Post-Trail Depression: It’s Not What You Think

Over the past month, I have had the immense pleasure and privilege of interviewing thru-hikers (and one LASHer) about their experiences transitioning from trail back to “normal life.” I spoke with 20 people (45% female, average age: 29.5, post-hike gap time ranging from ten days to two years) for one to 1.5 hours each, asking a set of questions aimed at capturing how people experience what is referred to as “post-trail depression.” I wanted to examine common ground among peoples’ experiences, as well as any noteworthy differences and/or protective factors that seem to buffer the intensity or unpleasantness of the experience. I also wanted to examine anecdotal evidence for a question I’ve been chewing on for several years: is it really depression?

While each individuals’ experience of the transition from trail life is most certainly unique, five common threads emerged, feeding into what appears to be an overarching theme for everyone–regardless of the extent to which they experienced difficulty with the transition. I’ll describe each domain consistently relevant to the post-trail transition experience, and then discuss how these common threads appear to influence what we have, perhaps mistakenly, come to refer to as post-trail depression.

Simplicity

Huckleberries! A glorious treat.

Almost every single hiker I spoke with mentioned simplicity at some point in our conversation, usually when I asked what people miss most about the trail. One hiker stated, “On trail, our day-to-day expectations are simple: Make it to town, beat the storm, find a flat place to sleep.” Another said, “I miss the simplicity. Your goals are very simple: walk, get clean water, eat, and find a place to sleep. The trail just dials everything down to the essentials and the basics.” And still another, “I miss rising with the sun, the simplicity. Living day by day, or maybe every three days.”

Midafternoon creekside shade in the desert.

This is unsurprising given research suggesting a positive correlation exists between increased well-being and a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity. Part of this theme may also emerge from the choice paradox: The more choices we have (or at least perceive we have), the more dissatisfied we are.

Purpose

I’m not crying, you’re crying.

Closely related to, but distinct from, simplicity was the concept of purpose. Trying to form new milestones and goals after a long hike appears to be an overwhelming and often confusing task for many hikers. One 2019 AT thru-hiker mentioned that one of the things he goes back to in his mind most often is, “The feeling of how good it felt to have a singular purpose, a destination.” He described the loss of this purpose as an uncertain, anxious feeling, explaining, “I don’t know what I should be doing, but I know I should be doing something.” A 2019 PCT thru-hiker echoed this sentiment, discussing her tendency to compare her post-trail day-to-day accomplishments to miles. “I could’ve had 12 or 15 by now,” she says to herself, “but instead I’ve only walked the dog and done the dishes.” She finished the thought: “I have no drive or purpose. What am I doing? Where am I going? It feels very strange.”

Adventure

An exhilarating place to stand.

This was one of the most interesting common threads to me. Hikers consistently reported that when they daydream about the trail, their mind wanders to memories that almost exclusively belong in the category of Type 2 fun (explained here, just in case). When I asked for details, answers included:

  • “Getting rained on ten out of the last 14 days in Washington. It was great team-building—if I had been alone, I might’ve considered getting off.”
  • “One of the most enjoyable times, hard as it was, was going through the Sierra (note: this was a PCT hiker who went straight through in a record snow year). You really see what you’re capable of … Having to wake up so early every day to get through those really tough stretches. It’s so rewarding.”
  • “I remember feeling the satisfaction of knowing that I’ve been through so much, I’m so uncomfortable and beat up and I’m still finding ways to keep going.”
  • “I think about the last half-mile push to the top of a ridge or a peak, the music is just right, a hiking partner ahead and maybe one or two behind, views are starting to clear, drenched in sweat, and everything makes sense and the effort seems worth it.”

A major dose of Type 2 fun on this very cold, very rainy day walking through nothing but green tunnel.

