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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Comments 18

  • Bryan : Dec 6th

    Congrats on your thru-hike Spiderbite! Great article! Your words captured what a lot of us are thinking. I like many others are conditioned to be competitive from a life of sports, service, school, career, poker, etc. It pays to be a winner but what is “winning” on the trail? The trail is my escape from that ego driven world. It’s so liberating to live simply & free on the trail. The last thing I want to do out there is compete with another hiker. The trail is such a personal thing & we’re all there for different reasons. We should all encourage each other to get whatever it is we want from the trail. That’s “winning” on the trail. Let’s not be that person that measures one against the other on trail. Just do you & help others do them. Peace…

    Reply
    • Katherine Liu : Dec 6th

      Hey Bryan, thanks for the support! I totally agree with you – the trail is about freedom, not competition.

      Reply
      • Terry Roach : Dec 7th

        I have thru hiked the AT at both a leisurely, smell every rhododendron pace and at a pace that pushed me to (and perhaps beyond) my mental, physical, everyother-al limits. I found both to be incredibly rewarding and uniquely insightful in ways I never imagined. I also, of course, encountered the same HYOH hypocrisies you describe. I respectfully submit that I find more than a hint of the same in some of your statements. Please correct me if I have misinterpreted you, but you seem to be suggesting that those who speed hike the AT – dare I say ‘compete’ – can’t possibly share your ethos of the trail as magical place. On my speed hike, I met my fair share of such prejudicial judgments in person unfortunately – although the AT community again was overwhelmingly supportive and awesome! As far as your claim that thru hiking is not a sport with time records, I believe reality indicates otherwise. Mr. Warren Doyle helped to establish the record many years ago and maintains a leadership role in all things FKT. I know I don’t need to expound on all that Mr. Doyle means to the AT. Being competitive doesn’t exclude being a good steward of the trail, nor does it exclude working in concert with one’s competitors. Certainly Mr. Doyle’s labors on behalf of those who have bettered his own mark speaks more to the positive aspects of competition than anything I could say here.

        Reply
  • John B. Waugaman, Jr. : Dec 6th

    Congratulations Spiderbite. I like your tenacity and outlook of what the thru hike was really for …….. YOU. Keep enjoying life one step at a time, while making every step memorable.

    Reply
    • Katherine Liu : Dec 6th

      Thanks, John. Hope to see you out there!

      Reply
  • Triple Dip : Dec 6th

    Win. Great insight. Please blog more.

    Reply
    • Katherine Liu : Dec 6th

      Thank you! Believe me, I’m working on it.

      Reply
  • CK : Dec 6th

    Preach! This needs to be pinned on every message board.

    Reply
    • Katherine Liu : Dec 6th

      Right?! Except for the fact that it should just be obvious

      Reply
  • Justin : Dec 6th

    Just don’t blue blaze or yellow blaze and you’re fine with me! 🙂

    Reply
    • Katherine Liu : Dec 6th

      I yellow blazed to catch my friends after dealing with a black widow spider bite. Still calling it a thru hike. OOPS!

      Reply
  • Mr Maps : Dec 6th

    Yes! Spot-on. Great blog. Congrats!

    Reply
    • Katherine Liu : Dec 6th

      Thank you!

      Reply
  • Ruth morley : Dec 6th

    Fantastic article, good insights! Even though I thought I could be strong and independent, hiking my own hike on the AT this past summer, I got sucked into proving myself by doing 18 to 20 mile days way before I was ready for them. I also followed the trend and wore trail runners, even though past backpacking experience had proven those don’t work for me. Result: instead of doing 1100 miles in 2017, I painfully limped to a stop after 500, and went home early with both feet injured.

    Today, 3 months later, I’m finally close to being healed, thank God.

    I truly learned my lesson. Next April, I will take up where I let off, this time in my proven, comfy, supportive Lowa hiking boots. I already have my projected itinerary planned for the first month, with days of 8-12 miles. I plan on starting each day as I do at home, with meditation and yoga. This will bring me so much pleasure, and the lessened miles should hopefully decrease my chances of the same injuries. I’m now a LASHER and I intend to take my time and smell the roses, since I only intend to hike the whole trail once.

    Thanks again for your post.

    Reply
  • Haiku : Dec 6th

    The reason it’s so hard to HYOH is when people on trail are so.freakin.judgemental. about how you didn’t do/measure up to whatever their expectation of x was, putting you down. #1 problem I have struggled with in hiking is not comparing myself with others, still not over it despite couple thrus, and this year on the PCT it was just ridiculous. PS congrats on your thru! I saw you guys at the monument, nice to meet y’all.

    Reply
  • ChiefShoeless : Dec 7th

    Spot on! It’s the experience and not the accomplishment that I’m after. Hike on…your own terms. 😎👣.

    Reply
  • Chief : Dec 7th

    Love this! I hiked the Oregon section of the PCT a few summers back and I could always tell the awesome people from the not-so-awesome by how they responded when I told them I was “only” doing Oregon 🙂

    Have a great hike and maybe we’ll cross paths one of these days!

    Reply
  • SOLACE : Dec 7th

    The more people hike, the more of this HYOH gets tossed around of course, and i think for anyone to understand what exactly “HYOH” SHOULD mean, they need no further than to read your article. . . and the difference is SpiderBite, you did not just put this into words, you lived it, and continue too … and for you, i am sure that has made all the difference ~ For me, the beauty in my day is found not remembering the miles or the records, but the smells, the sting of the rain against my cheek, the faces whos smiles light up my day, and the stars that shine brighter than any noon day sun . . . Keep writing , Keep Hiking, Keep HYOH the way you do! Cheers, SOLACE

    Reply

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