Failure in Some Ways, but Success in Others

I’m going to be honest, I’ve been sitting on this post for a couple of weeks now. It’s tough to write, to say the least, and I don’t really enjoy it, which is why I’ve been putting it off, I’m sure.

I didn’t make it very far on the Ozark Highlands Trail. Some of my worst fears came true during the first week of hiking, and while I was tough enough to make it through them mentally, I couldn’t risk my health and well-being. So, let’s talk about it.

Me with the OHT trailhead sign. The trail is a bit longer than 253 miles at this point – somewhere around 270 according to the OHT Association.

Factors Outside of my Control

Arguably, the biggest factor that put a stop to my hike was the weather. I touched on this in my prior posts, and how the weather was probably my biggest worry. Weather proved to be the real killer for this hike.

On my first night, I stayed in Lake Fort Smith State Park. A beautiful location, and if you’re traveling through Arkansas, it’s worth stopping at. This is where the OHT trailhead is. It has a nice plaque that talks about the trail, and you can hike the OHT for a few miles within the park. It’s a cool spot. The campsites are nice, and if you go on a weekday like I did, you’ll have the entire park to yourself.

There’s no cell service in the park at all. I carried a SPOT device with me, so I was still able to communicate. My partner was keeping an eye on the weather for me, and we both knew that cold weather was incoming. We just didn’t know how cold, I suppose.

My campsite at Lake Fort Smith State Park.

Severe Weather is No Joke

I hiked and I hiked, not covering much distance. The first few miles of the trail has a great little water crossing that I thoroughly enjoyed. It was invigorating. I popped my shoes off and waded through the water, shoes in one hand and trekking pole in another. All of the rocks were ridiculously slippery. It was so much fun! Shortly after that, though, things began to change.

The sky became overcast, with no sun to be seen. Storm clouds began to roll in. I passed a few beautiful spots, but I couldn’t justify stopping. Rain or snow was imminent, and I wanted to make it to a spot where I could hunker down.

The water was crossing, with the grey clouds rolling in.

On the trail, there are some ridges and peaks where you can get some cell signal. As I entered one of these areas, my phone started to go off. I grabbed it from my hip belt pocket and took a look. A severe winter storm warning had been issued. I knew that things were going to get cold, but this was a bit more than I had expected. Temperatures in the single digits, with a ton of snowfall. Let me say it again – I’m from Florida and have had no experience in snow.

I called my partner, and we talked about it. This weather was supposed to last for the better part of a week, with snow falling each and every day.

It was hard, but we came to a decision together. I needed to come home and avoid this weather. It’s not OK to take risks that you’re not prepared for, especially risks that could affect you and SAR workers.

Factors That I Could Have Controlled

OK, so let’s move past the weather, and onto what I could have done better. If I’m being honest with myself, I should have planned better. Planning is everything. Had I really done my planning thoroughly, I would have waited to hike until March. I would have taken that month off instead. At this point, though, it’s too late to go back and do that, which is fine.

Realistically, I had planned nearly everything else out. My mileage per day was clear, and I gave myself multiple options for easy days and hard days. I wouldn’t be without food or water on any day, and I would have been able to enjoy the trail. My food drops were ready, and I was so stoked. I just didn’t think about timing.

One of the many gorgeous views you’ll find on the OHT.

Timing is Crucial

I’m beating myself up for this botched attempt, of course, but I think that’s kind of natural. My biggest issue is that I didn’t plan around my hike – I planned my hike around my time. I should have done the right thing, and planned the timing out for when I would have had the highest possibility of success. I know that now.

Shakedowns Should Be Done

Had I done some shakedowns before my hike, I might have been able to dial in my gear, especially for inclement weather. That would have been ideal, of course. Unfortunately, I didn’t really make the time to do shakedown hikes before my large amount of time off. Had I, I would have put myself through some of the unpleasant weather I was ultimately faced with. Lessons learned, yet again.

