Hiking with Your Brain: Pre-Trail Anxiety and Post-Trail Depression

For more than a decade, the constant thought blazing in my brain was my obsession with the Appalachian Trail, and my dream to thru-hike it. I was a child, traveling from Florida to North Carolina once a year to hike. I was a girl with a single goal. And I was a kid, standing on the threshold of what would become a lifelong battle with depression and anxiety. As the years went on and my thoughts got darker, the comforting image of the AT burned ever brighter, keeping me going, my sole reason for not giving up.

A little girl with big dreams and a big love for the mountains.

So, when I finally began my thru-hike in 2018, it felt cruelly unfair that the first night in my tent brought on the most intense panic attack of my life. There I was, embarking on the journey that I’d cradled in my heart for so many years as the thing that would save me. And instead of immediately feeling a sense of peace, I was hyperventilating with my eyes wide open on top of Springer Mountain.

My chest tightened and I clutched at my throat, my gloved hands clawing at the seven layers of clothing that were suddenly suffocating me rather than keeping me warm against the below-freezing temperature. The wind battering my tent was so loud, it didn’t sound like wind anymore. It was like waves crashing. In my head, my sleeping pad became a raft being bashed against rocks somewhere in the ocean. No matter how loud the wind clamored, it couldn’t match the terror ripping through me like lightning.

Don’t let day one intimidate you. The fog will clear.

I thought I would never sleep again. I thought I’d failed, that my dream was dead because I was too weak. But I wasn’t too weak, and exactly six months later, I did make it to Katahdin. Descending from treeline on the tallest mountain in Maine, the terminus at last behind me, I finally felt that peace I’d sought for so long.

But how can hikers, especially those who face depression and anxiety in their daily life, feel peace before reaching the end of such an enormous trek? There is no one-size-fits-all answer,  but the more we normalize the discussion and break down the stigma, and the less alone we feel, the better we can face our mental health concerns before, during, and after thru-hiking.

Some days your mental health will feel as hopeless as my eyesight on a wet day. Remember there is sunshine ahead.

Pre-Trail Anxiety

My panic attack was a result of all of my repressed anxieties about hiking suddenly coming out simultaneously. I knew deep within myself for my whole adolescence that I would never be calm if I didn’t complete my dream of thru-hiking. So I didn’t get worked up before my hike. I wasn’t particularly excited or afraid or anything. I was sort of numb, and that should have been my first sign that something bad was coming.

The way I saw it, I had no reason to be anxious about the hike. I was simply going to finish the trail even if it killed me, so why worry? I suppose that first night in my tent was when I finally allowed myself to think what if it really does kill me?

Here’s the thing: it likely will not kill you.

I know that many northbound thru-hikers have just set out, full of nerves or excitement or nothing at all. And many southbounders will be hitting the trail in the coming months. And I know (because I get questions from nervous future thru-hikers all the time), that a lot of people are overthinking their hike.

Read next – How the Trail Helped with My Anxiety.

Sure, test your gear. Enjoy the planning if that’s your thing. Or enjoy the dreaming-and-not-planning if you’re a chaos addict like me. But don’t get wrapped up in every single detail of a thru-hike.

Make time for things that make you happy, like the handsome Herman at Quarter Way Inn.

The truth is (and this is hard to grasp if you’ve never thru-hiked, and especially if you have anxiety): thru-hiking is essentially walking uphill and downhill, thinking about the food you’re going to eat in town, eating that food while in town, doing laundry, and frantically searching for a good cathole spot when nature suddenly calls thirty minutes after you leave the shelter and privy.

Of course, things can and will go wrong, but that makes for good stories! (My trail name is Story, so maybe I’m biased.) You will get cold. You will get wet. You will wonder what on earth you were thinking when you decided to do this. You will become alarmingly attached to even the most basic and lumpy hotel beds simply because they are not a mat on the ground. You will worship a good toilet.

You will likely not be bitten by a rattlesnake.

You will likely not be murdered.

You will likely not fall from a great height.

