What are you subjecting yourself to when you decide to go on a thru-hike? The positives are fleeting and the negatives are slow to disappear. Despite some people’s rosy, glorious, and admirable view of thru-hiking, it is not all rainbows and sunny skies. Mental preparation is key, equally as important as physical training. The tips in this post should help you gain the mental toughness needed for properly preparing for a thru hike.

When you tell someone you are going on a thru-hike, questions about bears, crazy people, no showers, food, water, and no cell reception often prevail. However, many of the common concerns are not actually issues. The difference from everyday life is drastic, but manageable. Knowing and acknowledging these differences is the first step to mental preparation. In actuality, it is very difficult to truly know what to expect on your first thru-hike.

4 Tips to Mentally Preparing for a Thru Hike

hiking trailPhoto by AJ Wells

1. Expect a Transition Period

Day 1 will not be easy. The same goes for Day 2, 3 and Day 4. Eventually a routine will begin to take form, which will bring security and familiarity to your day to day life on the trail.

During the first few weeks, sculpt your routine to make your days fun and enjoyable, giving your body time to recover. You are free and flexible. Get used to being unplugged and outside. Enjoy and connect with the surroundings, the friendships, the exercise, and the experience.

As the days progress your body will begin to get used to your routine and long days hiking. Things will begin feeling easier. Personally, Day 1 is the most difficult day mentally, while Day 2 is most physically strenuous. Remember that sleep is your friend and resting well will make your days better.

Mentally Preparing for a Thru HikePhoto by Justin Lichter

2. Expect Emotional Roller Coasters

You often have to trudge through soaking rains and numbingly cold winds. Your shoes and feet can be wet for days on end and at some point you will likely have to pry on cold, wet clothes on a frigid morning. These and other factors like food shortages and long hill climbs can cause an emotional roller coaster

Anticipate this. These roller coasters are the hardest things to mentally prepare for, but remind yourself early and often that thru-hiking is difficult. Expect challenges. Know that fear and boredom can be common during a hike like this. Be ready and open and accepting of whatever comes your way. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

Mentally Preparing for a Thru HikePhoto by Justin Lichter

3. Make Micro-Goals

The trail is an evolving feature. Your goal will likely be to complete the whole trail. To accomplish this, break your hike up into micro-goals, instead of looking at the trail as a whole. Plan your itinerary, calendar, mail drops and bankroll to reflect each micro-goal. Without these smaller goals the distance of the trail can be demoralizing.

When I began my first thru-hike, it seemed like an overwhelming goal to walk the 2,175 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Eventually, I started to divide the trip into smaller segments that coincided with each resupply. I would achieve these micro-goals every week or so, feeling accomplished for completing my objective. Before I knew it, I was halfway through the trail and chipping away at these incremental goals at an even faster clip.

I’ve seen many a hiker feel the weight of the trail in its entirety, the remaining distance overwhelming. This approach leads to negativity, injury, or down the rabbit hole of skipping miles.

eating breakfast in tent on thru hikePhoto by James Barkman

4. Trust The Process

Progress will feel slow and steady, but thru-hiking isn’t an activity for those seeking instant gratification. It is a compilation of days, events, emotional roller coasters, friendships, and natural beauty.

At some point,  you might be overwhelmed or emotionally exhausted. It may be caused by bad weather, cold, or just missing some of today’s modern amenities. A day’s break to clear your mind in a hotel room or hostel can brighten the malaise and reinvigorate. Remember, without these low points, the high points wouldn’t be as rewarding. Without the valleys, there would be no mountains. The clearing after the storm are some of most memorable moments of the journey.

The challenges of a thru-hike are easily outweighed by the value of the experience.  Be expectant of the transition and the emotions.  Trust the process and use micro-goals to accomplish different objectives through your hike. This mental toughness served me well when thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail and The Continental Divide. I know it will do the same for you.

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Updated. Originally Published October 24, 2019.