The Thruhiking Papers


Someplace back there I said some things about why people hike the Trail. But a lot of thruhikers get off the Trail too. And then there have been questions on some of the email lists about "incomplete" thruhikes.

This was written because I saw a lot of people blowin' sunshine about how wonderful the Trail is - and it is. But I didn't see anyone talking about the other side of the story. So -- this is reality time.

Reality is that only about 50% of those who start at Springer every year make it to Damascus. And only about 15% make it to Katahdin. NOT nice numbers - but reality. The question is - which 15% will make it ???

One thing to keep in mind here is that getting off the Trail may not be cause for celebration, but it's not always reason for mourning and wailing and gnashing of teeth either. There are a lot of reasons why people get off the Trail. And it's kinda like a horse race - there's no way to predict exactly which ones will make it to the finish line. But, again like a horse race, there are ways for each individual hiker to improve their odds of being a "finisher".

The only reason I'm willing to spend my time writing this stuff is because I want to do what I can to increase the odds for this year's class of thruhikers. Why? Because I want to meet this year's class of thruhikers at the Gathering in October - after you finish the AT. But there are a few mountains between here and October - for all of us. So - why do people get off the Trail? There's no simple answer - and my answers aren't even close to complete.

One of the most common, least understood and hard to detect reasons is nothing more than unfulfilled expectations. People start with preconceived ideas of what the Trail will be like, usually based on tales of other people's experiences or memories of Scout trips or just wishful thinking. And then reality turns out to be a whole lot different. They hear about the fun and the beauty and the easy days and how wonderful it is -- but nobody tells them about the rain and the pain. So they're not prepared when they get snow in Georgia, or for the multiple knobs that don't show up on the maps, or for the multitude of other annoyances that go with thruhiking. And they go home.

Some quit because of injury or illness. Shin splints, stress fractures, muscle pulls, sprained ankles, tendonitis, back and knee problems are common - and to a large degree, preventable. A few hints - if you're walking uphill - walking too fast can cause muscle pulls, burn out, heel blisters or achilles tendonitis. If you're walking downhill - walking too fast or too slow can cause knee problems, shin splints, falls, sprained ankles and/or toe blisters. Even on level terrain you can get sore feet - especially when walking on rocks or roads.

Some of the reasons for quitting are related to pack weight, speed and distance. It's not a lot of fun dragging a heavy pack up Blood Mountain or Shuckstack - and the heavier the pack, the less fun it is. Some people find out the Trail's not what they thought it would be - sometimes it's hard and sometimes it hurts. Part of the solution is obvious, isn't it? Lighten the pack.

Some quit because they run out of time or money. The Trail can be expensive, especially if you spend a lot of time in town - pizza, beer and ice cream are expensive. The $1 per mile number is at least 40 years old - don't count on it - it'll probably cost more. The latest numbers I've heard run more than $2.00 to $4.00 per mile, although that's variable and depends on the individual.

The message here is - plan the financial end of your hike liberally. Town visits cost - big time. And you ARE gonna go to town - food, showers, clean clothes or phone calls home become irresistible lures. And lack of funds is a frequent and unfortunate reason for getting off the Trail. At least one 1997 thruhiker got off the Trail at Monson, ME - just 100 miles short of the end - because he ran out of money. For most people an AT thruhike is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure - why spend it worrying about money?

But the main reasons for not finishing are head and heart reasons - what some might call lack of will. The Trail is a head game - and a heart game. One of the more interesting reasons for going home is that some people learn what they went out there to learn - and there's no longer any reason for them to stay. Sometimes what they learn is that they don't care enough about going all the way to put up with the bugs and heat and rain.

Some get discouraged by the rain, snow, sleet and hail - not to mention the mud. I had all of the above - in one day. I had one period when 19 out of 23 days were rain, snow, sleet or hail - or some combination thereof. And you may, too. My experience was neither uncommon nor the worst that can happen. I heard one young lady ask that "whoever pissed off Mother Nature - please, please apologize".

Some get discouraged by sore legs and shoulders, by blisters and chafing and foot pain and numb toes. All long distance hikers get some or all of those - it's part of the package. Pay attention to your body, fix the problems before they become serious and take aspirin or Tylenol or Motrin at night so you can sleep.

Just don't take painkillers for hiking - too much painkiller can cause other problems - like kidney failure, perforated stomach, ulcers, etc.!! Not to mention the additional damage because the painkiller masks what your body's trying to tell you.

Some quit because they can't stand to live 3 or 5 or 10 days without a shower. Or because they can't stand the thruhiker smell - or because they can't face putting on that "toxic T-shirt" in the morning.

Some quit because they don't like the mileage-consciousness and competetiveness they see. The trail makes demands in terms of time and mileage and a lot of us get uptight about making it to Katahdin. So they forget to stop and smell the roses. There were people who planned to get to Katahdin in October so they could see the leaves turn - but hiked fast enough to finish in mid-September, and then complained because they didn't see the Autumn colors.

I know 20 mile per day hikers who slowed down to 5 miles per day in the Wilderness just so they could stretch out the experience. Consistency is more important than speed. If you "average" 12 miles per day you'll make it to Katahdin in five and a half months. Slow down. Enjoy what you've got - it won't last forever. And for many of us a bad day on the Trail is better than a good day at work.

