January 14, 2016 / Comments (9)

It’s All in Your Head: Hiking is a Mental Challenge

hiking is a mental challenge

There’s no doubt that hiking is physically challenging. Between the steep ups and down, loose talus, slick roots, chilling water crossings, altitude issue, and a constant battle with the weather, there’s something to push you physically at just about every turn. For most people, the physical challenges don’t keep people off the trail. Hiking is a mental challenge and the reason you might not be on the trail very well may be all in your head.

You may have heard hiking in general is too dangerous or people tell you going solo, in winter, long distance, and so forth is “just plain stupid”. Yup, that’s a recent one I was told over the holidays.

For women, it tends to be even harder to hit the trail with all this negativity. Between the violence we see in movies, news stories about abductions and rape, and the overwhelming consensus from non-hikers that women should not be on the trail (especially solo), I don’t blame you for getting the heebie–jeebies everything you hear a twig snap in the woods.

The truth is, when you boil it all down, what you’re planning to do is simply walking. If you gain skills and knowledge before you start a trek, you’re good to go. There isn’t a single truth to hiking or backpacking being more difficult or dangerous for women. In fact, some of the most accomplished hikers out there are women!

In interviews with many of these women, all of them agree that hiking is more mental than physical. You can train to be more physically fit and learn how to protect yourself from the elements, but many leave the trail (or don’t start hiking at all) out of fear and uncertainty.

It’s hard to start something new without the support of your friends and family. Personally, I got a lot of backlash for solo hiking, specifically as a woman. I took my family camping in the White Mountains and got them involved with my passion the only way I knew. They’ve since seen the light and really support my hikes.

Sometimes I get negative comments that I just need to push aside as I now know how beneficial hiking is for me. When I returned from my 15 day solo thru hike of the John Muir Trail, a family friend told me, “you’re lucky nothing happened to you” as if I should have been expecting something terrible to happen on my hike.

Jennifer Pharr Davis, widely known for her supported Appalachian Trail speed record (recently beat by Scott Jurek), has similar advice.

“I always encourage folks to include their friends and family in the adventure. Even if they’re not hikers. By staying accountable with loved ones and sharing hiking stories with them, it is likely that they will become more supportive of your hobby. After all, fear and concern is often routed in a lack of knowledge or experience.”

                                                                                                  – Jennifer Pharr Davis

While you’re working hard to win over the support of friends and family, you are likely trying to convince yourself everything is okay.

Remember, hiking is a mental challenge — and that’s what you must overcome!

You may see photos everyday on Instagram with brave hikers in bright colors accomplishing something big — and making it look easy. You may read great stories from other hikers about big mileage days and see beautiful summit shots, but you rarely hear about when things go wrong. Yes, they often do — even for the most experienced hiker. I believe in being real about my adventures, sharing when things don’t go right. Typically people don’t share when they turn around because they aren’t in good enough shape, sleep in their car because solo camping for the first time was too scary, take a wrong turn on the trail, or forget their rain jacket at home. Most of these things have happened to me and I bet at least one has happened to nearly every other hiker.

Christy Rockin’ Rosander recalls when she first started solo hiking:

“Six summers ago I stepped out solo on the Pacific Crest Trail heading north from Tehachapi. I was terrified. I had no clue if I could walk 16 miles without a water source. Where would I camp? What if I saw someone? What would I say? How would I make it through the night by myself? After making many mistakes and experiencing a few successes that first crazy day, I was hooked and never turned back.”

                                                                                            -Christy Rockin’ Rosander


To overcome the mental game, start small. Go on a local trail by yourself. Go on a one night shakedown hike to see what you really need. Keep a journal. Take a course.

By understanding what you’re afraid of, you can take steps to understand the fear, where it comes from, and how to overcome it. Instead of packing 3 additional layers because you’re afraid you’ll get cold, go on a trial hike in similar conditions, close to home or another place you’re comfortable, and see what you really use. A wilderness first aid course is invaluable in learning real life skills and knowing that if you get injured (a fear many have) that you have the skills and know-how to handle it appropriately.

So how do accomplished hikers overcome the fact that hiking is a mental game? Liz “Snorkel” Thomas, a triple-crowner, has dealt with many of the same insecurities at one point or another.

