it. I quit, and hiked the Pacific Crest Trail.
When you were on trail, were you even more inspired to come back and continue outdoor education?
When I was hiking the PCT, I thought I was going to figure out my life, and I did not at all. I thought I would come back with some renewed sense of purpose and understanding of what I wanted out of this world and what I could provide, and I did not figure out those things. I did have a great time, and it did totally change my life because [now] I’m addicted to long-distance hiking.
I came back and just applied to a ton of jobs, all in the outdoor industry, and I ended up managing a gear shop in San Francisco called Last Minute Gear…
I was [working] there, but I was not teaching, and teaching is what I love.
So, I hiked a few more trails, a few more routes… I did 270 miles alone through the High Sierra this past summer, and I started playing around with the idea of quitting and doing my own thing, and that’s kind of when the idea of With The Wild Things came.
With the Wild Things is a company that provides outdoor education, coaching and wilderness certification courses.
My goals for [With the Wild Things] are really to get everyone outside, but with the confidence and skills that will keep them safe and the environment safe. One of the most beautiful things I’ve seen taking people outside is that ability for them to have confidence and to connect themselves to the space they’re in. For me, I’m focusing a lot on LNT and hard skills that keep you safe in the backcountry.
What is something that you’ve learned from your students so far?
I learn things from my students all the time. Whether it’s something simple, like “hey, there’s another way that you splint an arm” or there’s this whole new way to reach out and connect to students.
I’ve been working with a couple of students lately who struggle with acronyms, and in medicine and wilderness medicine, acronyms are huge. It’s been a big push to find other strategies for teaching these students, which is one of my favorite puzzles to solve. I have a learning disability, so I love working with atypical learners at any level. I think it’s very interesting and rewarding.
In April, Danielle will leave behind With the Wild Things for a few months while she hikes the Continental Divide Trail and Great Divide Trail - a 3,800 mile route. Joining her is Peanut a.k.a Andrew Glenn, a fellow PCT ‘17 hiker.
[The CDT + GDT hike] has been evolving in ways we didn’t predict. I think it’s going to end up being quite an adventure.
Our goal is to do the Continental Divide Trail and the Great Divide Trail, which is something I sought out while looking at maps on a beach vacation with my family. I brought it up to some friends and Peanut was like, “Let’s do it.” That was kind of an exciting thing to try and do.
Of course, Mother Nature has her own ideas about what’s going to happen, so now we have a whole lot of snow to contend with in Colorado which may change the shape of our hike. We don’t really know, but it’s definitely going to be challenging and a huge adventure.
It’s the biggest thing I’ve tried to do in volume of miles, so that’s going to be really exciting.
It’s definitely a risk for me. I am leaving this baby company for half a year, which any other business person would be like, “That is dumb.” But, the reason I created With the Wild Things is so that I can live my dreams and help other people live theirs. The goal right now is to make it a school that prepares you to hike, instead of making it a guiding place that will just hold your hand and take you outside.
How are you preparing yourself to take on this trail? What does your own preparation look like - physically and mentally?
This year, I’ve spent most of the year preparing other people for their hikes, so my hike has definitely suffered a bit because of that. So that’s been something I’ve had to come to terms with. It is a bit easier to prepare for a hike after having done other hikes, but there’s a lot of work still to do.
I’ve been trying to focus a lot on preventative physical therapy. I have some old injuries that I like to bolster up...
What I would like to do is train my body, figure out maps and resupplies and [make] slight adjustments to my gear. The rest of it will be mentally working myself up to the point where I’m excited and ready to take this on.
It’s kind of magical, but weird, this is the first time I’m not biting at the bit to leave for a hike. I think it’s because I’ve finally found space where I’m content even though I’m not on trail, which is kind of a beautiful thing.
For anyone reading this and contemplating going on their first backpacking trip, going on a thru-hike, what would be your encouragement to them?
My first words of advice and encouragement is: do it. I think a lot of people get help up in this process of thinking about it and dreaming about it. That’s where I was when I was thinking of my first long distance hike. One of the hardest steps is committing to doing it.
I also think it’s important to be realistic. Take a minute to sit down and look at where you have skills and where you don’t have skills... If you need to take a Wilderness First Aid class, take a Wilderness First Aid class. If you need to work on navigation, look at some tutorials online. Find friends that know more than you. Take time to build enough skills so you can go out and have a positive experience.
Take care of each other and everything out there. The world is beautiful, and the world is in danger. Take care of it while you enjoy it, and take care of everyone you meet out there.
If you want to follow Danielle’s adventures on trail, follow @withthewildthings on Instagram. Explore the With the Wild Things site to learn more.
Any long distance hikers heading out on trail soon? Danielle’s asking you to be a citizen scientist on trail. Download the I Naturalist app developed by National Geographic and join the Long Trail naturalist group. You’ll help collect data about the plant and animal species found on trail!
Photos by Danielle O'Farrell, Andrew Glenn, Caesar Sangalang, and Justin Helmkamp