Overcoming the Desire to Quit During a Thru-Hike
It took me approximately 60 days to want to quit the Pacific Crest Trail.
Until that point, the trail had been relatively smooth sailing. Sure, there were the days that I hated putting one foot in front of the other with every fiber of my being. I would take my time packing up camp, making excuses to stay in my quilt just a little longer. Then, by the time I put my pack on and laced up my shoes, I would spend hours negotiating in my head to somehow make 25 miles seem more like five.
Even on those days, I ended the night feeling rewarded for my efforts. Even though my mentality wasn’t there, the physical efforts it took for me to get from point A to point B felt admirable and I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I didn’t want to give up on the trail; I was committed to the long haul.
Day 60 felt different. We woke up just beyond a three-mile patch of snow that we struggled through the day before. We were one day out of Etna, hoping to make it north to get a hitch into town the following day. The trail seemed relatively clear and with only 14 miles to hike, we assumed the day would be easy.
I won’t go into too much detail (if you want the full story, see my post I am not a Mountaineer), but let’s just say the 14-mile day turned into an 11-hour day. I spent hours perched in precarious positions, trying to muster up the courage to hoist myself over huge patches of ice and snow in order to get where I needed to go. I felt unsafe, physically and mentally exhausted, and totally ready to give up on the trek all together. After a full zero day and two neros on either end, I still hardly wanted to get back on trail.
So why did I?
Facing a Challenge
I’ve been in a lot of situations that required me to harness my apathy and channel it for good. Six-and-a-half years in the wrong relationship, five months of full-time work hauling brush, countless experiences working in the wrong profession and trying to find the motivation to go to work… the list goes on.
When I was younger, my response was usually healthy. It took me years to recognize these situations as opportunities for growth; to learn more about myself, to grow stronger when faced with apathy, and to fight against the negativity bias we all have inside of us. That sense of internal discipline was a huge reason why I wanted to hike the PCT in the first place. I wanted to prove to myself that I had grown past giving up when I was “bored,” that I had learned to challenge myself to make every difficult experience an opportunity.
Long-distance hiker Clint “Lint” Bunting is well known for his ever impressive and growing hiker resume that includes a triple Triple Crown. Even through his thousands of miles of walking, he’s only strongly experienced the desire to quit once.
It was 2015 along the Continental Divide Trail. Lint had waited until early May to begin his trek with the hopes that he would miss any major snow. Nature had other plans for Lint though, and within two weeks of his hike, a late-season storm came through Northern New Mexico, dumping an extraordinary amount of snow right in his pathway. After a few weeks off the trail the snow still hadn’t melted, causing him to take an alternate path that “took the wind out of my sails a bit,” explained Lint. “I regretted it enough that continuing on lost its appeal… wasn’t exciting anymore. I grew weary of the CDT that year and contemplated just going home.”
It didn’t take long for Lint to refocus on the end goal. “Just complaining about having the opportunity to hike felt like blasphemy. Being out for long periods of time was the closest thing I had to religion, and if my church was testing my mettle, I’d just have to see it for the challenge it was,” said Lint.
“Being out for long periods of time was the closest thing I had to religion, and if my church was testing my mettle, I’d just have to see it for the challenge it was,”
Long-distance hiking requires discipline. It requires looking at a bad situation and not giving up immediately. When faced with that desire to quit, being able to channel the self-discipline you’ve built up from the countless miles before can help guide you back to the trail.
Allow for Introspection
I had heard countless times to identify the “why.” Knowing your why for hiking will be what keeps you on trail when the going gets rough.
While it’s true that the “why” of your hike carries weight, it’s just as important to identify the “why” of your desire to quit. When I couldn’t shake the desire to get off trail, recognizing the root of the problem helped me logic through my decision. While it was easy to get wrapped up in the idea of wanting to sleep in a bed, or missing my community, or just wanting food that wasn’t dehydrated, the truth behind wanting to quit wasn’t strong enough to make me do it. Once I identified that, it was easy to stick with the miles that lay in front of me.
In 2018, long-distance hiker Heather “Anish” Anderson became the first female calendar year Triple Crowner, also making her a triple Triple Crowner. Spending an entire year backpacking isn’t easy, even for accomplished hikers like Anish.
“No matter how much you love hiking, there are right days and moments you want to quit. I’ve had plenty of times over the years that I really wanted to just bag it and go home,” explained Anish.
Being human, often the desire to quit is circumstantial. “Often it’s really simple: I need a day off, or to eat, or get a break from the weather.”
Being able to evaluate the “why” behind the desire to quit allows Anish the time to address the root of the problem and make decisions to work through it. From there, connecting back to the original “why” becomes that much easier.
“Unequivocally, I’ve always found that deep down the temporary satisfaction of stopping would not be able to compete with the satisfaction of completing the hike. I’ve learned to address the underlying cause of the desire to quit and hike on,” said Anish.
