Photo by Alex Mason
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My Trail Story featuring Puff Puff

Alex Mason, a.k.a. Puff Puff, is a Brit who has made thru-hiking her lifestyle. From hiking the Pacific Crest Trail to the Te Araroa to the Appalachian Trail, there's endless possibilities for what's next.

Natalie McMillan      My Trail Story       03/28/2019
Natalie McMillan
My Trail Story

Trail name

Puff Puff

How old are you?

36 years old

What trail(s) did you hike?

  • Pacific Crest Trail NOBO 2015
  • Pacific Crest trail SOBO 2016
  • Te Araroa 2016/2017
  • Appalachian Trail 2018
A woman jumping on a rock with her legs and arms out.
“Puff Puff” Photo by Alex Mason

What was one thing you wish you knew before you started?

I actually wish I knew less. I spent a lot of time researching my first hike on the PCT, and I was happy that I did because it made me less nervous before my hike. But in hindsight, not knowing what’s ahead is pretty exciting and you learn so much as you go along.

How did you get your trail name?

I really don’t like being cold so I carried a puffy vest and a puffy jacket. My puffy jacket was a lot puffier than most peoples and it was a British brand so it stood out from all the Mountain Hardwear ghost whisperers. This lead to me having the trail name Puff Puff. I also get called Puff, Puff Squared, Puff2, Puff Diddy…

What was the funniest thing that happened on your trip?

One of my favorite moments on the Appalachian Trail was in Maine in the 100 Mile Wilderness. We were on high alert for moose and convinced we would see one near a lake as people kept telling us the best chance of seeing one would be near water. We camped quite close to a lake one night and around 2:00 in the morning we were woken up to the sound of splashing in the lake. My first thought was that it was a moose and it would be really stupid to get out of the tent to investigate. My friends on the other had thought it would be a great idea to go down to the lake and check out the moose. I had major FOMO (fear of missing out) and there was no way I was going to just stay in my tent while they saw a moose, so we all put on the red lights on our headlamps and crept down to the edge of the lake. The sound was exactly like an animal walking up and down the lake, splashing about, having a nice time. I was convinced we were about to come face to face with a moose.

When we got there, there was nothing there. Absolutely nothing. Except for the gentle lapping of the small waves onto the shore – which at 2:00 am sounds like a moose in the lake.

It makes me smile every time I think back to the elusive Lake Moose.

A woman hiker standing next to the Mt Washington Summit sign, holding her trekking poles up.
Photo by Alex Mason
Two women hiking in a very green forrest.
Photo by Alex Mason

What was your favorite food on the trail?

I struggle with food on the trail. I don’t like nuts and lots of hiker food has nuts in it. I end up existing on mainly sugar, which seems to be ok while you are hiking because you burn it off straight away, and I always end up losing about 20 pounds by the end of a trail, but it also comes with big crashes in energy. I also get obsessed with some foods and eat them so often I eventually get so sick of them I never want to see them again. Tuna is a good example of foods I don’t think I will ever be able to eat again. So far I have never got bored of chips (crisps) or Twix bars. I think I ate two Twix bars every day on the Appalachian Trail. Normally I would always go for a flavored chip but on the AT I craved really plain but salty food so just plain salted were my go to (always go for ridged / wavy chips because they are more structurally sound). It must have been something to do with how much I was sweating.

I carry a stove, but sometimes I bounce it ahead when I get sick of all the things you can eat in it. I like to eat the dehydrated meals but I only buy them occasionally because they are expensive, and a lot of them aren’t that great. The best one I’ve ever had is the Thai Curry from Good To-Go — I wouldn’t have been disappointed if I have been served it in a restaurant.  

What advice would you give to someone who has never done a thru-hike before?

There will be bad days, days you question what you’re doing, days when it feels easier just to give up. Never quit on a bad day. The times you feel like giving up are often when you are cold, wet, tired or hungry, or in the worst situations you will be a combination of, or all of them. But all these things can be fixed, you can warm up, dry out, eat and sleep and you will feel so much better.

A woman doing a headstand on a hill with beautiful mountains behind her.
Photo by Alex Mason

What does thru-hiking mean to you?

Thru-hiking has become a lifestyle rather than an adventure. Lots of people say “Oh, Alex is off on an ‘adventure’ again,” but I don’t really see it like that anymore. It’s just the way I am choosing to live my life. I would rather be outside than inside. I would rather every day be different than get stuck in the routine of the daily grind. I would rather battle against my own personal challenges than have to deal with battling against other people in an office. Hiking or walking is the purest way of getting from A to B, and the speed of travel allows you to see things that you wouldn’t otherwise get to see. It also has a purpose and I like to travel with a purpose.

