What if I Fail at Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail?

As I approach the start date of my Appalachian Trail thru-hike attempt, a question has been regularly appearing in my daily mind jargon.

What if I Fail?

During a thru-hike, the sad reality is that failure is more than just a possibility, but rather a probability. After all, roughly only 25% of hikers who attempt a thru-hike end up by finishing the hike. The other 75% are confronted with the F word.

Now, I know that starting a thru-hike with the idea that failure is likely isn’t necessarily a positive way to start out. Nonetheless, I prefer to begin to think about what it would mean to fail now while I’m cozily nestled within the warmth of my home; rather than stumbling during my thru-hike and free-falling uncontrollably into failure’s grips.

My sister asked me yesterday if I thought I would be able to complete the Appalachian Trail. I answered confidently: “Yes, I really do, unless I break a leg or something…”

The something encompasses a rather large number of things. I could decide I simply don’t want to thru-hike anymore. I could get Lyme disease. I could inadvertently wander off the trail and never find my way back to the white blazes (something that has happened before to hikers). I could get chewed on by a bear. I could become such good friends with a wolf that I decide to ditch civilization and live among wolves à-la-Mowgli.

Failure Is a Human Reality

Even the most perfect human will fail. If you’re like me, you fail at things on a regular basis. I failed when I dropped out of law school. I failed when I forgot about my gingerbread cookies in the oven and went skating. When I came home, the village of happy ginger people were all deflated, burnt to char. I failed when I was filming a documentary with my sister and rather than “elegantly gliding down the stairs,” tumbled down the stone stairs in an almost acrobatic way.

Nonetheless, in All These Scenarios There Has Been a Success to My Failures

Dropping out of law school made me discover what I really wanted to do with my life, and also helped me avoid a lifetime of wearing business attire. Heels every day? No, thanks. Burning my gingerbread cookies made me make another batch of cookies. Only this time I made chocolate chip cookies, and everyone knows that chocolate chip cookies taste far superior to gingerbread. As for tumbling down the stairs… I now have a video to watch every time I’m having a bad day and want to cheer up a bit. (Actually, my entire family and pretty much all my friends now have a video that cheers them up on gloomy days.)

I Will Do Everything Possible to Finish My Thru-Hike of the Appalachian Trail

But even if I do fail at thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, I know that there will be a whole lot of positive things that will come from my experience. There will be success in my failure.

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Comments 13

  • Pony : Dec 28th

    Before you head out, write down a list of the reasons you want to hike the trail. Keep a copy with you, so that on those days when you forget, or are miserable (yes, you’re going to have those days), or want to quit, you can pull it out and remind yourself why you are out there.

    Second, read Zach Davis’ book, “Appalachian Trials.” Zach is the founder of this site, and for my money, that book has the most honest, down-and-dirty advice to hikers about what they will *really* confront on a long hike, especially emotionally and psychologically. I didn’t read the book until after I had hiked the AT and CT, but honestly, it’s the best book I know to prep someone for the realities of the trail.

    Never quit on a bad day and never quit at the end of the day. Sleep on it, take a zero, hell, take a week off if you have to, to rejuvenate yourself to finish. Remember, if you hike NOBO on the AT, the old saying is true: When you reach Hanover, you’ve done 80% of the miles, but only about 50% of the effort. *Save some energy* for New Hampshire and Maine; just because you can bust out big miles from N. Virginia through Massachusetts doesn’t mean you should. The wear and tear of the trail, on body, mind and spirit, is cumulative … pace yourself!

    On the upside, in my experience, I have found that women are much better at bearing down for the long haul and finishing the AT. The percentage of women at Springer, to my eye, was much, much lower than the percentage of women on Katahdin. In other words, women seem to endure the long haul better than men, on average. Just my observation (and yes, I’m a man).

    Have fun. I envy you.

    • Tom : Dec 28th

      From what i saw, it looked like a solid 50% of those who dropped out were in the first 50 miles. Out of the other 25% many of those are folks who either got hurt or ran out of their allotted time. Whether you make it the whole way or only a portion it will still be a life changing experience. Have a good hike.

