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Completing a Thru-Hike

What sets successful thru-hikers apart from the rest of the pack? Superfitnessawesomesauce? A trust fund? The best gear? The answer may surprise you.

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by Francis Tapon | 2011-09-13 00:00:00-06

Completing a Thru-Hike - 1

Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, or Continental Divide Trail has a tendency to kick your butt. Most fail. I met many successful pilgrims on these trails, and I tried to look for a common thread. Here are some characteristics I thought they would share:

Wealth: I figured you probably need the financial wherewithal to support the multi-month journey.

Wrong: One guy (Cheapo) hiked from Georgia to New York on $20. His secret? Live off the freebies in hiker-boxes.

Good Gear: Those who travel with shoddy equipment are surely at a disadvantage.

Wrong: A man named Spider thru-hiked the AT with the same old, decrepit gear he'd had for 35 years.

Superior Nutrition: Poor nutrition would certainly catch up to you during the hike and hamper your ability to finish it.

Wrong: A few thru-hikers survived mainly on Snickers and other junk food.

Excellent Cardiovascular Conditioning: Thru-hiking is the ultimate endurance sport, so surely cardiovascular fitness is paramount.

Wrong: In Virginia I met George Ziegenfuss who blew that theory - he was in his sixties and hiked the AT with only one lung. He was huffing and puffing when he was sitting down, but he overcame that “inconvenience.”

Disease-Free: Your body should be healthy and free of debilitating diseases.

Wrong: Sticks and Stones, two ex-military men, thru-hiked together to raise money for Leukodystrophy, which Sticks battled. Although Leukodystrophy is a progressive disorder that affects the brain, spinal cord and peripheral nerves, it did not stop Sticks from thru-hiking the AT.

Youth: I initially thought that being young and strong was a common denominator.

Wrong: I recalled the first female thru-hiker I met on the AT - she was in her sixties. Others have completed it in their seventies. In 2004, Lee “The Easy One” Barry became the oldest person to ever thru-hike the AT: he was 81. The fastest thru-hiker our year was Linsey, a man who biked from California to Georgia, hiked up to Maine in about 72 days, and then biked back to California. He averaged about 30 miles a day on the AT and never took a day off. He was 63.

Sight: OK, at the very least, you should be able to see the darn trail! Right?

Wrong: a blind man, Bill Irwin, hiked the whole trail with his trusty seeing-eye dog named Orient. It took him nine months (50% longer than average), and he fell hundreds of times, but he made it.

I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t seem to find a common denominator among all the successful thru-hikers. Yes, the majority were young, strong, ate healthy food, carried lightweight gear, and could actually see the trail, but there were so many exceptions. It wasn’t until I finished a thru-hike that I figured it out.

The only common thread that separated the successful thru-hikers from those who weren’t successful was their will. Those who complete a thru-hike in one season have an unbreakable will. They want to complete the trail so badly that nothing will stop them. Their rock-solid courage triumphs over the fear and adversity that confronts them throughout their arduous journey.

Therefore, if you’re planning to thru-hike, it certainly helps to follow the valuable tips at Backpackinglight.com and lighten your load. However, don’t forget get to load up on the most important ingredient: the WILL.

“Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them. A desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have last-minute stamina, they have to be a little faster, they have to have the skill and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.” — Muhammad Ali

Francis Tapon is the first person to yo-yo the Continental Divide Trail. He is the author of Hike Your Own Hike and, most recently, The Hidden Europe. Both books and his 77-minute CDT Yo-Yo Video are available at his website.


Citation

"Completing a Thru-Hike," by Francis Tapon. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/complete_thruhike.html, 2011-09-13 00:00:00-06.

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Completing a Thru-Hike
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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Completing a Thru-Hike on 09/13/2011 13:36:50 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Completing a Thru-Hike

Chris Morgan
(ChrisMorgan) - F

Locale: Southern Oregon
Re: Completing a Thru-Hike on 09/13/2011 13:43:17 MDT Print View

That's an awfully heavy looking pack...

drowning in spam
(leaftye) - F

Locale: SoCal
Re: Completing a Thru-Hike on 09/13/2011 13:54:03 MDT Print View

OK, at the very least, you should be able to see the darn trail! Right?

