Here’s How 5 Thru-Hikers Figured Out Their Lives After The Trail

The gear, permits, finances—not to mention the thru-hike itself—are enough to think about when you decide to attempt a long-distance trek. In fact, it’s so much that often the “what happens next” part gets tossed to the wayside. I’ll worry about that (job, apartment, car) later is easy to do when you’re staring down 2,000 miles on foot.

It’s different for everyone. Some thru-hikers are simply taking a hiatus from their friends, jobs, families, homes, and real-world duties, and slide right back in after their hike. But others are making big changes, and a thru-hike means a clean break from routine—the chance to essentially start over once they’re back. This can mean quitting jobs, ending leases, putting all worldly goods in storage. This also means that after the hike, there are some big things to figure out. Here’s how five recent hikers figured out their post-hike lives, what challenges were presented, and what they’re doing now.

-Maggie Slepian

Rebecca Burns, Pacific Crest Trail, 2018

An ice cream cone worthy of trail hunger. Photo provided by Rebecca Burns.

What did you give up to hike the trail? Why?

June 2017 is when I decided to thru-hike the PCT the following summer. I was a young outdoor educator and felt like there’s no better time than the present to take on the PCT. The perk of my career path was the built-in flexibility of seasonal employment. As each season changed, I would have to scrape together work and housing through various outdoor education programs and odd jobs to make ends meet.

As I prepared for the PCT, I felt as though I wasn’t giving up too much. This could have been me being selfish since I only made trips home roughly once a year. With one phone call a month before I set out on my trek this all changed. The head coach of the University of Southern California women’s rowing team called asking me about joining the coaching staff. In 2016 this would have been my dream job, but as I moved further away from college I realized there was more in this world than just rowing. If I chose to work at USC, I would only have been on trail for about a month.

The decision ate away at me as made my final preparations. I knew my family wanted me to take the job and start thinking about my future, but all I could think about was my journey to Canada. On day nine of my trek on the PCT I made my decision. I was hiking to Canada.

A year after completing the PCT, I still think about how my life would be different if I chose to settle down in LA. Working as an outdoor educator is not glamorous—you don’t shower for weeks on end, you get cussed out by teenagers, and you constantly think of the outcomes of high-impact activities. On the other hand, you witness tremendous empowerment and compassion, you see teenagers overcome challenges they never knew they were capable of, and you can sleep under the stars every single night. This is the path I chose and I have no regrets in the decisions I made that brought me to the PCT.

What was your biggest takeaway from the trail?

In my opinion, everything happens for a reason. The people you meet along the way are not a coincidence; you are meant to meet them. The four other hikers who became my trail family all started the trail within 24 hours of me. I felt like the PCT was a giant game of leapfrog. I would go days on end without seeing some of these hikers and then all of a sudden I would see one of them in town. It wasn’t until the halfway point on the trail that I finally took the hint to stick with this crew.

I’m all for being a strong, independent woman, but in order to be successful in a thru-hike and really enjoy it, you need a good crew to be around. These people see you at your highest highs and lowest lows—they keep you on trail on the days when quitting just seems too easy. In hiking the PCT, I learned to rely on others and know that those people have my back.

Rockin’ the snows of Oregon after some serious post-trail depression. Photo provided by Rebecca Burns.

What are you doing now? How long did it take you to get back on your feet financially and emotionally after your thru?

The weeks following the PCT were a whirlwind. Two days after walking into Canada, I woke up with Giardia. Four days after finishing the PCT I was on a plane to Florida to race at the Masters Rowing World Championship. And eight days after that I was back at work in California as an outdoor educator. I spent the entire time running around in circles, trying to convince myself that the last 133 days of my life actually happened—that I actually walked from Mexico to Canada.

The fall ended. I was jobless and homeless. I loaded up my car and migrated to Bend, Oregon, with no plan and hardly enough money to pay rent. Luckily I quickly landed a job at the Patagonia store in town and soon after started working at ski school as well.

When I arrived in Bend, however, I finally let myself relax and the post-trail depression hit like a brick wall. The simplest things of getting out of bed and going to work seemed impossible. I spent the summer talking about how excited I was to get back on skis, but when that time finally happened I hated it. Everything was happening too fast and all I could think about was my time on trail. I desperately grasped for reminders of the PCT, whether I was driving across the trail at Santiam Pass or reliving the good ol’ days through photos and blog posts.

