So You Finished Your Thru-Hike. Now What? 9 Tips For Regaining Your Humanity
The completion of a thru-hike, regardless of length, often results in an existential crisis. It’s easy to reach the end without a plan for what to do now that you’re finished. At Mile Zero, the end feels far away — five months is plenty of time to figure out what’s next, especially when it’s only you and your thoughts to contemplate while walking for 12+ hours every day.
However, you eventually find podcasts, music, and conversation to fill your time, putting off the inner reflection and thinking about the future. Whatever happened, your thru-hike is done, but you’re no closer to figuring out “now what” than you were two thousand miles ago.
So what do you do? Life after a thru-hike can feel overwhelmingly complex relative to the simplicity of trail life where the daily and long-term goals are clear. Here’s a list of next steps, big and small, to keep you moving forward when you find yourself purposeless and glued to the couch.
Boring, right? Sure, but boring can be good sometimes, and doing chores can help you feel productive while treading water. You might not be getting any closer to your profound epiphany, but doing just one useful thing per day can buy you the self-permission to enjoy your well-deserved ‘you’ time. Here are some short-term goals that you can easily check off your to-do list:
Clean Your Gear
If you’re like me, half of your gear ended up in the first trashcan you found after reaching the terminus. But did you know one Sawyer should last you a lifetime? Me neither. Besides holey socks, tattered clothing, and tread-bare shoes that were unsalvageable, here’s some advice on how to clean and prepare your gear for storage so that it’s ready to go when you pull it out for the next adventure.
Join a Gym
Your legs are looking buff, so maybe take this time to focus on those T-rex arms. Wouldn’t it be nice to do a push-up again? A non-endorsed plug, Planet Fitness boasts a $10 per month membership fee, which is within any hiker budget, including a broke-ass-just-finished-a-thru-hike hiker. If you upgrade to the black tier, you can visit any of their gyms anywhere across the country, not just your ‘home’ gym where you signed up, so you can shower at any of their many locations across the US, you dirty hiker trash you.
Trail hack: Some trail towns (Bend, Wenatchee, Helena, Santa Fe) have a Planet Fitness, offering a more affordable way to shower up in expensive locales. This is also good for those of us who decided to continue traveling afterward. Van life anyone?
Get a Pedicure
Those callouses on your feet? It’s dead skin. A lot of it. I know they were hard-earned and you may have become attached, but they won’t be for long. It may happen gradually, or a few months down the line, or it may be ASAP by way of a cheese grater at a nail salon. I recommend the latter for no other reason but that it feels good, and your feet deserve a little TLC.
Visit the Dentist
Sure, sugar provides a great boost of energy while hiking, but eating it for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and between meals isn’t great for your teeth — even if you’re doing your best to brush every day (kudos to those of you that floss!) It may be painful (financially, and physically), but your teeth will thank you. While you’re at it, go visit the doctor, too. Speaking of sugar…
2. Eat: You’re too Skinny
Even if I begin a thru-hike with the best of intentions to diversify my diet, eat more fruit and vegetables, and protein, by the end, I’m just so tired that I find myself subsisting almost exclusively on Ramen and cheese. This is how I (accidentally) lost 34 pounds on the CDT this past summer.
There’s a short window of time when spooning ice cream for all three meals is acceptable, and it ends with the trail. Now is the time to indulge in off-trail food that may have been hard to come by in small towns across Montanaho — sushi, salad, or really any type of cuisine that isn’t fried. Take advantage of having a kitchen that can do more than boil water (or a kitchen that does more than nothing — lookin’ at you, cold soakers) and cook up some grub. Relish getting your relish from the fridge and not from a packet.
3. Start Hiking Again
Or really, don’t stop. The southern terminus of the CDT isn’t that far from the AZT. It’s peak leaf-peeping season in VT, so hit the Long Trail. It’s almost summer in New Zealand if you were thinking about the Te Araroa. Don’t let the hard-earned trail legs, callouses, and tough outer shell go to waste.
4. Make Some Money
If you’re like me, you may have realized over the course of your thru-hike just how much (or little) you actually need to survive, and dare I say thrive, in life. But, it’s probably time to replenish the coffers.
The sugar beet harvest kicks off in North Dakota at the end of September, right around the time most NOBOs will be wrapping up their thru-hikes. It’s not that much different than hiking: 12-hour days, 7 days a week, on your feet. It’s far from glamorous, but a quick way to make a buck, plus they often provide housing. This season alone (September 27 to October 18) I made roughly $5,000 — almost enough for another thru-hike. Shameless plug, but if you do it, tell them I sent you.
