Tuesday, January 13, 2015

How to have a successful hike

It’s not about planning.  It’s not about food.  It’s not about gear.  Sorry.  Those of you who are planning a thru hike of the PCT might want to click on those links if you want to be directed to blog posts that I’ve already written about tangible things to do to prepare for your hike.  In contrast, this other stuff is not so easy, especially for someone who, like me, organizes everything with spreadsheets and to-do lists.  But it is valuable to examine what it means to have a successful hike.  My hope is that some things I’ve learned could help you.

What I thought before:
I used to buy into the myth that a successful hike on the PCT meant hiking all the way from Mexico to Canada in a single year.   I really should have known better.  I am aware that not everyone thinks this way.  Some people still take HYOH to heart, but this is rare.  Being immersed in backpacking culture, it was hard to not believe that messages around me that said:

    - Faster meant better.
    - Keep going no matter what.
    - Thru hikers were superior to section hikers.

I idolized thru hikers.  I wanted to be like the strong women whose trail journals I’d read.  I saw how thru hikers proclaimed their daily mileages- success quantified in a way I could understand and measure myself against.  I wanted to be successful just like them.
I wanted to be just like this badass PCT hiker- strong & confident.  Wait... who is that? Looks kinda familiar...
What actually happened on my PCT hike was this:
I got a stress fracture that forced me to step back from my hike.  That stress fracture was a powerful teacher.  When I finally got back on the trail after my foot healed, I had lost a lot of strength in my foot and I could no longer physically do the number of miles I had been.  That meant I couldn’t complete the PCT in one year.  According to what I though before, I was an “unsuccessful thru hiker.”  I could have just given up and tried again for a “real thru” the following year.  Instead I changed my mindset.  Hiking the PCT wasn’t a sports event.  It was not a race where I could DNF.  I was freed from measuring the worth of my hike by the number of miles that I accomplished.

The first 2 miles back on the PCT after my stress fracture were full of so much joy and wonder, that I knew that the miles weren’t what mattered to me.  But what did matter?  I struggled with finding something to replace the satisfaction I used to feel for doing miles and to redefine what I was doing out there.  My second day back on the trail, I wrote:

"If I took a good photo, would that make my hike more meaningful?  What about if I saw a cool flower?  Learned some new skill?  Swam more?  Stopped at more vistas?  Or had some insightful realization?  Those things are so much harder to measure and put a finger on than miles per day displayed with pride at the top of a blog post.  Do badass hikers take the time to sit and watch every moment of a sunrise or sunset?  How will I tell if I’m really having a meaningful experience out here?" -from my blog on 8/25/2014
I captured this sunrise in a photo AND got to go for a swim in that lake.  Is that enough to make my day meaningful?

Look I found a flower.  Is this photo good enough?  Do I need to find one without brown spots on the petals?  Would that be better?
That was the crux of the problem- to find meaning in my hike.  I couldn’t just copy what everyone else was doing.  Success was something that couldn't be quantified.  I was forced to re-prioritize my hike on my own terms.  I had to find happiness and joy from within.  I discovered (as my friend SlowBro puts is), that “the journey is the reward.”

This turned out to be a pretty profound way to live.  It meant I was out there to live each moment fully.  It meant I was in it for the experience, not to achieve anything.
Does that mean I can just sit here and watch the sunset?  I don't have to make more miles tonight?
What about these clouds?  Is it enough to simply watch them float by?
I think I'm catching on: time to go for a swim and then wiggle my toes in the soft grass.
In all seriousness, coming to this realization was not easy.  Success is something that is so important in our culture.  We are taught at a young age how important it is to get good grades, to win, and to achieve.  It turns out there are actually two definitions of success: (1) achieving high social status and (2) achieving one's goals.  It helps to examine each of these in turn. 

The first definition of success: status
In terms of achieving high social status, I’ve lived my life being goal-oriented and seeking validation of my accomplishments by others.  I wanted to show that I wasn’t just a slacker who was out there goofing off.  I was a serious hiker.
Working diligently on becoming a serious hiker.
But of course you probably already can see where this is going.  To find meaning in my hike, I had to realize that I was backpacking the PCT for me, not to prove anything to anyone else.  I had to learn to ignore these comments about “unsuccessful” thru hikes and dismantle the notion in my own mind of a backpacking hierarchy with thru hikers superior to section hikers. 

The second definition of success: achieving goals
The second definition of success is achieving one's goals.  I listed a few goals in this pre-hike blog post.  When I was writing my list before my hike, my wise friend said, "Write out those goals, but then take them and burn them.  Let them go."  I had no idea what she meant because I thought goals needed to be achieved.  But now I get what she was trying to tell me.  Goals may be limiting if they prevent us from seeing beyond them, or seeing exactly what is in front of us.  I learned not just to let go of my goals, but a few times, I even learned to live without goals.

