Sam “The Bird” Small walked fifteen miles before hitting a wall and ending his long distance hike. The reason? Sam found being alone too much to tolerate. Jenny trekked twenty-two miles, and then her motivation evaporated after she spent a harrowing night camped on a hilltop speared by countless lightning strikes. Fred “Trucker” Arthur reached the Georgia/North Carolina border, but got off the trail because of a common long-distance hiking ailment – homesickness.
Sam, Jenny, and Fred were attempting to complete “thru hikes” of the Appalachian Trail – walking the entire 2100-mile footpath from Georgia to Maine in a single shot. Each hiker was outfitted properly. Each one had spent months laying the groundwork. Nevertheless, none of them managed to hike more than a few weeks. They all bailed out and never realized their vision of finishing the whole trail.
Hikers who undertake long distance trails like the A.T. usually spend a great deal time organizing their walk. They pull equipment together, read trail guides meticulously, and compile food lists and menus. Most also undergo training to get in good physical condition. Yet, though these are important things to do, none of them guarantees they will complete their journey. Many who aspire to hike long-distance trails end up blindsided by loss of faith, desire, focus, and drive – some of the core characteristics a hiker must have to make it for the long haul.
During a long distance hike, mental and emotional readiness are paramount, and determine whether a hiker crowns their journey with victory or falls by the wayside not long after they set out. My own capacity to finish all of my long hikes rested exclusively on my level of mental hardiness more than anything. Physical training, gearing up, and packing food is a cinch, but mental training is a bit more elusive.
According to Jennifer Eberst, a Penn State swimming and diving athlete “Mental toughness is doing whatever is necessary to get the job done, including handling the demands of a tough workout…(and)…withstanding pain…” Possessing mental muscle is fundamental for the long distance walker and includes belief in oneself, inspiration, focus, and composure.
I have suffered the consequences of my own psychological crash, which resulted in my decision to end an Appalachian Trail hike in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, in spite of having hiked over 1500 miles. There were compelling factors I believe affected my choice:
Direction Change: Because it was late in the summer, I elected to do a “flip-flop” of the trail, and was hiking south instead of north. Since most thru-hikers walk the A.T. in a northerly direction, I now found I was hiking solo most of the time. I was starved for companionship and alone with my thoughts. Having few hikers to interact with or share the journey took a toll. I found shelters and campsites lonely places to stay, and I felt homesick and isolated.
Seasonal Change: Summer was over and fall had set into New England. The days had become shorter and the nights longer and colder. I was hiking through the White Mountains, and the weather had become unpredictable. In the Whites a routine hike can turn into a life-and-death struggle in minutes when the weather takes a nasty turn. It took more vigilance due to fluctuations in the weather, and I had to put forth more effort to stay warm. I had become frustrated at having to be more alert to deal with harsher climate conditions.
Physical Change: I suffered a bout of intestinal virus, which sidetracked me at the edge of Mahoosuc Notch, one of the A.T.’s most anticipated goals. As a result, I had to leave the trail for health reasons, but felt sad at having to quit, even though the decision was wise.
Collectively, these factors exacted a mental and emotional price I could not continue to pay. I realized I was powerless to stay motivated and keep an optimistic outlook. A perfect storm of turmoil formed and dejection set in. I chose to end my hike, although I was on the threshold of hiking through some of the most splendid and satisfying miles of the Appalachian Trail.
If you are planning to hike a long-distance trail, there are ways you can prepare for the psychological tests you will face during your trip. Once your gear is ready, your food is packed, and maps and guidebooks studied, sit down and seriously think about the following questions:
Am I willing to go days without common comforts?
Am I prepared to go without a decent bath for weeks?
Am I ready to hike in rain and foul weather possibly for days?
Am I ready to deal with the risk of hypothermia, lightning, and the possibility of grave injury?
Am I prepared to slog through mud, deal with bugs and blisters, and hike for miles every day?
Do I like spending long hours walking alone with only my own thoughts for company?
Am I able to handle getting lost, and am I able to get myself out of trouble?
The list could go on, but I think you get the idea. Think about every contingency and unpleasantness possible and ask a how much potential misery you’re ready to tolerate to achieve your goal.
Soon after my own A.T. hike, many first-person books about long-distance walks of the Appalachian Trail began appearing on bookstore shelves. Each author related the story of their hike, and insights into the demands of their trip. You may find it useful to read some of them, and gain a window into the mental and physical stress you will experience during such an endeavor.
The timeless words “be prepared” are not a mundane Boy Scout motto. It’s enduring wisdom, and applies to long path journeys. The more you can do to be self-reliant during your trip, the healthier you state of mind, and the better equipped you will be to handle what you will run into. Be ready for emergencies of all kinds. Polish your outdoor skills. Become proficient in first aid. Be acquainted with the correct use of a map and compass, and hone your camping and weather forecasting abilities. This will dramatically enhance your self-confidence on the trail and strengthen the resilience you’ll need to finish what you start.
An outstanding way to get ready for a long backpacking trip is to take trips of two to three weeks before attempting a multiple month expedition. Find a stretch of trail that interests you and spend up to three weeks on it. Think of it as a living laboratory. You’ll come across most situations you’ll face on a longer walk and learn how to deal with them.
While hiking the Appalachian Trail I suffered a common complaint known as “hamburger feet.” This distasteful term accurately describes how feet can feel after hiking long miles in a day. After a week of misery I deliberately focused my thoughts on subjects other than my throbbing foot pain. I engaged in long and wordy conversations with other hikers. I made up songs and poems. I did anything to distract my mind from the anguish I was experiencing. It worked. By placing attention on things instead of the pain, my outlook brightened and my spirits lifted. While others complained of sore feet, I chose to dwell on enjoyable subjects, like what I would have for dinner. Shifting the focus of my thoughts is a system I still use to encourage myself when I sense dejection threatening to set in.
If you are hiking a heavily used trail like the A.T., count on finding an emotional cauldron. You will be hiking in a mobile society of other long-distance hikers, so you’ll experience disappointment, happiness, discouragement, and the feelings that come with close contact and interaction with others. Depend on days of tears, anger, frustration, and a certain amount of conflict, unless you hike alone.
Remain positive during your hike. Never let things snowball and derail you. Believe you will reach your target. Kindle within yourself a powerful desire to make it to the finish. Remain resilient. There will always be unexpected events that will threaten to shake your plans, but don’t let that throw you. Hike your own hike. Never engage in criticism of other hikers because of their quirks and personality flaws, however much you are tempted. This will erode and destroy your resolve and sabotage your trip.
Long distance hiking is a challenge to physical staying power and logistical planning, with a dose of the unpredictable thrown into the mix. That’s what makes for a rewarding and exciting expedition. Just be sure to also take into account and frame how you’ll approach your hike from a psychological and emotional standpoint before you arrive at the trailhead. This will boost the chances of an unforgettable and successful expedition, where you’ll not simply march miles, but you’ll take pleasure in the trip of a lifetime.