Looking for a more casual way to earn income? As long as you didn’t contract West Nile or Zika from the insane mosquitoes from a record-high snow year, consider donating plasma. Most plasma companies compensate for the “donation” of your time (and blood), and new donors are often eligible for promotions.
Even if needles make you queasy, you just finished a thru-hike, so I’m confident you can sustain an hour of discomfort for money. Depending on your area, many companies offer new donor promotions. When you’ve completed one, sign up at a new center — there are lots: Biolife, Octapharma, Ked, CSL, Grifols/Biomat to name a few. (Shameless plug, but tell them I sent you.)
If the trail was your home and you don’t necessarily have any physical ‘home’ to return to, look into pet and house sitting. One thing I learned while staying at hostels and with trail angels was how to make other peoples’ homes my own. Apps like Rover, Wag, and Trusted House Sitters are easy ways to find gigs wherever you are, or wherever you want to go.
5. Get a Job
Yeah, I said it. If you’re looking for a bit more stability than just earning some money to keep traveling, maybe it’s time to get a job. There are plenty of ways to join your new-found/renewed love for the hiking community into employment. Example: the PCTA and the National Park Service are hiring for next season, and there are lots of other outdoor-related permanent jobs out there. Or, write about your experiences for The Trek…
6. Give Back
Did you enjoy the trail you just completed? If you’re like me, then the answer is “sometimes.” However, you have to admit that there were some nice days mixed in with the not-so-nice. Even if you enjoyed just one minute of one day, consider giving back to trails near you.
The PCTA, ATC, and CDTC will ask for a donation towards their programs, but if you have no money (I hear you just-finished-a-thru-hike), you probably have time (I hear your schedule just cleared up because you finished a big five-month-long project of hiking across the country), so consider signing up to do maintenance along one of your favorite national scene trails — or really any trail.
Every year the CTF organizes day, weekend, and week-long work trips, as does the Washington Trails Association. If heavy lifting isn’t your thing, check out Big City Mountaineers. This national non-profit takes disadvantaged youth from urban areas into the woods. I first learned to backpack on a BCM trip, chaperoning a group of 12-year-olds in the White River mountains in Colorado. (They also pay people to guide these trips if that’s in your wheelhouse.)
7. Trail Angel
Even if you don’t live close to one of the NSTs, another way to give back is to do some trail magic on the trail you just finished. Trail angeling allows you to connect with other hikers without having to hike anymore, which is a fun way to ease back into post-trail life. Think of it like a victory lap.
If you received a ride, a soda, or a meal from generous folks on your trek (and I’m guessing you did at least once (unless you hiked the AT, then you probably received trail magic every other day, you lucky jerks!)) then you know that being a trail angel isn’t difficult. It can be whatever you want it to be, for however long you can handle it.
READ NEXT — How to Be a Better Trail Angel
8. Take a Vacation
Hiking is a lot of work — you deserve a vacation. Take advantage of zero commitments and keep going (but don’t walk, take a plane). After I finished the PCT in 2021, I took a three-week-long trip to Mexico, which is a pretty affordable place for extended travel. I visited friends who lived there, which cut down on accommodation expenses. After that, I visited a few trail friends in Europe. While travel in Europe may not be cheap, it’s still probably cheaper than hiking the CDT through Colorado.
Don’t have three weeks? Stop and see some of the off-trail places you may have missed while hiking thru. While on the CT in 2018, I opted to go to Lake City over Creede, but I’d heard great things about Creede. Although it’s a different experience being there as a rubber-tramping tourist versus a thru-hiker, I was still glad I visited the town post-trail to see what all the hype was about.
Whatever it is, I’d recommend giving yourself a buffer between finishing your thru-hike and jetting off to whatever’s “next.” I appreciated the time to decompress at a much more relaxed pace than thru-hiking allowed. (Pro tip: Traveling in a car is way faster than walking.)
9. Visit Your Family
They’ve been left in suspense for the past five-plus months, gleaning whatever information they can from your social media posts and sporadic texts from town, questioning if you’ll make it, and they may want the physical proof of seeing you in person. Be prepared, they probably won’t get it. But, if they’re like my family, they’re doing their best. You’ve probably missed some big moments over the last five months, so take this in-between time to celebrate their accomplishments — and yours! Speaking of…
Bonus: Throw Yourself a Party
You freakin’ did it!
You Don’t Need to Have it Figured Out
It’s hard to stave off the post-trail blues, but after a week or two (or if you’re like me, six) of buffer time, find yourself some kind of routine to take the place of walking every day.
What did you do following your thru-hike? Let us know in the comments.
READ NEXT — Post-Trail Depression: It’s Not What You Think
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