No Pain, No Maine?
Long distance hiking or thru-hiking is challenging both mentally and physically. Whether you are hiking the Appalachian Trail or another long distance trail, the continuous step-by-step motion from dusk to dawn, repeated day-after-day requires considerable effort and determination. It can feel monotonous. And it may involve pain. At some point, you will ponder whether or not you can make it. Or you may realize you can finish, but do not think it is worth the effort and time.
AT thru-hikers accept that the 2,168-mile trek from Georgia to Maine will not be without aches. Hence the expression, “No Pain, No Maine” is a common exchange among backpackers on the AT. This doesn’t mean a thru-hike is a painful and miserable endeavor. But, it does suggest you be tough. It also helps to know what to expect beforehand.
The decision to attempt a thru-hike is a big one. It will consume a significant portion of your life and resources. There is a lot of planning and logistics involved pre-hike – testing existing gear, researching & purchasing new gear, gathering food stuff, acquiring proper maps/guides, budgeting and organizing mail drops.
There are numerous websites and guide books covering thru-hike planning in detail. Though AT focused, Whiteblaze.net is a good starting resource for most any long distance trail – see Listing of other Long Trails for others. Also, discover the experiences of past thru-hikers by reading their journals and books. Outdoor Herbivore provides food delivery services for hikers, as well. We hold and ship hiker boxes to your resupply location when you need them.
Besides the planning and preparing for the mental challenge, there is also physical conditioning.
If you are already in good physical condition, it will work to your advantage. Congratulations: your muscles are already primed to work. Your starting pace will be faster, so you will be able to cover more mileage from the beginning. And if you are not physically fit, you will become fit as you hike. Regardless, do schedule in plenty of day and weekend hikes to condition your body prior to the long hike. Build up your endurance by walking several miles daily around the neighborhood, a park, or the gym. When you have a day off, get to a nearby trail and stay overnight to test out your sleeping system and backpacking food.
Perform exercises that engage your pack-carrying muscles. Uphill backpacking requires strength in calves, glutes, and hamstrings. Downhill hiking requires strength in the quadriceps and core. If you don’t have access to mountains nearby, add weight to your backpack for conditioning and endurance. Add your weighted pack and go up and down hills, the stairs at home/work, or use gym equipment.
If possible, replicate some of the characteristics that you’ll experience on your thru-hike – elevation changes, rugged trail conditions and inclement weather. Use every opportunity to test out new gear, shoe fit, pack fit, sleep system, water purification, trail cooking methods and meal preferences.
Spend at least a few nights outside under non-ideal conditions in preparation for the big hike. You need to know how it feels to keep walking with you feel achy, sweaty, and thirsty, or to wake up hungry, cold, and damp. Or to hike when the rain is pouring buckets, your fingers are numb from the cold, and your stomach is growling with hunger. Or when your shoulders and hips ache from the weight of your pack, and you are too sore and tired to stop and rest your blistered feet. The more you brave the trail experience in inclement weather or difficult circumstances, the more likely you are to keep going when the going gets extra tough.
There is not much you can do to prepare for the mental challenge of a thru-hike. It all comes down to how much you want to finish. You can stay motivated for awhile by imagining the day you tread your last mile, and how elated you’ll feel to have finished knowing you footed the entire distance. But the reality of finishing is not always enough to stay motivated when the will starts to wane. The ability to handle the repetition (walk, camp, walk) becomes a real challenge and somewhere along the way it can give way to boredom. And boredom can squeeze out the willpower to tread on. Other things happening off the trail at home compete for your interest, plus you miss your family and friends.
What else can you do to keep yourself enthusiastic during a thru-hike?
When hiking starts to feel monotonous, get curious
Having good company on the trail helps. That is not always possible though. Human partner or not, you are never alone. Life surrounds you. Start observing and listening to all the sounds serenading you. The more you discover, the more fascinating it becomes. It truly is like removing a blindfold and seeing for the first time. Mindful hiking is meditation in action. Like anything else, thru-hiking can be done mindlessly or mindfully. Try not to let your mind aimlessly drift away on fantasies of wolfing down a greasy pizza and guzzling beer.
Instead, see and listen to what is around you and observe it carefully.
A casual observer may see nothing but endless trees, shrubs, and rocks. Look beyond the surface and ask plenty of questions: Who created this trail? What is that? When was this created? Where does this come from? Why is it that way? How does it work? Who, what, when, where, why, and how to keep the mind actively engaged and curious.
In the case of hiking the AT, Virginia can be a tough state to finish due to the length of miles and the endless forested landscape. The scenery seems to pass unchanged. The greenery all blends and becomes dull. But it is not. Start noticing the detail of the trees, the different leaf shapes, and the varying colors of green. Notice all the rich undergrowth of shrubbery. Listen to the harmony of nearby birds. Hearing the ethereal duet of a wood thrush is a real treasure. Did you know a male wood thrush uses two voice boxes to sing two notes simultaneously? Try to view the sky through all the tree cover, notice the position of the sun and the various cloud formations. Catch a sight of black bears napping underneath rock cropping. Observe the tiny insects darting their way across the path, the intricate detail of a spider web, and the colorful salamanders that burrow around the rocks in a cool mountain stream. The wilderness is a fascinating world to explore.
Learn the habitat
- What wildlife will you share the trail with? How will you recognize it? What does its tracks or scat look like? How does it survive?
- Is there a particular species you may encounter that is endangered or threatened and why?
- Learn how to identify birdsong. Learn how each acquires its songs, how the songs vary from bird to bird and place to place. Check out books such as “The backyard birdsong guide” to learn how to recognize bird song.
- What type of flora is present out there? What plants are edible?
- How did the water sources form? What river do the streams eventually flow to?
- What is the history of the area? What types of historic conditions created the terrain? What rocks are present and why?
Can you eat certain foods to eat less pain?
What happens when you start losing interest due to pain? Excitement and concentration will wane once your aches and pains interfere with your hiking. There is only so much you can do to distract yourself from pain. Whether you are experiencing sore hips or knees from hiking, an injury such as a twisted ankle, or just a bad headache, there are foods you can consume to help ease the pain away…naturally. Eating a diet that includes anti-inflammatory foods can reduce inflammation and pain. Staying healthy and eating right also plays an enormous role in how you feel and your ability to finish a thru-hike.
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