10 Motivational Thoughts for a Successful Thru-Hike

I woke up this morning and started reading a book that my Grandfather gave me the other day titled “Make Your Bed” by Admiral William H. McRaven, a retired Navy Seal. The next thing I knew the book was finished and I thought, all of the advice in here relates directly with thru hiking, except thru-hikers don’t really have beds. Let’s call this one, “Deflate Your Sleeping Pad.” I saw a lot of parallels to McRaven’s advice and thru-hiking. Here is my spin.

1) Start Your Day Off by Deflating Your Sleeping Pad.

On the AT back in 2015 I would, to the annoyance of my fiancé and the rest of our trail family, set my watch alarm and no sooner than it went off would deflate my sleeping pad and start methodically putting away all of my sleeping gear before I ever stepped foot out of the tent. I did it the same way, every morning without fail. Sometimes I would not even realize that I had started the routine until I was halfway done. This allowed me to start off my day knowing that one of the most mundane tasks was over with and let me accomplish something first thing in the morning. From there on out, it was just walking and eating for the next 8 hours. There is no better way to start your day than with an accomplishment.  

2) You Can’t do Everything on Your Own.

There are many thru-hikers who solo hike, or go out on these adventures by themselves. Most of us end up falling in with a trail family and calling on family and friends back home for help and reassurance. No matter how strong we are, or think we are, we always need help to accomplish our goals and thru-hiking is no different. When we get hurt, or run out of water it is our friends and family who come to our aid, as well as all of the awesome hostel and hotel owners along the trail who keep an eye out for those of us who think we are invincible. Without a culture and long line of support along the way, none of us would be able to accomplish our thru-hikes. Remember to be grateful for all those who help make thru-hiking possible for those of us lucky enough to be able to do it.

3) It’s not the Size of Your Pack that Matters, but the Size of Your Heart.

I see and hear so many people fretting about pack size and gear. Having a the lightest pack of all time does not ensure a successful thru-hike if you don’t have the heart to carry it. I’ve seen someone pull a pack out of a hiker bin after theirs ripped beyond repair, a pack that didn’t fit properly, a pack that was made for the opposite gender and a pack that wasn’t by any means in good shape. I saw that same person sleep in a $20, seven pound tent from Walmart for the majority of the trail. I also saw that person Summit Katahdin and they are currently attempting a thru-hike of the PCT. It doesn’t hurt to have good, lightweight gear by any standard, and I am by no means arguing against it, but you shouldn’t judge a person by their gear, but by their guts and determination.

4) Nothing Will EVER Go the Way You Plan it (And that’s OK).

It is definitely a good idea to have a plan for your thru-hike that consists of generally where you want to be by a certain date and about how many miles you should be covering each day. This will help keep you on track and give you goals to achieve each day, week and month throughout your hike. I’m going to break some bad news though. Shit’s going to happen that will prevent you from hitting every goal you set. Whether it’s bad weather, an injury, a food drop getting lost in the mail or that voice in the back of your mind that says, “Go ahead, take another zero day, it’s fine.” This is just how life is. You will hit setbacks along the way. Just take them in stride, brush them off and keep on hiking. If you keep on moving you will hit your goal!

5) There Will be Sections of the Trail that Put You Through the Wringer.

Whether you hit hot or freezing weather, huge mountains or drought, there are going to be times that last for days, weeks or even months that are going to kick your ass. Even though you try to prepare yourself mentally, the trail can beat you down. The only thing you can do is keep on pushing through and eating a crapload of protein. If you can stick it out, you’re going to be one bad mother of a hiking machine with quads that can crush a watermelon and the endurance of a horse. When times get hard, just keep your eye on the prize and, check out your calves in the mirror. They look damn good. If you keep pushing, you will become stronger and more machine-like than you have ever been before.

6) Sometimes You Just Have to Take the Leap.

There are some times on the trail that things can be downright terrifying. I remember sitting in Shaw’s Hiker Hostel in mid October, waiting out a rainstorm thinking, “How the hell am I ever going to finish this trail.” I had been told for months now that finishing the trail this late in October was impossible and there was no way that I was going to make it. It started getting cold and snowy, and beyond all of my good judgement I decided to press on. I finished the trail on October 25th, 2015 and sent a letter to those that I could specifically recall who told me I wouldn’t finish. I sent an even better letter to those, such as the owners of Shaw’s that told me that I could. Sometimes when you’re standing on the edge, you just have to jump.

7) Don’t Let the Naysayers Hold You Back.

A lot of people are excited for you when you start a thru-hike. Some people think you’re insane  (they’re not wrong) and tell you that there is no way in hell that you can complete a thru-hike. For every 100 people that push you to finish and motivate and encourage you, it only takes 1 person saying, “You’ll never make it” to really piss you off. Use that doubt and anger to fuel your mission of completing your thru-hike. Never let someone’s opinion stop you from what you want to accomplish. Remember that while they are sitting around on their couch, you are out there in the mountains kicking ass. 

8) Be Your Best When Things Are at Their Worst.

Sometimes the trail is a bummer. People leave, things happen at home that you cannot be part of and you flat out miss your friends, family and everything you left behind. At some point in a long distance hike everyone hits a mental low. This is the time where it is vital that you fight to bring out the best in yourself, to remain calm and composed and to remember what brought you to the trail in the first place. If that means taking a few days off just to reset then by all mans do so. You have spent months and possibly even years preparing and training for this thru-hike. When the going gets tough, the tough gets going.

9) Be the Light in the Dark

Whether you know it or not, as a thru-hiker people are looking up to you for hope. Many people are not fortunate enough to be able to attempt and finish a thru hike. While you are out on the trail people are following you and living vicariously through you. Many cannot fathom walking thousands of miles with nothing but what is on their backs. Use this knowledge to give you strength when things get tough, because believe me they will. There are a lot of distressing things happening around the world today, be the light in the dark. Everyone, including yourself will appreciate it.

10) Don’t Quit…. EVER, EVER, EVER!

There will be days that you want to pack it up and go home. Everyone who has ever thru-hiked has had the thought cross their mind. It’s hard, possibly one of the hardest things you will ever do, but do not ever give up. There are people who have completed a thru-hike that are 80 + years old, people who are  blind, and even paralyzed. The one thing they have in common is that they believed that it was possible and followed through. Remove the word “can’t” from your vocabulary and start hiking! As quoted from Admiral William H. McRaven’s book, “Quitting never makes anything easier.”



Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 4

  • Marcia Powers : May 26th

    Well said and I am glad you posted those!
    I laughed aloud when I got to number seven. When we were burying water in NV we were told, “I hate to rain on your parade, but you can’t do it. ”
    That statement was what kept us going to ultimately complete the first 4922 mile thru hike of the American Discovery Trail.
    We also laughed at the imagery of “raining ” as we were caching water in the dry desert.

  • Don McHale : May 30th

    Great Advice& well written. Turn this into a Book.

  • Backpacking Enthusiast : Jun 7th

    Thanks to your grandfather who gave you the book! Reading about the experiences of a Navy Seal had to be awesome itself. The advice you gave is really awesome and so thought provoking. This is a read for everyone who considers a thru hike. The encouragement you gave is a wonderful encouragement to all! When the going gets tough, the tough get going! Self motivation! backpack enthusiast

    • Faith : Jun 19th


      I am in the early stages of planning my AT thru-hike. This particular post struck home with me. I have listened to and read adm. McRavens commencement speech back in 2014 and have held it close to my heart ever since. Every few months when I feel like I need motivation I read it again. I love that you have adapted it to the trail. Thanks for a new sense of motivation.

      A hopeful and determined future thru-hiker.


What Do You Think?