  • Jonathan : Dec 29th

    IDK, I still think I prefer gingerbread…! I think it’s a good idea to address this before you start, and I like your attitude. Good luck!

  • Kool Aid/Kim Starr : Dec 29th

    I started a thru hike on the AT in 2016. After 2 months, I realized I didn’t want to do a thru hike. I was so enjoying the whole experience, taking 2,000 pictures, talking to the frogs, sitting watching creeks, bottom line slowly enjoying every single minute. The thru hikers scurry by me and I ask “Did you see the turtle?” they sat “no” and hurry on by! I don’t want to do that!!! This is my adventure! I walked 1,026 miles to Harpers Ferry that year, 750 miles to Manchester Center, Vermont in 2017, and in 2018, 450 miles to Monson Maine. I have 100 miles left for this year and I’ve taken over 4,000 pictures, wrote long writings in my journals!! For me this us the BEST of my life! Good luck and maybe ill see you on the trail! I will start back July 8th. God Bless You!!❤

    • Fred Hazen : Dec 29th

      Thank you, your story really takes the pressure off the whole life journey

    • EarthTone : Dec 30th

      I too have taken on this perspective of my Quest. I’m in no hurry. It isn’t an all or nothing venture for me. 600 miles to go…


  • Vince : Dec 29th

    Take the first 200 miles easy. Then simply wake up and walk each day. For blisters. Cheap KT tape from walmart. Stop immediately if you even feel a slight chance and apply. It breathes, can get wet. If you can leave it on till it falls off. It can be used for alot of things. My first aid kit. Simply KT tape and anti-inflammatories. Anything else you can buy just off trail.

  • West Driggers : Dec 29th

    Good luck I want to try when I retire maybe a long shot because of my MS but maybe I can live thru your eyes please let me know if there is a way to keep up with your progress and good luck.

  • Early Riser 71 : Dec 29th

    I think having the conversation with yourself prior to going is important, but I suggest another method that will fit some people better. Accepting that you may quit is often a recipe to quit much easier because you have already come to terms with it.

    Everyday, ask yourself this: “What in the hell will I be doing if I quit the trail and go home?” If your answer is “go back to the same ole routine as before” then I would ask you why you went in the first place? Growth only happens from the equation pain + reflection…so committing to staying on the trail no matter what (barring medical or family emergencies) is paramount to find the growth you seek. If you think it is going to be all butterflies and rainbows, you do not really want to thru hike. You should probably settle for a day hike or two.

    Bottom line, if this is your goal keep putting one foot in front of the other and dont quit. The BIGGEST rewards come at the end…and those cant be found back home doing your same ole routine.

  • Brandon Rimstidt : Dec 29th

    You shouldn’t say the F word man. If your like me, once you step on that trail, Hiking will become your life. Sometimes you go a long way, sometimes you dont. They are all just another beautiful day in the woods. If you dont go all the way it will just have been a scouting mission for next time. Then when you do finish it will feel so much better. The important thing is to enjoy and take care of yourself. This is coming from experianced hiker trash.

  • Hawk : Dec 30th

    When I made it to Damascus I knew I was going to go the distance. 300 miles later my body had other ideas. It seriously broke my heart to have to leave the trail but anyone who has spent more than a week on the AT knows that the best laid plans of mice and…..well, you get the picture. There are several aspect to a thru hike, emotional, physical, intellectual, and for some, spiritual. Every one of those can get critical at some points in your hike. How you deal with those, with a bit of luck thrown in, will determine whether you make that last, beautiful climb.
    Hawk on the Appalachian Trail

  • Fishn'GaMe : Dec 30th

    Since you completed the LT you’ve got a good idea of what to expect. It doesn’t get any harder than that, just much longer. So logistics, endurance, and basically time and money are the only other factors to be applied. For me, the commraderie along the AT is one of the most beneficial aspects in keeping one moving forward. Good luck!

  • EarthTone : Dec 30th

    If you head out planning on going as far as you can, without a terminal objective, you have a 75% chance of succeeding. 🙂 Just another way of looking at it.

    Have fun.



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