One of the most universal fears when contemplating a thru hike is the inability to finish.There are plenty of reasons to strive to complete every mile, and it is an objectively lofty and impressive goal. It’s easy to put the value of your hike on this singular moment where you can say you walked 2,650 miles between Mexico and Canada. It’s a standardized feat, and that makes it easier to leverage both in the hiking community and with friends and family. There is also satisfaction in finishing something in its entirety.
All of that is beautiful and admirable, but here is why I am still inspired by those who start a thru hike and choose an alternate ending.
These are stories and perspectives from my time as a PCT thru hiker and as a PT treating thru hikers during the hiking season.
1. It takes courage to pursue the path that serves you, and not what you want others to think of you.
Sometimes it doesn’t take 2,650 miles to fulfill your “why” for hiking. For some this growth happens a lot sooner, and when the hike no longer serves you it is hard to walk away. There’s the fear of letting people down that supported you along the way. There’s the ego of being able to say you finished the whole trail. Ultimately, it’s a radical act of self-love to decide you have gotten what you needed from the trail, and the impression/opinion of others alone is not a reason to continue.
2. Getting started takes more courage than finishing.
I met several hikers that made it to Campo, tagged the monument and went home. It wasn’t fear that did them in, but rather the culmination of feelings that they made it to the starting line. They simplified their life, got their affairs in order, and prioritized themselves to the point of being able to embark on a 5 month journey into the unknown. By this point they don’t even need to hike. Their life looks different than it did when they decided they needed this hike, and that is okay. Actually it’s more than okay—it’s kind of the point.
3. Timing is everything—sometimes life changes and new doors open.
Thru hiking is without a doubt an escape from reality. Life still happens while you’re hiking and sometimes that looks like new opportunities popping up. Thru hiking can at times be an act of self sabotage, and recognizing when it makes sense to take a promotion, take a trip, accept a project or spend time with family is important. The trail is going to be there, but sometimes these opportunities will pass you by.
4. There are other adventures out there.
I have met so many hikers that decided X amount of miles was plenty and they are in the fortunate position to take off work for the rest of the summer. Some international hikers rent cars and explore national parks—making the most of their time in another country. Some spend the summer doing vanlife. I even know a few that have swapped their trekking poles for a bike and finished the summer by taking a big bike trip. There are so many creative ways to spend time off, there are extremely few people getting paid to thru hike so it is inspiring to see people make the most of their vacations.
5. Mother Nature doesn’t give a shit about your thru hike.
This might be an unpopular opinion, but being a “purist” is mostly unrealistic and at times unsafe on the PCT. With climate change, increasing wildfires, and a whole slew of other natural disasters/challenges, the odds of being able to do a straight thru hike on the PCT are lower each year. In some cases the fate of your thru hike is determined by the luck of your permit date and the season’s weather. Respecting nature and when conditions are unsafe is an absolutely valid reason to skip or call a thru hike. No one is impressed by putting yourself in unnecessary danger and draining evacuation resources to salvage every inch of trail. I am so impressed by the hikers of 2022 that took control of their experience by jumping out to the coast, flipping to Washington, skipping around and ahead of danger—making the best of an unfortunate wildfire situation.
6. Dragging out the experience.
Post-trail depression is a very real issue. Those that decide to break their hike up into sections get to look forward to and revisit the trail year after year. It’s an underrated way to hike the trail, and staying connected over the course of years is a gift that section hikers get to experience.
7. Time with loved ones.
Time is our most valuable resource. For some, they simply miss their family and friends. This is in some cases the only time with long gaps in employment. After getting a hiking fix, being able to be home with friends and family while not having to jump back into work is invaluable.
8. Listening to your body.
Injuries happen. Although my personal goal is to help hikers work through them and stay on trail, sometimes that just can’t be done. It can be hard to take a step back and appreciate your able body for all that it did for you up til the point of injury while also giving it the grace to heal and continue to serve you on future adventures/life. Thru hiking is also an objectively unbalanced way to go about physical fitness. The lack of rest, wear and tear and physicality is certainly not for everyone. For those deciding to honor their bodies in a different way, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that decision.
9. Life experience is not measured in miles.
I have met so many hikers that have skipped, flipped, or taken time off while still moving along the trail by hitching, etc. They get to let go of the pressure of getting every mile while still having a ton of life experiences. I’ve met hikers who turned their trip into a hitch hiking adventure—connecting with people not in trail towns and communities not specific to the PCT. Some rent cars and do trail magic for their fellow hikers. Some do a highlight reel hike where they skip the crappy sections. It’s always been surprising to me to hear any backlash about hikers doing this. I think these people are some of the most free people I have ever met. I sometimes wonder why thru hikers get upset about other people skipping. It doesn’t take away from their journey in any way,it is more a testament to how easy it is to envy someone unapologetically doing what is best for them.
10. Knowing you can do hard things/be uncomfortable doesn’t mean you have to continue to do it.
We all know thru hiking kind of sucks. It’s a lot of type 2 fun. It’s part of what makes the town days, random trail magic, summits, and friendships so special. There comes a point where you can be impressed with your ability to overcome hardships, but also learn to appreciate the good things in life without needing to suffer first.
My hope for this article is not that it convinces anyone to quit, but rather makes the conversation less taboo. Indifference doesn’t mean you’re more likely to quit, but in fact may mean just the opposite.
Quitting doesn’t equate failure, and often is an act of radical self love.