There are a few more questions that nobody ever talks about - so I will. The questions are:
- What if -- you get hurt and have to get off the trail?
- What if -- you find out it's just not what you want to do?
- What if -- you don't make it all the way?
Oh, horrors to Murgatroyd - you mean these things REALLY happen? Of course they do - they happen every year to a lot of people on each of the trails.
The "success" rate on the AT is in the 25-30% range and it varies between 5% and 50% on the PCT depending largely on snow levels for a particular year. I don't know that there are any real numbers for the CDT. I won't go into all the reasons why people drop out - if you want that kind of information go to the Thruhiking Papers. Part I. Read ALL of them.
So let's talk about what happens if you're one of those who do go home early.
I know - you don't intend to be one of those people, but it "could" happen. You "could" break a leg, the snow "could" be too much to handle, there "could" be forest fires that close the trail, there "could" be a storm that drops 30,000 trees across the trail, the trail "could" be washed out by a hurricane -- or you "could" just decide you miss your family or your girlfriend or your dog or that you don't like being wet, tired, cold, hungry, lonely, etc. all the time and you've had enough.
A lot of people get out there and just find out that it's not what they thought it would be - or what they want. It happens to a lot of very nice people.
Experienced thruhikers advise those who want to get off the trail to go into town for a couple days - and then judge how they feel. If, after a good night's sleep, a couple meals, a shower, some clean clothes, and some pizza, beer and ice cream, you don't miss the trail and the people and you still want to go home - then it may be best that you do just that. But if you find yourself missing the trail and the people and the lifestyle - then it's time to go hike some more.
Listen to your body, listen to your heart - listen to your emotions. This isn't a logical decision - it's an emotional one. And no one can tell you what the "right" answer is because what's "right" for them isn't necessarily "right" for you.
For some, leaving the trail will be painful - because they're leaving behind a dream as well as their friends. And there's a large part of them that doesn't want to leave.
For others, it'll be a relief - because they've found that the trail isn't what they wanted or expected and they're ready to go home.
In either case, if you get off the trail without finishing, there WILL be people who will judge you for it. And the best thing I can tell you is that regardless of whether you went home happily or otherwise, it's not their place or their right to judge you. They don't know the circumstances, they don't know the pain, they don't know the pleasures of being on the trail.
You're the one who was out there - it was YOU who was wet, cold, tired, hungry, lonely -- whatever - - NOT them. So they cannot legitimately judge whether you should have kept on hiking or whether you did the "right" thing in coming home. Not even another thruhiker can judge that because every thruhike is/was/will be different - no two thruhikes are the same, not even for the same person. Only you can determine what's "right" for you.
Don't forget that - because it applies to "LIFE" as well as to thruhikes.
Now - let's talk about "success". One of the "cultural" artifacts on the trail is the attitude that "completion is the only success". For some of us, completion/finishing is really important. And sometimes thruhikers (and others) come to believe it's the only measure of success.
Completing the trail is the most obvious way to measure success, but there are others. One of them is what you've learned - did you learn what you went out there for? Did you learn anything about yourself? Or about the world you live in? Or about the people who inhabit that world? What did you learn about love - or pain - or happiness - or God?
One of my trail partners was out there to find out what this "thruhiking" thing was all about - and after he'd hiked 1300 miles he'd learned what he wanted to know and went home. Was he "successful"? Of course.
A few years ago a PCT hiker took 6 months to get through California - and had a fantastic hiking and spiritual experience. He didn't make it "all the way" - but I think he might have been "successful". He certainly thought so.
There are hundreds, possibly thousands, of this kind of story that come out of "incomplete thruhikes". They're stories of people who learned - about themselves and what they are and what they want out of life. Those are "success" stories even though those people didn't "finish" the trail.
I also know a few people who were "successful" in the sense that they "finished" the trail, even though they didn't seem to learn anything but the mechanics of a thruhike. But as long as they're happy with what they did and what they learned (or not), they're also successful. It's not my business (or anyone else's) to tell them what they "should have learned".
For me, "finishing" was a part of "success" - but that wasn't all of it. If I'd finished and not learned anything, I'd have considered the hike a failure and a waste of time, energy and money. If I'd learned what I learned and not finished, it would still have been a "success", but not quite as satisfactory. In this respect I'm greedy - I want it all. I won't even guess at numbers or percentages, but I think a lot of people feel as I do - that a thruhike is a learning experience and that finishing is a way of "closure".
