Interview with Wolverine (a.k.a. Chris Hillier)

A year before Chris Hillier – trail name Wolverine – came to Israel to conquer the Shvil Yisrael, he was already contacting us to say that he was using IsraelTrail.net as a resource for his preparations. We soon learned that Wolverine is a meticulous hiker who plans his excursions carefully, instead of just showing up at the trail head and following wherever the blazes (i.e. trail markings) lead, as some of us do.

I enjoyed following Wolverine's progress through Israel on his blog, from his initial encounters with perplexing street signs in Hebrew to his journey from Eilat through the Negev Desert, up to the northern end of the country in Kibbutz Dan, and afterward through the Golan Trail.

Soon after he returned to the US, I contacted Chris Hillier again to learn more about his thru-hike of the Shvil Yisrael, and in hopes of gaining some wisdom from his experience on other trails.

I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did, and perhaps share it with a friend. At the bottom of the page you'll find a full list of links to Wolverine's blog posts throughout his Israel journey.

(Note for readers: we used a bit of Hebrew terminology in our conversation. "Shvilist" is the Israeli Hebrew word for someone who is hiking the Israel Trail; "shvilistim" is the plural. And the "Shvil Yisrael" is the Israel Trail or INT; sometimes we just called it "the Shvil".  The "Shvil HaGolan" is the Golan Heights Trail. "Kibbutzim" (plural) are usually very small communities, originally farm collectives, and "moshavim" (plural) are small towns, very similar to kibbutzim.)

Michael: Where are you from? How did you get into thru-hiking and which trails have you completed?

Wolverine: I was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. I first got into long-distance hiking after the death of my mother in 2010. She had been on home hospice for some time, and after she passed, I really felt like I needed to get away for awhile. So, I decided to attempt to thru-hike the famous Appalachian Trail which runs 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine.  I had only been on the trail for a couple of weeks when I decided that I wanted to hike long distances ALL THE TIME. I absolutely fell in love with the lifestyle and ever since then, I've been able to spend at least six months of the year out on the trail. I've hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail and the Appalachian Trail (for a second time!). 

My trail credentials:

  • AT '11 and '15
  • Shore to Shore Trail (Michigan) '12
  • PCT '12
  • CDT '14
  • Benton MacKaye Trail '15
  • Ironbelle Trail (Michigan) '13
  • Great Lake to Lake (Michigan) '13
  • Israel National Trail '17
  • Golan Heights Trail '17

On your blog and other social media you go by the name Wolverine, and you frequently refer to fellow hikers by their trail names. Please tell us a bit about why hikers use trail names and how are they chosen. I am guessing that when you met other Shvilistim in Israel, not many were using trail names unless they had already hiked in other places where they were used, as with your hiking partner Nightmare (Sammy Glenn). Is that a fair assumption? 

It is, indeed, a fair assumption. 

I had read that 'trail names' were common on the Appalachian Trail even before I hiked it. I thought that nicknames were kinda silly and that I would not use one. But trail names are more than just nicknames; it's a way of saying, "No one cares who you are back in the 'towns'. It's about who you are out here."  

I was only a few days into my hike when a young guy (Celtic Thunder) that I had been hiking with caught up to me and suggested 'Wolverine' as a name for me. I was both flattered and glad that it was a decent name. After all, Ass Trumpet doesn't like his name. Neither does Poo Tissue. So, by comparison, mine wasn't so bad. That's the thing about trail names: There will be something about you or something that you do that will earn you a name and once you get one, it sticks. Celtic Thunder named me Wolverine because 1) I was from Michigan (like the University of Michigan Wolverines) and 2) he said I was 'tenacious'. Clearly, he didn't know me very well!

It should also be said that it's an honor to give someone a trail name and that it's a little pretentious to give yourself one. It's better to have it assigned by someone else. 

Israeli hikers don't use trail names (yet). My buddy Nightmare and I constantly introduced ourselves by our trail names. We received some weird looks and lots of questions. These days, I usually introduce myself by saying, "My parents named me Christopher but other hikers call me Wolverine."  That lets the person I'm meeting choose what they'd like to call me. 

Were there any particular culture shocks or differences that you experienced when encountering other Shvilistim, especially Israelis?

There were several differences that I noticed between American and Israeli hikers. Foot gear, for one. Israeli hikers are all still wearing heavy, over-the-ankle boots for the most part. I predict this will change. Unless they are hiking in the snow, I believe that most Shvilistim will switch to lightweight trail shoes. 

