Top 5 Reasons Thru-Hikers Quit

Just one look at the statistics for any of the long distance trails and you’ll see just how high the drop out rate is compared to the finish rate. Just as there are many reasons why some finish, and just as many more for why others don’t, in this article we will be focusing on the Top 5 Reasons Thru-hikers Quit.

Over the years, the gear and information available to thru-hikers has improved greatly, but finish rates have stayed about the same. One thing that hasn’t changed over the years is the mistakes thru-hikers make. A lot of those mistakes end up being the reasons most quit. Keep reading to find out the Top 5 Reasons Thru-hikers Quit.

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Expectations

To simply say Expectations as a reason thru-hikers quit is a blanket statement at best. Like most of the other top 5 reasons thru-hikers quit, you can break it down in many different ways. For the purpose of this article I’ll talk about some of the most common ones.

  • Mental Expectations – by this I mean the romantic idea that thru-hiking is always fun and never boring or difficult. Failing to recognize that you’re not always going to be happy or that some days you’ll be bored drives a lot of hikers to quit.
  • Physical Expectations – Underestimating the toughness of a thru-hike can lead to injury or illness but it can also be mentally challenging for those who do not have mental toughness. This can lead to fear and self-doubt.
  • Weather/Terrain Expectations – If you haven’t done your research of the conditions and types of terrain you’ll be hiking in, they can come as a shock. The result can be that of the first two bullet points above.
  • Cost Expectations – Failing to properly estimate cost or the failure to properly budget is a major factor for some. The result is they either skip miles or quit completely.

There are many other expectations people bring to the trail, but the above are just a few of the more common ones.

Reasons hikers quit

Photo from Halyway Anywhere’s CDT Hiker Survey.

Ways to Avoid

There are ways to avoid failing victim to expectations and having them become a reason to quit your thru-hike.

Two common threads of my philosophy, in my resources and guides, is to know yourself and to do your homework. Knowing your limits; what you can and can’t deal with, and doing lots of research before you hit the trail, will better prepare you for the challenges you’ll face.

One great way to accomplish the above, and at the same time rid yourself of failure prone expectations, is to do a shakedown hike. You learn about your gear, yourself, and can form a more realistic view of the hike to come.

Sometimes it’s impossible to not have clear expectations. If it helps write down what you your expectations are. Learn to recognize when something isn’t meeting your expectations while on trail. Next, decide if this new reality is something that you can accept and make the necessary mental adjustments.

If you can’t accept the reality of the trail maybe it is time to quit, but if you can accept this new reality, you have a much better chance of being happy and finishing.

Physical

The reality is most people are not as fit as they think they are. Even fit individuals can have a hard time with the day to day physical demands of thru-hiking. More often than not people’s expectation of how hard a thru-hike can physically be falls short of the reality. Lack of fitness can result in injury and quitting. Some try to hike into shape, and injury occurs before their fitness ever comes. Starting out of shape proves too much and their bodies fail.

Hikers with slower paces due to lack of fitness, can find themselves later doing big miles which can also lead to injury and burning out. Both of these can led to quitting.

Another result of lacking physical fitness is one can have a greater chance of succumbing to failed expectations and or run into time constraints. This is why I have Physical reasons for quitting at #2.

Just like with expectations there, are many physical reasons for one to quit. My take is, why make something that is already tough enough, even tougher.

Ways to Avoid

The best way to avoid quitting because of physical reasons is to get in shape. Be as active as you can. Go out and join the gym. Take a strength conditioning class. Do multiple Shakedown Hikes to toughen your body and gain trail confidence.

A lot of people just work on strengthening their legs but one shouldn’t forget the rest of their bodies. A strong core will help your hike more than you think. Lastly, toughen those feet by hiking beforehand.

Hiking for the Wrong Reasons

If you go on a thru-hike for the wrong reasons, no matter how good your intentions, you’re probably going to fail. In my opinion, a thru-hike or any other major adventure taken, better be the #1 most important thing to YOU at that time. It should come before all other things.

Below is a list of some bad reasons to do a thru-hike. You’ll notice some are not focused on self, but outside reasoning.

  • The hike was someone else’s dream or idea, and you tagged along.
  • You plan to find yourself. (It’s one thing if it happens organically but to go with the “expectation” of making it happen probably won’t work.)
  • You’re running away from something else in your life.
  • You have a large chunk of free time and it just looked like fun.
  • Your soul purpose is to raise money or awareness. (You have to first want to be a thru-hiker, then you can think about adding a cause. I’m not saying causes are bad but they shouldn’t be the sole reason for a thru-hike, plus they add a lot of outside pressure that can be mentally tasking.)

There are others but these are some of the more common ones you hear as reasons that can lead to a thru-hiking failure.

Ways to Avoid

Your thru-hike should be yours and yours alone. Before you really decide to commit to a thru-hike, have a serious talk with your inner-self and be sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. Do you really want it? Is it the right time? Only after you clearly and positively answered these questions and more, will you really know if it’s the right decision.

