Thru-Hikers’ Advice for Dealing With Post-Trail Depression

This is probably you: The elated hiker who has never been happier or more proud than when you saw that sign emerging from wind-whipped clouds after that epic five-mile climb. You touch it, trace the grooved letters spelling Katahdin. Take your triumphant summit photo, cry, hug whoever is around you, descend the peak in a blur of emotions. The past 5-6 months of your life have been dedicated to reaching this point, and now you have. You have completed your thru-hike, an accomplishment most will never know. But you are no longer a thru-hiker.

On the bus/shuttle/hitch/train, you look out the window at the woods rushing by at 60 miles per hour.  You don’t have to walk through them anymore. This is simultaneously relieving and heartbreaking.

Post-trail depression might not have a clinical diagnoses, but it’s a real thing. When you succeed at something you’ve been dreaming about for months, or even years, a comedown is all but inevitable. It’s hard going back to your “normal” life, where well-meaning friends and family want to hear all about your experience but cannot relate to it. You might be low on funds, maybe back in your parent’s basement, and you have to either find a job or go back to the one you left. It’s almost like you haven’t just hiked over 2,000 miles.

There are different ways to deal with this, so we polled some trusty thru-hikers and found out what they’ve done to combat post-trail depression. Try one tip, try a few, do all of them. The real world can be wonderful to reenter, but it’s also jarring.

One of the things most people don’t realize is that when you are on the trail, your life is 100% yours. We feel such a freedom there because in the “real” world, school, work, family, friends, obligations, etc gets in the way. You need to find something you are passionate about that you can do every day. Aim for an hour, even if you start at 15 minutes, but an hour a day, of just 100% unadulterated you-time. No phone, no people, just you. I personally need to do something physical, but others it may be something else. Do it every day, and don’t let anything or anyone take it from you.

-Journeyman, 2012 NOBO

Do at least one thing every day that makes you proud of yourself.

-Goosebumps, PCT 2014, AT 2015, CDT 2016

It took a long time. I started law school about a week after I finished, and I was in a totally and completely separate world from before. For the first seven or eight months I was missing (and trying to replicate) the Appalachian Trail. I wanted to recreate those moments and experiences I had spent on the trail, and I was always thinking about getting through the semester so I could get back. Eventually, I began to realize that the key to overcoming post-trail depression is not to try to find a way to “go back to the trail,” but to bring the trail with you. I could take the things about my thru-hike that made me the happiest, and find ways to integrate them into my own life. For me, those things were the community, the “completionist” mindset that came with hiking the entire trail, and the dichotomy of utter exhaustion coupled with immense accomplishment. I began to complete the rest of the NH48 4000-Footer Challenge. I also began training for a marathon. The key isn’t to find a way to go back to the trail, to recreate what you had. The key is to take what you had, and bring it in your everyday life. Do so, and you’ll find that life beyond the trail can be just as exciting and fulfilling as life back on it.

-Seeker, 2015 NOBO

Time and employment. I came back from the trail and sat on the couch. It took a long time for me to find a job and each rejection stung hard. Things weren’t going poorly for me but I couldn’t see it that way. I just kept telling myself that all this was temporary. I would find a job and my body would adjust back to my old routine. In the end it took about 6 months for me to get to 80%. Over a year later I’m at a solid 90%. Keep on chugging along.

-Stretch, 2015 NOBO

It has been a year since I finished my thru-hike, and I still have deep feelings of nostalgia and longing for trail life. Talking with your trail family helps. Going on more hikes, even if it’s just short sections, helps. But the only thing that has really helped me is planning more adventures for the future and making them happen. Sky is the limit! Instead of thinking your adventure is over, realize it is just the beginning. You’ve just walked 2000 miles. You have proven to yourself that you can do anything. So set a goal and go for it!

-Happy Baby, 2015 NOBO

Its been three years and I am not fully past it. Hiking another long trail helped. Hiking and camping as often as I can helps.