The content of this mind-wandering is particularly interesting as it relates to a network of brain regions called the Default Mode Network (DMN). Activity in this network occurs when the mind is not otherwise occupied with a task; importantly, this activity is thought to be reflective of self-referential processing (i.e., who we are and how we fit into the social environment). Research shows that an increase in negative self-focus during mind-wandering leads to depression, which is also associated with abnormal activity in the DMN.

But mind-wandering among hikers is decidedly not characterized by negative self-focus. On the contrary, hikers report drifting to exceedingly positive self-focus. Inferentially, then, if hiker mind-wandering is not geared toward negative self-focus, it is logical to presume DMN activity in a post-trail hiker would not look like it does in a person with depression. While there are other aspects of depression besides self-referential processing, this mismatch of mind-wandering content suggests post-trail hikers are experiencing something other than depression. More on this below.

Community

Hiker trash surviving the heat *together* under I-10.

Community was by far the most universal commonality among everyone’s experiences. Trail families are an essential piece of how a distance hiker gets through some of the most challenging moments/days/sections of a long trail. Most hikers mentioned that often times the trail is kind-of a suffer fest (see above), and one thing that makes that bearable is the fact that you have these people–these strangers–who have the same goal as you, suffering the same way right there by your side. But there’s also more to the community than other hikers. One man captured the broad strokes well: “One thing I miss the most is just how awesome people were. Four and half months, everyone I met was awesome. Whether they were hikers or trail angels or people in the towns, even the people back home mailing me gear and food–that kind of support is really wholesome.”

The loss of this community seems to be an enormous element of what makes post-trail transitions hard. A 2018 PCT hiker said, “A lot of people in normal society have pre-conceived notions of how fast you can get close to someone. That doesn’t exist. People on trail are just f**king real, they don’t tiptoe around. Coming off trail, being around people who haven’t hiked, you notice how much more fake people seem. All these silly rules and societal structures…that stands out so much more after trail. It’s frustrating to be so much more on the surface with people.”

Leaning on your trail family was almost universally advice hikers gave when I asked what they would tell a future hiker about to go through this transition.

Extreme Exercise

Early morning miles are essential. First light / moonset over Donohue Pass. Wake up, hike, eat, hike, eat, hike, eat, sleep.

As a doctoral candidate studying pain and reward processing/opioid addiction, this aspect of the post-trail experience is one I continue to be exceptionally curious about. As many readers are probably aware, exercise releases endorphins–specifically, beta-endorphins. These are essentially your body’s own opioids; they’re responsible for the so-called “runner’s high,” you have perhaps heard about or experienced first-hand, and they’re actually more powerful than morphine. From the lens of neurobiology, the amount of exercise involved in a thru-hike or a LASH almost inevitably puts nearly all hikers at risk for what is called an opponent process. According to opponent process theory, what goes up must come down. At least in theory, post-trail negative emotion could be a sort of “withdrawal” from the emotional pleasure generated by literally months of endorphin release.

Last light, starting Hat Creek Rim. Walking early, walking late, sometimes walking through the night to avoid exposure and heat.

As one hiker reminisced about the trail, he offered, “I really love the feeling of covering distance…I remember on day 3 of the trail, I was at the top of a ridge about to drop down into a valley and I looked across the valley floor and super far away was the next ridge, then snow-capped peaks. How crazy to think I’d be up there eventually. And then by 11am, I was on the other side of the valley. I thought, ‘Holy shit, I’m unstoppable, I can do anything, I can go anywhere.'” This type of euphoric thinking is characteristic of someone who is high. Incidentally, this person also said, “I think back to the trail and want that feeling of a high.” What a coincidence.

Nearly every single hiker I interviewed described feeling this way in some capacity, and most of them indicated the absence of this feeling was troubling during their transition from trail. One woman just 10 days removed from the PCT remarked, “It’s hard to keep up the same level of activity every day…I feel like a pansy. I get why people want to run ultra-marathons after a thru-hike. I want to do one now.” Another hiker described the exercise rebound as “a restless feeling that I can’t quite quench,” and over half the people I interviewed spontaneously stated that it feels like an addiction. “It’s a f**kin’ drug. I want that high again,” one hiker told me. The reason for that? It is actually kind of a drug.

