Bipolar Backpacking: How to Deal, and the Impacts of the Trail

Initially being diagnosed with a mental disorder is intimidating in the first place, let alone being diagnosed a few months before embarking on a several-month-long thru-hike of the AT. Despite this, I’ve completed over 700 miles and am still going strong.

Tips for Dealing with Mental Disorders while Thru-Hiking

In no way does having a mental illness mean you can’t accomplish something as intense as a long-distance backpacking trip. It may, however, mean you need to do some extra prep work. Some things I suggest are:

1. Staying in contact regularly with your psychiatrist.

2. Ensuring you continue to take any prescribed medications and making a plan to get these refilled along your hike.

3. Having a support person at home that is aware of your situation and can provide emotional support when needed.

4. Keeping a journal to track and identify your feelings during your thru-hike.

5. Cry. Everybody cries out here. For real.

6. Read the book “Appalachian Trials” by Zach “Badger” Davis. It will help you gain some insight into the mental difficulties that come with a thru-hike and was a great source to prepare myself emotionally.

How the Trail Has Helped

When you’re on the trail, you have a lot of time to think. For me, these long periods of distraction-free thinking meant I was able to trace the random sources of my anxieties. Understanding the things that make me feel the way I do, or even just identifying them, was a huge step for me.

In addition to this, my periods of high energy and intense focus are able to be applied harmlessly and constructively to hiking 20-mile days. This has actually made any mini episodes of mania easier to manage than it has ever been at home.

My Support on the Trail

One of the best things is being surrounded by people who have nothing but love for you. (Shout-out to Knope, Yardsale, Sparky, and Cobra). I’ve known my trail family for such a short amount of time, yet I’ve shared more about myself and my feelings with them than I have with people I’ve known for years. Having this support group that understands when I need time alone, but hugs me when I return, is something that’s priceless to me.

 

How the Trail Has Hurt

On the other side, thru-hiking has made some aspects of my disorder more difficult. Because of the long periods of time spent away from large groups of people, my social anxiety has worsened when I’m exposed to crowds. I knew ahead of time that this would make Trail Days an interesting experience for me, but I wanted to try it. There were times it was difficult, I felt my anxiety looming, but I surrounded myself with people who made me feel comfortable and ultimately had so much fun.

You Can Do It

It is important for me to emphasize that everyone handles disorders and situations differently. Dealing with mental issues is hard. Thru-hiking is hard. Life is hard. (Cue third crying session of the week). But just maybe you’ll find out more about yourself than you’d ever imagined, along with finding better ways to manage your feelings and emotions.

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