Would you do another thru-hike? If yes, which trail is next?

Having ticked off two of the big three trails in America, the Continental Divide trail is high up on the list and is likely to be next. It won’t be this year though unfortunately. This year will be spent planning for a crossing of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans in an ocean rowing boat!

What was the hardest part of your hike?

I guess the hardest part was deciding to do my first hike. I doubted whether I would be able to do it and I put loads of barriers in my way as to why I couldn’t do it. Once you’ve told people you’re kind of committed to doing it then. You have to reassure the people who think it’s too dangerous and you have to deal with the negative people who tell you you won’t be able to do it – but those people, well that one person, only made me want to succeed just to prove them wrong!

What do you wish you had done differently?

I wish I had not gotten so stressed out about time and whether I was going to have enough of it. I wish I had not worried about things that were out of my control. I wish I had not worried about whether other people were going faster than me, or hiking bigger miles than me.

A woman standing on a hill overlooking a lake in the distance.
Photo by Alex Mason
A group of hiker friends hugging.
Photo by Alex Mason

What do you miss the most?

I miss everything about hiking when I’m not hiking. I miss the simple life, having everything you need on your back. I miss setting up my bed in a new location every day. I miss my biggest worry being where my water is going to come from. I miss my friends and all the incredible people you meet along the way who I wish I could spend more time with.

What was your favorite feature in our app?

I have used the Guthook app on the PCT, AT and TA, and I think I would struggle without it now! I love the ability for users to leave comments. It is especially helpful when you are trying to find water and others are able to let you know if a water source is dry or not.

A woman with a party hat standing on a rock on the Appalachian Trail.
Photo by Alex Mason

What was one thing you had to have with you while you hiked?

A pillow. I started without one and I tried to use my puffy, or a stuff sack full of clothes, or an inflated water bladder. But I wasn’t getting a very good nights sleep and I would dribble on my puffy which wasn’t ideal! So I picked up a really lightweight inflatable pillow and I would be lost without one now. I use my buff as a pillow case because I like having something soft next to my face. I also struggle to sleep if I am a bit dehydrated so I will always carry a lip balm because it tricks your body into thinking you aren’t so dehydrated. Then you don’t have to drink a load of water before you go to sleep and don’t have to get up in the night to pee!

Did you hike solo or with other people?

I have hiked solo, with new friends and existing friends, and with a trail romance. I have had positive and negative experiences with all of them. I have started two of my hikes as a solo hiker and I have never had a problem with meeting people and finding people to hike with.

In general I like to hike alone (unless it’s a road walk) and camp with other people.

A woman standing at the edge of a rock cliff on the Appalachian Trail.
Photo by Alex Mason

Why did you decide to go on a thru-hike in the first place?

I was bored of what I was doing. I was working as a graphic designer in London and people would get so hung up on stupid things like whether to use this shade of grey or this slightly different shade of grey. I would spend a lot of time questioning whether that was really important in the grand scheme of things. I also hated my daily commute.

I wanted to take some time off and do something big, but often big trips have a big price attached to them, and they are over too quickly. When I discovered thru-hiking it was the perfect mix of physical challenge, time, and cost compared to time away from home. Thru-hiking isn’t as cheap as people may think it is, but you can get a 5 month experience for the same as it would cost to spend 3 weeks climbing a mountain for example.

The fact that you could walk across a country, and a country as big as the United States of America, was a notion I just couldn’t get out of my head.

A woman sitting on the Mt Katahdin sign with her arms and leg in the air.
Photo by Alex Mason
A woman standing on the northern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Photo by Alex Mason

What part of the trail was your most/least favorite?

I loved the whole Pacific Crest Trail which is why I hiked it twice, but of course there are some bits that stand out over other bits. The Sierra of course is wonderful (even better if you go southbound and hike when there is no snow), but the whole state of Washington is magical and Northern California isn’t talked about enough.

My least favorite part of the PCT was probably Deep Creek Hot Springs. It was so hyped up before the trail and I was really looking forward to it. What sounds better than a soak in a natural hot spring? But when I got there it was just a bit gross. It is an area which is easily accessible to the general public and in general the general public can be pretty gross. The area is full of trash, but worse than that there is a lot of human poo and used dirty toilet paper lying around. It is such a shame.

My favorite part of the Appalachian Trail is Franconia Ridge. After spending months in the trees you finally get some time above the tree line. The views are wonderful and it is worth waiting for good weather if you have the time and then staying up there for sunset as the sun goes down right behind Mt Washington.

