Meet Shoestring Ambassador Sarah Williams

What would you do if your very first backpacking trip ended with a ride in a rescue helicopter? Would you return to the wilderness? This Shoestring Warrior didn’t just return to the wilderness, she spent the next two years doing everything she could to learn how to survive in the wilderness and then became a guide herself! Meet Shoestring Ambassador, Photographer, Inspired Guide at REI, Life Coach, and this week’s Shoestring Warrior Sarah Williams.

Sarah has a rich appreciation for the natural world and her passion for the outdoors is evident in all that she does and says.

Say yes more often. Join the hike, go on the rafting trip, get yourself the new shoes. Embrace your development because every step is incredible and the process is just as rewarding as the end results.

If that didn’t get you itching to head outside, keep reading to learn more about Sarah including her advice on finding your adventure community! I hope you find her as inspiring as I do! Follow her adventures on Instagram and check out her photography website.

Shoestring Warrior: Sarah Williams


Las Vegas, NV

Current Location:

Los Angeles, CA


A work in progress! I’m a freelance photographer, Inspired Guide at REI, and a part time Life Coach.

What are your passions outside of work?

I feel fortunate in that I’ve found work that I AM passionate about and at times the line between work and play becomes blurred. Im passionate about PHOTOGRAPHY– watching how the light around me changes, and capturing ephemeral moments. GUIDING– exposing people to incredible places and inspiring them to live their best life. COOKING– with local and seasonal ingredients. FITNESS and CHALLENGES– I workout in a crossfit gym and it helps me be prepared for all my outdoor pursuits.

Tell us about yourself!

I spent my young years roaming in a small desert town in the Mojave. I climbed a lot of trees, spent time in the sun catching lizards and playing make believe. In high school I moved to Las Vegas and developed a love for photography that allowed me to show the beauty I found in my world. In 2008 I moved to Savannah, GA to elevate my photography by attending Savannah College of Art and Design. I got my BFA and left school with an extensive knowledge of the craft, but without a vision of what I wanted to use it for. I moved to L.A. and held jobs that allowed me the financial means to take care of myself while also allowing me the time I needed to build myself, discover, and explore. I joined a gym and worked on my physical body while at the same time seizing any opportunity to grow and develop my mindset. My self-growth journey led me back to nature. I liked exercising in the outdoors because it reunited me with the freedom I once had as a child. I started to take on bigger and bigger outdoor challenges, some more successful than others. In 2012 I went on my first backpacking trip with 2 friends and unfortunately the trip ended with a helicopter rescue out of the forest. That experience catapulted me into subsequent years of learning all that I could about backpacking and wilderness medicine while continuing to develop my fitness and photography. I got back out into nature quickly and challenged myself to long distance solo hikes. When i’m not on a trip, I freelance with my photography, work at REI teaching classes, and am building a life coaching practice. I’m currently walking a lot of different paths, but they are coming together to form something beautiful.

How would you describe your level of camping experience?

I grew up camping once a year in Kennedy Meadows, so the idea was never foreign to me. When I was young enough to have an age that was still a single digit, I camped in my backyard in a rickety orange tent with some regularity. I car camped in places like Yosemite, Joshua Tree, Big Sur, and various parks across the West Coast throughout my teenage years. After I graduated college, I ditched the car in favor of a backpack and set off on foot and began a life of camping in more secluded areas. I’ve become an avid backpacker and have spent many moons walking through the mountains, forests, and deserts– camping in the most beautiful landscapes. I love waking up and greeting the day in new places.

What do you want to be the first sight you see when you wake up? The Pacific Ocean? The tall pillars of Monument Valley? The alpine peaks of the Fitzroy Traverse?

Those visions can be reality, and walking out your front door is the first step.

Which Shoestring Adventures trips or Meet-ups have you completed?

I haven’t completed any yet! But I am so excited to do so asap!

When did you first discover your love for the outdoors?

I think I’ve always known that I possess a deep love for the outdoors because growing up, I didn’t feel separate from it. In college, though, I lost that connection and it took me losing it to realize how much it was a part of me in the first place. I would say though, that my time solo hiking the John Muir Trail was when my heart opened to the outdoors in a profound way. I found the photographic subject matter I am passionate about… nature as a catalyst for growth– and the preservation of these sacred places.

Your group ended up having to call search and rescue on your first backpacking trip. Can you tell us a little about that experience?

In 2012 I joined two friends on a backpacking trip— my first. I was forthcoming about my lack of experience and knowledge but they assured me they had it all handled. I had previously completed several day hikes, but nothing longer than 7 miles, so I was incredibly excited to get out for a few days away from the city on my first trip of overnighting. It was August during the height of the California drought, and all the river crossings and streams my friends cited as our water sources were all dried up. We were without water and we managed to get lost. The guys were slipping into severe dehydration which was preventing them from movement and safety.