What is Post-Trail Depression Really?

Somewhere mid-Sierra.

Simplicity, purpose, adventure, community and extreme exercise are what I will call the SPACE of the trail (because, what sort of academic would I be if I didn’t create an acronym?). From my perspective as a licensed clinician, so-called post-trail depression is a function of the loss of that SPACE. Accordingly, it appears this phenomenon is not depression; rather, it is grief.

Importantly, however, this does not appear to be grief over the loss of trail SPACE in and of itself. While people consistently reported melancholy emotions about things like the complexity of their post-trail lives and the superficiality of their post-trail interactions, none of these domains seem to be the actual issue. Instead, it seems to be the loss of one’s sense of self in that SPACE.

One hiker explained, “It feels like a heartbreak each time you leave the trail…The first time is the worst. It’s like your first breakup.” And then, without skipping a beat, she switched to talking about her relationship with herself, her perception of herself: “You think, ‘ohhh, but I liked {trail name}; I don’t want to go be {real name}.’ ” This blew me away. In the interviews up to this point, multiple others had likened the trail to an ex-lover, but it wasn’t until this hiker seamlessly shifted from talking about an “ex” to talking about losing who she was with that ex that I started to see this more clearly. It isn’t about the loss of the simplicity or purpose, the loss of adventure or endorphins, and it also isn’t about the loss of the community. It’s about the loss of who you were when you were in a relationship with the trail.

2017 has been dubbed the Year of Fire and Ice on the PCT. Smoke-filled views here, closing in on Oregon. Most hikers temporarily agree that the end of your relationship with California is a welcome change.

Another hiker articulated this incredibly clearly: “The trail is the only place that I 100% feel like myself. And the people on trail are the only people who know the real me. And I think that’s why post-trail depression affects me more than it does some people…The trail is such a raw experience. There’s no faking, no hiding behind wealth or your make-up or your looks or your background or anything! You’re just you…Everyone is their truest, most raw form, and that’s what I love.”

A Triple Crown completer reflected similarly, “It’s hard to take the largeness of how you feel and water it down into a bite sized chunk…I think of myself as a puzzle piece, and every time I do a trail my puzzle piece changes a little, and then I go back to a familiar environment and the piece doesn’t fit.”

Relationships orient us to ourselves. A hiker’s relationship with the trail is no different: the trail allows us to experience ourselves as strong, patient, loving, resourceful. The trail allows us to experience ourselves as the forms of self we value and respect the most. The perceived loss of that sense of self feels almost unbearable; we don’t want to let go of it, or of the relationship that facilitated such a valuable way of being. This, it seems, is the core substance of what is actually post-trail grief.

Buffers and Things That Apparently Don’t Matter

Pretty.

Hiking as a Couple Helps

One man and woman I spoke with hiked the PCT as a couple. While I would obviously need more couple interviews to assess the broad accuracy of this claim, hiking as a couple seems to make the post-trail transition less unpleasant. These two remarked, “You can go back through pictures and memories and feel like someone understands your experience.” In essence, what other people have to get by reaching out to members of their trail families, these two automatically have with one another.

This couple’s experience also makes a lot of sense in the context of the conclusions drawn above: they described their commitment to one another as a grounding aspect of both individuals’ separate identities. That aspect of their individual identities remains consistent while on and off trail. Consequently, post-trail fluctuations in their senses of self may have been less pronounced.

(A caveat to this: there are some rather polarized opinions about whether hiking with your romantic partner is a good idea. I’ve personally met and heard about at least a dozen couples on long trails whose relationships nearly ended due to the stress of the experience. I’ve also met and heard about at least a dozen couples who either set out to do the trail together, or who met on the trail and ended up hiking together, that are now happily married and building a life together. Clearly, there is some nuance here that has not been captured in the limited scope of this article. Proceed with caution.)

