Notice I didn’t say, “thru-hike”? That is because I haven’t spent months on a trail and so I can’t speak to being away from home for a duration longer than two weeks. What I do have is experience with trying to keep up with a faster partner, mom-guilt, and pushing through day after day of hiking tough terrain. Here are a few of my recommendations for a successful multi-day hike.
Trails aren’t easy. Unless you picked a trail with flat terrain and nice gravel paths, you are in for elevation ascents and descents, uneven ground, and a variety of other changing conditions from mud to bugs. There are times when you will feel miserable with the rain pouring down on you while the clouds block the views that you were hoping to see after a long climb. You might also find that despite your best efforts to prepare for the hike, your legs aren’t cooperating and discover climbing switchbacks to be especially difficult. Setting goals will be a huge help in winning the mental game of a hike.
Creating goals allows you to break your hike into bite-sized pieces rather than feel intimidating by what is yet to come. Goals can look different depending on what motivates you, such as:
- Target a visible point on the trail, such as a tree twenty feet above on the switchback or the top of a particularly muddy climb.
- Take a Zero Day. There is no rule that you can’t leave trail and head into town for a shower, an overnight in a hotel or a nice hot meal. Setting the goal of a Zero Day might be the motivation you need when facing a particularly challenging day.
- Reward yourself for reaching a milestone. Rewards can be as simple as a long rest or a drink of water to a snack you have been saving or a drink you tucked away in your pack. Celebrate 50km, 100km, or reaching the top of your first pass. Whatever it is, celebrate your wins.
- Set a long-term goal of a particular campsite you want to reach. For me, I was determined to get to Floe Lake on the GDT. I had seen pictures before the start of our hike and was going to push through to make sure I got there.
Know Your Why
There will be stretches of the trail where you love every moment of being out there and times where you wonder what you got yourself into. When the bugs are trying to bite, your legs are scratched up and your feet hurt, you can find yourself spiraling into continuous thoughts of misery. This negativity can take distract you from the beauty that surrounds you and taints the experience.
Recalling why you decided to hike the trail will help refocus your thoughts away from the immediate misery to the payoff that lies ahead. For some, the why will be the accomplish of completing a trail end to end. Others might want to hike a trail to reach a particular view. Fitness might be a why. There are also hikers who are there for the personal journey. Whatever your reason is for hiking, there will be days when you will reflect back on your why. It doesn’t need to be an earth-shattering reason, but the reason will be important to you. The reason is what you will judge your days against. Are you getting out of this hike what you’re putting into it? Is it worth the suffering, sacrifice or cost?
During the last leg of our GDT hike, I found myself mentally drained. We were pulling long days on the trail and I felt I had spent most of those days staring at the ground rather than at the views. The trail had become rather technical with overgrown bushes snagging my already fatigued ankles. Whenever I caught up with my husband, he would take off and I wouldn’t get a chance to stop and take in the view as I felt I was going to be left behind. I was struggling to finish the hike because I wasn’t satisfying the why, which is to enjoy the views. Once I expressed to my husband that he needed to give me time to stop to enjoy the views, I found a renewed energy every time we took a break. Knowing your why is no joke.
Reflect on How Far You’ve Come
Take a moment to look over your shoulder to see how far you’ve climbed or the distance you’ve covered. There will be days when the climb seems to go on forever. While some of the climb will be more vertical with switchbacks zig-zagging up the mountain side, other climbs will also take you across more horizontal miles. Depending on where you are, you might see a distant highway, a river you crossed in the morning, or the valley where you camped the night before. You might not be able to see the bottom of the mountain where the climb started or the lake you swore was down there somewhere but is obscured through the trees or blocked by a ridge.
Every time you put one foot in front of the other, you are that much closer to completing your trail or celebrating your next milestone. Looking back provides a moment for you to reflect on what you have accomplished. On our GDT hike, I can recall a few times when I looked back and marveled at how far I had come.
One particularly memorable moment was standing at the top of Wonder Pass surrounded by snow and I turned back to see the ridgeline of mountains behind us. Although I was chilly, I took some time to ponder how I was standing there in the snowy mountains. I never imagined myself hiking in a place like that, and there I was. It felt surreal. We had come so far and we couldn’t see where we had started from. There was still so much trail to go, but I felt like I had conquered the GDT.
Hike Your Own Hike
On the trail, I tell my husband he hikes like a gazelle or a mountain goat. While he happily hikes up a mountainside, I work for every inch. He doesn’t look like he feels any drain from the climb while I need to stop and guzzle water. Our bodies are very different and it can make for some interesting challenges when I want to rest on flat ground when he is getting twitchy, anxious to get moving again.
Hiking your own hike, to me, means hiking without judgment. Don’t try to compare your need for breaks against your partners. Communicate what you need and set expectations for frequency of stops and distances that can be covered in one day. Depending on your comfort level, you might have your faster partner hike ahead of you with the intention of to meet up where there is a junction or at a creek crossing. Your partner could scout out flat ground during difficult climbs so you know how much further you need to go before your next break.
You don’t need to be jealous of your hiking partner’s abilities or criticize how you perceive your fitness level. Remember that you have 30lbs or so of weight on your back and are doing something that millions of people wouldn’t dare try. You are already doing something amazing and while it’s hard, you’re putting one foot in front of the other and will reach your campsite or the trailhead if you keep going.
Include Your Loved Ones
Being in the middle of the mountains or forest means you have limited to no access to internet or cell phone service. This can be challenging if you have children or pets at home. Even though you have made arrangements to have them cared for while you are on trail, you will find your thoughts being pulled toward wondering if they miss you or if they are okay. These thoughts distract you from the views you have worked so hard to reach.
Remember that your time on the trail is limited. While you aren’t away on a work trip, you are doing something that mentally recharges you. Your children, and your pets, will enjoy hearing about your adventure and see the pictures you took along the way. Your dog will be especially interested in hearing about all the squirrels you saw.
Identify plants, rocks, formations, or any other sights long the trail that a loved one back home would appreciate and take a photo of it. Finding ways to include them helps to eliminate any guilt you feel about leaving them behind and makes it feel like they are with you. Thinking about what they might like will also get you thinking about different perspectives and you will spot things on the trail that you might otherwise have missed. You don’t need to bring them a souvenir when you come home. Just tell them what you saw that reminded you of them.
Write It Down
My final recommendation is to journal and write about the highlights of your day. Write about there being toilet paper in outhouses, animals you spotted, the ups and downs from the day… whatever it is, document it. You can read your entries while on trail or when you leave trail, but writing helps you sort through your thoughts from the day and identify changes you need to make to improve the next day.
Journaling also gives you something to review before your next hike. You can see what worked for you and what factors were negatively impacting your experience. When preparing for your next hike, you can implement changes or equip yourself differently so you have all the tools in place to have a successful hike. Adding a pen and a thin notebook to your pack isn’t a big addition to the weight you’ll carry. It will not only give you that opportunity to mentally check-in, but it will also give you another way to capture your trip and recall those great memories you make along the way.