the trail provides

This time last year, I was backpacking the Israel National Trail, a ~ 700 mile hiking trail that stretches from Israel’s northern border with Lebanon to its southern border with the Red Sea (it’s like the Pacific Crest Trail of the Middle East…with a few more camels and a lot more hummus).

It took me 52 days to complete the trail from tip to tail. Each day, I’d hike 15 to 25 miles in the autumn heat, sweat a sh*t ton, drink > 6L of water, consume an unbelievable number of calories, and try my very best not to get sunburned.

Along the way, I made incredible friends, traipsed through stunning landscapes, and marveled at the strength of my human body. Hiking the trail was fun, and a huge privilege…it was also just as grimy, exhausting, and hard (like, really hard) as it sounds.

I’ve thought a lot about “the trail” in the year since completing it. Like most of life’s intense and impactful experiences, I’m still metaphorically “unpacking my backpack” from it all these months later. Especially mid-pandemic, I’ve found myself recalling specific days from the trail more frequently and with a new clarity. Many of these memories parallel, metaphorically, the challenges we face mid-pandemic. And so I draw from them a sense of strength and wisdom that supports me in our new reality.

There’s one specific, taxing, beautiful “trail” day I think about most frequently: Day 46. We (my Israeli hiking partner, Eran, and I) were deep in Israel’s Negev desert. We hadn’t had hit a village rest stop in days, which meant we were exceptionally stinky, down to our final food rations (crushed up chips for breakfast, anyone?), thoroughly depleted of energy after six weeks non-stop on the trail, and hadn’t seen any other humans for…a while. (The great expanse of the desert was certainly not quarantine, but we were isolated with each other. And, this far into 2020, we all know how that can be! 😉

On the morning of Day 46, we packed up camp before dawn to beat the heat and hiked south through a wide canyon. These morning hours were always my favorite…the desert breeze felt cool and dry, the little birdies were chirping in acacia trees, my morning coffee was hitting my system, and a full day of adventure was ahead. As we hiked, I pulled out my phone to document the moment, and flipped the camera to selfie mode…ouch, I thought, I look exceptionally exhausted.

As the sun continued to rise, hundreds of flies began to swarm around us. I’m not sure if it was the pungent smell of our stinkiness or food, or just genuine interest, but they would. not. let. up. We hiked for miles on end with hoards of them in our faces and on our backpacks — not dangerous, but relentlessly annoying. I took lots of deep breaths, channelled all my yoga-namaste-breath-thru-it mindfulness, and “accepted the suck.” This is minor, I reminded myself, and I am fine.

Eventually the canyon narrowed. As we climbed up it, we discovered deep, seasonal water pools. “Let’s just boulder up along the canyon walls and climb around them,” Eran suggested. Uh…couldn’t we just wade through them? I felt a bolt of anxiety – intensified by my exhaustion – shoot through me. Falling in would be inconvenient at best and dangerous at worst.

I tossed a rock in the water to judge depth and struggled to hear it land. Fine, bouldering it is. I followed Eran’s lead, my palms sweaty on the rocks, gravity pulling my heavy backpack and me away from the wall as I clung towards it. Mind over matter.

An hour later, we had made our way out of the canyon and up to the exposed desert plain above. I took out my phone to take a picture of the plain and it was on selfie mode still…I look both relieved and pissed.

By this time it was midday. Normally, at lunch, we would find shade to stop, eat, and nap. But getting through the canyon took longer than expected, and we needed to get to our endpoint by darkness that evening. So we overrode our bodies’ request for rest, and hiked on in the oppressive heat. It felt like Mars.

I ate what was left of my mushy trail mix, and tried to move a little faster in front of Eran to create some space. I was feeling expended, and thus beginning to be overwhelmed by the small things. And as we all know by now, a preventative buffer on hard days = a good idea.

After a few hours, the trail began to slope downwards. We reached a second canyon. I hadn’t noticed this on the map, and my chest tightened. Really, again? There’s better not be water.

Of course, there was water. This time with a series of ladders and ropes previous hikers had attached to the rock to “ease” the scrambling.

Eran went first. I peered over the edge. “Wait,” I called down to him, “but I won’t be able to see the rest of the ladder until I climb over the ledge! I’m not sure how to feel about this…”

He called back up at me, “Well, you don’t have to know how to feel about it. But you do have to come down here for us to get out of the canyon.”

I stalled to take a picture, “ugghhhh…this is really uncomfortable. I want to know what it’s all going to look like before I do it.”

With all the tough love in the world he responded, “Unfortunately, that’s not an option, Cass.”

I stood there at the top, fully depleted. From sun, from miles, from sub-par-nourishment, and from the past 45 days of hiking. Every day of the trail had held enormous challenge of one kind or another – physical, mental, logistical, emotional…but for some reason, the six weeks of hiking prior felt like it crescendoed there. On Day 46. In that moment.

At my wits end, I silently protested: I know discomfort breeds growth. But can’t I be done growing for today? Like, isn’t this enough growth for now?

Eran called up to me again. I sighed, what’s one more thing at this point? I overrode my thoughts, and got my butt down the ladder.

The “best” part, of course, was that after a few more of these ladders, we came to a truly impassable pool. We actually tried to send our packs across it on a rope, which snapped. Then we attempted to swim across it with the packs over our heads, but it was too wide. We realized we’d have to retrace our way up the ladders, of the canyon, and find a different route.

I looked at our water bottles. Near empty. I looked at the sky. Near sunset. We wouldn’t get to our endpoint (where we had bottles of water cached for us) before dark. We’d need to stop for the night miles before that, which meant we’d need to filter this water. I shook my head, realizing the irony of the situation: this water had slowed us down and challenged us all day, and now it was going to provide us sustenance through the night. We filled our bottles with the murky, silty green water, dropped in chlorine tablets, climbed back up the ladders, and returned to the desert plain.

As we navigated the alternative route, the sun sunk behind the Jordanian mountains in the distance. We played with the acoustics of the canyon – calling back and forth to each other to hear our voices echo. And as the sky became lavender, I felt a wave of relief wash over me. Suddenly, I was crying and beaming. Sunscreen and sweat ran down my cheeks.

