You will get wet. You will get hungry. You will wonder why you are trudging uphill when everyone else is at brunch. You will trip, sometimes rather dramatically. You will pick yourself up. You will see things that few others will. You will stand on top of mountains, in the middle of deep valleys, in tunnels of green, and others places that you’ve only imagined existed. You will do things that you never thought you would do.
Long distance hiking, at least for me, is a series of those epic highs and deep lows. That’s what makes the mental aspect so important and so challenging. My first long-distance backpack was along Sweden’s Kungsleden. I knew going into it that there was a good chance we’d encounter bad weather. The first third was glorious as we had perfect weather and scenery that wowed us at every turn. And the rain started – three days of it. I never knew I could get so wet. There is nothing that can describe the feeling of putting on wet pants in the morning, but then the joy of putting on your dry camp clothing at night. I was glad to have prepared for rain, before leaving on this trip.
My second experience with a long-distance backpack was the John Muir Trail, and that put me through the wringer. We set an ambitious pace, aiming to do the trail in two weeks (14 days) to better accommodate work and vacation schedules. I knew it would be physically challenging for me. While I’m a good backpacker, I’m slow on the uphills with a slow and steady pace. The latter half, with its daily passes, worried me a bit. Would I be able to keep up? Would the altitude play havoc?
Each day on that trail was a challenge but I never thought of quitting. (I may have burst into tears at one point, though…) For me, the experience was worth it. I make it a practice to always take a minute to stop and savor the view, and to look back at where I was. Chances are, I’ll never come this way again, and that’s what keeps me moving forward.
When people ask me about how to prepare for a long distance trip, they usually start by asking what exercises they should be doing. Yes, the physical side is important (squats!), but for me, the big question is whether or not you are ready to put on wet pants in the morning. Because chances are, that will happen or something along those lines. The mental aspect is a huge one. It’s being able to balance the good days with the bad ones – or what’s more likely, the good minutes with the bad minutes!
You have to be prepared to be uncomfortable and to roll with changes. In Sweden, we had a day that was supposed to an easy one. I napped on the side of a mountain, took an hour-long lunch, and then moseyed along the trail only to discover that our calculations were off: instead of having just a few miles left, we actually had 10 more miles to go. We shrugged it off. Our easy “short” day on the John Muir Trail turned out to be one of the hardest days of hiking, and the one where I burst into tears at end. My hands blistered painfully in the sun, and it hurt to move them. I had a fellow backpacker help me bandage them up each day.
But the highs… when I close my eyes, I can still see the view from Silver Pass with all the lakes shimmering below. My favorite memory from Sweden is sitting in the tent with a friend as we were soaking wet and feasting on cheese. Moments like that are ones to cherish.
While hiking I’ve often found myself repeating a quote from Ernest Hemingway– that the world breaks us all, and afterwards we are stronger at the broken places. Perhaps for our purposes, it is knowing that the trail will break us a bit, but afterwards we will be stronger and we’ll know exactly what we are capable of doing.
This post was contributed by former Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador Jen “Shuttle” Adach and Editor