Gender, Age and Mental Health History Don’t Predict Outcomes

Before I started the interviews, I hypothesized that all three of these variables would predict depressive symptoms. I was wrong on all counts. Having a history of depression and/or anxiety apparently doesn’t influence susceptibility to and/or the intensity of ennui following a distance trek. This makes perfect sense if you adopt the position that post-trail depression is actually post-trail grief. If this is the case, of course having a history of depression is not directly related to how deeply you experience something that isn’t actually depression. (To be clear, though, this is a clinical over-simplification.) Surprisingly, neither gender nor age appear to have an effect either. Men and women reported both exceptional difficulty and remarkable ease in the post-trail transition with equal frequency, as did individuals who hiked in their early 20s compared to their early 30s (a brief note on the limitations of this age range, below).

Your Job Kind of Matters and Kind of Doesn’t

My job, sometimes. Do I like sitting at a desk? No. Do I find my work meaningful and purposeful? Yes. The value overrides any discontent.

The nature of one’s job (seasonal vs. career) doesn’t seem to influence how difficult the transition from trail back to work is, but how you feel about the job does. This appears to be directly related to the issue of purpose. However, it’s less straightforward than whether or not one’s job is perceived as purposeful. It’s about values alignment. Individuals who believe their job should be purposeful, who also perceive their job post-trail is purposeful, seem to have an easier time with the transition. As long as the actual and the ought are in alignment, people have less difficulty with the “need to make money” aspect of post-trail life.

By contrast, post-trail negative emotion occasionally seems to come with a tinge of guilt, almost exclusively derived from the issue of work. As one hiker explained, “I feel torn between worlds. Right now it feels like all I want to do is go hike for the rest of my life, but that feels selfish. Thru-hiking makes me happy, but I also want to contribute something to the world.” Again, this really isn’t about the work. It’s about one’s sense of self.

Limitations

Burney Falls has limitations, too. Primarily, frigidity.

There are a number of limitations to this article that are worth mentioning. Hikers were recruited to participate using Instagram, leaving room for what is called selection bias, as well as several other threats to the generalizability of the data I collected from 20 people. In a similar vein, the age range of the individuals I interviewed was incredibly small. It is possible hikers of different ages–perhaps especially those who are hiking during retirement–might not exhibit the same trends. (On this note, it’s possible that hiking during retirement would be a protective factor, given the likely stability and solidity of one’s sense of self at that age.)

Additionally, the vast majority of hikers I interviewed were residents of the United States who completed long trails in the United States. This briefly came up in a conversation with a Canadian hiker and made me wonder if there are location-related variables that affect one’s post-trail experience. Perhaps more on that another time.

And finally, I did not collect any demographic information on race/ethnicity, gender identity, education level or a number of other potentially important variables. There’s only so much information a single person can acquire in a short amount of time. All these things are worth taking into consideration, and I encourage anyone reading this to take my interpretation of this qualitative data with a grain of salt. There is certainly more to be learned about the post-trail experience.

How Can I Avoid Post-Trail Grief?

Ansel Adams Wilderness. So gross. Hated it.

Out of the 20 people I spoke with, not a single person reported a total absence of difficulty with the transition. From a clinical perspective, three people seem to have had an easier time: the couple I already mentioned, and a highly introspective 2018 AT thru-hiker with an uncommon world view and a very complex and well-developed sense of himself and his place in the world. And even these three still endorsed restlessness, irritability, and feeling overwhelmed. So your odds of completely avoiding any post-trail emotional upset are not very good. Sorry.

My question is: why would you want to? Just as relationships orient us to ourselves, sadness orients us to our values. Emotions are existential feedback mechanisms—they let us know how things are going and how closely we are living in alignment with our core values. Sadness about the loss of trail SPACE and the person you are within that space would suggest you’re someone who values connection: to the world, the people in it, and your own self. Why would you want to change that?

