Great Western Loop: Final thoughts
Updated: Feb 1
It´s been 2 weeks since finishing the Great Western Loop and i´ve had some time to unwind and think about my experiences and lessons learned on trail.
When talking about the trail, the same questions pop up over and over again. So i´ll try to answer a few of them here. Hoping it might help future long-distance hikers.
Let´s start by saying that the Great Western Loop is much more than just the sum of its parts. Most individual parts of the GWL are easily doable, but the challenge comes with the overall length and complexity of entire route, which oftentimes forces you to hike in less favorable times or conditions. (e.g. Colorado in early May)
A lot of things didn´t go according to plan and that´s just fine. I knew it upfront and i was mentally prepared for it. However, i didn´t expect such massive difficulties as those which were caused by the severe fires in Washington and California. Many hikers quit due to those fires, or chose to hike other trails instead. I didn´t. I developed a "now even more so" attitude and found ways to quickly adapt to new and constanlty changing situations.
(Colorado in May...)
What were my biggest challenges?
Staying focused and motivated: Hiking 30-40miles on almost every day isn´t just fun. It´s a grind, a job that lasts 10-14hrs a day. Every day. Whenever i told family and friends that i would be in a town the next day, people thought of me resting and recovering. Hitting a town however means that you have to do a lot of errands. I had to prepare and plan for the next section, buy food, check water sources, do laundry or smaller repairs on my gear, i also had to keep an eye on my Udemy students and regularly answer question to keep some money flowing in, etc. This takes hours and leaves little time to rest.
Handling constant pressure: Since the very first day of my hike in late March i thought about the incoming winter and the miles i had to hike to make it to California, before the winter storms arrive. I never felt like i could really relax and "take it easy". I always had to push on, no matter how tired or how exhausted i felt. This constant pressure sometimes made the hike less enjoyable
Route finding and private land: On those sections that didn´t belong to an official trail, i.e. in central California, or Arizona i ran into private land several times, which wasn´t mentioned on my maps. This lead to some unplanned detours or trespassing, with the fear of being caught by the police or landowner. I ofentimes felt utterly annoyed and frustrated and should have put more attention to this, while planning my route.
Snow and snow storms: Crossing Colorado in early to late May, was insane. I absolutely underestimated the challenge and the amount of snow i had to face. Even with proper winter gear (ice-axe, snow-shoes, micro-spikes, waterproof socks), this section was by far the toughest and most dangerous section of the entire hike. I slipped twice on steep mountains and had to self-arrest to avoid severe injuries and i ran into some major snow-storms with whiteout conditions, that either forced me to hunker down, or even bail out to town. Hiking for days in my snow-shoes caused some severe foot pain and even lead to quite bloody feet.
Wildfires: Upon reaching Glacier National Park, wildfires or smoke were a constant problem. Especially on the PNT and in the Sierra Nevada, conditions got so bad that i had to use proper face masks for the smoke. When the wind changed overnight, i sometimes woke up panicking, as i wasn´t able to breathe without my mask. Fire closures added an additional layer of complexity to the hike, i.e. when i had to take a detour to the California Coastal Trail, due to the closure of all National Forests in California for some 2 weeks.
Running out of water: People on trail called me a "camel" as i was usually comfortable with 1l of water for 10-15miles. However, in Joshua Tree National Park and in the Sonora desert, water was a constant issue for me. Near Bagdad, i almost collapsed, when i ran out of water hours before reaching town. The problem with water: decreasing marginal utility. Carrying more water simply doesn´t always do the job. The more water you carry, the heavier and slower you are and the more water you need to make up for it. Planning your water consumption therefore is very important and difficult, especially with limited information on reliable water sources.
(Cross-country through the Sonora-desert. No water for ~60miles...)
How did I make it - Keys for success?
