When most people think of a thru-hike, they focus their imagination on the hiking. Yes, hiking for months at a time is extremely demanding on your body. However, most potential long-distance hikers never realize the hardest part of thru-hiking is the mental struggle of maintaining your sanity pushing through long days. There are just as many mental uphills as there are climbs on the trail. After walking a few of America’s longest trails, we have listed a few tips to remember on long hikes.

climbing on long hikes

1. Hike for You

This is your hike. It is amazing to hike with your significant others, family members and friends, but above all, you have to hike for yourself. At the end of the day, you are the only one who can get yourself to the top of the climb or to the end of the trail. So no matter if you are searching, escaping or just plain walking, make sure you check in with yourself frequently. Make sure you are still hiking for you.

2. Leave Negativity at Home

Physical fitness may help ease the pain of hard miles, but nothing helps boost morale like good ol’ fashioned positivity. Some days will have you cursing at the moon but laughing it off is better than getting angry. Don’t throw your trekking poles off a cliff or at a tree during a hiker tantrum unless you are prepared to manifest more bad luck.

This one should be pretty obvious, but I will mention it because it is really important. There is no room for hate on trail, so leave it at home. Trails contain a spectrum of people. These differences are embraced on trail and absolutely encouraged so keep the judgment to yourself. If you need to, hike faster or slow down to get away from any that you just aren’t meshing with to avoid conflict.

long hikes with a dog

3. Focus on Daily Goals

Mexico to Canada or Georgia to Maine are exciting to say before you start your thru-hike, but as soon as you start hiking the weight of the mileage suddenly sits heavy on your shoulders. If you think of your progress in terms of your end goal, it is easy to become overwhelmed.

Focusing on daily mileage goals helps to alleviate the strain. You can even break it down further with ideal mileage to have before lunch, like the 10 miles before 10 AM strategy. Using food intermittently with your daily goals can also be a huge moral support. I like to space out my snacks and use them as sort of rewards throughout the day. I also like to have a snack for the top of a climb usually this is fruit snacks or even apple sauce. These small games help take your mind off of each mile.

After daily goals, set goals into towns and then goals into new states. Don’t think about the end. It will seem like you never get any closer, plus you will enjoy your time on trail a lot more focusing on the present.

blowing up sleeping pad on long hike

4. Never Quit on a Bad Day

It is far too easy to quit when it’s a bad day. When your body is hurting, the weather is bad or when the trail is just plain tough, it is so easy to be over it all. Honestly, there could be several times that you think to yourself, “why am I out here?” Trust me, stick it out because it gets better. Each day is a new day.

5. Stay Flexible

Stretch. Limber up your mind. For certain people, planning helps ease nerves of the unknown. General planning for a thru-hike is definitely a smart decision. But get ready, because all of those plans will change. On every thru-hike I have done so far, my initial plans changed by day two. Thru-hiking is hard. Stay flexible and opportunistic. The best moments on trail are the unpredictable ones.

having fun on hike

6. Stay in Touch

Just because you are out in the wilderness does not mean you have to lose track of your friends and family. Staying in touch with the ones you love not only lets you put their minds at ease that you are safe, but it also reminds you that someone out there is cheering you on.

Not all hikers feel homesickness, but loneliness is unavoidable. While you are in town doing laundry or walking long miles across town to the post office, give someone off trail a call or have a conversation with someone new in town. For instances of extreme homesickness, have your loved ones send you a voicemail or an audio recording so you can hear the sound of their voice even when you don’t have a cell signal. I love sending postcards to friends, family and even people we met down trail. It reminds me that we may be way out here but we aren’t alone.

7. Find out what makes you happy

Find little triggers that make you happy. This could be a fond memory, a funny story, videos of cute animals, thoughts of hamburgers and pizza, or even making weird sounds out loud (you are in the woods, you can say anything). Whatever this trigger is, think about it every time you are feeling down. Being in the wilderness for months at a time is amazing, but it also gives you a lot of time to think. Maybe there are a lucky few out there that never feel down, but solitude can lead your mind to sad places. Remember that little thing that makes you happy any time you are hurting or feeling down. I once had another hiker walk up on me while I was making robot noises out loud. It ended up making the other hiker just as happy as it made me.

Not all days on the trail are postcard worthy. Allow yourself to feel a range of emotions. Don’t be too hard on yourself when you get your foot stuck in a bog. It’s no secret, when you are outside, the good days will surely outweigh the bad ones.

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Updated. Originally Published January 8, 2020.