The Problem with Isolation on a Solo Thru-Hike

I’m back. I know, I wasn’t really missed, but I have some serious tea to spill (as the kids these days say). Well, it’s my own tea, and I just feel as though I need to get it off my chest, ya feel? So here goes.

Before I really start this post, I just want to say that isolation can be very healing and beneficial. Just read this article. Spending time alone to get to know yourself is something that you can’t reproduce anywhere or through anything other than being alone under challenging circumstances. And before you make premature judgments about me and my struggles with isolation, please keep in mind that I’m in recovery from disordered eating and have struggled for years with depression. Everybody is different, with unique experiences. I’m just putting this article out there to say that it’s OK to leave the trail when you feel like you need to. It’s your own hike, and each hike is different.

Why My PCT Isolation Was Confusing

What the majority of my PCT hike looked like. Me reaching big and small milestones, alone.

Before I start this, please know that this is my own experience. For some people, toughing it out is the best thing you can do, and it promotes growth. That was certainly not for me.

Thoughts When I Left the Trail

I left the trail at Truckee on July 21. As rain dumped outside the Reno airport, I lay on the ground for approximately six hours (the shuttle from Truckee to the Reno airport ran very infrequently). Was I really making the right decision? I smelled like a pigsty, had a one-way ticket home, and a bag full of peanut M&Ms. I should have been happy. My body would finally get a chance to recover. I would sleep in a normal bed every night. I would see my family for the first time in 2018 (which, for a brand new college student, is a long time). I had decided that I couldn’t mentally continue the trail, so shouldn’t I be happy? This is what I wanted. This is why I called my mom in tears while sitting in the middle of the trail three days before. But as I lay in the Reno airport, I felt empty, aching, and desperately alone.

I was no longer wearing down my shoes at the rate with which I had once worn them down. Small tear of sadness.

The flight passed quickly, and soon I was in my family’s arms. They made me tell them every trail story, show them every picture, and demanded I not leave anything out. My feet still had absolutely no feeling, and talking about the trail made my heart ache. Had I made a mistake? Was the trail really home, and had I been too weak and self-centered to see that?

Showering every day was awful. Brushing my teeth was awful. The ache in my heart grew every morning that I woke up and didn’t see the stars. I missed my trail family, the peaceful monotony of walking, my tangled hair and hitchhiking with strangers, sharing rooms and swapping stories with other people as homeless and alive as I was, eating entire pizzas and sleeping in a real bed once every two weeks.

What better place to live. Right?

Thoughts When I Got Back on the Trail

The aching emptiness I felt after leaving the trail grew so much that I left home and took a bus to Ashland on Aug. 7. I would indeed spend the remainder of my summer hiking, even though I had almost no money, and hadn’t fixed what I’d left the trail to fix. The bus arrived in Ashland, I met up with hiking buddies and got a hitchhike to the trail. Instead of feeling exhilarated as I’d expected, the aching emptiness only got worse. The smoke made the sun bright red, and every step I took rocked me with dread. I’m not being melodramatic. I truly felt awful. As I was trying to fall asleep under a tree, I considered kneeing my arm so hard that my elbow would dislocate. I considered jumping from a tree and landing on my arm so it would break. I was miserable as I looked through photos from earlier in the summer and thought about breaking my bones. And then I realized that my morbid thoughts were only occurring because I didn’t actually want to be back on the trail. I wanted an excuse to leave but was too afraid to call home and show back up only having hiked 30 miles. That was weak and pathetic. I was neither weak nor pathetic.

What most of my hike looked like, anyway. Was I just mentally romanticizing the hike, and glossing over the truly frustrating parts in my speed to relive the good parts?

Yeah, I’m not kidding. I can’t say how many rivers I crossed at night. Alone. They were difficult, discouraging, and dangerous. Yep, I was definitely forgetting about all the times I struggled, and only remembering the happy times out there. That’s why I wanted to go back out so bad. I wasn’t thinking about all the hard parts of the trail.

I began to wonder why I was so desperate to leave the trail again after being so desperate to get back on. It didn’t make sense. I wanted to recapture the wonder and joy and pain and vulnerability I felt during the first half of the summer, what was wrong with that? Why was that impossible? The more I thought, the more I realized that I was back on the trail for the wrong reasons.

