“So What’s Next?” Struggling with Imposter Syndrome After Thru-Hiking

Standing on top of Mount Katahdin, I knew that I was capable of anything. My legs burned, my chest heaved, but at the moment, standing atop of the northern terminus of the AT, I felt a surge of confidence I had never known. This feeling of pride swelled as I traversed the rocks on the descent inside Baxter State Park.

Celebrating my completion of the AT NoBo. March 22, 2021-September 7, 2021. Photo courtesy of Joshua “Gooey” Kay.

This wave of triumph continued over the next few days on my journey back to my home state of North Carolina. After hiking nearly 2,200 miles and living in the woods for almost six months, I was confident that I could tackle anything life threw at me. I felt cocky and entitled as I settled into my new identity as a thru-hiker.

One is Never Enough

After posting about my completion of the AT on Facebook, a new reality set in. Among the congratulations from friends and family came a resounding comment. “So, what’s next?” This same question was asked in person anytime someone learned about my recent hike, as well. “That’s so awesome, but what are you going to do now?”

I had just walked from Georgia to Maine. What did they mean, “what’s next?” Was this lifelong achievement not enough for the armchair adventurers who virtually followed along on my hike? Was this feat not satisfying enough for my dentist, the waiter at a swanky restaurant, or my grandmother?

imposter syndrome thru-hiking

Chugging along down a boardwalk in Maine. Photo courtesy of Joshua “Gooey” Kay.

During my trek, I rediscovered who I was, connected with myself in ways I never imagined, and learned to find beauty in life’s everyday mundane adventures. Although I felt as though I had been bit by the fabled thru-hiking bug and wanted to check off another trail, I needed time and space away from the trail. I needed to relearn how to exist in the world outside of my tent and focus on preserving all that the trail taught me.

Looking for solace, I turned to other long-distance hikers on social media. Surely others have taken time to rest after completing a thru-hike? My hopes were dashed as I found post after post about what other trails thru-hikers planned to tackle. It seemed as though one thru-hike was never enough.

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I quickly began to feel as though I no longer blended into the “real world” after living as a vagabond for several months, but with only one long-distance trail under my belt, I also didn’t feel like I had a place in the thru-hiker community. I had accomplished something that most people only dreamed of doing, and yet it seemed as though my credentials were still not enough to gain the title “dirtbag.”

What Makes Me Special?

Flashback to early 2021. I had been toying with the idea of thru-hiking for years, reading countless books and blogs about other people’s adventures on trail, and living vicariously through vlogs on YouTube. It wasn’t until I was laid off from work that I began to consider the possibility that maybe I could thru-hike after all. I told myself, if these other people can do it, why can’t I?

Once this idea was cemented into my head, I became my own worst critic. What makes me think I can accomplish something like this? My longest backpacking trip was three days long—how do I expect to live in the woods for six months? I was scared, skeptical, and doubted myself both physically and mentally. It wasn’t until I laid eyes on the Katahdin sign that I was able to silence those voices, but only momentarily.

Perhaps I never doubted my physical ability more than when going through the infamous Mahoosuc Notch. Photo courtesy of Joshua “Gooey” Kay.

My Own Worst Enemy

On my journey north, I spent a lot of time reflecting on my self-talk. Why was it that despite being in the middle of proving to myself that I am capable of anything, I still felt as though I didn’t belong? After some Googling, I was able to label what I was feeling: Imposter Syndrome. “Imposter Syndrome… ​​involves feelings of self-doubt and personal incompetence that persist despite your education, experience, and accomplishments.”

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Here I was out here doing the damn thing, and yet I still felt like I was out of place. I worked tirelessly day in and day out, not only to cover miles but also to put those doubts to rest. My motivation for thru-hiking was to prove to myself that I could do hard things, and walking from Springer to Katahdin was HARD, but I did it.

Crying in disbelief at being 500 miles from Katahdin and having hiked almost 1,700 miles. Photo courtesy of Cade “Truffles” Smith.

So why was it that after finishing my thru-hike that I still felt unaccomplished? I have found two culprits to blame: 1) social media and 2) dissatisfaction within myself.

I Hate You I Love You

It’s no secret that I have a rocky relationship with social media. When it comes to outdoor and hiking content, I get so much inspiration from other people in the thru-hiking community.

READ NEXT – Pics Or It Didn’t Happen: Is Social Media Ruining Thru-Hiking?

