The Case for Thru-Hiking Psychology

I was alone, hurrying to Vermillion Valley Resort to make the 4 pm ferry. I crossed Bear Creek (a.k.a. big-ass river) on a massive log, and then I charged into some fast-flowing creeks — quick, quick!  I had to do 16 miles in 6 hours. Water was over my knees —and fast.  And I was rushing. My foot slipped over some rocks —I stumbled— Fuck. In a split second, I snapped into the reality of my situation:  it wouldn’t matter if I made it to VVR if I made it there in a box. I yanked myself back into the moment, composed myself, and proceeded more carefully. I was fine, but that was a shuddering realization of how my distracted state could have meant an injury —or *the end of Aurora.*

One week later, my friend and fellow hiker, Rika, was found dead in the South Fork of Kings River.

I cried my eyes out —it was scary, devastating. I grieved for her loss, her smile, and her amazing attitude. And I knew that it could easily have been me, or anyone else out on the trail. How many times had I slipped during crossings? In the weeks that followed, I would sometimes wonder what she was thinking and feeling before she was swept under.

I also wondered whether she had been in a hurry.  Was her mental state a factor? How much did psychology play into all three of the deaths on trail this year?  The evacuations? The injuries?

We generally attribute these ‘accidents’ to external factors:  river crossings, hypothermia, dehydration, heat stroke, a misstep…  And yes, obviously accidents on trail can sometimes be pure dumb luck.  But during my hike, I noticed that —more often than not— it was my decisions that were at fault for any risky situations. And more specifically, my mental state.  Namely, being: distracted, hurried, upset, angry, overconfident, irritable, tired.  

A ‘creek’ just before the South Fork of Kings River…  not a good time to be distracted.

I was especially alert to this because I began my PCT hike after recovering from 15 months of severe depression and anxiety.  During that recovery, I became obsessed with emotional states and their regulation, and I developed an insatiable hunger for tools, tricks, and techniques for modulating my —at the time— life-threatening mood swings. I scoured internet articles, YouTube videos, friends, therapists, and more than 70 books for effective and practical techniques. And slowly I crawled, hand over hand, out of emotional abyss.

On trail, my emotional landscape became critical in different ways. Enjoyment, happiness, desires to quit, and risk assessment all became colored by a roiling sea of emotions. And funny enough, I realized that the same tools that helped me with my depression also got me to Canada. The tools that had gotten me out of bed would later get me through the Mojave in June, the high-snowmelt Sierras, the Oregon fires, and early snow in Oregon and Washington.  

These tools became more refined as I rode crests and troughs of emotion on the not-so-forgiving 2017 PCT.  As miles passed, my emotional resilience became stronger, and my enjoyment greater.  —Even as the trail completely went to shit.  Those same tools also made me hyper-aware of when my mental states were putting me at risk.

Poincot Pass: What you don’t see is that I basically had a breakdown on some rock, like, 15 minutes before.

Mental states affect decision-making
.  And on trail, poor decision-making can be fatal.  As a thru-hiking community, we need to encourage dialogue about the psychological factors that not only affect our success and enjoyment during our hikes, but also our safety.  

Less critically, the very essence of long-distance hiking is a mind game: your thoughts can make you quit, not meet your goal, or at the very least, make you a very unhappy camper.  And (on the upside!) we all know people who can be rained and sleeted on for days and still be smiling and cracking jokes the whole time. Moderating our mental state can make miserable (and quittable) circumstances not only bearable, but fun.

It’s hot as hell —but check out those smiling faces.

Zach Davis wrote Appalachian Trials (2012) and Pacific Crest Trials (2016) to elucidate the unique emotional and psychological challenges of thru-hiking. As a new writer for The Trek, I’m delighted to build off his and others’ work and contribute my new insights to the thru-hiking community. My intention through my upcoming articles will be to develop and expand upon ideas regarding thru-hiking psychology:  emotional regulation, thought moderation, awareness, decision-making, post-hike depression, pre-hike anxiety, hiker culture, group dynamics, etc.

Navigating these issues is fundamental to your success on trail —and off trail— and I am thrilled to dip into this complex and fascinating subject. 

When you master your psychology, you will look like this.

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Comments 13

  • Vin : Feb 15th

    This article struck a cord with me, I am able to relate to the drift, of the concepts addressed. I haven’t humped a long distance since 1968 but through a life experiencing all of the challenges mentioned, I like the thinking.

