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Appalachian Trail Thru Hike Preparation

There is a saying about many athletic ventures that it’s 90% mental. Although the percentage may not be that extreme, I would agree that mental fortitude is a huge part of backpacking that often gets overlooked. Regardless of how long the trip is, or how many people are on the hike, there is a mental component to hiking that can often times be more challenging to master than the physical. As an experienced long distance solo backpacker, I am often asked what makes the difference in people who attempt long trails and those who complete them. My answer is always MENTAL. There reaches a point in hikes where the physical becomes automatic and what remains is the mental. There are constant nuances and adjustments being made mentally while hiking. Here are the strategies and techniques I’ve used for navigating the mental trail along with some images from my recent thru hike of the Appalachian Trail.

Great Smokey Mountains

A foggy morning in the Great Smokey Mountains.

Train Mentally Before the Hike

Just like physical training, there should be a mental aspect to training for a long distance hike. If possible, try to train in similar terrain that you anticipate hiking in or conditions that you will find challenging. Take it seriously and force yourself into the challenging situations. If you know you’ll be encountering uncomfortable weather make an effort to do a test run in less ideal weather. It isn’t always fun, but it will help for when the real situation presents itself. This isn’t always possible, so at least think mentally about how you’d handle various conditions mentally when faced with them. Although many anticipate hiking with a partner, be sure to give yourself time in training to hike in your own head and spread out for extended periods of time. Even when you’re with other people on a long trip, there will be a lot of time spent on your own and in your own head. Experiencing it before the hike will allow you to get more comfortable with being in your own mind and finding personal motivators.

Jane Bald, North Carolina.

Jane Bald, North Carolina.

Remind Yourself Why You’re Out There

Everyone has their own reasons for being out on trail and what drives them to leave the comforts of home, family, and friends for extended periods of time. There will definitely be times when the pull to leave the trail will be greater than that to stay. Do what you can to remember why you’re out there during those times. There are many hikers that leave and quickly regret the decision they made in a fog of negative thoughts. Some hikers make an actual list before they leave to remind themselves when the going gets tough because those reasons will be far from your mind when you’ve crossed over to the dark side. However you choose to do it, make at conscious effort to recall that longing for the trail and what it represents for you.

James River foot bridge

The James River foot bridge is the longest foot traffic only bridge on the AT.

There Will Be Ups and Downs

Like many endurance activities, long distance hiking is not always enjoyable the whole time you’re doing it. Learning to ride the wave and endure the literal and figurative storms is a huge part of hiking. One thing that makes hiking so incredible is the unpredictable feeling of euphoria one feels from time to time. It may last hours or mere seconds, but it makes all the challenges worth facing. In fact, it’s the most difficult challenges and lows in between that make those highs that much sweeter. The key is to recognize this during those difficult moments and tell yourself that you may be in a down, but it is temporary and an up is sure to come to make it all worth it.

Shenandoah National Park

The lush green of Shenandoah National Park.

New Normal

Living outside for days, weeks, or months at a time will be a shock and adjustment to the body and mind. You will be away from your usual comforts and unable to escape most hurdles put in front of you. There will be little options to avoid difficulties and facing things head on will become routine. I’ve adopted a mental note that I’m sure to tell myself when I realize that I’m in a long term challenge or discomfort. I tell myself, “It’s the new normal.” It’s amazing how realizing something and shifting the way you view it can greatly change the perspective. For example, when hiking in the desert, the heat is intense, feet are burning, and thirst is strong. Instead of dwelling on these things, I try to accept it as a new normal and move on from there. I’m in the desert so what was I expecting anyway, shade and lakes?

hiking umbrella

Putting the umbrella to use in exposed farmland on the way into Boiling Springs, PA.

There Will Be Discomfort

A large chunk of hiking may be mental, but it only takes one physical discomfort to take you out of the mental game. Hiking all day is inherently going to be uncomfortable at some point, if not much of the day. Expect to be tired, sore, hungry, thirsty, hot, cold, or whatever other feeling you could have that will make you dream of lying down in a big soft bed. The discomforts don’t really change, so it’s best to accept them as the “new normal” and go from there. It’s amazing how accepting the discomfort can, in itself, dispel much of it.

Cumberland Valley, PA

Some lush green in the Cumberland Valley, PA.

