Why Thru-Hike Preparation Requires More than Single-Day Peak Bagging
I thought hiking the John Muir Trail would be a relaxing end to a summer of adventure. I spent two months pushing my mental and physical limits, climbing mountains from Mount Shasta to the Grand Teton. Walking 15-20 miles a day should have been a piece of cake, right?
As soon as I felt the weight of my pack on the first incline, reality hit me hard. I was less than a quarter mile in, and my calves were burning as they powered me and my 40 extra pounds out of Yosemite Valley. Climbing mountains did prepare me in many ways, and I quickly was able to find my trail legs. However, standing on top of Half Dome, I struggled to process that I was heading deeper into the wilderness. My routine had become one day of intense hiking, followed by an epic collapse into my car and wolfing down a hamburger. I was woefully prepared for the unique set of emotional and mental challenges presented by thru-hiking, even though my quads were stronger than ever. The following four challenges were easily my biggest hurdles to overcome as I marched toward Mount Whitney. For hikers hoping to reach Katahdin or Canada, being aware of these difficulties may ease the pain of reality.
In training for a thru-hike with single-day peakbagging or weekend backpacking trips, the end is tangible. It wasn’t until the fifth day, less than one-third of the trail completed, when we felt how long our journey would be. We were accustomed to quick rewards directly after our physical accomplishments. The “reward” that comes from finishing a thru-hike is way, way, way in the future and impossible to see.
With a summer of climbing mountains, I was in the routine of putting myself through serious pain for a day or two and then returning to the comforts of “real life.” On day four of the John Muir Trail, I was already pining for my fluffy pillow and foam rollers. At the end of a long day of hiking or climbing, it’s normal to look forward to collapsing back into a car waiting at the trailhead. When that car is weeks or months away, it can be more difficult. One of my most challenging moments on the John Muir Trail was hitting a resupply in a campground at a trailhead, seeing those cars, and forcing myself back out onto the trail. The routine of summiting mountains inadvertently trained me to consider my job done as soon as my feet hit the parking lot pavement.
There are different challenges every day during a thru-hike, but it’s not over when the sun sets. In fact, thinking about the end of a thru-hike in the first portion of it is a good way to psyche yourself out. There isn’t a foreseeable end or destination for quite a while. While summiting mountains may prepare a hiker for the physical challenges, the mental battle of extreme delayed gratification may catch you off guard.
Caloric Deficit and Sleep Deprivation
Hiker hunger is no secret. I was prepared to be ravenous even after smashing 1,000+ calories, but I didn’t know this would affect my hiking. With proper fuel, I can power up a hill with a smile on my face. However, on the JMT the climbs seemed to get more and more difficult. I attribute this to the constant caloric (and sleep) deficit I was running on, both of which slowed me down. I hadn’t experienced anything close to thru-hike fatigue on even the most technical of mountain summits.
Nearly all of my nights over the summer were spent car-camping as I climbed various mountains. I thought this would have prepared me to spend the night on the ground after a long day in the mountains. However, the extra blankets and fluffy pillows I used over the summer were nonexistent on the trail. A nightly routine of scattered sleep replaced my normal 10-12 hour sleep binge after a long one- or two-day summit. I was running a constant sleep deficit, feeling lucky when I was able to piece together two consecutive hours. In the future, I might consider taking longer lunch breaks and enjoying a nap while the sun is shining.
Lack of Cell Service
This was arguably the most difficult aspect of the JMT for me. I have countless wonderful and supportive friends and family who bless my life. I had grown used to calling my loved ones at the top of a summit or bottom of a trailhead, either for support or to relay a success. Slogging on for seven days straight without the relief of outside support was at times incredibly tough.
To prepare for this in the future, or for anyone attempting their first thru-hike, testing out a 4-5 day backpacking trip without allowing yourself cell service would be a great start. Long days alone with your thoughts can be harder than anticipated.
Fighting Monotony / Existential Crises
My hiking partner and I would spend hours thinking and discussing why we were out there. This one basic question would simmer and float around our brains while we walked. Without service and in the backcountry, this can devolve into serious doubt. Especially as friends left the trail, both of us questioned our purpose more than a few times. I’ve read a lot about how having a clear “why” fuels a thru-hike with purpose and a clear intention. I didn’t have a solid reason to be there. The best “why” I ever came up with was, “Well, the JMT just sounded like a good idea.”
I did quite a bit of journaling while on the trail. Every night I would write a high, low, lesson learned, and intention for the following day. In the future, I would add a non-facetious “why” to help my objective and focus stay clear. When the days are long and monotonous, knowing that you’re working toward a specific goal can blaze the path.
I would not have been able to prepare for the majority of my struggles on my first long-distance hike. However, anticipating these specific challenges could have the potential to ease those most arduous moments. Summiting mountains prepared my muscles for long climbs and descents, but thru-hiking requires much more than physical strength.
I knew I was physically prepared, but I had duped myself into a false confidence. As one could guess, the thru-hiking gods smacked me down by day five. Though I stepped off the trail more mature, capable, and resilient, I wish I had been able to anticipate some of these specific struggles. No hike is going to be perfect, but I’ll have a better idea of what to expect on my next adventure.
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