Is Thru-Hiking Really 90 Percent Mental?

This is one of those statements that you hear all the time in the US long distance hiking community. Indeed, it has been repeated so often in articles, online forums and books, that it is seems to be accepted as gospel by many, if not most thru-hikers.

Final sunrise | Pacific Crest Trail, 2012.

The thing is, I’ve never believed it was true. Not even close. Indeed, I equate the “90% mental” theory to some of those other backpacking myths, like needing leather boots to go hiking and sleeping warmer if you are naked.

In my experience, the mental challenge of thru-hiking, though undeniably important, varies greatly from individual to individual and from hike to hike. To say it’s 90 percent (or even 80 percent for that matter) across the board simply isn’t accurate. The ratio of psychological to physical depends on two principal factors: 1. A hiker’s experience level in relation to the environment/s into which he or she is venturing, and; 2. The extent to which the said hiker enjoys/loves being out in the wilderness “unconditionally.”

Experience

In a nutshell, the more field experience you have, the less of a mental challenge thru-hiking will likely be. Before a long distance hike, you can scour online forums, read motivational books, do backpacking courses, gear shakedowns and read scores of hiking journals, but in the big picture none of it counts for squat if you don’t like spending time in the woods.

And how do you know if you will enjoy spending five continuous months hiking and camping?

No drum roll. Before setting out, simply spend as much time as you can backpacking in different conditions. Overnighters, long weekends, week long excursions; whatever you can manage. Obviously this doesn’t guarantee you will finish your thru-hike, however it does improve your chances of achieving your goal, and more importantly having a good time in the process.     

July 2, 2011 | Cape Alava, Olympic Coast, WA | The beginning of the Pacific Northwest Trail and the 12 Long Walks (i.e. 14,300 plus miles over 18 months).

Let’s breakdown “experience” into three sub-categories: 1. Preparation; 2. Goals, and; 3. Pack Weight.

1. Preparation  – Over the years I’ve found that if you have done the hard yards on the preparation front, you don’t spend much time doubting, questioning or worrying, simply because you know what needs to be done in any given circumstance. Whether it be a snowbound pass, a waterless desert or a fast moving river, if you possess the skill set, fitness and right equipment for the challenge at hand, these “obstacles” are usually more fun than worrisome.

2. Goals – “Hiking your own hike” is a lot easier to do if you know what your own hike actually is. Do you prefer spending more time on trail or in camp? Are you an early or late starter? Do you generally like hiking alone or with others? The more hours you have logged in the woods before a thru-hike, the greater the possibility you’ll be able to tailor your experience accordingly (e.g. choice of hike, direction, season, partner, etc). Whilst it is definitely possible to work all this stuff out along the way, your cause will be aided considerably if you have at least some idea coming out of the gate.

Think of it like a relationship with Mother Nature. The more dates you go on beforehand, the better the odds that things will work out well when you eventually tie the knot (i.e. thru hiking).  

3.  Pack Weight – This one can go either way. In theory, beginning your thru-hike with a lighter pack helps to free your mind, because it allows you to focus more on the wonders of your surroundings and less on the burden of a heavy load. 

However, there’s a significant caveat in regards to this point. In this day and age of hiking apps, online forums, social media and declining skill sets, increasingly more ultralight hikers have a greater level of theoretical knowledge than they do practical experience. This can potentially be problematic out in the field, when hikers are faced with unpredictable conditions for which they are ill-equipped – both in regards to gear and skills – to manage.

I have long been a believer that going light in the woods should ideally be a gradual process, which parallels the improvement of a hiker’s backcountry skill set (e.g. using a small, ultralight tarp in alpine conditions). Before a thru-hike, by all means dial in your gear list as much as you can. However, don’t forget to balance theoretical research with time spent in the field. Find out what does and doesn’t work for you. Remember that gear is nothing more than a means to an end. And that end is to have the safest, most enjoyable experience you possibly can whilst out in the wilderness.

Cottonwood Peak | Sangre de Cristo Traverse, CO, 2016.

Unconditional Enjoyment

When you unconditionally enjoy backpacking, the inevitable challenges that one encounters during a thru-hike – boredom, loneliness, physical discomfort, dodgy weather – are usually blips rather than potential reasons to quit your hike. In fact I’ll go one step further, and say that the hardships are more like stepping stones rather than stumbling blocks. Why? Because when you enjoy something unconditionally – what the hey, let’s call it love – you are in for the long haul. The “novelty” doesn’t wear off after a few weeks or a couple of months. As a result, you are always looking to improve and grow as a hiker. When shit happens, you accept it, learn what you can from it and get on with things. Just like in a healthy long term relationship or friendship. 

Do you see what I’m getting at? The more time you spend in the woods, the greater your connection to the natural world becomes. Slowly but surely you make the transition from stranger to guest to partner. And in so doing, potentially spending months hiking and camping becomes less of a psychological challenge, and more of a confirmation or a celebration.

October 19, 2011 | Mount Katahdin, ME | Finish of the International Appalachian Trail; the 4th hike of the 12 Long Walks series.