Maybe you’re reading this thinking, “Gosh, I’m not sure I want to voluntarily put myself through this! What sane person would be open to this? Maybe I should re-think the whole distance thing.” This came up very explicitly with one hiker. He said, “It’s worth it. Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. I’d go through it again, because it means I did it.”

Don’t listen to that skeptical voice. Trust my shadow.

Most of us have a tendency to want to avoid negative emotions–we distract ourselves to push them away, drown them out with alcohol and drugs, and attempt to over-ride them by artificially inflating just how awesome everything is. But there is a tremendous amount of research that suggests this is counter-productive. It’s kind-of like a Chinese finger trap: the more you try to pull away, the more stuck you get. What should you do instead?

Feel it. Feel it without judging it as good or bad, right or wrong. What does it feel like? Where can you feel it in your body? Acknowledge, accept, and nurture the feelings like you would a crying baby. And then use the emotion to guide you. (If you’ve never seen Inside Out, I highly recommend it.)

Creating SPACE in Your Post-Trail World: Holding On and Letting Go

An amazing sunset somewhere in Northern California. But the sun doesn’t have to set on your identity!

Broadly speaking, it appears post-trail grief is essentially 1) reluctance to let go of the trail SPACE that facilitated a valued way of being oneself, and 2) reluctance to stop being that version of oneself. Hikers deeply value who they are when they live in the present moment with purpose, community, effort, and openness to uncertainty. People who continue to perceive themselves as living this way after completing a long hike don’t seem to struggle much with the post-trail transition.

When people described their departure from this way of being, I almost always asked, “What do you think would happen if you were your trail self in the real world?” 100% of the time, the answer was a curious silence, followed by, “I don’t know.”

Why is this so hard for us to imagine? Or, perhaps more importantly, why is it so hard to do? There is absolutely nothing that stops me from being Scrappy instead of (or in addition to?) Anne when I am doing therapy or teaching Master’s students neurobiology—nothing besides my own thoughts about how that would go. Do I have to put on my hiker outfit to strip away all the armor I wear to protect myself from the potential judgments, rejections, and injustices of the world?

Last big view before Canada on the PCT. I sat here with the strangest feeling of ambivalence: Must get to Canada vs. please don’t let it be over.

Be the change. I don’t mean that so much from the Ghandi lens (no disrespect, Ghandi, you’re a cool dude), but rather from the framework of the Cognitive Model. How would you behave differently if you were your trail self in the real world? How would you behave if you believed it were possible to engage in a conversation with your neighbor or your local butcher the same way you do with complete strangers who happen to be hikers? My guess is that you yourself would be more open. Much of the way we navigate the world really does turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we behave in ways that are consistent with what we wish to accomplish (e.g., waking up early every day in order to make it to Canada; or, answering honestly when someone asks “how’s it going?” in order to have a real conversation), what we find is that the desired outcome produces itself. The best part about this? You don’t necessarily have to change how you feel. If you change how you behave, the emotions will follow alongside a different way of thinking. It’s science.

The trail, by its very nature, begins with a foundation of vulnerability. The real world often does not. But we don’t actually need to be in an immediate relationship with the trail to continue being the person we were in that relationship. Our real challenge, then, is to figure out how to let go of the idea that the trail is the only location you can get that feeling of SPACE, step out of your own way, and hold on to your most valued self. It will be uncomfortable. Thank goodness most of us seem to thrive on Type II fun.

DISCLAIMER: If you are struggling with prolonged, intense negative emotions and/or having suicidal thoughts, please seek help from a mental health professional.

 

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Comments 39

  • Matthew C Edwards : Oct 25th

    I miss Iceaxe.

    Reply
    • Anne K. Baker : Oct 25th

      He hasn’t gone anywhere! Don’t let him get buried.