So, What Did I Learn?

I think I learned a lot from this attempt. I learned that I’m capable of hiking and being alone for days on end. I learned that I love hiking more than pretty much anything else. I learned that I need to plan better in the future, of course.

Failure has one of two options. You’ll either:

Become discouraged, and stop doing the thing that you failed at;


You’ll become more motivated, and you won’t be able to stop going.

I opted for the latter, of course. I can’t stop thinking about hiking. It’s on my mind all of the time. I want to get more people out on the trail. To be totally honest with all of you, I didn’t go back to work after coming home. In fact, I’ve been going out, hiking constantly, and doing overnighters when the weather permits. It’s been so much fun!

A bonus shot from the Butterfield Hiking Trail, another gorgeous spot in Arkansas.

What’s Next?

As for my next thru-hike – I’m already planning it. I won’t be able to get back out to the OHT this year, it looks like. I met some locals on the Butterfield Hiking Trail who recommended against the timeframe that I had in mind, and I’m going to heed their advice. Instead, I’m preparing for an attempt of the Florida Trail in 2023. It’s my home state, and I know it well. All I’ve got to do is plan more adequately, of course.

If you’re reading this, and you’re thinking about thru-hiking, do it. Take some time, plan it out, and get out there. If you fail, don’t stop hiking. Keep getting out there, fixing the things that may have gone wrong, and connecting with the trail. You won’t regret it.

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 5

  • Shocktop : Feb 20th

    Zach, its too bad things didn’t work out this time, but you bounced right back! Plans B through Z are good to have.
    I know from (too much) experience it’s hard to schedule time off to hike at the ‘right’ time. Weather, crowds, availabilities of seasonal roads/facilities/ support services, and even getting the leave request approved make it tricky. And who can trust a weather forecast? Anyway, happy trails and thanks.

  • Scott : Feb 20th

    Hang in there. Thanks for having the guts to post. Honestly I have learned more from diagnoses of what went wrong than from reading about hikes with fairy tale endings.

    For what it’s worth, I set out to thru-hike Wisconsin’s 1200-mile Ice Age Trail twice. 1st attempt: 2 days & then bad cellulitis. 2nd attempt: 5 days & then several weeks of recovering from poison ivy. In the end I did a complete section hike of it over 6 years. Since then I did a month-long thru-hike of the 442-mile Natchez Trace.

    Hiking is wonderful because it’s accessible to almost anyone of almost any age who can walk.

    On the other hand it’s good to approach backpacking like it’s any other sport. Buying $1000 worth of gear & reading 20 books isn’t going to make you a softball player. Or a golfer. Or a successful fisherman. There’s no substitute for getting out & doing your sport every weekend/chance that you can in all kinds of weather. Experience, especially recent experience, is good stuff. Hopefully you’ll get some tips & constructive criticism here & there, as well as you learning to think through whatever difficulties arise. You seem to have the hiking bug…I’m sure you’ll do great! 🙂 Best of luck!

  • Scott Naucler : Feb 20th

    Things don’t always work out the way we plan. You should try taking w weekend trip up north and camping in a friend’s yard in the snow for a night or two. Then do a couple of overnighters, in the snow, a short walk from the car or other shelter. Always leave yourself a workable out, until you are comfortable with it.

    I have done a fair bit of winter camping in New England, Minnesota, the Northwest, and Alaska. There are a lot of things about it that are really nice. In many ways I prefer winter camping.

  • pearwood : Feb 21st

    Ouch. Winter camping can be a lot of fun, but only with winter gear. The weather was one of the things that forced me off the AT earlier this month. Hang in there.

  • Al D : Feb 26th

    Understandable that this was hard to write and post, but you did the right thing. Hikers need to read these accounts and know if you hike long enough something like this will likely will happen to you them too.
    I hope you replan this trip in the future, the OHT is an amazing hike.


What Do You Think?