I as a Triple Crowner have often been asked how you manage to hike all those long trails like the AT, PCT or CDT, thousands of kilometers for months on end. The drop out rate on the Appalachian Trail is 75%, on the PCT still 60%. The overwhelming majority of aspiring thruhikers never make it? Why? I think this has very little to do with physical fitness or abilities. Almost everyone without major health problems could hike thousands of kilometers. It would be painful in the beginning, but you would get used to - and physically you would be able to do it. But why do so many prospective thruhikers never make it? I would say they are lacking the mental abilities to cope with such a long outdoor trip - they do not have what I would call "thruhiker mentality".
I tried to come up a definition of this thruhiker mentality. Although I call it thruhiker mentality it can be applied to all sorts of long outdoor trips. So if I talk about thruhikers or thruhikes, this can be substituted with long-distance cycling and paddling.
I think there are four aspects of this thruhiker mentality and I would like to hear your input on my thoughts. Have I forgotten another aspect? Do you see things differently? I am happy to hear any input because I want to post this text on my blog as advice for prospective thruhikers:
Advice for potential thruhikers: What do you need in order to become a succesful thruhiker?
Determination: If you are really determined to finish a thruhike, there is actually very little that can stop you. Of course there are always some reasons to bail out: You should never endanger your life in order to just achieve your goal. But realistically you can safely work around most dangers like bad weather or unfavorable trail conditions. Accidents and family emergencies are luckily very rare. And most medical problems can be avoided by proper precautions. Of course it is ok to just hike as long as you like it. But a thruhiker continues hiking even when he does not like it any more. Why? Because on almost every long trip there are days when you would like to give it all up. This is human nature. But a thruhiker knows that this is just a phase that will pass quickly – and that in the end the sense of achievement will outweigh those bad days. One piece of advice here: If you feel like quitting the trail, do not get off and leave immediately. Stay at least one night in a nice place and eat nice food. Most likely you just need a little pampering to forget the hardship and put things into perspective again.
Mental ability to cope with unpleasant situations: A lot of hikers just hope that they will not encounter unpleasant situations. A real thruhikers does not wonder if he will encounter them, he just wonders when and how often they will occur. A thruhiker knows that bad weather, mosquitoes, overgrown trail and the like are part of a thruhike and knows right from the start that he will have to deal with them. But what looks like a horrible situation when you are in it, might end up being the best part of your trip. I have seen a lot of “thruhikers” on the AT who wussed out and started hitchhiking when the weather got bad. They are missing out on one of the best parts of a thruhike: It is the coping with these unpleasant situations that will give you the highest sense of satisfaction when you have successfully dealt with them. In hindsight you will look back and be so proud that you have successfully dealt with 2 weeks of torrential rain or 500 km of waist deep snow. In hindsight almost all of those “unpleasant” situations turn into the great experiences and achievements. Come mentally prepared for the bad and the ugly – it is part of the experience. But make sure you know what sort of unpleasant situations you will probably encounter and ask yourself whether you are ready to deal with them.
A true love of being outside: Of course most people would argue that they like being outdoors. But most of them just look at the “chocolate” side of being outdoors. They romanticize about the beauties of an outdoor life, but forget that it is not all about smelling the roses. On a thruhike you change your house or apartment for your tent for a very, very long time. Your tent will be your home now – with all consequences. You will not have a flush toilet – you will have to dig cat holes and carry out your used toilet paper. You will not have a daily shower - you will be dirty and start smelling. You will not have a washing machine - your clothes will be dirty and start smelling. You will not have a bed, a kitchen, a water tap, a fridge......There are a lot of things you will have to give up and you have to be 100% comfortable with it or you will not be a happy thruhiker. Make sure you realise the dimensions of this change before you set off on a thruhike. Do not be tempted to draw too many conclusion from short trips. It is one thing to sleep in a tent for a couple of night – but a totally different thing to live in a tent for half a year. If you mentally need the safety and comforts of a roof over your head to feel happy, then there is nothing wrong with your attitude, but in all probability you will not be a successful thruhiker.
Less is more: This applies to a lot of aspects of long outdoor trips. Naturally it first of all applies to the amount of stuff you are carrying. In our society we have been brainwashed into believing that more is always better: More money, more property, more stuff. On the trail you will learn soon that quite the contrary is true. The more stuff you carry around, the unhappier you will be. Your equipment will burden you down – primarily through its weight. But even on bike and paddling trips where weight is not so much of an issue I have realised that the less you have the freer you are. You need less time to pack your stuff, less time to haul it around, you have less things to worry about getting lost, stolen or damaged. The less stuff you carry around, the more flexible you are. Reducing your pack weight is a key factor for a successful thruhike. If you are not mentally able to reduce yourself to the very basics you will end up with a pack weight that will turn your hike into a miserable experience and in all probability terminate it prematurely.
But less is more also refers to money: Of course you can thruhike the AT and spend a lot of money on hotels, B&B, taxis, restaurants and gourmet food resupply boxes, but you will miss out on a lot of experiences that make a thruhike so valuable for most hikers. You will not experience the hospitality of strangers who turn into trail angels. You will not experience the comradeship between hikers sharing food. You will not realise how good a crappy Twinkie can taste if it is your last piece of food.
I have met a lot of hikers and backpackers you wanted to have an adventure – but in luxury. They have not realised that adventure and luxury are sort of excluding each other. You can have a luxury outdoor trip with guides, slackpacking and gourmet food – and of course, there is nothing wrong with it. But it will not be an adventure. The less money, the more adventure. The more money, the less adventure.
Less is more also refers to company: If you need someone else to go with you, you are probably lacking the right determination for the trail. Of course it is nice to have company, but the hike itself should be motivation enough. Also a lot of things can happen to your hiking companion. Always be prepared to hike on your own - mentally and equipment wise. Enjoy company when you have it - and the comradeship is one of the great experiences on a thruhike -, but do not rely on other people to finish your hike. Don't do things just because someone else does them. Hike your own hike - as American thruhikers say.
Do not get me wrong here: I am not trying to tell you to go out and hike with no or too little money and inadequate equipment. I am not telling you to rely on the generosity of others. On the contrary: You have to be self-sufficient in all respects. Bring adequate gear and an adequate amount of money – but not more. You will be surprised how little you really need once you have cut out all those marketing induced wants - and how much you will gain through it.