      Reply
      • David : Oct 26th

        Excellent! Really insightful.

        Reply
        • Anne K. Baker : Oct 26th

          Thanks for reading, David!

          Reply
    • John Ingle : Oct 27th

      Thanks for a very enjoyable article. Finally a not dumbed down article with great exploration based on research and experience.
      I would love to read your dissertation draft or finished version if available.
      Thanks, I look forward to reading more about depression and peak experience of humans returning to nature to experience our own nature.

      Reply
      • Anne K. Baker : Oct 27th

        Thanks for reading, John! I like that sentence “returning to nature to experience our own nature” — that’s exactly it.

        I’m still writing my dissertation–it’ll be finished sometime next Spring. Not even close to ready for other peoples’ eyes, and also only very indirectly related to this topic, but if you’re really interested you can find my existing publications on google scholar or research gate.

        Reply
        • John : Oct 28th

          Yes please let me know when your dissertation is ready for viewing!

          Reply
  • Balto : Oct 26th

    A very hearty thank you from a 2019 AT NOBO! Finding myself now several weeks removed from the trail (back in the “Default World” as another hiker called it), your acronym and post-trail grief theory rings true to me and my experience. A much-needed reminder of the ways mindfulness and honesty can get one through this trail breakup phase.

    Reply
    • JOLLYRANCHER : Oct 26th

      Thank you for this poignant article, insight, & advice. Much needed after getting off trail this year.

      Reply
      • Anne K. Baker : Oct 26th

        You’re so welcome, Jolly Rancher; my pleasure. Thanks for reading!

        Reply
    • Anne K. Baker : Oct 26th

      So glad to hear this is resonating with folks, Balto! Thanks for reading and thanks for the feedback. I intentionally left out the word mindfulness (because that’s a huge part of what I study and I can’t write about it with brevity), but you are spot on! Easier said than done, but worth the effort. A fresh high five to you!

      Reply
  • Jack Bochsler : Oct 26th

    I haven’t done PCT, but I solo bicycled from TJ to Seattle, then East for a loop of Idaho – 3855 miles in 47 days, crossing the Continental Divide twice. Very similar experiences and feelings, you captured it for me. Thank you for this.

    Reply
    • Anne K. Baker : Oct 26th

      Wow, that sounds like such a rad trip, Jack! I suspect this experience might be common among all human-powered distance travelers. Perhaps a direction to expand in the future! In any case, glad to hear it strikes a chord–thanks for reading.

      Reply
  • Andrew Underwood : Oct 27th

    I THINK that this was not entirely reader friendly. Big words and complex sentence structure dont make for a better read. Who are you showing off for? Simplify. “Dumb down” if you will. Make the read like the hike,…at your own casual pace.
    That being said, GREAT article!!

    Reply
    • Anne K. Baker : Oct 28th

      I appreciate your feedback, Andrew. Glad you were able to sift through the language and syntax to still get something out of it! Thanks for reading.

      Reply
    • Liv Camp : Nov 3rd

      I disagree!! I loved how the article was written and I think it had the perfect amount of justifying science and little personal moments to emotionally connect with! I thought it was super well written and entertaining!!!!! 🙂

      Reply
      • Anne K. Baker : Nov 3rd

        Thanks for reading and for the kind words, Liv!

        Reply
      • 7 : Nov 4th

        Seconded. I’m a (fairly new) scientist in academia, and it was refreshing to get a solid and well-written article with data to back it up. Thank you.

        Reply
        • Anne K. Baker : Nov 4th

          An academia friend! Thanks for reading 🙂

          Reply
  • Mooney : Oct 27th

    Really loved this! I finished my AT NOBO in August and have been trying to understand and gain insight on exactly what it is that is bringing up all the feels. Very well written and thank you! Will definitely share with some trail friends! It’s also a good reminder as I plan for my next thru- hike to be vigilant on what is it that I love so much about thru-hiking….. Cheers!

