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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 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.


"Completing a Thru-Hike," by Francis Tapon. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2011-09-13 00:00:00-06.


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Completing a Thru-Hike
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(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