The problem I have found is that there is always more that can be done. More trails to blaze, more miles to cover, more peaks to bag. It’s as though we are dissatisfied with an experience and must constantly push ourselves to the next “once in a lifetime” adventure. I found myself questioning whether or not I actually belonged in thru-hiking culture because I have only done the AT.

imposter syndrome thru-hiking

Feeling accomplished after the first 100 miles at Albert Mountain in NC. We still had so far to go, but this felt like a huge milestone! ​​Photo courtesy of Kayla “Bug Bite” Measell.

Only a Four-Letter Word

I have to stop myself at the word “only.” This is the secret I have found to combat imposter syndrome. “Only” implies that this accomplishment is not good enough, significant, or magnificent. I spent 169 days on trail trudging through snow, dodging bear scat, ducking under trees, sleeping in shelters, climbing mountains, and building lifelong friendships. A thru-hike is so much more than the miles walked or the views seen. It is the sense of comradery between hikers, a shared motive, a commonality that is unlike anything experienced elsewhere.

Comparison is the Thief of Joy

Sometimes when I find myself scrolling on other prominent hikers’ pages, I question if I am the same caliber as they are. It’s as though unless you are willing to compromise your comfortable lifestyle off-trail, such as by working multiple part-time jobs or by living in a van, you aren’t seen as a valid or serious hiker.

I think an important tool when it comes to silencing the voice of imposter syndrome is to stop comparing yourself to others. When I can take a step back and appreciate others’ accomplishments while also recognizing my own victories, I feel as though I can exist in my happiest and most harmonious state.

There are always going to be people who have hiked more miles than you. There are always going to be people who hike faster and further than you. There are always going to be people who wish they had the ability to accomplish the things that you have, both on and off-trail.

Three scared and inexperienced friends preparing to embark on a life-changing journey. Bug Bite, Magic, and Ranger. All three women walked the entire length of the AT. Photo courtesy of Kayla “Bug Bite” Measell.

Do You Have What It Takes?

I worked a traditional 9-5 for years, was laid off, thru-hiked, and am now back to being a weekend warrior while working full time. Is my experience less inspiring than someone who was willing/able to transform their life to hike full time?

No one else walked to Maine for me, I did that. No one else pitched my tent in the rain, scared bears out of camp, or charged up mountains during thunderstorms. Reminding myself of these things gives me the confidence to accept a sense of belonging.

imposter syndrome thru-hiking

Traversing Franconia Ridge in the White Mountains of NH. Photo courtesy of Joshua “Gooey” Kay.

What Are You Going to Do?

So when someone asks you “what’s next,” how do you respond? Are you snarky in response, or do you discredit yourself by chalking it up as a fluke or some outlier?

Wherever you find yourself, I encourage you to take up space and accept that you are where you belong. No one can take away what you have worked for and accomplished. Wear your self-given title or identity with pride. Challenge yourself and question your motives, but never doubt you are where you belong and what you are capable of.

Featured image: Photo via Anna McKinney. Graphic design by Jillian Verner (@yourstrulyjillian).

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Comments 13

  • Chris : Dec 15th

    Magic,
    Thank you for that. I am planning to start March 22 for my thru-hike and that question, “What will I do after?” has been on my mind ever since I have committed myself and time to hike. Other questions have been, will I fit in? how will I function again?, how will I relay my hike to others and family? what can compare to a thru-hike? But you did answer the biggest of them all. Again, thank you. Now I will put your posts in my to read list.
    Chris

    Reply
  • Tengo Hambre : Dec 16th

    Hey! Once you thru hike a triple crown trail ot other lobg trail you have earned the moniker ” thru hiker” it is a credential and skill set earned by you and nobody can take it away. If you think so start another long trail and see how fellow hikers treat you! You will understand then what you have accomplished!

    Reply
  • Dottie Rust : Dec 16th

    Magic, Your AT hike is yours to mull over forever. Keep all of those lessons, friendships, memories & don’t let no one take it away! I love dropping the big “bomb” on people when I say “I hiked the whole Appalachian Trail”.

    You did great!