Slippery Slope of the Downward Spiral

Negative thoughts tend to bring on more negative thoughts, so they can pile up quickly. I refer to it as the downward spiral and try to be on guard to stop it before it goes too far. It’s a slippery slope and it can happen suddenly. Climbing back out of a negative swarm of thoughts or emotions can take exponentially more time and energy than it took to slip down that slope. It’s natural and healthy to acknowledge discomforts and challenges, but dwelling on them to the point that they consume your every thought is to be avoided. Just be alert to your cycle of thoughts and if you find yourself repeatedly ending in that darkness, try to trace it back to the root and find out where you can redirect to a more positive outcome. I know, much easier said than done, but after repeated efforts and enough time, it does get better.

AT Pennsylvania

Thankful for an umbrella in a downpour in Pennsylvania.

Some Days Will Just Suck

In the end, there will be some days that are just miserable and quite frankly, suck. It’s part of backpacking and part of life in general. There will be elements that are out of your control and the only thing you can control is how you choose to react to it. I’m not saying you need to dance and sing in a cold rain, but it does no good to anyone to get upset or negative. It is what it is and getting upset won’t change it. It very much helps to be prepared for rain as a skill set; before your big adventure. Again, it’s these moments and days that will make the good ones that much greater and more rewarding. If it wasn’t a challenge, everyone would do it!

Saddleback Mountain

Hiking over Saddleback Mtn, ME. Photo credit: Rita “Jett Cat” Borelli.

Enjoying this Post? Be sure to check out part 2

25 Responses to Appalachian Trail Thru Hike Preparation

  1. JerryW October 7, 2014 at 1:53 am #

    Erin, I came across you thanks to Gossamer Gear, and followed your journey all along the AT. Many times I was impressed by your mental toughness, and ability to manage your morale level so successfully – clearly, the methods you describe do totally work!
    Following your example, I took some audiobooks along on my phone when I did the Pennine Way last month. I did feel a little guilty to start with but the thing is, every walk, no matter how scenic or wild, has its dull bits too – or bits where you don’t feel so good. I found the audiobooks really helped me to cope with these.. so it’s another weapon in the armoury I will continue to use in future

    • Erin "Wired" Saver October 8, 2014 at 10:16 am #

      Great to hear Jerry! I figured I’d get negative comments about the technology in nature, but we all need a break when out there for such extended periods. There is quite a stigma attached to it, but people are coming around and accepting the HYOH mentality as it’s just great that we’re all getting out there. Happy hiking!

  2. Glen K Van Peski October 7, 2014 at 8:23 pm #

    Wired, great summary and suggestions! Thanks for sharing your techniques and wisdom.

  3. Erin "Wired" Saver October 8, 2014 at 10:16 am #

    Thanks Glen!

  4. mjirving October 8, 2014 at 10:58 pm #

    Great thoughts Wired. As you might guess, I too love having little mini goals throughout the day. I also like the “embrace the brutality” approach and seek out the adventure of it rather than falling in the pit of despair. It sure makes it a lot more fun! Thanks for the tips.

  5. dent burntrap October 9, 2014 at 12:11 am #

    tech in the wild places can be an absolute godsend! there is something special about lying on the desert floor at 3 in the morn, and staring up at the stars while listening to Coast to Coast AM…

    Thanks for your words and insights!

  6. intrek40 October 9, 2014 at 6:43 am #

    Thank you Erin for this valuable insight that not only applies to hiking but life in general. I will definitely try to use this at work where sometimes the days just suck. Seriously, you have come a long way and may you continue to learn from your travels.
    Uncle B

    • Erin "Wired" Saver October 9, 2014 at 10:32 am #

      Uncle B, you are so right about the applications of this in real life! Nice to hear from you:)

  7. Sally October 9, 2014 at 11:01 am #

    Hi Wired ,
    I am Rockin’s friend Sally( Arrow ) and I have enjoyed following your travels !
    I am a therapist (and avid backpacker ) and I loved reading this acticle because it is such sound advice for life . I always tell my clients and myself that discomfort is how we learn about what we are meant to BE learning in our lives . Discomfort is GOOD !! The “new normal ” is how we accept whatever challenge life has dealt us ! Really great thoughts ! Thank you and good luck on your next adventure !

    • Erin "Wired" Saver October 9, 2014 at 11:31 am #

      Hi Sally!!! Still waiting for the day we get to hike together as I feel like I know you with all the things Rockin’ has told me. I totally agree with what you’re saying and I know that’s why so many programs like Outward Bound can help so many. There are countless skills that can be applied across all situations in life. I feel like I could do a whole presentation on solely the mental aspect of hiking.

