Good vs Bad: Expectations When Thru Hiking

I thoroughly enjoy Thru Hiking but, unfortunately, my experiences are not all sunshine and rainbows. The majority of the time (~75%) I am having a positive experience, and would count it as Type 1 fun. Unfortunately that leaves 25% of the time, or 25 days on the PCT that I am not enjoying myself. The good news is that these bad times can be Type 2 fun, and are the moments cause me to understand myself better and grow as a person.

This percentage can be broken down further, with the majority of this percentage (~45%) is what I would consider a normal day on trail. Nothing really special happens, but I am still enjoying my time doing what I love while hiking through a nice forest, a ridgeline or another any other good but fairly generic wilderness landscape. These are the days that often blend together in my mind, but they are the bread and butter of a long hike.

I can broadly breakdown this positive experience further into another two sub categories.

I spend 20% of my positive trail experiences, so maybe once per week, having just a great day from a random thing. Often this comes from pushing hard physically and seeing what my body is capable of. But other times it can be from eating berries or meeting an awesome person that I spend the day walking and talking with. Occasionally, I will enter an overwhelming zen like experience of peace and calm that will always brighten my day.

The last 10% of positive experiences come from those exceptional days that blow my mind. It can be from the sheer beauty of the landscape glissading down a snow gully, a brilliant sunset or seeing an animal such as a bear, a mountain lion, or even something as odd as 2 marmots having sex. These are my highlight real of the trail

Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, hiking is not always positive and there are definitely times that I am not enjoying myself. Luckily, these are rare and I would still prefer them over a traditional existence as they can often offer long periods of contemplation – I often get the most personal growth and insight from these times.

The major reason for a negative experience on trail is boredom. This happens to everyone in a ‘normal life’ or on trail. The distinction here is that at home there are things (eg TV) to distract this basic human emotion. Boredom is the major factor that leads not enjoying my time on trail (~20%). This area of long distance hiking is often not spoken about or glossed over by hikers, but it happens to everyone and is something that any aspiring Thru Hiker will have to learn to deal with in order to be successful. Everyone finds different ways, some people embrace it, some sing, some talk to other hikers, but a majority listen to audiobooks and music.

I often use this time to contemplate different things about life or the next section of trail, but most of the time I listen to n audiobook or music. Personally, I find these moments ok in the overall perspective of the trail; they are basically unavoidable and listening to a good audiobook is a perfectly good way to spend the afternoon.

The last but most impactful experience on trail are the days that I don’t want to be hiking. I am sometimes sick, but it most commonly occurs when I have not slept enough. These days are the ones that you just have to push through with your head down to just accomplish the minimum miles needed.

Like with any long duration activity (such as life), these positive and negative experiences often come in cycles an is something that part of the experience.

For example, some of my best moments on the PCT came when pushing through the Sierras dring my 2017 Thru Hike. It was an extremely high snow year with 100% snow coverage for mile after mile. Because of the snow, I was constantly engaged in my surroundings with looking for the best line to hike, or trying to find the best water crossing location, that I felt like I was really living every moment to its fullest. The constant dramatic beauty of the Sierra landscape also helped in keeping me entertained.

The opposite occurred in Oregon on my 2015 Thru Hike. I had a similar physical effort, but in a less engaging way. I aimed to complete the state in 10 days, and this constant but mind numbing effort slowly drained my enthusiasm for hiking. Due to the long hours required to hike ~45 miles each day, I struggled to get enough sleep that eventually compounded the general boredom that I was experiencing. By the middle of Oregon I experienced an afternoon that I did not want to be on trail. I was tired, bored and was being bitten by mosquitos. I remember getting into camp to find my hiking partner, BIg Ups, already in his tent. We had not seen each other all day and he started enquiring how my day was, to which I responded “I don’t want to talk about it” as I set my tent up and went straight to sleep.

The good news is that the bad times are not permanent, and if they are, you should be reevaluating what you are doing. After sleeping in an extra hour after my bad afternoon in Oregon, I got back on trail with Big Ups and we hiked the day together. We told stories, laughed a lot, had a swim in Lower Rosery Lake, my second favorite lake on the PCT, and I was enjoying myself again (and we still managed to hike 39 miles).