-Car Jacker, 2013 NOBO

Plan your next adventure! Staying connected to your trail family can help tremendously but lingering on the past for too long can end up hurting you more in the long run. Whether it’s a weekend trip or your next thru-hike, having something to look forward to helps keep your mind busy and distracts you from that embarrassing moment when your “real world” friends look at you like you’re a lunatic for eating food off the floor out of instinct.

-Anonymous

Start planning your next adventure. It will give you something to look forward to. Also, find another source of endorphins, like running. It will help ease the crash.

-Frozen Mac, 2015 NOBO

The most important thing to do to get past the post-trail blues is to reconnect in some small ways with the people with whom you have lost contact. Make plans (and follow through!) with seeing your trail family. It’s also important to stay busy and stay healthy. The moment you quit moving is the moment you’ll start to feel sad. You’ve been moving for months and it’s hard to let go of the feeling that the world is constantly new. Think of ways to explore your old town in a new way. Share your story as much as you can, and remember how lucky you are to have done what you have done.

-Ridge Rambler

Stay active and busy. Keep giving your body the endorphins it is used to getting from exercising all day. I didn’t exactly heed that advice and I was absolutely miserable for a few months post-trail. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help. While your non-trail friends and family don’t know exactly what you’re going through, they will still be there to support you while you get used to being back in “the real world.” I finished almost exactly a year ago and I’m still not back to normal. And that’s okay.

-Fancy Pants, 2015

Honestly, I never really got over it all the way. That’s not really the answer anyone wants to hear. Instead I’ve focused in the next thing. For me, that’s my next hike. That can be anything though. I’ve also tried putting down more roots where I’m living, connecting with friends even when I’d rather not. Both of these things have helped. I now have a goal to work towards, so that keeps me motivated. Friends and the beautiful places where I live help keep me balanced. And then there’s next hiking season!!

-So It Goes, 2015/16

If you take anything away from this, remember that it’s ok to be sad and miss the trail. Keep in touch with Trail Family, plan your next adventure, but don’t forget to enjoy what you have going on around you too. If you were able to take six months to hike the AT, you probably have a pretty nice real-world life too.

Tried something else that worked wonders? Let us know in the comments.

***Contributions have been edited for length and clarity  || lead image via

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Comments 10

  • Shrink (Nick H) : Oct 11th

    I just finished a 2016 thru hike and just knowing that other people feel totally weird after makes me feel better. For the first month I was back things were absolutely bizarre. As I approach the 2nd month of being back in the real world I feel a lot more centered but I still don’t feel like I used to before I left. I may never feel totally normal again… and that’s ok. Thanks for writing this article, I couldn’t have asked for a better pick me up. There really isn’t too much literature on post-trail psychological states, so even a small article like this really helps.

    Reply
    • Zach : Oct 11th

      Hey Shrink- Feeling off after a thru-hike is the norm- those who adjust quickly are the exception (in my observation). Time is definitely the ultimately healing agent, although, as this article points out, it’s important to carry the lessons from the trail with you into your new life.

      If you are interested in more reading on this subject- there’s an entire subject dedicated to mitigating post-trail depression in Appalachian Trials (the book): https://amzn.to/2dJ2TlY

      Reply
      • Nick (Shrink) : Oct 12th

        Hello Zach (Badger),
        I can’t tell you how much your book inspired me while I was preparing for my thru-hike. I read it twice. Along with the Northbound AT guide by David “AWOL” Miller, your book is required reading in my opinion for anyone who wants to seriously consider thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. As a mental health counselor, I found the psychological perspective taken in Appalachian Trials to be not only fascinating but extremely helpful. As you point out in Appalachian Trials and on numerous articles on your site, thru-hiking is very much a mental endeavor. Having a humorous, well-written, psychological guide to hiking the AT is an essential way to start preparing for the trip of a lifetime. Thank you for giving the hiking community such a wonderful book. If you ever need any contributing writers for your page on anything AT related don’t hesitate to ask, it would be my honor. Keep up the good work Badger!