“Wait, I gotta stop and snap-shot this moment,” I said to Eran. I paused, pulled out my phone, and took a selfie. My face, tanned by weeks in the desert sun. My hair, oily and matted in a bun atop my head. My backpack, grimy and heavy on my shoulders.

I snapped the photo, and we continued down the trail as I cried silently. At the time, I couldn’t fully process why those tears kept coming. Was it relief? Exhaustion? A mix of everything?

It wasn’t until many months later, in fact, as I was sitting at home mid-way into the pandemic, that I realized those tears were signs of growing pains. They were tears of expansion and adaptation and stretching beyond limits day after day after day. They were the break after the crescendo. They were evidence that I had leveled up, that I could tolerate and process more than I used to be able to.

Sitting here now, a year later and eight months into the pandemic, I see all the parallels and metaphors Day 46 and our present. I try to remind myself that these current moments ache so much and so often because I’m being forced to grow at a rapid rate. Moment after moment. Day after day. Without a break. Even (especially) when I don’t want to, even (especially) when I feel like there. can’t. possibly. be. more.

I remind myself that I’m in it. That the epiphanies and connections and silver linings and hindsight will not come until much later. But for now, here I am.

So I’m begging you, gently and persistently, to join me in reminding yourself, too, that this feeling? This is what growing feels like.

INT [belated] gear review

For the prospective Israel National Trail hikers — plus the die-hard gear-junkies and all who find joy from reading about the trade-offs between spoons and sporks — here’s a long delayed gear review on my carefully curated “backpack of things” I carried last autumn along the Israel National Trail (INT).

For context, my trail stats:

  • Israel National Trail, completed North to South (Kibbutz Dan > Eilat)
  • ~ 1090km / ~ 700mi
  • Sept 20 – Nov 10, 2019 (52 days: ~ 47 hiking, ~ 5 rest / weather)

My general gear / packing philosophy:

  • Start with less than you think you need. Add from there.
  • Go light, or go without.
  • Know your weak points and mitigate (e.g. mine: finicky ankle = ankle brace, distaste for long periods of sun exposure = “sunbrella”).
  • “Shiftzur” stuff – שפצור – Hebrew slang used to describe “makeshift or jury-rigged improvements to an existing component” (i.e. modify gear to make it better suit your needs – doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive).

Notes about this list:

  • This is a base weight list (no food / fuel / water included).
  • Some items I switched out midway through – noted in descriptions.
  • Some items I shared with Eran (hiking partner), thus divided weight / excluded weight from my pack – noted in descriptions.
  • For the most part, I LOVED the gear I took – so you’ll read lots of rave reviews here.
  • I recognize this is a higher-end gear list. I have slowly and strategically collected most of this gear over time, and I was also in the position to invest in some new gear pre-trail, too. I recognize this gear isn’t accessible to everyone. And that’s ok! Your hike will be just as fun with whatever gear you have access to. 
  • See bottom of post for spreadsheet with item weights.

More info on my summarized trail experience here, first 140 miles FAQs here, and “day in the life on the trail” here. And now onto the juicy reviews…!



backpack [Gossamer Gear Gorilla 40L] – I will never (likely) use a different backpacking backpack ever again. Small yet spacious, this bag held all of my gear (very comfortably) and allowed me full mobility, comfort, and ease. Pros: large mesh outside pocket (where I stored all my food for easy access), breathable straps, convenient hip pockets, simplified design, pack’s size forced me to be diligent with gear choices. Cons: I pushed the pack’s weight limit a few desert mornings when I added 5-7L of water to my base weight, and after 700+ miles I did see some wear on the straps (to be expected) / mesh. 

pack liner [Gossamer Gear] – I lined my pack with this plastic sheet to protect the gear inside. A garbage bag will do fine also – but this one is virtually indestructible.

quilt [Enlightened Equipment Revelation 20] – Instead of a sleeping bag, I carried a 20 degree F backpacking quilt. I’ve always felt super constrained by mummy bags. The quilt, alternatively, lets me stretch out under it or cinch it up into a bag, which was perfect for fluctuating desert night time temps. I’ve also tested in California’s alpine weather, does great!

sleeping pad [Nemo Switchback] – Fully support using an egg carton sleeping pad versus a blow up pad. Pros: impossible to puncture, never need to repair, ready to throw out on the ground for any lunch break, can be folded into a seat, doesn’t deflate. Cons: depending on your backpack, can add extra bulk outside. Not as cushiony as a blow up (until the blow up pops!). 

pillow [Sea to Summit Aeros Premium– Could have gone without this, but so glad I chose to bring it along versus the old “stuff sack and clothes” route. Pro tip: only fill your pillow 3/4 to allow for a little give, more like a real pillow!

ground cloth [Gossamer Gear Polycryo] – I slept on top of this ground cloth (with my sleeping pad and quilt) while sleeping outside without a tent the first half of the trail. It protected my gear from wear big time

tent [Quechua QuickHiker 2] – Eran and I used this tent (nicknamed “spaceship”!) for the latter half of the desert section. Wind + moisture + bugs had all convinced us that a tent would improve our sleep quality and thus our trail experience. I’m glad he picked it up when he did, as it definitely was not necessary for the North section. I was fairly impressed with this tent style / brand (average compactability, weight, sturdiness), but I’ll probably go with Gossamer Gear, Zpacks, or Big Anges when I invest in a new tent myself.


camp stove [Jetboil] – I despised this piece of gear. The Jetboil’s flame and heat were too powerful and difficult to control. Simmering rice (an essential Israel-hiking activity) was impossible. I did like the Jetboil eating container and cup, but I quickly started sharing Eran’s stove for cooking instead. Post-INT, I bought a stove like his for backpacking, plus a duplicate of his beloved cup

spork [Sea to Summit long handle] – I adored this piece of gear. The long handle was great for digging to the bottom of a cup of rice, it was durable and easy to clean, and super lightweight. However, personal opinion: the fork part of sporks are quite annoying for the relatively small amount of time you actually need to stab something. Since returning, I’ve converted to a spoon version instead for all backpacking needs. 

