I get asked all the time about “what it takes” to complete a long distance thru hike. Perhaps not always directly, but I can tell when it’s on people’s minds. When I speak with strangers, friends, or family about my adventures and listen to their questions, I sometimes notice a pattern. They’re not always simply curious about what goes on out there; they are trying to build a picture of what I encountered while silently asking themselves, “What would I do in that situation? Could I handle it?” Most of us do this when listening to, or reading the stories/accounts of people who engage in endeavors we admire. We respect and look up to them for what they have accomplished, but always secretly wonder… “Could I do it too? Do I possess what it takes?” It’s one of those things you never truly know until you actually get out there and put every fiber of your being to the test . Until then, all you can do is wonder and prepare; physically and mentally.
Believe it or not, the most crucial aspect of any major undertaking is always mental. Being physically adept will certainly give you a “leg up” as well as an early advantage, but without the mental edge, all the physical prowess in the world amounts to nothing more than aesthetics. It’s what you got upstairs that counts, no matter how beautiful or capable the staircase…
I’ve taken a chapter out of my “Hear the Challenge” Appalachian Trail prep book to share with you on here. This is the chapter on mental preparation, so those of you who have read the book will be familiar with it. Regardless, I feel you can never hear this sort of information too many times, as we often forget it. This chapter was originally geared towards the AT specifically, but I’ve tweaked the writing a bit to have a broader application. I’m not a psychologist or a teacher, so all the information and writing that follows is what I have gained and garnered through personal experience, conversations with others, and books I’ve read. All of that information and experience has melded together over the years to give me the mental tools and strength that I possess today; and now share with you…
Completing a long distance hike or any major undertaking in life whatsoever, will usually be about 10% physical and 90% mental. This percentage holds especially true for finishing a long distance thru hike in one go. You’ve got the gear, you’ve got the money, but do you have the mental toughness/strength and tenacity needed to achieve your goal? Once you get out there you can be sure to expect pain, misery, discomfort, and suffering within a wide range of varying degrees (do not let this scare or intimidate you). Some of your gear, as well as how much money you brought will sometimes play a part in how little or how much of this you endure (in some areas). In other areas, nothing will save you from some of the more unpleasant experiences of an extended jaunt in the wilderness. When these unpleasant experiences occur, what will you do? Will you break and quit? Or will you rise to the occasion, bend with your circumstances and adapt accordingly to any and all obstacles as you encounter them? Yes, your mind, attitude, and outlook will be the deciding factor on whether you complete your epic endeavor or not.
“Mental Toughness” is something you’re going to need a great deal of when it comes to completing your thru-hike. In its most basic definition, mental toughness is the voice in the back of your head that tells you “keep going, don’t give up, you can’t quit now.” While out on the trail, you’re going to have A LOT of internal dialogue with yourself, possibly more than you’ve ever had in your entire life. The big question is… what will the tone of that internal dialogue be? Will it be mostly negative or positive? Will you be trying to talk yourself “into quitting” or “out of quitting?” Will you be counting the reasons to “stay on” trail, or reasons to “get off” trail? Your internal dialogue will play a huge part in your mental state out there; in turn, directly influencing your chances of success.
Besides the internal dialogue you will be having with yourself nearly every solitary second spent out there, you will have a plethora of other factors that will evoke responses from your mental/emotional state. One of the greatest markers of mental toughness is the ability to control your emotions. Not “control” so much in the sense of repressing them, but in understanding them. If you’re not in control of your emotions, then they’re in control of you. Being able to realize and understand why you feel a certain way, but still be able to make rational decisions despite how you may feel is HUGE. I cannot emphasize that point enough. So many people make snap/impulse decisions based on how they feel at the present moment; they seldom stop to think, “Why do I really feel this way?” or “Is this really the best thing to do at this exact moment?”