  1. I was back on the trail to try to relive the beginning of my PCT experience. This was impossible because I had already grown and learned from those experiences. Even if I recreated my desert or Sierra trek, with the same people, rides into town, hitchhikes, etc., it wouldn’t be the same because I’m a different person now that I was then.
  2. I was trying to lose more weight. In my “Why I’m Hiking List,” I said I was going to hike because I wanted to love my body. During the first 1,200 miles of the PCT, that’s what I learned. My body felt like a machine, my heart pounded, and I had never felt so proud of myself. But here I was, feeling absolutely disgusted with my body and its performance.
  3. I hadn’t addressed the problem that I had aimed to fix when I got off trail in the first place. When I called my mom in the middle of the trail near Truckee, I felt a huge sense of relief that I would be leaving the trail. My mind was all over the place; I felt angry, confused, and tired. The Sierra had wrecked me mentally, and I wasn’t ready to hike into the smoke of Northern California alone again. I was caught in a weird state of limbo. It’s hard to explain, and even harder to rationalize.

Heading Home Again

I felt numb as I hitched back into Ashland. I had failed myself, I had failed my trail family, who was somewhere in Northern California, and I had failed my family and friends, who were expecting not to see me for the rest of the summer. And then… NO! I hadn’t failed anybody, especially myself. My experience on the Pacific Crest Trail was completely unique, and not a failure at all. In fact, it was an accomplishment just to get on the trail as a 19-year-old, completely alone, and with very minimal backpacking experience. Still, though, I felt embarrassed.

Me (on the far left) and my posse of friends. Love them to death! They were proud of me even when I left the trail for the second time.

After I left the PCT for the second time, I had plenty of time to spend with my family’s sweet puppy, Jesse.

I also had time to go to an Indian festival with my trail friend, Caro.

The rest of my summer was calm and uneventful. I slept in, packed and repacked my school backpack, and washed my trail clothes more times that I could count until my mom was satisfied that they smelled no more. None of my friends or family members were disappointed with me. They were actually super happy to have me around for the next few weeks. My trail family understood completely, and I visited them when they reached Bend.

They were exhausted, emaciated, and just generally seemed dull compared to the last time I had seen them. Did that make me happier that I had left? Yep.

Scooby Gang for life. But despite their smiles, they were struggling.

Why I Decided to Leave the Trail

It’s hard to reintegrate into society after a trail. I spent the majority of my hike in complete isolation, going over mountain passes alone in the middle of the night, listening to audiobooks at 3 a.m. as I paused for the umpteenth time to shake the sand out of my shoes in the desert. I camped with my trail family sometimes and hitchhiked into town with them if I knew where they were. I made tons of friends but spent the majority of my time alone.

Finding a river to clean off in… alone.

Crossing mountain passes… alone.

Do I regret spending so much time alone? Not really. Had I not spent so much time alone, I wouldn’t have met Bob and Cari, the trail angels that picked me up in the middle of the night when I was totally lost with a dead phone and batteries. Had I not hiked at night, I would not have gotten my trail name (Spooky), which fits me perfectly. Had I not hiked alone, it wouldn’t have really been MY hike. 

Lovely. Magnificent. Worth it? Yes.

I decided to leave the trail because I wanted to look back on the trail with fondness. I wanted to keep the incredible memories I had made, and not only remember how miserable I was at the end. I left because I was out there for the wrong reasons. I left because I was too tightly wound up in my head, overthinking things and mentally tearing down everything I had built up during my hike. I left because I had no more money and school would be starting up again in a few weeks. And I left because I felt like it. Must I say more? There’s really no reason for me to justify my feelings to anyone, especially myself.

Fake smiles? Sometimes. The loneliness is real.

One of my inspirations to hike, John Zahorian, said in a recent video of his that he also left the Pacific Crest Trail because his heart wasn’t in it anymore (around 3:10 of this video). My heart wasn’t in the trail after I left at Truckee; it truly wasn’t. John then goes on to say that you just have to go after your dreams, and whatever happens happens. My dream was to love myself, and I accomplished that, just not quite in the ways I expected. It just so happened that my heart wasn’t in the trail anymore. So I left.

It’s OK to take care of yourself. And self-care doesn’t just end in taping blisters and taking zero days. It’s so, so, SO much more. Even if you’re thinking about hiking the PCT, you’re accomplishing things. You’re ambitious, adventurous, and ready for a life-changing time.

So, the Problem with Isolation on Solo Thru-Hike?

