10 Things I Learned From a Failed Thru-Hike
In May 2019, my coworker and I set out to hike all 271 miles of the Long Trail. It’s an oversimplification to call the adventure a failed thru-hike, because it was a learning experience and a successful shakedown hike for the AT. Whatever you want to call it, the hike ended after four days of bugs, blisters, and budgeting nightmares. Here’s what I learned.
1. Don’t have a strict timeline.
Though many resources say that the Long Trail can be completed in 20 days, we only had 18 and insisted that if we pushed hard enough, it would work out. Not only did this add unneeded stress to our hike, but it made us set unrealistic mileage goals, which leads to the next lesson…
2. Ease into the big mileage.
People throw around numbers all the time, but it’s impossible to know exactly what you’ll be capable of and how much time you’ll need to take to rest. Every day of our hike, we hiked 20 miles. By the end, I was basically using my trekking poles as crutches, which was mostly because I didn’t…
3. Go easy on past injuries.
This one is completely subjective, but for me, this meant listening to my doctor (and my body). I sprained my ankle less than a month before my first day hiking, so not only was I not able to train at all before the hike, but I was not actually fully healed, and should have waited for at least two months, according to my doctor. Since the conditions on the Long Trail were muddy, rocky and rooty, I re-sprained my ankle and had to take even more time for it to heal later in the summer.
4. Have realistic conversations about hiking with a partner…
Should we split gear, or should we carry our own? Should we plan to hike together, meet up occasionally during the day, or only meet at nights? Often, those who have hiked long distances say that going with the flow is essential. However, there are some tough questions worth asking that will help you make some initial logistics plans. On a longer trail, you have time to make changes to your plans, but on a shorter trail like the Long Trail, it’s worth figuring out up front. In our case, we decided to split all of our gear, including cookware, a tent, and water filtration, which saved us weight but also meant that we had to hike together all day. This was tough because we had never hiked together before, and my injury made me need to go much slower, which was frustrating for both of us.
5. …Or go it alone.
Going it alone doesn’t mean you’ll be alone for the hike! It just means that you’re doing your own thing, with your own gear, and can make your own decisions if you need to. You absolutely can start with somebody, or hike with the same person all the time, but by going it alone and having all of your own gear, you have more flexibility to experience the little things that mean a lot to you. It also makes it much easier to listen to your body, because you won’t feel as much pressure match anybody else’s pace.
6. Try to leave your worries at the trailhead.
I met a section hiker named No Obligations, who had retired from teaching at Penn State and was finishing up her last sections of the AT. I learned countless things from her, but two have to do with this point. The first lesson is that if you’re worried about gear failing, not having enough supplies, and so on, if you’re not going to a super remote place, don’t worry too much about it! That night we spent in the shelter with her, everybody was helping each other with gear issues and resources. We helped filter water for people with filter issues, we borrowed moleskin, and I even borrowed a pair of camp shoes from a section hiker named Halls! If there’s something that people don’t have, you can usually find the things you need in town or get things mailed to you. Conversely, if you are worried about bringing too much, you can leave things you don’t need in a hiker box in town or send them home!
The second thing I learned from No Obligations is that for some people, enjoying a hike means leaving everything behind mentally as well as physically. No Obligations had left everything behind her to begin her section hikes, and as she overheard us talking about all of the things we needed to do right after the hike and how much pressure we felt because of it all, she reminded us that there is plenty of time in life to hike, and that it’s OK if now is not the right one.
7. Pack food that you actually want to eat, and do your best at variety.
We had a joke that my food bag was where my granola bars went to die. I love granola bars for their convenience on shorter adventures, but after a few days it can get hard to eat the same things over and over again. Also, while putting down lots of miles, I would often forget to eat enough because I wasn’t looking forward to the food I had to eat.
8. Listen to experienced thru-hikers.
I was so stubborn going into this hike because I wanted to figure things out for myself, and I believed that this was a valuable part of the experience. I still feel that way about some things, but I wish I hadn’t completely shut down every person who tried to offer suggestions to me before the hike. Many of the lessons I’m writing about I had already learned from a coworker, but I was too stubborn to take the advice and learned the hard way, especially about the next point.
9. Base weight matters.
As much as I hated to admit this to my friend who told me so, base weight does matter to an extent. This came as a huge shock to the weekend warrior in me that packed for backpacking like one would pack for a slumber party.
First of all, I brought so much stuff on my hike that I didn’t need or use. For example, even though I hate hiking in pants, I brought a pair and realized I only needed my leggings for warmth and shorts during the day.
There were little things that added up to having a heavy pack. I brought normal instead of travel-sized containers of sunscreen and toothpaste, two headlamps, and other extra items that added up that I easily could have switched out for lighter options. I even brought a small container of laundry detergent because I had never been to a laundromat before.
We were also simply carrying heavy gear. We had traditional backpacks, a tent that weighed six pounds, bulky sleeping pads and bags, and our food bags were actual dry bags that weighed almost half a pound! Surprisingly, we did meet another hiker who was using the same food bag, which just goes to show that gear is totally subjective and what works for one person may not work for another.
10. Finishing the hike isn’t everything.
Yes, it does stink knowing that you tried to do something and it didn’t go as planned. I have my own doubts all the time about future thru-hikes because of this one experience, but the truth is that every hike is different, and each one is a learning experience. If you stay in the mindset that you are a “failure” you may overlook the growth, fun, and challenge that you got to experience in the time that you were on trail. We all are so lucky that we even get to attempt thru-hikes, and it’s important to recognize that every time we come home.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.