This sort of mental toughness comes into play when you’re thinking about quitting. There are many things that will make you question your decision to thru-hike and possibly consider quitting; things like physical pain, misery, suffering brought on by the elements, missing home, missing loved ones, missed expectations, becoming bored, or thoughts of, “I’ll never make it.” Thoughts are strong, but feelings are stronger. Your feelings of discomfort, boredom, or pain in the present moment can mislead your thoughts into making irrational decisions that have long term consequences/effects. You can lie to yourself with your thoughts, but your feelings will always be true, yet less in your control. This is why being able to understand and control your feelings to a certain extent is so important. You need to be able to use your thoughts clearly when your temporary feelings of the present moment may be clouding your judgment. To put it in better perspective; pain, misery, depression, discomfort, etc. are all “feelings” that can very rapidly lead to low morale and the decision to quit. There’s no getting around the fact that you will experience these feelings at some point during your journey, if not many times throughout. Once these feelings arise, they’re going to be accompanied by thoughts – the voice inside your head that interprets those feelings. Are your thoughts going to feed into the negative aspects of your feelings, subsequently initiating a downward spiral? Or will you keep a focused, level headed handle on your thoughts… understand and accept your feelings for whatever they may be, then use them to get through whatever outward or inward obstacle you may be facing? Don’t let your thoughts defeat you on account of your feelings. Pain, misery, bad weather, tough terrain; none of it lasts forever – so don’t make a decision that does. Remember, “This too shall pass.”
When you’ve gone out there to attempt a thru-hike, it’s safe to say that you “wanted it” pretty badly. At some point in your life you decided you wanted to hike an incredible distance and accomplish one of the oldest and greatest feats/adventures our planet has to offer. However, in order to seize that goal, you’ll have to want it more than anything else in the world, before and during the endeavor. You know that deep inside yourself, completing your hike is what you want. This feeling, this desire to hike the entire trail is what brought you out there in the first place. This desire is the everlasting feeling that underlies all other fleeting emotions you’ll experience throughout your journey; try to recognize and remember that. So, what is the only thing (besides injury and running out of money) that can possibly stop you from achieving your desire of a completed thru-hike? The answer is YOU. You are the only one who can stop yourself from reaching your goal. Completing a long distance thru-hike is as simple as not quitting. Don’t quit, no matter what, and your dream is as good as realized.
So, let us delve deeper into things that make people quit, as well as why someone would make the decision to quit. The most blatant explanation for quitting in almost any circumstance would undoubtedly be “rationalization.” We humans are rational creatures; we can rationalize just about anything in order to make it make sense to us, or seem like the right thing to do. You can rationalize positive things, as well as negative things. If you put your mind to it, you can rationalize pretty much any decision you could ever make to seem like the right or wrong decision. It all depends on whichever one you “feel” is more beneficial to you at the present moment. Pain and suffering (feelings!) do funny things to the human brain. It can cause you to rationalize decisions you “think” you really want to make, when in fact you really don’t. Rationalization is so powerful that when you’re under stress and pain, you can actually convince yourself that finishing your thru-hike is something you never truly wanted. Maybe this is true, but more often than not, you’re only fooling yourself. You don’t decide to hike over 2,000 miles and not have really wanted it at some point. When do most people realize they rationalized a lie to themselves when they decided quitting was the best decision to make (at whatever time they decided to make it)? That moment of regret is when they realize they deceived themselves. They made a decision in the heat of the moment they didn’t actually believe in, then regretted it very shortly afterward. Once they’re away from the pain and suffering of the moment, and able to think clearly, they realize, “What was I thinking? I really did want to complete this adventure! Why did I talk myself out of it and quit!?” Mental toughness will help you to avoid rationalizing “heat of the moment” decisions you will later regret. It is the ability to look past your present suffering to realize you will most likely regret any decisions to quit, thus deterring you from quitting; this ability is part of what demonstrates an aspect of your mental toughness.
Earlier I stated some of the major reasons/factors that cause people to quit, as well as how they come to arrive at their decision to quit. Now let’s go over those factors in a little more detail, but focus more on what helps you NOT quit.
