Does a Failed Thru-hike Attempt Make Me a Failure Too?

Before I set off from Springer in March, I thought I had myself both mentally and physically prepared for a thru hike.

Or, I thought I was prepared to the degree anyone who hasn’t really experienced a thru hike could be. I bought equipment as light as I could afford. I pared that down to a base weight of less than 20 pounds. I worked out. I made healthy food and dehydrated it for extra lightness. I reached out to successful thru hikers, including AT icons such as AWOL and The Good Badger. I made my three lists.

On the “negative” list, I had written that if I didn’t complete my hike, that I would feel as if I had failed. A failure. In black and white.


It is July and I am home.  This isn’t where I am supposed to be.   If I believe in my list, then I have failed.  I should be somewhere in New Jersey swatting at mosquitoes, but with a tummy happy from great deli food.  I had planned it out. I began with the end in mind. Yet, here I am, sad and questioning if I really gave it my all.  Other than my feet, I wasn’t physically challenged once I got through the first few hundred miles or so.  Others seemed far worse, yet they hiked on.

I went home due to foot issues, got an OK from the docs, and then tried again. Only to give up again. My original partner, BobBon, is still out there. Her feet hurt. So do everyone else’s. Yet they persevere.  I beat the odds and vanquished failure in much of my life, so why not this?

BonBon and I parted in our hiking, when I decided to postpone the Smokies, but never in our hearts. In hindsight (not sure it is even 20/20), I should have jumped forward with her when I got back. But I was afraid that I would slow her down and she has a deadline. I was lonely without good hiking buddies. Yes, my feet hurt again. Am I just a wimp? Was I being altruistic or cowardly? I am filled with doubts.

I believed the prior year thru hikers that said post-trail depression is real. I just saw myself on top of Katahdin and then visiting friends throughout New England as we made our way home. I thought that I would jump into retirement, and that the joy of not having to return to work would mitigate the loss of the trail. But my hike didn’t end in Maine. I am even thinking seriously about going back to work. How can this be?

I am depressed at not finishing. There is no other way to describe it. Could it be that I just didn’t want it enough? Friends and followers on Appalachian Trials, FaceBook, and Trail Journals tell me that I am a success. That I was smart not to continue on and do permanent damage to my feet. But, what if I was nowhere near to real damage? Am I the runner in the track meet that holds back for fear of running out of steam? When I think of the Warrior Hikers, I am ashamed of feeling so hopeless in light of what they have experienced. My father hiked from one end of Italy to the other in 1940s army gear under frequent enemy fire.  How can I not walk from Georgia to Maine?

I still think about the trail all the time. A good friend noticed me going pensive over dinner last night. I lied and said everything was fine. Is a third try possible? Could I meet up with BonBon and hike through Connecticut and Massachusetts? Could I climb Katahdin with her? Would that go a long way toward erasing my sense of failure?  Or will it go away on its own once we are past October 15?


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 9

  • Tom Kennedy : Jul 18th

    you have to reach way down within one’s self to the core, and rise above the pain. it’s not easy but it is within everyone if you look hard enough.

    • TicTac : Jul 21st

      What a specious statement Tom. Are you saying that a broken leg or stress fractures in the shin, or that suffering from severe symptoms of Lyme Disease should be no impediment to competing a thru-hike? Are you saying there is no physical or mental problem that cannot be overcome with sufficient willpower? Considering your supposed association with people who fight a daily battle with mental illness, you should be ashamed of your recrimination.

      “Looking inward hard enough” is a fine pop psychology phrase, but is not the solution for every problem, and you do Kate a disservice by insinuating that a lack of willpower or self-discipline is the only reason she is off the Trail and back home. You worry about your own motivations Tom, and trust that Kate did the right thing for herself. I for one affirm her decision if she believes it is the right one for her.

      • thalassa : Jul 24th

        Heck yes!

        While I’ve not hiked the AT, I’ve done plenty of other “once in a life time” sort of “do it or die” things, and I’ve seen many a person end up permanantly injured for the rest of their life from choosing to “rise above the paid” or “suck it up” or “reach way down”. Not everyone wants to hurt too much to play with their future grandkids or need a dozen knee surgeries because they sucked it up into permanant damage.

  • zrdavis : Jul 19th

    All of the opinions in the world won’t change how you feel about this decision.

