Backpacking: Tips to Keep Hiking When You Don't Feel Like It
Perseverance on the Trail
We hit the trail full of enthusiasm, eager to explore the great outdoors, breathe the fresh air, and get away from our "regular" lives.
But at some point during the backpacking trip, our mood may change dramatically. We feel tired, our feet hurt, we're sick of stumbling over rocks and sloshing through mud. We stink. We're homesick. There's a leak in the tent. It's too hot. The beautiful mountaintop views we had so eagerly anticipated have been blocked by clouds.
Or maybe there's nothing wrong with the trip; we just realize it's not what we had expected or wanted.
Backpacking is a tremendous experience -- but it's not always easy. In addition to the physical demands of hiking for miles with 20-40 pounds on our backs, there are psychological challenges involved with life on the trail.
This article is about persevering through the mental challenges that face us while backpacking. If there is a physical injury or illness, then by all means take care of yourself and leave the trail if necessary!
I am suggesting ways to keep hiking when the hiking gets tough, but I am certainly not advocating staying on the trail under dangerous circumstances!
When you just feel like quitting
Mental blocks and emotional traps can present themselves on a weekend backpacking trip, a half-year thru-hike, or anything in between. They may occur when the novelty of the hike wears off or the hike becomes more physically demanding. They can happen as a result of any number of things or for no apparent reason whatsoever.
In order to complete the backpacking trip, you have to somehow get through the maze of traps in your own mind. But how do you keep hiking when you don't feel like it? Why stay on the trail when you just want to go home?
Sometimes, of course, there is no choice but to continue. If the car is at the parking area 50 miles away, you must hike your way out. You may be perfectly miserable, but you will somehow force yourself to put one foot in front of the other because there are no other options if you want to get out of the woods and go home.
In other situations, though, there is a very real option to end the backpacking trip sooner than planned. Perhaps there is a road crossing where you could hitch a ride back to your car. To a nearby town. To home. To anywhere on earth that isn't this rotten trail!
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These are my articles related to hiking, backpacking, and other outdoor activities. I am an experienced backpacker and thru-hiker, and now enjoy hiking and camping with my children.
Why Leave the Trail? Why Keep Hiking?
There are legitimate reasons why hikers have to leave the trail, and it should not be taken as a failure when that occurs. Indeed, it is perfectly valid to choose to leave the trail simply because you want to leave. If the experience is not what you had hoped for and is making you miserable, the best thing may be to go home and enjoy a nice, hot shower.
However, the real insights, pleasures, and gifts of the backpacking experience are sometimes found only after facing your doubts, fears, and pains and completing the hike. It is that very struggle to persevere that gives the journey some of its meaning. Rising to the occasion teaches us to keep going, to endure more than we want -- perhaps even more than we knew we could.
We are rewarded not only with newfound or recharged confidence but also with the beauty of nature. Whether in the form grand views or small sightings of flowers or animal tracks, the privilege of being on the trail is powerful and precious. If you end the hike early, you will not see whatever awaits you farther down the trail.
It's not a bad thing!
Sometimes it all comes down to simple stubbornness. Your body hurts; you don't want to hike any longer; you're hungry, grumpy, and smell worse than you ever imagined possible. But you keep going. You continue to hike even though you don't feel like it.
The good thing about stubbornness is that it helps us to get through difficult situations. The downside is that it can cause us to trudge through with blinders on. We can be so focused on the end goal of completing the hike that we don't even notice our surroundings.
While stubbornly plowing through the trail, do your best to see and appreciate the good things about your journey. Sometimes the greatest beauty or most profound experiences lie in the tiniest of details. Do not allow stubborn hiking to cause you to miss the very things you came backpacking to see.
The Mountain Is Not Out To Get You!
Sometimes as we hike up yet another steep and difficult hill, we start to curse the mountain under our breath. We may even curse those who designed the trail to go up this horrid mountain. We may decide to show that lousy mountain how tough we are and resentfully chug up its steep slope, only to hike down the other side and see...Another nasty mountain! And the cursing starts all over again...
While it is tempting to blame the mountain for our misery, remember that none of this is the mountain's fault! That mountain was there for countless years before you were born and will be there for countless years after your death. It is a mountain. It's just there, being a mountain, minding its own business. It was not the mountain's idea for you to hike; it was yours. The mountain is part of your journey. Thank it for being a mountain.
One mantra I use when hiking up, up, up is, "The view from the top of the mountain is worth the effort to get there."
Of course, this doesn't always hold true, as some mountains do not offer views -- or the view may be clouded in that day!
Sometimes It's Not a Mountain
It may not be a mountain that is the object of your anger or frustration. It could be various weather conditions, physical discomfort, water sources that are difficult to reach, bad attitudes of fellow hikers, malfunctioning gear, "boring" scenery, or some other aspect of the backpacking trip that is rubbing you the wrong way.
