Posted on August 28 2018
As the end of thru-hiking season draws near I thought it would be a good time to write an article about Lessons Learned from Thru-Hiking. My experiences are mostly centered around the Pacific Crest Trail but I think you’ll find most if not all of these lessons are true no matter what long trail you have thru-hiked or perhaps even what long adventure you’ve experienced. Thru-hiking changes us. Having these experiences enriches our lives and the lives of those around us who surely benefit from this new person that has emerged from within that has more confidence, kindness, peace, and understanding than when we set out on a journey a couple thousand miles ago. So without further ado I present to you Lessons Learned from Thru-Hiking:
8. Humanity is Good
Before setting out on a thru-hike you probably heard all about how dangerous it would be, how dangerous hitchhiking is, and how you’re going to die out there. By the end of the thru-hike you’ve experienced the trail first hand. You’ve come to realize all those people telling you all those “dangerous” things were coming from people who don’t get out and thru-hike. They probably watch a lot of TV and are caught up in the media telling us how terrible the world is. But, what you experienced was how beautiful humanity can be. There were perfect strangers picking-up you up while you were hitchhiking. They drove you to town. Some of them invited you into their home. Many of them met you on the trail and provided trail magic. These “dangerous people” went shopping, bought food, prepared amazing things, then drove miles upon miles out of their way to feed you, a perfect stranger. They do this because they think what you’re doing is inspiring or perhaps they were paying forward what someone had done for them on their thru-hike or maybe they are gathering information for their upcoming hike. The reasons are numerous but suffice it to say, they were all good. These same perfect strangers also left you and thousands of other hikers water in the middle of a very dry desert section, “Thank you!!”. Of course the world isn’t perfect, but I think now you can see that these people, strangers, humanity, actually are amazing as a species and overall, humanity is good.
7. We Are All Connected
On a thru-hike you have time, a lot of time, to think and talk with people from different backgrounds, different religions, and different cultures. After all these conversations with myself and with them, the one thing that always stands out - we are all fundamentally the same; we are all connected. We all want most of the same things - food, water, basic shelter, education, and peace. During a thru-hike you realize that helping each other out is kind of like helping yourself out. You are paying forward something you may or may not need in the future. Maybe you are paying back what someone else has done for you, on the trail or long before the trail, it doesn’t matter. You help a fellow hiker because deep down inside without even giving a thought to it, we would all want the same if the roles were reversed. We are all the same. We are all connected!
All that quiet time allows us to learn the wonderful lesson of forgiveness. Once you realize we are all connected you can begin to see things differently, including yourself. You can see that what you did in your past isn’t who you are now or what you intended then, it just was. It was a moment of confusion, hostility, anger, etc. You can work through those moments in a way that is suitable for you. You can now see that someone else’s harsh words or seemingly thoughtless actions are not about you. They are caught up in a moment, in an instant of stress, and spout out words or behave in a way towards you that Is less than kind. Yet, you forgive them, seeing the situation for what it is - a reflection of what is going on in their day. You forgive them and yourself and move forward with...
One of the most common words I hear thru-hikers use when describing their time on trail is gratitude. Having an opportunity to thru-hike is amazing beyond words. The highs, the lows, the friends, the experiences, the emotions, the journey….I’m so grateful! I’m grateful for the really bad moments so I could fully appreciate the most amazing moments. I’m grateful for all I was able to work through and leave behind. I’m grateful for the challenges I faced and overcame. I’m grateful I found a way to reach out and ask for help when I needed and to provide help when I was able. I’m grateful to be able to give and to receive. I’m grateful to have had this primal experience that will forever shape who I have become and what I value. Everyday is now full of gratitude.
4. Life is Short, Live Intentionally
Before the trail, we are all living but often if we examine our lives we find out we are just existing. By and large when I ask people what they are going to do after the trail the answer is, “I don’t know!” We don’t know early in the journey because what we do know is we aren’t excited about going back to exactly what we were doing in the same place, but who wants to tell a stranger that?!? What we learn as we thru-hike is what we value most. For some we value time with our family and our friends. For some it’s freedom to travel; for others it’s stability. But no matter what, on a thru-hike we examine our values and come to terms with “Life is Short”. We have only a limited amount of time with the people we love. We have only so much time to accomplish and live our dreams. This all sets into motion a life of intention. We set goals to visit nature more often with the family, to volunteer with an organization we believe in, to travel to that far-off land, or to dedicate ourselves to a career that we are passionate about and to share that love and passion with the world we now know is good. However the trail manifests itself in you, it will surely make you realize that “Life is Short” and the only way to live it now is to “Live Intentionally”.
As thru-hikers finish their journey they talk about all the obstacles they’ve encountered and all the confidence they’ve gained. They had doubts about if they could make it through the desert, the Sierra, the mosquitos, the cold, the heat, the altitude, the loneliness, the...you name it! But once you’ve done that you feel like the world is your oyster. There’s nothing you can’t accomplish if you just get started. Little by little you can learn a new skill, settle down in a new place, build yourself a van/school bus/tiny house. You can run a marathon, finish a triathlon, bike across the country, or any other thing your heart dreams because you just spent months walking through it all - the good, the bad, the blistering pain, and those damn mosquitos. You’re flying high and able to tackle the world because you finally know without a doubt that you can! Your confidence is booming!
Thru-hiking has a LOT of challenges. The weather can change rapidly bringing in heavy rains, blizzards, dangerous wind storms, and unrelenting heat waves. Any and all of these can force you to spend an extra day or days in town or in your tent. A fire closes the section of trail ahead of you. The air is so full of smoke it’s hard to breathe. The gear you ordered didn’t arrive. Your resupply box didn’t show up. Your new shoes are too small. The hotel you booked a room in is suddenly full when you go to check-in. You get injured or are working hard to stave off an injury. A family member becomes ill. ALL of these things and a thousand more things can happen that are unpredictable and beyond your control and require you to become flexible.
No matter how much time you spend planning your thru-hike, it will not go as you planned. It’s hard to understand that or explain that to someone setting off on their hike but it’s true. By the time a hiker has walked 1,000 or 2,000 miles they understand and have experienced this important lesson - flexibility is key. Roll with life. Take it one day at a time. Be prepared to change course. Take an extra day here or there. Who knows who you might meet or how this change might positively affect your journey.
In my experience the greatest lesson of all is impermanence! While all the lessons learned above are great and important, they can be difficult to embrace if you haven’t learned and truly come to appreciate impermanence. Nothing...I mean nothing in this world right now will last forever; therefore it’s impermanent. Why is this the greatest lesson? The worst of moments; the worst of days; the worst week ever...they will ALL end. The worst job is temporary. The feelings of loneliness will pass when a friend or even a stranger sends a smile your way or perhaps engages in a deep conversation with you. The rainy days give way to brilliant sunshine, the cold to the warmth and back again. The world we live in, each moment in changing. It’s impermanent.
Thru-hiking has a way of throwing everything at you during your time on trail. The trail challenges you in ways you could never dream up. It breaks you down and helps you wash away all that was. The trail then begins building you up with all that you are - with confidence, humility, peace, and gratitude. We now understand that we need to let go of everything that brings us down, holds us back, and stops us from accomplishing our dreams. Inside of us, we all know that life is no longer about chasing a paycheck or making someone else happy, it’s about the freedom to be everything we want and know we can be. Impermanence teaches us that we need to embrace the highs, live our life boldly, with fierce gratitude for every moment, for every day, for every friendship and family member, because we know that everything that is great, perfect, and amazing will indeed come to an end. We now treasure these moments, prioritize making these moments, and ensuring our life is exactly what we want it to be!