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Do you dream about hitting the trail for a long—really long—hike? In Ask a Thru-Hiker, record-setting long-distance hiker Liz “Snorkel” Thomas answers your burning questions about how to do it.
I’m out here on my first thru-hike of the PCT and am finding Northern California to be a challenge–not physically, but mentally. Frankly, I’m finding myself really bored, and I’m having trouble talking about it; after all, this is supposed to be a dream trip. I’ve heard other long distance hikers say that hiking a long trail is more of a mental challenge than a physical challenge. How do you become mentally tough, stay motivated, and embrace the suck?
Sticking With It
Dear Sticking With It,
Just because thru-hikers don’t talk about it doesn’t mean that the trail doesn’t occasionally bore them. It’s common for PCT thru-hikers coming off the high of the High Sierra to feel less motivated in Northern California. A mid-hike slump is so common, in fact, that Appalachian Trail thru-hikers have a name for it: the Virginia Blues, as it hits hikers 500 miles into the trail.
Mid-hike, you’ve learned a lot about how to backpack more efficiently and about yourself. You’ve had time for long conversations with nearly every other thru-hiker around you. While the middle of a trail is scenic, you’ve already walked through what many consider the most scenic parts of the trail. All these thoughts pile up. Minds drift towards music festivals and other ways to spend the summer that don’t involve walking dawn til dusk every day.
But if you set out with the goal of completing the trail in its entirety, the easiest way to get back on track mentally is to introduce some novelty. For many, listening to new music, podcasts, or books (with headphones, of course) is a way to pass the hours and time. For others, it involves wacky challenges with their tramily (trail family). For example, one tramily did a food challenge where hikers committed to eat a single food item for a leg of the Continental Divide Trail between trail towns. Tramilies play word games or storytelling games as they hike, often drawing from childhood road trip games for inspiration. (I Spy, anyone?)
If you’ve been hiking solo, you may enjoy hiking with a new person for a day. Conversation with others can be a satisfying way to re-engage your dulled-by-hiking brain. And while boredom may make you feel like the best thing to do is to push ahead and try to get through, it you may actually be better off if you slow down and take a break for a swim, a side peak, or a fishing trip, all of which can refresh you better than taking a day off in town. Your goal is to figure out ways to form memories different than the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other routine you’ve been living for the last 500-1000 miles. What can you do that is story-worthy? These diversions, conversations, and contests often are the memories that will stay with you the longest.
Another reason hikers lose motivation mid-trail is environmental discomfort. Summer temperatures are hitting their max. Mosquitoes are out. In the East, there is humidity; in the West, wildfires blow smoke. Unlike the snowstorm in the Smoky Mountains or deep river crossings in the Sierra early on your thru-hike, these discomforts lack the kind of epic novelty that make a great story after you finish your hike. They are often persistent, lasting days. The key is to find ways to accept that it’s pushing you without letting it push you over the edge. Even a minor intervention can keep you from losing it.
The right gear can help. Try to get specific about what is bothering you, where on your body it bothers you, and how it bothers you. That will help direct you towards the best way to mostly fix the issue. For example, if mosquitos bother you most when they buzz in your ear while you’re hiking, but you don’t mind that much when mosquitos are by your arms or buzzing near you in camp, a headnet could help. You don’t need to go out and invest in a new wardrobe or tent. Focus on what bothers you the most and make it 10% better.
Similarly, changing the timing of when you hike can help. Sure, you may feel like you will never make it to Canada if you only hike at night when bugs aren’t out, but you’ll definitely never make it to Maine or Canada if you hate the bugs so much that you quit the trail. Plus, the novelty of night hiking–even for a few days–can break up the tedium.
If these tricks aren’t working, consider taking a few days off in town. It’s possible negative emotions spring from a body and mind that are exhausted from hiking. A few days of rest and recuperation can do wonders. Sitting in a dumpy hotel watching bad TV often reminds hikers how much better life on trail is.
Attitude is important, too. If you remember discomfort is worth it because it’s going to get you to Canada, that can toughen your brain. On the Appalachian Trail, hikers say, “No pain, no gain, no Canada.” It’s a crude motto, but gets to the heart of it: What makes your thru-hike meaningful is that you were willing to put up with rain, mosquitoes, intense heat, hunger, and blisters to get there.