What to Think About When Thinking About Thru-Hiking

I think about thru-hiking a lot when I’m on the metro. It probably has to do with feeling claustrophobic and carsick while riding but still having to do it every day to commute to work. How great would it feel to have nothing but gorgeous vastness or green tunnel in front of me all day, every day instead of spending my time underground and in an office? I think about thru-hiking when I’m day hiking. It’s warm and sunny and carefree and who wouldn’t want their day hike to be their everyday hike?

I think about thru-hiking when I don’t relate to the people around me, or I don’t care about what they care about, or I feel like I have to pretend to be someone else in order to fit in. When someone gets squeamish about a bug or dirt, I try not to roll my eyes and wish they’d be a little less city and a little more hiker trash. When I’m grocery shopping and there are 150 kinds of cereal but really they’re all the same kind of cereal made to look different through packaging and branding and marketing and the other -ings of capitalism, I try not to rant about how some time on the trail would help us all reconsider what’s real and what’s fake in this world. (Clearly, I don’t try very hard.)

Most often, when I think about the trail I picture myself in front of a beautiful vista. Sometimes I think about how my friends might talk about me when I’m off hiking, and often I think about how the whole thing might look on Instagram. I think about what gear I might use and what food I’d eat and whether or not my favorite Patagonia puffy will keep me warm enough. Any of this sound familiar?

This is where I find myself these days—thinking about how I think about the trail(s). Because I realize that I know firsthand what the trail is really like and I still fall into the trap of comparing the worst parts of my current life to the best parts of trail life.

I think about thru-hiking to escape, and I think a lot of you are like me.

The thing is, I know thinking this way will get me nowhere when it comes to actually thru-hiking. And isn’t that why we’re all here? I’m pretty sure Zach even wrote a couple of books about this 🙂 and about how to prepare for—and mitigate!—the inevitable when that social-media-highlight-reel in your head explodes in your face. (You should probably check those books out if you haven’t already.)

If your goal is to actually thru-hike, not just create an escapist fantasy to get you through the monotony of the daily grind, thinking about how you’re thinking about hiking and knowing what to think about are critical.

(Hint: It’s not the gear or the food or the accolades or the vistas or the freedom or the Instagram.)

Here are my suggestions for things to think about:

1. Giving up the best parts of your current life for the worst parts of trail life.

Remember that time I wrote about shitting my pants in the woods? Yeah. Consider if you’d be just as grateful for that moment as you’d probably be for getting to pet ponies or sit atop McAfee Knob. When you think about thru-hiking, are you consciously evaluating how it will feel to trade bottomless brunches and Amazon delivery for days on end of rain and ticks and ramen noodles. And, in fact, do you think these things sound better?? (I seriously love ramen noodles.)

2. How your problems are your problems no matter where you go.

Hiking boosts physical and mental health, and can make you happier. But if you feel lonely or insecure or anxious at home, you’re going to feel lonely and insecure and anxious on the trail. That’s not to say that thru-hiking won’t result in you learning to cope with, and even temper, these feelings—it can literally help you rewire your brain!—but, as they say, “wherever you go, there you are.” Do you think about how thru-hiking will test or develop your resiliency, or do you think about thru-hiking because you think things will suddenly be better on the trail than they are now?

3. Type 1 and Type 2 fun are very different sorts of fun.

I love Type 2 fun, the fun that’s not at all fun in the moment but was definitely a good time now that’s it’s over. I consider my greatest achievements the ones I really suffered for. Some people don’t think it’s as fun to be miserable! Do you know where you fall? Whether it’s Type 1 or Type 2 fun that’s more your speed, do you think about what you find enjoyable? Really being honest with yourself about this will help you in the long run because you need to know if trudging up that hill is enough in and of itself to fill your cup, or if you should always have a bag of Swedish Fish (or whatever) around to get you through the parts you find rough. (You don’t have to be a masochist to be a thru-hiker, but I think it helps.)

4. Your propensity to expand beyond yourself.

Do you like testing your limits? Pushing yourself? Broadening your horizons and widening your boundaries? Like the questions above, there’s no right or wrong answer, but taking the time to really know yourself is key. If you want to thru-hike, you will be uncomfortable and you need to know how discomfort makes you feel and how you’re going to deal with it. My limit is four days without washing my hair. Any more and it becomes unpleasant to live inside my mind let alone be around me. That’s not good or bad, it’s just something I know about myself and therefore I act accordingly to prevent anyone from accidentally getting punched in the throat if I can’t get my hands on some shampoo.

5. The last time you thought something was a good idea until you had to actually do it.

I know everyone can relate.


If you’ve reflected on what you’re truly thinking about when you fantasize about the trail and you still find yourself wanting to thru-hike, well, then, you’d be in good company.


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Comments 1

  • Storm : Sep 25th

    Thanks! This one really made me think and I will probably read it over and over again. I’m in that fantasy stage and my family doesn’t think it’s such a good idea to go. I’m too old (63), never done it on my own (although I was a captain in the army military police Corp) and I’m just acting like I don’t have much brain power (well that one may be true ?). I have read Zach’s book (love the goals idea, that will I sure I don’t do something stupid) and it was extremely helpful. And john Desilets Appalachian Fail was also great. It’s not what you can do, it’s what you can endure. Right? That makes me a bit nervous since I believe physically I can do it but if I’m determined enough and (being realistic) if no major injury or illness, I can make it.


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