Changing the Pace
By Lucy Higgins • April 7, 2022
After learning how to backpack during the Covid pandemic, Vermonter Maggie Twitchell is changing up her pace. Over the past three years, she’s transitioned from working in the solar industry to creating Backpacking for Slowpokes, a hiking and backpacking guiding service that caters specifically to women and those marginalized by gender. More than that, Twitchell says, the new company is “for folks who are always at the back of the pack, who don’t say ‘yes’ to going with their friends hiking because they’re always slow.” The goal is to create responsible and empowered backpackers, and to make backpacking feel accessible and safe for woman-identifying individuals.
Twitchell’s idea to create Backpacking for Slowpokes sprung from a simple interaction in the trail. She was on a day hike with a close friend, when a woman through-hiking the Long Trail (Vermont’s state-long hiking trail—and the oldest long-distance trail in the country) happened to cross their path. “I just thought, you’re walking 270 miles in that body? You’re allowed to? Then I thought, it’s not about your body, it’s about your mind,” Twitchell remembers, reflecting on how eye-opening it was to see a woman who looked like herself undertaking such a trip.
That representation started a flood of questions for Twitchell. “I knew I could put one foot in front of the other, but could I stay out overnight? Could I worry about a bear, or a dude alone in the shelter? Could I walk for three days straight without seeing anyone, is my mental health strong enough to sustain that length of solo? Would I get lost?”
Twitchell answered her questions with action. She began to experiment with overnight hikes and slowly updated her once-light, now-considered-heavy hiking equipment. By the fall of 2020, she at through-hiked the Long Trail in its entirety. By then, the idea for Backpacking for Slowpokes had begun to form, and Twitchell transitioned to guide-mode: updating her own skill-set by working for the Green Mountain Club, earning her Wilderness First Responder certification, and becoming part of the Vermont Outdoor Guide Association and Waterbury, Vermont’s Backcountry Rescue team.
Backpacking for Slowpokes began operations in 2021. Twitchell focuses on accessibility, including everything from providing gear to participants to making sure the trail route, pace, and conversations are comfortable for all. “As soon as they register, I open up dialogue,” she explains. That looks like a Zoom call with everyone involved on the trip about three weeks before the trip takes place. From there, Twitchell takes them through the trip’s itinerary before opening it up for questions. “I cover everything, including things like how to pee in the woods, so they know that no question is too weird,” she says, laughing. It may be a small factor of hiking, but it’s breaking down barriers like this that makes her business model so welcoming.
“It’s not about huge survival skills and backpacking techniques. It’s about getting you on the trail responsibly and making you feel amazing about yourself and your body and your mental health.”-Maggie Twitchell, Founder
From there, Twitchell shows participants everything in her backpacking kit, addressing logistics about how to pack and what products seem to work best for her—comfort level surrounding gear is a bottleneck, she’s found, that can be solved with open and patient conversations. After another more motivationally focused check-in a week prior to the trip, the group gathers at Twitchell’s own home.
Twitchell’s first group itinerary is a nine-mile hike, complete with an overnight on the trail. For most folks, this is the first time they’ve slept in the woods. And while the pace of the hike and the day itself may be slow for many hikers, for these groups, that’s the whole point, Twitchell explains. “This isn’t a competition,” she says. “For them this isn’t slow, it’s hard work. [Groups] are really appreciative of the pace, the length, the style.”
And for Twitchell, guiding is a service unto itself—a lesson that she also belongs out on the trails, and that there’s no set pace, or personhood, who deserves to be trail-bound over another. “Each time I do this, I chip away at the imposter syndrome in my head,” she notes. “It’s not about huge survival skills and backpacking techniques. It’s about getting you on the trail responsibly and making you feel amazing about yourself and your body and your mental health.”
Photos courtesy of Maggie Twitchell / Backpacking for Slowpokes