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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.