Four Lessons to Guide My Thru-Hike

For many, the first step is acknowledging what you don’t know.

Scrolling through countless thru-hiker communities and blogs, I quickly realized that I’m one of the less-experienced backpackers in the class of 2019. While I’m no stranger to day hikes and family camping trips, they do little to prepare you physically and mentally for 2,200 miles in one go. Hiking the Appalachian Trail is a massive challenge; it’s a feat many fail to accomplish. However, I’m confident that I won’t be the least-experienced on the trail come April 3.

I lack overnight backpacking experience, but I’m no stranger to massive challenges.

As I wrote in my hiker introduction, I’ve been a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador for the past two years. I’ve found that a successful PC service shares many similarities with a successful thru-hike; the successes and failures I’ve had these past two years have taught me four invaluable lessons that (hopefully) will bring me success on the trail this year

1) Acknowledge Insecurity

It’s important to acknowledge fears and insecurities when making big decisions. When I first accepted my invitation to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer, I was racked with nerves. I knew there were others who were more qualified, and I doubted my ability to accomplish anything substantial due to my lack of confidence. For the longest time, I sat pondering the origins of these insecurities and how to overcome them. When I finally met my cohort in Miami, I quickly realized that I wasn’t alone; many others had the same fears and insecurities.

My insecurity? I’m a newbie when it comes to overnight backpacking. While I’ve spent the majority of my life day hiking and camping in the Northeast, I’ve never done a true overnight backpacking trip.

By facing your insecurities, it’ll be easier to connect with those you’ll meet along the way.

2) Hard, Gentle Work

During my two years in Ecuador, I had the pleasure of participating in two summer camps about leadership, confidence, and gender roles. I was tasked with teaching goal-setting, focusing specifically on how to set, re-evaluate, and achieve personal and professional goals. In both camps, we discussed the characteristics of success; goals must be specific, measurable, realistic, and flexible. Through these sessions, I found myself learning alongside the campers.

Many find it difficult to create a positive-feedback loop when setting goals for themselves. We often focus on setting hard goals, with rewards or punishments for success or failure. In doing so, we create a negative perspective of achievement. Many describe a thru-hike as a job; one must be steadfast and motivated to crank out miles. While a thru-hike is hard work, it also requires one to be gentle and forgiving of any shortcomings that may occur.

By rewarding goals and accepting shortcomings, you become your own support system. A strong support system will carry you further than tough love.

3) Flip Your Obstacles

When faced with an obstacle, how do you react? Aside from showing one’s personality, how we react when things go wrong is a telling sign of  success probability. I can’t count how many times I found myself trapped on a packed city bus during the oppressively humid rainy season, with all windows shut and streets flooded. In those moments, I was overcome by frustration and discomfort, and desperate to escape by any means.

After months of frustration, I came to realize that these obstacles were negative because I chose to label them as such. One day, I opted to walk home in the rain; a hasty decision that forever flipped my perspective on what an obstacle truly is. Not only was I able to see my community from a new perspective, I realized that rain was only an obstacle because that’s what I was told. Finally, the truth revealed itself; I loved walking in the rain.

The lesson? Obstacles will dissipate if you learn to embrace them (Embrace the suck, anyone?).

4) Reform Expectations

It seems pessimistic to say that abandoning expectations leads to success. After all, expectations are what motivate us to step outside of our comfort zones in the first place. Like my first tip, letting go of expectations is less about abandoning any preconceived notions, and more about acknowledging that these expectations may be inaccurate. By analyzing expectations, we’re able to reform them as they’re proven incorrect.

When I arrived in Ecuador, I had many expectations for the future. When reality became apparent, I was hugely let down and often considered quitting. After sitting with those false expectations, however, I came to realize that they were never realistic to begin with; I mourned the experience I had envisioned rather that embracing the experience I was given.

While the disappointment of inaccurate expectations doesn’t heal quickly, it teaches a valuable lesson about flexibility.

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Comments 1

  • Rob : Feb 8th

    Classic upside thinking of a PCV – congratulations on finishing your service and see you out there Sean! My wife and I, RPCV DR ’07-’09 will keep our eyes peeled for you.


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