I had to make some decisions about mileage too. My original contract with myself said I didn't have to do 20 mile days to get to Katahdin - and I didn't have to. But I changed my contract in Virginia to read that I could do 20's if I wanted to - and I did. But it was my choice, my timing, my contract, when I was ready for it. It was my hike. You'll have to make your own decisions and hike your own hike.

There are some who quit because they lose sight of their goal. Katahdin is a long, long way when you're in Georgia or Virginia. It's sometimes hard to believe you can walk that far, or that Katahdin even exists. So I used the things I could believe in to draw myself up the Trail - one town, one day, one mile, sometimes one hill at a time. Some days it was Hot Springs or Damascus or Delaware Water Gap. Sometimes it was the next shelter, or the top of the hill - or the next 100 steps. Or a shower - or ice cream. Would you walk an extra 5 miles for a pint of Ben & Jerry's? I did - and so have a lot of others.

Personal opinion is that some go home because they see themselves changing in ways they don't understand, didn't plan or can't control - and they're not ready for those changes. Or can't tolerate them. Or don't want them.

Barring injury (watch out for wet roots and rocks - and bog bridges!!) those who get to Damascus have the physical conditioning and knowledge to make it all the way. So why do so many drop out after Damascus?

North of Damascus, a few drop out because of illness, injury or pain. But most quit because they're tired or bored or because they have "heart problems". Almost all of us get tired or bored at some point.

WHAT?? You mean the Trail can be boring? Yeah - for a lot of people, grinding out 20+ mile days in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and New York in 90 degree heat can be a drag - even when it's where you really want to be. Not that you have to do 20's, but what else are you gonna do with those long hot days?

The heart problems are rarely of the physical variety - I'm talking about those who miss their spouse or boy friend or children or even their dog and can't wait to finish the Trail to see them again. Some of them don't wait - they go home. The first signs are when you start thinking about home and wish you were there more than where you are.

Another "heart problem" is that some of you are gonna make friends on the Trail and then watch them get off for one reason or another - and it's gonna hurt. From personal experience one of the worst things that happened to me on the Trail was losing three consecutive partners. I called it the 300 mile syndrome because I lost a partner every 300 miles. The first time it happened was the one and only time that that I considered quitting before Katahdin. The second time I submerged the pain in 20 mile days - and I was really reluctant to take on a new partner after that. But I did. As I've said before - emotional pain is ALWAYS worse than physical pain.

We all get tired - and some just get tired of always being tired. A surprising number of people quit at Gorham, NH. Some even quit at Monson. Think about it -- 5 to 6 months on the Trail. How many mountains? How hot was it? How much snow and rain? How hungry are you? By the time they get to Maine, some people can't carry enough food to keep their bodies going. Some of them don't keep going. Most of the time a couple days in town, resting and eating well, is all it takes to rekindle the desire to keep on hiking - but not always.

The Trail isn't all fun and sun - but it's not all doom and gloom, either. There's a bumper sticker that reads - "No Rain, No Pain, No Maine". So what gets us through the rain and the pain?

Sometimes it's optimism - after 6 days of rain, at least you know the springs won't be dry. After 3 weeks of drought, at least you won't have to put on wet socks in the morning.

Experience teaches that change is constant - tomorrow the sun will shine, tonight I'll have a full stomach, in 2 days I'll get a shower. And after 1200 miles of fog, rain and smog at every overlook, one clear night on Pleasant Pond Mountain made it all worthwhile for me. Each state brings it's own people, features, events and emotions. The Trail is always changing.

Sometimes it's humor. Have you ever looked at yourself after 6 days of hiking? Do you know what the word "smelly" really means? Or "trudge"? Look at the people around you - why do you think you look or smell any better than they do? Do you know how much thruhikers love pain? Do you care? After a few months on the Trail, hiker humor gets pretty bizarre - but funny (at least to them). Sometimes it's common sense or knowing the answers. But none of us knows ALL the answers. So sometimes it's learning from others - they have answers that we don't.

A lot of times it's your friends. You know - those dirty, ragged, hairy, smelly people you hike with every day. What would you do without them? Could you stand the thought of them climbing Katahdin without you?

Sometimes it's getting off the Trail for a day or 3 and getting a good night's sleep and filling the gigantic hole that's caused by "hiker hunger". And then finding that we miss our friends and the Trail - and the pain and the rain. Don't plan too little time off - the time in towns is important for both mental and physical health reasons. Most thruhikers I know took off at least 20 days and some as much a 30 to 40 days. It depends on nutrition, injuries, weather and a lot of other factors.

Beware, though - towns are gravity wells and it's sometimes very hard to escape them. And each day in town adds an invisible and non-edible 5 pounds to your pack. All that pizza and beer can really slow you down.

Sometimes it's the peace that fills you as you look out over a quiet lake in the early evening and watch the loons dance.

Sometimes it's Katahdin - especially after you've seen it for the first time.

Sometimes it's the faith that God really does know what He's doing - and that He might explain it to you someday.

And sometimes it's the bone-deep awareness that life is good - even on the bad days. And that you're more alive than you've ever been before.

Now you know a few of the things you'll run into besides blisters and cantankerous stoves and clogged water filters and broken pack frames. And you know there are solutions to everything you'll run into. No, I didn't give you all the solutions - you need to find your own. Then it becomes your choice to use them or not.

Created: 30 June 1997
Revised: 30 Sept 2016
Copyright © 1997-2017 Spirit Eagle