Physical pain; something you may be a stranger to, or very familiar with. If you’re a stranger to it, you won’t be any longer after completing a long distance hike. There is plenty of physical pain to be found and had out there. Having said this, there are two types of physical pain you will encounter while out on the trail. The first type falls into the category most of us lump all pain into – the hurting kind. Many people cannot distinguish between good pain and bad pain, because all pain seems like bad pain to them. This is where mental toughness/mental maturity play a huge part once again.
Let’s examine good pain. This is the type of pain you’re going to experience in great abundance towards the beginning of your journey. You’re going to experience it so much in fact, that it’s going to trick you into thinking it’s bad pain. Good pain during physical activity is what we trainers like to refer to as “the burn,” or “the pump.” You’re going to feel this pain in your quads, your calves, your feet, your back, as well as other areas not accustomed to carrying or bearing weight as you go up and down the inclines and declines of the trail; all day, every day. As you might expect, these pains will be at their most intense during the beginning of the journey, as your body adapts to the new stresses and challenges you confront. If you weren’t hiking up and down mountains carrying a backpack every day before you decided to thru-hike, then it’s safe to assume that at some point during the beginning of your trek, the muscles of your body are going to burn and hurt to a certain degree. Some will view this as “bad pain” right off the bat, quitting in the beginning because they can’t handle the constant burning. I urge you not to be that person. This type of pain will be very commonplace for the first four to six weeks; sometimes shorter, sometimes a little bit longer (along with other pains we will get into shortly). It all depends on the individual, as well as what they were doing prior to the trail. The average break-in time for our bodies out there is four to six weeks. After that initial four to six weeks, your body has realized, “Hey! It looks like my job is climbing mountains while carrying weight on my back! I guess I’ll just devote myself to being really good at this!” Our bodies are incredible machines in the sense that they will adapt to whatever we throw at them. If you sit on the couch at home, or in a chair at work all day, not doing anything, you can bet your bottom dollar that your body is going to adapt to be good at it, and not much else. If you walk up and down mountains carrying a backpack every day, you can also bet that your body will adapt to become very good at that too. Knowing this information is the ability to realize that the initial pain of trying something new won’t last forever. Your body will adapt (after considerable burning and pain), then you won’t even notice it, even coming to enjoy the burning feelings derived from challenging and exerting yourself.
There is a second type of good pain that walks a very fine line with bad pain. It can sometimes be difficult to discern, even for some of the most seasoned athletes, hikers, or people with active lifestyles. The type of pain I’m talking about is “aching pain,” or soreness. This is pain you will experience while you’re hiking, but will continue (possibly getting worse) after you’ve stopped for the day, and even while you’re sleeping. You’re going feel this pain in your feet, various joints, and possibly your back. You may feel it in one of these areas, a couple of them, or all of them. This type of pain can cause people to mistakenly think or rationalize that they’re “injured,” then quit; OR, they simply can’t handle it and quit, thinking the aching pain will go on forever, get worse, or develop into a severe lifelong injury. I’ll be honest with you, when you’re out there, it seems like these types of pains will go on forever, but they usually don’t; they are temporary. Temporary in the sense that they’ll go away, or you’ll become accustomed to the point that they won’t bother you further down the trail. Your knees are going to ache, your ankles and feet are going to throb and have shooting pains, and your back is going to feel tight and stiff. Some people will interpret these pains as “injuries,” and quit right away, for fear of them becoming worse. This is where these pains walk a fine line with “good pain” and “bad pain.” I’ll let you in on a little secret; EVERYONE experiences these types of pains to a certain degree while out on trail. They are perfectly normal and part of the adaptation process of your body. You can push through these pains (don’t overdo it too much in the beginning; listen to your body) and still manage to cover good distances on a daily basis. If you are genuinely injured, then you will physically be unable to perform certain actions. When it’s just an ache, then only your mind will inhibit you. As I mentioned previously, it’s tough to discern an ache from an injury sometimes, especially if you’re unfamiliar with both. Nevertheless, if you maintain a positive outlook, as well as a “can do” attitude, you’ll know which one it is and react appropriately.
