Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail in Sandals: An Interview with Elliot Schaefer

November 07, 2018 5 Comments

Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail in Sandals: An Interview with Elliot Schaefer

Elliot “Ballflap” Schaefer (@elliotschaefer) is bonafide Bedrockin’ thru-hiker who’s just a couple weeks off his finish of the Appalachian Trail. We hit him up with a few questions about his hike, several of which pertain to his impressive feat of hiking the whole trail in two pair of Bedrocks.

We’re happy to be not “just another camp sandal brand,” by designing and building footwear for serious mileage, and outfitting chargers like Elliot. Read below to get the scoop on Elliot's experience hiking in sandals, AT vs PCT,  and other tidbits from the trail.


 

Let’s get this out of the way, where does the trail name come from?

My trail name is Ballflap, I got it on the PCT at Mount Laguna on the third day of my thru-hike. I hadn't trained or anything for the trail while carrying a heavy load and my buddy and I thought it would be a good idea to start doing 20 miles from the get go. It was not! I had a huge blister on the ball of my foot and limped into Mount Laguna. An old army medic who was also hiking helped by cutting the dead skin off while sharing a bottle of tequila. He said "Man you got a fat flap of skin hanging off your foot huh?" His eyes lit up and said "YOU'RE BALLFLAP!" I couldn't really argue that.

 

That seems like a weighted name to carry the rest of the trail! From earlier convos I know you started the trail in Bedrocks but switched to trail runners after the flap, before going back to Bedrocks for the rest of the trail. It seems like this story might be bad marketing for us - what's the story there and why did you go back to hiking in sandals?

 

I loved hiking and just walking around in my sandals before I switched and I wanted to keep hiking in them honestly. The main reason for the switch was to get ready and comfortable with trail runners for the Sierra's as I would have to wear crampons. 2017 was a big snow year for the Sierra Nevada and the snow capped mountains were constantly on my mind while in the desert as I'm from Arkansas and hadn't done much high elevation hiking. After exiting the Sierra and most of the snow in the Northern California section, I wore out the trail runners and went back to my Bedrocks. I had kept them as a camp/town shoe while hiking in shoes and once I switched back to sandals I haven't ever looked back!

 

 

Perhaps someday we'll have a crampon/sandal/neoprene booty option for the High Sierra! Upon completing the PCT, did you know you wanted to continue on and do the AT?

 

People looked at me like I was crazy when I asked if I could attach my crampons to my sandals but I'm still holding out hope! I had no idea. When I finished the PCT I knew there'd be some other adventure on the horizon but was focused on where to go immediately after. I ended up working in Vail, Colorado that winter and around February decided that I wanted to keep hiking and adventuring throughout the world and the Triple Crown was my logical (or illogical) next step. The AT looked to be, logistically and financially speaking, the easiest long distance trail to hike on that short of a notice since I'd be starting the AT in late April.

Feb to April is short notice! Seasonal work is rad that way - it forces you into something new and provides that opportunity to hop into another big adventure with the money you've put away. Hikers talk about the differences between a thru-hike on the AT vs. PCT. In regards to that, what did you find to be true and what did you find to be a misconception after getting on the AT? 

Exactly and mountain communities are a blast to be around as most everyone is out there skiing, snowboarding and living an outdoor lifestyle. There are definitely major differences in the two trails but they're also pretty similar in the day to day aspect of thru hiking. The AT is the physically more demanding without a doubt. The trail is less graded than on the PCT and there tend to be more steep inclines and declines on more uneven terrain, although the trail is much more dangerous on the PCT when the weather turns in high elevations.

The PCT is a prettier trail in terms of views and general grandeur. You're constantly moving from one gorgeous extreme to the next and the West Coast contains almost every type of environment on the planet. One thing that was pretty similar was how tight the trail community was on each trail. Hikers come from all sorts of backgrounds but because we all share a single purpose to hike these long trails, everyone on trail seems to be friendly and understanding that we're all out here on a personal journey during a thru hike.

 

When I’m backpacking (In Bedrocks of course) I get a lot of comments from other hikers about my footwear choice, and sometimes a good deal of flack. What was the frequency of those conversations for you? Any memorable haters?

I get a lot of second glances! I'd say about 1 in 10 people would ask me how I was doing it, why I was hiking in sandals and probably the most frequent question, do I ever stub my toe? (the answer is actually no!) The trend seems to be trail runners right now so most younger hikers were more curious than judgmental but there was an older gentleman wearing big boots in Pennsylvania that insisted that I was going to hurt myself and that you can't carry a backpack without some sort of ankle/foot support. The conversation went in circles, and as he walked away I heard him say something about "hippies."

