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.
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.
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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