Analyze the Result
When you think about the comforts of home, or all that you’re “missing” during a long-distance hike, it’s easy to make a decision based on instant gratification. It’s natural, as humans, to crave the creature comforts we’ve grown accustomed to.
Spending a zero and two neros in Etna definitely didn’t make the decision to stay on trail any easier. I had access to a shower for the first time in weeks. I had a bike to get around town. Ice cream and root beer were accessible whenever I wanted them. I could talk to my parents and hear what was going on back home. Back on trail, I wouldn’t have any of those things.
But once I thought hard enough about what quitting meant, I was able to redirect my energy back to the trek. Quitting, for me, would mean going home and admitting I wasn’t strong enough to accomplish my goal. Quitting would mean that I wasn’t able to push past apathy, that I hadn’t grown past those traits of earlier years. I didn’t want to admit that was true, so getting back on trail felt like the only viable answer.
Bruce “Drumsolo” Etter hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2011 and the Pacific Crest Trail in 2017. “When I was on the AT, I told myself I would never quit. I’m not a quitter. I told too many people about what I was going to do and worked too hard to step foot on the trail in the first place to quit,” said Drumsolo.
As the story goes, about halfway through Virginia Drumsolo began wanting to get off trail. Recognizing the parameters he set for himself, he decided he could only allow himself to quit if faced with an injury. “When I had that realization, I started to hope I would blow out my knee. Within 10 minutes of that thought, I took a step over a log with my left leg and felt my knee pop.”
“I immediately realized the error in my thought process and felt a wave of appreciation for all the things the trail had given me. I lucked out and within a few miles my knee felt back to normal. That split second taste of being without the trail made every step more real, more personal.”
“That split second taste of being without the trail made every step more real, more personal.”
Things can, and will, get better, said Drumsolo. That’s not to say that each day was perfect, or that “I loved every minute of every day. I had days I yelled, days I cried, but I just had ownership of the trail at that point. It was mine. The trip was mine. If I wanted to stop, fine, but I felt I would regret it later.”
As the old saying goes, don’t quit on a bad day. Allowing yourself time to process the results of getting off trail can help put in perspective all of the things you would let go of from the trail, ultimately helping you redirect your energy back to hiking.
When Quitting Is the Right Decision
All that said, sometimes quitting is the right decision.
Sometimes there are injuries, or lack of funds to finish a hike. Maybe the weather poses a true threat to your safety, or a looming fire season will completely derail your attempts. Or maybe backpacking this trail, at this moment in time, just isn’t where you’re meant to be.
Taylor “Timebomb” Key is no stranger to this sentiment. Timebomb attempted a PCT thru-hike in the summer of 2018, only to be forced to end her trek 800 miles in due to a knee injury.
“Making the decision to get off (trail) was heartbreaking. After walking for two months with countless injuries, the pain mentally and physically finally wore me down. Up until that point, I did everything imaginable to push through. I went through five different pairs of shoes, took a total of two weeks of zero days, you name it and I did it,” said Timebomb.
Timebomb realized the risk that staying on trail posed for herself and her trail family. She felt she was slowing them down, and her knee was worsening with every step. “When we left Bishop… I couldn’t extend my leg fully or put my entire weight on it. I knew then that for my health and everybody’s safety, I had to go home.”
The decision to stop a trek is never an easy one. Timebomb struggled with a mix of emotions, from anger and resentment to devastation and loss, and everything in between. “Of all of the emotions I felt, what surprised me the most was the feeling of relief. I was relieved to finally let my body heal, relieved that the pain would subside, relieved that I would no longer be a burden to my trail family, and relieved that I was going home,” she said.
Now, Timebomb can look back on her experience with pride and gratitude.
“That feeling of failing hard at something has faded and I know now that what I did was incredible.”
“When you’re on trail, your world is small, which makes it easy to tear yourself down when others are faster than you or lighter than you,” said Timebomb. “The constant comparison to others can be detrimental to your thru and it was in part a major component of why I believe I was always injured. I pushed myself until I couldn’t push anymore.”
“Being back in the ‘real world,’ I can take a step back and realize that even hiking 800 miles is a feat in itself. I feel like a force of nature more days than I feel sad that I didn’t finish. I’ve never been so proud of myself.”
As a yoga instructor, I often say, “Practice with compassion; don’t allow the ego to take over and compare.” The saying is relevant to backpacking just as much as yoga. It’s easy to get wrapped up in our egos, telling ourselves we can keep going when it truly isn’t right for us to do so. Allow yourself those moments of quiet and stillness to listen to your body, to hear what the root of the problem is and process the decision fully. And if, after all of that, the takeaway is to get off trail, allow it to be a decision made with compassion and acceptance. After all, the trail will always be there, and there’s countless ways to tackle it.
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