There are a lot of really good reasons to call it quits on a long distance trail before you have reached your ultimate goal: lonliness, homesickness, sickness, injury, family issues, finances, snow, fire, etc. Of the 12 long distance trails I have attmepted, I have actually only finished every mile of 6. Each time I had to quit, I felt like I lost a little piece of my soul. No matter how lonely, painful, or sick I was, it was a really tough call.
My best hiking partner, d=rt, says that at the moment you take your first step on the trail, half of the work is already done. You have made a lot of sacrifices. You may have put hundreds of hours into planning and hundreds of dollars into gear, food, and plane tickets. You (miraculously) convinced your boss to let you take 1-5+ months off. Or, you may have even QUIT YOUR JOB!! You may have moved out of your housing and put all of your stuff in storage. Now, the thought of groveling for your job, throwing all of that money away, and perhaps even letting people who told you you couldn’t do it be able to say that they were right. Ugh.You were committed, but something unplanned happened. Now, your hiking partner(s) are moving on without you (and you were out long enough to realize that those people are your FAMILY). Your hike is over! Not only do you now have to deal with the phenomenon of “post hike depression” (which I’ll write about too), but now you have to deal with failure, lonliness, and maybe even a sense of betrayal (did you not discuss with your hiking partner(s) what would happen if you couldn’t go on?).
Here are some things that I–an EXPERT in trail failure–do to help myself get past it.
BEFORE THE HIKE
First, if you are reading this before you have even left for your long hike, great! Statistically, let’s face it and be super honest here: There is a decent chance you won’t finish. I don’t know what percentage of people finish various trails, but I am guessing it is less than 50%. Being prepared for that eventuality is very helpful. It may not even cross your mind, but just knowing (and accepting) that this is a possibility is a healthy way to be. Obviously, commit to the trail and do everything you can do to stick to it! But, if you have to quit, know that it is not a character flaw. Try to be okay with it.
Another thing you can do BEFORE you have to call it is to talk to your trail buddies/partner and discuss what your expectations are. Will they still go on without you or vice versa if one of you has to quit? Remember, they made a lot of sacrifices too. Support them unless they don’t want to do it without you. And remember, it doesn’t mean they don’t love you if they keep going. Don’t forget: it will be hard on them too, especially if it is a significant other or if you shared gear.
And one other pre-hike plan is to have a rough backup plan. You have all of this time off, take advantage of it and do something that helps you feel good. Like: rent a horse and do it anyway, hike a different trail (if the circumstances don’t apply there), trail angel with your time, or support or slack pack a hiker or two who are still out there. It will help you stay in touch with the experience instead of ripping you straight back into society. If that isn’t an option, you can just plan to sightsee in the part of the country/world in which you were hiking. You are already there. Take advantage of it!
AT THE TIME
Here are some ways to deal with it (of course, it depends on the reasoning) at the time you have to make the call.
1. Decide NOT to quit–yet! Take 1, 2, 3 days, a week off. Go home if you need to. Remember, you probably will regret it if you quit (even if it is the right call). Do everything you can to prolong that last call. Re-evaluate everything. Is there something you can do to make the situation better? Maybe you accept that you can’t do every mile, but you can go slower and stay out for the whole time. In 2006, I was 100% decided I wanted to go home from the PCT at about mile 1600. I waited it out for 3 days and talked to other hikers. I set a new realistic goal and I kept going and finished the trail.
2. Plan something else fun with your time off. Maybe a shorter or lower elevation hike. Maybe you can paddle or cycle instead of hike? Maybe just a legitimate vacation full of margaritas and golf. Whatever.
3. Start planning your next adventure. If you can’t keep going, or even modify your trip, spend your energy setting a new goal instead of dwelling on the “failure” of your first goal. Maybe going home and working long hours is energy well spent so you can save up for something else. Maybe long distance hiking isn’t for you at all? That’s okay! What will you try next? Having a new goal will help ease the pain of this setback.
So, to summarize: in preparing to hike a long distance trail, also understand that there is a real possibility that life will interfere with your plans and you may have to alter them. Have a backup plan and talk with your hiking partner about your expectations. It will probably break your heart, but you will survive. Try to make something else good of it.
If you are reading this and you had to quit a trail this year, reply below and let me know how it affected you and what you did to overcome your disappointment. Best of luck on your reintegration into “real” life.