My expectations were unrealistic. I was trying to hike for other people, even though most of my hike was spent alone. My isolation made me doubt myself too much. My isolation made me lose my mind. My self-love hike morphed into something horrible and disgusting by the time I finally realized it was time to quit. I got too caught up in my head. I was scared, angry, numb, and most of all, confused. I had spent so long suppressing my emotions that it was hard to feel them freely.

How I felt toward the end of my trail, all the time. Frustrated, confused, sad.

Would my hike have been different if I hadn’t isolated myself? Maybe. But that’s not important. My hike was glorious, frightening, exhilarating, at points crushing, but completely life-changing. It was incredible, even though it didn’t end on the happiest note.

I guess my point in writing this post (and yikes, is it long. Sorry.) is to say that isolation is both good and bad. It worked for me because I learned how to rely on myself and myself alone. It didn’t work because I lost myself in my own thoughts.

My advice? Be honest with yourself before you begin your solo hike. Are you really, truly, absolutely mentally ready to spend the majority of your summer alone? What are steps you can take to not start tearing yourself down during endless hours of walking? Are you prepared to honestly reach out to other hikers if you’re in trouble? Are you prepared to talk to yourself honestly, and recognize when you’re not feeling well?

After all, this is your own adventure, and as Amelia Earhart said, “Adventure is worthwhile in itself.”

Sometimes, the only way we can see the beauty is by looking up from the black mountains and into the cotton candy sky. (Cheesy, much :))

PS. The featured image is my bacon cheeseburger and fries in Mammoth (mile 900). Contrary to the image, I was actually very happy, but my emotions, even at mile 900, were a little bit volatile. 🙂

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 16

  • Carmen Lomonoco : Feb 28th

    Greetings Anna Smiley’s,

    Was wondering if you had sex on your hike???

    Yours,

    Carmen AKA Batpeel

    Reply
    • Rachael Robertson : Mar 3rd

      ??? Why in the world would you ask this absurd question at the end of this amazing article?

      Reply
  • Rowan : Feb 28th

    Hey- I definitely wondered about this- I’m so grateful you wrote this post. Everyone seems to suggest that it’s basically a continuous fun slumber party on the trail, but all I could imagine is how much fun it wouldn’t be stopping hiking at 4 or 5 in the afternoon, making a cup of tea on your own in the woods, then just sitting around alone waiting to fall asleep and start again.

    Reply
    • Anna Smiley : Mar 1st

      Hey Rowan! Thanks so much for your comment! I also noticed that most posts were about how much of a slumber party the trail was, and I wanted to share my experiences just so people didn’t get an unrealistic expectation of trail life. It’s super fun, but also really quite hard. And the monotony and repetition can dampen the joy of trail life, even though it’s overall a worthwhile experience.

      Happy Trails!
      Anna

      Reply
  • Austin : Feb 28th

    Honest question, is there a specific reason why you did so much night hiking?

    Reply
    • JAMES : Feb 28th

      Its always a challenging to walk by your self if you make errors you can only blame yourself. But its always nice to have some one to talk to on should a long trip. I only assume doing the walking at night was to get a way from day time heat? ALL l can is say is you did give it a go and you walked over 1000miles successfully.

      Reply
      • Anna Smiley : Mar 1st

        Thanks for reading, James! I completely agree with you. Friends are always wonderful and a great distraction from oneself.

        Happy Trails!
        Anna

        Reply
    • Anna Smiley : Mar 1st

      Hey Austin! That really is a great question! In the desert, I did it out of necessity (since I grew up in a cooler climate, and I wasn’t used to any type of heat). Once I got into the Sierras, my sleeping schedule was pretty messed up from all that night hiking, and while I tried to hike during the day and sleep at nighttime, it was hard to change the habits I made in the desert. In the Sierras, I adopted a pattern of hiking that completely relied on what my body wanted. I hiked until I was tired (which was usually 2 or 3 am), and then I’d sleep with no alarm set. That meant that I usually woke up around 10 am, so I’d hike with minimal breaks until my body was tired again.

      So I guess, short answer, I gave up trying to force my self to fall asleep when I wasn’t tired. I do think that hiking alone and at night most likely heavily contributed to my loneliness and my decision to quit the trail, but one of my main goals on the trail was to learn how to listen to my body, and I definitely accomplished that through night hiking! I’ll write a blog post somewhere in the future about the pros and cons of night hiking.