Unlimited amount of stubbornness and determination: It´s actually quite simple. Just. Don´t. Quit! No matter what challenge you face, find a way to deal with it and just don´t give up. I knew what i had signed up for and that it wouldn´t be a "walk in the park". I knew it would hurt, i knew it would suck at times and i knew that i would have the strength and determination to make it through those hardships. I´m proud of that and 2 weeks after finishing the trail i can say that pain is certainly temporary, but great memories stay forever. I focused on facing one challenge at a time, setting personal goals and milestones and just than thinking about the next challenge ahead. Thus i never felt overwhelmed by what was still ahead. I also never thought of this adventure as an adventure vs. nature or "the wild". When you are hunkering down in a severe snow storm, with your ice-axe hammered into the mountain so that you can´t get blown off the mountain, you don´t question who´s the boss out there. It just ain´t you. You can´t fight nature. Nature just provides a framework to work with. Your skills and abilities determine the rest of your experience and what you are able, or willing to endure. You only fight yourself and the level of comfort you are used to.
Support from other people: The most remarkable thing about this adventure is the support i received from many friends and strangers. Especially my friends "Golden" and Lucy helped me throughout the entire trail with encouraging words, or some hands-on support related to the website, blog or visa-extension application. Support however, was not limited to these guys. Many people were interested in my story, encouraged me to hike on and sometimes helped with a paid meal or supplies in town, a handful of strawberries, or a bottle of water in the desert. Experiencing this kind of support is heartwarming and i´m very thankful for it.
Preparation is key - even when all plans fall apart: Some 4-5 months prior to my start date, i started exercising. I ran, hiked with more than average weight and put a lot of emphasis on strengthening my core, feet and leg muscles to avoid common injuries like shin splints, plantar fasciitis or knee problems. Before starting the trail, i had spent a lot of time studying satellite images and potential routes for the cross-country sections of the Grand Enchantement Trail and the Sonora desert between Arizona and California. I mapped out potential routes through washes and over hills and created waypoints for my GPS devices. This helped a lot. In addition to that, i put a lot of effort into creating project management video courses on Udemy to ensure that i´d have a substancial financial buffer in case of any unplanned expenses or emergencies.
Good decision making: I´m quite proud of my decision making processes. I definitely took some risks and it could have gone very wrong a few times. I certainly had a fair share of questionable decisions, i.e. when i tried to cross a river in Wyoming, knowing that it would probably knock me off my feet, or when scrambling up to Mt. Edwards in Colorado over icy and loose gravel. However, i´d say that i knew most of the time what i was doing and that i was well prepared (mentally and skill-set) for the challenges on trail. I didn´t take any completly unnecessary risks and took some detours, when i thought the risk would be too high.
What would I do differently next time?
Not much... There´s not much i would change. My gear performed pretty well, my preparation and training paid out. I experienced no injuries or other major hickups and i made sure that i had a substancial financial buffer in case of any emergencies. I wasn´t necessarily as "ultralight" as i could have been, but i had the gear that was right for me and that i felt comfortable with.
Maps / Apps: The only thing that lead to some frustration was running into private land and sometimes having inaccurate GAIA App maps, that didn´t match the situation on the ground. Next time i´d put more effort into making sure to download the very latest maps. It´s weird running into a huge solar-energy park, when the map shows plain desert floor.
More realistic expectations on my mileage in later months: While planning my route, i assumed that i would be able to easily hike 40+ miles after ~3months. That wasn´t the case. 40mile days were always tough (except for the Great Basin) and pushing over 40miles definitely lead to increased exhaustion and less performance on the next day. My personal "sweet spot" was 38miles. That´s a mileage i felt comfortable walking on most days, without suffering. I also underestimated how many hours of daylight i would loose in the 2nd half of my hike. I don´t like hiking into the dark, it just drains my motivation. In the summer months of my hike, hiking until 9 - or even 10pm wasn´t a problem, that changed when it got dark at 5pm. Over time i lost some 4hrs of daylight, which drastically reduced my overall mileage.
(Sunset near the California coastline...)