What makes a successful thru hike?

I’ve been pondering this for a few weeks. Most will say it’s the summit of Mt Katahdin. The destination, naturally,  is the conclusion at the endpoint. Hikers walk 2,197.4 miles this year to reach that sacred sign and get their pictures smiling or crying – or both. I myself had grand illusions of reaching that point.

However it became apparent early on in Georgia that my knees, most notably my left one, just does not have the flexibility that I’m going to need to get through the Whites. The descent into the NOC was terrifying. Everyday climbs and scrambles that I’ve encountered since only reinforced that thought. Perhaps I’ll just hike until I no longer am physically able to.

My body held up otherwise. I have usual aches and pains of trekking 374.4 miles carrying 30+ pounds on my back up and over, down and through these mountains. What surprised me was the mental aspect. I thought that I would be alot tougher than I was.  The first few weeks were fine. I didn’t mind hiking alone. As the time went on though, I grew more weary of trudging day after day by myself. Tramlies were formed in the first few days and here I was, 30 days in and felt very much like an orphan. Yes, I met lots of folks but never made a true connection to anyone that supported the emotional needs of a thru hiker. It got lonely. And day after day of lonely – singing the same damn songs to myself – made for depression. I missed being home. I missed my partner and our dog. I missed my friends. I missed, in short, the connections I had that I was not making out here. All the beauty that the trail provided could not replace my emotional need for the love I had at home.

So, what makes a successful thru hike? Is it the destination or the discovery? Is it touching the sign at the end or getting in touch with your self as you go on this journey? I saw incredible views in my adventure.  I experienced the kindness of strangers in the form of trail magic. I had the camaraderie of fellow hikers, all wistful in the hopes of reaching Maine. We shared stories and laughs. We asked the whereabouts of others through trail names. The community is indeed rich and the fellowship real.

But at the end of the day, this is still your journey.  This is still your hike. “Hike your own hike” is a phrase that’s recounted as a mantra. Mine may have ended not summitting Mt Katahdin. I’m at peace with that. I fell out of love with the trail on that 9 miles to Clyde Smith Shelter. What I discovered was the place I needed to be – and that was home with my partner and our hellacious Malamute, Ripley. My heart was calling me home. All the vistas and breathtaking summits could not fill the void I was feeling. I ended my journey on my own terms. I have memories and experiences that will last a lifetime. There was a phrase in my college days – “don’t die wondering.” There is peace in knowing that I tried and I found where my heart belongs. So yes, I had a very successful thru hike.

My last white blaze

Lonely is as Lonely Does – the db’s
“When happy’s just a state of mind
That you were forced to leave behind
And when your world has crumbled fast
And solitude is left at last”


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 11

  • James : Apr 6th

    Thank you for sharing your amazing journey, and for being so honest and descriptive. I am planning oncoming over from the UK next year to walk the trail. So a huge thank you for all the notes on shelters, hostels ,views and for really giving me a sense of life on the trail. Loneliness is actually my biggest fear, but as they say don’t pack your fears so I will just start and see how I get on.

    Thank you again for your brilliant blog, I have enjoyed being with you side by side from the comfort of my warm home, many 1000s of miles away! what ever adventure you choose to do next.

    I wish you well , stay safe be happy 🙂

    • Andrea Stilwell : Apr 6th

      Thank you, James, for reading my blog. It has been an amazing journey. I’m grateful for having the support from family and friends, without which wouldn’t have made this possible. I have lifelong memories. I wish you much luck in your endeavor next year.

  • John Rutkowski III : Apr 6th

    Go with where the love is. So that’s home, heal up and go on hikes with your partner and dog.

    I walk my own walk, but 20 somes don’t want to hand with a 70 year young walker.

    So section hike with your partner and dog. You will have fun and scenery.

    • Andrea Stilwell : Apr 7th

      Thank you. I will cherish the moments and experiences I had. Life moves forward.

  • Thomas : Apr 7th

    Enjoyed reading your thoughts. I live near the AT and do lots of day hikes. I can’t imagine the constant wear and tear of 2200 miles.
    Best of luck and grace to you.

    • Andrea Stilwell : Apr 7th

      Yes, the wear and tear of 374.4 miles was enough. But I made memories that will last a lifetime.

  • Linda : Apr 7th

    I can’t hike anymore due to health issues, but I love the trek blogs. Your blog was a real treat. I’m happy that you found what you were looking for on the Trail. And thanks for sharing it with us.

    All the best, from Upstate NY

    • Andrea Stilwell : Apr 7th

      Thank you for taking the time to read my blogs. It was a great adventure. Taking life one day at a time.

  • Polly Heninger : Apr 9th

    Congratulations on a successful hike, Andrea! I know from cycling trips we all get to decide what “success” looks like. And thank you for sharing your adventure.

    • Andrea Stilwell : Apr 11th

      Thank you. It was a great time but now to enjoy retirement.

  • DEB : Apr 11th

    Well done, you hiked your hike. I will miss your posts. Take care & be well.


What Do You Think?