Feb 17, 2012 at 11:15 am #1285794
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.Feb 17, 2012 at 11:24 am #1840816
And in Conclusion….
Just kidding. Good information – thanks.Feb 17, 2012 at 11:28 am #1840820
After reading the executive summary I am eagerly anticipating the entire article.Feb 17, 2012 at 11:59 am #1840834
i am reminded of this excellent BPL article on the same subject …
where there is a will, there i often a way
and all the nice shiny gear doesnt give you the will or skills to do something … only going out and doing it over and over again and having that burning desire will …Feb 17, 2012 at 12:13 pm #1840842
@ngatelLocale: Southern California
That is probably the biggest factor… Why are you doing it. Need to have the right personal reason.Feb 17, 2012 at 1:03 pm #1840860
@davidinkenaiLocale: North Woods. Far North.
Christine: Another great post. Please keep posting (when you're not hiking)!
Of your four points, I think determination and "less is more" are more obvious.
"crap will happen" and "being outdoors energizes / recharges me" are as important, but more subtle.
Truly enjoying/needing the outdoors is a more fixed trait.
But "crap will happen" is maybe more teachable. Getting lost, being hungry, missed connections, bugs, injuries, broken gear, thrashing through shrubs, getted flushed down a 5C river, and slogging through snowfields, WILL happen so don't make it worse by being all surprised about it.
Editted to add: Years ago, I learned that for alpine skiing and high-angle snow travel, I should intentionally just fall and get it over with. The fall and slide is never as bad as I worried about and then I relax and enjoy the run or the tranverse. On a private rafting trip on the Colorado 3 years ago, I did a few rapids in a (serious) inflatable kayak with not much skill or practice. I was tensing up until I intentionally jumped out in an easy rapid, rode through it and re-entered the kayak. Then I relaxed and repeated a mantra, "I'll go through this rapid – in the boat or alongside it – and either way is fine.", did fine, and enjoyed it much more.
I'm not expecting "perfect", I'll accept mishaps as part of the game.
I'd add another attribute:
Selfishness. You're going to be gone for months. Your family, friends, and employer in some ways wish you weren't going. You'll be asking your parents not to worry, your spouse to single-parent, your romantic partner to be celibate, your employer to take this job and shove it, etc.
Now, hopefully, the important people in your life really understand and accept that this is something that benefits you and they support you because they love you. And if done with a partner or child, it isn't so selfish – you're dedicating huge amounts of time and effort in large part (I hope) to have that shared experience.Feb 17, 2012 at 1:50 pm #1840878
@leslerLocale: right here, right now
ayuh…"how bad do u want it"?
enuf said.Feb 17, 2012 at 2:18 pm #1840899
@David: I love the "Crap will happen"! I hope you don't mind if I steal that expression for my article…
I had never thought about the selfishness – probably because I am single… But you are right: Even though I was mostly encouraged by my friends when I left for my first thruhike there were also people who were trying to talk me out of it and wanted to persuade me to remain a responsible taxpaying and hardworking German citizen. Although it never really bothered me I can imagine that you will be subjected to a lot of social pressure once you decide to do something as unusual as a long-distance hike.Feb 17, 2012 at 2:46 pm #1840912
There is another important aspect that you have not discussed yet (or maybe I missed that…) and that is consumables.
I remember discussing with you , for example, how I use baking soda for cleaning my teeth (and other uses) but as you pointed out it does not work for months on end.
(even simply having to buy a 250g pack every time when 20 0r 30 g work for 2 weeks…)
Same for olive oil. Easy enough for me to fill a container for 2 to 8 days but not practical to buy a 500ml bottle and carry that much on the long trail.
So some of these issues could be outlined too.
FrancoFeb 17, 2012 at 2:49 pm #1840914
@ngatelLocale: Southern California
"Although it never really bothered me I can imagine that you will be subjected to a lot of social pressure once you decide to do something as unusual as a long-distance hike."
Worse. You need an address if you want a bank account, credit card, driver license, passport, insurance, etc. Once I traveled in a tent trailer for 18 months. Ended up renting a personal mailbox so I could "exist" in the eyes of society. :)Feb 17, 2012 at 2:55 pm #1840916
@sbhikesLocale: Santa Barbara (Name: Diane)
"But a thruhiker continues hiking even when he does not like it any more."
This is so true. I spent a month continuing hiking even though I didn't like it anymore. It's funny too how you can both hate it and love it, want it over with right this second but never want it to end.
I think you did a really nice job with what you wrote. That whole thing about not bringing a lot of money is good. I always saw it not about money but more about the being open to possibilities. I had plenty of money, that was never a concern for me. But I didn't want to spend it. I enjoyed the challenge of not spending it, of finding solutions to my problems without resorting to money, of being open to possibilities I might not think of myself just throwing money at a problem.
My money strategy was part of a bigger philosophy that I brought with me on my 2nd large section, which was that I specifically did not plan very far in advance and I did not worry very much about details. I purposefully left myself open to possibilities, to spontaneous changes, to surprises. I thought of it in my head as looking for the trail magic to happen, and after each section or each day I would think about what was my trail magic for the day. And by trail magic I didn't mean coolers and rides, I meant surprises and spontaneous wonderful things.
