Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago Sam Schild had typical encounters with the outdoors, weekends filled with soccer games, cannon bombs in the pool, and the occasional bike ride. Though there were beautiful trails scattered about, spaces of wilderness and peaks surrounded by crisp air were hard to come by. Naturally, this left Sam craving a sense of adventure.
After graduating high school, Schild dedicated more time to biking, which quickly went from riding across town, to touring 1,100 miles around Lake Michigan, to his roughly 7,000-mile ride across the country. Through these bike tours, Schild was exposed to landscapes he’d never seen before. Mountain ranges, red rock, and lushly forested trails became ingrained in his mind, and he craved more.
As his love for exploring the outdoors continued to blossom he began to explore other activities. He soon discovered that bike riding often takes you away from the most scenic routes, so he started backpacking, and eventually relocated to Colorado where he’d have plenty of biking and hiking trails at his disposal.
In 2017, Schild, better known as Sia (pronounced sigh) on the trails, stuffed a 70L backpack with anything he thought he might need and took on the Colorado Trail. Though this was familiar territory for Sia, tackling the trail on foot would be a different journey entirely. As is to be expected with thru-hiking for the first time, his journey was slow but steady and filled with knowledge that would come in handy for the next time around.
Soon after his completion of the Colorado Trail, he embarked on hikes that were closer in mileage to his bike touring days. First came the 2,650 mile PCT in 2019, he then had plans to take on the CDT in 2020, when COVID hit. Postponing his thru-hike for 2021 left him without an adventure to look forward to. So, he revisited the Colorado Trail and squeezed in those 500 miles as summer came to an end.
The more Sia explored these uncharted territories, the more he fell in love with the tranquility that accompanied them. Suddenly life had gotten easier yet more challenging, stable yet vulnerable, and amidst theses contradictions he found peace and a sense of belonging.
Once the summer of 2021 came around he set off for the CDT and reached the Southern terminus in late October. With all of these miles under his belt, he reflected on what brought him back. “One of my favorite things about thru-hiking is the time spent moving in between the highlights. You don’t have to think about where you’re stepping. You don’t have to think about much at all. You don’t feel compelled to be constantly taking pictures. You can just listen to where your mind goes. Over the years I’ve come to love these in-between moments, even though they can be mentally difficult. I think that’s because it’s reassuring to know that I can still handle the mental challenges.”
Some might say that thru-hiking is equal parts a mental and physical challenge, however, the miniscule advantage to the physical aspect comes down to how much gear you have on your back. While some prefer a heavy pack to not go without luxury items, others prefer a more minimalist approach. Sia can admit that he started off packing a bit heavy, but since completing his first thru-hike prefers sticking to the simple things, or in his words, “whatever keeps you alive and comfortable.” For him, it’s all about a quality tent, a warm quilt, headphones, and hiking with a mid-layer. In terms of nutrition, overnight oats are always his go-to, alongside tuna, ramen, trail mix, and peanut m&ms.
None of these realizations would have come without trial and error, and that’s a big part of thru-hiking. At least the first couple of times around. Sia mentioned, “I did almost no research and planning before the PCT. The little bit of planning and research that I did, didn’t work out. You can’t plan for a thru-hike really. You can only be prepared to handle whatever is going to happen.”
Aside from confirming that everything is working as it should be, Sia recommends taking your gear on a few day hikes or backpacking trips before starting a thru-hike. As well as, “being in good shape at the beginning–you’re going to have a lot more fun if you aren’t huffing and puffing early on when there’s already a lot to get used to out there. The more time you spend outside on shorter adventures before your hike, the better. Most thru-hikes are very challenging from the outset. And, most thru-hiking injuries tend to happen early on to those who thought they’d get in shape by just getting out there. How are you going to hike 20 miles between water sources and take it slow at the beginning of your hike? You just can’t do both.”
If you thought Sia would be ready for a break, think again. His streak of adventuring continues this year as he takes on the 2,696 miles Great Divide mountain bike trail. This trail stretches from Banff, Alberta, Canada, to New Mexico with a total ascent of 149,664 M! He’ll be riding his trusty Surly Ogre, and will be “training” by using that bike in place of his car all winter long.
This spring, he’ll also be tackling the Grand Enchantment Trail, a 770-mile backpacking route of the southwest which that spans from Phoenix, AZ to Albuquerque, NM. This hike wasn’t planned until very recently. But, he thinks that when the opportunity arises to hike a lesser-known long trail before it becomes popular, you have to take it.
His adventure plans don’t stop there. He’s also considering his first thru-hike abroad. The roughly 420 mile, history rich, Jordan trail- which was used by Moabites, Edomites, Ammonites, Nabatean merchants, and the Roman Empire for trading purposes.
As for the more distant future, Sia hopes to complete the final leg of the triple crown, the Appachian trail in 2023 and maybe even go after an FKT.
To follow Sia’s many journeys follow him on Instagram @sia_lizard