My least favorite part of the AT would have to be ‘the rollercoaster’. You go up and down about 14 times over about 14 miles and when I was there it was just too hot for any part of it to be enjoyable.

It’s really hard to pick a favorite part of the Te Araroa because New Zealand is such beautiful country, there are so many good bits. The TA gets a bad review a lot of the time and a lot of people say don’t bother with the North Island and just do the South Island. I don’t agree with this at all. The trail is still so young and it shouldn’t be compared with other trails which have been maintained and groomed for many more years. The North Island had a lot of great bits – the Tongariro Crossing, the canoe down the Whanganui River, the Maori culture north of Auckland. But if I could only return to one part it would probably be the Richmond Ranges in the north of the South Island, just because I love being in the mountains and above the tree line.

My least favorite part of the TA is probably the very last couple of days which includes a long sketchy road walk down to Bluff. It amazes me that so many people complain about the road walking in the North Island, but the worst road walk is definitely that one right at the end (if you go southbound). You get a lot of logging trucks hurtling by, covering you in bits or spraying you with water.

A beautiful view of mountains with a lake in the distance.
Photo by Alex Mason
A woman looking at a tree that looks like it has a scary face.
Photo by Alex Mason

How many pairs of shoes did you go through?

Not enough! I tend to wear my shoes for a lot longer than I should, until they are full of holes and they have no grip left on the soles. I used 3 pairs for the PCT NOBO and I only used 2 pairs for the PCT SOBO, the AT and the TA. I would recommend changing your shoes more often and you will be less likely to screw up your knees!

Was there a highlight of your hike?

After hiking 9,400 miles on long distance trails in the last four years it is very, very difficult to pick a highlight from all of that. There have been so many wonderful moments. If I had to pick something though, I would pick the moment Catwater and I reached the Southern terminus of the PCT on my second thru-hike. There are very few people who have hiked the trail in both directions and we just became two of them. We were an unlikely pairing — Catwater was a 62 year old Yank and I was a 34 year old Brit. We were trail friends, having met on the PCT the year before on our northbound hikes, but we didn’t really know each other at all. We are different people, and we did have our moments – which were thankfully few and far between – but ultimately we just worked well together. It is often the way when you are hiking as a partnership that when one is struggling the other isn’t, and we were able to pull each other through the hard times. We started with no other expectations on each other than starting at the border of Canada on the same day, and we ended up hiking around two thirds of the trail together.

Two women standing on the southern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Photo by Alex Mason

What was the scariest part of your hike?

My scariest moment was probably on my first thru-hike of the PCT. I was somewhere near Old Station in Northern California, and just south of there is a big exposed burn area. All the trees are black charred stumps and there is absolutely no shelter. The burn was caused by lightening and I was going through at the same time as a big lightning storm. I totally forgot what I was supposed to do in that situation. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be at the highest point, but was I supposed to shelter by a tree or stay out in the open?!

I could feel the lightning around me and there was definitely a strike which was too close for comfort. The trail was a river and I was soaking wet and just hiking as quick as I could to get out of the exposed area. It wasn’t pure fear, but my heart rate was definitely much faster than it should have been. Thankfully we stayed alive to make it to JJ’s Cafe the next day where they served one of the best burgers on the trail!

A view from sitting inside a yellow tent.
Photo by Alex Mason
A woman hanging on the Te Araroa starting sign.
Photo by Alex Mason

Did you ever reach a point where you wanted to quit? How did you stay motivated to finish?

No, I never wanted to quit. I do think that it is an advantage to be an international hiker on long trails because it is harder to quit. Your home is so far away and the logistics of quitting are often harder than actually quitting. But mostly I didn’t want to quit because I loved it so much.

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Pacific Crest Trail

The Pacific Crest Trail is an epic journey of over 2650 miles (4260 km) and is one of the most popular thru-hiking trails in the United States. Its path travels from the US-Mexico border to the northern US-Canada border, passing through California, Oregon, and Washington.

2650 miles
$29.99 full guide
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About the Author
A woman wearing a baseball cap and American flag tank top stands in front of a beautiful view.

Natalie McMillan

Natalie grew up hiking in Arizona where she fell in love with the outdoors. Her favorite hikes are to Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon and Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park, UT. She loves taking pictures of people and places and nature, which might explain why she has almost 23,000 photos currently residing on her phone. She takes care of all things social media/marketing-related and might be seen frolicking around Flagstaff taking photos of the Arizona Trail.