One thing about goals is you can outgrow them.  Sometimes the goals you have at the start of the hike just aren’t important anymore.  I know other hikers who got off the trail, people who hiked over 900 miles on the PCT, when they came to realize the trail was not serving their needs anymore.  They had made important self-discoveries, learned valuable lessons already, and outgrown their need to be on the trail.

I also had goals that I clung to that turned out to be harmful.  One of my unwritten goals was to be a strong, bad-ass hiker.  I remembering thinking before I started that I would crawl my way to Canada if I was ever injured.  That being strong meant hiking through the pain.  The danger of thinking that was that I hiked on my stress fracture for 100 miles, through the snow and rocks of the Sierra, because I didn’t want to quit.  Sure, I proved I could deal with physical pain.  But I was taking the maximum dose of ibuprofen and still feeling like a knife was stabbing through my foot with every step.  So following through on that goal was causing incredible damage to my body and not allowing me to have any sort of meaningful or valuable hike.  I needed to let go of that goal.
This is me in the Sierra saying, "I'm going to keep icing my injured foot with snow and then I will hobble all the way to Canada.  Because I'm a tough thru hiker! GRRR!"
Another one of the goals that I wrote about before my hike was avoiding injury.  By that account, I failed.  I know people think that injuries are avoidable because I thought that myself when I started.  I am a planner so I like to believe that I have some control and can always plan my way through anything, but that’s just not true.  I found on the PCT that some things just happen.  Once I let go of my goal and the disappointment I felt, then I could see how much I had learned from my injury.
What?!?!  Isn't the answer to everything careful planning and calculations?
What it looked like for me to have a successful hike
What does it look like to have a meaningful hike?  It is completely up to you- that’s the beauty, that’s what’s also difficult to figure out.  250 miles after getting back to the trail after the stress fracture, I wrote:

“I’m completely free of the self-imposed constraints of a thru hike.  I don’t feel at all guilty of not doing a certain amount of miles every day.  Which means I can swim in as many lakes as I want, spend time taking photos, hike as much or as little as I want, and it’s all OK.  In the end, I know I won’t have the accomplishment of a thru hike, but now I think that is something that I don’t need right now.  I used to think that if I were a thru hiker it would mean that I had achieved success in hiking.  Now I aim for a colorful sunrise, for making a connection with a fellow hiker, for being observant.  I define my own priorities and sometimes I even throw out any goals and I just am.  Each day that I am on the trail, I win.”   -blog post from 9/19/2014
It was great to rest, and it was also great when my foot finally got strong enough that I could hike as many miles as I wanted.  I hiked 26 miles to get to this view so I could wake up and have a good sunrise for my birthday the next morning.  I call this a "win!"
I got to talk to inspirational hikers like this couple who were setting out to hike the Sierra High Route. Win!
I marveled at the wonder and beauty around me each day. Another example of living in the moment.  Win!
I saw a bobcat.  And a mountain lion.  Plus bears.  And some frogs.  Not that I set out with any intention to see any of this wildlife, but it was amazing to see all nontheless.  Win!
 It's not that I didn't plan anymore.  Just that I met each day with an open heart.
So… How do you have a successful hike?
If I could go back and give myself some pre-hike advice, it sure wouldn’t be to train harder or to plan more.  Instead, I would say:

   - Quit striving for (someone else's definition of) success. 
   - Be authentically yourself and accept yourself for who you are.  

   - The journey is the reward.

Here are some suggestions for avoiding the mental traps I fell into:

(1) Don’t believe the nonsense that thru hikers are superior to a section hikers.  The beauty of backpacking is that there are so many wonderful ways of doing it.  Respect the record-setters and thru hikers because they really are incredible.  But also celebrate the section hiker that tackles the trail over the course of her lifetime.  Seek out and talk to the weekenders that may explore parts of the trail that run through their backyards over the entire season.  If you are lucky, you may also find a few of those wonderful hikers that set off on their own routes off-the-beaten path.  Remember- the important thing is to get out on the trail.

(2)  Define your own hike.  If you want to do an end to end hike, then go for it by all means.  But realize that there are other paths.  Flip-flops, chunk hikes, section hikes, routes, multiple trails, continuous or not.  Get creative!  It’s all arbitrary anyway.

(3) Redefine your goals as you go and acknowledge that sometimes goals change over the course of your hike.  Burn your list of goals.  Allow yourself to grow and learn.  Be curious about everything.   Discover what brings you joy.
And if all else fails, then get up early and watch another sunrise.
Further reading

The Hoofist- Great hikes I have never done (and don’t care about)

PMags- Hike My Hike- Damn it!

