“So, uhh, what’s with the skirt?” It was always the same question, or a variation of it, usually accompanied by a stifled snigger. And I always knew it was coming when I walked up and saw what I was certain was a section hiker (they don’t have that dead-but-somehow-more-alive-than-ever look about them) sitting at an A.T. shelter or water source. Thru-hikers didn’t bother to ask about the calf-length, pleated, blue skirt I hiked in, patterned with flowers, fitting for spring and summer jaunts over mountains and through fields of high grass and cows. Thru-hikers are like psychology majors: after a while, nothing surprises them.
“Oh, it’s just what I hike in,” I’d say, deadpan as Dilbert.
Of course, I realized it was a bit strange for most people, even in these modern times, but I was sick of answering the same question, so I’d reply in a way that would stop the conversation right there enabling me to get back to rolling a spliff or filtering water or eating that fourth Snickers bar of the day.
The Appalachian Trail, or the A.T., is a continuously marked footpath extending from Springer Mountain in northern Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. The official length for 2016 was 2,189.1 miles through 14 states, and about 700 of those miles into the walk was when I picked up the skirt in a Goodwill for $2.50. I had been planning on buying a skirt as soon as the weather was warm enough throughout the day, but I didn’t realize how much it would impact my hike moving north.
I had just met Nums (everyone gets a trail name), a girl with whom I would hike for quite a while, although I didn’t know that yet, and we went into town for a resupply when I saw it, flowing and beautiful. When I changed and we hit the trail again the next day, she made no mention of it, so I knew we would work well together. It may seem like a small detail, but it was the first time I understood what a great bullshit filter the skirt actually was: cool folks understood, people who weren’t on our level didn’t.
Was I having a bit of fun with it, too? Well, of course. But consider the length of time I wore it. Months of walking, often 20+ miles per day, through all kinds of weather conditions and hazardous terrain, all for a laugh? No. Nobody would be foolish enough to carry out a gag for that long. So, let’s return to our section hiker’s question: Why the skirt? Why walk to Maine looking like some haggard and heinous smelling Mary Poppins sans magic umbrella?
It is the superior hiking garment for many reasons, all of which you, your sister or mom have probably known their whole lives, even if they, or you, have never been hiking.
The shape improves airflow to your nether regions, thereby cutting down on that most insidious of hiker dangers: chaffing. Yes, I still wore underwear with the skirt, but I recommend doing your own testing in this area as some people swear by going commando, no matter what they wear. If you’re a dude, and you want to freeball with a skirt, refer to your nearest female friend for the dangers inherent. Also consider buying lots of body glide.
The skirt’s length offered both protection from the sun, which you are in A LOT on the A.T., despite rarely being above treeline, and defense from insects. I used a semi-permanent repellent containing permethrin during my hike on all my clothes, including the skirt, because Lymes disease will do to your soul and strength what Slayer does to your ears. I’ve seen it happen to the strongest of hikers.
My skirt is also made of rayon which stayed together well and, most importantly, was lightweight. The flexibility of the material also allowed me to adjust the length of the skirt. I could bunch up the ends to stuff in my hip belt when I wanted some sun or extra air, then unfurl it for its protective benefits. Further, the skirt dried in just minutes if left in the sun or hanging from a tree branch.
Now, I know you’re asking yourself about the skirt’s so called “male” counterpart, the kilt, which has become more common on trails in recent years, as a short or pant alternative. I’ll offer a quick word on why these fall short of the skirt: Most kilts made specifically for hiking are expensive, anywhere from $40-80. They are heavy and made of material that takes a long time to dry, a crucial factor on the trail. Kilts also lack the flexibility that made the skirt so nice to move in, and adjust, depending on my environment. Try both, and I’m sure you’ll agree with me.
There are other social factors to consider when donning the skirt though, depending on when and where you find yourself. If you’re a thru-hiker, you rely on others more than you would think, and one of the most important services non-hikers provide is a ride into town via hitch-hike. Now, the skirt can be a blessing or a curse in this situation. Some people picked me up simply because they liked it and told me so. Some people stopped to give me a ride because they thought I was a pretty lady. (A compliment, to be sure.) But I swear it was the factor that made a few folks not pull over, based only on the looks they gave me as they got closer, then sped by. But then again, assuming is something I learned never to do on the A.T.
All considered, I believe when I go out for my next hike, I’ll be pulling it out again, even though it made some people screw up their eyebrows. When accused of wearing a kilt because, as one man said, “Men don’t wear skirts,” I would quickly correct the confused individual. I didn’t hike in a kilt. I walked to Maine in a skirt, dammit.