Yes, all of those things have happened and can happen. But they can happen in many situations, not just on a thru-hike, and the chances of these, and many other horrible fates, are so very slim when compared to the chances of them not happening.

As a first-class worrier with severe anxiety, I know that saying this may not help very much. But if I can encourage you to do anything at all, it’s to take a deep breath every now and then, before and during your hike, and remember why you want this trail to be part of your life story.

You can do this. And you don’t need to know all the answers eight months before starting your hike. The trail will show you the way. Breathe.

Let the trail guide you. Let it put things where they’re supposed to be.

Post-Trail Depression

Maybe you dodged the anxiety before your hike. Maybe you were just excited in the weeks leading up to the moment your boots hit the dirt. Every single person’s experience is different. I can’t stress it enough. You will hike your own hike and you will live your own life post-hike. But many of us, in our own way, face post-trail depression.

For some, it means ceasing all physical activity and eating junk food. For some, it’s an inability to move on from the freedom we experienced in the forest. For others, it’s the terrifying thought that we will never fit in with “normal society” again. It’s the fear that if we can’t live on the trail forever, and we can’t live in our old lives with the new knowledge the trail gave us, then maybe we can’t live at all.

But we can. And we will. Thru-hikers are strong. We don’t just acquire incredible quads and enviable calves out there. We learn what’s really important. We know what it’s like to run from a lightning storm. We know how it feels to literally survive. We learn that the things we used to think were the end of the world are not actually significant. Turning in an assignment late, scuffing a wall at a rental house, having a difficult conversation with a boss— these things cannot kill us.

Frozen muscles give great perspective. Are my “normal life” worries really that big of a deal?

The lightning could have killed us. The cold could have killed us. A poorly placed foot on a sketchy descent could have killed us. But it didn’t. So we enter post-trail life with the knowledge that we are stronger than we ever knew. Again, as a person with clinical depression, I know these words can’t pierce through the extreme darkness, but the memory of what I faced on the AT has occasionally helped me when facing post-trail life.

When I finished my hike and felt that peace I’d always sought, it was transcendent. I felt like I knew something that no one else did, like I had the secret to the universe. The depression didn’t set in until I’d been away from the mountains for a few months. It can come any time, in any form. So I want to really stress the importance of what I’m about to say.

Listen next – Backpacker Radio Episode 80: Dr. Anne Baker on Post-Trail Depression.

Therapy. Therapy. Therapy. However you can get it, get it. Through your insurance, your workplace, on an app, etc. Whatever is the most feasible option for your schedule and financial situation, do it. I wish I had sought therapy before and during my thru-hike, not just after.

I encourage people who are in therapy before hiking to continue it via video chats and messages while hiking. Many therapists and services offer this. I know that the hike itself will consume most of your energy, but walking in the woods alone for a long time will allow a whole lot of thoughts to enter your brain, and you may need help working through some of them.

Make time for your mental health.

You are braver than you know.

You’ve Got This

Here are just a few more pieces of advice to protect your mental health while thru-hiking:

  1. Do not thru-hike with a partner who has already displayed a tendency to abuse you, emotionally or physically.
  2. Talk to other hikers and learn their stories.
  3. Carry a piece of home with you, no matter the weight.
  4. Allow yourself to have bad days, and don’t hold onto guilt because of it.
  5. TAKE A ZERO WHEN YOU NEED IT.
  6. Have at least a vague concept of what you’d like to accomplish next when your hike is over.
  7. Don’t compare your experience with anyone else’s.
  8. Don’t do anything that makes you feel unsafe just because other hikers are doing it.
  9. Cry! There’s nothing like openly weeping in the woods.

Read next – Everyone’s Got Baggage: Why We Don’t Weigh Sentimental Items.

Gaze at Katahdin. Think about your goal. But don’t lose the present moment.

If I Can Do It, You Can

I thought my heart was going to explode that first night on the AT. I was filled with nearly debilitating fear nonstop for six months, certain that every injury, bug bite, and poorly planned day would mean the end of my dream. I fell into a deep depression after trying and failing to settle into my old life after hiking. I get it.