I'm envious of your triple crown. I have decided to stick to the workaday world, if I can stand it, for maybe 10 years. Then I want to make LD hiking a big part of my life. I hope I can swing it.Feb 17, 2012 at 3:19 pm #1840928
@Piper: You have really expressed much better what I wanted to say with the "less money" section. I think I have to rephrase it a bit. Like you said: This is not about not having money. The most important point is that you should not use money as your ONLY problem-solving strategy. There are lots of ways to solve problems – money is usually one of them and a very easy one, but for me usually not the most satisfying one. As you have said: You open up a lot more possibilities if you think outside the traditional "money can buy you everything" attitude. Thanks for that input!Feb 17, 2012 at 4:18 pm #1840946
@davidinkenaiLocale: North Woods. Far North.
Christine: Go and use "crap will happen" (that's the polite version of the common bumper sticker "sh1t happens" and anything else I wrote. Maybe "crap happens" is catchier and rhymes a little bit?
>"were trying to talk me out of it and wanted to persuade me to remain a responsible taxpaying and hardworking German citizen"
LOL! So stereotypically German. You're behaving a lot more like an Australian – they adopt the concept of a 6-month "walkabout" as late teens, often before starting college. Germans do a gap year mostly in the context of working – a summer or year abroad as an au pair, for instance.
Nick: "Ended up renting a personal mailbox so I could exist in the eyes of society."
That's what parents' brothers' home addresses are for. But, yeah, to really cut expenses – eliminate the bank fees, phone bill, cell phone, etc, etc.Feb 17, 2012 at 4:22 pm #1840949
@hknewmanLocale: Western US
An interesting perspective but another one is paying mortgage or rent on a place I wasn't sleeping in for weeks, let alone months at a time. I'd have to put my stuff in storage – still might be a good way to turn these 4-pak of abs into 6-packs (well, maybe 2-packs of 8 oz).Feb 17, 2012 at 4:26 pm #1840951
…Feb 18, 2012 at 7:19 am #1841144
I have been thinking about my own motivation for a long time now and honestly – even after 4 years of almost continuous hiking I cannot give you an easy answer on why I am doing this. I do not think that there is a right or a wrong reason though – what might be the right reason for one person might be the wrong reason for another one. Also I think there are usually many reasons instead of just one that makes you choose such a life style. Going on a thruhike is a complex decision and usually there will be complex reasons behind it. But I think that at least ONE of the reasons for a thruhike should be the love of the outdoors. If you do not truly like being outdoors you will have a hard time finishing a thruhike.
But what I totally agree on is that not all motivations are strong enough to support the hardship of a thruhike. Especially if you have a negative motivation like getting away from something (escapism) instead of a positive one (wanting to move forward to something) you will probably fail on a thruhike. The same applies for using a thruhike as a pretext for something else like the Life 2.0 thing (I loved that expression!).
Thanks for all the input so far which has given me a lot of food for thought – please keep the ideas coming!Feb 18, 2012 at 7:43 am #1841157
I think finance plays a major part.
Young folk with no reponsibilities can work just long enough to support each hike. Of course folk with rich parents, or inherited wealth can do it easily.
When you have limited income, and a mortgage, kids, etc, it becomes much more difficult.Feb 18, 2012 at 8:08 am #1841167
Inaki Diaz de EturaParticipant
@inaki-1Locale: Iberia highlands
Thru-hiking is a badly paid job with 12+ hour shifts and no weekends. It makes you happy or it won't happen.Feb 18, 2012 at 8:16 am #1841169
What's the difference between a thru-hiker and a homeless person?
Income. For one, it's a hobby, for the other, it's a way of life. Most homeless folk can't afford to fly all over the world to the start of each hike.
There aren't many places to beg for money in the wilds.Feb 18, 2012 at 10:25 am #1841211
Ben 2 WorldParticipant
@ben2worldLocale: So Cal
"When you have limited income, and a mortgage, kids, etc, it becomes much more difficult."
All self inflicted, clearly avoidable pain. :)Feb 18, 2012 at 10:27 am #1841212
Please explain why limited income is self inflicted, Ben?
Are all poor folk deliberately poor? :)Feb 18, 2012 at 10:53 am #1841230
@hknewmanLocale: Western US
Mike, think Ben was talking about the choice to have kids (some couples choose not to. … most eventually have at least one hatchling) and the spending that goes with a larger household, though there are spenders vs. savers for every family situation, plus other adaptations as the couple who hiked the Alaska coast can probably attest to.Feb 18, 2012 at 11:04 am #1841241
I assumed Ben wasn't meaning folk having kids.
I still stand by my point that only the wealthy can thru-hike. Wether that is temporary wealth, or family or earned wealth is the point i was trying to make. Homeless folk could maybe manage to get to the trailhead, but how would they eat from then onwards? Unless they had independent wealth to call upon?Feb 18, 2012 at 11:15 am #1841245
I totally agree with Ben – you make choices in life and have to live with the consequences…. I would not be doing what I am doing with a family attached to me.
But I do not think you have to be wealthy to do a thruhike – you actually need very, very little money for it. I live much cheaper while hiking than when I am back in my home country staying put and planning my next trip (one of the reasons why I hardly ever stop hiking…)
There are very few people who could not go hiking out of financial reasons like the aforementioned homeless people (although you will meet some of them on the AT). Most people even with a very little income could eventually afford a thruhike – it just depends on how important the thruhike is to you and how much you are willing to sacrifice for it.Feb 18, 2012 at 11:25 am #1841250
@ German tourist.
How could you afford to travel from Germany to the US without any money, and how have you survived without any money on your triple crown?
I've also read accounts of your other treks all over the world.
Can you explain how someone with a very positive attitude, but no money could do what you do?
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