First of all it has very little to do with your physical fitness or abilities. Almost everyone without major health problems could hike thousands of kilometers. It would be painful in the beginning, but you would get used to - and physically you would be able to do it. But why do so many prospective thruhikers never make it? The drop out rate on the Appalachian Trail is 75%, on the PCT still 60%. The overwhelming majority of aspiring thruhikers never make it? Why?
I would say they are lacking the mental abilities to cope with such a long outdoor trip - they do not have what I would call thruhiker mentality. In order to not only survive but actually enjoy a long outdoor trip you need the following qualities:
Determination: If you are really determined to finish a thruhike, there is actually very little that can stop you. Of course there are always some reasons to bail out: You should never endanger your life in order to just achieve your goal. But realistically you can safely work around most dangers like bad weather or unfavorable trail conditions. Accidents and family emergencies are luckily very rare. And most medical problems can be avoided by proper precautions. Of course it is ok to just hike as long as you like it. But a thruhiker continues hiking even when he does not like it any more. Why? Because on almost every long trip there are days when you would like to give it all up. This is human nature. But a thruhiker knows that this is just a phase that will pass quickly – and that in the end the sense of achievement will outweigh those bad days.
Your determination will depend a lot on your motivation. Why are you doing it? I don't think that there is a right or wrong motivation. What might be the right motiviation for one person could be the wrong one for another. But experience has taught me that some types of motivations are very strong and sustained whereas others are weak and fleeting. Negative motivations (going away from something) are much weaker than positive motivations (going towards something). An external motivation (doing it for something or someone) will also be weaker than an internal motivation (doing it for yourself). On the trail I have encountered various reasons why people want to thruhike:
- Wow, this is so cool - I want to do that, too. Unfortunately, idealized TV programmes or print articles about thruhiking have lead to an romaticised picture of a thruhike that attracts a lot of me too people.
- Alpha type mentality: Those people want to prove something to themselves and others. For them it is all about winning or setting a record.
- Escapism: People who want to escape an unpleasant situation back home like unemployment or failed relationships. I have met loads of freshly divorced or recently fired people on the trail.
- Bonding: You are hiking because of or for someone. In this category you will usually find couples where one partner is the driving force and the other is just tagging along or father and son/daughter.
A true love of being outside: Of course most people would argue that they like being outdoors. But most of them just look at the “chocolate” side of being outdoors. They romanticize about the beauties of an outdoor life, but forget that it is not all about smelling the roses. On a thruhike you change your house or apartment for your tent for a very, very long time. Your tent will be your home now – with all consequences. You will not have a flush toilet – you will have to dig cat holes and carry out your used toilet paper. You will not have a daily shower - you will be dirty and start smelling. You will not have a washing machine - your clothes will be dirty and start smelling. You will not have a bed, a kitchen, a water tap, a fridge......There are a lot of things you will have to give up and you have to be 100% comfortable with it or you will not be a happy thruhiker. Make sure you realise the dimensions of this change before you set off on a thruhike. Do not be tempted to draw too many conclusion from short trips. It is one thing to sleep in a tent for a couple of night – but a totally different thing to live in a tent for half a year. If you mentally need the safety and comforts of a roof over your head to feel happy, then there is nothing wrong with your attitude, but in all probability you will not be a successful thruhiker.
Less is more: This applies to a lot of aspects of long outdoor trips. Naturally it first of all applies to the amount of stuff you are carrying. In our society we have been brainwashed into believing that more is always better: More money, more property, more stuff. On the trail you will learn soon that quite the contrary is true. The more stuff you carry around, the unhappier you will be. Your equipment will burden you down – primarily through its weight. But even on bike and paddling trips where weight is not so much of an issue I have realised that the less you have the freer you are. You need less time to pack your stuff, less time to haul it around, you have less things to worry about getting lost, stolen or damaged. The less stuff you carry around, the more flexible you are. Reducing your pack weight is a key factor for a successful thruhike. If you are not mentally able to reduce yourself to the very basics you will end up with a pack weight that will turn your hike into a miserable experience and in all probability terminate it prematurely.
But less is more also refers to money: Of course you can thruhike the AT and spend a lot of money on hotels, B&B, taxis, restaurants and gourmet food resupply boxes, but you will miss out on a lot of experiences that make a thruhike so valuable for most hikers. You will not experience the hospitality of strangers who turn into trail angels. You will not experience the comradeship between hikers sharing food. You will not realise how good a crappy Twinkie can taste if it is your last piece of food. Most importantly you will learn that money is not your only problem-solving strategy. In our Western society we are taught that money can fix anything. On the trail you will learn that this is not true. You will encounter a lot of situations where money cannot help you at all - because in the middle of nowhere there is nothing to buy with money and there is no one who is interested in it.
I have met a lot of hikers and backpackers you wanted to have an adventure – but in luxury. They have not realised that adventure and luxury are sort of excluding each other. You can have a luxury outdoor trip with guides, slackpacking and gourmet food – and of course, there is nothing wrong with it. But it will not be an adventure. The less money, the more adventure. The more money, the less adventure.
Less is more also refers to company: If you need someone else to go with you, you are probably lacking the right determination for the trail. Of course it is nice to have company, but the hike itself should be motivation enough. Also a lot of things can happen to your hiking companion. Always be prepared to hike on your own - mentally and equipment wise. Enjoy company when you have it - and the comradeship is one of the great experiences on a thruhike -, but do not rely on other people to finish your hike. Don't do things just because someone else does them. Hike your own hike - as American thruhikers say.
Do not get me wrong here: I am not trying to tell you to go out and hike with no or too little money and inadequate equipment. I am not telling you to rely on the generosity of others. On the contrary: You have to be self-sufficient in all respects. Bring adequate gear and an adequate amount of money – but not more. You will be surprised how little you really need once you have cut out all those marketing induced wants - and how much you will gain through it.