Another big difference is their (Israeli hikers) tolerance for dirt. In the US, it's kind of a strange badge-of-honor to be filthy dirty and stinky from weeks on the trail. It's like you're saying, "Look at me! I don't need to visit the towns. I've stayed on the trail for weeks and I'm fine with it." Israeli hikers seem to prefer frequent showers. And beds. I noticed many Shvilistim calling Trail Angels and finding a home to stay in almost every night. They want a chance to get a shower and do some laundry. Me? I prefer to sleep outdoors. I like to see the stars and hear the wind.  I didn't call any Trail Angels. I was stinky and dirty and (strangely) proud of it. 

I noticed, too, that it's mostly an American thing to want to hike the trail all at once, from beginning to end and to stay as strictly on the trail as possible. Many Israelis just skip the boring parts of the trail or stop hiking with the intention of coming back to it later. It makes no sense to them to road walk a boring section when you can see that part of the trail through a car window. It's hard to argue their logic!

No doubt that's true among those who are actually already hiking it. What I've discovered with a lot of Israelis, though, is that either (a) they've never heard of the Shvil Yisrael, or (b) if they are aware of the Trail, they imagine it as something that has to be conquered all at once. As a result, it becomes a someday/maybe dream for them, to be attempted only after completing their military service (i.e. about age 20), or after retirement. Likewise, individuals who come to visit Israel often think of it as an all-or-nothing proposition, so only if they have 6 weeks or so to set aside and are willing to put in a high level of preparation. For these people, I would like to promote taking on just some sections of the INT rather than avoiding it entirely. Although that's not necessarily your style, could you recommend any particular sections of the Shvil that individuals should hike, if they have a limited number of days for it?

 On the Golan Heights Trail

On the Golan Heights Trail

I often compare and contrast 'section hikers' to 'thru-hikers'. Section hikers can get more out of a trail because they are able to bring the correct gear for that section of a trail and that time of year. As I thru-hiker, I often have to bring everything I'll need for a long trail as mailing items like ice axes and crampons back home gets expensive. Some of the greatest hikers I know do all their trails in sections. 

If I only had a few weeks and wanted to hike a section of the Shvil (and if I was an experienced hiker), I would hike from Eilat to Arad (the Negev Desert). That is the most beautiful and most challenging part of the entire trail. If I had even less time, I would just do from Midreshet Ben Gurion to Arad so I could hike the Karbolet and the HaMaktesh HaKatan (the small crater). 

If I were not interested in the desert or had less time, I'd hike straight north out of Tel Aviv. The beaches along the Mediterranean were amazing! Plus, they feature lots of great historical sites and overlooks along the way. 

Finally, if I only had a week to hike and I was less experienced, I would do the Shvil HaGolan. I really enjoyed that trail and it was not terribly difficult to hike. 

 Fellow hiker Denise Stolnik pointing to the beloved trail marker of the Shvil Yisrael

Fellow hiker Denise Stolnik pointing to the beloved trail marker of the Shvil Yisrael

What are your observations about the way that the whole trail was planned and routed, as compared to other trails you've hiked?

The way the Shvil Israel is laid out is very similar to trails in the US. The blazes (the orange, blue and white markings) are used the same way as many trails in the US. The trail brought us close to kibbutzim and moshavim to get supplies often enough. Unfortunately, Nightmare and I fell into a terrible pattern of hitting small towns on Friday nights and Saturday mornings when everything was closed! More than a couple of times, we had to wait until Sunday morning to re-supply and get back to the trail. I often wished we could have timed it better. 

According to your trail credentials, the INT and the Golan Heights Trail were the first thru-hikes outside of the US. How did you first hear about the Shvil Yisrael? And what were your initial thoughts about taking it on? When did you decide to do it?

It's true that the INT and the GHT were my first big hikes outside the US. Years ago, I was in the US Army and I was stationed in Germany. I did some hiking in Europe but nothing major. 

I first heard about the Shvil Yisrael in 2012 while I was hiking Pacific Crest Trail. I met four young Israelis and hiked with them for a few days. One of them had just completed the INT before flying to the US to hike the PCT. He told me about the Shvil and I was instantly intrigued. In fact, he and I stayed in touch over the years and I was able to visit him in Jerusalem during my hike. It was a joyous reunion. 

I should say that I was both intrigued and intimidated by his description of the trail. He warned me that the Negev would be difficult. He told me about all the different kinds of environments the trail goes through in a relatively short distance. I knew then that I would attempt it some day but it took years of planning and saving to make it happen. 