bandana – I carried one bandana exclusively as a surface for dry food prep / consumption.  This kept a lot of my other surfaces (e.g. sleeping pad, pant legs) clean and also didn’t weigh as much as a plastic plate / additional surface.

lighter – Also carried matches just in case. 


hiking shoes [Altra Lone Peak 4.5 Trail Running Shoe] – For thru-hiking, I can’t rave about using trail runners enough. I’ll never go back to boots. Ever. Pros: trail runners are lighter, breath better (read: less moisture accumulation), save your feet from blisters, dry out easier (if they get soaked), don’t need breaking in, and are overall more comfortable. Cons: lacks ankle support (takes a few weeks to build up ankle muscle strength), tread wears down quicker than most boots. 

camp shoes [Xero Z-Trail sandals– For post-hike evenings, and around-town shoes, these are the best of the best. Pros: lightweight, adjustable (read: wear socks with them), and comfortable (in my opinion, they surpass Tevas, Chacos, Crocs, and SOURCE). Cons: less support than brands listed above, but that’s the point of them!


hiking shirt [Patagonia Capilene Cool Sunshirt] – My gear item MVP. I wore this shirt every single day I hiked. Pros: thin yet durable, incredible sun protection, quick drying, thumb holes to keep sleeves down, anti-chafe, (mostly) odor resistant, easy to wash. This shirt also lasts forever, I’m still wearing it today! Note: some folks like hiking w/ button down shirts (dubbed “bar mitzvah shirts” by Eran) instead because you can unbutton them for air ventilation. 

hiking pants [Outdoor Research Ferrosi] – Long pants are essential for sun protection. I hiked in the tan version of these pants 90% of the time. Pros: kept my legs protected and cool, stretchy, soft, easy to wash. Cons: seams started fraying (between legs and on bottom) after ~400 miles, lighter color showed a lot of dirt (if you care about that!)

sun gloves [Outdoor Research ActiveIce Spectrum Sun Gloves] – Small and mighty, these sun gloves saved my hands from long days of exposure on the Negev plains. They’re nerdy and totally worth it. 

hiking socks [Darn Tough Light Hiker Micro Crew– The only pair of hiking socks I’ll ever wear. I carried two pairs for the whole trail, rotating them out as needed. Pros: breathable, odor-resistant, can withstand infrequent washing, no blistering, the company will even send you a replacement pair when your current ones wear out – lifetime guarantee. Cons: NONE. 

gaiters [Dirty Girl] – I HIGHLY recommend adding gaiters to your set-up. Paired with my trail running shoes, these gaiters kept rocks out of my shoes and my shoe laces in check. While my hiking buddies had to stop frequently to remove Negev debris from their boots, I sailed along without discomfort. Plus, they look really dorky and fun. 

underwear [Patagonia Women’s Active Briefs– Thru-hiking underwear preferences varies person to person. I love this style, fabric, and fit. I carried two pairs (one dark pair, that could double as swim bottom) for the duration of the trail. 

sports bra [Patagonia Women’s Barely Bra– Another personal decision, but I’m going on five+ years of wearing this as my exclusive hiking sports bra. Supportive, wireless, chafe-resistant, quick-dry, and can double as a swim top. I started the trail with two of them (one for hiking, one for post-hiking), but I quickly ditched one of them.

t-shirt [Icebreaker Merino Cool-Lite Sphere Short Sleeve Low Crew] – The only shirt I brought (other than my hiking shirt) was this gem of a T. Comfortable, versatile, “dressy” enough not to look like total trash in town, thick enough to wear without a bra (I thought), odor resistant, and resilient as hell. I wore it every day after hiking and to sleep. Highly recommended.

jacket [Patagonia Houdini] – This was the only jacket I carried from Kibbutz Dan to Philip’s Farm. Pros: lightweight, semi-wind-resistant, and a perfect summer evening layer. Cons: runs on the smaller side and doesn’t have pockets. 

jacket [Patagonia Hooded Nano-puff ] – I switched this jacket out for the Houdini at Philip’s Farm (beginning of the desert). Pros: compact-able, washable, resilient, and warm…it provided regulated warmth for desert mornings and evenings as we entered into November. I love the hood and pockets, too! Con: runs on smaller side. 

shorts [Nike Tempo– I only hiked in shorts a few times (not ideal for sun protection), but they were great to wear in town, on rest days, or on warmer evenings. Pros: washed easily, dried quickly (recommend to cut liner out shorts if you’re carrying underwear). Cons: chafing. 

leggings – I started the trail without leggings and purchased a random pair in Arad (beginning of desert section). They were my “camp pants” that I wore post-hike and often slept in. Pros: allowed perfect mobility for stretching out after a long day, good for keeping bugs off, and just warm enough for the autumn evening desert temps. Cons: some folks just don’t like leggings. (Side note: Eran wore leggings under his shorts most days and raved about their sun-protection and anti-chafe ability. A rec for dudes – and ladies!)


toothpaste + toothbrush – I started the trail with one of those fancy two-piece travel toothbrushes…which quickly broke. I replaced it with a kid’s toothbrush. Just as small and light!

hand sanitizer – Essential for when clean hands were essential (e.g. administering first aid). 

soap – Multi-use soap or shampoo, refilled in a reusable mini-bottle. Used for all washing needs.

sunscreen – Purchased along the way. Protect yourself!

hair comb – Lighter and more compact than a travel brush. Necessary for keeping the luscious locks under control. 🙂 

baby wipes – We carried a pack of these for removing sunscreen at the end of the day, and other needs.

tampons – Shoutout to all the period-blessed bad-ass hikers out there. I used tampons, but I wish I had used a menstrual cup like Lunette Cup. After the trail, I started using this cup in daily life, and it’s incredible. On the trail, it would have been much easier and more sanitary than tampons.



