What To Expect When You’re Expecting (Too Much From Your Thru-Hike)
Thru-hiking is about more than just walking. It’s the adventure of a lifetime. It’s a lifestyle of absolute freedom. It’s pure bliss. It’s unfettered communion with the natural world. It’s a journey of personal growth, self-realization, and healing.
Ask any veteran thru-hiker, and they’ll likely agree.
There is no shortage of heartfelt accounts, emotional memoirs, gorgeous photos, and beautifully filmed trail documentaries from hikers telling the story of how their adventure was the happiest they’ve ever been, the strongest they’ve ever felt, or the most meaningful chapter of their life. Perhaps they lost weight, healed trauma, cured their depression, fell in love, or found God.
But as inspiring as these stories may be, I promise you this: heavier than your pack and more painful than blisters is the prospect of hiking under the weight of what you think your thru-hike should be.
Three weeks into my Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike, I found myself very confused.
The hiking—well, it was just hiking. Not a meticulously color-graded film reel set to indie folk music. My backpack was far too heavy for any on-trail frolicking, and my mind was too preoccupied with hunger and foot pain for introspection. Other thru-hiking experiences that I had assumed would be virtually guaranteed, like a trail family, trail magic, or even a trail name, hadn’t even come close to happening.
I went days without seeing anyone, and the few encounters I had with others were brief. At major PCT landmarks like Mom’s Pies in Julian or the Cajon Pass McDonald’s, where I expected to see scores of hikers hanging out, I instead found myself alone more often than not.
Where were the conga lines of tramilies? Where was that magical feeling of hiking to a Lord Huron song? Were my feet supposed to hurt this much?
I started to question when exactly the real PCT experience would begin.
Years before starting the trail, I would have told you that this is what I expected a PCT thru-hike to be like—a solitary walk through the wilderness. But in the months leading up to my adventure, amidst obsessive planning, I fell down a rabbit hole into the world of trail videos, social media, and memoirs from past hikers.
The creativity of thru-hikers is a beautiful thing.
The art and media that comes out of this community is incredibly moving and can inspire us to take on the journey for ourselves and help past hikers process and reflect on their own experience. But reality, as many of us are well aware, is not what we see on social media.
Time and nostalgia do funny things to our memory and the stories we tell. It’s usually the novel, happy, and beautiful moments that most inspire us to hit record or jot down in our journals at night. Looking back on our photos and stories, it can seem like we were never alone or that every minute of the trail was bathed in wildflowers and golden-hour light.
Even if a hard moment is shared for vulnerability or comedic effect, it rarely captures the reality of difficult times that can go on for days or longer on a thru-hike.
My reality was that I had found myself stuck between hiking bubbles, in May, in a year where only half the normal number of permits were allotted. My reality had collided with my expectations. Instead of accepting my trail experience for what it was, enjoying the rare beauty of solitude, and being open to what might come, I had chosen to compare it with the highlight reels of others.
I was waiting for my expectations to come to fruition rather than exploring what was. It wasn’t until I let go of the experience I thought I should be having that it became the experience I actually needed.
Expectations are a tricky thing. On the one hand, they are the backbone of planning. You should have an idea of what to expect when it comes to weather, resupply, and navigation on your hike. These expectations help us make sound choices about the trail ahead.
But at their worst, expectations are at the root of many of our disappointments and resentments. When reality fails to live up to our ideals or doesn’t deliver on the outcomes we promised ourselves, the dream begins to fade.
And reality almost always has a way of defying expectations.
Expectations are a product of the stories we let in to shape our assumptions and worldviews. Many of our loved ones have no doubt let in stories of bear attacks and serial killers on trail and, well-meaning but anxious, are quick to share their mental image of our short-lived and tragic thru-hikes.
As the dreamers, we tend to let in the opposite. We happily open ourselves up to someone else’s carefully polished and curated view of their experience and let those narratives shape our expectations.
Stories of danger and idealism both have their place in helping prepare and inspire us, but you’ll be in for a rude awakening if you let them solidify.
Wherever You Go, There You Are
There’s a long history in adventure and wilderness literature about the healing and transformative nature of the outdoors, and I’m not here to dispute it. As an experiential educator who has led outdoor and international trips for years, I have witnessed and experienced firsthand the confidence and personal growth that comes from challenging yourself and stepping outside your comfort zone.
Actively pursuing self-growth, change, and healing is an empowering and crucial step to becoming a better you. A thru-hike is an adventure like no other, and any past hiker will tell you that improved self-esteem, strengthened resolve, and well-toned calf muscles are some of the trail’s greatest gifts.
