Backpacking with a Neurodivergent Brain
The Wake-Up Call
Two years ago I hiked almost 800 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. When I got home and had to reintegrate into society, I found myself struggling greatly with the adjustment. This isn’t a new phenomenon for long-distance backpackers by any means, but it made me think about how existing in today’s society has always felt hard for me. I always wrote this off as a personal flaw, a sign of weakness. I thought I just had to toughen up and try harder and I’d be able to transform into a ~real person~.
I thought this way my entire adult life until I found TikTok. I know, I know. Just hear me out! For the first time, I was hearing stories from people outside my social circle. Think about it: most other major social media platforms show you content that you choose to see for the most part. For me, TikTok was the first place where I regularly saw perspectives from people I don’t know. I quickly ended up on the mental health side, and realized how I felt was not normal! So I sought professional help.
The diagnostic journey started with my primary care doctor, who had me fill out an assessment that consisted of one piece of paper, front and back. I scored extremely high for ADHD (Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder). He provided a referral to a counselor to verify his findings, and she did. This diagnosis was extremely validating, but I felt like it didn’t cover everything. There were some symptoms that didn’t fit into the ADHD diagnosis and others that contradicted it.
Autism: perception vs. reality
We’ve all heard of Autism and Asperger Syndrome (which has since been removed from the DSM and now falls under the umbrella of “Autism Spectrum Disorder”). But these days most people still picture folks with higher support needs when they think of autism. This is how autistic people are depicted in TV shows and dramatic ads where autism is portrayed as a terrible and life-ruining disease that needs to be cured.
Just in the past decade, our view of ASD has changed significantly. For the first time, AFAB people and members of marginalized communities are being included in research and diagnostic measures. It’s not just young white AMAB people being studied and diagnosed now! Just last year a text revision of the DSM-5 was released that includes specific diagnostic criteria for AFAB people that had been overlooked for decades.
In my case, I took a handful of online assessments, many of which are the standard for professional diagnostic testing. Even though each one I took indicated a high likelihood of being autistic, I still gaslit myself into believing everything I was experiencing was normal. Until I had the opportunity to get a clinical diagnosis that is. My psychologist diagnosed me with ASD level 1 (a clinical box she was required to put me in for charting purposes) which means I am on the lower support needs end of the spectrum. But what does this all mean?
Different, Not Less
I want to make one thing very clear. Autism is a neurotype, not a disease. It is labeled as a disability because this specific neurotype does not always fare well in the society we live in today, but there is no treatment and it cannot be “cured.” And I wouldn’t want it to be anyways! “Neurotype” just means the way a brain functions. My brain is simply wired differently from other people who are not autistic. My entire personality and ways of thinking are influenced by my autism because my whole brain is influenced by my autism! It’s not better or worse than any other brain type, though coping with the way my brain handles certain things does require some extra energy and attention sometimes.
One characteristic of the autistic brain is that we tend to fixate on things. This can happen over the period of a week or a decade, but if there’s something we are genuinely interested in, we tend to latch onto that thing. For me, one of my special interests that I fixate on is backpacking! Which brings us to: how does having a neurodivergent brain affect the experience of backpacking? So glad you asked, let’s get into it!
Backpacking with Autism
First of all, a lot of this is going to be a reiteration of things I talked about on my Backpacker Radio episode, but if you haven’t listened yet here’s the gist: backpacking is equally amazing and difficult for the autistic brain! Several aspects of my sensory perception and nervous system regulation cause me to experience backpacking differently than people with neurotypical brains, for better or for worse.
As I was writing this, I realized my autism basically affects every aspect of my backpacking experience, from sleeping to socializing and everything in between. To keep myself from writing a whole essay, I’ll just highlight some of the more impactful parts of backpacking with a neurodivergent brain.
One major aspect that affects the backpacking experience for me is my sensory issues around certain textures. Sensations such as feeling sticky and feeling like my clothes or quilt are too tight, while uncomfortable for most people no doubt, will inhibit my ability to regulate my emotions. I will get irrationally upset if I feel these uncomfortable sensations for any extended period of time. It has taken me years of adjusting and readjusting to find systems to mitigate these hypersensitivities on trail.
A well-known trait commonly observed in autistic people is difficulty navigating social situations. This struggle is mitigated on trail due to the nature of interactions between hikers. However, I still find myself overanalyzing and overthinking the interactions I have with people. This is hard to turn off and gets in the way of connection sometimes because I am afraid to approach people. However, I have found social interactions on trail happen way more organically and genuinely than interactions I have with people in the “real world.”
There are certainly many ways backpacking is great for autistic people! First of all, we LOVE a routine. Once I get into my daily routine while backpacking, I experience a significant amount of comfort in knowing what to expect most days. Also, the backcountry is quiet! No electricity sounds buzzing in my ears, no cars driving past constantly, no crowds or loud music. And for me personally, because backpacking is my special interest, it is an activity that brings out my authentic self. My autism allows me to feel a deep and profound sense of joy and utter elation when I’m in the backcountry.
Backpacking with ADHD
Backpacking is an amazing activity for ADHD brains! There is constant new stimulation and tons of opportunities for dopamine to be released. Also, research shows that exercise is great for ADHD brains and can help mitigate some symptoms. This works out well for us ADHD backpackers because hiking every day is great exercise!
One way I struggle with my ADHD in the backcountry is the noise in my head. Constant racing thoughts, random quotes, and clips of songs playing on repeat. I have tried many tactics in the past to quiet my mind and so far none have worked. It gets frustrating sometimes! I just want to listen to nature but instead, I have one singular line from “Albuquerque ” by Weird Al Yankovic playing loudly in my brain. To combat this I listen to music, audiobooks, or podcasts. I’d rather choose what I hear than have to suffer whatever random sound my brain latched onto in that moment.
Impulsivity is also an important topic of discussion when it comes to ADHD and the backcountry. Some studies have shown a 5-13 year decrease in the average lifespan of adults with ADHD. This comes in part from impulsive actions such as reckless driving or poor risk assessment. There are other factors here, such as alcohol/tobacco abuse, but I think it is important to highlight the impulsivity piece so we can be more aware of it in ourselves and make sure we properly assess risks in the backcountry.
Overall, neurodivergent brains seem to thrive while backpacking. There may be some difficulty managing sensory input and emotional regulation, but being in nature has a powerful effect on all kinds of neurotypes. We may need to make some adjustments for our comfort, but the struggles we face are not insurmountable barriers. With some trial and error and a whole lot of self-reflection, we can achieve great things! Subscribe to follow along my journey as I attempt to overcome my own personal obstacles and achieve my goal of thru-hiking the Colorado Trail!
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