In 2021, Kelly Hays completed the Appalachian Trail, her first long trial, but with some challenges early on that not many hikers ever experience. We've been inspired by her hiking story and asked Kelly a few questions about her experience on the Appalachian Trail and her upcoming PCT thru hike attempt.
Waymark: Who is Kelly Hays? Where are you from?
Kelly: I am from Conway, Arkansas. I have lived here for almost my whole life. Growing up, my passion was basketball. I started playing in a city league in 1st grade and then year round by 5th grade. I attended Conway Christian School from grade school into high school and won a basketball state championship my junior year. I went on to play two years of college basketball at the University of Central Arkansas a mid-major D1 school. Sadly, my college career was riddled with a nasty knee injury that I ultimately never fully recovered from. Basketball was my entire life up until that point and hanging up my favorite thing in the world is still to this day one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. Playing basketball growing up made me into the person I am today. It taught me hard work, discipline, endurance, mental toughness, and countless other life lessons.
Waymark: What is your trail name and how did you get it?
Kelly: My trail name is 9 Lives and I was given the name by my friend Lost and Found after my medical emergency. The emergency surgery took one of my trail lives, but luckily I still had 8 more to spare.
Waymark: We know being a Thru Hiker isn’t your only passion. What else fills your time for hobbies?
Kelly: I love anything outdoors. Summer is my favorite season when I enjoy kayaking, being on the lake, floating on a river, camping, and going to music festivals. (Arkansas summers are the best because of all these things!) I am a very active person and enjoy going to the gym, doing crossfit, yoga, running and swimming. In the winter I love to go snowboarding in Colorado, and I also love traveling around the US!
Waymark: Who or what inspired you to start hiking long distance trails?
Kelly: Dixie (Homemade Wanderlust) was the person who introduced me to the Appalachian Trail and where I learned the world of long distance trails/hiking existed. Once I learned long distance hiking was a thing, I was instantly hooked. I think my love for long distance hiking can be traced back to being an athlete my entire life. I love the mental and physical challenge of thru hiking.
Waymark: You completed a thru hike of the AT in 2021, what was the main motivation for getting on trail?
Kelly: I have never desired to live a traditional life, ie: go to college, graduate, get a 9-5 job, get married, buy a house, have kids etc, etc. I have always sought after a grand adventure and challenge in life. The AT seemed like the ultimate adventure and challenge (and boy was it!!) This alone motivated me to get on trail.
Waymark: Most everyone who knows you already knows that you had a wild start to your AT hike, but for those that don’t know, you spent some unexpected time off trail. What happened?
Kelly: The 6th day I was on trail I awoke to a terrible pain in my left lower abdomen. I thought it was just trapped gas in my stomach at first, until it kept getting worse and I realized it was much more serious. With my two friends (I had only known for 3 days) by my side, I hiked over 4.5 miles out of camp to the nearest road where I would be picked up and taken to the hospital. After multiple tests and many hours in the ER, the doctors found an eggplant sized ovarian torsion, which was on the brink of rupturing. Within 30 minutes of finding the cyst, I was on the operating table where they would remove my ovary. I stayed at the hospital overnight and my dad flew in the next morning to be with me as I recovered the next couple days until I had the strength to get on a plane and fly home to recover. I will never forget getting wheeled around in the airport in a wheelchair. It was an incredibly humbling experience to go from hiking 10+ miles one day, to a wheelchair the next. I spent exactly 3 weeks recovering from the surgery before I got back on the trail to finish my thru hike.
Waymark: How was it getting back on trail after that experience?
Kelly: Getting back on trail was TOUGH. I had the worst night of my life the first night back on trail. I also experienced terrible vertigo for the first week back on trail. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to continue and it became a day by day effort to stay on trail. I also had 3 incisions on my abdomen right where my pack sat, which added another painful challenge. Luckily the incisions healed fast. It took me about 3 weeks on trail before I was feeling good about hiking again.
Waymark: What were your favorite and essential pieces of gear from your AT hike?
Kelly: My backpack was honestly one of the best pieces of gear I used on trial. It was so comfortable and carried so well even when my surgery incisions were healing. The frameless structure helped lower my overall base weight and worked well as a slackpack when that option was available on trail. I also loved my Appalachian gear company alpaca hoodie for my midlayer. I only washed that hoodie three times my entire thru hike. It kept me extremely warm and never smelled bad.
Waymark: You’re about to set off for a PCT attempt, what are you looking forward to the most on the PCT?
Kelly: I am looking forward to so many things. Mainly just getting back out in nature and being able to fully appreciate Gods creation every day. I am so excited to camp in the desert and hike in areas/states I have never been before.
Waymark: Are you hiking southbound or northbound? Why did you choose that direction to hike?
Kelly: I am hiking northbound. Logistically, I think it is my best shot at finishing this trail.
Waymark: What worries you about the PCT?
Kelly: Lots of things. My medical emergency will haunt me forever and I will carry that fear in the back of my head on every thru hike/ long distance backpacking trip I embark on. Specifically: the desert heat and getting a heat stroke, getting bit by a rattlesnake , the snowy, huge drop off sections, and getting extremely cold in the mountains.
Waymark: What do you hope to learn from your experience on the PCT?
Kelly: I want to grow closer to God.
I want to figure out my next goals in life and plans for the future.
I want to learn how to let go of fears and worries I know I have no control over.
Waymark: What main gear items have you switched out from your AT hike that’s going on your PCT hike?
Kelly: I switched my LITE 50L frameless Waymark backpack to a THRU 40L framed backpack. I am very excited about this upgrade as I think it will be a better fit for the gear I will carry on the PCT. I also switched my Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL2 tent for a Zpacks Duplex tent. I am interested to see which tent I prefer.
Waymark: Any luxury gear items you’ll be carrying on trail?
Kelly: I carried lavender essential oil the entire AT and plan to on the PCT as well. I am also bringing an electronic air pump for my sleeping pad.
Waymark: Thru hiking the PCT can come with some logistical challenges like water sources, wild fires, snow pack, etc. How do you plan to handle those types of situations?
Kelly: I am just going to take these things as they come. I have done some research on the front end, but inevitably it will just come down to what the best decision will be at that time. Planning stresses me out and I work better just figuring things out as I go. You can learn a lot on trail by just talking to other hikers and locals you meet along the way when it comes to things like this.
Waymark: Who do you look up to in life that inspires you to do what you do?
Kelly: Michael Jordan has always been my role model in life. I grew up studying the way he played basketball as well as the mindset he brought to the game and life in general. He taught me that success comes after hard work, discipline and countless failures. Here are some of my favorite MJ quotes that motivate me to chase my dreams in life:
“I have failed over and over again and that is why I succeed.”
“Limits like fears are often just an illusion”
“I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can't accept not trying.”
“Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it”
Waymark: Thanks Kelly for sharing about your Appalachian Trail experience and good luck to you on your Pacific Crest Trail attempt!
You can follow Kelly and her PCT thru hike via her social media links below:
- YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfMHF8GPio8NAeP0loK1VmA
- Instagram @kellyhays23 https://www.instagram.com/kellyhays23/