Hiking is not just a physical effort. Yes, I remember the pain in my knees and how it felt to wear wet socks for a week and the sweat that never stopped pouring in the summer. But I remember the fear and despair even more clearly. The fact is, it’s a hell of a lot easier to face physical pain when you’re not mentally falling apart.

The important thing to remember is that, even if we can’t will away our anxiety and fear and depression, there are many, many moments in between. There are flowers we’ve never seen and don’t know the names for. There are shooting stars, vivid against the black sky free from light pollution. There are porcupines and moose and owls and loons and moles.

You’ll breathe the freshest air into your grateful lungs. Your mind will tell you that you can’t climb the next mountain, and then your body will do it anyway. You’ll huddle around campfires, laugh at outrageous stories, and learn what it’s like to live simply and simply live.

So go on, chase that dream. And even in the darkest moments, always remember that you have what it takes. You’re a hiker, after all.

Sometimes you can’t see where you’re going, and you have to trust that your path is still there.

If you need help right now, please seek it. There are so many people who care and so many who want to help. Here are some resources for you:

  • National Suicide Prevention Helpline:
  • Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741 (24/7)
  • The Trevor Project (suicide prevention for LGBTQ youth):
    • 866-488-7386 (24/7)
    • Text START to 678678. (Mon-Fri 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. EST/12 p.m. to 7 p.m. PST)
    • TrevorCHAT (instant messaging, seven days a week, 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. EST/12 p.m. to 7 p.m. PST)
  • The Veterans Crisis Line:
    • 800-273-8255 and press 1 (24/7)
    • Text 838255 (24/7)
    • Online chat (24/7)
    • Support for folks who are deaf or hard of hearing: 800-799-4889

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Comments 8

  • Maeby : Apr 26th

    She speaks true! Your experience reminds us all that mental health is always relevant. You can’t run away from your mind, even on mountaintops. Thanks for sharing your bravery!

    Reply
  • Moose : Apr 27th

    I can sympathize with you regarding panic attacks. Anxiety/panic disorder somehow always manages to sink its teeth into you when you’re alone and when you should be at your lowest calm state. It’s almost like a part of the brain has been rewired to perpetually fire off a fight/flight response when all threats in the world appear to be gone. The one plus with chaos seekers is that they’re the most calm when the rest of the world is feeling panic from real atrocity. I’m certain when a bear crosses your footpath you’ll be as cool as a clam. Happy & safe hiking!

    Reply
  • Ava Adoline : Apr 27th

    Thank you for this! Reading this makes me feel so much more calm and capable of going into my PCT hike in two weeks. All the best to you!

    Reply
  • pearwood : Apr 27th

    Thank you, Saoirse. I like that bit about carrying a bit of home with you.

    Reply
  • Glenn Nelson : Apr 28th

    Hello!

    Thank you for your message and for the clarity with which you express it and describe its intensity.

    Congratulations on your successful completion of the hike that you elected to place in your life’s path.

    I would be most pleased to have the opportunity to buy and read your future writings.

    Warmly,

    Glenn
    Idaho Falls, ID

    Reply
  • Patty Fant : Apr 28th

    Inspiring. Well written. You are very strong and beautiful.

    Reply
  • Robert Steen : Apr 30th

    Can especially relate to the pre-hike anxiety. Lots of other spot-on points as well. Will see in a couple of days if I can apply some of your advice. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  • Koyote Kyle : May 5th

    I have sought adventure since I can remember. Before kindergarten police had brought me home from a fearless “hike” that had me only miles away. When my mother asked where I was going I replied, “on an adventure ” as if she should have already known. Years later I have been on many hikes and adventures in life. Some have been worthy of stories to be shared while all have had steps worth taking.

    I will be 50 years old this fall. I just woke from a nightmare. I was captured into purposeless stagnation. I had become a ghost no one could hear within the walls of a dark abandoned building.

    Struggling to get back to sleep with only hours before heading back to work, your article found me. It is time again for my life to invite an adventure that leads me closer to myself. The details of truth you shared offers me hope that some dreams do not need to haunt our realities while others are worth dreaming into our life. Thank you.

    Reply

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