Identify what it is that is upsetting you and try to put it into context. You don't have to pretend to like whatever it is, but do what is necessary so that the challenge does not derail the entire backpacking trip. Acknowledge the difficulty in a way that allows you to still appreciate the good things encountered along the trail.
For example, when trudging through rain and mud, I might say, "This means that water sources will be plentiful," or, "I always hike faster in the rain -- I'm making good time!"
Read More about the Emotional Challenges of Backpacking
These are books that specifically address mental and emotional aspects of backpacking and long-distance backpacking.
Preparing for the mental and emotional challenges of backpacking is AT LEAST as important as physical training!
Take a Break
Go to town and see how you feel
If you are on an extended backpacking trip and find yourself struggling to continue the journey, stop at a local town for a day or two or three. Stay at a hotel or hostel, enjoy a hot shower, eat at a restaurant, call a friend or family member.
After having a bit of down-time, evaluate your thoughts and feelings. Do you miss the trail? If so, then good -- now go pick up your hike!
Does the thought of returning to the trail fill you with dread, sadness, or other negative feelings? Then take another day or two to rejuvenate in the town. If the desire to continue hiking does not return, it may be time to go home. Allow yourself to make the choice to leave the trail with honor and grace, knowing that you gave it a noble effort and discovered that this adventure isn't for you.
Some years ago I read a phrase that has stuck with me: Shadowboxing with your own mind.
Essentially, it means that we sometimes find ourselves engaged in an internal battle, fighting against ourselves. This happens in a number of arenas, including backpacking.
We want to backpack. We want to complete our journey along the trail. We want to see the sights and enjoy the benefits of the experience.
But part of us desperately wants to leave the trail and go home. This part of us is generally driven by fear, discomfort, anxiety, doubt, or other negative feelings. It is a form of self-sabotage, though the intentions are probably rooted in evolutionary self-preservation.
Shadowboxing in Action
The way this conflict presents itself is fascinating, though not always easy to recognize. The mind comes up with a multitude of reasons to leave the trail: this is boring, my entire body hurts, the sleeping pad isn't comfortable, the backpack is too heavy, the trail is too difficult, there's too much rain, I'm hungry, the bugs are awful, I'm miserable, I'm homesick, I've been out on the trail long enough, I'm lonely, there's an important project I have to work on at home...
More than a list of complaints or excuses, the mind may offer perfectly logical and sensible reasons to go home. The drive to go home may be strong, and the mind is working very hard to convince us to leave the trail, to go back to a place of safety, security, and comfort, or to begin an exciting project or new phase of life.
Standing Up to Doubt and Fear
Engaging in the shadowboxing match
It is hard to resist the compelling arguments created by our own self-doubt and anxiety. Indeed, it is difficult to even recognize that it is not our whole selves lobbying to get off the trail. Because the shadowboxing occurs within our own minds, it may seem as if that one component of our brains speaks for our entire psyche. It does not.
Listen carefully to the other thoughts and desires within the mind and heart. The self-doubt may be very loud, trying to drown out the other "voices" because it is so desperate to leave the trail. But try to access all of your thoughts and feelings.
Remind yourself why you are on the trail. Reassure yourself that you are capable of persevering, that you want to stay on the trail. Recognize that some things on the trail are difficult and not fun. You might even try cutting a deal with your self-doubt, offering to re-evaluate in a few hours, days, or weeks -- depending on the length of the planned trip -- but that, for now, you will focus on staying on the trail rather than finding excuses to leave.
Identify the Shadowboxing Match in Order to Free Yourself
You can't get out of it when you don't realize you're in it
Once you understand the internal battle, you are better able to talk yourself through the challenges in whatever way works for you. If you only listen to the negativity and various forms of self-sabotage, you are not affording yourself the opportunity to face your inner demons, focus on your true goals, discover your own strength, and grow as a person.
Sometimes just recognizing that shadowboxing is occurring is enough to ease the internal struggle and turmoil, and you may not have to specifically talk your way through your inner resistance.
On and Off the Trail
Self-doubt and fear can stop us in our tracks
Shadowboxing within our minds occurs in life, both on and off the trail. Resulting from anxiety, self-doubt, and other forms of resistance or self-sabotage, shadowboxing is a way in which our fears may express themselves. Fear has powerful evolutionary roots and has allowed people to survive life-threatening situations over the millennia.
But in modern life, fear can often stop us in our tracks, causing us to behave as if we are facing life-threatening situations even when we are not. Learning to recognize and deal with shadowboxing within our minds can help us make our way through difficult terrain in our lives as well as on the backpacking trail.
Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong
This is an excellent, practical book about living with anxiety and self-doubt. It is not about overcoming our fears; it is about LIVING with them. Whether you experience mild worrying or regularly feel paralyzed by fear and anxiety, this is a book well worth reading. It is written with a sense of humor and empathy.