The Post-Thru-Hike Blues

It’s been almost a week since I climbed those last fateful steps up to the summit of Katahdin, and ended the single most earth shattering experience of my life so far. One zero day turned into two, and then I came home and I could no longer keep up the illusion that I was going back to the trail.

I’d heard the term “post-thru-hike depression” before (in fact I know Zach talks about it in his book), and joked about how I’d probably gorge the ten pounds I’ve lost back within a day of normal life. Well, I’m sad to report that the blues are very real. Normal life has hit me like a stack of bricks: going to work, finding an apartment, sorting mail, going to the store. I went from scaling mountains to calling scammers on Craigslist and fertilizing my parents’ lawn.

My first night home I cried hysterically, but I couldn’t say why. I wanted to say I missed my home, though that seemed wrong somehow. I missed my friends, and the certainty of a narrow strip of dirt curling away into the distance. Being away from that life was breaking my heart. (A more scientific answer could have been that I’d been through a lot and was experiencing an endorphin crash now that I wasn’t hiking every day, but it’s more than that).

As it turns out, nothing changes when you’re gone. You change. Coming back, everything is so loud, and fast, and unnecessarily stressful. Cars cruise by you on the highway at top speed while doing 55 seems preposterously fast; being in the open space gives you vertigo; all the stuff you own now seems excessive and suffocating. All the things that used to be important float far away in the distance. They don’t seem real now, just like thru-hiking didn’t seem real on the other side. You start to question why people live like this, and why you’re coming back to it.

Did I not learn anything on the trail? Was it really just a four month vacation, instead of the visceral experience I think I had? What did I learn from it that could even relate to this other life?

I went on a very short sunset hike last night with the meetup group I’ve been spending time with. I thought getting back out there a little bit would help me get my head back on straight. Those who knew me were excited, but I couldn’t bring myself to be happy. I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished anything. 2,200 miles and I ended right where I began, and I can’t even coherently describe the experience of the trail. I just seem like a space cadet, because I’m no longer present. My mind is still firmly in the woods.

When I was hiking I remember talking to a hiker who had multiple thru-hikes under his belt. He said that the first time you come back is really hard.

Well, it is really hard, I can attest to that. I’m sure with time It’ll get better. The real question is, do I want it to? I know more thru-hikes are in my future. I’d love to hear from other former thru-hikers about your post-trail experience.

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Comments 9

  • Hiker BigTex : Aug 9th

    A year later and its still hard. Sure its gonna less painful being off the trail, not not any easier. I think of the trail every single day without question. I dream of being back there and doing it all again. I often daydream of how I would do thinks different, or places I’s love to spend more time, hostels I would skip, its a constant journey in my mind. I’ve been back to the trail but its not the same. Its not just the trail, its the culture, the community, its trail life. Its being somewhere thats not here with people who think like we think.
    Thanks for the blog, I think only those that have experienced it really understand it!

    • Bob Rogers : Aug 12th

      I’m not sure I agree with that last statement. I’ve not yet even started my thru hike but I think I understand already. A bigger fear than petting bears from the inside is the end of the hike (assuming I finish it). I’m not sure anything short of a broken leg will stop me. May delay but that’s about it. My job pays well but I don’t enjoy it. I’ll most likely have to quit in order to do the thru-hike. It’s not looking like they will hold a position open for me for 6 months. But even if they did, would I want to come back? When I finish, will I hop on the next bus leaving for the PCT? Does REI host a support group for recovering thru-hikers?

      • PinxEngrayz : Sep 10th

        You may understand intellectually, but my guess is that when you experience the feeling viscerally, after completing a hike, you will understand that you didn’t really understand!

        • Bob Rogers : Sep 10th

          Not sure you know how much I miss the trail already. Just reading the
          blogs I get (literally) teary eyed because I’m missing out on the
          experience. I’ve done small sections but even combined they don’t add up
          to even a quarter of the miles. Getting out there full time for 6
          months? Nothing could sound better. I would love nothing more than to
          become a full time trail bum (beach bum minus the beach). I will either
          finish the hike and want it even more or I won’t finish and pretty much
          give up backpacking. The latter isn’t likely to happen short of severe
          injury. The former would be fine if I could then hike whatever trail
          whenever I wanted. But because food costs money and I like eating, that
          isn’t likely to be doable. Hence the depression. No, I have not
          experienced it first hand. And no I probably don’t know the depth that
          it will go. The post hike depression, as I said before, is my single
          biggest fear. Not painful knees, not bears, not the failure of quitting,
          etc. It’s going to be ugly.

          • PinxEngrayz : Sep 10th

            Honestly, I had no clue how it would feel. I thought I did, but I surprise myself every day with these “post-thru-hike blues.” I hope you get out there soon! Tis better, they say, to have loved and lost than not to love at all…..

            • Bob Rogers : Sep 10th

              If I were born rich, I wouldn’t be having all these problems. Sure I might have a different set of problems but I’m willing to experiment a little. Someone should give me a few million dollars.

              So what are you doing to prevent the blues and is it working?

  • Tanaria : Aug 11th

    It took me half a year to get back into the groove with off-trail life. But like you, it still haunts me. Not the AT so much, though I miss the trail community there. But the CDT and the PCT…they are on my mind. The thing to remember, at least for me, is that we all went on the trail for a reason. The hike itself is not the goal. For me, I needed to figure out what came next in my life. Re-visit your reasons for going on the trail; perhaps that will help you.

  • Nichole : Aug 15th

    I am in North Jersey and although I haven’t thru-hiked YET, if you want to get a beer and talk, let me know!!


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