 

 

 


Comments

Is Thru-Hiking Really 90 Percent Mental? — 21 Comments

  1. I agree with you–the number seems quite arbitrary. Another factor, which is relevant to me, is how age can affect the process. No matter how much training I do, or might do, there is no way that my husband or I (80 and 75) can develop or maintain the strength and stamina of younger hikers. Similarly, there are people of all ages with physical conditions that limit their abilities.
    Honestly, I have never considered myself one who “unconditionally” loves backpacking, but I am with you when you say that [one is] always looking to improve and grow as a hiker. When shit happens, you accept it, learn what you can from it and get on with things. Just like in a healthy long term relationship or friendship.” Enjoyed reading your perspective!

  2. So true. I think many HIKERS don’t enjoy the simple act of walking all that much. Easier to tinker with an excel spreadsheet or similar rather than be out there for sheer enjoyment when it is a hike as opposed to an #EPIC journey. 🙂

  3. Unconditional love. Even when I’m on a long distance trail I don’t particularly like I will always come back to long distance hiking. (Just finished the Florida Trail today, and while we won’t repeat this one, we are looking forward to the next one).

  4. So well written and so true, tonight my Mom asked me over dinner, “what drives you and what inspires you to do all these hikes?”

    “I love being outside and seeing the world at human speed” was my response.

    I love being outside it’s the physical strain and pain that are the real challenge for me, I want to be out there so I agree the mental part is easy

  5. I think it can also get to a point where it doesn’t matter what your mental state is, the physical can take over. I recently did the Bibbulmun Track, and got significant tendonitis in my feet. And while, yes, my mental ‘toughness’ got me to the end although my feet hurt every. single. step., had I been doing the PCT or similar I would have had to stop well before finishing due to too much deterioration physically! And what’s the point in having such a ‘strong’ mental state that you push your body so hard that you break it, taking months (or years!) to fix it and keep hiking?

  6. These are some GREAT insights! I am more of a day-hiker, but my daughter is planning to do the PCT. I will definitely pass this one on to her. You write so well!

    Generally speaking, people do indeed develop a connection with the place they spend the most time, whether it be the couch, the trails, the bar, or the gym, etc. Some (not all) of those connections require that we push through some of the initial discomfort – eventually some of that “discomfort” becomes part of the experience.

  7. Thank you for challenging that perception, and addressing the areas which most frequently cause a lack of unconditional enjoyment. I continue to be amazed at the folks who choose a long trail as their first hike and backpack experience.

    For me, the mental piece plays a role. How much seems to be dependent on physical, navigational, and weather challenges. Traveling by foot and living in nature is my happy spot. Waking to aviary sonnets, watching the sun greet the day and dry the morning dew, walk in wonder of what’s around the next corner and over the next hill, finding unspoiled views that take my breath away, marveling all the while that this is my life.

    I’ll never be one who turns a hike into a dreaded job. If I’m not having fun and finding that unconditional love, then I choose to move on to another trail.

    I think the mental challenge for some is really an emotional challenge. I hear many talk about not being comfortable in their own head. I’m thankful I’ve never been one of those.

    Thanks again for this well written, timely article. I hope the newbies will give it a read and plentiful thought.

  8. Love the article, and agree with all your points. Love the website. Congrats on your hikes and thanks for the wonderful journals and thoughtful posts.

    The thing is, I come back to the unconditional love of hiking, the desire to keep progressing in my skills, learning from mistakes and set-backs, and seeing the hard points as stepping stones as the 90% mental part. I’ve just been infected, and have met so many others equally touched by hiking: “Bob”, 80 years old backpacking alone near Duck Lake or the two 70+ ladies backpacking across the glacier on Old Snowy near Goat Rocks, and countless others I’ve had the fortune to meet.

    If you take on more than you’re ready for, it sure does get disheartening fast. But that’s like any challenge. With dedication and a respect for the beauty and wild nature of it all, the hard parts just melt away.

    Thanks again for the great post.

  9. I through hiked the AT NOBO last year. I was 65 years old when I started. I had had plenty of hiking and backpacking experience so I didn’t have any problem with gear,shoes etc. What I found most helpful was to befriend and hike with a group of younger people. Not only did they set a challenging pace, but I found that mentally (and therefore physically), hanging around them, I just felt much younger until I finally just forgot that I was too old to hike fast.

    • High Life:
      I’m 64 and leaving March 11th for a thru hike NOBO. Not experienced since scouts but pretty decent shape and want this accomplishment bad! Can you give me any addition advice to be tough and endure this hike? Heels still hurt when I hike 8-12 miles! How can I stop that? Thank you for any help you can offer! Thank you for sharing!!!!
      Fletch

      • Hey Ken,

        That’s a tough question to answer. Everyone’s different. In regards to your heel pain, if the discomfort is serious, you might consider getting checked out by a podiatrist.

        As for your thru-hike, it sounds like you should start slowly (e.g. 8-10 miles a day) and build up gradually from there. Consider taking a rest (zero) day every week for the first six to eight weeks. Your body needs time to adjust to the physical demands of thru-hiking, and taking “recovery” days can definitely help.

        Best of luck on the AT!

        Cheers,

        Cam

  10. Gee, if hiking is 90% mental, what do I need all this gear for?

    All kidding aside, without the preparation of time and experiences in the woods and research at home before I hit the trail, I wouldn’t make it very far. Knowing myself and knowing my limits keeps me safe. Hiking my own hike means that I know I will make it despite my unusual choice of footwear. I may be slow, but I am out there hiking.

    I walk every day because my dog and I love to be out in the world. Some moments I am in love with the world out there, and other moments I wonder why I am out there in the first place. The mental part keeps me heading out again for a break from what passes for reality.

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