Good Move? 4 Ways Thru-Hiking Can Build Your Career

I value my career. A lot. 

Over the past five years, I’ve dedicated countless hours to career planning. How can I have an impactful career? What work is a good fit for me? How can I build my skills? What are my long-term career goals? In my mind, I’d built a comprehensive list of career-building actions. Going for a long walk was not on that list.

When I was deciding whether or not to hike the PCT in 2023, I was concerned about how it would affect my career. How it might stall my professional journey. How it might even make it regress. After all, what does walking have to do with work? I saw thru-hiking as something that might be neutral for my career at best, and actively bad for it, at worst. 

I could not have been more wrong. This article outlines why, and details four ways that a long walk can actually benefit your career.

The PCT is nothing short of epic, but it wasn’t on my comprehensive list of career-building actions. Photo credit: Alex “Wiggs” Dyer

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Four Ways Thru-Hiking Can Benefit Your Career

1. You’ll develop skills that are relevant to work

Thru-hiking is hard. You find yourself, very often, in extremely demanding situations – both physically and mentally. Over and over, you have to drag yourself up to meet these challenges. This prompts a lot of growth and builds a lot of skills.

A couple of months into the PCT, I spent a morning reflecting on the skills I’d built that were transferable to the workplace. These were just a few that emerged:

Making decisions under pressure: What you decide to do when caught in a snow blizzard right before Forester Pass at 13,000 feet is kind of consequential.

Resilience: When you fall over 23 times in a day, you can choose to either laugh or cry about it (or both).

Organization: Planning every single thing you’re going to eat for five weeks requires attention to detail.

Building new connections: When you rely heavily on the generosity of strangers to give you hitches or let you sleep on their lawn, you get pretty good at networking.

Attention to detail: 20 feet of snow in the Sierra will, surprisingly, cover up the trail you once followed. Instead, you learn that certain colors and patterns in the snow indicate footprints. (You also become very good at being lost.)

Remaining calm in high-stress situations: As you watch your backpack (containing everything you own) plummet 600 feet down a steep, snowy mountainside, you need to remain calm and figure out how on earth you’re going to find/retrieve it.

Persistence: You learn that you can always dig a little deeper, including when you’ve been walking for 15 hours in 105-degree heat through intense wildfire smoke in Washington (oh, and on 4 hours of sleep).

Accelerated development

I developed these skills in situations that are more high-stakes, more intense, and more painful than any I would experience in my work life. As a result, I honestly think that the capabilities and beliefs I developed on trail would have taken years to learn in the workplace (if at all). 

Plus, when future employers ask me to detail a time when I remained calm in a high-stress situation, I think I’ll make an impression.

Want to know about a high-stress situation? Let me tell you about that time I went over Forrester Pass after a blizzard. Photo credit: Alex “Wiggs” Dyer

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2. A thru-hike prepares you for other challenges

A thru-hike doesn’t just build skills, it can also shift your mindset more broadly. It teaches you to deal with, or accept, unexpected situations. It fosters a belief that when hard things happen, you’ll get through them. Or, perhaps more accurately, you’ll get yourself through them. Where else do you encounter difficult situations that are sometimes out of your control? Answer: work.

I went through some of the lowest moments of my life on the PCT. There were periods when I felt alone and scared and freezing and delirious and deeply, deeply exhausted. There were a great many moments where I longed to be somewhere else, that felt like they would never pass. But they always did.

This happened so many times that a mantra began to play in my head, ‘This will pass’.

There were also many times when I could not, for the life of me, imagine how my situation was going to work out well. I’d walk through a storm and turn up at a trailhead with no way to get to town, nowhere to stay, and occasionally no idea of which town I was even going to. I had gear break and weather change and injuries spring up. But it always worked out fine, even if ‘fine’ wasn’t how I originally pictured it. 

Thus, the mantra became, ‘This will pass, and it will work out’.

