Ego on Trail: Why is it so hard to HYOH?
We’ve all met a hiker who can’t seem to shut up about how many miles they hike a day. This person also wants you to know that their gear is way lighter and better than yours. Their resupply strategy is perfect. They never get blisters and are immune to giardia.
I’ve met hikers who wake up before the sun rises and hike until after it sets. I’ve met hikers who refuse to walk a step beyond eighteen miles in a day. One girl I met carried enough food for two hundred twenty miles because she thought town stops sucked up too much time. Another hiker I know never carried more than a liter of water after the desert and just camel-ed up at water sources because it was too heavy to carry. Some hikers think zeroes are dumb; others take days off for weddings or side trips. I hiked with someone who prepared and dehydrated all of his meals ahead of time, regularly sautéing garlic to add to his dinner. Another hiker friend of mine subsisted on tortillas and nutella or hiker box finds.
There are literally as many ways to hike as their are hikers. And that’s where this HYOH hiker aphorism comes from – Hike your own hike! This phrase gets tossed around a lot because although it is pithy, it is also true. And yet, we all have been witness to a discussion, whether it be in person or online, in which thru hiking becomes a debate: Does thru hiking require a continuous footpath, even around fire closures? Or is it about making your best effort to complete all of the open miles of trail in one season? If you skip a section and come back for it, do those miles count? Or is this all a matter of timing and lucky weather?
Here’s the bigger question to me – WHO CARES?
I can only speak for myself, but let me tell you something – I started hiking because I think rules are dumb. We live in a world where traditional success and happiness look a very specific way. We are expected to follow certain paths and want certain things, but we are not boxes. We are made of human stuff. I once tried to be a productivity robot who could take pleasure in the niceties of civil life, but it wasn’t enough. For me, thru hiking was like finding a loophole in the matrix. It felt so simple and free to just walk, at my own pace, one step at a time, ever forward. It was escape from the constraints of the “real world”.
Sometimes I would find myself comparing my accomplishments to those around me. Whether this comparison made me feel better or worse about myself, it was always unnecessary. I tried to remind myself to keep my ego in check, but it became clear that I wasn’t the only one who had this problem. We are only human, after all, and it is natural to try to out-do those around us. I remember taking a break by a water cache in Southern Oregon. A group of hikers show up, one a few minutes in front of the others. He takes off as soon as his friends catch up. They shake their heads. Apparently, he does this a lot – he needs to stay just ahead of his friends all day as some sort of ego boost to let them know that he is the fastest hiker, even though they all end up camping together every night.
That’s pretty much what this “debate” looks like to me – the insecurity of a few hikers that need to make rules to ensure they are “winning” in the world of hiking. If at the end of the amazing experience that is thru hiking your biggest priority is putting down the experiences of others to legitimize your own, if you get riled up that someone else’s hike doesn’t measure up to your arbitrary definition of what it should be, then you have an ego problem. Thru hiking is an unbelievably amazing personal accomplishment. It is freeing because we get to decide what it means to us. There are many, many sports with time records and medals and very specifically defined ways to win, but thru hiking is not one of them.
Do not misunderstand me – I absolutely respect the discipline it takes to set a high standard for oneself and follow through with it. I (somehow) kept up with a group of continuous footpathers through Washington and they were some of the most fun, caring, encouraging hikers I met on trail. Their crazy Sierra stories and the road miles they racked up walking around fire closures made their hike special to them, and I admired that. However, in the same vein, none of them gave a single fuck about the fact that I didn’t abide by the same rules for my hike. It was a choice they made for themselves for a personal sense of accomplishment, and that was enough. None of them thought that my hike was less significant than theirs because I decided to hike by a different philosophy. That’s the way it should be.
So I’m going to call my hike a thru hike because that’s what it was to me. If some asks, eyes bulging, if I hiked the whole thing (a very common follow-up question) then I will truthfully and with no hesitation tell them, no, I didn’t. And I will still sleep like a baby.
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