Q&A: How Not to Quit a Thru-Hike

After ending my section hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2011 a bit prematurely, I was determined to stay on trail to complete my 2012 thru-hike. While I was still at home, preparing for the trail, I devised a list of rules regarding getting “off trail,” as thru-hikers call it — quitting a thru-hike. In light of my imminent departure on the Pacific Crest Trail, I’ve been thinking about these standards and thought I’d share them, in case they may assist this year’s class of thru-hikers.

  1. Don’t quit when you’re walking uphill. In a musical called “[title of show],” there’s a musical number in which the main characters sing about the “vampires” that haunt them in their weaker moments, ridiculing their aspirations and belittling their abilities. I think vampires are most likely to attack hikers when we’re going uphill.
  2. If you have knee pain, don’t quit when you’re going downhill. For young/non-Lyme-infected/uninjured hikers, going downhill is fun. For some of us, it is more difficult than going uphill. (Given that I actually really enjoy inclines, downhills see some of my tougher moments.) While declivities can be less emotionally trying than inclines, they can be physically challenging. If that’s the case, quitting on downhills is forbidden.
  3. Don’t quit when you’re too hot or too cold. I learned this lesson because I saw it happen to a friend. If hot and humid weather isn’t you’re thing, hiking across the barren ridges of Pennsylvania in the middle of July is not going to be something you find pleasant. If you’re hot, find some shade, go for a swim, or enjoy a night in a hostel after winning the half-gallon challenge. If you’re cold, a hot meal or a day in town might be in order.
  4. Don’t quit when it’s precipitating. If it’s raining, sleeting, hailing, or snowing, getting off trail is out of the question. It’s too easy to dream of shelter and warmth when you’re wet and cold. If you can’t get dry on trail — if, for example, all of your gear is soaked through from the rainstorm you got stuck in last night — I highly recommend taking a nero or zero in town somewhere and drying off. That brings us to the next point…
  5. Don’t quit when you’re in a town. Towns can create vortices, especially when groups of hikers arrive in them together. A town’s vortex can be difficult to escape, but it can be done! Carrying out some fresh fruit and veggies and baguettes and hummus always helps me have an easier time leaving town.
  6. Similarly, don’t quit in the last day before or the first day after a town. The magnetic pull of civilization can be far-reaching.
  7. Don’t quit when you’re feeling sad. Everyone has tough days, and the intense physicality of the trail seems to amplify emotions. If you’re feeling down, don’t commit to getting off trail until you’re feeling happier. Moreover, if you’re likely to be especially emotional when you’re having your period, don’t get off trail during that time of the month.
  8. Don’t quit when you’re feeling lonely. This was an important one for me, again likely because of the amplification of emotions. If you’re feeling lonely, try to find a friend or call someone back home. Or, just have an easier hiking day, with more time at a view or swimming hole or in the sun/shade.
  9. Don’t quit when you’re feeling scared. I’ve done this once and almost did it a second time. If you’re scared, find a way to alleviate your fears before giving up on the trail. Maybe hiking with a friend makes stream crossings, Mahoosuc Notch, or Forester Pass less terrifying. Maybe avoiding shelters will mitigate creepy interactions with other people. Maybe hitchhiking with a partner makes resupplying feel safer.
  10. Don’t quit when your body is nagging. Injuries and sicknesses can be very important in considering getting off trail, but nagging issues shouldn’t be. For example, if you’re dealing with chafing, take a break and heal, but don’t call it quits. If your body is tired, just give it a couple days to get stronger before pushing it.
It would be nearly impossible to get off trail on a day like this!

It would be nearly impossible to get off trail on a day like this!

Basically, in my mind, quitting is only allowed when it’s warm and sunny — but not too hot — and you’re a couple days out of town, walking along on level ground and feeling content and safe. Given that that’s a difficult scenario to come by on the Appalachian Trail (because of the unevenness of the terrain and the frequency of resupply stops), getting off trail is difficult.

When I think about it, these rules can be condensed into a singular sentence: If you feel like you’re ready to get off trail, wait a week and then reevaluate your plans.

From one week to another, so much changes on trail. You’ll see beautiful new places and be challenged in various sorts of weather. You’ll meet friends or reconnect with people you haven’t seen in hundreds of miles. The kindness of strangers will leave you feeling grateful, and an all-you-can-eat buffet will leave you feeling satisfied. You’ll get more rested and more exhausted; you’ll heal some injuries and develop others.