You should check out Trevor Thomas.

Ken Thompson
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: Behind the Redwood Curtain
Re: Re: Completing a Thru-Hike on 09/13/2011 22:13:46 MDT Print View

Where there is a will, there is a way

Ryan Linn
(ryan.c.linn)

Locale: Maine!
Re: Completing a Thru-Hike on 09/14/2011 06:50:02 MDT Print View

That "youth" myth is the one that gets me the most. I can't remember which, but a recent Backpacker mag article mentioned that most thru-hikers are fresh out of college. Maybe. I don't have the data handy, but the ages I see most often on the AT are 28-45-- yes, young, but hardly fresh out of college. And it seems like the most successful at finishing their hikes are the 40-60s age range. The ones who go the longest are the ones with the least to prove.

Kristin Tennessen
(ktenness) - MLife

Locale: Sierra Nevadas
Completing a Thru-Hike on 09/14/2011 07:09:44 MDT Print View

Excellent.

Francis Tapon
(ftapon) - MLife

Locale: Earth
Re: Re: Completing a Thru-Hike on 09/14/2011 12:58:58 MDT Print View

Chris: That IS a heavy pack! That's Hawkeye, a fun thru-hiker that I met while walking southbound through Yellowstone. Last year he completed a "Triple-Double": he thru-hiked the Triple Crown twice (over 6 seasons). Someday he may lighten his load, but he certainly has the WILL! :)

Tip Ray
(Tipper) - MLife
Support on 09/14/2011 15:30:29 MDT Print View

Certainly willpower is the greatest common denominator. However, I would also suggest that one must have support at home and along the trail to get them through their hike - people who encourage and assist in some way - sending supplies, holding a job open, watching a house, apt, pet, or just someone who the hiker can call. Tough to do this all alone. also, the typical hiker can also rely on the support of his/her fellow hikers.

I thru-hiked the AT in 2006 at 54 years of age. Everyone who loves to backpack should try this bill support you! :)

William Brown
(MatthewBrown) - F

Locale: Blue Ridge Mtns
No shoes on 09/14/2011 19:44:22 MDT Print View

My friends got passed by a guy in Vermont who did the AT barefoot. While they searching for their boots in the shoe-sucking-off mud, he just plodded right past them.

Edited by MatthewBrown on 09/14/2011 19:45:34 MDT.

Hannes Horst
(Hochtourist) - F
Re: Completing a thru-hike on 09/15/2011 00:33:50 MDT Print View

Last summer, on a solo mountaineering trip, I met a guy (around 60, had almost completed climbing the Alps' 4000m peaks and, thus, had started to solo peaks between 3500 and 4000) who told me that mountaineering was by 70% a mental sport. Maybe, for hiking it's only 60%. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that will and determination are what gets you through challenging trips, be ita thru-hike or something different.

a b
(Ice-axe)
Going Thru on 09/15/2011 09:43:00 MDT Print View

I whole heartedly agree with Mr. Tapons assertion that the prime ingredient for a successful thru hike is Willpower.
In my case I started a Thru hike of the PCT in 1992. I had all this gear, all these dreams of sunshine and rainbows, a huge send off party by all my family, friends and neibors.
I quit at mile 43.
Yea, I had huge blisters and 9 of my toenails had turned blue and swollen up to twice their size due to ill fitting footwear.
But the fact remains, my will was broken.
In December of 2008 I woke up one morning and looked in the mirror to find a 39 year old man looking back at me with a soul burning desire to complete a thru hike of the PCT.
So in April of 2009 (and on my 40th birthday) I found myself at the southern terminus of the PCT and began walking north.
This time my will was unbreakable for i had forged it out of solid spiritual iron.
Things i did before the hike the second time that helped me steel my resolve:
Define my goal. ie.: I wanted a continuos line of steps from one end to the other.
Train, lose body weight, lose packweight.
Read books on mythology, the trail itself, learn as near as possible the realities of what I was attempting.
On the trail:
Accept each day on the trail, whether it is comfortable or not, as an absolute gift.
Long distance hiking is a lifestyle; a beautiful, difficult, fulfilling, painful, visceral lifestyle lived close to the earth, regulated by the sun.
The end was somewhere over the horizon and i thought about it sometimes but I kept my real focus on where i was that day, that moment.
It can be overwhelming to think about walking 2,665 miles so when I had difficult times (Giardiasis) I made my goal just to the next tree, then to the next hill, then to the next mountain.
I ended up loving the thru hike so much I was a little sad when i finally reached the end.
The clarity of purpose found on a long hike is a powerful ally to your will.
Realize that you alone can determine your "success". Your definition will be different than the next guy's.
If you "fail" to complete your goal remember: The trail will always be there for you.
I waited 18 years to go back.

