Walking is a simple activity, and yet, heading off on a long-distance trail for weeks or even months at a time soon becomes an unexpectedly wild adventure. Elisha shares the surprising things you learn about yourself while thru-hiking.

We had a chat to Elisha about her Heysen Trail adventure on the We Are Explorers Podcast: Listen Now


Thru-hiking they call it; picking a really long trail and walking it from one end to another in one go.

But when your life becomes just a single trail, it’s a whole new world to navigate (both literally and figuratively).

While the initial idea of a long walk seems like a pretty straightforward concept, I soon realized as I hiked the 1200km Heysen Trail in South Australia, that there’s much to learn.

As a first-time thru-hiker tackling Australia’s longest marked walking trail, here’s what I discovered about thru-hiking.

Read more: Australia’s Best Thru-Hikes

1. Your Sense of Distance Shifts

What constitutes a ‘long way’? At the beginning of a thru-hike, any daily distance over 20km may seem like a tiring day out. Until one day, you sit down for lunch on top of a hill, and realize you’ve already walked 20km before midday.

Your sense of distance evolves the more you walk, and soon, anything over 30km (or even longer for some) becomes what you might just modestly call a ‘decent day’.


Walking along the Fleurieu Peninsula

2. Your Concept of Time Changes

And just like distance, when you have all the time in the world and a long way to walk, time seems to slow right down and whizz past all at once. Your pace of life literally becomes walking speed, and days start to feel very long.

And yet soon enough, you’ve walked for over 50 days, and it seems like yesterday that you were waving goodbye to Mum and Dad at the trailhead. Maybe time flies when you’re having fun after all.

Read more: Wild South Coast Way: A 5 Day Teaser for the Heysen Trail

3. It’s Type 2 Kinda Fun

Is it really fun though? I was asked several times while hiking the Heysen Trail, ‘Are you actually enjoying it?’. That’s hard to answer. There were plenty of moments that were definitely not fun, but in hindsight it’s one of the best adventures I’ve ever had.

Miserable at the time, fun in retrospect; type 2 kinda fun. One day you might be climbing hills through torrential rain and strong wind, basically on the verge of having a breakdown, and the next day you’ll be laughing about it.

Read more: What is Type 2 Fun? A Guide to the Fun Scale

Climbing a ridge outside Hawker

4. It Doesn’t Necessarily Get ‘Easier’

It’s common to assume that after hiking more than 1000km, your fitness would have peaked and you’ll be powering up steep hills without breaking a sweat. Not quite.

As much as my fitness definitely improved over the course of the trail, the hills never really got that much easier. Towards the end, fatigue, soreness, and stiffness started to set in, and I could hear my legs screaming, ‘Will this thing ever end?!’.


Hiking in the Flinders Ranges

5. Weather Has the Biggest Impact on Your Mood

Going into a long-distance walk, it’s obvious that you’ll be spending quite a lot of time exposed to the elements. But the impact the weather has on your mood is quite profound.

Your most emotional days on trail tend to be the days that you experience the worst weather. Persistent rain, muddy trails, wet shoes, and strong crosswinds.

It all wears you down slowly but surely. And while you know that there’s little point in getting frustrated with mother nature, that’s exactly what you do. And from experience, shouting at the sky doesn’t seem to help.

6. Your Appetite Fluctuates

It becomes almost impossible to carry or consume enough food to replace what you’re burning daily. However, your appetite seems to fluctuate a lot with the trail.

I’m sure there’s some science that can properly explain it, but I found that my appetite was very suppressed at the beginning, and I was barely able to even finish my dinner.

By the end though, I was sending gear home, just so I had more room for food in my pack. Second dinner anyone? ‘Hiker hunger’ definitely takes time to settle in, but when it does, it’s relentless.

Snack break on top of a hill.

7. You Get Random Food Cravings

When you dig into your pack to find another boring Carman’s muesli bar, your mind starts to wander to all the wonderful foods that you can get in the ‘real world’.

This leads to kilometres of fantasizing and drooling over random food items (Salt and Vinegar Chips, I’m looking at you), even though you know you’ll have to wait until the next town before you’ll finally get to taste something that isn’t dehydrated.

8. Dinner Gets Earlier as the Trail Gets Longer

The last food-related learning. Dinner time gets earlier and earlier the further you walk, until you’re sitting at camp one day at 4pm and you’re wondering, how early is too early? I mean, they say hiker midnight is 9pm, so rehydrating your dinner any later than 6pm is just ludicrous.


Too early?

9. Days Are Pretty Simple, Yet a Lot Seems to Happen

Life on trail is simple: sleep, eat, walk, then repeat. But when walking is all you spend time doing, a lot seems to happen in between.

Little things become major daily milestones that you can’t wait to recount to your fellow hikers at camp.

That big dog that chased you along a fenceline barking ferociously. The gate you somehow couldn’t open so you climbed over it.

The lady who offered you fresh oranges from her garden. The roadside bus shelter that became the perfect spot for lunch. It’s thrilling stuff.

10. Rest Days Are Rarely Actually Restful

Rest days are an important part of a thru-hike. Not only do they give you time to relax and recover, but it’s also an opportunity to resupply food, spend hours at a local café, update your Instagram stories, pick up gear replacements from the post office, and head to the pub.

But, with an extended to-do list of ‘life admin’ after spending days out bush, rest days are rarely actually restful.

You’ll be surprised how many steps you’ll rack up walking between the bakery, post office, and pub, and doing laps of the supermarket aisles.

Walking into town for a ‘rest day’

11. Bad Times Will Pass

Another hiker had said to me before I’d set foot on my first thru-hike: ‘Bad times will pass, including bad weather’. And even though it didn’t always seem like it in the worst moments, he was right.

Before you know it, it’ll be the next kilometre, the next day, or the next week, and all the exhaustion, the horrible weather, the physical pain, will eventually be in the past.

Then, you can look back at the wild adventure with admiration and a sense of humour. It’s hard to imagine, but I promise, you’ll even laugh at the bad times.


Following a fence line

12. It’s Meant to be Hard

No one said that walking for a long time was meant to be easy. We’re not accustomed to pushing ourselves physically and mentally every day, battling against the elements, and having to find our own way.

Walking might be simple, but thru-hiking is not easy. You’ll undoubtedly face challenges and things will get hard, but you’ll overcome them and always find a way, because you have to.

Mount Arden is one of those challenges

13. You’ll Always Find a Way

‘Did you ever think about quitting?’ is a common question, and the answer is no, because in the toughest moments, you really can’t.

While you can make an exit at the next town if you really wanted to, when you’re out there on the trail you have to keep walking, even when you don’t feel like it.

When things get challenging either mentally or physically, you can’t just sit down on the trail, click your heels together, and magically be transported elsewhere.

You only have one option and that is to keep walking, even if it’s just to the next campsite. And that’s the real beauty of a thru-hike.


We had a chat to Elisha about her Heysen Trail adventure on the We Are Explorers Podcast: Listen Now