This dark hole lasted for about two months before I started feeling human again. I had forced myself to ski and tour even when I hated it. Luckily Oregon had a great winter—fresh powder and bluebird skies made it hard to stay in this slump forever. By April I was completely obsessed with the new world I discovered of ski mountaineering and vowed to ski at least one day for each month of 2019.

The first few months following the trail were also financially stressful. I worked seven days a week through the winter and went straight into field work with various outdoor education companies to pay off my credit card bill. A year following the PCT, I am now feeling burned out from putting in so many hours of work to counter the costs of my thru-hike. This burnout is fueling the fire for another thru-hike in 2020–AT SOBO!

For now, though, I am happily working for the Northwest Outward Bound School, where I recently instructed a PCT-specific backpacking course. As the seasons change, I will relocate to Bend, and acclimate to a life inside (for the winter only).

Was your intention to change your path in life after a thru-hike, or stay the same? Did this work out for you?

The main reason I hiked the PCT was to find a sense of home. This has been something I’ve been seeking since I was 16, when my mother suddenly passed away and I left my childhood home. For a while, I kept thinking I found my place in the world but all good things must end eventually. The comfort and community that the PCT brings to me is unparalleled—everything just seems right when my feet are rooted on the dirt marking this incredible trail. On the PCT I feel free.

I wasn’t looking for any groundbreaking epiphanies. I was more so looking for a place of belonging and acceptance for who I am. The PCT taught me how capable of an outdoors woman I truly am and with enough grit and tenacity you can achieve the impossible. I also learned that there are people in this world that I can trust and relying on others is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength and awareness.

Following the PCT, my path stayed pretty much the same. The work I do and love hasn’t changed, but my sense of personal challenge has. Thru-hiking has shown me that I can go further and do more; it’s just a matter of finding that challenge and other people crazy enough to go for it with me!

Read Rebecca’s PCT blogs here.

Mackenzie Wieder, Appalachian Trail, 2018

Katahdin. The end of one adventure, but just the start of many more. Photo provided by Mackenzie Wieder.

What did you give up to hike the trail?

I was lucky because I was at a point of transition in my life already. I had graduated college and decided I didn’t like my job and wanted to leave, which led me to the trail. I obviously missed out on small things like little trips with friends and normal activities people were doing at home, but overall I didn’t have to give anything up.

Why?

I was already in a point of transition and was leaving things behind no matter what so the trail fit into that time in my life well.

What was your biggest takeaway from the trail?

Choosing one thing is difficult because I feel like a much better person than when I started the AT. I guess my biggest takeaway is just how generous, helpful, and kind people are. My faith in humanity was restored 1,000 times over. I met the most amazing people from all different walks of life on trail and in town. I love the people I met and the relationships I formed, and I couldn’t have made those connections and accepted the help I needed from strangers.

In New Orleans. Food like this isn’t served on trail. Photo provided by Mackenzie Wieder.

What are you doing now? How long did it take you to get back on your feet financially and emotionally after your thru?

The trail ignited a whole new level of adventure for me. Since finishing I vacationed in Iceland in a camper van, moved to Madrid, Spain, for three months as a nanny, worked for a Girl Scout summer camp, thru-hiked the Tahoe Rim Trail, took a 5,000-mile road tripped around America in a minivan with a friend, and went to Walt Disney World. I had money saved up before I did the AT and between adventures I work at Old Navy to save more. I am lucky that my parents let me live with them rent-free and my car is already paid off, so I have no bills to pay. So I save everything I make to travel. Emotionally I definitely went through a little bit of post-trail depression but I am still very close with my tramily and talk to them regularly, which I think helped me out a lot.

Was your intention to change your path in life after a thru-hike, or stay the same? Did this work out for you?

It was not my intention to change my path in life. I figured I would finish my thru-hike and get an adult job and enter the “real” world but that certainly did not happen. The trail ignited this need for adventure that I have let run free. I am trying to figure out what is next for me but I know my life is on a completely different trajectory now that I thru-hiked.

Read Mackenzie’s AT blogs here.

Brian Cornell, Continental Divide Trail, 2018

Brian Cornell’s CDT thru-hike was followed by more adventures, and a book on his hike. Photo provided by Brian Cornell.

What did you give up to hike the trail?

I left a full-time job at a brewery and moved away from a beautiful mountain town that had become my home. It was difficult leaving friends behind but it was a transient town with seasonal workers constantly coming and going throughout the year. Seeing friends move on to other things is usually inspiring enough, and after a few years, I was encouraged to pursue my own adventures elsewhere.

