A thru-hike is a combination of physical and mental challenges. It is using strength and an accompanying mindset to accomplish a goal. The goal is simple yet complex, taxing yet basic. The merging and alternating adversity of a thru-hike make the journey the true reward. More than completing an adventure, it is about continually proving that mentally and physically so much more is possible.
Walking 2,000 miles sounds impossible. It sounds too far, even in a car. But every year hikers manage to complete a mental and physical test unique to the outdoors. There is tough terrain, aches, pains, animal encounters, injuries, stream crossing, and inclement weather. The external and unavoidable challenges alone make the adventure grand. But, a whole different side of a hike occurs within the mind. It is a true test of grit, determination, and the alignment of goals.
Thru-hiking is the process of walking becoming a way of life. Some hikers embrace the unexpected challenges and self-sufficiency that comes with this. While others get taken by surprise.
Thru-hiking is dirty, taxing, draining, and involves bouts of hunger, sickness, and longing. It takes work to treat water, prepare food, and set up camp each night. It is a challenge to live out of a backpack. The simplicity is deceiving. Every action has elevated consequences and rewards. If a tent is constructed inadequately, a hiker won’t sleep. If water is treated poorly, or the responsibility is neglected, sickness could ensue. With the greater consequences come greater rewards. A change happens mentally at the same time the body changes physically.
A body struggles during the first weeks of a thru-hike. Physically it is a shock. Nothing can compare to a daily push of logging miles on foot, carrying everything in a backpack. It is a shock to the body and takes time to adapt. The beginning of the adventure is a physical shock. The miles impact the body more than the mind. Blisters form and muscles ache, the body is reinventing itself. But then as time progresses there is a palpable shift. The mental challenge of pushing through the physical discomfort soon grows to overtake it.
On my first thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, I laid alone inside my three-person tent on the first night. I couldn’t sleep. My legs were tired and my back hurt. The sounds of nature were too loud. Each day, for the first two weeks, I tried to cover 20 miles but continually came up short. Despite being an athletic 20-year-old, it was unlike anything I had ever done. The physical toll of sustained daily effort was something new. My feet blistered and hurt, my body ached, and getting out of my sleeping bag was the most difficult part of each day. Slowly my body worked itself into physical shape, but my mental game was far behind.
When the body adjusts to this new way of life, the mind takes over. Unabated thoughts flow to all corners of the universe. The natural, wide-open landscapes lead to a freedom unlike anything else.
But, boredom, doubt, and focusing on each stroke of adversity often cloud the thinking. Lonesomeness and incomprehension about the absurd number of miles that await are often the strongest feelings. A thru-hike is a marathon, not a sprint, and comprehending a distance of 100 marathons is too much.
I distinctly remember sitting at a picnic table in Big Bear City after completing 270 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail and a fellow hiker stated that we had completed 10% of our goal. To me it sounded ridiculous, my feet were calloused and my back ached under the strain of the external frame pack. I couldn’t imagine doing what I just had ten more times. It was too much to comprehend and the statement negatively impacted my headspace for days.
In Northern California, I hiked alone for days on end, bouncing between immense appreciation for the beautiful Trinity Alps Wilderness, and sinking into negativity, hoping to come across another hiker to talk to. The extremes were amazing yet challenging to overcome.
Finding ways to both acknowledge and deal with the mental challenges on a thru-hike can determine the success and enjoyment of the experience.
In the midst of winter on the Appalachian Trail, each morning I developed a ritual for motivating myself to crawl out of my sleeping bag and start hiking. I would choose a number, often between 15 and 30, and slowly countdown. While the countdown to zero took place I would try to enjoy the warmth and comfort of my sleeping bag.
Another mental trick I developed is segmenting the day into small milestones. At the milestones, I would eat, swim, or do another enjoyable activity. The milestones could be as small as a pond or as large as a 10,000-foot pass or town. Finding the tricks to keep the mind occupied and positively framing the thousands of miles in front of you is the key.
A thru-hike is not measured in the miles, physical transformation, or the stated accomplishment. The physical form required to finish the hike is found much before the mental. A true thru-hike is the exploration of natural lands and personal boundaries, which typically leads to discovering a new part of yourself. When the challenges shift and a group of people from all different backgrounds struggle through the same challenges day after day, chasing an unimaginable goal, that is what a thru-hike is actually about.