Why It’s Okay to “Fail” A Hike

We can’t always make it to every peak or finish every route. Camping & Hiking expert Hannah K. shares her thoughts on "failing" a hike.

Photo by Mukuko Studio
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Ambition, desire, and a “send it” attitude push us to explore the beautiful world around us. But, we can’t always make it to every peak or finish every route. Circumstances—injuries or a lack of preparedness or not having all the gear necessary (amongst other things)—can stop us from finishing a trail. Let’s talk about why this is okay, what we can do to prevent this, and what we can learn from these experiences.

Why We Might Need to Turn Around

Before we get into why “failing” a hike is totally okay, let’s explore why we might need to turn around and head home in the first place. I highly recommend you read about my first thru-hiking experience to learn what not to do. It is a fun read, entertaining, and you can learn from my pain. Another great educational story is how I climbed a mountain with a broken foot and why it is a thousand percent not recommended.

So, the first obvious reason you may need to turn around is an injury. Maybe you fall and hurt your wrist or you step on a small pebble and twist your ankle. When you injure a muscle, ligament, or bone it is necessary to stop all movement and rest so you don’t create a worse injury and you give it time to heal. Continued motion on an injury can create a worse injury, a prolonged healing time, or incorrect healing. Aka that's bad.

You run out of food or water. You want to go on a longer day hike and think you have everything you need. Some time into the trail, you get hungry again and realize you ate all your trail mix already. Or you finished all your water and you don’t have your water filter to pick up some water from a stream nearby. Dehydration is very serious. Hiking up terrain requires you to drink more water than normal. If you run out, turn around to your car and try again later (bringing more water than you did last time).

You don’t have trekking poles or microspikes. These things aren’t always necessary but in particularly snowy or icy conditions these pieces of gear are crucial to help you on the terrain when normal shoes don’t have enough grip to keep you safe. Hiking on slippery trails without proper gear can lead to injuries—which is another reason why you should turn around. I recently took my dog out on a trail that had some icy moments. After a few falls (between both my dog and myself) I decided it was best to turn around and avoid twisting an ankle or injuring myself or my dog.

A person with a backpack walks into a snowy forest.
Photo by Clay Banks

Weather conditions can also be a reason to turn around. Imagine this: It’s summer. You start the hike early but the sun comes up sooner than you thought and it becomes far too hot. You don’t have enough sunscreen or water. What should you do? Turn around.

Or maybe it starts raining too hard and you don’t have waterproof shoes. Maybe it starts snowing. Maybe your toes start to get some frostbite. Anything is possible and weather conditions can change very quickly in parts of the country. There is no shame in turning around because of this—or any other reason.

You get tired and your body simply can’t go further. In most of my articles I try to remind the readers to listen to your body. It is the most important thing you can do. If your body says no, turn around. It is not worth possibly hurting yourself to make it to the peak. You can always try again later. The mountain will be around longer than you will and you only have one body—treat it well, my friends.

What We Can Learn

Situations like these can have saddening mental and emotional effects—but turning around on a trail is nothing to be ashamed of or upset about. We can take away valuable lessons that will make us even more prepared for our next attempt.

  1. Bring more food, water, and clothes than you think are necessary.
  2. Always carry a first aid kit. You never know what may happen and it’s best to be prepared.
  3. Proper gear—whether it's for winter or summer—is essential to keep you safe.
  4. Train for those harder hikes, physically and mentally.
  5. Don’t hike with a broken foot. Or a broken anything.
  6. Bring a water filter of some kind.
  7. Check the weather before you go to the trailhead.
  8. If you are hiking alone, tell someone where you are going and when you plan on being back.
  9. Consider subscribing to a service where you can notify emergency services if you need help.
  10. Change your perspective from “I failed” to “I learned.”
The photo is focused on someone's outstretched legs and their hiking boots. They sit on a rocky hillside with an alpine lake and river stretching into the background.
Photo by Simon Migaj

Why We Should Stop Calling It a “Fail”

Turning around is not failing a hike. Sure, you didn’t finish the entire route but you still got out of bed and got your body moving. You still saw some beautiful sights. You experienced something new and learned something along the way. How could this possibly be considered “failing?”

Well, it’s not! Swap the word “failed” to “learned” and the way you think about this experience will change from a negative to a positive.

Another good word swap is “I have to” to “I get to.”

So, learn from my mistakes (or your own) and arrive better prepared next time to have the best possible chance of achieving your goal. “Sending it and regretting it,” as my friend promotes, is a dangerously optimistic way to send. I’m all for sending. Send, but send safely folks! Bring that extra water bottle, make two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, carry an extra layer, and of course—listen to your body!

Have any other questions or thoughts about this topic? Hit me up through my profile and let’s chat about all things outdoors.

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Written By
Although I've been hiking for most of my life, I didn't start backpacking and camping until college when I joined the University Outdoors Club at my school. My first backpacking trip was ambitious, the Batona Trail in the Pinelands in New Jersey done in two days. To do that, we had to walk a maratho...

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