Why?

I hiked the AT in 2014 and was jonesin’ to get back on the trail for an extended period of time. I spent my summers backpacking in the Sierra but the two- to three-night trips were never enough to fulfill my desires. Every time I came back into town, I just wanted to resupply with five more days of food and keep hiking. My brother was doing the CDT in 2018 to complete his Triple Crown and asked me if I wanted to go too. It was an easy decision.

What was your biggest takeaway from the trail?

Trail life is better than any other life. Before doing the CDT, I had these expectations of what the hike was going to do for me and how it would affect my life off-trail. But now, I just want to hike as much as possible. My second thru-hike has convinced me that living out of a backpack in the wilderness for six months while hiking across the country is about as good as it gets.

After his 2018 CDT thru-hike, Brian Cornell wrote a book about his trip. Divided: A Walk on the Continental Divide Trail is due out this fall.

 

What are you doing now? How long did it take you to get back on your feet financially and emotionally after your thru?

After finishing the CDT and finding a place to live, I began writing a memoir about my time on trail. I was able to turn my focus toward another large project and this also allowed me to indulge in memories and stories from my six months on the CDT while slowly adjusting back to a somewhat normal schedule, working a couple of seasonal part-time jobs. The book (Divided: A Walk on the Continental Divide Trail) is scheduled to be released by the end of the month (October 2019) and will be available on Amazon! I was also encouraged to travel in a more traditional manner so when I had enough money, I bought a round-trip ticket to Thailand. I spent five months traveling around Southeast Asia while editing my manuscript and doing plenty of sightseeing along the way.

Read Brian’s CDT blogs here.

Cari Pattison, Appalachian Trail, 2019

Life is good on trail outside Glasgow, Virginia. Photo provided by Cari Pattison.

What did you give up to hike the trail?

I gave up my job of 12 years as a church minister in New York, along with my work as a fitness instructor. I terminated my lease on my apartment and left my neighborhood and friends. I gave up a salary, health benefits, and a fairly comfortable life.

Why?

Because everything about the trail called to me. I craved the nature, the challenge, the pilgrimage, and the people. See my blog post for the bigger “why.” I also would never have hiked the trail at all if it weren’t for this.

What was your biggest takeaway from the trail?

I would say my biggest takeaway was this: to keep walking. Hard happens; storms happen; loss and disappointment and letting go happen. But every day on trail we had one most important choice— whether to keep walking. Seasons change, the weather shifts, and your pack gets heavier, then lighter. Your plans fall through. People leave and circle back. And some of that feels painful.

But there is something in the rhythm of waking up each day with the sun and saying, “I’m taking another step forward.” And then a mile, and then ten miles, and then 20. There is something in the habit of lacing up your shoes, hoisting on your pack, and moving aside the spiderwebs. The daily walking in the dirt and breathing in fresh air makes you more like the trees, I believe. Regal, bendable, beautiful.

Photo off-trail, hiking in the rain (read: walking around the suburban cul-de-sac) with my ankle brace. Feeling a little wimpy carrying an umbrella, after never having one on the AT! Photo provided by Cari Pattison.

What are you doing now? How long did it take you to get back on your feet financially and emotionally after your thru?

Wait, we’re supposed to be back on our feet financially and emotionally? Isn’t it still October?

Right now I’m doing physical therapy to heal my ankle that I broke on trail (1,300 miles in, in New Jersey). I am cooking chili with Mom and going to softball games with Dad, and belting out the Frozen soundtrack with my niece. I am wrapping up a two-month stint with family in Kansas City before heading back to the Hudson Valley in New York, where I will do an extended work-for-stay at a monastery. I’m looking forward to a new community and seasonal employment, expanding my health and wellness business, and finishing up the trail in summer 2020!

Was your intention to change your path in life after a thru-hike, or stay the same? Did this work out for you?

I’m not sure anyone’s path can stay exactly the same after a thru-hike. Even if you keep your house, job, partner, and basics of life, I’m convinced there’s something about your post-trail path that will be different. It’s been so fun talking to trail friends on the phone and hearing their experiences of this so far.

My intention was definitely to change course. At least to some extent. I think that’s a given when you walk away from your job, your apartment, and your town to do a six-month hike. I’m still close to my friends and plan to revisit my old community. And it’s likely that I’ll move forward next fall with some new kind of ministry in a church, camp, college, or hospital setting.

