Appalachian Trail Thru Hike Preparation
There is a saying about many athletic ventures that it's 90% mental. Although the percentage may not be that extreme, I would agree that mental fortitude is a huge part of backpacking that often gets overlooked. Regardless of how long the trip is, or how many people are on the hike, there is a mental component to hiking that can often times be more challenging to master than the physical. As an experienced long distance solo backpacker, I am often asked what makes the difference in people who attempt long trails and those who complete them. My answer is always MENTAL. There reaches a point in hikes where the physical becomes automatic and what remains is the mental. There are constant nuances and adjustments being made mentally while hiking. Here are the strategies and techniques I've used for navigating the mental trail along with some images from my recent thru hike of the Appalachian Trail.
A foggy morning in the Great Smokey Mountains.
Train Mentally Before the Hike
Just like physical training, there should be a mental aspect to training for a long distance hike. If possible, try to train in similar terrain that you anticipate hiking in or conditions that you will find challenging. Take it seriously and force yourself into the challenging situations. If you know you'll be encountering uncomfortable weather make an effort to do a test run in less ideal weather. It isn't always fun, but it will help for when the real situation presents itself. This isn't always possible, so at least think mentally about how you'd handle various conditions mentally when faced with them. Although many anticipate hiking with a partner, be sure to give yourself time in training to hike in your own head and spread out for extended periods of time. Even when you're with other people on a long trip, there will be a lot of time spent on your own and in your own head. Experiencing it before the hike will allow you to get more comfortable with being in your own mind and finding personal motivators.
Jane Bald, North Carolina.
Remind Yourself Why You're Out There
Everyone has their own reasons for being out on trail and what drives them to leave the comforts of home, family, and friends for extended periods of time. There will definitely be times when the pull to leave the trail will be greater than that to stay. Do what you can to remember why you're out there during those times. There are many hikers that leave and quickly regret the decision they made in a fog of negative thoughts. Some hikers make an actual list before they leave to remind themselves when the going gets tough because those reasons will be far from your mind when you've crossed over to the dark side. However you choose to do it, make at conscious effort to recall that longing for the trail and what it represents for you.
The James River foot bridge is the longest foot traffic only bridge on the AT.
There Will Be Ups and Downs
Like many endurance activities, long distance hiking is not always enjoyable the whole time you're doing it. Learning to ride the wave and endure the literal and figurative storms is a huge part of hiking. One thing that makes hiking so incredible is the unpredictable feeling of euphoria one feels from time to time. It may last hours or mere seconds, but it makes all the challenges worth facing. In fact, it's the most difficult challenges and lows in between that make those highs that much sweeter. The key is to recognize this during those difficult moments and tell yourself that you may be in a down, but it is temporary and an up is sure to come to make it all worth it.
The lush green of Shenandoah National Park.
Living outside for days, weeks, or months at a time will be a shock and adjustment to the body and mind. You will be away from your usual comforts and unable to escape most hurdles put in front of you. There will be little options to avoid difficulties and facing things head on will become routine. I've adopted a mental note that I'm sure to tell myself when I realize that I'm in a long term challenge or discomfort. I tell myself, "It's the new normal." It's amazing how realizing something and shifting the way you view it can greatly change the perspective. For example, when hiking in the desert, the heat is intense, feet are burning, and thirst is strong. Instead of dwelling on these things, I try to accept it as a new normal and move on from there. I'm in the desert so what was I expecting anyway, shade and lakes?
Putting the umbrella to use in exposed farmland on the way into Boiling Springs, PA.
There Will Be Discomfort
A large chunk of hiking may be mental, but it only takes one physical discomfort to take you out of the mental game. Hiking all day is inherently going to be uncomfortable at some point, if not much of the day. Expect to be tired, sore, hungry, thirsty, hot, cold, or whatever other feeling you could have that will make you dream of lying down in a big soft bed. The discomforts don't really change, so it's best to accept them as the "new normal" and go from there. It's amazing how accepting the discomfort can, in itself, dispel much of it.
Some lush green in the Cumberland Valley, PA.
Slippery Slope of the Downward Spiral
Negative thoughts tend to bring on more negative thoughts, so they can pile up quickly. I refer to it as the downward spiral and try to be on guard to stop it before it goes too far. It's a slippery slope and it can happen suddenly. Climbing back out of a negative swarm of thoughts or emotions can take exponentially more time and energy than it took to slip down that slope. It's natural and healthy to acknowledge discomforts and challenges, but dwelling on them to the point that they consume your every thought is to be avoided. Just be alert to your cycle of thoughts and if you find yourself repeatedly ending in that darkness, try to trace it back to the root and find out where you can redirect to a more positive outcome. I know, much easier said than done, but after repeated efforts and enough time, it does get better.
Thankful for an umbrella in a downpour in Pennsylvania.
Some Days Will Just Suck
In the end, there will be some days that are just miserable and quite frankly, suck. It's part of backpacking and part of life in general. There will be elements that are out of your control and the only thing you can control is how you choose to react to it. I'm not saying you need to dance and sing in a cold rain, but it does no good to anyone to get upset or negative. It is what it is and getting upset won't change it. It very much helps to be prepared for rain as a skill set; before your big adventure. Again, it's these moments and days that will make the good ones that much greater and more rewarding. If it wasn't a challenge, everyone would do it!