Edited by Ice-axe on 09/15/2011 09:59:53 MDT.

Jim Sweeney
(swimjay) - MLife

Locale: Northern California
Will on 09/15/2011 11:19:47 MDT Print View

So often when we seek the defining element of an experience, the definition is after the fact, when what we really want is a definition before the fact, some way of predicting whether our attempt will be successful. After the fact, we say someone had sufficient will power to complete his chosen task; that's really just another way of saying he completed the task. In Matt's case, one could just as easily say the defining element of his successful second attempt was preparation-- and an important element of his preparation was his first, failed attempt, and the time he spent reflecting on it.

The problem with "will" as a defining element is that, if someone doesn't achieve his goal, it's too easy to say "He didn't have the willpower," which, depending on your attitude, is either a tautology or a make-wrong, but either way not useful.

I think a more useful take-away from the article's examples is that there's something wonderfully mysterious about what allows for completion, some element that burns hidden within some, and by implication, potentially all, of us.

Edited by swimjay on 09/15/2011 11:22:51 MDT.

Tom Clark
(TomClark) - MLife

Locale: East Coast
Re: Going Thru on 09/15/2011 17:26:38 MDT Print View

"I quit at mile 43.
Yea, I had huge blisters and 9 of my toenails had turned blue and swollen up to twice their size due to ill fitting footwear.
But the fact remains, my will was broken."

Matt,
Ouch!!! That was as good as the original article, and I bet that Francis really enjoyed a response like yours. Thanks for sharing your lows and highs, but even more so...thanks for sharing some great advice. I think that I have read a few thru-hiking books that said the same thing in 200+ pages.

Tom

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Some other thoughts on 09/15/2011 18:45:18 MDT Print View

Sue and I have just returned from 2 months walking the Red Route of the Via Alpina, from Trieste to Oberstdorf, in Europe. That's a bit of a thru hike. It relies mainly on mountain Refuges, btw. That means you will be doing at least 1,000 m of climbing each day. The biggest day was up 3,000 m and down 1,500 m, with a lot of steep scree on the way.

> Wealth: I figured you probably need the financial wherewithal
We lived on less than 100 euros a day total, which is a fair bit of money. You could do it with less. What 'wealth' does do for you is to remove a serious worry about food and accomodation. For instance, if you suddenly develop a craving for yoghurt (we did), buy some. If the weather is really bad and you need shelter for the night, book in.

> Good Gear: Those who travel with shoddy equipment are surely at a disadvantage.
> Wrong: A man named Spider thru-hiked the AT with the same old, decrepit gear
> he'd had for 35 years.
I am going to disagree here. Good gear removes another worry. Gear failure at 2,000 m is not pretty. Gear failure at 2,000 m in a snow storm is worse. Perhaps the gear Spider had was good gear, even if old?
That does not mean you need lots of expensive gear. You don't. What you need is gear suited to you and to the conditions.

> Superior Nutrition:
Hum ... two aspects to this. If you are not getting enough energy, you WILL fail. A bit like running out of petrol in a car. You need carbos!
But how 'good' that fuel has to be ... well, debatable. You are not going to suffer malnutrition in that sort of time. We don't want any more knodels though.

> Excellent Cardiovascular Conditioning: Thru-hiking is the ultimate endurance sport,
It is that, but if you are not fit at the start you soon will be! Enough energy and enough will-power...