What kind of planning do you typically do in preparation for such a big undertaking? Were there any extra considerations that went into planning hiking the Israel National Trail and the Golan Heights Trail?

 Wolverine with Jacob Saar, author of the Israel National Trail guide book

Wolverine with Jacob Saar, author of the Israel National Trail guide book

Planning for an adventure like this is one of my favorite parts of the process. I started by searching the internet, of course. Then I reached out to people who had hiked all or parts of the trail. The most important step was buying a copy of Jacob Saar's guide book (commonly referred to as 'the Red Book'). I poured over every page of that book, all the while dreaming about what it must be like to hike across Israel. 

The main consideration was, of course, access to water in the Negev. I had heard everything from "there are 14 places where you must pay to cache water" to "you can probably get away without caching any water if you are lucky" and everything in between.  My initial plan was to rent a car in Tel Aviv and cache water on the way down to Eilat. That turned out to be a flawed plan. I ended up doing five caches total (four between Mitzpe Ramon and Arad that I paid for) and a whole lot of luck. 

Hiking the Golan was not nearly as well thought out. I didn't even know about the Shvil HaGolan until I was on the INT. Some Israeli hikers told me about it and, although it may have been even better to hike that trail in the spring, I still really enjoyed it. I was lucky to have finished the Shvil Yisrael and still had enough time left to do a southbound hike of the Golan. 

What happened to your plan for caching water in the Negev?

So, the original plan was to rent a car in Tel Aviv and cache our water while we drove south to Eilat. First of all, most of the rental places were at the airport which is a little ways outside the city so I'd have to pay to get back there. Second, I really needed a four-wheel-drive vehicle and all the rental car companies had were small, two-wheel-drive cars. Third, it was more expensive than I thought. Fourth, I was intimidated as hell about driving in Tel Aviv. Lastly, after reviewing maps on how to get to the caches, I was certain we would get way lost. Lots of tiny roads and cross-country driving to get to the night camps to cache the water. It was much easier just to pay someone to cache water for us. 

 Tahini, the ubiquitous wonder food

How did you deal with food?

I also wasn't quite sure how to handle re-supply in Israel. I wasn't exactly sure what people ate in Israel, let alone what the Shvilistim ate. In the US, I prefer to have boxes containing food and supplies mailed to me along the way. That wasn't an option on this trail. Thank goodness for tahini and pita!

It was fun reading about what Israeli food staples you ended up eating a lot of, especially Bamba. Besides the foods you listed in your blog post, did you find any others that you could recommend as camp food? And any other local foods that you particularly liked (even if they're not well suited for travel, falafel or shawarma for example...)?

I struggled with food a bit on this hike. In the US, I know exactly what I like to carry. I can fit a ton of calories into just a couple pounds of food. In Israel, I found myself carrying things like tahini, hummus and vegetables which taste great but are heavy. Luckily, there are very few long stretches that require you to carry a ton of food. I can definitely recommend chocolate wafers for breakfast. They are cheap, lightweight and they go great with coffee. 

I tried so many new and exciting foods while I was over there but one that really stuck with me was shakshuka. Oh man, that stuff is so good! 

Please tell me a bit about the concept of Trail Magic. And did you experience any Trail Magic in Israel, or is that something we might need to improve upon on the INT? 

Ahhh.... Trail Magic. It's a beautiful thing. It can be described as people being nice just for the sake of being nice, and it is sorely missing in the world today. Trail Magic is really anything positive that happens unexpectedly during a hike – usually because of a Trail Angel. In Israel, it seems that Trail Angels are, specifically, people who let you stay in their home for a night off-trail. To me, a Trail Angel is anyone who helps a hiker – could be by providing directions or encouragement; could be offering food or water. Some Angels (in the US) will set up along side a trail and offer full meals to passing hikers. They expect nothing in return – they're just being nice! 

I experienced an abundance of Trail Magic and I met many Trail Angels of that kind in Israel. People constantly offered their help, food and water, maybe a ride.... They even invited me into their homes having just met me! It's one of my favorite aspects of long-distance hiking and it reminds me that people, for the most part, really are good at heart. It's good for me to be reminded of that. 

I was also amazed at the level of comfort Trail Angels in Israel intend to provide. People there take a special pride in being a good host as evidenced by the many wonderful experiences I had. 

Occasionally water and food caches are stolen. Did that happen to you at all?

