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…

Signing my first logbook on the hike!

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. 

Post-sprain ankle swelling on day two and an attempt at blister care.

 

Our shoes trying to recover from the Vermud.

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! 

Ripped a hole in your Frogg Toggs? No problem. You can buy more pretty much anywhere!

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. 

All smiles after borrowing camp shoes and getting some great advice.

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. 

Smiling because I found something in my food bag that I actually wanted to eat: a Pop-Tart.

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.

Hanging out with my red food bag! Not pictured: my huge bag of toiletries.

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. 

Enjoying some peanut butter in the laundromat where our hike ended.

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Comments 13

  • Bob : Jan 14th

    I’m reading a lot about hiking and thinking of trying to segment hike the Mountain to Sea Trail in the future. I appreciate the honest information from someone who ran into issues on their attempt because it probably creates unrealistic expectations to only read blogs of successful through hikers, even with the warnings they contain. One common theme between both, however, is that you can’t dictate the terms or circumstances of your experience, so if you don’t go in expecting to adapt, compromise and remain open to the possibility that this might not be the time you succeed, you will be miserable and more likely to fail. Like the “Dude”, the trail abides, and we have to deal with it on its terms, not ours.

    Reply
  • Percy Dovetonsils : Jan 14th

    I wonder how that section hiker got the trail name “Halls”.

    Reply
  • Stan Stasiewicz : Jan 14th

    Anna,

    Good story and you’ve obviously learned a lot. I tried the AT twice. First from Georgia, then from Harper’s Ferry. Abandoned my first try after a week due to a hernia. You just have to know when to say when. My second try went about 2 weeks and I realized I wasn’t having fun. I was hiking alone (for me very boring) and realized that worrying about the day ahead and the days ahead was too much like work! Too much planning for where to get water, where to resupply, and where to spend the night. Good luck with your future AT hike.

    Stan

    Reply
  • Chill Bill : Jan 14th

    Stop trying so hard and just hike!

    -Chill Bill, AT 2019 Thru Hiker

    P.S. take time to smell the tree bark

    Reply
  • Roo : Jan 14th

    Sounds like you learned some valuable lessons that’ll serve you well on your next hike. I ended up taking three seasons to finish what I’d hoped would be a thru hike. (I summited Katahdin 9/19/19–yay!–after warming up by thru-hiking the Long Trail). It took me every day of those three seasons to understand how to hike my own hike: solo, so I don’t feel like I have to keep up with people who hike faster than me; slow, so I can spend time in places that intrigue me and avoid the injuries that took me off trail; and confident that if I don’t finish, so what? It’s just a reason to return next year.

    Good luck and happy trails!

    Reply
  • Jayne Gorup : Jan 14th

    I started a thru hike of the AT in 2004. Three months in, I heard a voice tell me I needed to go home. I did go home in time to be there for my partner’s heart attack. I sat out a year feeling sorry for myself for not finishing a thru hike. My partner let me know I could go back and finish. And in the end, I section hiked for the next eight years and got it done. And in that eight years, my partner passed away. I hiked solo but always found someone to walk with for the two weeks I went out. I learned alot about myself and in the end, that was what stays with me. So, keep on trucking, you will learn more as you keep on keeping on.

    Reply
  • SA : Jan 15th

    I know for many of us ‘OCD type’ personalities it can be difficult to ‘go w/the flow’. Be as flexible and adaptable as you possibly can and hopefully some of that will carry over into your ‘real life’ as well. “Don’t sweat the small stuff, cause its all small stuff” – Richard Carlson

    Reply
  • Dad : Jan 15th

    Very proud of you no matter how far you get. Will meet you in Caratunk, North Pressies or maybe even provide trail magic if you get north of CT.

    Reply
  • Ross Nicholson : Jan 15th

    Wow, yeah, stupid hiking is as stupid hiking does. The most important item to take on a hike is your own seething brain! Two ways to make fire and light & effective gear. Go cheap and carry 5 pounds extra, it’s OK, but better to get the good stuff instead if you can: Zpacks, Gossamer Gear, Ultralight, etc. We used to leave cell phones at home! Having fun is the real reason, and to breath free.

    Reply
  • patrick sanders : Jan 17th

    i did not know frogg toggs made rain chaps

    Reply
  • TBR : Jan 17th

    This was a thoughtful and honest look back. Thanks for posting.

    I went alone on my section hike, but I ended up hiking with various people for stretches. Sometimes it was kinda lonely out there, but I’m glad I wasn’t married to another’s pace. Most people were a bit faster than me, and trying to keep up was tiring and stressful, so … I didn’t, and that worked well. Almost always caught up by evening, so still got to do the trail talk, just not while moving.

    I think many potential thru hikers should frame their time on the trail in a different way, not “Gonna go from Springer to K” but, “Gonna spend three months walking along the AT.” If you finish, good, if you don’t, that’s good, too. Many stress out about the mileage thing, and that’s a shame.

    Reply
  • Effie Drew : Jan 19th

    Such honest + thoughtful reflections of your hike. I don’t think it’s a failure if you’ve grown this much from it. Also, holla fellow Maine girlll!

    Reply
  • Cari : Jan 20th

    This is so well said! My AT thru-hike was cut short at 1300 miles due to breaking my ankle. I can’t wait to go back and finish but I still have a lot of healing to do. Thank you for such a well-written, informative, and illustrated post on the topic!

    Reply

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