Every spring, thousands of hopeful hikers descend upon Georgia’s Springer Mountain with plans to walk the 2,180-plus miles of the Appalachian Trail. Of those who begin the trail, about 20 percent will succeed reaching Mount Katahdin in Maine, the end point. While many hikers quit due to injuries or finances, the most common reason is the struggle to overcome the mental challenges that come up while spending five to six months living out of a backpack in the wilderness. During my 2012 thru-hike, I felt defeated by the trail many times over. I kept hiking because my reasons to stay on the trail were always greater than my reasons to give up. It wasn’t until I had walked nearly 2,000 miles and reached the New Hampshire-Maine state border, with my goal just weeks away that I considered for the first time that I might not be able to complete my journey. I felt as if there was nothing left to be gained from staying on the trail. It was a dark few days in the wilderness for me until I ultimately decided to keep going, and I reached Mount Katahdin several weeks later. It is easy to assume that the best way to prepare for the Appalachian Trail is to spend months on the StairMaster, meticulously plan out every item that will go into your backpack, and utilize multiple guidebooks to nail down the logistics of your thru-hike. And yes, doing those things will set you up for success during the first weeks on the trail. While there is no guarantee when it comes to reaching Mount Katahdin, putting in adequate mental preparation will help ensure the longevity of your journey.
Be Realistic with Your Expectations
Most prospective hikers spend months, even years, fantasizing about the Appalachian Trail. Many people have a specific image in mind of what their experience will be like. I met a German lady who told me about an Appalachian Trail documentary that is regularly played on public television in Germany. While the two of us were stuck on an open ridge line in a hail and thunderstorm in Virginia, she explained to me that the film only shows the good times of the trail: happy hikers eating, socializing, and being merry. “No rain! No blisters!” she yelled. Thinking about the fun experiences to come is good motivation to get on the trail, but there needs to be a healthy balance of optimism and realism. During the planning stages, I would suggest coming up with two lists. The first list will be everything you are looking forward to in regard to the trail. These can be things like forming a camaraderie with your fellow hikers and making lifelong friends, spending every night in a tent under the stars, and feeling accomplishment after hiking up a mountain to a viewpoint. These are the experiences that keep you going when times get hard. The second list will be your realistic worst-case scenarios. I’m not talking worst-case as in getting attacked by a bear or struck by lightning. This list will cover all of the mundane, boring, and uncomfortable things. What would be the most mentally draining scenarios for you personally to have to deal with? For me, this included getting bored of walking all day every day, seeing the same scenery, having blisters on my feet for days that caused me pain with every single step, and having to deal with days of rain and perpetually wet hiking clothes.
Identify and Combat Self-Doubt
Setting goals is great, with completing the Appalachian Trail as a big one, but you should also plan to set expectations for yourself. Many hikers get on the trail with hopes to cover a specific number of miles daily and complete their journey in a certain time frame, all while feeling physically strong and enjoying themselves. When these personal expectations are not easily met, self-doubt can set in. Before attempting my thru-hike, I had already completed several section hikes in Massachusetts, Virginia, and Georgia. I had an idea of what I was getting myself into, and I knew not to put high expectations on myself. My personal goals were to take the hiking slow at first and not to be hard on myself when I was struggling. Even with this in mind, I still faced the occasional negative self-talk. Going up steep mountains, I often thought I wasn’t strong enough or questioned why everyone was moving at a faster pace. One of my most difficult days came when I reached the 1,000-mile mark at the Virginia-West Virginia state border. I had assumed that hiking such a huge distance would bring a sense of accomplishment, but I felt dread instead. I thought, “I’ve already been hiking for so long, three months, and I’m not even halfway done yet.” Even with adequate mental preparation, self-doubt is unavoidable. Being aware that it will happen and pushing the negative thoughts away when it does is a better strategy than believing the entire thru-hike experience will be sunshine and roses.
Focus on Each Day, Not the End Goal
If your main incentive for hiking the Appalachian Trail is finishing the trail, then every day will be difficult. One common question that comes up at campsites is, “Why are you thru-hiking?” Many hikers have reasons like wanting to go on an adventure, meet a variety of eccentric and interesting people, and find a direction in life or find themselves. Those who have made their reasons for thru-hiking highly personal typically find satisfaction and enjoyment daily, thus increasing their chances of staying on the trail. Every now and then, I meet hikers who just want to be able to say that they completed the Appalachian Trail and that the glory is more important than the experience. These individuals don’t typically complete their journey. Sheer willpower and stubbornness will only get you so far. A thru-hike consumes half of a year of your life. If you don’t actually like what you are doing on a day-to-day basis, it is unlikely you will reach your end goal. You can spend your entire winter preparing for a thru-hike with physical training and logistical planning, but the amount of mental preparation you put in is going to contribute most to your success. Setting realistic expectations, pushing away self-doubt, and finding happiness in each day is one of the best ways you can mentally prepare for the Appalachian Trail.