6 Characteristics of Successful Thru Hikers

Before I stepped foot on the Appalachian Trail as a thru hiker attempting to reach Katahdin, I was convinced that I was going to meet a lot of people who were very similar to me. Surely the type of person who wanted to walk in the woods for six months was a very specific kind of person, right?! Wrong! As I was in my final days on trail, I finally settled on the idea that there is no one kind of person who thru hikes, but there are a very distinct group of characteristics that I saw in each and every thru hiker I met on trail and every thru hiker I have met since as an employee at an outfitter along the AT.

The Six Contradictory Characteristics

1. Stubbornness

Those who aren’t stubborn are likely to call it quits when the going gets tough. The thought of sitting in your favorite spot on the couch, watching the newest season of your favorite show with friend or a loved one is nearly enough to convince you to call a taxi at the next road crossing on some days. But when the trail calls for a three day stint of hiking in the rain with still soaked clothes every morning and rivers in the trail every afternoon, you have got to be stubborn as a dim witted mule to power through and not give in.

This is as corny as it is true.

This is as corny as it is true.

2. Flexibility

On the other hand, you’ve got to be very flexible to make it to your end mark nearly 2.200 miles away. Over six months and that many miles, there are a lot of punches that will be thrown your way and a lot of wrenches thrown in your spokes. A successful thru hiker has to be able to bend and shift their plan due to weather, injury, or the promise of beer and pizza on a day hiker in the a town you didn’t plan to visit. You will be happier and more comfortable if you are able to be super flexible.

One way to roll with the punches, but flexibility will do better.

One way to roll with the punches, but flexibility will do better.

3. Responsibility

Many people may not think of responsibility as a major factor that makes a successful thru hiker but it is a characteristic that will carry you far. It begins before you even take that first step. Being diligent in your research with gear and working hard to earn enough money to sustain you over the course of your journey are two ways that a little bit of responsibility will take you a long way. And once you’re out there, just a pinch of the stuff keeps you from blowing all your hiking money on cold beer and fancy hotels with free HBO in the first trail town.

Prepin' for a thru hike, huh?

Prepin’ for a thru hike, huh?

4. Childishness

Let’s face it, playing in the dirt is not a proper life for a 21st century adult. At least, it’s not a responsible, or even common life for that manner. To keep a cheerful spirit and stay positive in the face of adversity on trail, it really helps to channel your inner child. We all have a long lost part of us that yearns to play all day every day or else we wouldn’t have ended up on the trail in the first place. Keeping the kid inside of you alive will serve you well when the logical adult starts dwelling on the warm, soft sofa you left at home.

This is pretty much every thru hiker at heart.

This is pretty much every thru hiker at heart.

5. Masochism

Show me a thru hiker who wasn’t tortured for at least a day on trail and I will show you my pale little butt, because it’s worth about the same amount of your time. Part of the allure of thru hiking is the challenge. We want to work hard for something for once instead of pressing pedals and clicking buttons that do it for us. Every hiker gets caught in a snowstorm or a thunderstorm and lives to tell a good tale. Those parts that really suck to live through, the times of greatest suffering, are some of the best stories we get from our hike. They are the ones we love to tell over and over! Hikers quickly learn how rough it can be out in the elements of the rugged Appalachians, but a successful thru hiker keeps setting out again at each trail town, asking for more.

This is super pretty but it can suck after a while!

This is super pretty but it can suck after a while!

6. Tenderness

By the time any hiker is closing in on the dream of a completed thru hike, they hold in their heart an enormous AT shaped hole. It may be beating you down physically and you may miss the important people in your life back home, but every successful thru hiker has a soft spot for the Appalachian Trail forever and always. It transforms you into something you only hoped you could be and shows you a new way in which life can be lived and because of that, we love it, even if we think it maybe did try to kill us a time or two. Just that one time. On that ridge in Tennessee. In that lightening storm.

This might just be a picture of thru hikers... who knows?!

This might just be a picture of thru hikers… who knows?!

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Comments 6

  • Jeff Beeler : May 12th

    Thanks for the article Carlie. As an avid hike (not quite your distances) I can relate to all six. I think they can also apply to a couple of my other favorites, kayak touring and bicycle touring.

    Any other big hikes planned?

    • Alice : Dec 7th

      Great I totally agree! I have hiked many miles on the AT and I hope to complete it someday.

  • Raven Kasprzak : May 13th

    I have always wanted to hike that trail. This is such a good article and I so enjoyed the way it seem to talk about life in general. Thank you for sharing since I fell I may never get a chance to hike it but I haven’t given up.

  • Marie : May 25th

    Carlie, I loved reading your post. I have a daughter who is currently thru-hiking, has been on the trail since April 11th and is at mile 370ish (Roan Mountain, TN). So far she’s had the norovirus, was evacuated from the smokies because of high winds and downed trees, she has trudged thru snow, has been dealing with shin splints, but with all that she shows no signs of giving up. I will make sure she reads your post for encouragement. Thank you.

  • April and Jake : Nov 27th

    As a thru-hiker I can say my family did tell me I was stubborn yet responsible (with all my gear research) & thru-hiking definitely brings out that crazy childish sense in all of us. Thanks for this article, I really enjoyed it.


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