Family

This reason has components that can be both avoided and others that can’t.

A death in the family can’t be planned for. For those who have experienced, this, my heart goes out to you. The thought of what I would do if this happened to me crossed my mind during my last thru-hike on the JMT. It wasn’t a pleasant thought.

Things like graduations, weddings, or other major family events (note I didn’t use the word obligations) are not and should not mean one has to quit a thru-hike. Unfortunately for some, going home to these events means getting a taste of home. Seeing family, friends, or pets can make one homesick and question why they’re thru-hiking in the first place.

In today’s hiking world there are two families. The one you have at home and the one you make on the trail, or Tramily as it’s called. The bond one shares with one’s Tramily can be quite strong. Many times you’ll see a member fall behind due to injury or leaving the trail to attend an event, and the result is they lose contact with their Tramily.

When this happens they are forced with the prospect of skipping a section of trail to rejoin their Tramily, hiking big miles to catch up if possible, or resigning to finishing the hike without them.

None of these prospects are really good ones. I’ve touched on skipping miles and pushing big miles but hiking with your Tramily itself can lead to mental challenges, as well as challenge your expectations. These challenges can prove too much and lead to quitting as well.

Ways to Avoid

As we all know, we can’t avoid death or predict when it may come. It comes for us all. With that said, one can plan around family, work, school or other events. This is one of those cross over areas in this top 5. Keep reading and apply the “Ways to Avoid”, for Timing can be used for this section as well.

When it comes to Tramilies my advice is this: Try not to become so attached to them that if you do get separated from them that you longer want to hike without them. People will come and go and you need to be okay with that. If you can’t you will be forced to make decisions you might not be willing to make.

Time

A lot of people try to plan their thru-hike around life’s other events. Things like jobs, weddings or other life events. The reality is you need to change your thinking so that your thru-hike is #1 and the other things come second.

Most don’t allow or simply don’t have enough time for a thru-hike. The result is that some start with the idea of getting as far as they can, with the idea they’ll come back “someday” and finish. Someday for most, might as well be never. Life happens especially when your thru-hike is not #1.

The other thing that happens is thru-hikers know they have a limited window and they either hike crazy miles, which either leads to injury or burnout. These hikers make bad decisions that can lead to dangerous situations or as I said above, skipping areas in the hope of coming back someday.

A limited window can result in what my friends and I on the AT coined as, “The Fear”. The Fear was the notion that one will not make it to Katahdin and finish before the park closed. The result was they did big miles and constantly worried about their daily mileage. This only serves to take alway from the hiking experience.

Ways to Avoid

Poorly planning your thru-hike for a time when you have other major events or limited time is equivalent to shooting oneself in the foot. If your thru-hike means that much to you, do anything and everything you can to give yourself the best chance at finishing. Allow yourself enough time so you can enjoy it without the stress of worrying about other events or obligations.

If you don’t have enough time or can’t put other events second you might consider doing a section hike instead. A section hike will allow you more flexibility in your planning, allow for a less stressful time on trail by not having to rush, and you can still make it to other events.

If you do have to leave the trail for other events, make sure you allow extra time in your overall plan. Things can go wrong or plans can change. Also try to mentally prepare yourself for the transition from trail to event and back. It can be trickier than you think. Everyone’s thru-hike is going to be different but everyone’s should have a solid, well thought out plan.

Conclusion

As you can see, many of these top 5 reasons thru-hikers quit overlap or one can lead to another.

Some will read this and think, “My life’s too busy, I can’t plan my hike like that” or “I have to just leave the trail for certain events.” or “I’ll hike into shape.” or “It will work out.” My answer to you is, if your thru-hike is important enough, you’ll put it at the top of the priority list and do everything in your power to ensure your own success.

My philosophy has always been this: No matter what your adventure is, it should be the #1 thing in your life at that moment. This can be applied to life in general but for a thru-hike it’s one of the major keys to success. I’ll admit my philosophy and approach to my adventures are strict. With that said, it’s resulted in a 100% success rate.

The reality is once you take on a partner or become part of a tramily, your thru-hike is most likely going to change in one way or another. Be sure to consistently monitor your situation and re-evaluate those changes, or you run the risk of losing sight of your original goals.

The goal of a thru-hike is to hike from the start to the finish. It’s not about your family, off trail events, your tramily or anything else. Making trail friends, partying, or what have you, are just an extra bonus. Have fun, but make sure you don’t lose focus of your original desire to be a thru-hiker.

Reasons 2-5 can be avoided by putting one’s thru-hike first. If your dream to thru-hike is that big, do yourself a favor and do whatever you can to ensure success. Put yourself and your health first, get in shape, manage your expectations, save more than you think, and plan your hike for a time where you can avoid major life events.

Have a plan that ensures your hike will have the best chance of success. Lastly, be sure you’re hiking for you.

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