Chris Cage shows us the life-changing and empowering effects of taking time out of our busy lives to explore the natural world. In 2012, Cage quit his accounting job and embarked on a two-year adventure that involved traveling 10,000 miles across Asia, teaching English in Thailand, volunteering at an orphanage in Cambodia, riding 2,000 miles on a bike tour of New Zealand and hiking six months across the entire Appalachian Trail..
His travels inspired him to become the author of How to Hike the Appalachian Trail: A Comprehensive Guide to Plan and Prepare for a Successful Thru-Hike, the host of the Hiker Jam podcast and the founder of a successful outdoor recreation nutrition company, GreenBelly Meals. In the following interview, I speak with Cage about how his travels allowed him to live the adventurous lifestyle he had always dreamed of and led to a successful business career.
[TAYTE POLLMANN] What was your inspiration behind leaving your job and embarking on a two-year adventure?
[CHRIS CAGE] I wanted to have the experience of really being out there. I had done many backpacking trips before this, but I had never felt completely remote or flexible and open with my travel plans. I wanted an open-ended, extended travel and to get out to remote areas and explore the world. That was my goal. I knew I didn’t want to be in an accounting cubicle for the rest of my life, so I saved up enough money for this trip and made it happen. Since then, I’ve done several smaller backpacking trips in the US and overseas.
[TAYTE] For someone completely new to thru-hiking, how does one start? What are a few common routes?
[CHRIS] Most thru-hikers don’t have much experience in backpacking or thru-hiking. I would recommend finding hikes close to home and going for weekend backpacking trips. Many people have never done backpacking trips, so I’d advise checking that box before doing a multiple month thru-hike such as the Appalachian Trail. There are plenty of shorter thru-hikes such as the John Muir Trail, Arizona Trail or other treks that take closer to a month to complete.
[TAYTE] Let’s talk about food weight and calories and how to manage these things on a long thru-hike or “fast-packing” adventure. What are some misconceptions or mistakes you see first-timers make when it comes to food weight and calories?
[CHRIS] Bring the right amount of food. Most people tend to err on the side of bringing too much food and the wrong type of food. You should be very intentional about the foods you bring and generally the rule is two pounds of food per day. Many people forget that it’s important to have nutritious greens and I will usually bring kale chips or other “green-based” snacks. Most people focus on highly processed shelf-stable foods.
You should also have a variety of food, which can mean sweet, savory, salty and in general have foods that you enjoy so eating doesn’t feel monotonous. Variety can also mean texture. Many trail foods are “mealy” in texture and I make sure to include crunchy foods as well, such as potato chips.
[TAYTE] Are you familiar with the concept of “fastest known times?” Is this something that inspires you? In your own adventures are there times when you enjoy pushing the pace or do you prefer to take your time along the way?
[CHRIS] I’m familiar with Fastest Known Times and some of the amazing thru-hiking route FKTs such as when Karl Meltzer set a speed record on the Appalachian Trail. For me personally, I never think about pushing the pace. I’m more focused on the pursuit of the trip and the adventure as opposed to chasing physical limits.
[TAYTE] What is one essential tip or common mistake to avoid for a first-time thru-hiker?
[CHRIS] Planning and budget. Many people embark on thru-hikes with a misunderstanding that it will be a whimsical frolicking through the woods when in reality it’s a very high demanding experience on your body and mental state. When you embark on a thru-hike, you are basically replacing your nine to five job with hiking everyday. That can wear on some people who are not mentally prepared for it. I also think many people are unaware of how much it costs and risk running out of funds halfway through the hike.
[TAYTE] You are the host of the Hiker Jam Podcast. You’ve had several very interesting guests including Mike Pfotenhauer, the founder of Osprey Packs, New Zealand based adventure filmmaker Elina Osborne, and a familiar name in our trail running community, the “Speedgoat” Karl Meltzer. Could you talk about your inspiration behind this podcast? Do you notice any similarities among your guests or common personality traits/motivations among these very dedicated thru-hikers?
[CHRIS] The inspiration for the podcast came from wanting to connect with interesting people in the hiking world. Many hiking podcasts tend to focus on the journey itself and experience of the hike. I like that focus as well, but I wanted my conversations to be more about the individual and to explore broader topics. I wanted to also focus on people in the outdoor business world, such as Mike Pfotenhauer, and explore successful business practices in our industry. At the end of the day, I just wanted to talk with interesting folks in our industry whether that’s about starting a business or breaking a record.
One similarity that I notice between all of my guests is that they are unconventional. Their life-path is not typical. They do not have a stereotypical job and play on weekends. They all seemed to carve their own path in life.
[TAYTE] You have many engaging posts on your Instagram to inspire your audience to get outdoors on adventures. I’d love to talk about your recent post of a chart that measures feelings of purpose and fulfillment among three options: “1. Money 2. Status 3. Quitting your job and hiking for 6 months.” Could you talk about the empowering/life-changing effects of taking time off work to thru-hiking for several months?
[CHRIS] Thru-hiking undoubtedly changed my life in so many ways. I gained a much deeper appreciation for nature, I learned to appreciate solitude and to be away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Before thru-hiking, I felt like I was on someone else’s trajectory in life and after doing it I felt I was in charge of my life.
Learning to live simply is another major reason to consider thru-hiking. One of the many reasons I still love backpacking is that by depriving yourself of many of the comforts we become used to in society, we learn to further appreciate the things in life that really matter. We realize how unnecessary some of our luxuries are (such as leather seats in a car!). It’s a good recalibration to go out in the woods and get rid of the things in life that you think you need.
[TAYTE] You saw a need for a product that could provide easy, nutrient-rich foods to people on long adventures and founded GreenBelly Meals in 2014. Has founding this company been what you expected?
[CHRIS] It was definitely not at all what I expected. When I finished my two-year adventure travel, I thought I had two options for my life. The first would be to go back to accounting or some other corporate job to make money. The other avenue was to continue traveling. Both had huge pros and cons. Obviously, I wanted to travel, but there was no way to have enough money to do that. GreenBelly became this dream third option. It was a way to make money, challenge myself intellectually and professionally, but also be able to maintain the lifestyle I wanted. Thankfully, it ended up working out. I wanted to work from anywhere and be able to live overseas and work in industries that I care about such as the food and outdoor industries. My hope was to be traveling and working and GreenBelly did fulfill that.
I didn’t expect it to turn into a proper business. I expected it to be enough just to fuel my life-style, not build a career and profitable business out of. In that sense, it’s grown into something that I didn’t expect. I still think we maintain our original mission to fuel adventure, use clean ingredients, focus on high nutrition and the same outdoor market and backpacking community. We’re coming up on seven years now as a company which is exciting.
[TAYTE] How do you decide on flavors for your GreenBelly Meals products? How do you make sure not to let flavors go “dull” over the course of a long thru-hike?
[CHRIS] Hopefully, they have not gone dull! We started out with three flavors and added two more over the years. When you pack food for your hikes, you should make sure you have a variety such as sweet and salty, as well as many different textures. We’ve done our best to create a good variety of flavors and have the following bar flavors: cranberry almond, peanut apricot, dark chocolate, mango cashew coconut and our most recent spicy caramel. We also added a new line of products, “Mud Meal” to have a “creamy” texture and high-calorie beverage powder. The Mud Meal is especially great in terms of calorie-to-weight ratio.