    Reply
    • Anne K. Baker : Oct 27th

      So glad to hear it’s useful, Mooney. Thanks for reading and happy hiking!

      Reply
  • Shakespeare : Oct 27th

    Thank you for that article, it really made me look at what’s happening with myself in a different way. Especially interesting is a drug-like effect of prolonged exercise. It wasn’t new to me, I’ve read about it before, but you put it into a big picture. And reminding me that it’s emotions that follow activities not the opposite, may finally help me get out of this idle limbo I’m stuck in for two months after AT tru-hike this year.
    As I can sort of speak for overseas hikers, I would strongly recommend fighting jetlag related sleep and nutrition issues as fast as possible – I skipped on that and lost two weeks wandering empty apartment and plundering fridge at 3am which was devastating for my mental condition.

    Reply
    • Anne K. Baker : Oct 27th

      Thanks for reading and for the feedback, Shakespeare! Love this additional insight re: jetlag. As I mentioned in the limitations, I think there are probably lots of additional variables to consider for an overseas hiker. Sleep and nutrition are such essential ingredients to wellbeing; several hikers mentioned nutrition, but it wasn’t a common enough thread to include. If I do any sort of follow up to this maybe I can find a way to speak to these important post-trail considerations you’ve mentioned!

      To be clear, behaviors also follow from emotions. That can turn into a major snowball effect (I feel bad, therefore I isolate, therefore I feel bad, etc.), but it can also turn into sort of an upward spiral (I feel optimistic, therefore I engage with the world, therefore I feel optimistic, etc.). The real key is that it’s simply easier to change behaviors (or thoughts, if you want to approach from a different angle) than it is to change emotions.

      Congrats on your thru and keep on keepin’ on through the limbo. It gets better!

      Reply
  • Ruth Morley : Oct 27th

    Anne, this couldn’t have come at a better time for me. You nailed it that we are suffering from grief. I so miss Chocoholic. No one here at home really knows her, even though I try to live honestly and openly. Throw in a pelvic stress fracture and 6 weeks on crutches and an injured shoulder that hates the silver sticks, and you’ve got a sad hiker. I’m meeting a therapist this week and will send your article to her. Thank you so much. You’ve helped me immensely.

    Reply
    • Anne K. Baker : Oct 27th

      Ohhh man, I hear you Chocoholic. Nothing like an injury to really get you down–my own persistent stress fracture is actually what made me initially start thinking about this stuff. Living with the same authenticity the trail facilitates is so, so hard. Glad to hear you are meeting with a therapist and glad to hear you found the article useful–good on you!

      Reply
      • Ruth Morley : Oct 27th

        Thank you also for your comment to Shakespeare. I never really thought how the spirals can go either upward or downward. I’ll keep that in mind and will try harder to get those upward spirals in motion. Thanks again.

        Reply
  • Elgin Shaw : Oct 27th

    Scrappy, as neither myself are Thru-Hikers, we are avid long distance backcountry hikers/backpackers.

    This summer we hiked many sections of the Washington PCT, hence the day our (paths) trail crossed one another. One that particular Sunday I knew the Kendall Katwalk section would experience a high volume of dreaded Day Hikers. Yet, out of all the hikers on the mountain we were in the right place at the right time, some call it fate some call it dumb luck.

    Ok, back on subject. The summer of 2019 along the Washington PCT Michelle and I learned a lot about folks along the trail.

    I could easily ramble on forever here, but I won’t.

    I read your article with high interest and truly look forward to any future posts from you.

    Thank you.

    Elgin

    Reply
    • Anne K. Baker : Oct 28th

      Elgin! Whether it was fate or dumb luck, you and Michelle are SUCH a forever special part of my trail SPACE. You all are such gems. Thanks for reading and cheers to you!

