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Ask a Thru-Hiker: How Can I Get Over My Self-Doubt?

Thru-hiking a long trail is hard enough without constantly second-guessing yourself along the way. Our writer shares her strategies for banishing worries before and during your hike.

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This is Ask a Thru-Hiker, where record-setting long-distance hiker Liz “Snorkel” Thomas answers your questions about life on the trail. 

Dear Snorkel,

I’ve dreamed of hiking a long trail since I was a kid, and now I finally have the money and the time to do it. The problem is, I keep catching myself wondering if I can really manage it. How do you deal with self-doubt before and during a thru-hike?

Ready to Relax

Dear Ready,

There’s no bigger killer of long trail dreams than self-doubt. But it’s not all bad: Sometimes, it can be a reminder to put the extra work to make ourselves safer and stronger in the backcountry. But just like thru-hiking, tackling self-doubt is a lot easier when you have a roadmap to help you move through it. Here are some tips that have worked for me.

Learn to recognize self-doubt, and disrupt it.

When you catch yourself second-guessing your abilities, don’t pretend it’s not happening. Instead, try to figure out what’s triggering it. Are you worried about fitness, mental preparation, or something else entirely? As an added benefit, turning on the analytical part of the brain will disrupt your thought patterns, so you don’t dig yourself into an emotional hole. On trail, I’ve found myself nursing my doubts for hours at a time—not a pleasant way to pass the miles. It’s only by recognizing that downward spiral that I’ve been able to stop it.

Find a way forward.

Try this exercise: Draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper, dividing it into two columns. Label the first one “My Fears,” and use it to write down your worries. Label the second “What Would Fix This?” and use it to figure out what would help you feel like you could overcome each concern. Is it doing more research? Is it doing an informational interview with someone who has thru-hiked? Is it taking a class or attending a gear clinic? Settle on a solution, and then do it.

While reflecting like this is easier before you’ve started a trail, it has its place once you’ve started hiking, too. Maybe the solution for one of your problems is walking with a more experienced new friend and asking them questions along the way. If you’re struggling with writing down what is bothering you (or if you’re on trail and writing stuff down is cumbersome), discuss it with another person. Sometimes, having someone else’s perspective can make it easier to parse out fears and their solutions.

Take small steps.

A thru-hike can seem like an insurmountable challenge when you look at it as a whole. Instead, come up with a day-by-day plan that will help you get closer to your goal. For example, if your gear knowledge is shaky, set aside 15 minutes each day to research a different category of equipment that you’ll need. If you find yourself worrying that you won’t finish the trail before winter, consider waking up 30 minutes earlier every day to help you increase your mileage.

Don’t compare yourself to others.

There are a lot of incredible thru-hikers out there, and if you, a first-timer, are holding them up as the standard you have to meet, it’s easy to get stressed out. But remember: Even the crustiest trail bums started as beginners. Chances are they’ll happily share what they’ve learned with others because they want you to be successful too.

Even after all the time I’ve spent on the trail, I occasionally beat myself up about not being as fast as some hikers or carrying a heavier pack than others. To cope, I set goals for how I want to experience my hike. Do I really want to hike as fast as I can? If I didn’t explicitly set that as a goal before I went, it’s a lot easier to relax and enjoy the scenery.

Happy hiking,

Snorkel