After a week has gone by, think about where that week has taken you and consider whether you still want to get off trail. The answer may well be “yes.” Lots of people find what they were searching for in a short time of being in the woods; others learn backpacking simply isn’t for them. But, for many hikers, even those with injuries and illnesses that would sentence most people to the sidelines, reconsidering getting off trail after one week’s time allows them to see that they never really wanted to get off trail in the first place.

The Boulder Field

No one wishes for fewer perfect hiking days; banner days with bright blue skies, mild temperatures, well-groomed trail, and incomparable views are savored both in the moment and for years to come. However, it’s often the less-than-perfect days, the days filled with “Type II fun,” that we think about first when we recall our time on the trail.

Type II fun was definitely the only variety of fun had at a boulder field in Pennsylvania.

Appalachian Trail thru-hikers often call Pennsylvania “Rocksylvania,” since its rocky treadway is generally unappreciated by northbounders, who’ve previously walked on the softer trails of the South. Hikers complain of the 52 miles of northern Pennsylvania “where your feet never touch soil.” That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it does often appear that all of the rocks from the surrounding countryside in PA were dumped on the trail. And, those rocks aren’t just lying there; they’re all arranged in such a way that hikers walk on the rock’s points and spines. I’d worn a pair of boots for 1442 miles, but Pennsylvania destroyed them. Rocksylvania is where boots go to die.


Chapstick’s feelings after catching sight of the Boulder Field through the trees

Now, I must confess that I’m of the unpopular opinion that walking on rocks is kind of (Type I) fun. It doesn’t slow me down; I’ve routinely done “marathon days” (days of more than 26.2 miles) in PA. But, the friend of mine from college who hiked in Maryland and Pennsylvania with me in 2011 couldn’t have disagreed with me more.

Chapstick, as my friend was known on the trail, were hiking along one day with Trauma, a section-hiker from Germany that we met in the woods. Because we were walking on a rocky trail, I let Chapstick dictate the pace and just fell in comfortably behind Trauma and him. We were exchanging stories and laughing when, all of a sudden, we popped out of the trees and into a boulder field. I heard Chapstick’s groan before I saw the rocks.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Stretching out in front of us was a 0.2-mile by 400 foot clearing that was filled with what looked like God’s rock collection. There were rocks balanced on rocks wedged between rocks squished under rocks, and the rocks were each the size of pieces of furniture.

Chapstick mustered his strength and set off across the boulder field. Trauma and I followed, each choosing our own paths through the rocky scramble, since we couldn’t find blazes anywhere.

Out on the rocks, the Pennsylvania sun beat down on us as we moved slowly, Chapstick sore and Trauma ill. The sun reflected on the grey rocks, and I squinted my eyes against the brightness and the sweat.

Halfway across the boulder field, it struck me as odd that I still couldn’t find blazes. I’d already hiked Huntington Ravine and other crazy trails in the White Mountains; I felt like I knew how to follow even unusual trails. While neither Chapstick nor Trauma was finding blazes either, we determined this might simply be because we were not able to see them from our vantage points (e.g., perhaps the blazes marking the trail were just on the opposite side of nearby boulders); moreover, we thought we could see where the trail met the boulder field at the latter’s north end, so we kept moving forward.

Exhausted from balancing on, jumping onto, and scrambling over boulders under the summer sun, we were grateful when we were able to duck back into the trees. I got a drink and looked around furtively for a white blaze, so as not to upset either of my hiking companions who were having rough days. We had a problem: The trail was nowhere to be found.

Certain that we weren’t far off the trail and would be able to wander back onto it, we climbed down from the boulders and started looking around for the treadway. All we found were rattlesnakes, lots of rattlesnakes resting coiled under rocks and at the bases of trees. Hearing more rattling nearby, I lost my patience with the whole endeavor.

I assumed a motherly role: “Okay, we’ve gotten off trail. It’s no one’s fault. Just relax on the boulders, and get some water in you both. I’ll head back across the boulder field, find the trail, and see if there’s a way for you to get back on it without crossing the boulder field again.”


I have no idea why “Boulder” is in quotes

Sure enough, on the south side of the boulder field, I found the Appalachian Trail, where a sign pointed down the short side trail I’d just come from, marking a “Boulder Field,” as though it might be a point of interest. I called Trauma, and we figured out the best way for her and Chapstick to get back to the trail.

After hiking over the Boulder Field, Pennsylvania’s rocks couldn’t scare us. We’d seen the worst the state could possibly throw at us, and we’d lived to tell the tale. As we continued northward, I thought, “Bring it on.”