7 Reasons Thru-Hikes Fail, and How to Help Prevent Defeat

There are numerous reasons why people quit their thru-hike, and some of them are preventable. Here are several examples of reasons why people fail their thru hike attempt and how they can be avoided.

1) A Negative Mindset

I met a hiker in the beginning who was extremely negative about EVERYTHING under the sun (Including the sun, actually). You would try to help guide her into thinking about things on the bright side and she would find a way to turn it around in hopes of making you feel bad for her entirely hopeless situation.

Prevention: A bad mindset when you’re constantly in a funk about everything will force you off trail as early as day one (unless you’re as stubborn as the hiker I just described).

  • Think Positive – The key is to try to rewire yourself to become more positive. Try to see the blessing in every setback. Try to focus on the good over the bad. If you aren’t enjoying yourself at all, perhaps a thru hike isn’t for you. Some people honestly just don’t find it fun or worth it, and that’s okay! It’s not for everyone.

2) Out of Shape and/or Physical Pain

So you started a thru hike and realized that it is far more painful than expected. Maybe you imagined how much you enjoyed hiking, but never accounted for the massive pack you would be lugging around the entire journey. You have developed blisters all over your feet, and your legs have never experienced so much fatigue. Reality has just set in.

Prevention: I’ve seen all walks of life start a thru hike and learned that all walks of life can finish one. One thing that amazed me was how many people smoked cigarettes on the trail (I am an ex-smoker and felt like I was dying inside just watching them). The mental will become far more challenging than the physical (more on that later), but there are ways to better prepare yourself.

  • Train, train, train! –  Not required to complete a thru hike, but hiking miles with your pack weight will make for an easier start, just don’t get too discouraged if it’s a wakeup call for what your future holds. Training can help you sort through your pack to see what you want to ditch and what gear you may want to swap out for something lighter.
  • Shakedowns – If you don’t train, you can always have a former thru hiker do a shakedown on your pack (a shakedown is when someone empties your pack and recommends what to keep and what to ditch). Getting rid of the unnecessary weight can take a lot of the challenge away from the physical aspect. You will have a couple opportunities along the way from the state parks you may start at, to the outfitters you pass by.
  • Buck up and Push Through It – You can pop some Vitamin I (ibuprofen) too while you’re at it! Your body will hurt pretty much the entire time. Just know when to recognize aches and pains as compared to injury that should be addressed immediately.

3) Reason for Failure: Injury/Illness

The only difference between those that finish and those that don’t is the severity of the matter and how they handle the situation. Injury pushed me off trail in 2016. I hiked 600+ miles of the AT in excruciating pain. I saw several doctors who all told me different things, and never got an x-ray because I didn’t have health insurance and didn’t want to bite the financial bullet. I started by masking the pain with Rx pain pills (bad idea) which worked wonderfully in the pain department, but made my scenario worse. Once I got to Boiling Springs, PA, I decided I should stop being so stubborn, heed my husband’s advice to rest for two weeks at home (about two hours away), and make up the miles later. I was grateful to have Mama Stubbs help me out with the money so I could get an x-ray while I was home, but the news was bad, and I figured it was a poor decision to finish my hike with a pelvic stress fracture.

Prevention: Injury and/or illness is almost inevitable during your thru hike. If it’s minor, there’s a possibility to pull through it.

  • Listen to your body: If the pain is severe, don’t dismiss it and follow the next suggestion!
  • Rest When Needed & Seek a Doc: If you catch certain injuries/illnesses early enough (i.e. shin splints) and take the time to rest, you have a better chance getting back on the trail without it getting worse. If your injury/illness is bothering you, get to town asap to get it checked out by a doctor. A second opinion can help (although not guaranteed given my situation).
  • Keep it Clean: Good sanitation will help prevent stomach bugs. Use hand sanitizer especially after pooping and before eating.
  • Be in the Know: Know how to identify certain signs and symptoms of Lyme’s disease and general infection (i.e. a hiker buddy of mine got bit by a brown recluse which is quite rare, but managed to finish his thru hike by seeking help as soon as he was able).

