Why It’s OK to Not Finish a Thru-Hike

When you enter the thru-hiking world, you can get a bit wrapped up in the push to finish the hike. This is for good reason: most of us start a long-distance trail with the dream and aspiration to complete it all. The majority of other hikers around you are going for the gold, so here we traverse together to the finish.

I actually didn’t finish my PCT thru-hike this year. Yes, I had every intention of hiking it all when I started. But things changed. And I’m going to tell you why that’s OK.

I flipped my hike in June. I had started at Campo going northbound, but like many other hikers, I  hopped up to the Canadian border from Lone Pine and began walking south. All was well and good. I was enjoying myself on the journey, taking in all the experiences, and rolling with the punches.

Yet somewhere perhaps in Oregon, I started feeling the stress of the need to push miles to finish my hike by early October. I knew that going through the Sierra too late would equal a very cold, Popsicle-like Daya. I’m a steady hiker, yet I’m not the fastest. I wasn’t having a problem with up to 27 miles a day; however, anything over that kind of took away my joy. I felt like I was passing all the moments you savor; all the reasons I wanted to be on trail in the first place felt ignored. You know the reasons: to revel in the nature, to unplug, to slow down mentally, to simplify. Here I had left a job as a yoga instructor and retreat coordinator, and being a thru-hiker made me think I was the one who needed a retreat because I was so stressed out! At times I felt I was a machine going through the motions, and I really wasn’t happy about this.

Don’t get me wrong; it certainly wasn’t all doom and gloom. I was hiking with an incredible trail family and I practiced being in gratitude for all I was witnessing as I walked.

Potatoes, SpamCake, HeathBar and me rocking our way into Oregon at Bridge of the Gods.

But the nagging lingered. I just didn’t feel I was appreciating it as much as I wanted to. I felt I was taking advantage of nature, by just hiking to get it done and to still be a thru-hiker.

Guilt was a big theme for me on this hike. I felt guilty if I wasn’t going fast enough, when I took long breaks, if I wanted to linger in town. It became pervasive, which often led to me beating myself up over it all. I was exhausted mentally more than physically.

The real kicker for me was when I realized I had never felt that way on my AT thru-hike, or when I hiked 1,500 miles across Spain and Portugal. I’ve hiked several other long-distance trails, from a week to six weeks, and never once did I want the trail to end. If anything, I had loathed the idea of it being over.

Yet come Northern California on the PCT, I was feeling ready for it to be done. And I didn’t like this sentiment at all.

Quitting, though, had never been a possibility. Nope, not going to happen. I was in it for the haul, so I kept going.

In the last week of September we got to Truckee, with around 400 miles left. My trail family and I stayed with an old friend of mine from high school, and we had a wonderful evening of me cooking up delights in the kitchen, good conversation, and lots of warm laughter. HeathBar, whom we had met at Hart’s Pass, had decided that he was ready to stop hiking, so we were treasuring this final time with him.

The next morning slipped into the early afternoon, and my hiking companion, Potatoes, and I still weren’t back on trail. I was wandering around the health food store, when Potatoes dropped the bomb.

”I think we should talk about stopping our hike and saving the rest for another time,” he said calmly.

I was shocked. He confided that he was exhausted. That the Sierra was meant to be huge highlight for him, his hiking dream. But if we had to hike it fast due to shorter days and colder weather approaching, he worried we would miss it. Sure, we could get it done, but for what real reason? Just to say we thru-hiked the PCT? Is there really a point to thru-hiking if you’re just not feeling it anymore?

Potatoes definitely liked his breaks. And who wouldn’t want to break to enjoy the views in the Goat Rocks Wilderness?!

There are varying opinions on this, whether part of being a thru-hiker is to keep pushing. I definitely battled with this thought, although finally accepted that what matters most is what I think and feel out there. There is no prize at the end, and honestly no one else will care for more than a minute when you’re done. I decided it was OK to stop, to not finish my PCT thru-hike. It was OK to have walked for five months and be a really long section hiker. I can still finish the whole PCT in my time, and I can hike it with a renewed sense of appreciation and joy. That’s what matters most to me.

It made me so happy to see this sign on the trail!

And there it was. Before I knew it, we were hitchhiking to South Lake Tahoe, renting a car to Reno, and then back in Boise.

Hasta la vista, PCT. Potatoes and I will catch you in the Sierra on the flip side.

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Comments 5

  • Marlene Wulf : Dec 5th

    Thank you for this post. I’m an aspiring PCT hiker but I plan on hiking the trail in sections. There is so much push to thru-hike these days, and I can see part of the appeal, the comraderie with fellow hikers being the main one. But there are a lot of down sides also and it takes a lot of courage to stop what you’re doing when you’ve set a goal like that, and re-evaluate what really matters. I often wonder how many people would push so hard to finish a thru-hike if no one else knew about it, there was no social media or thru-hiker register or anything of the sort?

    Reply
    • Daya : Dec 5th

      Thank you, Marlene for your consideration and comment. Yes, I’m sure social media pressure or the thought of having to answer to people plays a factor. However, I hope this message I conveyed is that the only person one has to answer to is his or herself.

      Good luck with your PCT section hike!

      Reply
  • James : Dec 5th

    It takes a lot of courage to face the feelings you encountered and trust yourself to say you can’t continue. Kudos on writing this article and helping other people to hike their own hike.

    I also really appreciate the acknowledgement that not finishing a long trail is a section hike. Can’t call it a thru-hike until you finished up the miles 🙂

    Reply
    • Daya : Dec 5th

      Thank you, Marlene for your consideration and comment. Yes, I’m sure social media pressure or the thought of having to answer to people plays a factor. However, I hope this message I conveyed is that the only person one has to answer to is his or herself.

      Good luck with your PCT section hike!

      Reply
    • Daya : Dec 5th

      Thanks, James! I appreciate you reading and giving my words some thought!

      Reply

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