As hikers, one of the hardest parts of being on the trail isn’t necessarily the terrain, or the weather, or rationing food. It’s actually knowing when your time on it has come to an end.
Anyone who has spent days preparing for a thru-hike will tell you the investment isn’t just monetary.
It’s the mental and emotional attachments you unknowingly build up for accomplishing something. Of committing yourself to each and every step of the trail from beginning to end, knowing that you conquered it.
So when things don’t transpire the way you imagined they would, you’re left with making the torturous decision of whether you should push on for the sake of it, or simply bail the trail.
A few weeks ago my husband and I were in the same predicament, when we set out to hike the Great North Walk with our three year old daughter Acacia. A 250km trail from Sydney to Newcastle.
After weeks of planning, dehydrating meals, buying new gear, making new gear and studying the terrain we were confident we could do it. Confident enough to publicize it on our social media (because once you do that you’re bound by a much greater force. Your Instagram reputation).
But after just three days, 57kms and (literally) blood, sweat and tears we called an end to our trail journey.
So what was it that made us bail? And how does one discern mental testing from intuitive warnings?
1. NO VISTAS
No matter how steep the climb or treacherous the terrain, the achy feet and throbbing thighs all dissipate once, you’re sat at the top of a hill looking out onto the splendor of it all, with a protein bar in hand.
But if what you’re facing (unknowingly) is an everlasting slew of undulating trail, with no lookouts or visual breaks, it can be a natural nightmare.
Who wants to feel trapped in a bedrock of gumtrees for 9 hours of the day with nothing else to look at but the meandering trail beneath your feet?
It’s uninspiring, visually unappealing and highly unmotivating.
We hike so that we might see the epic grandeur of nature in ways we can’t in every day life.
So why settle for mediocre when you can experience God’s Country?
2. EXCESS DANGER
There’s always an element of danger on the trail. It’s part of putting yourself in the way of nature.
But there is such a thing as excess, which for most of us (who are not adrenaline junkies) is a cool warning that you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Some of the best hikers in the world reluctantly, but knowingly, step off their thru-hike due to an influx of snow. Others know their limit when it comes to heat.
But when you’re hiking with a child, it’s not about understanding your limits, it about gauging the limits of someone else. Someone smaller and less able.
For us on the Great North Walk, it was the combination of minor heat stroke, deadly snake encounters and tick infestations.
Which, for me personally, was two too many before throwing in the towel.
3. NO COMMUNITY
Perhaps not in today’s world, but certainly in the years before, it was a deep longing for many of us to find ‘an escape’, ‘isolation’ or to ‘decompress’ out in nature.
But it’s a wholly different desire for children on the trail as it is for adults.
All Acacia ever wants in an adventure of any kind, is connection. Meeting new people, making friends, finding someone other than mum and dad to talk to or entertain.
Even for hikers who are in it for the long haul, after several weeks in isolation they crave the company of others again. They NEED a community beside them who they can share in their trials and triumphs.
The GNW, to our surprise, was nothing but tumbleweed. No one crossed our path, not even once. We were alone, each day and each night.
We realized more than ever how important hiker families are for us. Not just to have someone share melted marsh-mellows over a nighttime fire, but to encourage and support and excite you when you need it the most.
4. JUST NOT FUN ANYMORE
And if somehow all the above still hasn’t deterred you and your mission to complete the trail, then it simply becomes a matter of asking,
‘Am I actually enjoying this?’
Hiking is never unicorns and rainbows all the time (though Acacia might remember differently). There are swollen feet, cramped thighs, sore hips, and smelly/damp clothes to endure. But the good tends to outweigh the lousy.
Except when it doesn’t.
And that’s the moment. When you find yourself filled with anxiety at having another brown snake slip through your legs, or at finding another tick buried inside your child’s skin. Lonely at the knowledge that there won’t be anyone else at camp besides you, night after night. Hot, exhausted and tired of looking at the same unrelenting surrounds for the next few days/weeks.
When the joy of walking the GNW with your family quickly turns into a trial that never ends, with everyone wishing they were anywhere but on the trail, it’s time to BAIL.
Because when it comes to your family’s safety, it’s never worth the risk just to say ‘you did it’.
And there’s always a lesson learned when bailing the trail.
What was it that made the decision for you? What did you lack? Why did this experience fall short?
Undertaking of the GNW (from Wondabyne to Newcastle) we had no idea that we’d be back home in three days.
But we didn’t want to give up on the trail. It was just about reassessing which trails were going to give us what WE needed.
That’s why a week later we tackled the 6ft Track. It was perfect and ticked all the boxes. Once we finished the hike, and to our surprise, we found out that Acacia was the youngest person to complete it.
So the next time you pick a trail, be it for yourself or your family, think carefully about what you’re seeking from it.
Remembering that it’s ok to bail the trail….just as long as you don’t give up on it altogether.
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