We had no problems with theft at our caches. We hid our food and water well out of sight as did the person we paid to cache for us. Actually, far from theft, I have many examples of people sharing their food and water with us and even leaving water out for those in need. 

What gear did you carry, and how much did it weigh?

My gear list is constantly evolving, and it all depends on the trail I'm hiking. For Israel, I brought a ton of gear because having stuff sent from home was expensive and I wasn't sure I could find (or afford) what I needed once I was there. A word about gear in general: Light is fast and fast is fun. You will enjoy yourself more and have less risk of injury with a lighter pack. 

My base pack weight is usually around 15 pounds. That jumps up quickly to 35 pounds with food and water. 

The two main gear questions I had for this trail were 1) tent or tarp and 2) footgear. If you have experience getting a good pitch with a tarp in the wind, then skip the tent. I cowboy camped about half the nights I was out there anyway. A tent is nice for the (very rare) rain and the (occasional) bugs but it's heavy. A tarp is the way to go. 

For footgear, I wore a lightweight trail shoe (Salomons) with good tread for the desert. Then, in Tel Aviv, I switched to a very comfortable pair of Altras (almost a casual walking shoe) with a wide toe-box and finished my hike in those. Turned out to be a good combination. 

Long-distance hikers often use trekking poles, which is not an obvious choice for beginners. Why are they used, and how necessary are they?

I've always carried trekking poles.  I use them not only for balance and to help with steep ups and downs but also to see how solid the ground (or snow or ice) ahead of me is. I use them to thump a log to see if it's full of bees or ants before I sit down.  I use them as tent poles. I use them to ford rivers. I use them for everything. For me, they are essential equipment. 

 Nightmare taking out other people's trash, with a plastic car bumper strapped to his pack. 

Nightmare taking out other people's trash, with a plastic car bumper strapped to his pack. 

There are a few approaches to thru-hiking the Israel Trail: obviously southbound from Kibbutz Dan or northbound from Eilat, but some individuals also hike roughly half in one direction and the other half in the other direction, e.g. from Eilat to Tel Aviv, and then from Dan to Tel Aviv. How did you choose the 'NOBO' route?

The northbound route I chose was influenced by the time of year I hiked. I had heard that early springtime was the best time to hike the trail. I wanted to hike in the desert during the cooler month of April. I started March 24th, but I wish I had started just about 2 weeks earlier. 

Jacob Saar tried to convince me to 'flip' up to Kibbutz Dan from Tel Aviv and hike back southbound. He said I would enjoy the flora more at that time of year. I considered it, but I was really intent on maintaining a continuous footpath from south to north. Also, I wanted to go straight to Mt. Hermon from Dan to begin a southbound hike of the Shvil HaGolan.

Did you find any Israeli hikers who were even generally aware of "Leave No Trace" principles? Litter is unfortunately rampant in Israel, and especially in the officially designated park grounds of the Keren Kayemet LeYisrael (JNF/KKL).

I had been warned that trash on this trail was an issue. I'm afraid that the only hikers I met that had heard of the Leave No Trace philosophy had been hiking in the US. For whatever reason, Israel has just not adopted Leave No Trace – yet. I think that, in time, Shvilistim will gravitate more toward ultralight gear, wearing shoes instead of boots and (most importantly) leaving the trail even cleaner than the way they found it. 

How did you choose where to make camp? The rules along the INT are confusing in many places, and I suspect that the general prohibition of camping in many places is complementary with many hikers' tendency to rely on the hospitality of Trail Angels (or with friends and family) rather than staying in nature. What went into your personal considerations of choosing where to stay overnight? 

First, a confession: in my home country, I have a bit of a reputation as a scofflaw. I tend to "stealth camp" wherever I can get away with it. I'm strict about Leaving No Trace of course, but I've been known to camp in some pretty crazy places. I did not dare skirt around the rules in a foreign country. I stayed in night camps when in a Nature Preserve and generally played by the rules. Of course, the location of water sources pretty much dictates where you camp in the Negev, but north of that, you have a little more freedom to choose. Given that freedom, I prefer to camp alone, far from any other hikers. The best camping to me on the Shvil Yisrael was on the beaches of the Mediterranean.

I enjoyed reading all your blog posts along the way, but one that stuck with me specifically was the one about what you call "hiker magnets":

There are just some places that are so inviting, so hiker-friendly, that you absolutely don't want to leave. It seems impossible to break free from their gravitational pull. Most often, it's a city or small town but it can just as easily be a hiker hostel or even a lone acacia tree in the desert.

