When I started my first thru-hike, I was dying to crank big miles from day one. I’d spent years planning for my hike. So when I got to the trail, the heady emotions of finally doing it were nearly overwhelming. I was rarin’ to go—partly to let off steam, partly to chip away at the dauntingly long journey ahead of me, and partly because I felt like I had to prove myself. Could I really do this? I wasn’t sure, but I figured the sooner I started crushing 20s and “embracing the suck” through endless days of cold rain and blisters, the better.
Don’t be like me, guys. Do not fall into this psychological trap. I was lucky to avoid an injury during those first few overzealous weeks (and I did learn to rein in my enthusiasm after a near miss with my ankle, thankfully) but many are not so fortunate.
There is such a thing as pushing too hard, especially in the early days. Ironically, going too fast at the beginning can jeopardize your entire trek if you get sick or injured (or make yourself so miserable you lose heart in the adventure).
It’s crucial to ease yourself into the routine of thru-hiking. That will look different for different people. An experienced, fit thru-hiker may “ease in” with 15s or 20s. Meanwhile, others may need to limit themselves to six or eight miles per day for the first few weeks.
Rather than limiting yourself to an arbitrary number of miles per day, learn to listen to your body and recognize the signs that you may be pushing too hard.
Here are five indicators that you’re overdoing it at the beginning of your thru-hike.
5 Signs You’re Pushing Too Hard
1. You need to take ibuprofen all the time.
Ibuprofen is a must in every thru-hiker’s first aid kit. It comes in handy for controlling inflammation and managing pain every now and then. After all, sometimes you just need a little relief so you can push through to camp or town. It’s OK to take some ibuprofen in the early days of your hike to help manage the pain and discomfort that naturally come with starting such a physically challenging endeavor.
But many new thru-hikers pop “Vitamin I” (a cringeworthy nickname if I ever heard one) like it’s candy, starting as early as Day One. If you’re relying on steady doses of Advil just to make it through each day, you’re pushing too hard. Drop your mileage, take a zero day, change something about your daily routine to get some relief without turning to painkillers.
Remember, pain is a message. It’s your body’s way of telling you something is wrong. Mask it at your own peril. Advil might take some of the pain away, but it isn’t addressing the root problem. You’re putting yourself at greater risk of injury if you simply ignore and push through it day in and day out.
2. You’re getting into camp long after sunset each night.
To some extent, the number of hours you spend on your feet and strapped into your backpack each day affects your level of fatigue more than the distance you hiked that day. Does it take you all day and then some to reach your campsite each night? If so, you may need to reduce your daily mileage goals. Forcing yourself to spend long hours on the trail because you feel you “should” reach a certain destination isn’t going to help you in the long run.
So maybe your fitness level isn’t where you hoped it would be. No big deal. Itineraries change constantly during a thru-hike—the only “schedule” that matters out on the trail is the one your body sets for you. Early in your journey, what your body needs most is rest. Keep moving forward at a pace that’s sustainable for you, while giving yourself plenty of time to recover and enjoy each day. Your trail legs will come in time.
Related: If you’ve been averaging a certain pace and you notice yourself slowing down and struggling more with each passing day, you’re exhausted. Same if you find yourself struggling to get started in the morning (when you should feel your most refreshed and energized). Take a break! Again: be the tortoise, not the hare.
3. You develop shin splints, plantar fasciitis, or other persistent pains.
Again, some aches and pains are normal, but severe, persistent pain in specific areas might be a sign of a problem developing. Plantar fasciitis and shin splints are two very common afflictions among thru-hikers. Both can be caused by overuse, and left unchecked, both can take a hiker off the trail for good. If you start experiencing severe pain, nip it in the bud early. Rest, ice, stretching, and changing up your footwear may be all you need if you catch the issue early.
Over time, you’ll get better at distinguishing garden variety twinges from worrisome pain that could grow into a serious problem. If you’re in doubt, take a break. The delay and expense of an unplanned zero are nothing compared to what you’ll face with a more serious injury.
4. You’re losing weight rapidly.
Many new thru-hikers are so exhausted by the trail that they lose their appetite. My own partner infamously preordered obscene quantities of macadamia nuts to eat on the trail but he ended up giving most of them away because he was “too tired to chew.” The struggle is real.
But even if you think you’re too tired to eat at the end of the day, force yourself to do it anyway. You’re burning a huge amount of energy out there, and you need to replace those calories as best you can. Many hikers lose weight while thru-hiking, but normally it happens gradually over the course of the hike, not all at once at the very beginning.
Next time you’re in town, look for some “happy foods” that you actually want to eat It’s hard to predict from home what foods you’ll like and crave on the trail, and many of us don’t get it right on the first try. Now that you’re actually out there walking the walk, your belly will tell you what it wants. It’s worthwhile to pack out foods, but more appealing, if you’re otherwise having trouble mustering the enthusiasm to eat. (I’ve brought everything from bread and cheese to fresh grapefruits and cherries on the trail. It’s fine—and so worth it if it makes you happy.)
Take care of your body out there. You need energy and strong muscles to make it on a thru-hike.
5. You’re not having fun.
If you’re not enjoying yourself, it might mean thru-hiking just isn’t for you. But maybe it’s just that it’s new, it’s hard, everything hurts, you’re wet and hungry all the time, and you don’t know anyone yet. There will be hiccups along the way as you transition into the radically different lifestyle of thru-hiking. Give yourself time to adjust before making any rash decisions.
As our hiker in chief, Zach, points out in Appalachian Trials, you shouldn’t quit your thru-hike on a bad day. Instead, try changing up your routine. Slow down, smell the (literal or figurative) roses, or spend a few days in town to regroup. If the weather sucks, take a break instead of forcing yourself to hike through it. Stop focusing on miles and destinations and enjoy the journey at a pace that feels more comfortable.
Many people run into trouble because of their pace relative to other hikers on the trail. Some people are so focused on miles that they never slow down to meet other people and make friends. This can result in feelings of loneliness and dissatisfaction. Meanwhile, others hike faster and farther than they’re ready to in order to stick with a group they like.
Just remember that it’s a long trail. There’s no need to hurt yourself trying to pace with someone because odds are you’ll bump into each other again. I was hiking 10-mile days at the beginning of my thru-hike while others were hiking 20s, and I still ended up bumping into many of them a few hundred miles later because they slowed down or took time off the trail in the interim.
Thru-hiking is tough, but it’s also a volunteer activity. No one’s forcing you to do it. So if you want to succeed, it’s just as important to cultivate your happiness as your trail legs.
One of our PCT bloggers recently posted a list of goals for the trail that have nothing to do with making it to Canada and everything to do with maximizing the experience of the trail itself. This is a great exercise to help keep yourself living in the moment on your thru-hike.
Translation: smiles before miles.
Morale of the story?
It’s a marathon, not a sprint. It likely goes without saying, but this isn’t an exhaustive list of signs you could be pushing yourself too hard. Fatigue can manifest in many ways. At the end of the day, you know yourself best. Your body and heart will tell you if you’re overdoing it: you just have to be receptive to the message.
Featured image: Graphic design by Jillian Verner (@yourstrulyjillian).