Outdoor Failures – What we learn from not meeting goals

A friend of mine wrote something recently about her attempt at hiking the rugged Trans Adirondack Route. Though the attempt took place last year, Liz did not feel up for writing about the journey until recently.

In Liz’s words:

A year ago today, I started the Trans Adirondack Route—a 235 mile hike across the Adirondack Park, the largest forest preserve in the Lower 48. I never finished it—the TADK has a notoriously high drop off rate—and was ashamed enough about it that I never did a write-up about the trail. A year later, I’m able to reflect on its beauty and enjoy the trail for what I was able to complete, instead of what I missed.

Some good advice there.  In our often goal oriented outdoor culture, we often look at what was not completed. The mountain was not climbed because we had to turn around due to weather. Or received a Did Not Finish (DNF’d) at a trail running event. Or not completing a 200+ mile hiking route.


From Zazzle

Goals are good and can push us into accomplishing something wonderful.

But we also need to take stock of why we spend time in the outdoors.

Is it something that is a check box and miles achieved? Or something less tangible?

I wrote Liz on her Facebook page.  I told her to not to be ashamed of hikes not completed.

I think the takeaway is both to enjoy what was accomplished, but also to learn from what was not accomplished.

Any outdoor experience adds to what a  person has for memories, increases the knowledge set, explores what can be accomplished in the outdoor realm and, perhaps most importantly, lets a person find out how they wish to spend their precious free time outdoors.

In my own case, I had to end an attempt on the Uinta Highline Trail. A friend had a shin splint and could not make the mileage with the food we had on us.

Rather than lament not having another bowl of alphabet soup to put on my hiking resume, I can look back at perhaps the most amazing valley I’ve seen in my backpacking adventures. Something I would not have seen hiking the originally planned route.

I also learn from goals I did not personally complete.

In 2004 and 2005, I briefly flirted with trail runs and ultras.

The catalyst, as many events in life, was partially due to a relationship.

My on-again/off-again girlfriend at the time did not appreciate my outdoor absences. As she once told me:  “The outdoors for you is not a hobby, it is a lifestyle”.   Though I do not disappear for months at a time anymore,  the majority of my free time is planned around time spent in the outdoors. And, as mentioned previously, I am attempting to craft a lifestyle where if taking off for months at a time is not feasible, then a few weeks in a year seems realistic.

Ten years ago, this type of balance was not on my mental horizon.

I suspect the girlfriend from ten years ago would still not appreciate fashioning a life so as to create more time outdoors (if in a more sustainable manner).

My thoughts, at the time, were that  50 or 100 mile runs would be a way to spend time outdoors and challenge myself physically in an extreme way.

So I completed trail runs and even road runs. I did some (slow) marathons. I did a 50 mile run.  I signed up for the famous Leadville 100.

But I DNF’d  around mile seventy-one on my attempt.

I trained half-heartedly.  Running and power-hiking took up as much time as my backpacking or long day hikes, but just weren’t as enjoyable for me. A schedule for training felt like work when I was already working full-time. I wanted to look at a map and hike over passes, take some photos and just happen to be out 25+ miles in a day..as opposed to planning to be out 25+ miles to make a mileage goal.

More importantly, though, out of not achieving the goal of completing the Leadville 100, I learned what I really crave from the outdoors.

To paraphrase: “And all I ask is a compass and a topo map to hike by…”

A structured outdoor event, in a large group setting no less, just wasn’t for me.

I realized I needed more than just a physical challenge.  Running/hiking on an established route with aid stations at marked intervals did not fit me. It wasn’t that the racing environment (with its wonderful volunteers, dedicated directors, and very friendly fellow runners) was not good. It was that I was not a good fit for the racing environment.   And perhaps why I am having similar feelings about the current state of established and well-known hiking trails.

Besides the beauty and the physical challenge found at organized trail runs, I found I needed “something else” from the outdoors.

Solitude, wildness, not being on someone else’s schedule, a sense of adventure, the journey….

All things that *I* could not find in an organized race or aspects of the race that did not fit  *my* personality.

Outdoor failures may be failures..but that does not mean they aren’t valuable experiences.

In the example of the Uintas, I have a memory of a valley that will set the bar very high for any future places.


And in the Leadville example? It solidified my feelings of how I wish to spend time in the outdoors and my free time in general.

The time bank is limited.  Once I spend my time from this bank, it is gone.

And out of this Leadville failure, the concept how I wish to use my limited time bank became clear.