Hiking over Saddleback Mtn, ME. Photo credit: Rita "Jett Cat" Borelli.
Have A Sense of Humor
Just with anything in life, being able to laugh at yourself and situations always helps. Keep it all in perspective as sometimes realizing the ridiculousness of a situation, can give you the perspective you need to view it more enjoyably.
Positive Self Talk
I know this seems a little too "self help" but it's amazing what positive self talk can do. You will be alone a lot out there, so feel free to have a conversation with yourself. It can be internal, but funny enough, I find it more helpful to be out loud. Get pumped! Play the Rocky theme song as you do it if you need to. Don't be afraid to tell yourself how awesome you are and that you are strong and kickass! Remind yourself of how far you've already come and how few even dream of being where you are. I personally like telling myself sarcastically that pain is weakness leaving the body and that I'm getting SUPER STRONG! Whatever it is that gets you psyched and pumped to keep going, give yourself that pep talk when needed and power on!!!
An unexpected benefit of journaling is the perspective it can give you when you take the time to reflect on your day. I often start a journal out with "well today was miserable" or "nothing really happened today" and then as I write, it unexpectedly evolves into something else. Writing things down also makes thoughts more concrete. Things that may have seemed like a big deal earlier in the day may end up seeming not so bad once they're written down. Journaling helps me to realize that each day is unique and no two days are the same out on the trail. In a general sense, they can all run together and be a blur of the same, but by dissecting each day as they happen, you're better able to appreciate the nuances and uniqueness each day holds. There's power in writing things down. Regardless of how often you do it or who may see it, journaling can be one of the most beneficial things you can do to improve your hiking experience.
Love the fog!
Although photography is a physical act, it is amazing what it can do to your hike on a mental level. Consciously making efforts to photograph all aspects of the hike (not just the scenic vistas) will help you to appreciate the most mundane things and really magnify what you see. This perspective will change the way you view your surroundings and you'll begin to see inspiration and beauty in the most unexpected places. Looking back on your photos from time to time will also help, just as journaling does, to reflect on a day and have a greater appreciation for the nature you've hiked through.
Pay Attention to the Little Things
When boredom hits, it can make each minute seem like an eternity. A great way to make the mundane more exciting can be to really focus in on the details of what you're walking through. Paying attention to each individual plant, noticing the variances in trees, or listening and looking for different types of birds are just some of the ways to hone in on the little things and really appreciate how much is going on around you. When you've been out for a long time, it can be easy to take it for granted, or overlook the subtle nuances, so it's always good to remind yourself from time to time to open your eyes are really see the world of things around you.
Katahdin casts a shadow on the memorable final day in Maine. Photo credit: Alex "Trademark" Weiss.
Goals & Rewards
One of the most effective and motivating techniques I've used is finding small goals or rewards on a long hike. I like to challenge myself some days or moments and I'll play games with myself to see what I can do. How many miles can I get in before 10am? Can I wake up early for a sunrise or make it to a further site to camp at a great spot for a sunset? How fast can I reach a summit? Setting mini goals like these that are challenging yet attainable are amazingly motivating. I also set up rewards. Little things like carrying Starbursts that I get at the top of a climb, or holding off on a favorite song until I've gone a certain distance or time, or taking an extra break at a well earned vista or lake. Another fun one is to find a "rabbit" (another hiker ahead of you). I like to go "rabbit hunting." It's fun when I see a fresh footprint on the ground and am able to catch up and match that footprint to a person. This can take minutes, hours, or days and the fun is in the anticipation. The reward is meeting someone new and having the further distraction of overlapping with someone for awhile.
If it ain't workin', fix it! It's plain and simple, but so integral to keeping a good mental balance. Changing things up and keeping things fresh can be key to anything in life. Some people need more variety than others, but don't be afraid to change things up if it's not working. There are many ways to do this on a hike, so do what helps in your situation. Sleep in, hike in the dark, hike with people, hike alone, eat different food, wake up for a sunrise, listen to music, take more or less breaks… you get the point. Do what you can to make each day new and unique. Some hikers are quite tied to a routine on the trail, but sometimes changing just the smallest thing can make all the difference. Don't be afraid to change things up a bit.
Summit of Katahdin after 111 days and 2,185mi.
When all else fails, use distraction techniques. My top two are listening to music/audiobooks and making a phone call. I know many of you will cringe at this and think that it is the antithesis of being in nature, but it totally works! This may not work for everyone, and there are other distractions, but it's amazing how motivating it can be to hear music on a tough climb or talk to someone during a rough patch. Even just a brief distraction can be enough to break you out of a slump or boost spirits. Plan ahead for this and think about what distractions best help you in rough patches. Have them in your arsenal for when you find the need.
I hope you find these techniques and strategies helpful and I'm interested to hear any others you have found for navigating the mental trail.
This post was written by Brand Ambassador Erin Wired Saver and Editor.