Most guidebooks and websites like this one focus on obvious, external challenges one might face, like inclement weather. Everyone faces these objective problems, which have objective solutions that can be tested empirically. While these physical and material preparations are important, equally important is mental and emotional preparation.
The simple fact is, if you can hike the first 100 miles of the trail, then physically you are capable of making it to the end. What sends hikers home are the emotional challenges of the trail, particularly loneliness.
In addition to hiking with a friend or loved one, there are also some steps to take and questions to meditate on before and during your thru-hike, to help you through the many psychological and emotional challenges you'll face. These are discussed below.
Hike with Someone
Couples and close friends who hike together have higher completion rates that people who hike alone. On the Pacific Crest Trail, you'll see single folks who arrived alone clump together in the first weeks of the trail and form groups. They hike together and make collective decisions about where to camp, how far to go each day, et cetera.
While hiking the AT, a fellow thru-hiker invited our editor Mike to a party at his parent’s house. He and three other hikers caught a ride from the trail to a nearby town. They stood out in a party thrown by wealthy New Englanders who wore pressed white pants and polos and drank wine under rented canopies. He defended his appearance to a scowling woman, telling her he had been hiking the AT for five months.
"Well, that must be nice," she said. "To be able to just pick up and go. Some of us have to work."
He didn’t care enough about her opinion to counter the implication that he was a child of privilege. It was not the things he had in his life that made the journey possible — it was the things he didn’t have: insurance, a job, a house, an apartment, a wife, a girlfriend, kids. Over two years, he had sacrificed a career and two relationships to make it possible.
He doesn’t know why he made those sacrifices — the trail was an indescribable, inexplicable force that took hold of him. During those first anxious nights on the trail in Georgia, hopeful thru-hikers tried to ask other hikers why they wanted to thru-hike. The nervous uncertainty on their faces was obvious. They doubted their own motivations and hoped to reinforce their weakening resolve with the words of others, but no one had an answer. No one knew precisely why they were there.
Months later in Virginia, a middle school class came to a hiker hostel where Mike and a few other hikers did a Q&A with them. A boy asked why they were thru-hiking and the room fell into stony silence.
“I’m in it for the money and the women,” Mike said. Big laughs.
Feel free to use that line yourself when someone asks you why you are doing what you are doing.
Jokes aside, here is the real reason you need to get up every morning, break camp, and hike for seven hours: to do it. Don't try to do the PCT because you want to finish it, because you want to reach the end.
To make this point, let us share an anecdote from Mike's AT thru-hike. In the first weeks of the hike, he met a lot of guys whose imaginations had already reached Maine when their bodies were still in Georgia. They flew out of camp every morning and would push themselves to do high-mileage days. They seemed anxious to reach the end of the Trail, but one-by-one Mike watched them quit. Their great anxiety and energy to make progress, to feel some sense of completion was thwarted by the reality that 2000 miles could not be hiked quickly, that there wouldn't be any feeling of completion for months. They grew frustrated and discouraged; their mental stamina deteriorated.
Each of these guys was physically capable of reaching Maine, but their motives for hiking were all wrong. They were hiking the AT in order to finish it, rather than simply to do it, and as a result, their minds were always in the future, and they were never able to enjoy the present. Our favorite explication of this idea is Vietnamese Zen Buddhist Nhat Hanh’s dishwashing story from his book The Miracle of Mindfulness (1975, page 4).
In the United States, I have a close friend named Jim Forest. When I first met him eight years ago, he was working with the Catholic Peace Fellowship. Last winter, Jim came to visit. I usually wash the dishes after we’ve finished the evening meal, before sitting down and drinking tea with everyone else. One night, Jim asked if he might do the dishes.
I said, “Go ahead, but if you wash the dishes you must know the way to wash them.”
Jim replied, “Come on, you think I don’t know how to wash the dishes?”
I answered, “There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.”
Jim was delighted and said, “I choose the second way—to wash the dishes to wash the dishes.”
From then on, Jim knew how to wash the dishes. I transferred the “responsibility” to him for an entire week. If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact, we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future—and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.
This is perhaps a lesson that to be truly understood, has to be experienced. While you can understood it on an intellectual level before thru-hiking, your thru-hike is how and where you really learned it.
