On the Thru-Hike Rollercoaster

I know lots of other bloggers will give you a rundown of where they’ve been and what they’ve been doing. This isn’t one of those posts. Instead, I’d like to talk a bit about what, to me, is one of the key aspects of thru-hiking: embracing the roller coaster.

The Good Badger talks about this a bit in Appalachian Trials: “In short, the AT is a lesson in volatility. Like riding a roller coaster, the motions are out of your control. Your only job is to enjoy the ride.”

There are highs and lows on the trail, every day. For me, a typical day might be something like this:

  • Wake up to frozen water and air that feels way too cold to want to move. Perform the weird gymnastics of getting dressed in a hammock while trying not to expose any skin to the air.
  • Eat a container of cold-overnight-soaked oatmeal with freeze-dried fruit because cooking in these temps and wind just does not seem like a great idea. Not hot but man it is a tasty breakfast.
  • Untie things with half-frozen fingers in between bites of oatmeal. Break camp while chit-chatting with other groggy half-frozen hikers.
  • First mile in puffy and all the stiffness: not awesome. So not awesome. Is this limping? Might be considered limping…
  • Shed the puffy once my body temp gets high enough. Eat a tiny snack.
  • Start to see all the beautiful things around me. Feel everything loosen up and like I could hike a thousand miles today.
  • First real foot pain of the day, usually a stabbing pain in the end of my second toe on my right foot. Only happens on days with a noticeable descent in the first few miles, but no amount of stretching or shifting makes it go away until it decides to. I hate hiking during this time period. Hate it. Start listing things I’m grateful for to remind myself why this is not torture.
  • If it’s warmed up enough, stop to snack and take shoes off and massage that toe. When the shoes go back on, something different will hurt but it will be better. This is great. Totally manageable.
  • Have a bunch of good miles where life feels great, everything seems beautiful even when it’s frozen, and I love life. I notice birds, birdsong, lichen, flowers, rocks, cool trees, etc. It is amazing.
  • When I hit lots of rocks, and definitely in the last couple miles, the Achilles pain will start. Play a lot with gait and footfall to manage this until I get to camp. I don’t hate life but it is not amazing, and there’s definitely some bartering with myself (make it two more miles and you can eat xx for dinner. Remember those gummy bears? You WILL EAT THOSE.)
  • See something amazing in spite of the pain and remind myself: yes, this is why I am doing this.
  • Resume pain. Start listing things I’m grateful for.
  • Make camp. On a good night, laugh and eat with other hikers. On a bad night, eat quickly and curl up to massage my feet in my hammock.
  • Repeat.

This is still just a summary. It feels like every 15 minutes the weather or something in my body will shift, making things more or less awesome depending on what kind of shift it is. Rain will start or end; a shoulder will start to hurt or stop hurting; I’ll adjust a strap on my pack for relief or more pain; etc.

None of this is probably news to you. But it is what thru-hiking consists a lot of, for me. This is the roller coaster.

But the thing a lot of people don’t realize about the roller coaster is that it’s something most of us end up being deeply appreciative of.

Let me explain.

Last week, we had really cold temps and snow. This happened to be when the group I was hiking with crossed from Georgia into North Carolina. We had planned a big celebration at the GA/NC border, but the weather had really strung us out on the trail and a lot of us passed it alone. We hiked in snow and ice pellets all day. The first half of this I thought was beautiful and I loved it–I am a bit of a masochist for hiking in bad weather. Here’s what I looked like at the border:

But then I made the turn up into Bly Gap and my world instantly fell into shrieking wind and driving ice pellets and steep ascent. And it. Was. Awful. Resoundingly, everyone I talked to who hiked that day had the same experience: like North Carolina just tried to kill us.

We all pushed through to Muskrat Creek Shelter. People huddled together in the shelter, curled up with each other in tents. Three guys offered to help me hang my hammock so I could get under sleeping quilts faster. All of us retired to bags and quilts as fast as was humanly possible, well before the sun went down, to try to stay warm. We checked on each other in the morning to make sure everyone made it through the night.

And yet, to a hiker, every single person I talked to who hiked that day said afterward: “Man, I’m so glad I made it through that because it makes everything after it seem so much better.”

We said this when it was highs in the 40s and raining. When our amazing vistas were socked in with fog. When we hiked all day in rain and it cleared up just before sunset.

Because let’s face it: everything in life is relative.

And the trail never stops reminding you of this. Having a great moment? Don’t worry, in an hour you’ll probably be hurting again. Having a terrible moment? Don’t worry, at some point you’ll see a great view or have someone offer you jelly beans, or the sun will come out, and it will feel amazing.

It seems to be the hikers who embrace this roller coaster–who recognize how useful those lows are at making the highs feel so much higher–who love their hike.

So if you’re out there struggling, or if you’re planning your thru-hike, keep that in mind: expect the roller coaster, and recognize that those miserable moments will make your awesome moments feel that much more awesome. Once you’ve shivered through a night, you’ll appreciate a night in the 40s (where you don’t sleep with your water bottle, your water filter, all your electronics) so much more. If you’d had 40s the whole time you’d probably just complain that it’s a little chilly in the morning. It’s all relative.

And when you’re stuck in one of those miserable moments that doesn’t seem to end, here is what I do and what I’ve suggested to fellow hikers: start listing off things you’re grateful or appreciative for. Sometimes these are very practical things (e.g. I’m grateful for rain pants; I’m grateful I don’t mind hiking with cold thighs) and sometimes they’re far more emotional (e.g. I’m grateful I have all these amazing people sending me texts and packages; I’m grateful I have two legs that mostly function and carry me up ascents like this one; I’m grateful I’ll have the voice to whoop at the top).

You can’t change the conditions. But you can change how you think about them.

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Comments 3

  • Lynn M Walden : Mar 29th

    Way cool blog, as one who travels through your eyes, I appreciate your candor and your committment…keep on keepin on WW!

  • Sarah Karner : Apr 7th

    Yasss gurrl. So true, so relatable. I feel you. And props for recognizing that ev-uh-ree-thing is relative. This knowledge makes life off the trail more manageable, too.

    • Kate Mueller : May 8th

      Ain’t that the truth! It’s applicable everywhere but it really is so important on trail.


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