Hikers spends months, sometimes years, preparing for their shot at thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.  They pour through hundreds of gear articles in hopes of cutting their pack weight down a few more ounces.  They cook, dehydrate, pack, and ship dozens of priority mail boxes full of trail meals.  They adopt strenuous workout regimens to brace their legs for the immense load of shouldering 20+ lb. up and down mountains all day, everyday.

Yet despite all this preparation, seven in ten of those who attempt a thru-hike fail.  

Aspiring thru-hikers do everything they've been told is necessary to prepare themselves for a half year backpacking trip (unless your name is Jennifer Pharr Davis, then it's more like a month and a half), but unfortunately, they're doing it all wrong.  They're training for a physical and logistical battle.  But let's not mince words: thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is a mental challenge.

How do I know?

In 2011, I attempted to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.  It was my first backpacking trip.  Of any distance.  Ever.  I learned how to pitch a tent only a few days prior to embarking.  My first attempt at operating my JetBoil wasn't until my first night on Trail (and unsuccessfully so- for those keeping score at home).  Yes I'm serious (and also a little stupid).

Here's the kicker: I finished.  I joined the exclusive minority of hikers who traverse the full 2,180+ mile length of the Trail.

How did I do it?

zach davis white blaze

I trained my brain.  Although I knew next to nothing about the contents of my pack, I set foot onto Springer Mountain having mastered the manual for the gear between my ears.  I was equal parts ignorant and insistent.

And although many of those who finish the Trail do so by gritting their teeth and marching to the tune of their own misery, I was able to keep a positive mindset throughout my journey- even after contracting West Nile virus (again, I'm serious).

So how does one train their brain for a successful and happy thru-hike?  I thought you'd never ask.

3 Ways to Train Your Brain for the Appalachian Trail

1) Knowing Your Why

In all honesty, this tactic should be #1, 2, and 3- it's that important.  Although other methods will utilize our extrinsic motivators, an intrinsic drive is what allows us to actually enjoy the experience.  Remember, gritting your teeth is admirable, but to truly master the mental game, we want as many of those 5 million steps as possible to be lead with a smile.

To know your why is to know your purpose.  It's a snapshot into the emotional state of what brought you onto the Trail in the first place.  When caught doing a light jog through a hail storm in hopes of avoiding hypothermia, it becomes a bit easier to forget why you've subjected yourself to such an endeavor.  Instead of being at the mercy of these volatile emotions, it's important to arm yourself with a solid foundation.

We'll accomplish this by writing (not just thinking or saying) the reasons you're thru-hike the Appalachian Trail- broken down into three distinct lists:

  1. I am thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail because... (this is your why)
  2. When I successfully thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, I will... (these are the personal benefits you'll acquire upon reaching Katahdin)
  3. If I give up on the Appalachian Trail, I will... (these are the negative perceptions you'll develop of yourself if you quit - harsh but effective)

I encourage hikers to spend at least 10-15 minutes on each of these lists.  Half assing this part is as good as bypassing the exercise altogether.  It's important that we tap into the uncomfortable and deep seated emotions behind why you're hiking in order to convince your future self as to why you cannot throw in the towel.

It may sound silly, but I've received dozens of emails from successful thru-hikers saying that their lists played a huge role in achieving their goal.  If you take one thing away from this article, let it be this.  It works, trust me.

2) Go Public

We've touched upon an intrinsic motivator, now let's utilize the power of our ego.

If you're serious about walking from Georgia to Maine- there is one fact that is undeniable: you are a badass!  Few feats in life can compare with thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.  It's a physical accomplishment most cannot fathom.  It's a rite of passage few voluntarily subject themselves to.  You will be that guy/girl your friends, family, and neighbors talk about admirably.

But only if you let them.  And you should.

Going public with your plans means that others will hold you accountable for your bold ambitions.  If at any point along the Trail you want to back out, not only do you have to look yourself in the mirror, but you'll have a lot of people to answer to.  This is a shame we'd go miles (approximately 2,200) to avoid.

Use this social pressure in your favor!  Tell your friends and family.  Tell your colleagues, classmates, cribbage club, and chiropractor.  Tell the Internet.  Tell strangers.  Tell pets.  Tell anyone or anything willing to listen.

It wasn't until I announced that I was going to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail on my website that I took this daunting task seriously.  All of a sudden the pressure became much more intense, and although it was difficult, I'm glad I pushed myself off that cliff.  So will you.

3) Visualize Success

Even though Appalachian Trials offers more than 150 pages worth of tips on mentally preparing for a thru-hike, I wanted to present one tactic not included in the book.

I refer to visualizing success.

In the weeks leading up to the trail, I lost much sleep due to elaborate visualizations of what my new life would look like- and more importantly- how I would react.  I envisioned myself going through the motions all the way to the point of summitting Katahdin.

zach davis - katahdin

And although some literature (e.g. The Secret) has received a bad rap for its fantastical representation on the power of visualization, it's not voodoo or hocus pocus.  There's good science to support it's effectiveness.  It's a strategy used by world class athletes such as Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, and Michael Phelps.

“Everything you can imagine is real.” – Pablo Picasso

If you're serious about your goal, envision it.  Picture your journey down to the finest detail.  Imagine the soft wet ground beneath your tent as you try to fall asleep.  Imagine walking through a densely packed forest with nothing but white blazes guiding your way.  Imagine each step of the process all the way to your final ascent of Mt. Katahdin.  When doing so, combine this tactic with the person you will become upon achieving your goal (see: tip #1).

Finding your why, utilizing social pressures, and visualizing your success might not be conventional forms of preparing for a half year backpacking trip, but convention currently results in a 70% failure rate.  Dare to be different.  Dare to succeed.

Zach Davis is an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, bearded adventurer, and author of Appalachian Trials: A Psychological and Emotional Guide to Successfully Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail.  His current passion has him as the Managing Editor at Appalachian Trials (the website), a community of Appalachian Trail enthusiasts.  You can find him on FacebookTwitter, and Google