It’s not all about the thru-hike or “how to have a successful hike”; a walking meditation

We loved reading Joan West’s blog, Rambling Hemlock, this past year. When she posted this, we just had to share it. Thanks Joan for the personal reflections. Visit her blog at: ramblinghemlock.blogspot.com

It’s not about planning. It’s not about food. It’s not about gear. Sorry. 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 “hike your own hike” (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...

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 thought 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. I was freed from measuring the worth of my hike by the number of miles that I accomplished.

The first two 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 Aug. 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?

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?

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?

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?

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.

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
  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.

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 being superior to section hikers.

The second definition of success: achieving goals

The second definition of success is achieving one’s goals. 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 more than 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 were 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!"

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?!?! 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. Two hundred and fifty 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 Sept. 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!"

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 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 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!

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 nonetheless. Win!

It's not that I didn't plan anymore. Just that I met each day with an open heart.

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 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.

And if all else fails, then get up early and watch another sunrise.

Be sure to visit Joan’s blog at ramblinghemlock.blogspot.com

Author: Jack "Found" Haskel

As the Trail Information Specialist, Jack works to connect people to the PCT. He's involved with a wide variety of projects that help the trail, the trail's users and the community that surrounds the experience. He has thru-hiked (Pacific Crest Trail in 2006; Colorado Trail in 2008; Continental Divide Trail in 2010) and is an obsessed weekend warrior.

Photo by: Nathaniel Middleton