But spending a few months in the woods is, unfortunately, not a substitute for professional therapy and long-term treatment.
Daily exercise, time in nature, and cultivating mindfulness in the present moment are excellent self-care practices. Creating distance from your home context, career troubles, and past relationships can also alleviate many situational stressors in your life. But after your hike—while stronger, accomplished, and overly tanned you may be—you will still, in some form or another, be returning to the life you left behind.
Post-trail depression is a well-known issue in the thru-hiking community, and it’s more commonly experienced than not.
For those who come to the trail seeking escape, healing, or irrevocable transformation and fall short of their lofty goals, the compounding effects can be devastating.
READ NEXT – Post Trail Depression: It’s Not What You Think
Figuring It Out
Sitting on a hotel floor in Tehachapi sorting through resupplies, a hiker friend of mine spoke up and asked why we had all decided to hike the PCT. After a few rounds of answers, she revealed her own reason:
“I’m hiking to figure out what I want to do with my life.”
Another hiker, fresh off the Appalachian Trail the year before, giggled and said, “That’s not going to happen!”
“Why?” the first hiker asked, taken aback.
“Because you’ll be too busy!”
“Nothing!” she replied. “I thought I would get so much thinking done on my first hike and figure out what I wanted to do with my life, but the only thing I really figured out was that I wanted to hike another trail. It’s all-consuming.”
She wasn’t joking. Thru-hiking drags you completely into the present. Many aspiring hikers say they’re afraid of the amount of time they believe they will have each day alone with their thoughts, while many seasoned thru-hikers will tell you it’s one of the few times they can actually escape them.
Throughout the day, your thoughts are mostly filled with an awareness of your body, your breath, your hunger, your energy, and the immediate world around you. Most of the “figuring out” you end up doing on trail is figuring out where to place each foot, where to get water, when to eat, and where to camp. At camp, you pitch a tent, cook dinner, and almost immediately fall asleep. The next day, you wake up and do it again.
The purpose driving your hike—your “why”—is a powerful tool that can motivate you to persist through tough times. My friend’s purpose, her desire to figure out what she wants to do with her life, was obviously not a bad goal to have.
But what if, as the more seasoned hiker predicted, the trail could not play oracle to life’s big questions? She was setting herself up to fail at her reason for hiking, even if she succeeded in finishing the trail.
In short, be wary of letting one lofty goal define your entire hike. Beyond the initial motives and reasons behind your adventure, the act of hiking itself must be fulfilling enough to continue when your expectations cannot be realized.
The Trail Provides
If there’s one expectation you can rely on while thru-hiking, it’s that “The Trail Provides.”
It’s an age-old hiking cliche, but what makes the statement so eternally true is that it doesn’t exactly specify what the trail provides. As long as you are on it, the trail will, most definitely, provide you with something.
Sometimes the trail will meet or exceed your expectations. And sometimes it will feel like a rug being pulled out from under your feet, or your dreams dashed against the nearest rock.
You could be days away from the Northern Terminus when a blizzard dumps an impassable amount of snow or have hundreds of miles of trail shut down due to wildfires. No one goes into their hike hoping these things will happen, but in nature, no path or experience is guaranteed.
Not only is seeking control over the uncontrollable an impossible expectation, but it can also blind you to the possibilities that are right in front of you. If you’re fixated on making your thru-hike fit the cookie cutter of someone else’s experience, you can miss opportunities to improve a bad situation or see a setback in a new, more meaningful light.
Your path ahead will be as painful as your attachment to your expectations and plans. Your mindset toward the experience you get is the only guaranteed control you have in life.
All’s Well That Ends Well
Ask me about my thru-hike and I will tell you about lessons learned and how I loved every minute of it—despite how much I struggled, at the start, with my own expectations.
And year after year, hikers will continue to share stories of how the trail changed their life, gave them clarity and healing, and was the happiest they’ve ever been. It’s difficult not to have the same expectations for your own hike.
But the secret is that it’s true: a thru-hike really is more than just a hike.
It’s one very long lesson in letting go of what you expect the experience to be, feel like, or do for you. Because the trail challenges those expectations at every turn.
When you finally let go of your expectations and accept the hike for what it is, you’ll uncover another secret. This presence of mind is the source of the freedom, happiness, growth, healing, and clarity thru-hikers often talk about.
These gifts come from opening yourself up to the whole range of experiences life will send your way. They come from learning how to stop straining for what you want the experience to be and accepting what it is—and, in the face of adversity, still hiking onward.
Learn to let go, and the path ahead—both on trail and off—will be yours to forge, again and again, regardless of the hand you’re dealt.
When you expect nothing of the trail, you can truly expect anything.
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