In Defense of Slow Hiking
Here’s the thing about hiking: everybody does it differently, and nobody is wrong.
Here’s the other thing about hiking: everybody wants to tell you you’re doing it wrong.
If you’re a fast hiker, piling on impressive miles every day, most people will assume you’re going to make it. They’ll talk about you with reverence or with jealousy, but the baseline assumption from most people will be that you’ll make it. That can be a lot of pressure, but in most cases that faith is at least in some way validating.
If you’re a slow hiker, things are going to be a little bit different. People will think you’re not going to make it. Not all of them will say it to your face, but trust me they’re going to think it, and it will get worse the further along you go. When people ask how many miles you did today or what your average is, they’re doing fast mental math to see when you should reach Katahdin. If your average is slower than theirs, they’re likely going to assume you won’t make it. Some will tell you passively, with throwaways like: “You can still make it” (I never said I couldn’t) or “There’s still time” (yes, time is a thing that is literally always there… what’s your point?).
Some will say it more openly, through nice lines like: “You’ll never reach Katahdin if you don’t start doing 15-mile days!” or “Just don’t call yourself a thru-hiker if you don’t make it all the way.” Most people are nicer than this, but prepare yourself because sweet, passive-aggressive mile measuring is a thing that happens during the hike. It happens because everyone is nervous they’re not going to make it, and for their own peace of mind everyone needs to believe that the way they’re doing it is the right way. Don’t let it get to you, and just keep doing your thing. There are eight million different ways to make it to the finish, and taking your time can be a safe, respectable and enjoyable way to make the most of your journey.
Part of the problem is the community’s focus on the finish. Completing an entire technical thru-hike is amazing, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not the only way to have a life-changing experience on the trail. “Hike your own hike” is a message that quickly gets spun around as “hike your own hike – as long as you do all 2,189 miles.” But here’s the thing: you don’t actually have to do all of them. And more importantly: you will still be awesome and okay if you don’t.
I’m not saying go into your hike without a goal, or to let yourself off the hook when the going gets tough. If Georgia, or Katahdin, or Harper’s Ferry is your goal, fight for it. Fight yourself, fight the trail, fight the world, give it everything you’ve got and tear it up. Give yourself the time and don’t get intimidated. But there is a reality that only around 25% of people who start will finish and achieve the stated goal they set out to accomplish. The thing is: the stated goal is hardly ever the real one. I met a guy who started his hike in Georgia because he needed some space to figure out what to do with his life. He was a thru-hiker; he was going to go all the way. But in the Smoky Mountains he realized he wanted to go to grad school – so he left. He figured it out! The whole reason he came out to hike in the first place! Could we all be so lucky? So yeah, he’s part of the 75% who didn’t make it to Katahdin, but you cannot in any way say that he failed his real mission.
During my hike last summer, I averaged about 8 miles a day. “What are you doing?” well-meaning people would ask me, literally and honestly confused about how I was spending my time. It’s definitely a leisurely pace. But guys… have you seen those mountains? Everything is beautiful (well, almost everything is beautiful) and to not savor it felt like a shame to me. My mission was to live my life like I was on vacation for a whole half-a-year, to escape a soul-sucking routine of monotonous jobs and bill-paying and to feel like I had conquered something. And so I hiked my little heart out from day one, going from a girl who had never backpacked before into something of a warrior.
I started at Amicolola Falls and was giddy with joy at this amazing waterfall that welcomed me into the woods. I hiked all the way to Virginia with every intention of going to Katahdin – but also with the intention of enjoying myself. And as I reached the garbage town of Pearisburg, my Virginia blues turned into a full-on meltdown: I had burned out, and I wasn’t having fun anymore. My hiking partner and I sat down and had a long, teary talk about what we were doing in the woods in the first place, and about the idea of miles vs. smiles. And that’s when I realized: if I just soldiered on, fighting every day for miles and skipping all of the beautiful and fun things there were around me, waking up early every day to alarms and crunching numbers, stressing about what we needed to do and sacrifice each day in order to achieve this lofty goal of Katahdin, then I would fail the mission I set myself. I could have done it if I really, really tried – but I honestly didn’t want to. It would have sucked. I didn’t want another line on my resume; I wanted an experience. The reason I was out in the woods was to enjoy life, and when reaching Katahdin became a mission condition that competed with my real goal, I had to throw it out. I let go of the vaulted badge of “thru-hiker” – but I kept hiking.
In the end, I hiked 1,300 miles – from Georgia all the way to Harper’s Ferry, and then from New Jersey up to Vermont. I swam in waterfalls and stayed at farms and ate pizza buffets and played my ukulele with countless strangers. I slept in late and set up camp early. I watched the sun rise, and set, and everything in between.
When we skipped ahead to New Jersey, my partner and I stopped referring to ourselves as thru-hikers for the most part. Peoples’ attitudes towards us changed dramatically; if you don’t identify as a thru-hiker, people are so less interested in you. They stop puzzling out how you could “still make it” and skip to actually interesting conversations. It was a relief to not have the pressure of other hikers put on us any longer, and to just really and truly hike our own hike. We still fought hard for our new end goal (the Vermont state line) and it still took a lot of work. It wasn’t the easy way out; it just wasn’t the hardest way out. And I have to say we really achieved our goals.
So to those of you just embarking on your journey: enjoy the hell out of it. Savor every minute. Remember your real goal, the thing that brought you out there in the first place, and fight hard for it. If you make it all the way to the end, then you’ll have done a beautiful thing. Just remember: the end can be anywhere, and you get to choose it.
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I love this point of view. I believe the journey itself is always more important than the destination. I have piece meal hiked various portions of the trail for over 30 years. I have always enjoyed a leisurely pace and the views. Nature, and especially the AT, is to be viewed and absorbed, not to be rushed thru at the quickest possible pace. Just my thoughts and feelings. There is no one true wsy.
Really great perspective on searching, that, which truly fills your soul. Thanks for posting.
Excellent article…..thank you!
I remember you guys and I really admire you for this. I really do believe part of the reason I left the trail was because I felt too much anxiety from that exact passive aggressive attitude you mention. I also feel bad cause I most likely gave that attitude to other hikers. But I’m glad to hear you guys made it so far and did so well 🙂
When we finished our hike, my son gave me a picture with the following written on it:
It’s not when you finish.
It’s not where you finish.
It’s what you see along the way.