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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!