 

  • I'm laughing as we chat, because that conversation's similar to ones I've had while wearing a load and hiking in sandals. Since we’re talking about sandal hiking, what do you find to be most advantageous about hiking in Bedrocks opposed to shoes or boots?
  •  

    There's a lot of things I prefer, but most importantly it's much more fun in sandals. It feels less like a chore to put on/take off sandals - when walking big miles it seems more like a stroll through the woods! The biggest advantages however are the mobility and flexibility you have with sandals. It's the most natural way we walk without sacrificing any comfort. My feet grip rocks better and it helps strengthen all the bones in your feet as your foot moves just like it would barefoot but with a little protection on the sole. An added bonus is never having to worry about wet shoes and super smelly feet. 

     

  • "Bedrockers have more fun" as we like to say! Most folks are wearing through several pairs of trail runners on a thru-hike. How did you fare against your shoe wearin’ friends?
  •  

    Two pairs! The first pair had around 1,000 miles on it and could have kept trucking while the second lasted me 1,200 miles through rocky Pennsylvania, the Whites and Southern Maine! It's great not having to worry about getting a new pair every few hundred miles and that's not even counting all the town walking, side trails and random side trips that I took. It also eliminates the need for a camp shoe to save some weight for all the ultralighters out there.

    Elliot was one of the first thru-hikers to complete the Appalachian Trail in our Cairn 3D PRO Sandals.

     

    We're stoked you made it in two pairs. You sent the first pair back at Harpers Ferry as we wanted to take a look at how the new 3D pro was holding up after 1000+ miles on the trail. We are pumped on the results, especially considering the number of shoes hikers are wearing through.

    Making a durable, repairable, and re-soleable piece of footwear is high on our priorities when it comes to design + testing. I'll try to make this the last footwear specific question of the interview...But for the folks and skeptics wondering. Were they any moments you wished for some close toed shoes on the AT?

    There wasn't a doubting moment! It was the opposite actually; the AT is such a rainy trail that hiking in sandals during a downpour is much more enjoyable and as anyone that has hiked the AT knows, that tends to happen quite a bit. All of the parts of the trail that I complained about my feet hurting were the same as everyone else; Pennsylvania really does earn its reputation as Rocksylvania and by rocks I referring to shark fin shaped stones that jut out from the ground for miles exactly like the lava rock section of Oregon on the PCT.


    Stoked to hear that! For me the only times have been in loose scree on some summits in Colorado. Closed-toe might have been nice, but at the end of the day my group summited quicker and safer than those in spikes heading up the ice...


    From meeting up at PCT Days last year, I know you were hiking the trail with a crew of friends (many of whom you converted to Bedrocks, thanks!) Did you hike with a group this year or take it more solo?

    Loose rock scrambling is a pain no matter what! The freedom makes me feel like a mountain goat at times. This year I went solo. I met a bunch of inspiring and amazing people along the way and hiked miles with a few of them but this was much more of a solo endeavor for me than the PCT. I tended to move at my own pace on the AT and after already having that cool experience hiking with a group on the PCT, I wanted to challenge myself and see how I could develop and hike as a solo traveler and kind of find different experiences alone. Not any better or worse of an experience, just different!

    Sweet that you've gone both approaches and came out liking each method of long-distance hiking. Where was your head space during those long periods of hiking alone? Do you have any methods of trail entertainment for one?

    Lots of internal dialogue! You really get to work on yourself when you have that much time in your own head and are not distracted by external stimuli. Although that definitely wears on you after being alone for too long. I listened to a lot of podcasts and audiobooks while hiking and at nights, if I didn't pass out right eating and setting up camp, would watch Netflix shows that were downloaded on my phone. Sometimes you yearn to have those real world comforts in the middle of the woods! 

    The weekend warrior might not understand the headphones and Netflix in the woods, but I'm sure most modern thru-hikers do! Could you briefly mention what your highest high and lowest low was on the trail?

    It helps to get away from the bustle of the city and escape to the woods every now and then but when it's your every day existence, having those two feature comforts gives you a nice break from yourself! On each trail there are almost too many highs to count but as for the AT, my lowest point was in Shenandoah National Forest during a night of heavy rain.

    I set up camp near a shelter that was too full in a terrible spot that flooded me out at 2 in the morning. Everything I had was soaked, it was raining buckets and I hadn't gotten any sleep so I just sat there in the pouring rain trying to at least keep my phone sort of dry until dawn broke and I could pack up and leave. Having thru hiked before helped against wanting to quit many times on the AT but I remember asking myself while sitting in the rain cold and soaked to the bone why I was out here and what the hell I was accomplishing when I could be dry inside and not miserable. That experience really taught me that every day is a new day and to keep on chugging because around 1 in the afternoon the next day, the sun started to peek out and I felt immensely better.