This brings me to our final type of physical pain – “bad pain.” This is the type of pain related to injury in all of its major and minor forms. From blisters, cuts, scrapes, bruises, bug bites, and stings; all the way to tears, strains, fractures, and breaks. These are the types of bad pain that can frequently be encountered out on trail. Like anything in life, you and only you can decide how you’re going to react to each and every thing that happens to you. I can almost guarantee you’re going to get blisters, cuts, scrapes, bruises, bug bites, and stings at one point or another during your 2,000+ mile adventure, maybe throw in some poison ivy (I got it) for good measure. I can’t guarantee that you’ll experience tears and strains due to ankle rolls, missteps, and falls; or that you’ll experience a broken or fractured bone, but they are very real possibilities, and not all of them are necessarily “hike ending.” People have rolled, torn, fractured, and broken their bones, ligaments and tendons out there and still completed their hike (I’m one of them). Your mental toughness is going to be pushed to the limit if you are forced to endure anything like this. When it comes to torn ligaments or broken bones, the severity of the injury will most likely determine whether you grit it out or go home; you may not even have a choice in the matter. It may be so bad that you physically cannot continue, even though the mind and spirit are willing. This is something out of your hands that will require considerable thought, if encountered. Weigh the consequences of continuing and pushing through the pain (if possible), or going home. Try to remember (this helped me): The harder the struggle, the sweeter the victory. The more obstacles you overcome will make the feelings of your final day on trail that much more momentous. Keep in mind, when things are at their most painful or uncomfortable; whatever negativity you might be feeling… those feelings will be multiplied positively when you finally reach your goal.
Getting through the smaller pains like blisters, cuts, and bugs is a grind. The best way to get through them is to view them as a positive, strength and character building experience. As the good pains burn and ultimately sculpt you into a physically stronger human being, you can view the bad pains as sculpting you into a tougher, more resilient human being. They are building/molding a strength that comes from within; a strength that can’t be achieved simply through physical efforts. These are the sort of experiences that build mental toughness. You can use these experiences in the future when confronted with similar situations. You’ll look back and remember “Hey, I’ve been through something like this before; I overcame it then, I’ll overcome it now.” This is called confidence, something that overcoming painful obstacles will give you. You simply have to see and realize the future pay-off to enduring the pain “now” – that way it won’t seem as bad when encountered again at a later date. See the bigger picture that is your suffering, then view it as something which can only make you stronger, instead of something to whine about or make you quit. There is a famous Latin quote that goes hand in hand with this viewpoint. “Perfer et obdura, dolor hic tibi proderit olim.” It means, “Be patient and tough; someday this pain will be useful to you.” This train of thought can be applied to almost any aspect of pain and suffering on the trail, as well as in life. Still, let us delve deeper into the other factors that cause people to give up…
Misery and suffering brought on by the elements, as well as terrain are two more of the biggest obstacles that cause people to quit. Rest assured, if you go out there for the long haul, you are almost guaranteed at some point to encounter torrential rain, gale force winds, sweltering heat, freezing cold, hale, ice, and in some cases (depending on when you start) snow. Terrain wise, if you’re doing the entire trail, you WILL encounter, rocks, boulder fields, mud, river crossings, creek crossings, hand over hand climbs, washed out root beds, overgrown vegetation, poison ivy, and not to mention uphill/downhill climbs and descents of every angle imaginable. Sometimes you’re going to encounter horrible elements while simultaneously traversing terrible terrain. How is one to take all of this in stride while keeping up morale and not losing hope? The answer is simple; maintain your sense of humor, stay goal oriented, and keep a positive outlook at all times. Out of those three things, keeping your sense of humor is without a doubt the most important. If you can laugh at yourself, as well as all the bad things that befall you, then you’re already 75% of the way to your positive attitude. If you can maintain the clarity of mind to laugh and stay positive, then focusing on the end goal will be easy.