    If you are proud of what you’ve accomplished and feel as if you’ve gotten what you were looking for from the experience, that’s a successful hike. Similarly, if permanent injury was a consequence of continuing, you didn’t make the decision quit, you were forced into it.

    For what it’s worth, you SHOULD be proud of what you’ve done, whether it’s the end of the trail or not.

  • Hiker BigTex : Jul 19th

    Someone once told me if you leave the trail due to injury it is not “quitting”. Its true, nor does it make you a failure. Only our own perceptions of our self can do that. The AT is HARD, and decisions need made, hard decisions. Ones that will change your life…..and honestly non-thru’s can NEVER understand what we feel, what it is to hike the trail, how it really does change your life. Nor will they EVER understand post trail feelings…..yes its real depression that even now affects me!
    Everyone is individual and different, life priorities and commitments mean we must make choices which are for the “best”, but perhaps not for us. My knee issue and continuing to hike on it from Pearisburg onwards means I now have arthritis……but I took that decision and decided the mental conflict of not continuing would be far more hurtful than the physical injury of heading north.
    I suppose you need to decide what hurts more and what you can live with, then accept that decision. The trail is still there, perhaps just another adventure away. But honestly, if you had the courage to stand on Springer and head north then you already showed a strength of character that many wouldnt even attempt.

  • Theresa : Jul 19th

    If you ever want to try again, let me know. Im an overweight farmer mom who started a SOBO hike and ended in injury. Met some great hikers and trail runners. Would try again in a heartbeat. Keep your heart light and your dreams alive. (((Hug))) tc

  • Sprinkles : Jul 20th

    Sprinkles here (I cannot get this thing to log in!) I wanted to chime in to say this: No, you are not a failure; however, yes, your hike failed. Failure is always perceived so negatively these days. It’s like success is the only thing that matters and you should be happy. Failure is NOT a bad thing. A failure means you attempted a goal, in this case a huge and difficult one, and it didn’t go as planned. Look at all the people in life who are successful at anything at all and I guarantee you not one of them became successful at what they are doing on their very first try! So instead of focusing on feeling sad about failing, maybe try and turn that into something more positive – you attempted something hard and you didn’t get the result you wanted. You can always try again, or go meet your friend somewhere else on the trail to hike. Just because the long-term goal failed doesn’t mean you did 🙂

  • thalassa : Jul 24th

    When I was in boot camp (over a decade ago), there was a girl with stress fractures in her hip. She didn’t know that, of course…it was “just a pain that would come and go”. She just had to suck it up “a few more weeks” and then “a few more day” and then…by the time she finally went to the doctor she had done permanent damage. She ended up medically discharged and 19 years old needed a hip replacement. I’m pretty sure that if she could go back knowing what the outcome was, she’d make the choice to quit.

    Attitude is great. Mental fortitude, suck-it-upedness, gumption, grit…yeah, they are great. But at some point in time, you have to figure out which is more important…being able to run around the block for the rest of your life or a flash-in-the-pan moment of glory (as life changing as it might be, is it more important than being able to carry your grandkids or run around and play tag with your kids–there’s no right answer here, just different ones)? Part of the journey is knowing when to heal and try again. You can’t win if you don’t fight, but if you don’t know when to walk away to fight another day, you won’t get a second chance.

  • Robin Hobbs (Miss America) : Nov 24th

    In 2014, I set out to attempt a thru and like yourself, left trail due to physical issues.
    I understand those feelings of failure. But ask yourself, if you could look into the future and see the outcome of your hike, would you do it over again?
    I’m going to bet on this one, that you would say yes. Am I right? Now, why is that?
    I know the answer to that question too. Do you need reminded of the beauty that you witnessed along trail? Remember the kindness from strangers? Remember when you first experienced the true meaning of “trail magic” when the trail gave you what you needed in that exact moment in time? Remember huffing and puffing up mountains after a long day and the reward of a beautiful view? Remember, time spent walking is a great gift.
    You are a lot stronger than you give yourself credit for. Think of those who can’t physically walk due to Paralysis or those crippled by fear to take on such an undertaking, all alone. Think of all those wonderful experiences that the majority of society will never experience.
    So you see, your hike wasn’t a failure. You gave yourself the greatest gift. Go back and finish the miles or attempt another thru if you desire and you’ll come to find, in the end, that it was about the journey after all.


What Do You Think?