Embrace our failures. Learn from them. Cherish the memories that were made.

The failures help transform us into the kind of outdoors people we wish to become.

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9 years ago

When I had to leave the Colorado Trail due to an injury, the pain of not finishing what I set out to do lasted longer and was much worse than the injury. There was no taking a week off to heal up…my hike was simply over. I felt lame for getting hurt….I felt lame for blaming myself for getting hurt…I felt lame for ending my partner’s hike because this was OUR deal….and on and on, back and forth just like that. Yes, there are worse things in this world, but the moment the doctor said ‘Your hike is over for… Read more »

9 years ago

Great advice, thanks for sharing. I heard someone say recently that they hoped to fail more because it meant that they were pushing up against their abilities and that they learn so much more by trying and failing than by doing something they know they can do.
Please though, try never to DNF a good beer 🙂

9 years ago
Reply to  Daniel

One weekend I was pushing down the Manistee River in Michigan via canoe… I rested at a launch were a fellow was putting in. I tols him I hopped to be at the highway bridge by evening (about 30miles down stream) He looked at me like I was crazy and told me that IS NOT how you do a river. He would make 15 miles that weekend – fishing favorite spots – swimming favorite spots – joining parties along the way. I realized that I was missing a lot of good fun from being in a hurry to LOG miles.… Read more »

Just Bill
Just Bill
9 years ago

No such thing as a bad trip, just takes a bit sometimes to see it. You know I like my songs…lately had this one stuck in my head relevant to the subject at hand me thinks. “Back, back, back” by Ani Difranco Back back back in the back of your mind Are you learning an angry language, Tell me boy boy boy are you tending to your joy Or are you just letting it languish Back back back in the dark of your mind Where the eyes of your demons are glaring Are you mad mad mad About the life… Read more »

9 years ago

Thanks for the article, Paul I’ve been needing something like this. I’m planning my first attempt at a thru hike. I chose the Colorado Trail because I’m familiar with most of the area from my summit attempts of the Colorado 14ers. The Colorado Trail Guidebook led me to your site. You’ve been a great help in my planning. I’ve turned back on enough summit attempts to be familiar with the syndrome that comes with that decision. The possibility of a “DNF” on the thru hike has been in the back of my mind. Your article reminded me of the saying,… Read more »

Jim Muller
9 years ago

We like to go winter camping (wintercampers.com) and sometimes have to stop short of our initial objective. More and more we strive to just enjoy our time in the backcountry; “It’s the journey, not the destination

Another Kevin
9 years ago

I definitely want to get back to the Northville-Placid Trail and finish this season! I bailed because of a chest cold. When I started feeling better, I was running short of vacation time and leapfrogged forward about 60 miles, finishing the other end of the 135-mile trail. But that wasn’t a failure, that was a great trip that was a little shorter than I’d planned. My peakbagging expeditions almost always run less than my itinerary calls for, but that’s because I never do more – I stick fairly closely to the safety plan that I’ve left with my wife, except… Read more »

Another Kevin
8 years ago
Reply to  Another Kevin

And I came back in June, and Did Not Finish again. But boy, did I learn a lot from that trip. It was a wet, wet spring, and the trail was “submerged logs and quicksand”. I tried to rock-hop one mudhole, slipped, broke my glasses and sprained my knee – 15 miles from the nearest road. I thought briefly about lighting my PLB, and realized that if I had, what the searchers would have done would be to put an Ace bandage on my knee and walk me out. Well, I can put an Ace wrap on my knee and… Read more »

Patrick Stingley
Patrick Stingley
9 years ago

You ran 71 miles? That’s beyond my wildest dreams.
You ran 71 miles, holy cow!

Self knowledge is worth it at any price.

Be grateful for your (failure).
It would be worse to have completed the race, and then another and another, mistaking success for happiness.

Paul Osborn
9 years ago

Good points Paul. My biggest let downs are not when weather, etc. prevent me, but when I didn’t have enough foresight to train or prepare for them. That said, I learn for the next time!

Doug K
8 years ago

not sure I understand the concept of ‘outdoor failure’.. given that limited time bank, and the amount of time I spend in a cubicle earning a crust, any time spent outdoors is already a win 😉

we DNS’ed (did not summit) a peak on a Scout backpack trip, due to weather. This bothered me not at all, but it was interesting to see (and curb) summit fever in the boys. I tried to explain the idea of experiences rather than simple pass/fail goals, perhaps they will understand later.


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