guidebook [“The Red Book”] – There are lots of options for navigation along the INT. Eran and I chose to go old-school and (mostly) only use this book and its paper maps (no apps). He had a Hebrew version, I had an English. Pros: accurate, easy to use, thorough…and humbling and humorous! We nicknamed it “Yaacov” after the book’s author. Cons: some folks feel it underestimates the difficulty of sections…I didn’t agree with this, but can see it (Side note: we also made a “Yaacov holder” for Eran’s backpack out of a water bottle, sock, and medical tape, allowing Yaacov to be easily accessible…this is a “shiftzur”!) 

poles / “sticks” [Black Diamond Ergo Cork] – Highly recommend. Pros: durable, adjustable, steady, comfortable cork grip. 

hat [Outdoor Research Sun Runner Cap] – Wore this hat for the first half of the trail, until I lost the back flap part! Pros: maximum sun protection, convertible into ball cap, comfortable. Cons: dorky, limited ventilation, doesn’t allow for periphery vision. 

hat – Picked up a second random hat in Beer Sheva as a replacement (see picture). This one was less dorky (wide brim, flop back) and provided better ventilation, but not as great sun protection.

knife [No.6 Opinel Carbon Steel Pocket Knife] – Sexiest knife alive. It’s cheap, easy to clean, simple to use, and sufficient for everything short of filleting a fish (unheard of in the desert!). 

sunbrella [Gossamer Gear Liteflex Hiking (Chrome) Umbrella] – This wasn’t an essential piece of gear (fairly sure I was one of the first to use it on the INT), but it radically improved my experience / internal temperature when walking in exposed areas for hours on end. Pros: allowed for maximum ventilation (no hat needed), provided shade from waist up, could “shiftzur” to be tied to pack (hands free), helpful for when it rained. Cons: difficult to use in low / narrow clearance areas (e.g. trees, narrow canyons), holding it only leaves you with one hand for a pole, may solicit silly comments from fellow hikers (until they overheat and get jealous!). 

headlamp [Petzl– Simple and functional. Replaced batteries once.

trowel [TheTentLab The Deuce #2– Essential in North when hiking through semi-populated areas and softer ground. Unnecessary in South where feces dry up quickly and you can take care of business far off trail.

first aid [Adventure Medical Ultralight/Watertight 0.7– I heavily modified this first aid kit, but it’s a great starting point. Also removed extra zipper pouch around it to cut weight.

ankle brace [Bauerfeind MalleoTrain Plus] – I have a horrible tendency to twist my ankle. Hiking in trail runners was worth it, but definitely didn’t aid in supporting my ankles. Half way through the trail, Eran gave me his ridiculously high-end ankle brace from the army, which I proceeded to wear every day. Problem solved. 

bandana – I cut a bandana in half diagonally, one part was used as a pee rag, the other as a snot rag. Actually wish I had just carried two bandanas or cut the one I had in half to form two rectangles instead of triangles (triangle tails were annoying to deal with). 

sunglasses – Impossible to go without. 



bladder [Camelback 3L– I carried this bladder for the first half of the trail. It was annoying to fill up, began to leak, and wasn’t ideal for using to transfer water to cook with for meals. Thumbs down.

hydration bottle-top screw-on [Source Convertube] – I switched my bladder out for this contraption at the beginning of the desert. I wish I had used this all along. Pros: easily attached to plastic water bottles we received cached water in, easy to clean, made unscrewing and using water for cooking much easier.


earbuds [Apple cord earbuds] – Opted for earbuds with cords. Wireless earbuds have to be recharge and fall out. 

sat beacon + charger [Garmin inReach Mini] – Pre trail, I thought I might be walking alone for long stretches, so the Garmin came along with me. This is definitely not needed for the the INT (tons of cell reception and people along the way) and more of a tech toy. That being said, if you’re looking for a sat beacon for other trips, I can’t recommend this one enough. Pros: lightweight, superb battery life, insane coverage. 

external battery [Mophie] – Helpful to have for long stretches of days in the desert without phone recharge ability. 

Israeli / Europe USB wall plug in – If you don’t already have one, buy a cheap Israeli / European wall plug (example). I have one with two USB inserts so I can simultaneously charge my phone and Garmin. (Carrying a converter, if you have a different country’s plug in, is extra weight, extra pieces, totally unnecessary.)

watch [Timex Ironman] – Nice to not have to pull out phone to check time. Good alarm. 

phone / camera [iPhone X, charging cables] – Highly recommend taking a phone with an excellent camera. The landscapes are too good not to have pictures of later on!



journal + pen [Moleskine Cahier Journals] – Super fun to journal throughout the trail to document experiences. I love these lightweight paper ones!

wallet [Ziplock bag] – Held drivers license, credit card, Rav Kav (Israeli transportation card), photo copy of passport, some cash. 

wrap / towel [sarong] – I carried a simple, thin, cotton fabric that acted as a towel, changing room, bug-shield, sun-protector, and so much more. 10x better than any expensive / special travel towel you can buy. 

book – I heavily utilized the trail book boxes (lending libraries) and Eran’s generous book loans for trail entertainment. I briefly tried carrying a Kindle and hated it (see “OTHER” section). 

sling-shot – Eran carried a hand-made slingshot for fun. We spent many lunch breaks shooting tiny rocks at other tiny rocks. It was fun to have a unique item on the trail…other hikers carried little stuffed animals, instruments, funky hats, frisbees, or shesh besh (backgammon)!


*Gear I considered taking, but didn’t. Or, gear I had for a hot second and quickly ditched.*

long underwear top + bottom – Unnecessary (too hot).

warm hat / beanie – Unnecessary (too hot).

rain jacket – Umbrella served this function. It only rained a few times when I was hiking (most storms we anticipated and planned rest days for).

anti chafe [Squirrel Nut Butter] – I had zero chafing issues on the trail, but when I do have chafing this is the stuff I use. It’s magic and smells divine.

mosquito net – Used a few times in desert, then ditched in a book box. Flies were more of an issue than mosquitos, and our cotton fabric sarongs were enough to ward them off.