Semi-Rad- The Hierarchy of Camping

Halfway to Anywhere- The Thru-hiker Superiority Complex 

Zen Habits- The best goal is no goal

The Minimalist- Moving beyond goals


  1. This is awesome. For a long time I have thought that thru hikers aren't necessarily the same as backpackers. Well. Yes, they backpack, but it's a more goal driven, athletic endeavor rather than what I've seen as backpacking, which could mean hiking big miles but could also mean a short day to a great lake. I saw people trudge into camp, cook in their tent and collapse without even washing up or swimming or sitting on a rock watching the sun set. All things I appreciate and why I decided to section, not thru. Not that either approach is better. It's just what you want to get out of it.

    1. Thanks, Mary! Your approach to section hiking has been an inspiration. Yes, I saw those thru hikers trudging around too without time for the things I've learned make my hike so enjoyable. I'm glad I tried out that approach, but I'm also glad I evolved into a true section hiker.

  2. I don't know if my commented post, so delete if needed...

    This reminds me of a post Anish wrote back in the summer when she was trying to FKT the JMT: http://runhikelivelove.blogspot.com/2014/07/jmt-fkt-attempt-2014.html her last words are "I felt no regret"...and she's one of the badass hikers!

    1. I just finished reading Anish's account- thanks for recommending it- that is one incredible, inspiring story. I especially liked the honestly about what it's like to keep pushing while being confronted with evidence all around that screams at you to stop. She sure is amazing!

  3. Thank you for the lovely post. Heartfelt and beautifully done.

    1. Thanks for the feedback- this post probably took me longer to write than any other I've ever done, so I'm glad to hear its well-received.

  4. Thanks for another great article.I will retire at the end of February and am looking forward to hitting the trail.I don't feel that I could do a thru but I'm looking forward to seeing where the trail will lead me. Reading your many journeys and trail worn advice has inspired me to get out and do more with the time I'll have.

    1. That's a great attitude! I'm sure you'll have an incredible hike, no matter where the paths take you. Delighted that some of this helps you on your own journey!

  5. Thank you so much Joan. This really helps. I start doubting myself sometimes when I read blogs from all the bad-ass hikers. Can I do it? Will I make it? Am I tough enough? It doesn't matter. What matters is that I do what I love. No matter fast or slow. As long as I'm happy. Thanks for putting all this in words and sharing it! Love, Cat

    1. Trust yourself and know you have the heart, Cat. When you set foot on the trail, you will find your happiness out there.

      Blogs present a somewhat warped, partially biased picture of backpacking- I think that's why I tend to get more nervous when I read too much online.

      Really looking forward to following you hike!!! Let me know if there is anything I can do to help you out. Hope to run into you someday out on the trail!

    2. Thanks Joan!!! I hope we meet!

  6. Amen Joan! Thru hiking the PCT has been my goal for nearly 20 years. If all goes well I will hit he trail next year. Your story gives me me hope for a wildly "successful" trip even at the still young age of 65 :)


    1. Best wishes to you on the trail this year, Pops! How wonderful to hold a dream for 20 years and finally see it about to be realized. Taking that first step on the PCT in itself is a huge part of "success" and I hope you have an incredible hike.

      Happy Trails!

  7. Joan, you are awesome! Thanks for putting this into words. It is beautifully written.
    (And to think, I knew you way back when you were just a "badass PCT hiker.")
    Happy Trails my friend,
    - Mark

    1. Thanks so much for everything you did to inspire this post, my friend. :)

  8. Wonderful words, Joan! There is way too much to see and experience. I guess you have to ask what you value the most, an accomplishment without an appropriate level and deep sense of enjoyment and fulfillment or to have the claim to the accomplishment of a true thru hike. I'm not saying there is no room for the enjoyment of what is to be experienced and enjoyed during a thru hike but it just has to be severely diminished compared to letting the the enjoyment and fulfillment set the pace. I look forward to you completing the experience, whenever that may be!

  9. Powerful read. Thank you for sharing!

  10. Yo Hemlock, great piece. Great blog, period.

    1. Hey there my friend! You are another hiker that I feel like I was lucky to meet out there, and I loved how you were Hiking Your Own Hike!!! Big hugs to you!

  11. I love this post. I think back to my first trip with you which was full of surprises and how many sunsets you have seen since. You are such an encourager❤️ Thanks for being so real☺️
    Look forward to seeing you soon.

