Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, or Continental Divide Trail is hard. Most fail. I met many successful pilgrims on the trail, and I tried to look for a common thread. Here are some characteristics I thought they would share:

Going through the Tetons on the way north is a great alternative to the traditional CDT route.

  • Wealth: I figured you might need the financial wherewithal to support the multi-month journey. Wrong: one guy (Cheapo) hiked from Georgia to New York on $20.
  • Good gear: Those who travel with shoddy equipment are surely at a disadvantage. Wrong: A man from Concord, California thru-hiked with the same old, decrepit gear he had 35 years ago.
  • Superior nutrition: Poor nutrition would certainly catch up to you during the hike and hamper your ability to finish it. Wrong: A few thru-hikers survived mainly on Snickers and other junk food.
  • Excellent cardiovascular conditioning: Thru-hiking is the ultimate endurance sport, so surely cardiovascular fitness is paramount. Wrong: In Virginia I met George Ziegenfuss who blew that theory—he was in his sixties and hiked the AT with only one lung.
  • Disease-free: Your body should be healthy and free of debilitating diseases. Wrong: Sticks and Stones, two ex-military men, thru-hiked together to raise money for Leukodystrophy, which Sticks battled. Although Leukodystrophy is a progressive disorder that affects the brain, spinal cord and peripheral nerves, it did not stop Sticks from thru-hiking the AT.
  • Youth: I initially thought that being young and strong was a common denominator. Wrong: I recalled the first female thru-hiker I met (Jean)—she was in her sixties. Others have completed it in their seventies. In 2004, Lee “The Easy One” Barry became the oldest person to ever thru-hike the AT: he was 81. The fastest thru-hiker our year was Linsey, a man who biked from California to Georgia, hiked up to Maine in about 72 days, and then biked back to California. He averaged about 30 miles a day on the AT and never took a day off. He was 63.
  • Sight: OK, at the very least, you should be able to see the trail! Right? Wrong again: a blind man, Bill Irwin, hiked the whole trail with his trusty Seeing Eye dog named Orient. It took him nine months (50 percent longer than average) and he fell hundreds of times, but he made it.

I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t seem to find a common denominator among all the successful thru-hikers. Yes, the majority was young, strong, ate healthy food, carried lightweight gear, and could actually see the trail, but there were so many exceptions. It wasn’t until I hit Georgia that I figured it out.

The only common thread that separated the successful thru-hikers from those who weren’t successful was their will. Those who hike the whole Appalachian Trail in one season have an unbreakable will. They want to complete the trail so badly that nothing will stop them. Their rock-solid courage triumphs over the fear and adversity that confronts them throughout their arduous journey.

Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them. A desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have last-minute stamina, they have to be a little faster, they have to have the skill and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill. — Muhammad Ali

Two things to add:

  1. I often tell people that after a couple of hundred miles a thru-hike goes from being a physical challenge to a mental one. In other words, if you can hike a 200+ miles, then there's a 90% chance that you can physically hike 2,000+ miles. At that point you've proven that your body has what it takes. Thus, the only question that remains is: can you mentally do it? That's mostly a question of willpower. 
  2. Although willpower is paramount, increase your odds of success by lightweight and useful gear. Also, it helps to eat healthy calories. :)

This is a modified excerpt from Chapter 3 of Hike Your Own Hike: 7 Life Lessons from Backpacking Across America. You can read the whole first chapter for free. Or you can buy the book at my shop, Amazon, Apple’s iBookstore, Barnes and Noble, and Google Books. (The best deal is at my shop). It’s also available as an audiobook. This was published as "Completing a Thru-Hike," by Francis Tapon. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2011-09-13 00:00:00-06

Your comment will be deleted if:

  • It doesn't add value. (So don't just say, "Nice post!")
  • You use a fake name, like "Cheap Hotels."
  • You embed a self-serving link in your comment.