It's no secret that most people who set out to thru hike fail. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, only 20-30% of people who report starting a thru hike will actually finish. While taking on the task of thru hiking seems glamorous and exciting, after spending several weeks on trail many hikers realize that the romantic idea of doing a long hike isn't always all it's cracked up to be. This post is going to touch on the four main reasons thru hikers quit, plus one fifth reason that is the most powerful of all.
Many people attempting a thru hike are complete newbies to the world of multi-week backpacking trips - myself included. For me, I trained for my thru hike and started my hike with bigger hiking days, 15-20 mile days. Many people do not do this and think that a thru hike is a lot like a day hike. I mean, a lot of people can do a 15 mile day hike with no problems! They go big too early and end up with a common hiking injury. Shin splints, sprains, strains, and exhaustion are all very common in many new hikers. Unfortunately, many hikers don't let their injuries properly heal and end up reinjuring themselves pretty quickly. This definitely ends a lot of hikes! (and if you want to know how to avoid injuries, check out a this post I wrote in November 2015!)
Leaving the working world behind for 4-7 months can be expensive! I've seen estimates of $5000 per person to successfully complete a thru hike and that can be very realistic. I myself did the trail on $2800, but I didn't need to replace any of my gear or electronics and we often found cheap places to stay instead of zeroing in expensive motels. Many people we knew who quit the trail north of the Mason-Dixon line quit because they were running short on cash and had pretty much exhausted all other resources for backup cash. Sure, some hostels offer work for stay and you can resupply a lot out of hiker boxes at post offices or hostels, but that can only get many hikers so far before throwing in the towel. After taking more than 50 zero days on our AT thru hike, NoKey and I developed a Near-o system on our three 2015 thru hikes of various shorter trails. The near-o system of hiking into town early in the morning, resupplying and freshening up, staying in the hostel, and hiking out the next day not only saved us money but also gave us the mental boost we needed to keep hiking. Taking too many zeros can definitely deplete your cash flow!
The Honeymoon is Over
If you think about it, the idea of thru hiking is incredibly romantic! Just you and your gear, powering through hard miles, rolling into camp for a hot meal and a beautiful sunset at a mountain overlook every night... what's not to love about that?! Well, as someone who has thru hiked before, I can tell you those kinds of days are few and far between. Sure, you can still have a great time on days that don't look like that, but for many the repetitive nature of hiking day after day after day just becomes too much. The trail isn't as fun as they thought it would be. The work isn't worth the reward. Quite frankly, thru hiking can be INCREDIBLY BORING a lot of the time. Many people you meet will ask you all about your "hiking vacation", but I personally find that a thru hike is like a low-paying full time job. You log 10-16 hours a day of hard work (walking all day long) for mediocre food before collapsing into your sleeping bag. Make no mistake, thru hiking is definitely not a 6-month vacation!
I left this one for last because it's the one that is often unavoidable. We can't control what happens at home and an illness or the death of a relative can happen. Sometimes hikers can bounce back and come back to the trail, but often times those hikers don't stay back on trail. It's also very common to miss your family and friends back at home, especially if a hiker has kids. Missing out on milestones or big events in a family member or friend's life can be tough.
And finally, the one that happens that many people don't think about:
You Find What You're Looking For
Many people decide to take on a thru hike while they're in a transition phase of life - recently graduated school, retirement, being laid off from a job, etc. You'll find that many trails often have people from all walks of life who are out on the trail trying to discover their next path in life. In fact, I'd find it fair to say that every single person on the trail is definitely looking for answers to some question they have. Sometimes you'll find what you're looking for before your trail ends. This is another reason the quote "it's about the journey, not the destination" is so true and popular among many hikers.
These are just a few reasons why thru hikers quit the trail before finishing, but I've found them to be the most common! Be sure to check out my post next week on why quitting the trail isn't a bad thing - and why for some people it can be the right thing to do.
Have you attempted and quit a thru hike or other major goal in life? How do you feel about your decision? I'd love to chat with you about it! Leave me a comment below or catch me over on the Facebook page to get the conversation started!