Besides Arad, were there any other notable hiker magnets that you discovered on the Trail?

There were lots of places that I didn't want to leave! A bunch of us wound up in Midreshet Ben Gurion together. That was loads of fun. We also had a great time at the Philip Farm. At the end of my hike, I camped for a couple days in a eucalyptus forest just outside of Hadera that was really nice. And of course, Tel Aviv. I spent a total of about 7 days there and I feel like I barely scratched the surface of all there is to see and do there. What an amazing city!

For a lot of first-time visitors to Israel (and for their families abroad), the primary concern with being in the country is physical safety – all the more so when traveling alone in isolated areas. Was this an issue for you when planning your hike? And once you were here, what was your experience? Is there anything you would caution other first-time visitors about?

I was never worried. I did have some friends and family express concern but I assured them that hiking in Israel could not possibly more dangerous than walking home from work, late at night, in Downriver Detroit!

Once I was in Israel, my experience was as I predicted: I felt very safe. Everyone I met was kind to me. In fact, many strangers went above and beyond to offer food and water... Even welcoming me into their homes. 

The only time I was concerned was before hiking in the Golan Heights. I knew wars had been fought there relatively recently and that the border between Israel and Syria was disputed. With all that is going on in Syria right now, I admit I wondered if I was making the right choice by hiking there. Turned out to be a fantastic trail that was safe, well-blazed and a joy to hike. 

My only words of caution for other first-time visitors would be to remind them that it requires high levels of security to keep Israel as safe as it is. Expect to be searched going into airports, bus stations and some stores. You'll see lots of soldiers with guns and armed guards – all in the name of safety. Allow extra time for travel to deal with security. Even walking in Jerusalem, I was delayed because a package was left on a public bus. The bus was evacuated and all traffic in both directions was halted until they could get it sorted. No big deal as long as you leave yourself a little extra time.

 Well, almost in English

Well, almost in English

I noticed that you learned some Hebrew and Arabic expressions; were there any language-related challenges while navigating through the country?

It's true that most Israelis speak some English. But that also means that SOME speak NONE. There were a couple times when I found myself frustrated by the language barrier, but the solution is just to be patient with people and learn as much Hebrew as possible! It makes it easier that almost every sign was in Hebrew, Arabic and English. If you can master the phrase, "Excuse me, do you speak English?" in Hebrew, you will have no problem finding someone to give you a hand with bus schedules, the auto-check out at the grocery store and using a public restroom (I learned that you have to pay 1 shekel to get in!). 

Would you recommend the INT to other hikers in the world? And if so, any particular words of advice for how to prepare for it?

I would absolutely recommend both the INT and the GHT to other hikers. I would give them the same advice I received: start in early spring, travel NOBO and allow plenty of time for side trips into Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Dead Sea, etc.... I would also stress that the INT is probably not a good choice for your first long-distance hike. The Negev Desert, while beautiful, could be a bit much for a novice. I had hiked both the Mojave and Anza-Borrego deserts in the US as well as the entire state of New Mexico before I did this hike, and I found the Negev to be very challenging. 

To prepare for the hike, I would start by visiting IsraelTrail.net and taking advantage of all the great information available there. Next, I would buy the latest edition of Jacob Saar's Israel National Trail guide book. And finally, I would call me! I mean, people should feel free to contact me and ask any questions they have about hiking in Israel. You can email me at CBHillier2@gmail.com. You can read my blog at WolverineCDT.blogspot.com and you can check out my website, HillierHikes.com. Send me a 'friend request' on Facebook and I'll accept!

Where do you plan to hike next?

Mexico. I found a 1,700 mile bike trail there that, to my knowledge, no one has ever done on foot. I intend to be the first. 

 Wolverine at the "finish line", the official trailhead in Kibbutz Dan

Wolverine at the "finish line", the official trailhead in Kibbutz Dan

Thanks, Michael, for asking great questions and for all that you do at IsraelTrail.net. I would not have been able to hike the Israel National Trail without help from all my friends at Moosejaw Mountaineering. Huge thanks as well to Jerry and Becky Patterson, Sandra Lowe, Nancy Smith, Noam Gal, Orna Lipkin, Shakhaf Avital, Jacob Saar, Trayvax Wallets, and John and Judy Pex at the Shelter Hostel in Eilat. Special thanks for all the love and encouragement from Manuela Petzold.