> Disease-Free: Your body should be healthy and free of debilitating diseases.
Now this is a funny one. While running our bodies flat out we stayed very healthy most of the time. I think the increased metabolic rate had something to do with this. Any cuts or scrapes healed incredibly fast. But anyone can catch a virus for a day or two (you may recover very fast though), and a broken ankle is a broken ankle. On the other hand, walking with a sprained back or knee is just not nice.

> Youth: I initially thought that being young and strong was a common denominator.
Ha. I'm 66. In fact, we have found it quite noticeable that the older hikers tend to be the ones who endured steadily. The young ones went fast but often burnt out.

> Sight: OK, at the very least, you should be able to see the darn trail! Right?
It would be nice ...
But having walked many of the days in a thick fog, we found that the views had to be treated as optional! For sure, they do add to the pleasure. And wondering what is over the next saddle is a good motivator.

Will power? Yep, no question at all. If one of us flagged a bit, the answer was always 'we are going to Oberstdorf". We had a goal.

Cheers

Piper S.
(sbhikes) - F

Locale: Santa Barbara (Name: Diane)
Re: Re: Going Thru on 09/15/2011 18:53:58 MDT Print View

First of all, I have never completed a thru hike or even tried to. At first I only wanted to hike California and that would be enough. But it wasn't, so I went back the next year and finished up the rest. So neither of my two long hikes were thru hikes. But I did hike the whole trail.

A friend of mine wants a pure thru hike but every time she tries, she quits. She starts skipping and then she feels that the thru hike is ruined and no longer has the will to complete it. Oddly, she asks me sometimes what the secret is.

Even three months of a long trail takes a certain measure of will. In my case it was not just will but flexibility and a desire always to see what was around the next bend. What a joy to have a trail so long that there was always a next bend!

Frank Deland
(rambler)

Locale: On the AT in VA
thru-hikers on 09/16/2011 08:52:58 MDT Print View

A few years ago I hiked with a man the last few days of his AT two year section hike. He was 82. Guess where he is now? Last I heard he was in NH doing it all again. He is now 88! I finished my last section of my AT section hike this week. I started in 2000.
I am only 67. Yeah, it is will power, help and support from many including those I have never met, but learned from on sites like this one.

Eugene Smith
(Eugeneius) - MLife

Locale: Nuevo Mexico
"Completing a Thru-Hike" on 09/16/2011 09:41:58 MDT Print View

Right on, this was a cool read.

drowning in spam
(leaftye) - F

Locale: SoCal
Re: "Completing a Thru-Hike" on 09/16/2011 12:13:51 MDT Print View

It helps to have an honest desire to suffer every day for months so that you're rewarded with days when the tread is too rocky, it's hot, it's cold, it's windy, there's not much water, mosquitoes are swarming, a detour forces a road walk or postholing occurs on every other step. I can totally understand why so many prefer to section hike instead.

David S.
(six2) - F

Locale: Southwest
Will yes, and also commitment on 09/16/2011 14:54:13 MDT Print View

Long distance backpacking is a funny thing, sometimes having all the apparent advantages is a disadvantage. I've seen lots of backpackers ending hikes early because they have houses, significant others back home, etc. to return to, and some of the hikers who appeared that they shouldn't finish due to lack of funds or crappy gear stick it out because they had nothing back home. If you've committed enough to sell everything, quit your job, etc., maybe it gives you more reason to stick it out.

That said, I've ended a thru-hike early due to lack of funds, and completed a thru-hike despite having a whole life waiting for me back home. Hike your own hike!

On long hikes, I keep a contract with myself - I won't quit unless I have 3 days in a row where I still want to go home, barring serious injury or family emergency. Typically, good days follow bad and sticking it out works for me.

Edited by six2 on 09/16/2011 14:59:54 MDT.