I was seemingly ok but I didn’t know what to do– how to help them, how to navigate ourselves back to the trail, anything.

One guy gave up and asked me to take our phones and try and find service for help. So I did. I climbed to the highest nearby peak and dialed out, panicked for his safety. The local search and rescue was contacted and they set out to find us, and 4 hours later we were airlifted out and my friends got the help they needed. I was horrified, and upset that I wasn’t more prepared– that I trusted people who were dishonest about their skill level, and that we were faced with a situation I could not get us out of. It was one of the biggest learning experiences I’ve ever had.

How did you go about educating yourself in wilderness survival and safety after your first backpacking trip?

I spent the next two years after that trip learning everything I could about surviving in the wilderness, and training my body to be in shape to handle the elements.

I focused on nature-based skill work by taking classes at REI (compass & navigation, Wilderness First Aid), and reading every survival book I could get my hands on. In L.A., I didn’t have many friends who loved the rugged aspect of time spent outdoors so I took several small solo trips to places like Havasupai, Yosemite backcountry, and Ojai to practice my skills. I continued to work on my fitness but just as important to me as my fitness and my skill was my mental mindset. I read books by Eckart Tolle, Elizabeth Gilbert,  etc that helped to develop my mental awareness and perseverance. Solo hiking the JMT was my test to let myself off the hook for my failed first backpacking experience. I passed and I was hooked. I’ve continued to take every opportunity to challenge myself. Exploring things like sensory deprivation tanks, the Wim Hof Method, Breathwork, CrossFit competitions, etc.. This past March I had the opportunity to test myself even further by being a part of a survival experiment hosted by the Discovery Channel where I was marooned underground in a maze of caves with no light, no food, and no direction. I had to navigate out while keeping my sanity. It sounds awful, and it was, but it was also one of the greatest experiences of my life so far.

Funniest outdoor experience/mishap?

On night 1 of that first backpacking trip I set up my tent, got inside and decided to read until I fell asleep. The book I read is called A Walk In The Woods by Bill Bryson and if you haven’t read it, I will tell you that the first chapter is a wonderful summary of the history of everything that has gone wrong for individuals who were alone in their tents in the woods. So here I am, alone in my tent in the woods freaking out at every noise because it’s for sure a murderer, or an owl that will scalp me, or a bear who is about to rip me to pieces for my chapstick that I forgot was in a hidden pocket. In the midst of this self induced panic I really did hear a noise that sounded like a bear. It started kind of soft and got louder and I felt like it was getting closer. I couldn’t hear footsteps but rather a growling like noise. I stopped breathing, turned my headlamp off and laid completely still for what felt like eternity. The noise held consistency, and after my mind stopped racing I realized it was my friend in the next tent over SNORING. I laughed so hard, and fell asleep with one eye open.

What do you enjoy most about leading hiking trips?

I enjoy seeing the shift in someone’s perspective when they overcome a fear they had, or accomplish something they didn’t think they could but did.

I also love how quickly closeness develops between people when we are all working towards a common goal set in nature. The connections made on the trail are sometimes the most powerful and longest lasting.

What advice do have for people on finding their adventure community?  

Limit your excuses and always look for how you can do something and not what’s holding you back. Experiment and try as many things as possible. Embrace having a beginners mind and don’t be afraid to go or do something alone. Sign up for classes at your local sports shop, join a Meet-Up group (or start one!). Go to gyms that specialize in functional or recreational fitness like rock gyms or CrossFit.

Be comfortable with who you are right now exactly as you are and be open to this beautiful world and the people in it.

Say yes more often. Join the hike, go on the rafting trip, get yourself the new shoes. Embrace your development because every step is incredible and the process is just as rewarding as the end results.

Where’s your next adventure?

This spring I am starting my mountaineering dream and climbing Mt. Rainier in May and Mt. Shuksan with a team of REI employees (including the CEO Jerry Stritzke)! The Mt. Shuksan climb is a charity event called Climb For A Cause and will be an incredible experience. In the Fall I am planning my biggest adventure yet… hiking the Te Araroa trail in New Zealand. It’s a newly established trail that runs the length of both islands ~1,864 miles long and I’m hoping to complete it in three months.

The perfect s’more? (if you don’t like s’mores, what’s your favorite campfire dessert?)

For me I’m a one and done kind of gal when it comes to s’mores so I take some time making it juuuuuust right. I like to use a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup because they are delicious and the perfect size. I’ll take the Reece’s and set it on the graham cracker and set that near the fire so it warms up. I’ll spend a lengthy amount of time roasting one marshmallow so that it’s warmed through and crunchy on the outside, but not burned. I’ll add a few pieces of salty bacon, and smash it all together and it’s heaven in my mouth.

Photos © 2018 Sarah Williams

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