Kindle – Too annoying to have to charge, not much lighter than a regular book from a trail book box, fun to be constrained to the book box selection, plus I simply despise reading on screens unless necessary. That said, two considerations: 1) if you’re not excited about picking up books others have touched w/ current COVID, a Kindle is ideal; 2) if you prefer to read in a language other than Hebrew or English, bringing your own book / Kindle is a good idea.


breakfast – Coffee, oatmeal, honey, chocolate, peanut butter, crackers, sugar, silan (date paste).

lunch – Bread / tortillas, tahini, tuna, cabanos (sausages), crackers, cucumbers, tomatoes, hummus.

snacks – Cookies, nut mixes, sahlab, halva, Lays, Bamba, Apropo, dried fruit, cereal, granola bars, dates, peanut butter, coffee, tea.

dinner – Rice, cabanos (sausages), olive oil, tahini, spices.

favorite town foods – Burgers, vegetables, pastries, popsicles, Krembo, ice cream, eggs, homemade trail angel meals. 

*Also, I’m gluten and dairy intolerant and had zero problems finding safe food to eat on the trail. If you are unfamiliar with Israel, the country is very friendly in this way, even at the gas stations and in small villages! (Also very easy to be vegan or vegetarian on the trail). 

Questions encouraged, and here’s the GEAR SPREADSHEET (w/ item weights)!

Happy hiking.


52 days, 700+ miles, 10 lessons

If you somehow evaded my daily Instagram & Facebook posts from the Israel National Trail, allow me to start by informing you that I finished the whole darn thing. Done! Finito. I’m still kinda pinching myself it’s over.

It took me 52 days to hike 700+ miles from Kibbutz Dan (northern Lebanese-Israeli border) to Eilat (southern tip of Israel). These metrics include a few rest/weather days and exclude an incalculable number of additional miles (the result of getting lost three times a day…minimum). They also exclude the unquantifiable and more memorable aspects of the trail: the boundless generosity of strangers, the vastness of changing landscapes, the challenges of terrain, the joys of friendship, and the lessons learned along the way. I feel so privileged.

I’ve spent the days since I finished the trail playing mental catch-up, slowly digesting an experience that was both radically simple and entirely overwhelming. In an effort to quantify the unquantifiable, I’ve managed to mold what feels like an ocean of thought into 10 semi-succinct takeaways. By sharing these lessons with you, I hope that you’ll more easily recognize them in your own lives (or perhaps re-recognize them, as you’re likely either more aware or more seasoned than I). After all, if the trail taught me anything, it is that when we watch closely, the world unfolds its wisdom around us.

Below, in a classic mix of vulnerability and astute self-deprecation, are 10 takeaways from the trail.

1 🌟 Humor and friendship make everything easier.

“How did you hike 15-20 miles day after day? How did you not get bored? How did you figure things out? How did you keep going?”

My first answer to nearly every “how” question I have been asked about the trail (or, quite honestly, any “how” question I asked myself while on the trail) has been humor and friendship.

Humor softened situations that were objectively sucky (wet shoes), sketchy (getting caught in flood zones past dark), confusing (trail markers pointing the wrong direction), painful (climbing steep sh*t), and disappointing (gas stations without my favorite popsicle!). Humor also softened my perception of myself and my own capabilities. Laughing at my ego and shortcomings kept my typical, semi-serious soul light, motivated, and consistently humbled.

On the trail, the power of humor went hand in hand with that of friendship. I could rave endlessly about the incredible people I met on this Israel go-around, but one friendship undoubtedly rises to the top: Eran, the 23-year-old Israeli who, with the exception of my first five days, I spent the entire trail with. Hiking, problem-solving, planning, cooking, eating, reading, resting, getting sick…day after day, 24/7, it was all done together. The result? Unmatched friendship. A respectful, playful, brilliant, platonically intimate friendship that truly made the hundreds of miles possible and absolutely everything easier.

So my first takeaway? We should laugh often (especially at ourselves) and value friendship above most other things.

2 🌟 Make plans and change plans.

For an avid planner like me, the first half of this lesson was easy to accept. Oh, we need to plan a food resupply? A water cache? Sleeping locations? Routes and reroutes? Transportation? Holiday schedules? Got it. Covered. Lemme make a list, look at a map, read a review, hop on WhatsApp and message a few people. Logistics are my jammmm.

The second half of this lesson was harder to accept, yet it became crystalline so quickly: the most memorable sections of the trail were those for which the plans we had made were changed. Examples? The night we planned on sleeping in a kibbutz field and instead were pulled *literally* off the trail into a family’s home for Shabbat dinner, showers, and a night’s rest. Or the day we planned on making it thru Nahal Tze’elim (a flash-flood prone riverbed) by dark but were slowed by unanticipated water crossings…and ended up sleeping on the side of the riverbed under an unparalleled sky of stars. Or the afternoon we planned on hiking through multiple canyons, only to find the waterholes too deep…requiring us to backtrack, reroute, filter muddy water to drink, and pitch camp early under a moon so magical and bright that headlamps were practically unnecessary. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Would the trail have been so epic without any planning? Nope, and planning did save our butts many times. But, would the trail have been so epic if each of our plans had actually gone according to plan? *Definitely* not. Good things came from changing plans.

3 🌟 We assign meaning.

The trail was awesome. The experience was transformative. (yes, I’m rolling my eyes at me too). I can’t rave enough about it. And yet, I know that this positivity is simply the meaning that I’m choosing to assign to an experience that many other people would find miserable.

The trail had its shitty moments. My body hurt often. Hiking could be grueling and technical. Malfunctioning gear was disappointing. Being on my period sucked. Flies were annoying. Waking up to a dew-soaked sleeping bag was #hell. Logistics could be difficult. Plus, some days just felt plain poopy

And, while humor and friendship indeed made everything easier, consciously choosing to be undramatic about shittier moments became a true superpower (dare I say meditative practice). Sternly facing myself and assigning positive meaning to the way things were was damn effective. We even became accustomed to repeating “it’s fine, we’re fineeeee…!” semi-sarcastically and yet entirely seriously in response to the challenges of the trail. Because, yes, most of the time if we chose to be “fine” about a situation, then we were fine. Life is how you say it.

