Combating Pre-Trail Imposter Syndrome

What the hell am I doing? Am I really going to hike the Appalachian Trail? What makes me so special?

As I laid awake in my warm, familiar bed the night before hitting the trail, these questions raced across my mind. Worse than that, I somehow rationalized that I was the only person feeling this way. That somehow all of my fellow hikers had conquered their fears and anxieties with ease while I lay with finger nail beds gnawed to the bone.

With only minor backpacking experience and the help of hundreds of YouTubers and Bloggers, I set off on the Appalachian Trail. Sounds pretty triumphant on paper, but I felt like a complete imposter.

But I suppose it’s easy to feel like an imposter in a world without strict expectations of what it means to belong. The crazy thing about thru-hiking is that there isn’t a consensus on what it actually means to be a thru-hiker. Merriam Webster even threw in the towel on trying to define it.

Do you lose your thru-hiker status if your hitch drops you a few miles ahead of where you left off? What if someone else carries your bag, or you skip sections where your furry friend isn’t welcome?

The general definition of a thru-hiker that many in the hiking community accept is a person completing the Appalachian Trail in 12 months or less, according to the ATC. 

However, once I hit the trail, I realized how difficult it really was to put a label on what we were doing. As a solo hiker, I was prepared (albeit incredibly anxious) to be alone. But I quickly found the “you’re never alone in the Appalachians” colloquialism to be strikingly accurate.

I quickly found others with a similar pace and attitude to accompany me in my journey. What I realized in meeting these hikers is that we all had different stories of getting to Amicalola Falls State park to start, and even different journeys in our first few days on trail. None of us was exactly alike.

Sure, we watched the same videos and read the same articles. We were prepared for what we thought would be a uniform agreement on thru-hiking culture and were instead met with the beauty of vastly different world-views connecting in one place.

Upon that realization, I was hit with a comforting thought: it’s impossible to be an imposter here because thru-hiking (to me, and maybe some others) is a state of mind.

A thru-hiker is the soul brave enough to venture into the unknown. A thru-hiker trusts in themselves to do the right thing, and trust the trail to provide for them. A thru-hiker is on a mental, physical and often spiritual journey without anyone telling them they have to be there.

However, our emotional minds don’t always rationalize in this way.

The moment we misstep or look clunky, or pack the wrong piece of gear, we automatically assume our inexperience or ineptitude is to blame. We forget the hikers that have come before us with the same obstacles and reached the summit of Mount Katahdin.

When I had these moments of doubt before and during my initial days on the trail, I enacted several mindfulness techniques to help cope with those feelings.

To begin, I focus on bringing myself back to the present moment. And I know what you’re thinking: oh great another hippy-dippy blogger telling me to meditate my problems away.

And your thought is correct, frankly, because mindfulness is your most powerful tool on the trail. There are no distractions here, so you have to choose where your brain spends it’s precious energy.

People often live through the lens of the past and the future, imagining scenarios that may occur to illicit preparedness, which inevitably turn to some form of anxious thoughts. By returning to the present moment, possibly through taking note of sounds or sights, we eradicate the power those thoughts have over our stability.

I remind myself: in this moment I am safe. In this moment I am healthy. In this moment I am okay.

Preparedness is far from overthinking, and the key is to find the balance between them.

To return briefly to the friends I made on my initial days on the trail, I quickly realized they had many of the same fears as I did. No matter how much experience they had or how fancy their gear looked, we were all at the same campsite on the same trail with the same obstacles to overcome.

Combating imposter syndrome in thru-hiking life is not about having the most knowledge or the best gear on the trail. It’s simply about accepting where you are, and knowing others are right there with you.

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Comments 10

  • Chester green : Mar 25th

    A thruhiker is someone who hikes a trail in its entirety in one go.
    If you skip miles you’re cheating.
    A purist like myself would not consider you to be a thruhiker.
    TT 19
    AT 20
    ALT 21

    • Sparky : Mar 25th

      Chester, I think you’re missing the point here my man.

    • Martin Reynolds : Jun 21st

      So. Who cares?

  • Mike : Mar 26th

    This really feels like an over analyzed topic
    for the sake of writing an article. One is not an imposter because they are nervous….

    Also, if any miles are skipped or jumped one has NOT completed a thru-hike and that is universally accepted as fact.

  • Sulu : Mar 28th

    I love it

  • Faith Breads : Apr 1st

    Your post reminds me of a Kurt Vonnegut quote: “When I was 15, I spent a month working on an archeological dig. I was talking to one of the archeologists one day during our lunch break and he asked those kinds of ‘getting to know you’ questions you ask young people: Do you play sports? What’s your favorite subject? And I told him, no I don’t play any sports. I do theater, I’m in choir, I play the violin and piano, I used to take art classes.
    “And he went wow. That’s amazing! And I said, ‘Oh no, but I’m not any good at any of them.’
    “And he said something then that I will never forget and which absolutely blew my mind because no one had ever said anything like it to me before: ‘I don’t think being good at things is the point of doing them. I think you’ve got all these wonderful experiences with different skills, and that all teaches you things and makes you an interesting person, no matter how well you do them.’
    “And that honestly changed my life. Because I went from a failure, someone who hadn’t been talented enough at anything to excel, to someone who did things because I enjoyed them. I had been raised in such an achievement-oriented environment, so inundated with the myth of Talent, that I thought it was only worth doing things if you could ‘win’ at them.”

    So good. Happy Hiking!

  • Spider : Jun 21st

    Any miles you complete on any backpacking trip counts. Maybe not to everyone’s ” standards” but when you take that first step to go out something clicks. I have PTSD and often go out on the AT. I have had some of my best and worst days. But it made me realize if I can overcome things on the trails that I can overcome so much more. So for those thinking all those 4 or 5 days of section hikes don’t count or matter. They do to you and thats more important then anything!


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