My Experience with Mental Health on the Appalachian Trail

I was riding shotgun in a pickup truck through the winding roads of North Carolina. My new friend, Sherry, was driving me into a town to resupply in exchange for stories and curiosities.

She asked me about my trail name and my favorite memories on trail. She recounted her own day hikes into the mountains, then she hesitated before asking the one question I have received most since setting off from Springer:

“Aren’t you scared out there?” she asked with an air of concern in her voice. A young girl, alone, in the woods. I could understand her uncertainty.

I replied calmly, “I’m absolutely terrified.”

Over the course of my hike, I’ve found the physicality of hiking thousands of miles can be impressive to some. But to most, the real questions surround our mental fortitude and how we overcome fears and setbacks.

To hike is a physical activity that nearly anyone could (and should!) do. To thru-hike is to hike while accepting the physical, mental, and environmental setbacks in stride. Thru-hiking is a sport of grit and perseverance, significantly more than physicality or technical skill.

The challenges I have been faced with throughout my time on the Appalachian Trail could be seen on the surface as physical ailments. From sprained ankles to norovirus, many of my setbacks were sparked by missteps and bad timing. It’s easy to enjoy a hike on a cool, sunny day when the weather cooperates and your body flows with the trail. However, thru-hiking is more commonly hiking through weather that could give you hypothermia or leaves you drenched in sweat, on feet that have been sore for months.

So those of us coming to the trail with preexisting conditions like depression, anxiety, PTSD, and many others may feel the mental wear of thru-hiking differently.

Some hikers come to the trail to find their biggest challenges in life, others were brought here by a path far more challenging than white blazes.

When I approached the trail, I thought I could escape my diagnoses. I thought proving how strong I could be physically would scare away the problems part of me didn’t want to deal with. But it was on the trail that I came face-to-face with my personal pitfalls and insecurities. In my time here, I’ve seen the value of community over achievement, and I’m still learning to put these lessons into practice. It takes time to rewire a brain that has spent years in competition and comparison.

Despite its incredible ability to connect us, social media can also give false impressions of day-to-day life out here. Some may see my own social feeds and think hiking is all about summits, views, and wildlife. And it is — in part.

What the world doesn’t see is all of the times my anxiety led me to question whether I’m fit for this lifestyle. The times my depression made me wonder whether all of the effort I put in was enough. And the times when seemingly simple tasks lead to panic attacks. This life is inherently out of my comfort zone, so it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by it all. Even more, it’s easy to tell yourself that you’re alone in that feeling.

Maybe some folks will read this and think how obvious these struggles are, or how I should have known the trail was not an escape route from mental health. But maybe some of you know these feelings too. And maybe we can feel uncertain and alone, together.

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Comments 4

  • pearwood : Jun 27th

    Oh, wow. Hang in there, Sparky.

  • Richard Guenther : Jul 2nd

    There are different challenges for each person on the trail. A thru hike gives you so much time to think and experience that you will likely get to know yourself better and choose whether you want to tackle the toughest parts of yourself. Good for you to choose to not only encounter those parts but to also share your experiences with others. I have no doubt it will lead to others choosing to do the same.


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