Every year in the Spring and early Summer, it hits me like a wave; I start to see more and more posts in my news feed from thru hikers, announcing they are heading home.
After all the time planning, the effort put into preparing, and money spent on gear for an attempted thru hike, it can be devastating – emotionally and financially – to quit on the dream of thru hiking the Appalachian Trail.
I know – because I’ve been there.
Well not quitting exactly, but rescheduled my thru hike from 2013 to 2020. I went home due to giardia that just wouldn’t quit, and am still recovering today, three years later. (And yes, I was purifying my water, but somehow still got sick.) After about a week of symptoms, I took Flagyl to kill the giardia. But my symptoms never went away and every test, for every bacteria, virus or disease, came back clean.
I hiked for about three more months, telling myself every day that I would get better but once I realized I was spending almost as much time pooping as I was hiking, and that I would never be able to put in long, big mile days because of my frequent breaks, I knew I had to regroup.
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Hikers quit for a wide variety of reasons:
- Family emergencies or deaths
- Running out of money
- Discomfort of rain/sleet/heat etc.
Unfortunately, some of these things can not be avoided. If you have a family emergency or worse, then yes definitely go home, take care of you and your family! If you are ill or injured and a doctor recommends you take it easy, then yes take a break!
But, you can increase your chances of reaching your end goal on the trail simply by knowing why you are hiking, and also planning for the “what if’s” ahead of time.
So, why are you hiking? And “because I like hiking” isn’t going to cut it here, and if that was your response, then I ask again, why do you like hiking? Keep asking that why question until you find the real reason you want to thru hike. Is it to feel free? Get your groove back after a divorce? Kick off your new bad ass life in retirement?
Once you find your why, reflect on it often on the trail. If you lose touch with why you’re there, it’s going to be really easy to give up on your dream just because of bad weather or a short bout of homesickness.
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5 tips for planning ahead:
- Budget for a “trail emergency fund” for example if you get sick or have an injury that will heal in a relatively short amount of time, you may be able to wait it out in town until you’re good to go again, rather than letting an illness or minor injury send you home. But staying in town can add up if you have to pay for a place to stay for many nights and may be eating more expensive ‘non-trail’ food.
- Make a plan for what you will do in bad weather or if you get sick. If you have other options in mind besides quitting, then you can get back on track and on trail quicker. For example, I met a hiker who just did not want to hike in the rain, so instead of planning zero days around certain towns, events, or staying with other hikers, he always sat out rain storms in shelters and zeroed if it was bad out, and always hiked on good weather days. And that worked for him! *I was actually a little jealous*
- Designate someone to be your moral support. They will be who you call if you are having doubts, a really bad day, or are really scared, no matter what time of day or night, you can call that person. And that person will truly listen to you, will make you laugh, and ask you what you need right at that moment. Do you need them to organize a shuttle into town? Did you just need to have a good cry or laugh? Do they need to call local emergency services? Do they need to just come to you right away and either stay with you or take you home? Do they need to send a care package to your next mail drop location? Explore all the options first before making any extreme decisions.
- Self-care. Self-care. Self-care. Taking care of yourself and listening to your body is the best way prevent both injury and illness. Hikers might slack off about self-care on the trail because it may look different or be more inconvenient than self-care back home. Brush your teeth. Take multi-vitamins. Load up on fruits and veggies when in town. Always wash/sanitize your hands after using the bathroom AND before you put food into your mouth. Every. Single. Time. Slow down if you are exhausted. Take breaks. Eat and drink often. Buy new boots if your feet are rebelling. Upgrade your sleep system if you aren’t sleeping. Take care of yourself, and take care of each other.
- Never quit on a whim – if it’s raining, you don’t feel well, another hiker was rude to you. Always take a breath, take a break, maybe even take a zero, then reconsider. Do you still want to quit? Why are you out there again? Does your reason for quitting really outweigh your reason for hiking on?
Preparation really is key here. If you don’t have a rock solid plan to keep you on the trail, it will be very easy to hop off the trail when things get challenging.
And I promise, things will get challenging one way or another.
Check out these posts to help you prepare for thru hiking the Appalachian Trail:
- How To Pick A Good Campsite
- What To Do If A Bear Attacks
- Water Purification Methods For Hikers
- How To Build Your Own First Aid Kit
Share what keeps you on the trail in the comments below.
PS – If you’re new to backpacking, or just getting started, fill in the from below to grab my complete backpacking gear checklist!
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