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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

PCT: Here's why...

~ An answer to my Dad's "Why?" question ~

My Dad on more than one occasion asked me why I like thru-hiking so much.  He asked me during the time I was planning to hike the Colorado Trail in 2016.  He asked again when we hiked into Chicago Basin in the San Juan range in Colorado for a few days.  I also remember him asking me this during a couple of backpacking trips we had done on the WRT and STS trails in Pennsylvania.

Dad and I at a camp with a view on the WRT in 2017

The answer I gave may not have communicated my reasons very well, because he still asks me this as I prepare for the PCT.  I know his train of thought is probably shared by many people, so I will do my best to communicate the "why" in this post.  Or maybe more accurately, my goal is to answer the question of, "Why do I choose voluntarily to suffer so much?"

Thru-hiking has been described by many people in many ways.  There are some undeniable facts about thru-hiking that share a common thread in all these descriptions.


Yes, we hunt endlessly for water.  Sometimes we filter water from questionable sources and when we drink it, it sometimes tastes like cow shit. 

Yes, we are ALWAYS hungry.  I mean, seriously hungry.  At mile four-hundred-something on the Colorado Trail, I picked up a jelly bean I found in the middle of the trail in the dirt.  I didn't even brush it off.  I just popped that purple beauty in my mouth and kept walking, now with a slightly wider smile.

Yes, we are in pain nearly all the time.  Ankles twist.  Knees hyperextend.  Feet get bone bruises or plantar fasciitis.  Feet also get blisters.  Backs get bulging disks from sleeping on the ground.  Hips and shoulders get bruised and sore from our backpacks.  Chaffing happens.  Poison oak happens.  Yellow jackets happen.  Mosquitos happen.  And blisters get blisters.  It all can lead to very real pain. 

Suffering on a hike on a rather wet trail near Crystal Peak in Colorado

And even if you avoid the physical pains, there's plenty of tests of one's mental toughness too.  Everything can test your commitment to finishing the goal.  All of the above physical challenges with or without a side of any combination of the following:  Stifling heat, dangerous thunderstorms, endless days of rain, snow, rivers raging with snowmelt to ford, fierce cold winds, nights with coyotes howling so close it sounds like they are in the tent next to you, brutal unrelenting sun, forest fires, road walks on dangerous highways thanks to trail closures, spiders, snakes, bears, mountain lions, sleep deprivation, loneliness, hiking alone, creepy day hikers, dehydration, sunburn, tents that rip, sleeping pads that can't be patched, running out of food, running out of whiskey, smelling so bad that you don't even notice, not making enough miles each day, etc.

All of these unknown variables is commonly described as "adventure".  Adventure begins where plans aren't.  Some see it as adventure, others see it as suffering.  Often adventure and suffering are inseparable.  Mental suffering is rooted in people's fears.  Conquering these fears is what leads to the thrill factor.  For example, you also can't have the thrill of white-water rafting without the dangerous rapids and the freezing cold water.

You have not truly lived if you have never risked dying.

And then there's worrying about resupplying which often involves trying to fit into the odd hours of the U.S. Postal Service. 

And there's the people that can't seem to leave their "real life" behind.  They worry about jobs, family, and money.  These are the ones that leave the trail first usually.

That all being said, everything is perspective.  We're really not suffering, at least not like refuges of war, or people made homeless by natural disasters.  We suffer in our own thru-hiker way and the best part about that is we are all suffering together.  This brings me to my next point.


Having a common goal and having to endure through tough conditions builds a level of camaraderie that simply cannot be found in most people's day to day lives.  Unless maybe those people are in certain jobs that build a similar level of camaraderie.  A couple examples I can think of are a small unit in the military or maybe a fire fighting unit.  That being said, some of us, myself included long for this level of friendship. 

In my experience having this deep level of bonding requires a few things:

1.  Trust
2.  A shared goal, mission, or even a shared enemy.
3.  Time
4.  Conversation

Just a few of the great guys I built camaraderie with on the Colorado Trail in 2016.


Trust is built more quickly on the trail than off the trail.  It's primarily built quicker because the stakes are higher.  On the trail, the stakes are high since it's ultimately one's survival or suffering that is at stake.  Therefore, trust can be built with simple acts of kindness like when navigation skills are shared, knowledge is shared, food is shared, etc.  Because, when these things are shared, you may be saving someone from an immense amount of suffering or maybe even worse.

Simple day to day things on the trail build trust.  When someone saves you a bit of walking by sharing information about an off-trail water source being dry, that builds trust.

When someone with extra food offers you a protein bar when you are still 10 miles away from your resupply and you have no food, this builds trust.

A shared goal, mission, or even a shared enemy

Thru hikers have a shared goal of finishing the trail.  While many hikers have other goals of how they want to hike or things they want to do along the way, the end goal allows people to bond so much easier since that end goal is never a doubt. 

And common enemies bond people quickly too.  This is seen in wars in history and in many other situations in life.  In school, I remember fighting my brother in the cafeteria until someone else decided they'd get involved.  This third party was not welcome in our fight.  My brother and I didn't even say anything to each other, it was just understood.  With a new common enemy my brother and I immediately stopped trying to fight each other and turned our attention to this unwelcome person trying to interrupt our fraternal bonding.

Sometimes, on the trail, the common enemy is the weather, or the trail conditions, or Texans continually driving by and waving while you are hitchhiking to town.

Trail family at its finest.


The more opportunities over time to share in misery or share beautiful sights allows time for bonding.  There's a lot of time available with walking over 2600 miles.


Nowadays with smart phones, social media, and people becoming even more isolated from one another, conversation is a dying skill.  That being said, real face to face conversation has a power to bond people more than any other type of communication.  Being on the trail and having plenty of places with no cell signal, offers a unique opportunity today for actual people talking with one another.

When you mix trust, with a shared goal, and add a little time and good conversation... you literally are creating camaraderie.  Where else can you do this?

Trust is built on days like this.


On a thru-hike, one can go for weeks or months without most of the luxuries we all take for granted:  running water, electricity, heat, air conditioning, showers, Netflix, the internet, food that is not rehydrated, flushing toilets, fresh fruit & vegetables, transportation, clean clothes, a comfy couch to sit on, lights at night, etc.

When you live with these luxuries every day, you get used to them.  Eventually most people will lose an appreciation for them.  Many people probably cannot even fathom living without these things. 

However, when you go without these things, and voluntarily give them up, you actually gain so much.  You gain perspective. 

When you go months, maybe your happiest months ever, and realize you did it all with just the possessions in your backpack, but with people you love like family.  It leads to asking yourself healthy questions, perspective based questions.

Suddenly you realize the kind of car you drive means nothing.  The house you live in means nothing.  The things you own mean nothing.  Everything is the experiences you have and the people you share them with.

This is what matters.  Moments with people you love.



Lastly, being in nature for weeks or months on end is just a healthy thing.  People weren't meant to be stuck inside without natural light.  Leave whatever screen you are reading this on and go outside.  This is what you are missing.  Just a few memorable shots from the Colorado Trail in 2016.



  1. Wow. I know I can’t be objective about your post for parents, by definition, are bias. Given that, this is a great post. Well written. Funny, serious, emotional, and thought provoking.

    Great answer.

  2. In some weird way, I envy your being able to do something like this that obviously means so much to you. I hope you have the time of your life, but I wouldn't be your mom if I didn't say "be careful!" Love you.