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Mental Preparation

It's so easy to forget, with all of the other preparation and planning that you're taking care of beforehand, that you need to also ready yourself for the mental toll that a 2,200 mile hike is going take on you, day in, day out. At the end of the day, a positive attitude and an unyielding drive to finish are going to get you 90% of the way towards a successful hike. Most people who end up quitting do so because they simply don't want to deal with the Appalachian Trail any more, so it is very important that you understand what you're getting yourself in to. Let's talk about what you're going to be facing on your journey.

Motivation vs. Discipline

You're excited! You should be! The adventure ahead of you is going to be one of the most transformative experiences of your life. Part of that transformation, however, is going to come at the expense of long, monotonous hours of walking and discomfort the likes of which you've likely never encountered. Every person attempting a thru-hike is motivated, but that initial surge only lasts for so long and your success will come to rest on the discipline you can maintain for months on end.

The trail is a great equalizer. It only does one thing--it offers a footpath from Springer to Katahdin. It doesn't care how much money you spent on gear, how athletic you are, or about your Master's degree. You vs. the trail, plain and simple. The vast majority of the effort will come in mental strength, an intangible quality that some people just seem to have more than others. There's no other way to put it.

At some point in your hike, you're going to come to understand that hiking everyday sort of becomes a job. Days when you simply don't want to hike won't be uncommon, but for a variety of reasons, a successful thru-hike will depend on your ability to get up and walk all day anyway. Not everyone naturally shares the same level of enthusiasm about that prospect. Buckle in and be ready to hike, even when you aren't feeling it.

Embracing the Suck

More hikers quit outright than are taken off the trail by injury, money, or extenuating circumstances. The Appalachian Trail is a famously difficult endeavor because for a very large portion of the many months you spend hiking it, you're going to be quite uncomfortable in some form or another. You'll be experiencing the Appalachian mountain range through multiple seasons, so get ready to face all of the wrath that nature can throw at you. Sometimes is cold and rainy, other times you'll be dripping in sweat while swatting hordes of mosquitoes, almost all of the time some portion of your body will be in pain, you'll always be hungry and tired, and it's highly likely you'll fall and hurt yourself a few times. In these situations, you'll have to decide how you respond, and often successful hikers find comfort in “embracing the suck”, which is to simply be ok with the suffering. Be mindful and present, calm and collected, and accept that this is just part of what you wanted. Every other hiker who has ever finished has gone through these things already, so you can, too!

So How Do I Prepare and Endure?

So now that I've sufficiently spooked you into at least considering the mental challenges that a thru-hike presents, here are a few quick tips to help you in both your preparation and also during your long hike.

  1. Knowing what you're going to face and taking it seriously is 90% of the battle. Many people quit because they simply didn't know what they were getting in to or because they underestimated the challenge. It's one of the hardest things you'll ever do. Know that and be ready.
  2. Music, podcasts, and audiobooks are an amazing tool. You're going to have a lot of hours to simply cruise down the trail. Entertainment helps tremendously.
  3. Hike with other people. If you're bored, conversation is a great way of passing the time and making you forget your pain. Plus, the people you meet out there will be the best part of your hike.
  4. I used this manta during my hike and I offer it to you: “The trail quits before I do.” I don't know where I heard this or if I came up with it, but reminding myself that all I had to do is outlast the length of the trail was comforting for me.
  5. Be a yes person to new, interesting experiences. You're likely to encounter quite a few opportunities to take detours, stay with someone's aunt and uncle, or go to a party while in town. Many times hikers will think they need to stay focused on the trail and they will reject these distractions, but they're missing out on one of the most valuable things a thru-hike offers--the moments you're going to remember the rest of your life.
  6. Go for at least a few longer hikes, even just day hikes, of 10+ miles. This will both give you an idea of what it's like to hike all day and also let you begin to feel how your body is going to react to the feat.
  7. On your hike, remind yourself WHY you're out there. Everyone has their own reasons so I can't be specific here, but latch on to why you chose to do this and don't let go of that. Make it your purpose for pushing through difficult days. Letting yourself down is something many people never forgive themselves for.
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Nashville Pack

Nashville Pack and Equipment Company is an ultralight backpacking equipment manufacturer that strives to get you outdoors. With a focus on customer service, innovative and affordable gear options, and environmental stewardship, Nashville Pack hopes to improve the accessibility of America's wild lands.