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5 Life Lessons I’ve Learned from the Thru-Hiking Community

Almost anyone embarking on their first-ever thru-hike will be a little naive and unprepared. No matter how much preparation you do, you won’t really understand until you get out there. Thru-hiking is such a simple undertaking at heart—you’re just walking. Walking is a great metaphor for life, though, if you think about it. You’re making your way somewhere, always one step at a time. If you do it enough, you’re bound to gain some special insight. Here’s a few thru-hiking life lessons you might hear from the community.

1. Hike Your Own Hike

This is a quintessential thru-hiking life lesson. Everyone seems to have something to say about the way everyone else thru-hikes. Some people pack too much, some people are too focused on being ultralight. Some people are purists and need to have a continuous footpath along the exact line that their GPS shows them, while others play it fast and loose. There’s an eternal debate on the Appalachian Trail about “white-blazing” vs. “blue-blazing.” Apparently one way of hiking is valid, and another is not.

It’s easy to get caught up, in any experience like this, with what everyone else is doing. But at the end of the day, it’s your experience. Focus on what feels right for you. You’re gonna receive a lot of unsolicited advice as a newbie, but don’t let it slow you down. The veteran hikers have some great advice, but they don’t know everything, and they especially don’t know you. Just like in life, you can only really be responsible for your own experience.

2. The Trail Provides

This is a lesson in trust. One aspect of the thru-hiking experience is learning to make do with what you have, learning along the way that you actually need very little. Still, if you lose something along the way—let’s say your sunglasses, for instance—it’s easy to feel careless and discouraged. Somehow, at that exact moment, a random pair of sunglasses seems to appear at a trailhead or in a hiker box.

It’s such a curious phenomenon, it almost feels supernatural. The moment you realize you really, seriously need something, it falls right into your hands. This is often an extension of the thru-hiking community. You’re pulling into a campground feeling a little weak? The hikers there will rally around you with electrolytes, extra food, and cold, filtered water. The trail and the people on it have your back. Things may be a little different back in normal society, but sometimes you can bring that trust back with you, and find yourself taken care of in turn.

3. Pack Ultralight

As far as backpacking goes, it’s a pretty good piece of advice. The lighter you can make your pack, the easier it’ll be to hike. “Every ounce counts,” you might hear. While this is true, it’s also important to meet yourself where you’re at, financially. Not everyone can afford top-of-the-line gear, so don’t let that stop you from getting out there. Simply edit your packing list down as much as possible and go climb a mountain.

Photo Courtesy of Maya Karkalicheva

Off trail, you can pack ultralight by letting go of some of that old mental baggage you’re carrying around. Do you still cringe at that stupid thing you said in 10th grade? No one else remembers it, let it go. You could even create a “packing list” of bad memories or experiences, decide which ones aren’t teaching you anything, and make a point of crossing them off. Turn it into catharsis.

4. Embrace the Suck

Thru-hiking hurts. Your feet will hurt, your legs will hurt, your back will hurt, and yes, even your emotions will hurt. Thru-hikers as a community tend to develop a thick skin towards experiences that most people would balk at. Sleeping on the ground? Walking on blisters? Suffering cold and wind and rain? At a certain point, all you can do is grin and bear it.

Photo Courtesy of Ruslan Dashinsky

Those low lows will make the highs feel higher; there’s a reciprocal nature to it. What’s more is that a significant part of negative experiences is the mental aspect. You’ll make the suffering twice as bad by dwelling on it, so just accept that it sucks and do it anyway. Just keep walking, and before long, you’ll get to a place where you can rest or actually do something about whatever’s ailing you.

5. Don’t Quit on a Bad Day

The cruelest irony of a thru-hike is the fact that you’re choosing to do this. You’ll be hungry, exhausted, cramping, and blistered, and then you’ll have the thought: no one is making me do this. I can leave at any time. Every time you reach a town or a road or a trailhead, there’s the opportunity to catch a ride back home. It’s tempting, especially if you’re miserable.

Photo Courtesy of Jordan Siemens

“Don’t quit on a bad day” is a thru-hiking life lesson that applies in a lot of contexts, and strangely enough, it works. If you give yourself a week from that moment where you really want to quit, something is bound to rope you back in. You might need a couple days of processing and feeling bad for yourself, but then you’ll reach a high point and look down at the valley you were just in and you’ll be forced to smile.

Go Find Your Own

There’s so much to learn from a thru-hike, and it won’t all come in neat, pre-packaged pieces of advice. The key is your own experience, finding what pulls you through the difficult moments to the other side. For me, what almost caused me to quit was the feeling that because of my lack of experience, I didn’t belong out there in the way everyone else did. Of course, I eventually found that to be false. The backcountry will seem alien and plain and vicious at first, but once you get to know it, you’ll have a companion for life.

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