Should You Tell People That You’re Hiking the Appalachian Trail? What If You Fail?!

Roughly 70-80% of attempted AT thru-hikes end in failure. Or, rather, only 20-30% of folks planning to hike the entire AT in one calendar year finish. Should we, the upcoming class of 2015 (or ’16, ’17, etc), even tell people about our plans? What if we fail?!

Brian Lewis, who has successfully hiked the AT, PCT, and CDT, wrote the following in “Make Your First Thru-Hike a Success“.

“One final comment on this overall issue (why people fail) is a suggestion that you keep a low profile before hitting the trail for your first thru-hike. Take care to not make any grand pronouncements about how you’re definitely going to finish, or that you’ll be among the fastest hikers or anything like that… if it does turn out that thru-hiking just isn’t your thing, it’s nice to not have too many pre-hike words that you later have to eat.”

Alternatively, Zach Davis, the founder of this site, wrote in “Appalachian Trials: A Psychological and Emotional Guide to Successfully Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail“:

“Publicly announcing your thru-hike is crucial for two reasons. First, it makes your plan more real… Secondly, and more importantly, it makes you accountable. More accurately, others will hold you accountable.”

Both Lewis and Davis have good points, and, to be fair, Lewis doesn’t really say that you shouldn’t tell people. Rather, he states that you should hold back from making any advance claims of success, or of completing the trail faster than others.

So, back to the big question. Should you tell people that you’re hiking the Appalachian Trail?

Reasons to tell people that you’re hiking the AT:

  1. It would be ridiculously strange if you just dropped off the face of the planet. People are either going to find out why or they’re going to ask questions. Some may even be offended that you didn’t share your plans.
  2. You can develop a support network. I know that parts of next year will suck. There will be times when I call friends and family and say, “Man, this is awful. It won’t stop raining! I feel like coming home.” They can then pull out the sheet of pre-approved responses that I’ll be giving them prior to leaving and tell me, “Don’t quit on a crappy day!” or “Remember why you’re doing this!” or “You can do it!”
  3. You are (hopefully) excited about it! Of course you want to talk about your plans. My loved ones and close friends know all too well that I’m excited about the AT. They hear about it ALL THE TIME. If I couldn’t talk about next year, I might pop like a balloon. Don’t risk popping like a balloon!
  4. You may get connected to resources. I sent an email out to friends a couple months ago to fill them in on my plans and to shamelessly plug my blog (see what I did there). One of the guys on the email responded that he had a friend who hiked a few years back, and I’ve since sat down with him to pick his brain. I have another coffee set up for next week with a girl who finished her hike a few weeks ago. Again, connected through a friend. These conversations are invaluable.
  5. To Zach’s point, if your goal is to finish, then telling others will add a layer of accountability. You would probably rather tell people how you persevered through a solid week of rain than how you decided to throw in the towel.

Reasons to not tell people that you’re hiking the AT:

  1. You might fail publicly. It always comes back to this one.

This is an understandable fear. However, I think if we exercise a little humility, we can bypass this concern. For my part, I’ve generally tried to refer to next year’s trip as an attempted AT thru-hike. During conversations, I’ll talk about how I’ll be trying to finish before Baxter State Park closes in mid-October. I don’t say that I’ll definitely be getting it done. I’m just going for a hike and seeing how far I can get.

Also, keep in mind that some hikers are sidelined for unavoidable issues. A loved one back home gets sick or you break your ankle. People will understand that these types of occurrences either prevent you from continuing or are simply more important for you to address. This isn’t really a failure.

Let’s break down a common reason for folks to leave the trail: they realize a couple weeks or months in that thru-hiking stopped being fun. Unfortunately, there’s simply no way of knowing for sure whether you’ll enjoy months-on-end of hiking through the woods without first doing it. This is an area where I agree with Brian Lewis:

“At some point, if you really don’t like what you’re doing and you don’t see any prospect of that changing, then do leave the trail. Take up boating, or mountain climbing, or find something else that you can love. Life’s too short.”

In other words, you will have tried it out and it wasn’t for you. There’s no shame in that. I bought a guitar a couple years ago only to realize that I didn’t enjoy it. I just wanted to be the type of guy that could pull it out from behind the couch and, in an instant, beautifully demonstrate my depth and sensitivity. I don’t actually enjoy practicing, though, (and might be lacking the depth) so I sold the guitar. You just have to shift your perception of what failure means.

What do you think? Do you think prospective first timers should sing their plans from the mountain tops or play it closer to the chest?

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