    • Aurora Smedley : Mar 2nd

      Hi Vin! I’m delighted that the content resonated with you. 🙂 (And wow! That was a while ago!)

  • John Lundemo : Feb 15th

    I know Aurora from our mutual love of music, performing, and friendship when living in the same part of China: wonderful, wild Yunnan.
    Although my long distance hiking of trails, like the Ruby Mtns. in Nevada and jaunts into central Nevada and the Sierra are a thing of the past, I have followed Aurora’s blogs and journey on the PCT…and will continue to read her writings on this site.
    She is a strong, determined, thoughtful and kind person with good advice and insights. Inspiring!
    Thanks, Aurora!

    • Aurora Smedley : Mar 2nd

      Awes! Thanks, John!!

  • Donna Vetter : Feb 16th

    Kudos, Aurora! Well done piece with a vital message applicable to all who hit the trails! Speaking from experience, I respect the importance of taking a ‘time-out’ when feeling tired, frustrated, anxious or down right scared on the trail. Usually just a small amount of time to clear negative thoughts, THINK, nibble and rehydrate can make a world of difference!!!

    • Aurora Smedley : Mar 2nd

      Hi Donna! Definitely. It’s crazy how much food, water, and rest can affect how you feel on trail. 🙂 And thank you! It’s so relevant, yet under-discussed!

  • michael gallo : Feb 19th

    great article!

  • Keri short : Feb 19th

    Im planning to hike the trail solo 2019, Im getting in shape physically, but most importantly mentally. I really appreciate reading these articles that address the mental challenge as part of the hike. I hope to read more, as this was really eye opening and caused me to realize just how important good decision making is not only to complete the hike but to survive.

  • Adrián “Kool Aid” Fuentes : Feb 27th

    Aurora ! I loved the article! I remember Chris and I met you not too long after your friend’s passing in Tahoe. I remember feeling a deep well of emotional connection emanating from our meeting; I understood at some visceral level what you had gone through and we’re going through, feared for you life but was hopeful as well! I remember intentionally transferring love and warmth to you because I knew you were shook by the experience, and in the months that followed, it warmed my heart knowing you were alive and well enough to bring us along your journey with you through your photographs ???. You did it! And you brought back valuable knowledge for yourself and others..You’re fuggin’ bad ass!!! ??? You are a modern-day hero to me ?✊?

    • Aurora Smedley : Mar 2nd

      Dawwwes I’m melting!!

  • Glen : Mar 3rd

    Great article Aurora… I am looking at doing the PCT in 2018 to rid myself of the black dog, (depression, anxiety, all that good stuff) do you think that it worked for you and made you a stronger person for battling your own demons?

  • Aurora Smedley : Mar 5th

    Hi Glen, YES. Absolutely. By the time I got to Canada, I was psychologically stronger and more resilient in a million ways. Now I see myself as 100% recovered. My feeling is that the trail probably forces you to be with your own mind long enough to face down the demons.

    Note, however, that I came to the PCT after having made significant recovery progress *already.* Nevertheless, I talked to many other hikers that came to the trail for the same reasons and had similar recovery experiences.

    Of course, this is not ‘easy’ by any standard —the PCT requires incredible emotional and psychological effort. And the trail will most likely force you to face almost every one of your demons. During my hike, everything came out: memories, flashbacks, pain, regret, self-blame, negative spirals, etc. I recommend going about your hike with the mentality that you’re not ‘getting away’ from the demons: you’re facing them head-on, you’re telling them to come out of hiding, you’re digging them up and out.

    If you decide to hike for this reason, I’d suggest spending a lot of time beforehand preparing yourself to disarm, exorcise, and transform your demons. (That’s basically what I did.) I’d massively recommend reading Feeling Good (about Depression) and When Panic Attacks (about Anxiety) as a start. And if you finish those, I have a lot of other resources I can refer you to. In fact, this would make an excellent and important article topic, and I may post about this in the next few weeks.

    I’m absolutely delighted that you commented about this —thank you for your openness. I feel very strongly about depression, anxiety, etc., so I’m very happy to talk about it if you have any more questions.

    I wish you the best of luck for your decision-making about whether to hike this year. My best advice is: follow your gut. If the trail calls to you, then it is probably what you need to do.

  • RaymondHex : Sep 1st

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