    1. OMG it is so cool to have you remind me of those first backpacking trips- sometimes they fall to the recesses of my memory, but they were so incredibly influential and I think only now do I really appreciate that spirit of fun and surprises we shared. :)

  12. You are such a such a beautiful person and it shines through your written word. --Ann L.

  13. BRAVO my friend! YES YES and YES!! Once we learn this most invaluable lesson, everything in life changes. There is nothing more powerful than discovering how "ok" you are from within yourself and yet, most people are still out there looking for this validation on the outside which traps them in a perpetual cycle of never feeling good enough/looking for validation outside/never feeling good enough, etc. Wonder what would happen if you apply this beautiful wisdom to the rest of your life now? Hmmm....richness awaits! ~Certain

    1. OMG it's great to hear from you, Certain! Thanks for commenting! Reading your trail journal (and the trail wisdom I found there) was one of the things that inspired me to go on my own journey and to share my experiences with others.

      I'm still trying every single day to remember to apply this lesson to the rest of my life. It's easier on the trail, but I think my next challenge in life is to practice these lessons I learned on the trail to make a balanced life.

  14. Joan,

    Over the past couple of months, I think I have read every post on your blog! Your writing shines and I admire you for so many reasons! Unknowingly, you have given me the courage to backpack again solo, tackle short "thru hikes" nearby such as the Bartram Trail, and you've reminded me of the importance of focusing on the quality of the experience over the miles I hike.

    I believe we have a mutual friend/acquaintance whom you met on the PCT--"Twinkle"/Steven Shattuck. I met Twinkle when I hosted him and his 4 hiking companions in my home as they were passing close by on the AT this past fall (I live in Waynesville, NC). I stumbled upon his blog and, like yours, couldn't stop reading it until I had read every post!

    I also have a blog, www.hopeandfeatherdays.blogspot.com, that I started about 4 years ago in response to the grief from my mother's death. It has evolved over the years and lately I've posted quite a few of my own trip reports in the woods. I've learned so much about the trails I've hiked (and especially love learning more about the flora I find) by reading your blog!

    Thank you for sharing your adventures and knowledge--you're simply awesome!

    1. Hi Nancy! Great to hear from you, and thanks so much for reading and commenting. I'm delighted to hear that you have been inspired to go solo backpacking and exploring the Bartram- I checked out your blog and love your writings. Looks like you've had some incredible adventures.

      Yes, I just saw Twinkle at the Gossamer Gear trip in Moab- so cool that you hosted him on the AT. Love what a small world our trail community is. Sure hope to see you someday out on the trail. It'd be super to meet you!

      Happy trails!

  15. Joan...very well said. You are such an inspirational writer. Taking time to see what you see is more important than the miles.

  16. As I begin to take off on my very first "thru" hike, your words here soothe my soul at its core. Throughout the planning process, I have found myself getting wound up and all flustered over how far I have to go to make it to each waypoint, whether or not I can afford to take time to visit friends along the way or have friends hike parts with me, how I can possibly make it to Canada on time without risking an injury. Reading your post was like sighing in relief. Your words helped me remember why I'm really doing this, why I really WANT to do this.

    Thank you for helping this very goal-oriented gal rediscover why she loves living without goals. Thank you thank you thank you. And happy trails!

    1. I'm delighted to hear my post helped you relax. You're doing great to be thinking about all of this before your hike, and once you get on the trail, it'll all fall into place. The trail has an incredible way of teaching you what you need to know. But it's so helpful if you can keep in your heart (and head) the reasons why you are hiking.

      Will look forward to following your journey, and wishing you happy trails in 2015!

  17. Another EXCELLENT article!
    Joan, you have such a way of putting your perspective into words. This one is great and the photography is just stunning.
    I'm going to be like you when I grow up.


  18. Thank you Joan for putting into words what I have been feeling. I haven't backpacked for 40 years so as you can imagine things have changed. I have had the dream of hiking the PCT for 36 years since I read the National Geographic book "Pacific Crest Trail". Life took a different turn for many years and it has only been the last year that I've brought the dream back to life. It will be a few more years for me to be physically fit and financially able to do it but that gives me time to do some 2 day hikes and get some experience under my belt again. I've been feeling like I have to walk lots of miles each day and do it all in one shot. The truth is I want to learn, grow, enjoy the scenery, connect with the people I meet on the trail. I want to photograph the flowers, enjoy the sunrises and sunsets and breathe the fresh air! I know I will have many opportunities for self-growth and a closer connection to our magnificent beautiful country. You reminded me what I feel is a successful hike and that isn't always doing 20-30 mile days! HYOH!!!

    1. Denise,
      I'm so glad to hear you that you get it too! Way to go for keeping the dream of the PCT alive and to have the clarity to be able to do it on your own terms. How awesome to be able to set your own priorities, and define what you want to get out of it.

      Hope you can celebrate your 2 day hikes with equal joy, because those trips are just as important, and can be equally meaningful if you let them be. :)

  19. Excellent wisdom shared here. This is the most important post I have read all year over thousands. Like the Swiss say, Slow Down, Take it Easy!
    Thanks Joan!