“I would tell women to just go out there and do it. When I first got into thru-hiking, I was worried about hiking solo and ended up taking on a hiking partner who made me miserable in order to deal with my own fears. I had the wisdom then that I have now to be led by my dreams, not pushed by my fears. Statistically speaking though, safety concerns for women on a well-traveled trail like the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, or John Muir Trail are almost nil. As my fellow she-hiker, Princess of Darkness, says: the trail is much safer than any city in America.”

                                                                                                     -Liz “Snorkel” Thomas


Here’s some of my best pieces of advice for beating the mental game:

  • Don’t worry about being like everyone else.
  • Ignore the naysayers- they’re just jealous!
  • Bring chocolate or whatever motivates you to keep going.
  • Start small and work your way up. You’ll feel more confident with every hike.
  • Find a community of people just as crazy as you- even if you solo hike.
  • Document your journey for those days you’re just not feeling it.
  • Don’t doubt yourself.
  • No matter how experienced you are, it never gets easy. That’s why I hike!
  • Remember it’s about the journey, no matter how cheesy that sounds.
  • And… the mountains will still be there. If you need to turn around, there’s no shame in that — actually it takes a pretty big person to do this!
  • Create a motivational playlist- for the hike, car ride, while you’re in camp
  • Plan a big adventure to look forward to and train for
  • Make micro goals. When the trail gets steep I aim to go 30-100 steps without stopping.
  • Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!
  • Breathe deep, take short small breaks, and consistently evaluate your surroundings to stay on the right path.
  • Remember the feeling when you take the final step to the summit. Think about it the next time it’s cold and rainy and you’re dragging yourself up the mountain!
  • Properly prepare for your hike and then roll with the changes.


Do you agree that Hiking is a mental challenge? Do you have any words of wisdom to share on how to beat the mental game or your own story to share? Leave a comment- we’d LOVE to hear from you!




Last modified: September 3, 2017

9 Responses to :
It’s All in Your Head: Hiking is a Mental Challenge

  1. I recently completed a summit that I turned back on back in the summer. Instead of being down about turning back, I used it as fuel for the next time. There’s literally no shame in turning back, in fact the best hikes are often ones that allow you to evaluate where you are as a hiker, then return to conquer it.

    Great post!

    1. allison says:

      Absolutely! I’ve been there a few times 🙂

  2. Jackie says:

    Hehehe “Bring chocolate or whatever motivates you to keep going”- This made me happy.
    Also, “Plan a big adventure to look forward to and train for” I’m doing this now. My husband and I are going on vacation soon and there’s a hike that I’ve wanted to do the last 3 year, we’re finally going to do it now. It’s steep and around 13 miles total. (Mt Leconte in Tennessee) I know that’s small potatoes to many on here but my longest hike to date was 7 miles. I’m trying to get in shape now for it, I have a few months yet. But I’ll be repeating to myself it’s all mental (this also works for biking lol)

    1. allison says:

      It definitely is all mental! And hey, all that matters is you’re getting outside and doing what you love. I’ve been on some beautiful trails in NC. Haven’t visited Tennessee yet. I should, though! Have an awesome hike and enjoy the prep!

  3. Natalie says:

    I just wrote about the mental and physical challenges from my last hike. Each hike brings a new lesson, and with that it shows us how strong and brave we are. I love reading about other women’s experiences hiking, especially solo. Thank you.

  4. Will McCann says:

    Reading this article is inspiring, as far as the reasons and rewards that we hike, even as I am 2 weeks away from leaving for my John Muir Trail solo hike. It’s inspiring to hear how like minded, and adventurous people have to overcome different social challenges, to do what they enjoy. This will be by far my longest thru hike, and I’m learning something every week as a result. It is a mix of a bit of stress planning the logistics combined with wonder at some new experiences that will be discovered. Not to left out, upgrading a few pieces of gear along the way – and most likely getting a GPS emergency communication devise — thank you for the thoughts on this:)

    Thanks for the post, and keep on exploring (and hopefully sharing with the rest of us, as you seem to do so well!)

    1. Misty says:

      oh my god thank you youtube.this was the only right thing to do.so much sh*t going on, at least one company i personally really love stood up for the right of privacy and fought a wrong declnios.weil done. i'm enjoying this again. 😀

    2. The heading of your post – Institucional: Mundo Digital – intriqued me, so I came by to check it out. Glad I did. FYI – I also shared this page – – on my Facebook page so other people can find it too.

  5. ally1234567890123456789012345678901234567891234567890 says:

    cool for you

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