Before you can maintain a sense of humor in the face of pain, misery, and discomfort; you first have to acquire something I consider invaluable to any human being. Something that can keep you alive and comfortable in the face of any adversity, obstacle, or situation. That something is “adaptability.” The ability to change your outlook, your attitude, your routine, your strategy, your thought process, your gear, or your tactics – in order to meet the challenges of ever changing situations and environments. People that possess the ability to adapt don’t let their circumstances break them. Adaptable people bend with their circumstances, turning their weaknesses into strengths and allowing whatever adversity they’re facing to work for them, even if it’s only in their mind. In short, adaptability is synonymous with flexibility; be flexible, not rigid. Adaptability isn’t something you can wake up and possess one morning. It’s an art in its own right, and one of the pinnacles of mental strength.
The first step to honing your adaptability is realizing how closely intertwined it is with your positive outlook, sense of humor, and goal orientation. People who despair easily are usually not adaptable. Where does despairing, feeling sorry for yourself, and negative thoughts/internal dialogue get you? The answer is nowhere, or at least nowhere you want to be. When you encounter terrain, weather, or temperatures that don’t agree with you (and I assure you that you will), the first and foremost thing you need to do is… accept them. Once you’ve accepted your predicament and come to terms with the fact that whatever’s happening to you couldn’t have happened any other way, and that you can’t change or affect any of it through any power of your own; you’ve just taken the first step towards adaptability. You have made the conscious decision to not waste energy on second guessing your situation, or wishing something was different or not happening to you at the moment. There is a saying I’m quite fond of… “Wish in one hand, shit in the other; see which fills up first.” Wishing gets us nowhere, action does. So, now that you’ve accepted whatever it is that’s happening to you, you can do the next best thing to ignoring it; you can embrace it. Embrace the suck. Embrace it by laughing at it, as well as finding the humor in whatever it is that’s happening. This can sometimes be hard to do, if not impossible, but so long as you make the effort, you’re not doing the worst thing you can do, which is to despair, or nothing.
There is a quote by Aristotle that greatly helped me through some tough times out there. It’s a quote that might help put into perspective the frame of mind that’s required on a journey of this magnitude. Aristotle said, “Suffering becomes beautiful when anyone bears calamities with cheerfulness, not through insensibility, but through greatness of mind.” That statement sums up the frame of mind you have to adopt in order to complete a long distance hike without quitting or having a terrible time. You have to let yourself go slightly crazy in order to laugh at your own pain and discomfort, however, it’s worth it. People will indeed view it as crazy or insensible, but this is because they don’t understand. If you let every single obstacle get you down, then you’re not going to get very far. Laugh at them all and view them as nothing more than events that will shape you into a stronger, more resilient human being in the long run.
In the event that you’re not very moved by quotes, or perhaps don’t draw any kind of strength or inspiration from them, I offer a different perspective. How do you eat an elephant? The answer is: One bite at a time. A long distance hike, like an elephant, is massive. The task seems impossible and overwhelming when you look at either of them as a whole. Do not look at them in their entirety; instead take them one bite, one step at a time. Keep chipping away, doing what you can, focusing only on what’s directly in front of you and eventually… there will be nothing left.
I’m going to wrap the final reasons for why people quit into a single group because they are purely psychological and have absolutely nothing to do with long distance hiking itself. Many people quit due to missing home, missing loved ones, pressure from loved ones, missed expectations, or becoming bored. First off, if you have obligations back home pertaining to family, financial, pets, or whatever; then nothing I can say will influence the likelihood of you getting off trail to take care of those obligations (which you should, although they should’ve already been taken care of before you went out there). Albeit, shit happens, and everything is not under our control. Having said that, depending on who you are, you will probably become homesick at some point (maybe). Depending on your relationship or marital status, you will begin to miss your loved ones, or they may begin pressuring you to come home or “hurry up!” These are natural emotions and urges that can dominate your thought process, especially when all you have is time on your hands to think. There is only one weapon to combat homesickness and the beckoning call of loved ones. That weapon is “foresight.” The foresight to know that if you let yourself rationalize going home due to homesickness or a loved one’s call… you may very well regret it. Home will always be there waiting for you (unless it’s on wheels or burns down), understand and accept that. Unless someone is sick or in absolute dire need of your presence back home, then there is no reason for them to cause you to abandon your hike. If they truly love/care about you, they will understand and trust your need to go out and attempt something of this magnitude. A long distance hike isn’t something you want to do; it’s something you NEED to do. It calls to you; a beckoning you can feel it in your bones. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re being selfish by going out and attempting to complete your endeavor/dream; after all, it’s your life and your happiness. Realize that before you make your final decision…
Of course there are special circumstances to every personal situation that involve emotions, feelings, and love. I’m not going to dish out relationship or marital advice in this book; “It’s a fool who looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart.” What I’ve said above is as much as I’ll say on the topics of missing home and loved ones. Whatever you do, should the debacle of going home due to those two reasons arise… it should feel completely right in your own heart; and I hope that you never regret it, regardless of your choices.
