Interview with Melissa Johnston – a Vegan Pacific Crest Trail Hiker and Author of Forest Filth Blog

Hi all! Today I’m thrilled to bring to your attention my interview with Melissa Johnston – a vegan adventurer and author of the now-defunct Forest Filth blog and the popular @forestfilth Instagram account who has recently finished the thru hike of the legendary Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). At only 19, Melissa planned out her journey to cover the entire 2650 miles of the trail spanning from Mexico to Southern Canada, and successfully completed it by herself in the span of 5 months. Today Melissa has agreed to share her experience with the readers of Vegan Runner Eats, and give the aspiring PCT thru-hikers a few tips on how to do this as a vegan.

To read more about Melissa’s Pacific Crest Trail experience, check out her blog where she logged her journey almost daily during the hike. For more of Melissa’s everyday adventures, follow her on Instagram.

Desert section of the Pacific Crest Trail early in Melissa’s journey

AZ: Tell us about yourself: Where are you from originally? How did you develop an interest in hiking?

MJ: I was born and raised in Southern California. Even with living so close to busy Los Angeles, I was still able to get my dose of adventure each day. I fell in love with the desert. Particularly Joshua Tree, my home away from home. There, I began backpacking, hiking and climbing. I also enjoy nature photography and cooking in my spare time.

What inspired you to go vegan? How long have you been vegan?

I have been a happy, healthy vegan now for three years! It was a documentary called Food Inc that I watched in high school that opened my eyes to cut out meat, which later evolved into veganism. I read blogs, watched documentaries, videos and read books until I realized the importance of going vegan.

A trail meal of refried beans, fresh avocado and Cholula hot sauce

How did you decide to hike the Pacific Crest Trail?

Right out of high school at 18 years old, I embarked on a month-long road trip through 10 states and 20 national parks with my dog, Ripley. One of our stops was Crater Lake, where I ran into three girls who I later found out were thru hikers of the PCT. They were sharing their trail story with another curious fellow, and I couldn’t help but listen. That moment, I knew I was going to to hike the trail. I went home, did my research, started buying gear and saving up for my thru hike. Less than a year later, I found myself at the Southern Terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail.

What kind of research did you do to prepare for your through hike? How long did it take you to prepare? Did your being vegan call for any special planning?

It took me eight long months of researching, saving and planning for my hike. I worked two jobs back to back and saved every penny I could. I prepared by taking small trips through Joshua Tree, Mt. Baldy and Big Sur, testing out gear and figuring out what my body liked and disliked. Vegan meal planning really wasn’t too difficult. I pre-bought most of my food and prepped it all in boxes for my family to send to post offices in nearby towns when needed. I found that method to be best since most stops along the trail had very minimal vegan/healthy options. While the majority of thru-hikers’ diets consisted of pop-tarts, snickers bars and 2lb chunks of cheese, mine consisted of an array of tasty dehydrated fruits, soups, lentils, beans, noodles, hummus, oatmeal, nut butters and awesome vegan snacks and bars, along with some vitamins and healthy drink mixes.

Enjoying a snack package sent by a friend

Wild blueberries and huckleberries make for a delicious snack on the go!

Did your through hike go as planned? Can you tell us any interesting stories that happened to you? What did you learn from your experience?

When I decided to hike the trail, I was actually going to have a partner. Months later, that didn’t follow through and I decided to go solo. I was excited to be alone out there for the most part, to learn about myself, face my fears and grow. I faced my fears of darkness, loneliness and predator animals. In the beginning, I was dreadfully afraid of seeing bears or mountain lions. Soon enough, I hoped to see one every day! Seeing bears and other animals in their natural habitat became exciting to me. It was beautiful! One day, I was hiking and these guys were stopped ahead of me, waving at me. I smiled and waved back to say hello. They shouted at me, and started flailing their arms around. I was so confused. It took me a minute to realize they were trying to point out that there was a bear only 5-10 feet away from me. Somehow I didn’t see him! I was excited and wanted to take photos, but realized I needed to get the heck out of there and shoo him away! He wandered off after a bit of shouting.

Crossing Knife’s Edge in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, Washington State

Can you give any tips to people (vegans in particular) who are aspiring to hike the PCT?

My tips for vegan thru-hiking:

  1. Buy a great variety of foods – you’ll quickly become tired of the same old thing each day! For a future long distance hike, I want to take more time to make and dehydrate my own meals and buy in bulk rather than pack out wasteful packaging.
  2. Drink and carry more water than you think you need. Dehydration is a real thing, and water is beyond important when it comes to keeping your body happy and healthy on the trail.
  3. It’s fully possible to find all synthetic gear. I had a synthetic quilt and no wool, down or leather in my shoes or clothing. I made it out just fine! And my pack was still lighter than most folks out there using down and other non-veg products.

Melissa’s tried and approved vegan-friendly gear list (also see her gear/weight breakdown here):

Backpack – Osprey Exos
Poles – Black diamond distance carbon Z
Shelter – Z Packs Hexamid Twin
Sleeping pad – Neo-Air Xlite Small
Sleeping bag/Quilt – Enlightened Equipment Prodigy Quilt 20°
Cooking gear – Snow Peak mug with Esbit stove, foil wind screen, Sea to Summit titanium Spork
Water – Sawyer squeeze and two 2l Platypus Bladders with Platypus hose

Main Clothing:
Patagonia Nano Puff jacket
Outdoor Research Helium II rain jacket
Patagonia Capeline top and bottoms base layers for sleeping
Black Diamond liner gloves
Darn tough Coolmax socks (only non-wool option from darn tough)
Zpacks Rain Skirt

Favorite shoes – La Sportiva Wildcats

Very useful extra gear – Liteflex swing sun umbrella, Buff, and Z-seat

Finally reaching the Northern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail (US-Canada border)

What’s next for you – any plans for future hikes, trips, etc.?

The post-trail life is strange. I miss it every day. After the trail, I drove my old Volkswagen Westfalia camper van to Minnesota, where I’ll be until I have enough money saved to travel for as long as I can out of my van, through the US and hopefully South America! In the mean time, I plan on section hiking the Superior Trail (around Lake Superior), and trying out new adventures like cross country skiing and snowshoeing.

We are all capable of doing anything we truly desire. No animal products? No problem.

To stay in touch with Melissa as her adventure continues, follow her on Instagram. If you know any kick-ass vegan people who have completed amazing feats of physical and mental strength on their journey through life, please let me know, and I’ll be happy to interview them!

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3 thoughts on “Interview with Melissa Johnston – a Vegan Pacific Crest Trail Hiker and Author of Forest Filth Blog”

  1. What an awesome an inspiring read, its incredible to think Melissa did it on a vegan diet and at such a young age. I would have imagined it near impossible but it looks like her planning had her better off than most. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Wow! Great interview Alina. I have started reading Melissa’s blog of her trip. It is fascinating and courageous to contemplate such a trip. I know it is something I would never attempt. After all, I am 70 and not so spry anymore. But, it is fun to live vicariously thru her blog. I did my share of hiking and camping about 50 years ago. Thank you for sharing this inspiring tale with your followers.

    1. Hi Sandy, good to hear from you again! Glad you liked Melissa’s story – I myself am fascinated by her adventure and the strength that it took her to take this journey to completion. And she was only 19 at the time!

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