      Reply
  • John Baum (Salty J) : Oct 29th

    Scrappy ! We spent the day hiking/talking about mindfulness South of Lassen in 2017. Good to see some research into the post hike phenomenon and you even generated a new acronym! I was SPACE’d for a month as well after the hike. You’ve captured the feelings accurately. We can discuss more next time we bump into each other on the trail, haha.

    Reply
    • Anne K. Baker : Oct 29th

      Salty J! I almost used a photo with you in the background for this article–too funny. Great to hear from you; I’ll look forward to the next time our paths cross!

      Reply
  • Michele Weiner- Davis : Nov 1st

    As a seasoned therapist, author, hiker, and drum roll please- mother of Zach Davis, theTrek.co’s Founder, I want to congratulate you on an extremely interesting, well-written and thought-provoking post. I do believe that as a culture,we are too quick to look for pathology under every rock. It’s natural for people to grieve the loss of meaningful, life-changing experiences. Grief can feel like depression, but it’s different; it’s a perfectly natural response to having to let go of people, relationships, experiences we treasure.

    So, bravo to you, Anne. I hope many thru-hikers benefit from the knowledge you gleaned from your interviews with fellow thru-hikers.

    Reply
    • Anne K. Baker : Nov 1st

      Zach’s mom! Wow! Thank you so much for reading, Michele, and for your kind comments. It’s especially validating to hear another therapist weigh in! Cheers to you.

      Reply
  • Walter Lotocky : Nov 1st

    Wow, I can’t believe what I just read. As a touring biker and having ridden in different areas around the country (summer’s only, I’m a 60 year old high school teacher in South Florida), I have the exact same feelings you talked about in your article, when I get done with my bike trips, which usually are about 4-5 weeks long. And I go through the motions for the next 10 months, until my next summer biking adventure, so I can experience those “highs” again. Last summer while riding with a group of cyclists doing the ACA’s (Adventure Cycling Association) Adirondack Mountains bike loop, a fellow biker used a different acronym to describe the same feelings you mentioned. He called it PREDS (Post Ride Endorphin Deficiency Syndrome). I didn’t think it was a “real thing”. I am so grateful that I found your article, because now I know I’m not going crazy!! Sadly, there is nobody in my circle of friends or family that understands my feelings and what I go through after my bike rides. This past summer I also hiked down into the Grand Canyon on the South Kaibab Trail and then back up to the South Rim on the Bright Angel Trail. This experience has inspired me to plan on thru-hiking the Colorado Trail next summer. And when I get to retire in a few years I will attempt the PCT. Your article has inspired me to pursue my adventures either hiking or biking regardless of what anybody else thinks. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Anne K. Baker : Nov 1st

      Such terrific adventures, Walter! And stoked to hear you’re interested in thru-hiking. Get after it! Thanks so much for reading, glad you got something out of it.

      Reply
  • Alejandro "Q" : Nov 4th

    Anne,
    very insightful article, I really think the SPACE framework captures many of the dimensions that a thru-hiker will struggle with post-hike. I can speak from experience, that I still struggle with SPACE even almost 25 years post my AT hike in 1996.

    Reply
    • Anne K. Baker : Nov 4th

      Thanks, Q! Amazing to hear this is still relevant 25 years later. If only someone would give me a few million dollars to follow hikers around interviewing them and scanning their brains–then we’d REALLY have some data!

      Reply
  • Richard Jerden : Nov 6th

    For me it is sorta like culture shock getting off the trail.

    One reason everything seemed so simple on the trail is that for the most part all the planning had been done beforehand. Most planned for the hike for at the very least a few months, some for a few years. And that included saving money for the trip. When the hiking began, it was a simple matter of just doing what was already planned. After the trail, every day involves planning and decisions.

    Reply
  • Liz in St. Paul : Nov 9th

    Thank you for this article! I think you are spot on (Spot Anne?). I’m going to walk the path of my life today with gusto, Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019.

    Reply
    • Anne K. Baker : Nov 9th

      Right on, Liz!

      Reply

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