4 🌟 Everyone hikes their own trail.

Hitchhike boring sections or hike every single trail-mile, skip hard sections or add on detours, go fast or go slow, take breaks or hike straight through, walk with others or walk alone— everyone I met hiked the trail their own way. And, for the most part, there was the utmost respect between hikers that did things differently (of course, I still shook my head at people carrying only two liters of water per day in the desert or lugging packs weighing upwards of 50 lbs).

Some choices I (or we) decided to make specific to our trail experience: each day we took an ~2-hour midday break in the shade to beat the heat, eat lunch, nap, read, recaffinate, and mess around (tie knots, play with slingshot, look at maps); we opted to use the guide book and paper maps over phone apps (most of the time); we didn’t plan in rest days, instead we paused hiking when we needed something (new shoes) or weather prevented continuing (storms); and we chose to hike the sections of the trail that others often hitchhike (4X4 roads along highways).

Did our choices make our experience “better” or “worse” than anyone else’s experience? Nope. Everyone did their own thing, and that was what made it cool.

5 🌟 They give, you take. They kick, you run.

This nugget of wisdom comes across a bit harsher than it’s meant to (#lostintranslation). But the point is: if someone offers you something (unless they’re trying to “kick you”), you should take it…be it a bed to sleep in, a homecooked meal, a ride to the supermarket, a cup of coffee, an ice cream delivery via plane midway through the trail…say YES!

As an American, I often found this hard. In American culture, we are fairly good at giving (although we suck at being genuine– how many times have you said you’d love to catch up over coffee but never called? offered to do a favor out of politeness and never followed up? I’m guilty, too.) But we suck at taking. In our culture, it’s seen as polite to refuse favors, offers, and help. It’s polite to not “be a bother” or “take advantage of someone’s kindness.” In essence, we perpetuate a sort of one-sided disingenuine generosity (ironic, right?).

I’ve always noticed a stark difference with Israeli culture. Israelis don’t offer something unless they meant it. And if someone “gives” an Israeli something, they’ll usually take it. The result in the context of the trail? Giving and taking bred so much human connection. Without exception, every time we “took” something we were offered we got to know a fascinating person, had an incredible conversation, or learned something new.

Least we like to admit, we are transactional beings. So, note to self: while giving is important, we also must take for connection to occur.

6 🌟 Most strangers are mostly good.

Along with the whole give-and-take thing, my experience on the trail reminded me that most strangers who appear kind, trustworthy, and well-intentioned really are. People on the trail (trail angles, bus drivers, other hikers, etc.) were unbelievable, and yet it still took me some time to trust that most strangers were mostly good.

Why? Probably my own pessimism and America’s “stranger danger” paranoia. In America, we’re taught that strangers don’t want to help. Strangers are unpredictable. Strangers are weird and dangerous. Strangers are, well, strange?! And yet, every friend I made or person who helped me along the way was at first a stranger. One after the next, most people ended up being mostly good, if not downright fabulous. It made me think about how different America (and the world) would be if we assumed the best of everybody.

The takeaway? Be a good stranger. And assume everyone else is being a good stranger, too.

🌟 Simplicity is queen.

Anything in life that requires you to carry all your possessions on your back will make you a minimalist. And, I’m not talking about today’s trendy and privileged millennial “minimalism” movement (although I’m admittedly part of that, too).

The result of legit minimalism? An intimate and nerdy knowledge of my gear and possessions…beyond that of any trek I had done before. An odd sense of pride and protection over my favorite things. An ironic realization that some of the “gear MVPs” were simple and mundane: extra socks used for cooking cozies, plastic bottles fashioned into map holders, etc. And, above all, a dramatic reduction in the number of choices I had to make each day (only one outfit to hike in, one spoon to use, one hat to wear…might write a gear list blog post…y/n? idk!).

I used to roll my eyes at Mark Zuckerberg and his grey t-shirts, but he has a point…minimalism frees up a lot of mental energy. On the trail, it provided me with the time and space to think about big life questions, to learn from other people, and to absorb the all-enveloping experience. Once again, I was taught that less really is enough.

8 🌟 Sometimes we just need someone to remind us to be brave.

I had some odd anxiety pop up on the trail. I was *petrified* of falling (residual PTSD from a severe 2015 ski fall/accident), even if the surface I was walking on was flat. This fear might sound normal…after all, who likes falling?! But the amount of emotional energy and focus required to navigate unstable surfaces (e.g., mud, shale, slippery rocks) was definitely not normal.

Admittedly, I was surprised by the extent of the whole thing and felt stupid at first. Weren’t there other things I should be (rationally) more worried about? Never the less, I couldn’t shake the anxiety. Eran’s patience with this (whether it was conscious or unconscious) was incredible. I never felt rushed, demeaned, or judged. He was usually silent, yet present and supportive. It was a quiet reminder that I was capable and I could be brave.

I thought a lot about this after I finished the trail… How 1) we have opportunities every day, all the time, to remind people that they can do things that might be scaring the shit out of them, and how 2) we must respect ourselves enough to surround ourselves with people who are emotionally safe. People who won’t coddle us or minimize us, but who will witness our vulnerabilities and anxieties without judgment. People who will gently remind us that we can be brave.

9 🌟 Take time to make time. 

While I covered a lot of ground in 52 days, one of the best lessons I learned was to slow down. I credit the Israelis for this, because it’s sure not part of the American hiking culture I’m used to (which is so go-go-go and mile/summit oriented). But on the trail, I quickly shed my American-ness and came to love the frequent coffee breaks, midday hour-long naps, delays at natural springs, and long stops at gorgeous views. It made everything, just better.