        – Nick Hart (Shrink)

        Reply
  • Karaoke the Bard : Oct 12th

    I’ve talked to a lot of hikers about this as they’ve come through my town (Franklin, NC), both finished thru-hikers and newbies. The post trail depression can really take a toll and it definitely screws with your head, but I’ll share with you what I found worked for me and I’ve seen work for many others. When you finish your hike, you just finished throwing yourself wholeheartedly into an endeavor; you ate, slept, and breathed hiking. You unlocked this ability to pursue and perfect something to an extreme level. You’ve got an itch to keep doing that and the sudden stop can be a shock to the system, so don’t stop. Find your next obsession, your next challenge. For me, it was Spartan Races. I trained every day, I read the training books, got on the social media bandwagon, and just threw myself into. Now over a year later, I added some spartan races to my accomplishments and I’ve mellowed out, but continued to learn a lot about myself. I will always proudly call myself hikertrash, but now I can say I’m a hikertrash spartan. So it goes, when one journey ends, take on another. *Don’t settle, don’t give in to your boredom, frustration, or depression. Chase that next challenge, whatever it is.*

    Reply
  • BunnyHikes : Oct 16th

    “… find another source of endorphins, like running.”

    YES! it’s not all in your head. It’s physical … you need the daily *fix* of endorphins. Run, spin, sprint, rock climb, something, anything (legal 🙂 ) … you need the endorphins.

    Reply
  • Northstar : Oct 17th

    The thing that strikes me most is the feeling like “Did that really happen?” Ive been off trial since July 24 after thru hiking this year (2016). As I said to many of the people I met on my way up the Hunt Trail, that was the fourth best day of my life! And now, almost three months later, I miss it, a lot. I havent done the best job of sharing my story, mostly because I think people get tired of me talking about it. They cant really relate. It was however, an epic journey and the hardest/coolest thing Ive done. Im back to work and my “real life” but I am different, more confident, and I sweat the little stuff less. Ive realized I like goal oriented hiking so Im on to the Adirondack 46er and the Northeast 115. Ive been over there the last four weekends and it gives me something to look forward to daily as I navigate the sometimes mundane landscape of my workplace. So far so good! And I do think about the next long distance hike although as much as Id like to hop on the PCT next April, Ill probably have to settle for the Colorado Trail in July. Gotta keep moving is the motto I share with my recently retired colleague (after working together for 16 years) who thru hiked in 2013. I agree with others, keep active, even if its at a gym, use your off time well, and plan your next big adventure through books, maps, and new big dreams!

    Reply
  • Phlatlander : Oct 19th

    There’s something that bothers me about this. I’ve had two bouts on the AT so far, so I can relate to post-trail depression, but does anyone else feel like coming back to the “real world” is like trying to fit a square into a circular hole? Like you don’t quite fit there anymore, and maybe you never really did? Why is that? I feel like the AT changed my view of the world, so when I came back and it was still the same it left me feeling unfulfilled. How many people have you met or heard about who were inspired by the AT to change their entire life? Instead of trying to change myself to fit into the “real world” I’d rather try to change my life to make it fit me and who I’ve become. Just going hiking on the weekends or planning the next trip helps but it’s not really enough.

    Reply
    • Anonymous : Dec 24th

      Me too. Was often unhappy in my life before the AT, and am often unhappy now in my life after the AT. The difference is that I now have an experience of it being otherwise (excited about what I’m doing, who I’m meeting, who I’m becoming as a person. Feeling like I’m doing what I should be doing at this moment and I have control over my life). So I can’t fool myself anymore: I know now that there’s more to life than just keeping up with healthy habits in order to cope with anxiety and apathy.

      Reply
  • Andrew Grieve : Oct 26th

    I did a SOBO in 1986. Pretty much alone the whole time as is the nature of a SOBO. Finished in December and went home. I then proceeded to gain a ton of weight (60 lbs in 6 months!). Finally got back into running, dropped all the weight and went back to school in September to finish my law degree. Employment, marriage, kids, a van and an AT tattoo followed in that order. I can’t sugar coat it, it is a big shock to your system when you get off the trail. Stay active and challenge yourself. Still hiking (Wonderland Trail in 2017) and consider the AT trip to be one of the many highlights of my life.
    Cruisin’ Canadian ME-GA ’86.

    Reply
  • farmer : Mar 31st

    Crazy to here so many similar things

    Reply

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