A Psychological Guide to the Appalachian Trail

For the vast majority of outdoor enthusiasts, the idea of through-hiking the Appalachian Trail is just that, an idea; something to think about abstractly on long winter nights or talk about after a beer or two with friends. Ultimately, most of us find the idea of 2,200 miles and six months of our lives (not to mention 100+ miles of elevation change) too strong a deterrent to consider actually doing anything about it.  Last night, however, I sat in a room at REI-Charlotte with 30 other people, among whom — I strongly suspect — I was the only one who either hadn’t already hiked some significant portion of the Appalachian Trail or who wasn’t seriously considering doing so.

Truth be told, I have hiked a very small section of the AT near the Nantahala Outdoor Center in western North Carolina; by my calculations about .13% of the total distance. And last spring, I hiked more than 300 miles in various locations over a 3 month period preparing for the 28-miles-in-one-day CureSearch Ultimate Hike. That brief glimpse into endurance trekking brought me to an understanding about just how difficult it really is… and how poorly suited I am for it. While I found the physical rigors challenging, it was the mental aspect of hiking mile after mile after mile that wore on me the most, and that is why I attended the REI event.

The speaker that night, Zach Davis, has written a book entitled, Appalachian Trials: The Psychological and Emotional Guide to Successfully Thru-Hiking The Appalachian Trail, and I was interested in learning more about his methods of mental preparation as a resource for future endurance endeavors, whether they be on the trail, in the water or behind a desk.

Zach started off with a little background. The AT is 2,184 miles long, crossing 14 states from Georgia to Maine. The average through-hiker takes about 6 months to complete the trek (he took 5). The failure rate is 73% for northbound (starting in Georgia) hikers and 83% for southbound hikers (starting in Maine). So, basically, three out of four people who start on the trail quit before finishing. Zach attributed this failure rate to a number of factors; long stretches of the trail are mundane and repetitive, people — even serious backpackers — are not accustomed to living outdoors for extended periods of time, there is a painful physical toll, and the logistics of providing food, water and equipment are daunting. But, far and away, the biggest reason hikers fail on the AT in his opinion is the mental grind and the lack of resources helping hikers prepare for and deal with the emotional struggle.

When Zach decided to hike the AT, he was living in San Diego, working as a self-employed online marketer and working 70-80 hour weeks. A friend asked him if he would be interested in hiking the AT. Despite having zero backpacking experience, and being in decent, but not spectacular, shape, Zach signed on and began making preparations. He read all the standard literature and bought all the requisite equipment; pack, clothes, footwear, shelter, sleeping bag, stove. He also began a regimen of mental preparation, which started with making three lists: 1. Why am I hiking the AT?  2. What will it mean to me if I fail? and What will it mean to me if I succeed. He also made an effort to tell everybody he knew. These three lists would became as valuable during rough times on the trail as any of the gear, and the common knowledge of his goal created a strong sense of individual accountability.

Zach divides the hike into several mental steps or phases. The “Honeymoon” occurs during the first couple of weeks on the trail when even things that are a little annoying — like bugs and bad weather — are new and exciting.

The “Virginia Blues” kick in about the time a hiker reaches the Virginia state line. By this point the novelty of being in a thunderstorm on top of a mountain has gone away and the hiker is truck with the reality that there is still a long, long way to go. Almost a quarter of the total miles on the AT are in Virginia, and this is where the vast majority of northbound hikers who fail give up. Zach suggests that the way to beat the “Virginia Blues” is to expect them, accept them and mentally prepare for them.

The halfway point of the AT is in Pennsylvania, and most hikers get a renewed sense of purpose and energy when they reach it. At this point observing rituals and earning rewards is an important mental aspect. There is, for instance, a convenience store near the halfway point that is legendary as the spot of the “Half-Gallon Challenge,” whereby hikers purchase a half-gallon of ice cream and eat it at one sitting, earning a commemorative spoon.

Of course, at any point during the hike, the outside world can intrude. Prior to committing to the hike, Zach had applied for his “dream job” at Google and had a phone screening interview. While on the trail, he was contacted about a personal interview, and flew cross-country to meet with the Google hiring committee… in a borrowed suit and with several weeks beard growth. Although he initially received positive feedback, he did not ultimately get the job and was crushed, creating an even greater level of mental stress for the remainder of the hike.

Then, disaster struck in the form of serious headaches, a fever and extreme fatigue. Progress slowed from 20-25 miles per day to 5 or 10 miles per day. A visit to a local clinic did not reveal any serious problems, so Zack soldiered on. It was only later he learned his “little trail-side illness” was actually the potentially fatal West Nile Virus.

Zach wrapped up the presentation by discussing the final significant mental challenge of the hike, which occurs when a hiker enters Vermont. Although 80% of the total miles are completed, the section of the AT which runs from Vermont to Maine is, by far, the most physically challenging part of the trail. This section includes Mt. Washington, the highest peak in the northeast, where winds exceed hurricane force 110 days per year; and the final climb up Mt. Katahdin, 5 miles of 20% grade to the summit.

Of course, Zach didn’t give all of his secrets away! But he did offer them in the form of his book, for the very reasonable price of $10. I hope to read that book in its entirety over the next couple of weeks and will report back. In the meantime, should Zach show up at your local bookstore or favorite outdoor retailer, it would be well worth your time to stop by and listen to his presentation, or if you cannot wait, the book is also available from Amazon.

John B. Marek

Huntersville, North Carolina

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