Suck It Up Buttercup: Mentally Preparing For A Thru-Hike

Happy new year friends and fellow hikers! As an anxious member of the thru-hiking class of 2018, I am trying to not go crazy while I wait on my start date. I have done quite a bit of preparing, physically. But what about the mental part? How on earth do you prepare mentally for whatever the trail throws at you? Here is what I am currently doing, or steps I have in place to help with that aspect once I’m on the trail.

Read Appalachian Trials

This should be a no-brainer, but I highly recommend this book. I received this for Christmas, and rudely ignored everyone because I couldn’t put it down.

Ask Former Thru-Hikers About Their Bad Days And Experiences

I’d like to use this opportunity to thank a few of last year’s thru-hikers for sharing their bad day stories with me: Rhys, Kirsten, Erica, Mary, Chris, and Ashley. I think unless you yourself have experienced some really bad days, it helps to get insight from people who have and how they persevered.

A common theme of the big bad of the trail was rain. But they also experienced Noro, Lyme disease, hypothermic conditions, infections, and just bad moods to name a few. What I learned from these badass hikers, besides the fact they are all badass, is that they got off trail and took a zero or two if they were sick or just needed to recharge, or changed up their plans a bit to enjoy the trail more, or just went to bed and tried again the next day. And by pushing through that tough day, everyone was rewarded by something amazing in the days that followed. Whether it was views, or meeting back up with tramily, or waking up to sunshine and ponies. Knowing the bad times won’t last forever will help you to push through them. Suck it up buttercup, it will get better.

Go Hiking And Camping (Bonus Points If The Weather Is Crappy)

OK, this might also be a no-brainer, but I feel like the better shape you are in, the better your first few weeks will be. I know, I know, nothing prepares you for a thru-hike like a thru-hike. And I am fully aware that I am going to be huffing and puffing up that first steep hill and cussing the rocks in Pennsylvania. But I feel like the more miles I can hike with my fully loaded pack (minus food) over various terrain and different weather conditions, the quicker my body will adapt to the day to day rigors of a thru-hike. Starting off stronger and better conditioned will hopefully be an advantage mentally.

Plus, knowing your gear inside and out prevents unnecessary stress. You can figure out what works and what doesn’t beforehand, instead of your first week on the trail.  As for this crazy cold snap of below freezing weather that won’t let up? Running on the treadmill watching The Office works too.

Have A Luxury Item In Place To Use When The Going Gets Tough

I love music, and am always listening to it around the house or in the car. I didn’t think I’d listen to it while hiking, because I love the sound of birds, my pack squeaking, the rustle the leaves make in the wind, and my shoes crunching in the gravel on the trail. But I also need a reprieve from the monotony some days, so that’s when I pop an earbud in (only one mind you) and listen to my favorite music I have downloaded to my phone. It always enhances my hike, and since I don’t do it all the time it is a special treat. This will be my luxury mental savior.

Yours could be a book or a Kindle, a tiny paint set, a journal, or downloading your favorite Netflix shows to watch in your tent or hammock. Give it some thought, and think about what would really help you during or after a long, tiring, crappy day.

I also think you need to always have that special food snack you love on hand at all times. Peanut M&M’s, Zots and pretty much any kind of chocolate are my go to feel better snacks.

Find A Trail Boss

Lining up a special person to help you before you leave for the trail is an important way to ease some of your worries before you leave and while out on the trail. My husband is obviously my trail boss, and he is there now whenever I want to talk trail stuff, which is All.The.Time, and will be sending me clothing, shoes, more Zots, or whatever else I may require once I’m on the trail. Plus he will provide the emotional support needed on those rough days.

Remember Why You Decided To Thru-Hike

You may need to remind yourself of this many, many times. Sometimes the reason gets lost in the anticipation of buying gear, training, and perusing groups and forums for advice before starting the hike. And then more so on the trail after days of rain, or cold or whatever. Your reasons are your own; don’t forget why you decided to do this.

Remain Positive

Just as I do regularly in my everyday life, I vow to remain positive while I handle whatever the trail throws at me. I know from experience a problem is best handled while remaining calm and keeping positive. Example: It’s raining again? Good, no shortage of water.

Also, don’t let other people bring you down. People will criticize your choices, whether it be hiking solo, your gear choices, your base weight, your mileage, whatever. Do not listen to these people. This is your hike, your journey, your dream. You have practiced, researched, saved and sacrificed. You got this.

Visualize Success

Every day I think about special places along the trail I can’t wait to see, or towns I want to visit, or the awesome people I’m going to meet. How I’m going to take that blue-blazed trail to a neat summit, or eat lunch by a peaceful river, or finding that perfect campsite. I also visualize myself at Mt. Katahdin, even though that’s my halfway point, and think about coming through Shenandoah National Park, my stomping grounds. I visualize myself seeing the plaque on Springer Mountain, and the arch at Amicalola at the end of my journey. I try to visualize these things, so I can use these as motivations when the going is rough, and turn these visualizations into reality.

These are a few of the ways I am mentally preparing for my hike. I hope they provided you with some ideas to help you get through those rough days. If all else fails, there’s always chocolate!

Thanks for reading, and be prepared. My next blog post will be the obligatory gear post.

Until next time,


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Comments 4

  • Avatar
    Pony : Jan 14th

    I 100% agree about reading “Appalachian Trials” — no other book will clue you in to the *real* challenges of the trail.

    • Avatar
      Sarah Southard : Jan 14th


      Yup! It should be on every potential thru hikers reading list. Great reality check!

  • Avatar
    Margaret : Jan 14th

    “Also, don’t let other people bring you down. People will criticize your choices, whether it be hiking solo, your gear choices, your base weight, your mileage, whatever. DO NOT LISTEN TO THESE PEOPLE. This is YOUR hike, your journey, your dream. You have practiced, researched, saved and sacrificed. You got this.”

    This might become my mantra.

    • Avatar
      Sarah Southard : Jan 14th


      Yes! It’s so easy to get caught up in other people’s negative comments, I wanted to remind others just as I remind myself to ignore that crap. I think once we’re out there won’t be as much of that negativity. I hope!


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