Just because hiking is so much fun doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly hard at times. In fact, I’d say that most of the time, it’s pretty hard. It’s hard to get up at 3:30 on a Saturday morning instead of staying in bed and reading while you sip coffee. It’s hard getting to the trail head in the dark and it’s cold and windy and you’d rather just stay inside your car and stay warm. Steep uphills are hard, downhills are hard, choking down those dry Clif bars is hard.
That’s personally what I love about hiking. The harder the hike, the more adversity there is to overcome, the sweeter the reward. Little moments on the trail propel me forward: A great view that might be even better in a half mile. There’s a promise of seeing wildlife, like bighorn sheep, deer or bobcats. Those little things are enough for me when I want to give up and go home. They tell me to keep going, there’s more up ahead.
But still, it’s hard.
Over the years, I’ve come up with a few ways to mentally survive hikes that are tough for various reasons, whether it’s length, steepness, elevation gain or all of the above.
Five hiking mental survival tips
1. Don’t look up. I once found it fun to look up at my destination, if I could see it, and realize that’s where I was going to be in a few hours. It still is, but continuing to look up and check your progress as you hike is only going to make you feel like giving up because you’ll find that you’ve rarely made as much progress as you think. A watched summit is never reached. Or something like that.
Keep your eyes and focus on the immediate area around you and enjoy the journey instead. You’ll get there.
2. Hike in the dark. This isn’t for everyone, but if you can stomach it, hike with a headlamp for a few hours. The mental advantage of hiking before dawn is that you can’t easily gauge your progress (unless it’s a very familiar trail). You have no choice but to focus on your immediate surroundings. Starting in the dark also means that you’re almost guaranteed a lovely sunrise. And on loop hikes, hiking the first part in the dark is great because the scenery on the way down is all new to you. Score.
3. Count. I’ve made counting a game in all sorts of ways, depending on how tough things are:
- If I’m trying to make it to a certain point, such as the junction on Gorgonio, I’ll keep my head down and count to 500, then look up and see where I am.
- I count switchbacks and am slowly amassing a mental list of switchback counts on the peaks around here. Nothing feels like progress to me more than counting a bunch of switchbacks.
- Sometimes I’ll just count steps for the sake of counting and see how high I can go.
Counting is a way I’ve found to take my mind off the difficulty of what I’m doing and stay focused on moving forward instead of thinking about giving up. You can count things other than steps, too: Chipmunks, boulders, leaves, whatever makes it interesting for you.
4. Think about your hike in sections. As with any venture with a long road ahead, it helps to think about it in individual stages rather than the end goal. Richard Deutsch does this in One Best Hike: Climbing Yosemite’s Half Dome, and it made the hike seem so much easier. Instant convert. Now, even on my regular hikes, I think in sections and have been known to name some of them if they don’t have proper names.
5. Mentally prepare. Not everyone prepares for things mentally in the same way. Darren and I are a great example of this. I can handle any challenge thrown my way as long as I have time to mentally get ready and I know what to expect. Surprises do not excite me. You really should see my face when I get to a trail marker and learn that I have a half mile more to go than I was led to believe. I’ve been known to quit hikes when that happens.
Darren, on the other hand, gets psyched out knowing the challenges ahead and wants to handle them as they come. For him, learning that there are 750 steps on the Mist Trail was not motivating information; my response is more like “Okay, 750 steps? Yes! Let’s do this!”
Find a method of getting mentally ready that works for you and keeps you fired up.
6. Suck on hard candies. Jolly Ranchers and Werther’s are amazing on the trail. Whenever I hit a hard stretch and feel myself start to drag, I have some water and pop a candy in my mouth. The candy shifts my focus, gives an energy boost and it also keeps my mouth from getting dried out.
What are your mental survival tips and tricks? We could always use more ideas!