    “.com”
    Of course, there is the Long Trail now…😉

    Reply
  • Wilson : Dec 16th

    You have taken the accomplishment of a lifetime and turned it over to an uncaring, shallow and judgemental social media wormhole. You are allowing others, (people you have not met and could actually care less about you) rent a whole lot of space in your head. I would suggest you back away from instagram, twitter, and even this site, and bask in the glow of your accomplishment. The only person you have to prove anything to is yourself. If thats all the hiking you want to do, so be it, it doesn’t take away from the accomplishment. If your not sure what you want to next, so be it. If you want to become a sky diver, so be it. If you want to race cars, so be it. If you want to take up knitting, so be it. What you want to do next is you and only you. DON’T overthink it and Don’t let others do your thinking for you.
    Anyone who accomplished what you did, belongs to you and only you. You don’t have to prove yourself to others.
    Congratulations on a dream of a lifetime accomplishment, one that more dreamers than you can count will never see fullfilled.
    I plan on hiking it this year at age 71. It will be my hike and not subject to the judgement of others. Also: what Tengo said

    Reply
  • Paul : Dec 16th

    What’s next? is not a pejorative…it is not a criticism…it is, simply, what it is

    Reply
  • Russ1663 : Dec 16th

    Hey Magic. Dont let them run you the wrong way. You did the work, you took the time, you suffered the journey. It’s your life accomplishment. Mount pictures at home, relive the high points. Don’t allow your life to minimalized by those who haven’t had that adventure.

    Reply
  • Meghan : Dec 16th

    Hey Magic,
    I have had others ask that ‘what is next’ question, and I only did 800 miles, due to an over used left knee injury. No, I have never had a desire to do the PCT, CDT. Only the AT. My confidence level, like yours, is off the chart. We did things others dream about. We did the work and succeeded. No, I didn’t complete the trail but that doesn’t take away my 800 miles. 800 miles more than most. Hang in there, don’t let the questions bother you. You are one of the people who fulfill your dreams and NO One can take that away from you.
    Oh, I got off face book years ago.
    Good luck and stay confident and happy with yourself.
    Sister Bear ‘17

    Reply
  • Michelle : Dec 16th

    I’m guessing most people aren’t dismissive of your accomplishment but honestly curious, like, ‘wow you just spent half a year drifting through the woods, must be weird to be back to ‘real life’, spare time lounging around the house must feel odd,’ I’m sure is about all that’s behind “what are you gonna do next?’

    Reply
  • Jack Layfield : Dec 16th

    Thanks Magic. After completing the AT in 2019, I decided to walk the CPT. I’ve had a great time walking the Couch Potato Trail for the last two years. I think I’ll hike it some more.

    Reply
  • Howard T Moore : Dec 17th

    You know, “you hike your own hike.” That’s completely true, in the sense that no one else has exactly your experience , but also an admonition, to try to remain true yourself. It’s not always easy to know what remaining true to yourself means- part of yourself probably cares what other people think and do, and defines your “self” relative to that. In a lot of ways, that is a good thing.

    Reply
  • Timothy Berry : Dec 17th

    Hi Magic:

    I enjoyed your article. Thank you for writing it.

    I am considering the AT as a 58 year old boomer-grinder! lol. I am at the start of my planning for the AT maybe inside of two years away. Your article told me more things about the AT and thru-hiking than you can imagine. Good stuff.

    Thanks again.

    Reply
  • Amethyst : Jan 16th

    I have “only” thru hiked the Tahoe Rim Trail (170 miles in 2020) and last year when I was on the PCT doing “only” a small section hike (68 miles), I definitely felt imposter syndrome while talking to the PCT thru hikers. What makes me think I am an accomplished backpacker? Do I really belong out there? Do I really have anything to share or contribute to the conversation? How can I be proud of my accomplishments in the face of theirs (they were less than half way through and had already done 6x what I had done). And then I remember the reaction of a friend who is what I consider a very experienced backpacker. When I told him I was going the thru hike the TRT, he was seriously impressed, and not a little jealous. And another friend who has a dream of thru hiking the TRT has already hit me up with questions. And I took my sis-in-law on her first major backpacking trip, teaching her the ropes. Oh, and did I mention that I’m in my 40s and seriously out of shape? Yeah, I darn well have something to be proud of! I have accomplished something that literally no one else in my circle of personal friends have ever done. EVEN IF they have hiked over 150 miles in one trip (which none of them have), they didn’t do it as a middle aged, out of shape woman with arthritic knees and hips. Comparing your accomplishments with others’ doesn’t really make sense because other people are not YOU. Thank you for the reminder of something I already know, but constantly need to work on putting into practice.

    Reply

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