The single biggest mistake made while preparing for a thru-hike

Hikers dedicate months, if not years, to readying themselves for their shot at thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. They dump thousands of dollars into state-of-the-art ultralight gear. They cook, dehydrate, pack and ship dozens of boxes full of food. They adopt strenuous workout regimens to ready their bodies for the rigors of hauling 30-pound packs up and down mountains under a punishing Southern California desert sun.

Yet despite all this preparation, most aspiring thru-hikers fail (best estimates are between 50 – 60%).

Hikers do everything they’ve been told is necessary to prepare themselves for five months of backpacking, but unfortunately, they’re missing the mark. They’re training for a physical and logistical battle. Although these are important, they’re overlooking the most important and challenging aspect of a thru-hike: the mental grind. Put more simply…

Photo by: Carly Moree

Photo by: Carly Moree

Neglecting to prepare your mind for a thru-hike is a mistake of epic proportions.

How do I know?

In 2011, I embarked on a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. It was my first backpacking trip. Of any length. Ever. I learned how to pitch a tent just a few days before leaving. My first attempt at operating my JetBoil wasn’t until my first night on trail (and unsuccessfully so for those keeping score at home). Yes, I’m serious (also, not smart).

My training program could’ve been summarized in two words: exercise less. I was starting the trail with a friend whose idea of a workout was walking a few blocks to his local Jimmy Johns.  I didn’t want our disparate fitness levels to be a source of animosity.

Yet, despite the preceding two paragraphs, I joined the roughly 25% of aspiring thru-hikers who successfully thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.

You are likely asking yourself how.

I trained my brain. While I was borderline incompetent about everything one needs to know to survive outdoors, I dedicated great energy to mastering the most important piece of equipment of all, the gear between my ears.

And although many of those who complete a thru-hike do so by gritting their teeth and marching to the tune of their own misery, I was able to keep a positive mindset throughout my hike, even after contracting West Nile virus and consequently battling migraines and debilitating fatigue- with more than 1,000 miles left in my journey.

So how does one go about mentally preparing for a PCT thru-hike? Great question. Here are a few tips to get you started.

Three Tips for Mentally Preparing for a PCT Thru-Hike

1) Discover Your “Why”

This can’t be understated. Finding your why is the single most important tactic for achieving your goal of thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Other methods focus on building extrinsic motivators – the “superficial” (albeit, still effective) drivers. Uncovering your why is what builds an intrinsic drive, and thus, will help you to enjoy your journey, or at worst, find meaning in the struggle. Although grinding through 5.3 million steps is honorable, to master the mental game, the focus should be on maximizing happiness.

To know your why is to know your purpose. It’s a snapshot into the emotional state of what brought you onto the PCT in the first place. When battling dehydration, heat exhaustion, and an array of silver dollar sized blisters, it’s harder to remember why you’ve subjected yourself to such a lifestyle. Instead of letting your emotions be at the mercy of volatile environmental factors, it’s important to arm yourself with a rock-solid foundation.

We’ll accomplish this by writing down (not just thinking or saying) the reasons you’re thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. We’ll break this into three distinct lists:

  1. I am thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail because… (this is your why)
  2. When I successfully thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail, I will… (these are the personal benefits you’ll acquire upon reaching Canada)
  3. If I give up on the Pacific Crest Trail, I will… (these are the negative perceptions you’ll develop of yourself if you quit – harsh but effective)

Many thru-hikers are initially resistant to this practice because they assume they don’t have any deep-seated reasons for a thru-hike. “Why not?” is a common response to the question. This is a cop out. As mentioned above, the trail will offer you plenty of reasons “why not” once in the throes of a thru-hike. Those without a convincing counter-argument comprise the majority of thru-hikers who eventually wave the white flag.

I encourage hikers to take at least 15 to 20 minutes for each of these three lists. Be vulnerable.  Confront your demons. Go deep. The work someone puts into this practice now will yield huge motivational dividends weeks and months down the trail. Your lists not only have the potential to turn a frown upside down, but it can make the difference between quitting on your goal and persevering.

It may sound silly, but I’ve received dozens of emails from thru-hikers saying that their lists played a major role in their success. If you only take away one thing away from this article, let it be this point.

2) Publicly State Your Mission

Our previous point is intended to build intrinsic motivation, now let’s utilize the power of our ego.

If you’re serious about walking from Mexico to Canada, there is one fact that is undeniable: you are a badass! It’s a physical accomplishment most cannot fathom. It’s a rite of passage few voluntarily subject themselves to. You will be that guy/girl your friends, family, and neighbors talk about braggingly.

But only if you let them, and you should!

Going public with your plan is important for two reasons. First, it further cements the idea in your own mind. Second, and more importantly, it holds you accountable to your goal. More accurately, others will hold you accountable. For many, the idea of explaining your failure to those whose opinions you hold in high regard is harder than walking through momentary discomfort. This was certainly the case for me.

Tell friends. Tell family. Tell your colleagues. Tell your neighbors. Tell your barista, bartender, and your barber. Tell the UPS delivery dude, your dentist, and your dog. Tell a teller, tell old yeller, yell it at an old feller in a cellar. In short, tell everyone, especially those whose opinions you respect most. You’ll go to great lengths (maybe even 2,650 miles) not to let them down.

3) Setting stakes

If your friends and family lack confidence in your ability to thru-hike, believe it or not, this can be a major advantage. Not only is betting on yourself a powerful tactic for motivation, it also takes advantage of a trait built into all human beings: we hate losing. We despise losing even more than we enjoy winning.

Use this in your favor. Test your friends’ confidence in your seemingly assured failure by asking them to put money on it. Remind them that the odds are not in your favor (ya know, to get a better payout). Even after a sour stretch on the trail, the thought of proving your naysayers correct will be too bitter a pill to swallow. You’ll find the emotional reserve to keep on keepin’ on, and with the aid of your lists (a reminder to follow through with point #1!), you’ll be able to do so with a smile.

If you’d like to go further down the mental preparation rabbit hole, I’ve teamed up with 2015 PCT thru-hiker, Carly Moree, to co-author a new book about thru-hiking the PCT.

Zach “Badger” Davis is an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, co-author of Pacific Crest Trials, and a ginger-bearded adventurer. He was named the Top Hiking and Outdoor Blogger by USA TODAY through his work at  When he’s not running a backpacking website, he’s most likely backpacking or drinking beer near his home in Golden, CO.