Melissa Spencer
(melissaspencer) - F

Locale: PNW
Totally Agree on 09/19/2011 15:30:38 MDT Print View

During my PCT through hike in 2006, I experienced:

- Tendonitis (foot/ankle) - so bad I couldn't tie my shoe
- Tendonitis (knee)
- Staph infection (knee) - so swollen I couldn't bend it
- Staph infection (back) - multiple times - so painful I would cry every time I put my pack on
- Heat stroke
- Upper respiratory infection
- Horrible allergic reaction covering my whole back
- Giardiasis
- Quaternary blisters (4 on top of each other)
- A bruise the size of a grapefruit - from being swept down a river during a ford
- Indescribable homesickness (my brother was put in prison for 20 years while I was on trail)
- Hot
- Cold
- Loneliness
- Exhaustion
- Hunger
- Sunburn
- Mosquito bites
- Bee stings
- Fear
- Lost my career
- Gave up my cats
- Broke up with my boyfriend

And I kept going. If I broke a leg, I would have bought a horse and rode to Canada. They tried to give me the trail name Tough Cookie. So, I totally agree Francis. If you want it bad enough, you will overcome almost anything.

spelt with a t
(spelt) - F

Locale: SW/C PA
Re: Will on 09/20/2011 00:32:32 MDT Print View

> The problem with "will" as a defining element is that, if someone doesn't achieve his goal, it's too easy to say "He didn't have the willpower," which, depending on your attitude, is either a tautology or a make-wrong, but either way not useful.

I agree that will is subjective and defies quantification. Yet there is *something* that keeps a person putting one foot in front of the other. I'm reminded of Dave C's post a little while back about knowing when to bail. I think the quality we're talking about might better be described as conviction. Not confidence, will, or even optimism, but instead a trust in oneself (conscious? unconscious?) that your decision is the best one you can make. The meaning of "best" is up to the individual (at least until the trip ends, people begin criticizing, and they suddenly have to justify themselves) b/c ultimately the individual is the one living (or rarely, dying) with their choice.

Deciding when to push, when to rest, and when to bail are all sides of the same die, I think. Deciding with conviction requires you to trust your assessments, and that in turn requires a level of self-knowledge that probably minimizes dangerous rationalizations. Maybe. The mechanism is wild speculation on my part. But I'm comfortable with "conviction." Whenever the end comes, looking back and knowing you made the right decision--that's conviction.

I think will comes into it for real when things go wrong. When the only "best" choice you have is staying alive. your level of agency drops, and people with less control over their lives can lose motivation quickly.

Nathan Ventura
(nathanrainer) - F

Locale: East Coast
certainly is easier if you can see. on 09/22/2011 13:52:17 MDT Print View

Though you are quite right that all those obstacles can be and often are overcome, but I've learned (mostly the hard way) that thru-hiking is a hell of a lot easier and more enjoyable when you do have the right gear, health, and financial backing. I suggest that any of these things should prevent someone from trying a thru-hike but they should do their best to avoid such obstacles.

Miguel Arboleda
(butuki) - MLife

Locale: Kanto Plain, Japan
Re: Completing a Thru-Hike on 09/27/2011 17:08:52 MDT Print View

Pesonally I think it's "superfitnessawesomesauce", just because I love that word!

I've never done a big thru-hike (though I've done 6 months of bicycle travel, which has a lot of similar elements), but I did do the Tour du Mont Blanc in 2007. It snowed and often had freezing rain for about half the time. Even in that short amount of time homesickness hit me (probably because of close relative was dying at the time) and I struggled to overcome that mental hurdle. I can imagine that a much longer hike would be a bigger mental hurdle.

On the Tour du Mont Blanc i met an 86 year old Italian man who wasn't fast, but he managed to steadily dynamo right past me. As he passed, he turned around, thumped his chest and said, in broken English, "86! Not young! 86! Hrumph!"

Francis Tapon
(ftapon) - MLife

Locale: Earth
Thank you for your comments on 10/01/2011 17:07:11 MDT Print View

I enjoyed reading everyone's thoughtful comments on my article.

Two things to add:

1. I often tell people that after a couple of hundred miles a thru-hike goes from being a physical challenge to a mental one. In other words, if you can hike a 200+ miles, then there's a 90% chance that you can PHYSICALLY hike 2,000+ miles. At that point you've proven that your body has what it takes. Thus, the only question that remains is: can you MENTALLY do it? That's mostly a question of willpower.

2. Although willpower is paramount, increase your odds of success by lightweight and useful gear. Also, it helps to eat healthy calories. :)

Thank you for your insights and reflections!

Happy trails!

Francis Tapon