While Israel/Israelis can be intense (!!!), this relaxed philosophy (especially for the 20-30-year-old age group) extends beyond the trail and deep into Israeli culture. Spending so much time with young Israelis on the trail reminded me that the early 20s hysteria my friends and I have over career, prestige, and upward growth is so American (also, so tied to privilege). The real bummer? Our preoccupation with these things often means we miss the horizontal growth— the experiences and opportunities (like this one) that might not help us “climb the ladder,” but can make us kinder and wiser humans *before* we rise.

10 🌟 The trail provides.

It sounds cliche, and yet it rings so true.

The trail provided us with what we needed when we needed it— extra water when we were low, a cave when we were desperate for shade, a stranger with directions when we were lost, a lending library when we needed a new book, a hitch when we needed a ride, etc. Time after time, with a little patience, a little privilege, and a lot of luck, the dots always connected. 

The trail also provided us with things that we could have done without, but we’re so glad we didn’t have to— peaceful sunrises and sunsets, clear night skies freckled with stars, strangers that became friends, water in the desert, gas stations with popsicles, fresh fruit on trees, good weather on challenging days, visits from friends and family…this list is endless and cherished.

Finally, of course, the trail provided many lessons. And as I sit here processing it all, I must insist that normal life isn’t much unlike life on the trail (despite the obvious differences). It sounds woo-woo, but the world really does provide us what we need, when we need it. The things that are meant for us in life don’t pass us by. The world unfolds its wisdom around us. And, if we pay attention, what it provides might just make us a bit better than we were before.

a day on the trail

Hi wonderful people!

You might already know that I’m hiking a lot these days…like A LOT! Many of you have asked questions about the logistics of the trail & what I do each day.

While every day is so staggeringly different, here’s a glimpse into an average day on the trail thus far (though this all will change this week as I enter the desert!).

5:30 AM Phone alarm rings. I wake up (if I’m not already awake— sleeping in a new place every night doesn’t exactly equal great sleep) & wake up anyone around me who I’m hiking with for the day. One of us heats water for coffee & we all go about our morning routines in the dark. I take down clothes I hung up to dry the night before, gather my phone & Garmin (GPS/SOS device) chargers, fill my water bladder & bottles, & respond to texts I received while asleep. I put on my hiking clothes (a white sun shirt & either shorts or pants depending on the day) & someone heats another round of water for oatmeal. While we eat, we “consult Ya’acov” (review the trail maps & plan for the day— Ya’acov is the author of the trail’s guidebook).

6:45 am — If we’re staying with a family or trail angel & they’re awake, we say thank you. If we’re camping, then we pick up any trash & double check we didn’t forget anything. Then the shoes go on & off we go. Sometimes it takes us a few kilometers to get back to the trail from where we slept. Usually this first hour or so is silent, & the two or three or four of us (the hiking squad is constantly growing & shrinking) have our own little meditative moments as the sun rises. It’s awesome.

8:00 am — The sun is UP! We pull out sunscreen & pass it around. Hats, sunglasses, & sun gloves go on. Sometimes my trendy & functional sun umbrella goes up, too. We check back in with Ya’acov to make sure we’re on track (we usually have gotten lost at least once by now— eek).

9:00 am — The rest of Israel is awake. We start to figure out where we’re going to sleep that night, or plan ahead for a few nights ahead. Does one of us have friends or family near where we plan to stop? Do we want to find a trail angel (someone who opens up their home to hikers & often provides showers, laundry, & meals)? Is there a communal room at a kibbutz or pre-army academy that is open to hikers? Or, are we socially exhausted & craving more outdoor time & want to cowboy camp? We make calls, send texts, exchange voice memos, & tap into the extensive Israeli network as we hike. It never takes too long to find a friend of a friend, a generous stranger, or word of an epic campsite.

11:00 am — If we’re passing by a village or kibbutz, we stop quick to restock food. Tuna, coffee, tea, chocolate, tahini, sausage, rice, chips, oatmeal, cucumbers, gf crackers/bread & honey are my go-tos. Usually I throw in a popsicle (current favorite is pineapple coconut— like a mid morning piña colada!) to eat before we keep walking. If we’re not stopping for food, we at least try to refill water for the rest of the day.

1:00 pm — It’s Israel, it’s the Middle East, it’s effffinggggg boiling outside. By this point, sweat is in full force. I have practiced hot yoga for over a decade & this heat still puts me to shame— especially when it’s coupled with walking on concrete or sand (two surfaces that always seem to find us mid-day). We stop for two hours to recoup. I take off my shoes & socks & sweaty shirt to dry. Then lunch— the Israelis have trained me well over the past three years & I feel a strange sense of pride knowing I am fully satisfied by a lunch of canned tuna mixed with tahini on gf crackers/bread & sliced cucumber. So that’s what I do! Yum. Afterwards, I open up my sleeping pad & pass out for an hour. An hour nap mid-day is GOLD.

2:30 pm — My barista/navigator/hiking amigo (three-in-one) makes coffee (best part of hiking in Israel is the Israeli hikers are OBSESSED with their little coffee set thingys). I eat some chocolate (&/or honey), put on my shoes & my (hopefully dry) smelly shirt, reapply sunscreen (are you proud, Mom?), & we consult Ya’acov again.

3:00 pm — It’s cooled off a bit by now. We hike for another four or five hours. Sometimes new hikers join for a mile or two, & other hikers leave to catch public transport home or stop somewhere else for the day. We talk about all the big & little things— family, politics, religion, the army, travel, education, philosophy, etc. It’s unbelievable how well you can get to know people when you spend 24/7 with them— especially without screen time or the distraction of the outside world. It happens quick & it’s so exceptionally special.

6:00 pm — If we’re lucky there’s an evening breeze. No matter where we are, the sunset & the sky are reliably INCREDIBLE. I take off my hat, put up my hair, & roll up my sleeves. I’m usually exhausted by this point— especially if we’ve walked on any sand or asphalt during the day (the worst). It’s been six to nine hours of hot, exhausting movement w/ my pack on— so I tend to enter my “silly stage”, where everything is funny & goofy. This leads to singing & twisting hiking polls around like batons & making fun of each others’ accents & all sorts of random sh*t.