Confidence: More than just a memory

I’ve brought that mantra and confidence back with me back to my professional life. During hard projects, with difficult clients, or in times of transition, the deep belief that ‘This will pass, and it will work out’ will always be there, holding my hand through new challenges.

Plus, when you get through any hard thing, you always carry with you the knowledge that you got through it. That can propel you to do other hard (and potentially work-related) things. In my case, the phrase that keeps coming to mind is, “I’ve gotten through a blizzard in the Sierra, I can run a goddamn workshop”.

3. There’s space to reflect on where you’re going and what’s important

When a typical day involves 12 hours of walking, you have a bit of time on your hands.

Admittedly, most of this time is taken up with thinking about what you’re going to eat when you get to town, worrying about some new injury that’s popped up, or dreaming about the shower you’ll have next (sadly, in five days’ time). 

Yet, there can be some fraction, however small, of ‘productive’ thought. I reflected on how I dislike the norm of working five days a week. That work-life balance is extremely important to me. That, somewhat strangely, having to dress up in corporate attire for work is a red flag. And that I’ve worked hard and am good at (at least some of) the things I do, and that deserves some respect (at the very least, from myself).

I wasn’t trying to think about these things, but I ended up thinking about them occasionally. And when I did, the reflections felt deep, and they felt important. Removing the pressure to progress, and think about your career, can counterintuitively open up space for you to do just that.

4. Preventing regret and burnout is important for work sustainability

If having a productive career is important to you, you shouldn’t just consider how you can do good work now. You should also be thinking about how you can do good work in five, ten, twenty, or forty years’ time. Consistently choosing work over other things you value, like adventure and travel, can threaten that sustainability.

When deciding whether to do the trail or not, I considered what I’d be more likely to regret. Surprise surprise, I thought it was more likely that I’d regret not doing it. Post trail, I still agree with that assessment.

How is this relevant to my career? Well, I doubt my career is going to be super impactful in twenty years if I’m plagued by regrets and what could have been. For me, preventing regret is integral to my life satisfaction. And, I don’t think I would be truly satisfied with my career if I’m not satisfied with my life more broadly.

Let me tell you, I was pretty satisfied with my life choices when seeing views like this.

Unsure whether a thru-hike could benefit your career? Reflect on these prompts:

Maybe, after reading this, you still have lingering doubts about whether a thru-hike could be good (or, at least, not bad) for your career. Maybe, in your situation, there is a valid reason why it would actually be a terrible career move. While I can’t guarantee that it’s not, I will say this – don’t assume that it is.

If there’s something that’s stopping you from embarking on a crazy adventure, at least think that through. Here are some practical tips to do just that…

Clearly articulate any vague concerns

You may have a vague feeling that a thru-hike is a bad career move. Make that concrete. Articulate exactly what you’re worried about. Are you worried that you’ll fall behind your colleagues? That you’ll struggle to get a job when you return? That you’ll have a gap on your resume? Write down all your concerns (and get specific). 

Can you check, address, or accept your specific concerns?

Consider whether the specific concerns you have should stop you from going on a thru-hike. For each concern, ask yourself three questions: 

  1. Do I need to check that this is a valid concern? For example, you may assume that it’ll be hard to get a job when you get back. Can you ask previous hikers about this, or find out whether potential employers will be deterred by your thru-hiking break?
  2. Can you do something about the concern? For example, perhaps you worry that your career is ‘on pause’ while you’re hiking. Could you put something in place to reduce that feeling, like committing to listen to one career-relevant podcast on trail each week?
  3. If you can’t change the concern, can you accept it? Maybe your concern is valid and you can’t do anything about it. Is that concern something you can accept as a sacrifice for going on the thru-hike? Do the other benefits outweigh that cost?

Reflect on how the thru-hike could benefit your career

The above steps prompt you to reflect on your concerns. You should also reflect on the potential career benefits of a thru-hike. 

For example, what skills do you anticipate building during the thru-hike that could be relevant to your career? How could you frame the thru-hiking experience so that it’s appealing to potential employers? Is this something you could detail on your LinkedIn or resume? Could you weave your experience into an interview?

