The Unique Mental Challenges of Thru-Hike Number Two

Browse any other hiking website you can think of, and you are likely to find mountains of advice on how to approach your first thru-hike. This is for good reason; embarking on a long-distance trek is an adventure quite unlike any other outdoor pursuit, one that encompasses its own unique set of challenges and requires its own specialized set of knowledge and skills. Those who manage to successfully complete a thru-hike often remark that it is one of the most challenging things they have ever done.

But why doesn’t anyone give advice about how to approach your second thru-hike, or talk about how your second hike might require different preparations from your first? Do we simply assume that once you’ve successfully completed one long trek, you’ve probably got the whole thru-hiking thing pretty much figured out? Five years after completing the AT, I found myself on the eve of my second long-distance hike, this time on the Colorado Trail. As it turns out, I was faced with some mental challenges that I wasn’t fully prepared for.

Just because you’ve done it once, that doesn’t mean that reaching the finish line is a given your second time around. Here are three tips to help ensure that thru number two is as successful as your first.

1. Be Patient With Your Body

Thru-hikers are not the best at transitioning gradually from “real life” to “hiking life.” Whether it’s the fact that we’re spending all our could-be-training time working a second job to save money for that upcoming adventure, or that we’re simply unable to resist the never-ending allure of the couch (ahem… guilty), it’s no secret that many long-distance hikers are notorious for going from “rec time” to “game time” in only a matter of days.

If you’re about to hit the trail and you’ve done this sort of thing before, remind yourself that while your brain might remember what it feels like to do consecutive 20-mile days, your body most definitely does not. With all the excitement that comes with being back on trail, it is almost impossible to resist the urge to go hard right out of the gate, especially if you’ve hiked enough that doing big miles feels familiar to you. However, as many seasoned thru-hikers have found, this approach can lead to injuries early on in your hike that can be difficult to recover from. You may have felt like a superhuman at the end of your last hike, but you’re probably not one anymore. Resist the urge to start too fast and your body will thank you.

2. Stay Humble and Willing to Learn

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” In this quote from his book on Zen Buddhism, Shunryu Suzuki outlines the concept of Shoshin, or beginner’s mind. At its heart, the concept is simple: if you think and act like you know everything, you leave yourself little room to grow. If, on the other hand, you approach the task at hand as a beginner would, asking questions and looking for new insights, your opportunities for improving—even if you’re already a seasoned pro—will go through the roof.

A music teacher once told me a story about the world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. When asked why he continued to practice his basic scales every day, the master’s answer was simple: “I feel like I’m making progress.” Similarly, listen to the most seasoned hikers speak—take Lint for example, one of a handful of people to have completed the Triple Crown three times—and you will find a common thread running through many of their testimonies: whether they are trying out a new piece of gear, preparing themselves for unfamiliar terrain, or even tackling a trail they’ve already done, they are always looking for new ways to improve their craft. Take their lead, embrace the beginner’s mind, and you will become a better hiker as a result.

3. Remember That No Two Hikes Are the Same

As anyone who has embarked on a thru-hike knows, there is a special feeling that accompanies the beginning of a long journey. It is a feeling of excitement, of wonder, of novelty—I am actually out here doing this! the voice in your head rejoices. This early-hike romance is a powerful source of energy that can carry a beginning thru-hiker through many of the trail’s challenges and discomforts.

When I look back at pictures of myself on the AT, breaking trail through fresh snow that had fallen in the Smokies the night before, I can see that sense of romance written all over my face. In most other contexts, this kind of hiking would have been a miserable slog. But I was only a few hundred miles into a journey I’d been dreaming about for years, and this unexpected obstacle seemed only to heighten my sense of adventure. Instead of dreading the snow, I was actually enjoying it.

For many repeat thru-hikers, however, the emotions that accompany a second journey can be quite different. While a reservoir of experience means that confidence in the backcountry is gained, that sense of starry-eyed romance that beginning thru-hikers often feel might not be present on thru number two, at least not in the same way.

On the eve of my second long-distance hike, I was hesitant—even afraid—when I suddenly realized the sense of romance that had accompanied my early weeks on the AT was no longer present. That romance had been crucial in getting me through many of the trail’s ups and downs. How was I going to fare without it now when things got tough?

I described these reservations to my parents the night before I left for the Colorado Trail. Although my mother has never done a thru-hike, she responded with wisdom of a different kind, and in a way I didn’t expect.

“It makes me think about what it was like to have my second child,” she said…

It was kind of weird, after having your first. Before your first, your entire life is completely wrapped up in the thought of being a parent. It defines you. You spend every waking moment reading all the books, going to all the classes, talking to those who preceded you, getting your gear ready, logistical planning, and just plain mentally composing yourself for it. Everything about it feels like a huge plunge, an enormous adventure. You are consumed by it, for months and months leading up to the big day. And of course, when the time does come, it’s really really hard… but it’s also every bit the transformative, profound adventure you had hoped it would be, and more…

But when you find yourself preparing for your second child, you become consumed by a completely different kind of thought: how will I ever love this second child as much as I loved the first? How can it ever be the same? And the thought terrifies you, for the simple reason that it exists and that you’re thinking it. It totally rocks your world, and shakes every conviction you have about who you are to be having that kind of thought…

Of course, it ultimately isn’t the same experience the second time around, because it can’t be. But it ends up being meaningful in an entirely new set of ways, many of them unexpected. And although it’s different, you love it just as much.

I’ve never had kids, but that seems like pretty solid advice for approaching a second thru-hike. Thanks, Mom.

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Comments 2

  • Dana Green : Mar 6th

    Chase, the article made me feel your love and passion for the outdoors and hiking. Great article!

  • Purge : Mar 11th

    Nice article!

    I’ve been beginning long term prep for a PCT thru hike after hitting AT in ’17 and I’ve wondered how different it will feel the second time around. I am excited to use the experience gained from the first trek, but wary of becoming complacent and facing new challenges. I couldn’t agree more with taking it easy at first, as far as the physical aspect. I have a feeling that I will face an internal mental battle to not push for big(ger) miles at the beginning and will have to force myself to slow down.


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