Mike received this insight at the start of his Appalachian Trail thru-hike: If he could hike the first 100 miles, then he could make it to Maine — physically. However, if his head and his heart weren’t in the right place, he'd quit and go home.
The person who said this was prescient. After the first weeks of the hike, only physically strong hikers remained. Everyone left was an excellent hiker, often physically more capable than Mike, but one by one he watched people quit and leave the trail. Everyone may have had their own personal, idiosyncratic reason to quit, but really it was always the same reason: their heart wasn’t in it and their head wasn’t in the right place.
The biggest challenges on a long-term, long-distance trek are mental. Knowing, accepting, and understanding of this is the best preparation.
We have experienced four consistent and predictable stages of anger and despair when things get hard on the trail. When the rain won’t stop, our gear is muddy, we're cold, and it’s been too long since our last zero-day, certain things begin to happen:
How long the miserable conditions persist is directly related to which stage we reach. If the misery only lasts for a few hours one day, we'll only hit stage one. If the conditions last longer, stage two is reached, and so on. Be aware that this will happen to you — and that you can push past it. Reaching stage four can feel like hitting a wall, and we think this is when people quit. But if you just keep going, you’ll make it.
Mike has had a number of epiphanies due to these moments of utter despair, the most important of which occurred on the AT while climbing Roan Mountain. He had reached stage four, and then realized he wasn’t fighting the trail, or even the mountain. He was fighting himself. The biggest obstacles in his way were his own fatigue, discomfort, thirst, and hunger — not the mountain. He was getting in his own way, and after this epiphany, everything became easier. This lesson stayed with him after he finished the trail and returned home and is not something that can be taught. You may understand it intellectually, but to feel it, to be changed by it — it must be experienced firsthand.
Guidebooks and websites (including this one) always have checklists. But in addition to the usual gear checklists and preparation checklists we are including a checklist of character traits and personal skills that make one likely to succeed during a thru-hike. Why? Because we have seen a lot of people quit and go home.
This is not a list of "must haves." After all, no one is perfect and no individual has every quality listed below. But keep in mind that in the same way everyone believes they have a great sense of humor (which of course is not true), we often believe the best about ourselves. Self-evaluation is hard and this list is meant as an aid for one’s self-inventory. When we come up lacking, the trail itself will help us grow, if we let it.
Qualities of a Great Traveler:
1) An Easygoing Disposition
a temper as serene at the end of the day as at the beginning
a willingness and eagerness to try new foods
an active mind not easily bored
delight toward the unexpected
an easy laugh
2) A Love of Human Nature
a love to meet new people
quick judge of character
ability to make new friends easily
inexhaustible patience for other people
empathetic, selfless, & considerate
interest in local history, customs, & culture
3) A Love of Nature
a sense of belonging in the natural world
comfortable when dirty
the ability to sleep anywhere
derives a sense of wonder from the natural world
does not fear wildlife
4) Determination & Self-Control
a calm composure during a crisis
the ability to take decisive action quickly
attention to detail
a good organizer
embraces lengthy & tedious planning
ability to set long-term goals and stick to a plan
good with money
This list was inspired by Freya Stark’s "Ten Qualities Needed by a Traveler" from which we took "a temper as serene at the end of the day as at the beginning." That line struck us as extremely insightful.
Freya Stark, an British adventurer and author of twenty books, also wrote these words of wisdom: "One can only really travel if one lets oneself go and takes what every place brings without trying to turn it into a healthy private pattern of one's own and I suppose that is the difference between travel and tourism."
Those who venture onto a trail in order to “find themselves” rarely do so and usually quit before the finish line. Inner peace, enlightenment, and happiness are not found at the end of the trail. Mike once met a man on the AT whose son had died tragically. His marriage had fallen apart under the stress and he was on the trail in order to escape his pain and find solace. Instead, he was trapped alone with that pain and was suffering even more.
That said, it is impossible to spend months away from one’s normal life, alone in the wilderness, and not be changed by the ordeal. The nature of the change differs from person to person due to our personalities, idiosyncrasies, and unique experiences. Just keep in mind that you should never undertake a thru-hike expressly to seek that change. You're in it for the money and the women, remember?