How does one mentally prepare for an 800 mile solo thru hike through the Arizona desert? Mental preparation seems a little less straight forward than food prep – you can’t exactly send mental preparedness in a box to yourself further down trail. Most of this kind of prep is in advance and requires a bit of forethought and planning. Mainly, I’m considering what kinds of obstacles and challenges – and fears – I will encounter and how to handle them.
So what obstacles, challenges, and fears do I anticipate? In short – water shortages, running of food, a heavy pack, being tired and sore, blisters, anxiety and dangers associated with hitchhiking, anxiety and dangers associated with being a solo female hiker, excessive heat, excessive cold, rain or hail, critters like scorpions and javelinas and rattlesnakes and mountain lions, popping my sleeping pad with a cactus spine in the night, mysterious creatures of the night and the unknown, injury, timeline challenges, loneliness and boredom, technology and battery life challenges….
And how will prepare for these obstacles?
Water shortages: I’ll be aware of upcoming water sources. The Guthook app is very thorough and an excellent resource for the AZT. I may still have to carry a ton of water 6-7L+. I have my Sawyer squeeze water filter and will carry backup chemical treatment (aquamira) for those particularly sketchy cow ponds. I’ll reach out to trail angels and ask for their help in cacheing as much water as possible in advance.
Running of food: Luckily I’m not too worried about this one. They say you pack your fears, and apparently my fear is lack of food. I always have more than I need for any given stretch of trail. When the hiker hunger hits a few miles into the trail, I’ll pack some extra meals and hope it’s enough. Besides, the most realistic consequence of not enough food for a day or so is hanger, not starvation. I think I’ll be fine.
A heavy pack: Yep, it’s gonna be heavy. My baseweight will be 10-15 lbs. Add to that 15 lbs of food for a long stretch of trail. And 15 lbs of water for a dry section. That’s up to 45 lbs on my back. Yikes. I’ll minimize my gear as much as possible (my tent is on the heavy side unfortunately can’t cut too much in that department), cache water and siesta during the heat of the day to minimize water use and needs, and try not to pack too much food.
Being tired and sore: “If you get tired, pull over. If you get hungry, eat something”. If I’m tired, I’ll rest. Or hike. Or one and then the other. If I’m sore, I’ll rest. Or hike. Or one and then the other. I guess there’s not much preparedness to this other than accepting that being tired and sore is inevitable and I will push through it or rest, but eventually I will be neither tired nor sore.
Blisters: I’m not entirely sure how much sand I’ll be hiking through, but I do know that when it’s hot my feet sweat. A lot. Heat + friction from sand grains + moisture = gnarly blisters. I carry KT tape and find that it’s one of few tapes that stick to my feet, so if I get a hot spot or blister, I hope to have enough.
Anxiety and dangers associated with hitchhiking: Between a little pepper spray, taking/texting a pic of the license plate of any car I get into, and carrying a Garmin in-reach that updates my GPS location, I plan to use my wits and intuition to assess the safety of a ride. I’ll hike into towns when possible (e.g., Flagstaff has a detour on which to hike into town) and minimize hitches if I can. If I meet other hikers, we’ll hitch together to increase our safety in numbers.
Anxiety and dangers associated with being a solo female hiker: A lot of folks to whom I’ve mentioned my hiking plans have fears related to solo female-ness on the trail. Again, a small can of pepper spray and Garmin in-reach which updates my GPS location will be my first line of defense. Also wits and intuition here will come in handy. I hope to link up with other hikers that I may meet on the trail for more safety. Also general hope in humanity will keep any anxieties to a minimum. My last line of defense is the somehow reassuring knowledge that it can be more dangerous to be in a city or populated area than it is on a trail.
Excessive heat: A silver umbrella! And siestas. Try to time uphill climbs to cooler times of day. I’ll take advantage of early morning and late evening cooler temps as much as possible.
Excessive cold: A warm 20 degree Feathered Friend sleeping bag, hat, gloves, down jacket. Hot chocolate at night. Plenty of food in my belly for dinner. Warm long underwear (including a Patagonia Capilene 4 top) and maybe even my down booties if it’s impossibly frigid.
Rain or hail: My OR Helium II rain jacket and homemade silnylon rain pants should keep me pretty dry. My Big Agnes 2-person Copper Spur will keep me dry at night.
Critters like scorpions and javelinas and rattlesnakes and mountain lions: Keep an eye out for critters. Javelinas can be territorial, so I’ll give them some space. The protocol is similar to bears – they have a good sense of smell but poor eyesight. Don’t surprise them, keep your distance, and make plenty of noise. I’ll avoid night hiking in order to steer clear of any midnight encounters with mountain lions. But if I do see one, I’ll stand my ground, not run, and seem large and not like tasty prey. Keep an eye out for rattlesnakes. Keep my shoes in my tent at night so scorpions don’t make them a home.
Popping my sleeping pad with a cactus spine in the night: I’ve heard that cactus spines can make quick work of any inflatable sleeping pad. I love my thermarest neoair. I plan to scour my camp spot each night before settling down to avoid any popped pads.
Mysterious creatures of the night and the unknown: For me one of the biggest things is solo tenting and fear of whatever lurks in the night. I’ve found that CBD oil is very helpful for reducing anxiety about Bigfoot or other such mythical creatures. If I can camp near other hikers that will be helpful, too.
Injury: I’m hoping that my physical prep will have me ready to handle the AZT. If I have a stress injury, I’ll RICE (rest, ice compress, elevate). For an acute injury, like an ankle roll, sprain, fall, etc. the Garmin in-reach will be a good means of communication in case of emergency.
Timeline challenges: The goal is to finish the entire AZT by mid-November. If slowed, delayed, or injured I plan to hike as much as possible and come back to finish any remaining trail at a later date. I’ll fly out of Tucson, so if anything slows me down, I can at least hike the 635 miles there and will still be happy.
Loneliness and boredom: Let’s face it, 40-50 days of walking in silence by myself will get kinda monotonous. Audiobooks and podcasts should break up any long stretches of boredom. Hopefully I’ll meet other thru-hikers out there to chat with, too.
Technology and battery life challenges: I plan to carry a solar charger to keep my phone (aka Guthook app, maps, water information, source of entertainment, and contact with the outside world) charged. Jared and I used a Suntactics solar charger on the PCT and that worked well for us, so I plan to do the same on the AZT. Backup paper maps which created from Caltopo will be helpful as well.
That about sums up my mental preparation. Between forethought and planning, many years of backpacking and hiking experience, and a previous wilderness first aid course I feel solidly prepared.
If you have any helpful tips or tricks regarding mental preparedness for thru-hiking, I’d love to hear it. Be sure to comment below and subscribe to my blog. If you want to support my hiking blogs, check out my Patreon. Thanks!