4) Hiking with the Wrong Crowd

So you started hiking and met some really rad people. But maybe they hike faster than you, and you’re risking injury trying to keep up. Maybe the problem is in the budget. They take too many zeros because they can afford it, but it’s hurting your wallet. Maybe they have different priorities than you. Maybe they like to party too often and you have a deadline or a budget. Maybe they have plans to only do a section and want to take time doing it that you don’t have.

Prevention: A lot of people fear that they’ll get separated from that first cool group, and will never fill the void with anyone else. The truth is, there are awesome people up and down the entire trail, so if a certain crowd is fun but not compatible with your hiking style, don’t fret!

  • Hike Your Own Hike: Focus on what’s best for you and have faith that there will be more friends in your future. Don’t let other hikers get you injured, make you lose you deadline, or kill your budget. No one is getting you to your endpoint except you.

5) Money Issues 

After injury, this is one of the biggest deal-breakers for a thru-hiker. A lot of money can get invested into your gear, and you haven’t even started hiking yet! While hiking, you’ll have to consider food, shelter, laundry, showers, and splurges. Pennsylvania seems to be a common place to see hikers drop out as their bank account reaches the red.

Prevention: Be budget-conscious before you hike, plan realistically for your trail expenses, and remember that planning once you’re on the trail.

  • Research and Shop Wisely: Prepare for the hike by doing your research. If you’re on a tight budget, invest some time reading articles on budget hiking. Shop for gear that focuses on what you value. Do you want versatile gear? Lightweight gear? Expensive gear can be better when it comes to keeping down the ounces, but there are inexpensive gear options out there as well. Ask successful thru-hikers what they used and why.
  • Avoid Temptation: After you make it to the trail, avoid spending too much time in town. Temptation occurs in the form of food, hotels, alcohol, and Wi-Fi. Opt for nero days over zero days when you get in town, run your errands, then get your butt back on the trail before you get sucked in.

6) Feeling Homesick

This is hard for a number of reasons. Missing family, fur babies, significant others, or old friends which can make the trail lonely. Maybe there are other comforts of home or things found in everyday society that you may be missing. This could be your own bed, Wi-Fi connection, immediate availability of healthy foods, clean clothes, warm showers, or just generally not smelling like a blob of B.O. wherever you go.

Prevention: Society and “Home Sweet Home” can be tempting, but it’s important to stay committed. Remember your lists and pull them out if you start missing the conveniences of real-world life.

  • Reach Out: Visiting home (if possible) can help, but beware, it can also hurt by reminding you of all that you’re missing. You can also call loved ones on occasion, preferably ones who won’t encourage you to return home. If you have folks at home that you suspect will do so, have a talk with them before you leave and make a pact that no matter how homesick you get, they will be supportive and keep you on track with your goal.
  • Remember Why You’re Hiking: Remind yourself why you’re on the trail in the first place and how important it is to you to achieve this goal. Think about how you’ll feel after accomplishing a thru-hike vs. the regret you could feel if you bail.

7) Having A Bad Day/Week/Month

Bad weather, a bout of homesickness, aches and pains, or the repetition of every day hiking, hiking, hiking. All of these can contribute to bad days out on the trail. The Virginia Blues can grab a hold and make you doubt your mental capability to continue.

Prevention: Hard times will pass, though it can be tough to accept that when they’re hovering. Here are a few ways that helped me stay out of a funk.

  • Stay Inspired: Have an inspiring quote set to one of your alarms at random during the day. Find a mantra that speaks true to you in times of difficulty.
  • Get Relaxed: Try meditation when you’re feeling stressed. Allow yourself to splurge on occasion to take the edge off.
  • Remain Patient: A setback today can be a funny tale tomorrow, and even something to learn from. Expect hardships and have faith that they will end in due time. I was once told by another hiker a good piece of advice about coping with bad times on the trail. Hike 100 miles and if you want to quit, hike 100 more miles, then ask yourself if you want to quit again. Likely by this time you will be over it since time can mend, and struggles will pass.

Have any other advice on how to prevent a failed thru hike? Please share in the comments below!

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