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.