That's why some who leave the trail without finishing go back a year or two later to finish it.
If you're thinking about quitting the trail or about going back to finish an incomplete thruhike - then you need to look at your motivation. Not that you're looking for something "bad" - or that you're not a worthy person for not finishing.
The only question here is - do you REALLY, REALLY want to hike the whole trail enough to live with what you now know is the price for that goal - the long-term pain, cold, hunger, heat, thirst, loneliness, etc.? Are the rewards worth the price for you?
Some people are simply not willing to pay that price - but that doesn't make them "bad" or "unworthy" - or "a failure". It simply means that they've had a "life-experience" and learned something about who and what they are and what they want - and what they don't want.
For some, it means they can now move on to do what they really want to do with their lives. For others, the desire is still there to "finish" the trail. So maybe that's what they should do. But that doesn't mean they have to do it as a thruhike. There are a LOT of people who don't complete their thruhikes, but go back to finish the trail as section hikers.
For my part, I've gotta admire those people because they don't give up their dream - they just find another way to do it. That can be an even greater success than finishing the original thruhike would have been.
There are also those who don't make it the first time - but go back to try again. That's another form of "success".
There are also those who just find a different way to do their thruhike. In 1995 a lot of people skipped the Sierras on the PCT and came back later to finish. The same thing happened again in 1998 - and the "non-linear hike" is another form of success (although it may not have been part of the original plan), because it's a resolution to a problem that otherwise might have stopped their hikes.
The people who are ultimately "unsuccessful" on a thruhike are those who set the goal and then allow themselves to be mentally or emotionally defeated (either by themselves or by others) and don't allow themselves to "ever" attain that goal. They come away from the trail with only negative experiences and memories.
That's a different proposition from being forced off the trail by injury or deciding it's not what you really want out of life. It's an internal thing - a personal life decision - a head game.
I've met a few (very few) of the "true failures". They tend to be bitter and disillusioned - and they sometimes put down the trail and those who do what they once aspired to. That's a life choice that they've made for themselves - and I'm thankful that I didn't make those choices.
The bottom line here is that "success" is NOT something that's universally definable - not in thruhiking, not in any other human endeavor. And whether you complete your thruhike or not - you should NEVER define your success by the standards and goals others have set.
Success is an individual - and internal thing - and YOUR success or failure is something that only YOU can determine. Don't allow others to do it for you no matter who they are or how wise or experienced they seem to be. The only thing that matters is whether or not you're happy with the results of the time you've spent on the trail.
One of the lessons that I've learned is that others will always set higher goals for you than they believe you can meet - especially when they can't meet those goals themselves. As I was once taught -
"Nothing is impossible for the man who doesn't have to do it."
There's one more piece to this - even if you've finished the trail, when you go home you'll find that there will be people who'll look at what you've done with disdain. There will be people who'll put you down for it. There will be those who look at you as a vagabond or irresponsible or lazy or any of a lot of other negative words.
I ran into that when I was looking for a job, and recently some people have run into it when they've found that others don't approve of the way they've done their hike. Or when they're told that they "wasted 6 months of their lives". Once again - the word of the day is - bullfeathers.
Another of the lessons in my life was that those who put you down, those who judge you negatively, do so out of fear or envy or ignorance. They fear those who do what they dare not attempt. They envy those who are willing to take the risk involved in changing their lives and futures, who'll leave a "secure job" (even though there is no such thing) to venture into the "wilderness". They're ignorant about what you've done, about what it takes to do it, about your reasons for doing it and about what you've gotten out of it.
Very few people will ever even come close to understanding those things. And the "dream-stealers" will do whatever they can to short-circuit your dreams and the accomplishment of your goals or failing that, to demean the goals that you've attained.
The bottom line here is that regardless of whether you finish the trail or not, if you allow those who are negative or critical of what you intend to do or what you've done, to rule your life, then they will happily do so - and you'll never be happy.
Remember WHY you did what you did - and remember that NOBODY has the right to second guess you or put you down for something that they haven't done and in most cases, will never do.
Hike your own hike - allow others to hike theirs - and whether you finish the trail or not - don't let the "dream-stealers" play their mind games with your attitude or your life.