      Reply
  • Jesus : Feb 28th

    Wait, what’s that face in my news feed, looks alot like… Well Hello Spooky👋

    Reply
    • Anna Smiley : Mar 1st

      Hey Jesus!! I miss you and the trail family!

      Reply
  • Bill (yes that was my trail name too) : Feb 28th

    Great article and I can relate! I’ve been watching a lot of long distance hiking videos again and the lure of the trail is strong. I had forgotten why I got off the trail (Tahoe 7/13/2018). So I went back through my journal and it all came back. The loneliness was crushing. It’s nice to know I was not the only one that felt that way. I had no feeling in my feet either. I just wasn’t enjoying the hike anymore. It became more of a job than an adventure. I don’t think I had the right frame of mind from the get-go.
    That August, I drove up to Oregon and Washington to see a friend and hike more of the trail. Just day hikes this time. Came across many thru hikers. They all had that same zombie look that I remembered.
    I still would like to finish the second half to Canada, but need a better frame of mind and a hiking buddy that hikes at my slow pace! Thanks again for your article and good luck.

    Reply
    • Anna Smiley : Mar 1st

      Thanks for reading, Bill! I think the crushing loneliness is absolutely something that not many hikers talk about. It’s hard to remember all the bad parts of the trail when we’re looking back on it, and that can be a good thing. And that’s a perfect way to put it; it did feel like more of a job than an adventure!

      My trail family did look exactly like zombies, and they were kind of miserable, even though they wouldn’t admit it. I’m glad that I was able to leave with good memories of the trail. Good luck on finishing the hike! Slow-paced hikers for the win! 🙂

      Happy trails!
      Anna

      Reply
  • Zawaka : Mar 1st

    Oh and seriously shoes for trip like that!?!?!? You definitely need boots . with socks and liners so you get no blisters. Probably couldn’t feel your feet because your feet were sliding down to the front of your shoe.

    Reply
    • Anna Smiley : Mar 1st

      Hey Zawaka! Thanks for reading and thanks for your comment! I started with Adidas tennis shoes (and Columbia hiking boots), and boy did they both wreck my feet! I switched to Lone Peak Altras around mile 170, and I didn’t get any blisters after the switch. In fact, even though my feet eventually went numb, the Altras were incredibly comfortable and fit my foot perfectly. Every single hiker I met had some sort of numbness in their feet, whether they wore Altras or boots. I think that’s just something that comes along with walking hundreds of miles with very few breaks! I also alternated pairs of Darn Tough socks with my shoes. I found that’s what worked for me!

      Do you have a combination that worked better for you? I’d love to hike without getting numb feet. Thanks!

      Happy Trails!
      Anna

      Reply
  • Erin (Katniss) : Mar 1st

    Hey there! I really enjoyed reading your story 🙂 something kind of similar happened to me on my AT hike. I started alone but began hiking with others after about 80 miles. I also made the very difficult decision to get off trail after 1200 miles, and I got back on for short day hikes a couple of times after leaving my hike. It’s been almost 8 months since I left the trail and I still have dreams about hiking the rest of it and still sometimes feel lost or confused or sad that I stopped. It is hard to remember the bad parts sometimes, just like a past relationship. I try to remember that my foot pain only just subsided about a month ago and that my mental health was no better on the trail (and may have been worse). It’s so difficult to let go of the dream of a thru-hike, especially once comparison comes into play. I also very much sympathize with body image struggles on the trail—I think how I (and others) perceived my body on the trail was a huge factor in my mental struggle. I think this piece was very open and honest and that takes a ton of courage and insight 🙂 I’m really glad I came across it today, it hit me hard in some places I needed to look at.

    Reply
  • Rachael Robertson : Mar 3rd

    Hi spooky!!! I really enjoyed this article. I thought it was very raw and honest and something that alot of other bloggers don’t talk about. I definitely understand what you are talking about as far as the frustration and want to go home, but then wanting to go back. I have alot of videos I took of myself on the AT, mostly in Vermont, where I was completely and utterly fed up with the trail. At one point I was asking myself “is it enough to finish just because I want to finish, not because I’m having any sort of fun?”. And I did finish, and most of my group probably looked like your friends. Zombies hiking through the wilderness… And the Rose colored glasses I have on now being home are very Rosy. I miss the trail so much… But then I watch those videos and remember how miserable it was sometimes. So kudos to you for listening to your body and yourself. You still went out there and fought for your dreams and you even had the courage to be true to yourself. Great article!

    Reply

What Do You Think?