    The highest high had to have been my day on Franconia Ridge in the White Mountains in New Hampshire. My friend and I had worked to stay for free hot food at a hut in the Whites. After crushing 9 miles by 12 o'clock to the top of Franconia, we just cruised along the ridge the rest of the day before staying at another hut that night, playing chess and stargazing through a weekend hiker's telescope that they had brought to the hut that night. Incredible and rewarding day.

     
    Both of those experiences sound rewarding in there own right - rewarding to suffer through the rain till the next beautiful day and to have that blissed out experience on the ridge! To wrap things up, can you describe your experience summiting Katahdin?

    It was awesome. Katahdin is a beautiful sight to see as it sort of stands alone surrounded by the Maine wilderness. You can see peaks of other mountains nearby but not close enough that they look like part of the same mountain. It's easily the toughest part of the AT but NOBOs are so focused on finishing that the hike up to Katahdin is almost dreamlike.

    The weather was perfect when I summited and you could see for miles on every side of the mountain. Emotionally it was a mixed bag of pride, accomplishment, loss, longing and contentment all in one. I was overwhelmed with the feeling of accomplishing this goal and shared that sentiment with the other NOBOs at the summit but after hitting that sign and rejoicing for a bit I got a bit sad thinking about the work I put in to get there and all the people I had met along the way and I honestly wanted to start hiking south just to do it again. 

    In that moment at the summit did you start getting excited about your triple crown attempt? Where will your Bedrocks be taking you in the meantime?

    I wanted to jump onto the CDT on the way down from Katahdin! I'll be taking on the CDT next summer with a possible section of the PCT if I can swing it - hopefully internationally after that! Until then I am Bedrocking parts of the OHT in Northwest Arkansas and parts of Colorado while keeping them on hand in my ultimate frisbee bag to put on after the cleats come off.




    5 Responses

    claude diamond
    claude diamond

    November 09, 2018

    I love stories like this; keep them coming.Thank you Bedrock and Ballflap for making running fun again. BTW, I have Bedrocks Cairns and Pro’s that have lasted well over 1500 miles + on my Winter Park, Colorado trails.They are indestructible. I have saved a fortune in traditional running shoe replacement. High end shoes cost $120 to $180 and are only recommended for 250 miles before replacement LOL.

    Jennifer McKee
    Jennifer McKee

    November 09, 2018

    Well, I’m embarrassed to say that I had never before heard of Bedrocks before this week. But I can safely say that a pair are at the top of my Christmas list. I am intrigued! While I’ve never done the whole AT, I have done the TN, Carolina and GA section many times. I’ve had a pair of Chacos that I wear throughout summer on short back packing trips but I learned super quick never to hike in them. My feet(sorry for the TMI, folks) get ALLL kinds of shredded everywhere but the top. And truly, it’s not because I’m stubbing
    my toes but rather after time skin begins to slough of (eew). That especially true if my feet were wet. Don’t get me wrong, I wear them on my farm in TN nearly year round, but hiking in scandals? I would’ve considered you daft before I had read Ballflap’s incredible journey. Now, I’m excited to don a pair and put them to the test! Just need to pay for Christmas for 3 teens/adults first! Regardless, INCREDIBLE journey, brother! Thank you so much for sharing it!! —-mtnmommamckeeof3

    Donna
    Donna

    November 08, 2018

    Love your tale! Congrats on kickin’ ass on both the AT and PCT in your Bedrocks! Would love Bedrock to link to your social media so we can follow your CDT journey.

    I never wore socks with my Cairn Pros but have found I like them with my 3Ds on occasion. I am curious about what percentage of time you wore socks with your Bedrocks and what conditions caused you to decide to put on socks?

    Todd
    Todd

    November 08, 2018

    That’s awesome! Nice job Ballflap!

    I got my first pair of Bedrocks in 2012 about a month before leaving for the AT. I hiked the southern half of the AT and did 250 miles out of my first 500 in my Bedrocks (what are now the Classic Sandals), before I had a clumsy day and tore up my little toe on rocks twice in one day so had to stop wearing them while my toe healed up during the second half of my time on the AT. Anyway, loved hiking in them, and that first pair kept going another two years of constant use after the trail. Been wearing the Classic Sandals as my primary pair of shoes ever since! I always wondered if there were other people who rocked Bedrocks on the AT! One day I plan on getting back out there and either thru-hiking or at least finishing up with the northern half of the AT primarily if not solely in the Bedrock Classics.

    Robin
    Robin

    November 08, 2018

    I followed Ballflap and his PCT Tramily on YouTube (which led me to MY first pair of Bedrock sandals!). Elliot, I’m delighted to see that you rocked the AT and wish you all the best as you tackle the CDT!

    Leave a comment

    Comments will be approved before showing up.

    Sizing Chart