  8. Stephen October 9, 2014 at 3:30 pm #

    Good article…. Take Care Stephen

  9. Adrian Borner October 10, 2014 at 6:44 am #

    Erin, I fully agree with you. For me long periods of rain I found the most difficult to cope with. When I walked the AT in 2001, no mp3 players existed and I had only a radio. In the meantime listening to audio books is a booster.
    Phone calls to friends and family also makes a huge difference for motivation.
    I am looking forward to my next challenge as well!

  10. Paul Bates October 10, 2014 at 8:07 pm #

    Thanks so much for the great article Erin! The pictures go very well with everything you mentioned. Now that you’re done with the Triple Crown, I look forward to the next goal! Maybe a Hiking the Mental Trail in Foreign Countries? 🙂 Good luck!

    • Erin "Wired" Saver October 11, 2014 at 10:30 am #

      Yes, there is a long list and I’ll soon be announcing the 2015 plans…I can say they will be challenging and I’ve never been more excited about a hike…

  11. goldencorner5 October 11, 2014 at 9:10 am #

    Great article Erin and well written! I enjoyed reading it. For me, it can be challenging, even when drawing on knowledge and experience, to organize thoughts (what to say, how to say it) and to write them so that they are coherent and convey the intended information. You did a great job!

    • Erin "Wired" Saver October 11, 2014 at 10:31 am #

      Thanks so much for realizing this aspect of it! It definitely took time to organize and verbalize all of this and I’m so glad it came across coherently and efficiently!

  12. Amber October 12, 2014 at 1:34 pm #

    What a fantastic summary! And good advice for life too. I am going to try to introduce these ideas to my kids on our hikes. Not that they are all that long, but when you are six, even three or four miles can seem like eternity.

  13. Maggie Woodward October 23, 2014 at 7:05 pm #

    Erin, I agree with Amber and golden corner. Nicely pulled together thoughts. From a retired teacher to the teacher part of you, I’d give you a score of 5 in Organization, you’ve met the Standard 🙂
    I realize you’ve met MANY people in these last years, but…….we met you in the rain, and saw the bear prints in the snow, on Tanner Butte just before you left for the AT. You were trying out your umbrella and I believe that’s the picture I took of you on your phone that you posted in one of your “end of the trail” blogs. I was with a fellow hiker and my small dog. We were both surprised to meet someone else on the trail in that kind of weather!
    Congrats on your Triple Crown, I’ll see you at one of your presentations next month.
    Of all the wonderful photos from your AT Blog, I laughed and just loved the one of Cartwheel in the two Buffs when laundry was getting done 🙂

    • erinsaver October 23, 2014 at 11:23 pm #

      Yes, I remember meeting you two Maggie! Picking you out of a crowd may be difficult as we were all bundled, but I remember that day and it was so great to meet others out in that ridiculous weather that day. Someday I’ll see that view off Tanner Butte…You are right that it is the picture you guys took for me:) Be sure to say hi when you come to a presentation. I’m terrible with names and faces, but just remind me! I heart Cartwheel:)

  14. Warren November 2, 2014 at 4:54 pm #

    Hey Erin,

    What a great post. Organized and great set of life skills you’ve shared. And, as always, I love reading every blog post!

    • erinsaver November 2, 2014 at 10:14 pm #

      Thank you Warren!

  15. James Ricci November 30, 2014 at 5:55 am #

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us. My entire life can be described in one sentence….it didn’t go as planned, and that’s ok. If you take the approach on the trail(and in our daily lives), expect the worse, but hope for the best, you will be prepared for whatever crosses our paths. Thanks again Erin


    • Erin "Wired" Saver November 30, 2014 at 2:42 pm #

      I agree with much of that James! Things definitely don’t go as planned and that’s been just great most of the time:)

  16. "Dr Bob" Ellinwood March 6, 2015 at 12:19 pm #

    A fine article. “Wired” writes, “One thing that makes hiking so incredible is the unpredictable feeling of euphoria one feels from time to time. …The key is to recognize this during those difficult moments and tell yourself that you may be in a down, but it is temporary and an up is sure to come to make it all worth it.” This reminds me of one of my favorite hiking quotes. It’s from Karl Ellingson’s 1981 book, “2500-Mile Walk. An oldtimer on the Pacific Crest Trail.” He wrote: “The next morning I found my pants frozen stiff and inside out. It took an hour to turn them right side out and to screw up enough courage to get into them. By then the sun was glistening on a smattering of new snow and hoar-frosted pines. It was there i learned that the time interval between a totally miserable situation and one of euphoric elation could be very short. It has happened so many times and is a comforting thought to have when things look bleak.”

    • Wired March 6, 2015 at 2:51 pm #

      So true Bob! So many of those moments for sure!

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