But my experience on the Appalachian Trail confirmed in me a growing appetite to work and live outdoors. I feel so much more alive in nature. I believe it’s the center of healing, creativity, and deeper connection to God, self, and others. The trail also reawakened my hunger to write. I loved blogging for The Trek and feel humbled and grateful for the way writing allowed me to connect with people on and off the trail.

Read Cari’s AT blogs here.

Taylor Weixl, Pacific Crest Trail, 2018

At the midpoint of the PCT, with so many adventures ahead. Photo provided by Taylor Weixl.

What did you give up to hike the trail?

I didn’t have many commitments or responsibilities at the time, so I didn’t feel like I was giving much up. It was the perfect time for me to hike. I finished up my seasonal winter job, parked my car at my parents’ place, and headed to San Diego.

I wrote a grad school entrance exam in April before I left, and had everything in order so I could complete my applications after finishing the trail. The main thing I gave up was a sense of comfort and familiarity—being around my family, friends, and having a normal routine.

Why?

I decided to attempt a thru-hike because I wanted to meet interesting people, challenge myself, and have awesome experiences to look back on for the rest of my life. All those things happened and more. I knew it would be worth the discomfort and uncertainty. Worst-case scenario was that I would either get injured or decide I wasn’t enjoying myself, but I could return home knowing that I’d tried. Instead, the best-case scenario happened. I had a challenging, wonderful experience that has led to opportunities in all aspects of my life.

What was your biggest takeaway from the trail?

My biggest takeaway was a better understanding of the role adventures have in my life. Experiences like thru-hiking are a straightforward way to spend your time focused on community, simplicity, learning, and challenging yourself—which are the values most important to me. The real challenge is continuing to prioritize these values after returning to civilization. I don’t think multiple thru-hikes are the answer for me, but trying to live in a manner  aligned with those values is.

What are you doing now? How long did it take you to get back on your feet financially and emotionally after your thru?

I’m currently in Australia for a couple of months before I head back to British Columbia for the winter. I spent this summer leading teenagers on camping and backpacking trips, and in the winter I work at a backcountry ski touring lodge. I’m thankful to have ended up on this path that I never expected to be on.

On the beach in Victoria, Australia. Photo provided by Taylor Weixl.

I really missed my trail friends for the first few months back home. Once I started my winter job I got to spend weeks at a time in the backcountry with interesting people who I have lots in common with. Life at the lodge is similar to life on the trail, so that made the transition easier. After the PCT I’ve found it much harder to relate to people who don’t “get it.”

I had saved up to pay for my hike, so I didn’t have to recover financially. Living with your parents and being a commuter student during university might not be glamorous, but it allowed me to keep my expenses low and have the freedom to do things like thru-hike after graduating.

Was your intention to change your path in life after a thru-hike, or stay the same? Did this work out for you?

My intention with hiking the PCT was to have an interesting life experience, but to return to my “plan” afterward. I did not expect my hike to change my path the way it has.

Making the decision to hold off on applying for grad school once I got home was more difficult than deciding to attempt a thru-hike. I felt an incredible amount of relief after I made the decision. I needed time to reflect and determine whether I was hesitant to jump back into academia because it was too much too soon after five months outside, or if it was due to a greater shift in my values and how I want to spend my time. The more time that passes, the more confident I am that I made the right decision and that it was due to a shift in my priorities.

Read Taylor’s PCT blogs here.

Special thank to Hugh Owen for compiling, and Taylor Frint for production. Feature photo provided by Maggie Slepian.

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Comments 3

  • Weatherman : Oct 31st

    Really enjoyed reading these five stories. Hats off to these hikers and their wonderful accomplishments.

    I too set off to complete a major trail this year, but injuries stopped my dream. Now I am looking at surgery that may or may not allow continuation of my journey in 2020. Will the operation be successful? Will I be able to hike without doing permanent damage? It is just too early to tell.

    With all due respect, I wish I was facing thru-hiker problems right now.

    See you down the trail,
    Weatherman (one of several)

    Reply
  • +++STITCHES+++ : Nov 1st

    Nice! I have already thru-hiked the AT back in ’16 and the PCT back in ’18. I’m going for my Triple Crown in 2020. I can’t wait to start my hike this spring. Thru-hiking is something I’m gonna continue to do until I can’t do no more.lol. Maybe even do the American Discovery Trail 2022! LOL!

    +++STITCHES+++

    Reply
  • Clay Bonnyman Evans : Nov 5th

    “Trail life is better than any other life.”

    Indeed. Indeed.

    Sigh…..

    ~Pony

    Reply

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