On the Record

Taking the long road, the fast way


THE OLDEST ESTABLISHED stretch of the Ozark Highlands Trail bends, dips, submerges and climbs for 165 miles through what’s arguably the most rugged terrain in Arkansas. Experts claim the entirety of the trail can be hiked in 10 to 14 days by experienced hikers. Last November, Jackson Spencer and Dylan McAlister did it in 4.5 days.

They’d set off in pursuit of the speed record for unsupported thru-hike of the OHT. Dylan, a veteran hiker with miles of the OHT already under his belt, decided to join last-minute, but Jackson had been planning to tackle the record for a while. His motivation was twofold: to inspire the outdoor and hiking community in Arkansas, and to promote awareness of the OHT, which he hopes will eventually connect to the Ozark Trail in Missouri to create one of the longest marked hiking trails in the country.

A northeast-Arkansas native, Jackson can best be described as an adventurer. He’s hiked across sections of Europe, the Appalachian Trail and various other trails in the U.S. “Of all my adventures, the ones by foot have been my favorite,” says Jackson. “Walking allows me to be fully immersed and grants me a view of the world at a slower pace.”

“Slower pace,” though, is a relative term—4.5 days breaks down to roughly 36.6 miles and 16 hours of hiking per day. Jackson’s knee started “complaining” on the first day; by the second day, it was locked up. Meanwhile, Dylan had blisters on his feet and a bum knee as well. There were other challenges, too, like finding water. “Typically, you’d cross several running creeks a day,” Jackson says. “But we hadn’t seen much rain that month, and everywhere we stopped was either dry or stagnant. So we changed the schedule, accepted the fact that we’d have to carry extra water, relied on some luck, and the expedition pressed on.”

The most grueling aspect of a long-distance hike, however, is the mental perseverance necessary to see it to completion. “Hiking can be physically demanding,” Jackson says, “but if you don’t have the head and the heart to endure everything the trail is going to throw at you, she will eat your lunch. Being cold, wet, hungry, hurt and exhausted, and knowing we had miles and miles to cover before we could rest, made it difficult to push forward.”

But push forward they did, thanks in no small part to the spirit of community they found out there, far from neighborhoods and towns. A jug of water left beside the trail was a godsend. “We assumed someone had left it for hikers because that section of the trail was particularly dry,” says Jackson. “At one of the hardest sections of the trail, we found a few cans of food,

either left intentionally for us or by a previous hiker who’d decided to lighten his load. Either way, we ate it and felt wonderful.”

All in all, Jackson says, the trip was one of his most difficult adventures. “I got to experience the full spectrum of the trail,” he says. “I saw her in dark and in light. I saw her hot and cold, dry and wet. I saw her smooth and well-blazed. I saw her rough and overgrown. I saw her for everything she was, and that’s what you get with any thru-­hike—a very intimate relationship with the trail.”

Gear Head

In the weeks leading up to his unsupported speed-record thru-hike of the Ozark Highlands Trail, Jackson Spencer fine-tuned his equipment needs and tested the system repeatedly for maximum efficiency. “The preparation is sometimes just as exciting as the hike,” he says, noting that it’s important to carefully think about each piece of gear you bring along. Here’s a rundown on what Jackson takes with him into the woods.

MSR Hubba NX 1-Person Tent

“I forego space and weight by sticking with this tent instead of a hammock or tarp tent, but I have a solid and reliable shelter. At the end of the day, that’s more important to me than a few ounces.”

Fits Medium Hiker Crew Socks

“No questions here—Fits are my go-to sock. They’ve protected my feet on the Camino de Santiago and the Appalachian Trail.”

Black Diamond Trail Back Trekking Poles

“The two main things I look for in trekking poles are an aluminum build and a flip-style locking mechanism—the Trail Backs have both. I believe trekking poles are the most underutilized hiking tool in the industry. People either use them incorrectly or forgo them all together, and I think it’s one of the biggest mistakes.”

Mountain Hardwear Hyperlamina Spark Sleeping Bag

“For a 32-degree bag, it’s super lightweight with great loft.”

Icebreaker Oasis ½ Zip Long-Sleeve Shirt

“I’m a big fan of Merino wool. It’ll keep you warm when it’s cold and cool when it’s warm. It also doesn’t hold onto odors as much, which can be a good thing when spending days out in the backcountry.”

Suunto Core Watch

This is the perfect watch for any hike. It has all your basic functions, along with a barometer, altimeter and compass. It will give you elevations, allow you to log multiple trips and keep you heading in the right direction. The only kicker is it doesn’t have GPS, but without it, you get a much longer battery life.”

Therm-A-Rest Neo Air Xlite Sleeping Pad

“Although these things are a pain to inflate at the end of a long, hard day, it’s way better than trying to sleep on solid ground. And compared to traditional roll-up mats, this thing takes up a fraction of the space.”

Sawyer Water Filter

“I became acquainted with this bad boy on the Appalachian Trail. This is the lightest, smallest, quickest-producing water filter I have ever seen or used.”

Brooks Cascadia 10 Trail Runners

“They’re lightweight and dry a lot faster than your traditional boot.”