The Anatomy of Post-Trail Depression

I didn’t expect it. At first, civilization was a welcome respite from hiking in snow, ice, and smoke.  Hot meals and warm showers galore. Not stinking all the time. Wearing—gasp!—mascara.  (I never thought I’d miss it.) I was stoked by my adventure and excited for the new life that I was about to build.

But then came insomnia. And then came anxiety. Depression. My body went into a state of panic from being enclosed in buildings and surrounded by concrete.  From going back home. From feeling like I didn’t belong. From reasons I didn’t even know. I cried missing the inside of my tent. I cried because no one got it. I cried because society didn’t make sense anymore. And at night, I wandered the trail in my dreams, my boots kicking up the dust, clouds rolling over the distant mountains.

Before I got off trail, I thought that the post-trail experience would be pretty straightforward.  You didn’t have a single, obsessive purpose anymore—Canada—so just find a new one, right?

Wrong.

I found the post-trail transition to be much more multifaceted than I ever expected.  In this piece, I’m going to break down 12 aspects of the post-trail transition that I experienced.

1. Micro Culture Shock

At first, returning to civilization is like this.

Micro culture shock includes stuff like: being stoked about running water, being happy about being clean, being startled I didn’t wake up in my tent, etc.  For me, this was one of the fun parts of the post-hike transition.  Micro culture shock felt neat and novel and kind of exciting! I was rediscovering things that I completely took for granted in the past.  

One of my favorite examples of this was when I was driving in my car.  I flipped on the high beams and then felt vaguely and inexplicably anxious. What? Then, I realized that turning on the high beams of my headlamp would cause it to go dead in four hours.  This happened two months after getting off trail. Appreciate your power outlets, folks.  

2. Disillusionment with Society

Micro culture shock is fun, but after a few weeks, you quickly get to the existential shit. That “Oh my God, society is fucked up” and that “Oh shit, nothing makes sense anymore!” type of culture shock.  

When I got back from the PCT, all the things that were wrong with society stood out in stark relief. I doubted, questioned, and criticized society. I felt like I’d been lied to. I felt shocked and jaded. And I was pissed. I was pissed that people were so unhappy and unhealthy.  I was pissed about Trump. I was pissed about inequality. I was pissed about how disconnected we were from nature.

People said, “How is it coming back to reality?” But to me, it seemed clear that it was society that was disconnected from reality, not the trail. It was isolating and confusing. 

3. Values Shift

Over time, I also began to realize that some fundamental changes in my worldview had occurred. When I got off trail, my friends talked about career, busy, worry, stress, financial security, and graduate school. I felt the echo of a time when these things mattered to me… and then I realized that I no longer gave a shit. 

For months afterward, I found myself navigating an odd space where everyone cared intensely about things that were completely meaningless to me and I began to doubt myself and my own beliefs because they were not aligned with everyone else’s. 

Re-orienting with my high-tech navigation system. 😉

I like to think that having a massive values shift is what it would be like if your compass were to suddenly decide that north is where east used to be. If this were to happen, you’d be confused and disoriented, and probably question your compass’s sanity. Particularly if everyone else’s compasses still point north.

As I re-oriented with my shifted internal compass, I changed many aspects of my life to match my new worldviews: location, lifestyle, diet, exercise habits, social groups, etc.  After your hike, you too may experience an overhaul of your values system.  Recognize that being able to orient by your newly calibrated compass will be a learning process. Your life may experience big changes as you adjust to fit your new desires and viewpoints.  

4. Social Restructuring

Stay in touch with your trail family.  <3

Because you have had this life-altering experience, you may also find that you no longer vibe with some people who you used to relate to. This can include old and close friends.  And let me tell you: this can and will suck. You may lose friends, have fights or fallings-out, you may drift apart, or feel isolated and disconnected.

At first, this can be miserable. You may feel like something is wrong with you or that you fucked up. This is not true. The reality is that you have changed.  

For this, I have two suggestions.  First, stay in touch with your trail family—they will support you, and they will understand.  Second, remember that there’s another side to this coin:  losing relationships opens up space for other people in your life.  People who may be better aligned with who you are now.

The truth is that losing friendships is just the beginning of a social restructuring process.  Your social life is very likely going to shift, and bonds may be broken before new ones form.

5. Outdoor Habitat

On a long hike, you are used to being outside every hour of every day.  Being under a roof all the time may feel weird. Walls may feel suffocating. Fluorescent lights may bother you.  Fortunately, this is a relatively simple thing to resolve: Be outside as much as possible. If you cannot be outside, sit near windows or put up nature posters.  Find ways to simulate the outdoors, or bring the outdoors inside. (Houseplants, anyone?)

6. Superhuman Endurance

Running my first trail marathon.

When you’re thru-hiking, hiking 20-plus miles a day feels pretty normal and matter-of-fact.  But the reality is that you are now an ultra-endurance badass. Reality check:  you are now used to exercising for at least eight to 12 hours a day, up and down mountains, carrying a full pack.  It is pretty much impossible to sustain that level of physical activity in the civilized world. And as a result, you will very likely have an endorphin crash, as well as what I call thru-hiker restless leg syndrome.  Sitting down will bother you. Not walking will bother you.