Something you wouldn’t think would happen on the trail, but strangely enough does, is boredom. You will get so bored out of your mind at certain points, you’ll hardly believe it’s possible. When out walking in the woods all day, every day, not every single one of those days will be filled with breath taking views, life altering revelations, or exciting occurrences. At some point you’re probably going to run out of things to think about (besides how bored you are), as everything begins to look the same. “Oh look a tree, another tree, another tree, a rock, more rocks, now I’m going uphill, now I’m going downhill…” so on and so forth. Keeping yourself and your mind occupied is sometimes easier said than done. For me, I had three ways I combated boredom. One: I would pick problems with the world or my own life, then attempt to solve them; sometimes in a serious manner, sometimes in a joking, but as close to serious manner as I could. Two: Walking and conversing with other people; you will never have more meaningful conversations with other individuals than you will while hiking or sitting around campfires. With no distractions, nowhere to be, and all day to have them, “conversations” take on a whole new meaning out there. Take advantage of every single second you have to be able to talk to people like this. I promise it will be one of the major aspects of trail life you miss most after you’re done. Three: fantasizing about food. This doesn’t sound so great right now, but after you’ve been out in the woods for any length of time, food and hunger are going to dominate your thoughts. Thinking about the foods I was going to track down and eat in the next town always helped to motivate me. On the flip side, this can be absolute torture and sometimes depressing once you realize that several days’ worth of hiking may be separating you from your favorite craving. Nevertheless, it’s something tangible that you can set your energy towards.
Lastly, many people quit the trail due to “missed expectations.” This means they went out there with a certain experience in mind, but they’re not getting it. It can also simply mean that trail life isn’t what they thought it would be. Low morale or depression due to missed expectations is a hard factor to overcome. If you’re out there and truly not enjoying yourself, then it’s safe to say you’re probably wasting your time. Having said that, don’t give up due to perceived missed expectations right away, especially if it’s at the beginning of your journey. Give the adventure and yourself time to evolve and mature into something more “in-line” with what you want/enjoy. The adventure of a long distance hike is purely what you make of it; so make the effort to exceed your own expectations. If you’ve been out there for months, and haven’t enjoyed yourself for the majority of that time, then you can probably go home without too much regret – the experience will still have been incredible.
So now we’ve covered all major factors that contribute to people quitting, or not completing their long distance hiking endeavor. We’ve examined the mental game as well as how to develop and apply it to a myriad of situations. All techniques for dealing with the various obstacles are interchangeable and can work; you simply have to remember and practice them. In concluding this section, I will impart a final mental trick you can use/remember in any situation you encounter out there. Focus on the end goal and remember “WHY” you went out there. Find that reason that prompted you to set foot on trail in the first place; find it, grab onto it, never let it go and never forget it, whatever “it” may be. Good or bad, every single thing that happens is contributing to the overall experience, while adding to that final feeling of “I DID IT!” when you take your last steps (wherever they may be) in completing the trail. When you’re in “the shit,” feeling down and miserable, simply think of how absolutely tremendous the feeling is going to be when you achieve what you set out there to do, look back on everything you overcame and realize… none of it stopped me.
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