Be honest with yourself, what is the likely alternative?

Before I committed to doing the PCT, I had this hazy feeling that I could be doing something better with that time. I mean, there are so many things I could do that would be fantastic for my career. I could get better at computer programming. Or I could start a business. I could apply for new jobs. 

The possibilities are endless, but they are not all likely

When I actually reflected on what would probably happen if I didn’t do the PCT, it was something like, ‘I’ll likely stay in the same job, work on some different projects, and take on slightly more responsibility’.

Don’t fall into the trap of imagining all the fantastically productive things you could be doing for your career, if not a thru-hike. What would you actually be doing?

I doubt that the likely alternative was better than this.

Have Your Career and Thru-Hike Too

Walking from Mexico to Canada was one of the best decisions I’ve made. And there’s no ‘despite what it did to my career’ caveat to add. Since returning, I’ve found I worry less about my career and am more certain of my direction than ever. Plus, of the three jobs I now have, none of those employers questioned me about the resume gap. What they did express was a great deal of disbelief, admiration, and curiosity about the trail experience. Obviously, everyone’s experience will be different – my intent in saying this is to reiterate that our fears are not always valid or guaranteed.

A thru-hike isn’t necessarily detrimental to your career. In fact, it can be quite the opposite. A thru-hike can help you develop work-relevant skills, cultivate a resilient, accepting mindset, reflect on your direction, and prevent regret. Despite what you might assume, you can value your career and go on a very long walk.

Featured image: An Alex “Wiggs” Dyer photo. Graphic design by Chris Helm.

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Comments 10

  • Drew Boswell : Dec 22nd

    What a thought-provoking and unexpected article! I especially love the concrete examples you use to make your points.

    • Abbigale Evans : Dec 22nd

      Awesome article!! Very helpful and reassuring 🙂 A thru-hike actually helped me change my career in the direction of writing freelance articles for backpacking companies. Take the leap!!

      • Emily Grundy : Jan 4th

        That’s awesome Abbigale, sounds like a fantastic career change (though I may be a little biased 😉)

    • Emily Grundy : Jan 4th

      Thanks Drew, really appreciate this feedback!

  • Peter Randrup : Dec 22nd

    Well-conceived and presented, when my daughter “dropped out” to hike the AT (also completed PCT, AZT and much of Te Aroroa), she had similar thoughts, and I firmly believe these are really good points. Additional thought — as she put it when she was prepping to head off, “We may retire a year or two later than we would have, but we will have these memories and skills for a lifetime.”

    • Emily Grundy : Jan 4th

      Really appreciate you sharing your experience Peter. And that’s such a good point your daughter makes – that’s a really powerful framing.

  • Robert Deming : Dec 23rd

    When I hiked my first Camino, 5 weeks, I was at first afraid I would be missing important happenings at home or in my career. “What you would really be doing” is excellent advice. I missed nothing at home and changed my direction in life. The trail is life, my career is not. Now my career goal is to wear out two pairs of hiking shoes per year.

    • Emily Grundy : Jan 4th

      For sure Robert! We can often overestimate what we’re missing out on back home. I also love that updated career goal 😉

  • Lee : Dec 24th

    Good for you. Looks like there was much growth in you, from your initial skepticism on career diversion. Good!
    Your career isn’t separate from a vibrant personal life—- they’re all one. You’re an amazing learning human being -human sponge on this earth.

    So no, hiking the PCT isn’t a career diversion, or is Volunteering at an old folks home or is attending an authentic Ethiopian wedding or is taking a night school sewing class, or is traveling on vacation to rural Africa, or is being a little league soccer coach.
    All these experiences in life make us cool people/ better people. Glad you did the PCT !!!!!

    • Emily Grundy : Jan 4th

      Thanks Lee, I really like that emphasis on being one person who’s experiencing different elements of life. It sounds like you’re having a lot of varied and interesting experiences too, good on you!


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