This may seem like a pain in the ass as far as fitting in with the sedentary masses is concerned, but remember that you are basically now Superman/Wonder Woman.

Be cognizant of the fact that your brain and body are now used to an insane amount of physical activity, and you will physically and mentally suffer if you do not take care of yourself.  Make sure you stay active: get a standing desk, go for walks, etc.

I got into ultrarunning because running 30 miles is easy after you walk marathons for months.  Seriously.

7. Homesickness

Hangin’ in my tent.

I traveled between different cities for three years and never found the sense of home that I found on the PCT.  The trail was the first place where I felt I truly belonged. Because of this, I was legitimately and regularly homesick for the trail for months after I got off.  I regularly woke up from dreams of the trail, I yearned after the snow and the soreness, I went on day hikes and felt—sadness.

Leaving the trail felt like a loss, and I went through a grieving process.  Remember that this is going to take time. Be patient with yourself.  Give yourself a lot of time to grieve and process.

8. Monomaniacal Purpose

Cold as fuck. Fortunately, I’m stubborn enough to never stop walking.  #monomaniacalforever

Hiking a long trail takes a certain kind of monomaniacal obsession.  For many of us, it’s an end goal that we’ve dreamed of for years. Achieving that goal means that the “huge obsessive goal” slot in your life is now empty.  And if that slot has been full for years and is suddenly an empty void, this can be cause for some bewilderment.  

I think there are a few resolutions to this. The first is to come up with another huge, obsessive, completely unreasonable goal that scares the bejesus out of you.  The second is to be super happy with what you’ve accomplished and schmooze into a cheerful rhythm in life and society. Or both.  The resolution that works for you probably depends largely on your temperament. Personally, I’m #monomaniacalforever. Because fuck balance, ya know?

9. Navigating Complexity

Peanut butter or nutella? Genius.

Compared to life in civilization, trail life is relatively simple.  Decision-making is few and straightforward:  eat/don’t eat, keep going/don’t keep going, sleep now/sleep later.  But when you return to society you are suddenly assaulted by vast numbers of conflicting priorities, distractions, demands on your time, and complex decisions.  And you are now, with limited time resources, expected to balance health, fitness, relationships, work, finances, communities, emergencies, etc. And—yaknow—feelings.  

In society, there is a much greater need for prioritization.  There’s a much greater need for cutting the bullshit, saying no, ignoring things that don’t matter, and holding boundaries.  This, of course, is more difficult when your priorities have probably shifted (see Values Shift above).  This will take time and—likely—conscious development. 

10. Increased Sensitivity

After my hike, I realized I was now hypersensitive to:  media, large groups of people, excessive socialization, loud noises, too much information, advertising, people’s emotions, bright colors, etc.  I became much more introverted. I stopped imbibing as much information. And I developed the practice of driving with no music on—just so that I could have small pockets of silence.

You may find that you are much more sensitive —to everything— after a long hike. I had to become much more aware of my saturation levels and know when to withdraw myself or decompress when necessary.  And I learned to be unapologetic about leaving or decommitting from social events when I was oversaturated.  

11. Financial Stress

When I was depressed, insomniatic, and having regular panic attacks—not to mention, angry at the system—I found it insanely difficult to care about work, function well at work, or apply for work. As a result, I spent a year racking up some $12,000 in credit card debtnot from hedonistic overspendingbut from living, moving, and mental health expenses.  It felt crappy and disempowering.

And I hated myself for it.  Why can’t you get up off of your ass and get a job?  As my debt deepened, I felt heightening panic and urgency about my complete lack of action.  It was very uncharacteristic, and I was deeply confused and disturbed by my apparent laziness and lack of motivation.  

But after some reflection, I realized thatobviously—someone who hikes 2,000 or so miles is not lazy or unmotivated.  But rather, hiking the PCT had caused some fundamental shifts in what I believed about the nature of work.  I was no longer willing to sell people a need that they didn’t need.  I was no longer willing to perpetuate a system I didn’t believe in. And I was no longer willing to contribute to a consumerist culture that was overexploiting the environment.  

Instead, I wanted to work to create a world that I believed in.

Eventually, I realized that I’d been “lazy” because I refused to do work that I didn’t care about, or that violated my changed ethical standards.  And things started to get better for me only when I stopped forcing myself to “just get a job” and instead focused on what I wanted to create in the world.

12. Miscellaneous

Some unexpected results of a thru-hike.

All sorts of additional subtle changes happened.  Colors I liked changed.  Food I liked changed. Fashion I liked changed. I started playing music again. I only wanted to wear hiking boots. I could read people a lot more easily. My old shoes didn’t fit. Heavy clothing annoyed me. I could read emotions more easily.  I was quieter.   Makeup looked weird.  I started doing some art. 

You may experience odd and unanticipated changes.  

