The trials of the trail: Mental Preparation

This is the tiny shelter near the summit of Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Yeah, it's not much.
This is the tiny shelter near the summit of Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Yeah, it’s not much.

To put it mildly, hiking the Appalachian Trail is difficult. It’s long, almost 2,220 miles. You will be hot, wet, cold, dehydrated, hungry, worn out and dirty. You may also be bored since you will spend hours each day simply putting one foot in front of the other which carrying a heavy pack. Quitting is always an option. According to Walking the Appalachian Trail by Larry Luxenberg, less than 30% of those who start ever finish.

As someone who is preparing to face the challenge next year I’ve been preparing myself physically with long walks, overnight hikes and hours on my treadmill at the steepest incline. I’ve meticulously weighed gear, read hundreds of reviews of hiking equipment and (virtually) sat at the feet of past thru hikers seeking knowledge.

But as I’ve said before, this trail is less about physical prowess and backwoods knowledge than it is about persistence. My friend Skittles–Triple Crown Thru hiker of the AT (twice!), CDT and PCT—always said that the key to finishing is wanting to be on the trail more than you want to be somewhere else.

So how do you prepare mentally?

AppTrials-YellowI ran across an easy read recently that is the only book I’ve found that focuses on the mental aspects of long distance hiking. Appalachian Trials (notice it’s Trials not Trails) by Zach Davis is deceptive in its simplicity. If you just read it, I don’t know how much you’ll get out of it. Do All the Exercises if you want to internalize the information. Zach published the book himself and while there are typos and spelling errors (Hey, I edit training materials for a living. They jump out at me, at least in someone else’s writing!), these are easy to ignore if you are interested in the subject. His target audience is clearly the young (which I am not) but the practical exercises work for those with experience or complete novices.

The most important exercises have you answer these questions:

1) Why are you hiking?

2) What will you achieve or receive from hiking the AT?

3) What are the consequences to quitting?

If you can’t answer each of these questions in the privacy of your own home from a warm dry couch, how will you ever be able to answer them after the third day of cold, wet weather along the trail? When you want to quit, when you are feeling low, you can refer to the list as a reminder.

Here are my answers:

I am hiking the AT:

  • To evaluate my life.
  • To restore my faith in the basic goodness of people, something that always happens when I hike.
  • Because I want an adventure.
  • Life is short. I want to do something awesome while my knees and health are still good.
  • I’ve been dreaming about this since I was 12, and I cannot keep putting it off. I tell others to follow their dream and I need to as well.
  • I want to stop having the boring, predictable life that everyone else has.
  • I want to be in better physical shape.
  • I want to learn how to live simply, with less stuff, having more experiences and fewer things.
  • I want a great story to tell.
  • I will experience Trail Magic.
  • I need to get out of the cube farm.
  • If I keep spending hours each week stuck in ATL traffic I will go postal.

Appalachina trail at Springer Mountain1When I have successfully thru-hiked the AT I will:

  • Have unshakeable confidence in myself and my abilities.
  • Have the story of a lifetime.
  • See life (particularly challenges and troubles) in a new light.
  • Have overcome the largest physical and mental challenge of my life.
  • Use this experience to launch a new, adventurous life as a professional vagabond and travel writer.
  • Have a jump start on the second half of my life.

If I give up on the AT, I will:

  • Be giving up on myself and settling for less of a life.
  • Not be the person I believe myself to be.
  • Feel like I let myself down.

I’m going to read these at least once a week from now until I finish the trail.


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I'm a professional vagabond. I quit my cubical job in January 2014. Since then, I've hiked the Appalachian Trail, The Camino, and taught English in Vietnam, Turkey, Russia, Spain, Mexico and Peru. I'm exploring the world and you can come too!

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