Four Horsemen of the Thru-Hike Apocalypse

So, you’re planning your thru-hike. You’ve got your gear, done some shakedowns, and maybe set your start date. But have you considered the Four Horsemen of the Thru-Hike Apocalypse? From interviews with hikers and reviewing surveys, these are the four most common reasons why thru-hikers fail to reach their finish line.

1. Financial Woes

Let’s start with what’s easiest to control: finances. Many hikers step on the trail without thinking through the expense side of things. While the adage “the trail will provide” holds true, it doesn’t mean you can ignore your finances altogether. Resupplies, unplanned gear purchases, neros/zeros, and unforeseen excursions can quickly deplete your funds.

The general consensus is that you should budget at least $1000 per month for a successful thru-hike (your mileage may vary).  This does not include upfront expenses for gear – just the ongoing expenses on the trail.  It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the trail and forget about the realities of financial planning. However, taking the time to create a realistic budget can save you a lot of stress in the long run.

2. Illness and Injury

Illness and injury are inevitable hazards of any thru-hike. No matter how well you prepare, there’s always a chance that you’ll get sick or injured. However, there are things you can do to reduce your risk:

  • Train properly: Make sure you’re in decent physical condition before you start your hike. This will help you avoid overuse injuries. And, while on the trail, take time to stretch and treat yourself to some self-massage with a cork ball.
  • Manage Your Base weight: The adage goes “ounces make pounds and pounds make pain,” so think hard about the load you will be bearing when you start your trek. Not everyone can be an ultralight hiker, but having a base weight below 20 lbs for a Spring start is common wisdom and you will likely shed weight along the way. 
  • Listen to your body: Don’t push yourself too hard. If you’re feeling pain, stop and rest. Taking a few days off to heal may be the difference maker in being able to continue your adventure.
  • Practice good hygiene: Wash your hands regularly, especially before eating and after using the bathroom. This will help you avoid catching a bug.

Even if you take all the precautions in the world, you may still get sick or injured on the trail. If this happens, don’t be afraid to seek help. There are plenty of resources available to thru-hikers, including trail angels, hostels, and medical clinics.

3. Dissatisfaction and Emotional Toll

Thru-hiking is a challenging and rewarding endeavor that requires both physical and mental preparation. While physical conditioning is crucial for enduring the long miles and demanding terrain, mental fortitude is equally important for navigating the emotional and psychological challenges that arise on the trail.

Here are some tips for coping with the emotional challenges of thru-hiking:

  • Establish a Strong “Why”: Clarifying your purpose for embarking on this journey is essential for maintaining motivation and resilience when faced with obstacles. Reflect on what drives you to tackle the AT and how the experience aligns with your personal goals and aspirations. A compelling “why” will serve as an anchor, reminding you of the deeper meaning behind your adventure.
  • Visualize Success: Envision yourself overcoming challenges, enjoying the beauty of the trail, and reaching the next milestone. Visualization can boost confidence, reduce anxiety, and strengthen your resolve.
  • Develop Coping Mechanisms: Identify healthy coping strategies for dealing with difficult emotions and situations. Practice journaling, creative expression, or nature connection to process negative thoughts and maintain emotional balance.
  • Embrace Uncertainty: Accept that the AT will present unexpected challenges and unforeseen situations. Practice flexibility, adaptability, and a willingness to embrace the unknown.
  • Celebrate Small Victories: Acknowledge and celebrate your progress, no matter how small. Reaching a scenic overlook, completing a particularly challenging section, or simply making it through a difficult day are all worthy of recognition.
  • Embrace the Journey: Remember that the AT is not just about reaching the finish line; it’s about the experiences, lessons, and personal growth along the way. Savor the journey, appreciate the beauty of nature, and connect with the people and places you encounter.

4. Family and Personal Life

Unexpected family emergencies and personal situations at home can necessitate a hiker’s return, forcing them to abandon their trek. Little can be done to mitigate the realities of family and personal life, so if a family emergency comes up, prepare to make it your priority. 

And while thru-hiking can be a very rewarding experience, it can also take a toll on relationships. If you’re not careful, you could end up sacrificing your relationships with your family and friends.

Here are some tips for maintaining your personal life while thru-hiking:

  • Stay connected: Use technology to stay in touch with your loved ones.
  • Plan your time: Make time for family and friends before and after your hike.
  • Set boundaries: Don’t be afraid to tell people that you need some time alone.
  • Prioritize: Be ready to step off the trail to support others. It may mean a delay in your trip or abandoning your journey – the trail isn’t going anywhere and the possibility of returning remains.

But Have a Plan B

I highly recommend creating an alternative plan of what you will do in the event something comes up. If you’ve already planned on taking several months out of your regular life to live as a vagabond, consider how you might spend your time if you have to cut your hike short.

That way if the trail gods have other plans, don’t fret. Your adventure doesn’t have to end abruptly. With some potential alternatives in mind, you can transform this detour into a new chapter. Maybe you can embrace van life, become a part-time trail angel, write your novel, or even bank time to make an attempt again next year. Remember, life is about embracing the unplanned detours and discovering the hidden gems that lie beyond our original destination. 

Happy Trails!

P.S., This advice is simply guidance to increase the odds of success. Plenty of people are able to make a successful “couch to Katahdin” trip, but they are likely part of a lucky few.

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