Concluding Thoughts

The post-trail transition encompasses a wide array of changes in your outlook, values, desires, needs, and even personality.  The underlying theme is change:  you are a different person now, and let’s face it, you will probably never be the same again—nor want to be.

The post-trail transition is less about “fitting in” with society or “reverting back” to who you used to be, and more about figuring out how to live as who you are now.

For this, my best advice is:

Expect change.  In everything about yourself, your worldview, and your life.

Be patient.  The readjustment process can take months, years, or a lifetime.

Be kind.  You may experience the full range of emotions after your hike: grief, anger, depression, anxiety, emptiness, joy.  Accept everything as part of the process.  🙂

Get support.  From your friends, family, trail family, and community.

The post-hike experience can be fucking hard.  It’s hard to come back to a society that doesn’t make sense. It’s hard to lose friendships.  It’s hard to not be home. It’s hard to be broke and in sensory overload.

Give yourself the time, love, care, and support that you need.

Getting back to things I care about. (Note: hiking boots.)

More than a year after I got off the PCT, I still feel its effects continuing to ripple through my life.  Changes are still happening.  Shifts are still happening.  It’s strange and beautiful and scary and breathtaking.  

And it’s also kind of awesome.  Because now I’m nonchalant about running ultras.  Now it’s NBD for me to hike 100 miles. Now I can see through societal bullshit and read people’s minds.  Now I know I’m capable of doing crazy things.  Everything I believed and everything I thought I was capable of have changed.  And I’d never take that back.  

So whatever your experience is after the trailpositive or negative, difficult or fun, challenging or excitingjust know that so many of us have been there too.  You will not leave the trail unchanged.  And now that you’re back, you get to begin the incredible process of living in society as a new person.

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Comments 9

  • Katrina : Dec 10th

    This is an amazing article, thank you for sharing with such honesty and detail. I am planning the PCT for 2020 and to look into the grey area beyond my “post-PCT” life absolutely terrifies me. It’s something my brain has yet to flesh out into actual, meaningful detail — but the color you’ve been able to provide is immensely helpful in trying to imagine a future beyond such a tall, overwhelming, and life-altering goal.

    Reply
    • Aurora Smedley : Dec 10th

      Katrina, delighted to see your heartwarming response – I’m glad to be able to provide a more complete perspective. It’s certainly very difficult to predict what it will be like afterward. I think that the main thing is recognizing that things will not be the same, and that things can change which you would never expect to change. Wish you so much luck on your upcoming thru-hike!

      Reply
  • Joshua : Dec 11th

    Thanks for your in-depth sharing regarding the pyschological change of yourself! I’ m going to take the challenge of PCT in 2019, your sharing really provided me some insights about the mental rehearsal on the trail!! Can’t wait to hit the trail!! 🙂

    Reply
  • The Doctor : Dec 11th

    Obviously everyone is entitled to their opinion’s about politics and society but please don’t ruin this for half the country and yes more than half the country voted for Trump make this a place to get away from the problems of our current cultural war

    Reply
    • Adam Dresser : Dec 12th

      She’s just being honest. Many people find having DJT as President to be stressful.

      Reply
  • Ralph McGreevy : Dec 12th

    Hi Aurora,

    Great article, with many points to consider. Going on a long hike and returning to ‘normal’ life afterwards is something like going to war – nothing seems the same and nobody can really relate to what you have been through. Most of what you describe is a perfectly normal physical and psychological adjustment. However, the part about getting into credit card debt scared me. Certainly, dead end and/or counterproductive jobs are hard on the soul, but so is debt. You have certainly learned how to live simply so, please, please, please deal with this. Best of luck in life as you move forward into new adventures.

    Reply
  • David Krachenfels : Dec 14th

    It reminds me of this picture:
    https://i.pinimg.com/originals/b2/c4/cf/b2c4cf3c4fd0e80ac0590849d0bb369f.jpg

    I haven’t hiked the entire trail but have done section hikes. Every weekend for almost 2 years during this time was two days of training hikes. Occasionally I would hike alone, sometimes in a small group but on the trail, sometimes, seeing another person suddenly appear on the trail can almost make you jump out of your skin! You leave all life’s problems at the trail head and true, once you have cleared your mind, you don’t want to return to all the worlds problems. I wish I could get away for the entire AT/PCT but I’m too tied up in this thing called life to get away. I live my dream through the stories on The Trek 🙂

    Reply
  • Jackie : Dec 14th

    Brilliantly expressed. I feel you. I hiked the AT back in 2016 and I feel like I’m just now getting to feel semi normal in society, and that’s only when I consciously choose to be at peace with what I feel in my heart is so wrong with society. I wish everyone would realize their power, hike the trail, and take that piece of freedom, compassion, and expression back to society and shine a light on all that is harmful in society. Thanks for writing this article. Best I’ve ever read.

    Reply
  • Nathan M Howe : Dec 15th

    Thank you! I am hiking the PCT in 2020 and like a sponge I am soaking up all that I can. Thank you for writing a raw and encouraging article. I have all the post trail symptoms already, just need to walk the trail… Thank you!

    Reply

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