7:00 pm — Most nights we arrive to where we’ll sleep by dark…though sometimes we walk for a bit after sunset (not ideal), often along a highway (also not ideal & definitely the most dangerous part of the trail thus far). If we’re staying at a trail angel’s home, we all shower quickly (heaven!) & join the angel for a home cooked meal. If we’re staying at a pre-army academy, we are often served a meal from the dining hall & socialize with the kids. And, if we’re camping out, or sleeping in a kibbutz community building, then we fire up a caloric & mushy combination of rice, sausage, & tahini while talking with other hikers.

9:00 pm — I lay down to edit my photos from the day, check the day’s mileage, & write a short post. I am always shocked by all that happens in one day— so much life can be lived in 12 hrs on foot. It’s a fun challenge to condense the day to a few words. Then I decompress by writing in my personal journal (a faithful habit) & if I’m being responsible I stretch my legs, hips, & back (*if*).

9:30 pm — We consult Ya’acov on the next day’s miles. Do we need to plan ahead for water or food? Am I meeting someone somewhere along the way? Where will we find shade mid-day? I read Ya’acov in English & the Israelis read it in Hebrew & then we compare. Usually Ya’acov is more detailed & fun in the Hebrew version— c’mon Ya’acov!

10:30 pm — On a good night, I put in my ear plugs, set my alarm, & fall asleep around now. Does that mean I’m only sleeping 7ish hrs a night & walking 15-20 miles a day? Why yes. Somehow, yes. Usually a donkey or a cat or a centipede or a human or a text or a light infringes on these sacred 7 hrs, but it doesn’t really bother me…I still revel in the glory of laying horizontal— muscles relaxed, feet throbbing, & heart happy— ready to do it all again the next morning.

INT: the first 140-ish miles

Hi wonderful people! I get bored of formatting my blog posts the same way over & over, so for this first iteration of my Israel National Trail adventure, I’m going with a FAQ-style post. It feels self-promotional & a little ridiculous, but if the trail has taught me anything so far it’s that efficiency is QUEEN & repeating your story (& your steps, if you get lost!) can be exhausting. So there you have it. FAQ it is.

What the heck are you doing? Attempting to walk 600+ miles (1000+ km) north to south from the Lebanese-Israeli border to the Egyptian/Jordanian-Israeli border along the Israel National Trail (INT). I started in the north @ Kibbutz Dan & will end in the south in Eilat.

How long is this crazy thing going to take? Probably 45-60 days depending on how many rest days I take & how much I walk each day. Right now I’m averaging 15-20 miles per day, but not all those are “trail miles,” some are extra miles because I got lost, had to walk to & from town, or was tourista-ing at a stop along the way.

Won’t that be, like, really hard? The trail is no cakewalk & walking nearly a marathon each day is not easy, but it’s pretty remarkable what the human body can do. Ten days in & my “trail legs” are starting to come through for me, carrying me up & down valleys, ridges, mountains, etc. far more smoothly than they were a week ago. (Though not gonna lie, I’m taking a rest day today & it feels like I got hit by a truck).

Are you doing it alone? Kind of, but not really. I started the trail with Michelle, a 22-year-old American that reached out to me thru the INT online forum. We didn’t know each other before we began, but went up to Kibbutz Dan together & started the trail together. She only had time to hike for a week, so, unfortunately, our time together was short. Impossible to know who I’ll be hiking within a week (or month!) but there are so many good people on the trail & friends are made quickly. I feel so far from alone.

Where do you sleep? Most nights we stay at the home of a trail angel “מלאך” (a person who lives along the trail & opens up their homes to hikers “shvilistim”). Sometimes this means sleeping in their guest room, other times it means sleeping on the dead grass outside a kibbutz pub…but it seems to ALWAYS mean meeting incredible people. The generosity of strangers continues to awe & humble me.

What do you eat? Tuna, tahini, halva, dried fruit, nuts of every kind, rice crackers, (melted) chocolate, rice, oats, cucumbers, bell peppers, tomatoes, peaches, SO much coffee & tea, & everything else we can find along the way (popsicles, pomegranates, mangos, wine, burgers, homemade meals from trail angels). Hiking 15-20 miles a day turns you into a food-consuming machine. I’m probably eating 3000-5000 calories a day & am still hungry. All. The. Time.

What does it look like? Check out photos on FB or Instagram. The north looks a lot like Napa/Sonoma/Los Altos Hills. Rolling vineyards, winding rivers, epic vistas, & small forests.

Are you safe? Contrary to the media’s portrayal of Israel, the state is as safe as can be. I always feel exponentially safer here than I ever do at home.

Best moments so far? Meeting & getting to know so many people (mostly Israelis), especially Michelle & Eran. Cruizing along the Lebanese border at sunset in a Jeep. Swimming in the Kinneret & ancient Roman springs after long days of hiking. Drinking coffee & watching the sunrise over the Kinneret. Taking an afternoon break at a winery on the trail. Experiencing the serendipitous, wonderful way that the problems I encounter on the trail work themselves out if I give them time & patience.

Not-so-great moments so far? Losing the trail in orchards. Reading the map wrong & having to back-track up steep sh*t we just climbed down. Sleeping in areas w/ tons of noise & light. Trash on the trail in urban areas.

What’s next? Right now I’m taking 24 hours to recuperate, sleep in my “own” bed at our family friend’s house in Ra’anana, get some psudo-parent time from Dorothy & Nim, celebrate Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) tonight with their family, swap out gear, do laundry (I smell like an elderly sheep or something disgusting), & put on a face mask (#bougie). Tomorrow I’ll head north to where I left the trail yesterday & continue hiking towards Haifa & the Mediterranean.

Anything else? Nope. Trail life is simple & wonderful & consists of endless days of being fully present, exhausted, frustrated, joyful, hungry, & fulfilled. Onward to the next 100 miles!

XO Cass

P.S. Photos can be found on FB & Instagram. I’m available via my Israeli # on iMessage & my American # on WhatsApp. If you’d like my Garmin link to track my hiking each day, reach out & send you it.