Bob Fox - Author

Motivation of the Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker

What makes someone want to hike over 2,000 miles for four to six months? Larry Luxenberg tries to answer this question with the background of thru-hikers, interviews, and accounts of those famous and not so famous. After reading several and co-writing my son’s thru-hiker memoir, I still wondered what is the psychological motivation of these hikers? Why do they go into the woods and “Embrace the suck”? I understand wanting to be close to nature, living in the moment to leave behind the past, the satisfaction of completing a monumental challenge, I get all of that, but why so much of a good thing?

To help answer why I found a psychological concept called Flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the father of this term and concept. He believes that the quality of our experiences is what determines whether life is worth living or not. Trying to achieve optimal experiences becomes the goal of our existence. In response to interviews with rock climbers, chess players, athletes, and artists he attempts to answer the question of why do people perform difficult, time-consuming, and even dangerous tasks with no extrinsic reward.  Interestingly all of these seemingly unrelated groups reported similar subjective experiences and they were willing to go to great lengths to achieve these experiences again. This similarity lead to a theory that their motivation toward these activities results from an internal motivating “autotelic” psychological mechanism.

Experiences are important for the individual as indicated by statements like “This book is boring” or “This is a wonderful place.” Taking in information from outside sources into states of consciousness must an ordered process to be predictable and therefore understood. Too few experiences, like in stimulus deprivation or attentional disorders like schizophrenia (stimulus over inclusion) or autism (stimulus barriers) make this a disorderly unpredictable process. Optimal experiences are reported by athletes or creative professionals when the opportunities, or challenges, and their abilities, or skills, are well matched and balanced. This middle flow ground exists between boredom, where there is less to do than one is capable of, and anxiety, where there is more than one is capable of.

Optimal experiences are distinguished by the exclusion of the noise that would interfere with them. At the height of enjoyment, people describe it as a merging of action and awareness, a heightened concentration that excludes irrelevant thoughts, feelings, even fatigue. This focus on the present causes a distortion of the individual’s perception of time. This means minutes seem like hours or hours like minutes. This intense involvement in the moment-to-moment activity is a defining feature of a flow experience. For an activity to result in Flow the goals of the activity should be clear as well as the means to achieve them. The progress toward the goal should have clear feedback which will help the individual to adjust their behavior. There is also an associated loss of self-consciousness. Once an individual has experienced the exhilaration of a flow experience, they will continue to engage in these activities due to the internal rewards. This concept of a balance between extremes is illustrated by the figures below. The first figure with the flow region along a middle “river” was expanded upon into a more complex theory represented by the zones and concentric rings. In the newer model Flow is likely to be experienced when the perceived challenges are above the center point, or higher than the individual’s average level of challenge, and the skills required are above the individual’s average levels, or to the right of the center of the graph. The intensity of the experience increases the further the person is from their average level of challenge and skill, or the center of the concentric rings. So now we know it takes an above-average challenge and above-average skill for the individual to experience Flow.

Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, or other long-distance trails, meets many of the requirements for an activity where Flow may be experienced. The length of the trail provides a defined goal and there is feedback on the hiker’s progress, namely the miles achieved / time left. So is there evidence thru-hikers experience Flow? A scientific study was performed, using Csikszentmihalyi’s assessment tools, to determine if thru-hikers from 1997 experienced Flow. A questionnaire was sent to all 327 thru-hikers and 65% responded. Based on their answers 62% of the respondents experienced Flow with 82% of them experiencing this daily. The hikers experienced Flow mostly “while hiking alone”, 88%, with 71% experiencing Flow “when looking at a view.” The activity which most often provided a Flow experience was “hiking alone” with 81% of respondents while only 6% reported this “while looking at a view”. More female hikers experienced Flow when looking at a view than their male counterparts.

To measure the autotelic or intrinsic motivation of the individual, most hikers ranked their top reason for enjoying their thru-hike is the “enjoyment of the experience and the use of skills” or “the activity itself.” Ranked last were reasons which indicate extrinsic motivation like “competition, measuring self against others” and “prestige, regard, glamour” meaning the hikers were motivated from within which is an indication of a Flow experience. The study found an autotelic score high enough to indicate thru-hiking to be a Flow-producing activity similar to rock climbing.

Thru-hiking presents a challenging goal that can result in a self-motivating psychological process. It also may partly explain why some who get off the trail would like to go back and some do many times. Without assessing their experiences it can't be determined if they experienced Flow, but some noteworthy repeat thru-hikers are, Earl Shaffer, Grandma Gatewood, Baltimore Jack, and a yo-yo hiker my son Eric and his friend Cooper met who never leaves the trail. Though their primary motivation may be to become more mindful, enjoy the outdoors or enjoy the friendship of the other hikers maybe the challenge aspect played a secondary role. This is another piece of the enigma puzzle of these people who call themselves thru-hikers and why they do what they do.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow and the Foundations of Positive Psychology : The Collected Works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Berlin: Springer, 2014.

Luxenberg, Larry. Walking the Appalachian Trail​. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 1994.

Mills, Allan S., and Thomas S. Butler. "Flow experience among Appalachian Trail thru-hikers." (2006).