Trail Science: Is Thru-hiking an Addiction?
It’s 5:30 am and I’m almost to Chinook Pass. It’s about 45 degrees and a steady, drizzling rain makes it colder. I’m approaching an iconic view of Mt. Rainier, but I’m socked in and it doesn’t look like that’s going to change any time soon. My right calf muscle is strained and every step is painful. I forgot to charge my MP3 player at my last resupply and I’m alone with only my thoughts, processing the weight of unspeakable things.
This is not fun. Type 3, 100%. I do not like this. But I still want it. Why?
Rewind a couple days.
It’s 5:30 am and I’m almost to the Knife’s Edge. It is exquisitely clear and the cool morning air feels perfect as I build a sweat pushing the last mile up Old Snowy. I’ve wanted to see this view in person for over a decade, and the day I’m here conditions just happen to be perfect. I am astonished, uplifted, exhilarated.
All I have to think about is town food, and I don’t even want to listen to music. I crush the remaining miles to White Pass, occasionally breaking into a run. And as I approach the Kracker Barrel store I luck into an unplanned ride to town, a homemade meal, and a place to sleep.
I cannot believe people spend their vacations any other way.
This is thru-hiking. Everyone’s highs and lows are different, but the highs are really high and the lows are really low. And they are all completely random; there is no predictability to these occurrences.
Pulling the Slot Machine
This type of intermittent reinforcement (aka the unpredictable high) resembles what is called a variable ratio schedule in psychology.
Basically, this means that sometimes you receive a reward (like feeling euphoric) for a behavior (in this case, hiking), sometimes you receive nothing for doing the exact same behavior, and there is absolutely nothing that clearly determines when you get rewarded and when you don’t.
It’s like pulling a slot machine. From a behavioral perspective, thru-hiking creates prime conditions for the development of a so-called “behavioral addiction.”
And then there is neuroscience.
I’ve briefly written previously about the possible consequences of having heaps and heaps of your body’s own opioids (aka, endorphins) flooding your brain for months on end. But there’s more to be said about how addiction works in the brain and how this is relevant to thru-hiking.
We have two key chemical messengers in our brains that dictate how much we want something (dopamine) and how much we like it (opioids). These chemical systems go haywire when we become addicted to something, and the result is a sort of mismatch between wanting and liking.
Over time, feelings of reward (“I like this”) become smaller and smaller, and as a result, the amount of a drug someone needs in order to continue liking it gets bigger and bigger. You might recognize this as tolerance.
Tolerance isn’t always a problem. But it can be, and the very nature of thru-hiking introduces this potential problem.
Is thru-hiking an addiction?
On top of these considerations, multiple hikers during these interviews and these interviews directly said to me “it’s an addiction.” And I’ve noticed several similar claims in writing, as well. So I have to wonder: Is thru-hiking an addiction?
To be honest, that’s actually a pretty ridiculous question—it’s far too black-and-white. To even begin to say “yes” to that question would be like suggesting smoking a cigarette will make you addicted to cigarettes.
So to be more precise: my purpose here is (1) to frame thru-hiking within the science of addiction, and (2) to examine whether thru-hiking could become an addiction for some people.
What is an addiction?
There’s a lot of stigma in our society about addiction, so let me be as clear as I possibly can about this: addiction is a disease. More specifically, a brain disease. It is a brain disease just like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases are brain diseases. It’s just that the outcome in addiction is an unhealthy pattern of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors instead of tremors or memory loss.
Addiction is not the addicted person’s fault.
Prolonged, repeated drug exposure creates changes in the brain that impact our ability to self-regulate. To put this in thru-hiker terms: repeated drug exposure = extended flood of endorphins. Again, these are your body’s own opioids.
These brain changes lead to a hallmark of addiction: irresistible urges to seek out the thing we want, often in spite of serious consequences for oneself and/or others.
How addiction works: The Three-Stage Cycle
Stage 1: Binge/Intoxication
In this stage, two critical things happen. First, we learn that something is rewarding and we begin to pursue it more and more. When this is happening, your brain is pouring out dopamine into what we call the reward pathway.
Dopamine acts kind-of like a form of reward currency. The more dopamine that gets released, the more you want the reward (just like you’d probably rather be given $50 than $20). And you’ll be willing to do a lot of work to get it. Like, attempt to hike across the entire state of Oregon in two weeks, starting or finishing with the additional challenge of completing a double marathon in 24 hours.
Second, the reward gets associated with relevant cues. For example, a bar might be a cue for someone who is addicted to alcohol. For a thru-hiker, a cue might be mountains, Ramen, your quilt, etc. As the reward gets associated with the cues over time, your brain starts to dump out dopamine in response to just the cue, even in the absence of the reward.
Ever seen your quilt and instantly felt motivated to pick up and go? Or, more likely, felt overwhelmed by nostalgia, then negative emotion, and then felt motivated to pick up and go?
When you overstimulate the reward circuit with a buttload of dopamine, as you necessarily would on a thru-hike, it leads to an increase in motivation to obtain the reward. Again, the real kicker here is that dopamine is really only tagging things with, “I want this,” not with, “I like this.” And here we are, back at Chinook Pass.
The opioid system is responsible for “liking,” or the pleasure we feel alongside a reward. This system gets activated when someone takes a drug like heroin or any other opioid. It’s also activated during pain.
Over the course of an addiction, what we typically see is an increase in wanting and a decrease in liking. As I mentioned above, this has the potential to cause a problem. Which leads me to Stage Two.
Stage 2: Withdrawal/Negative Affect
During this stage, we no longer want a drug because we like it. Instead, we want a drug because we don’t like the result of not having it. When the brain is exposed to a drug over a long period of time, it starts to adjust to a new normal.
To compensate for all the extra dopamine, the brain will basically determine, “Oh, we don’t need to create as much of this stuff,” and it will reduce the level of dopamine it naturally creates.
The result? Same reward, smaller effect. (For example, as you build tolerance, hiking a 20-mile day may feel less rewarding.) Over time, this leads to persistent feelings of negative emotion and a lack of pleasure.
That’s right, folks. Feeling negative and not feeling positive are actually two different things.
To make matters worse, the reward system isn’t the only thing that gets altered with extended drug exposure. There’s also this thing called the anti-reward system, which gets activated when we very abruptly stop using drugs after using them for a long time (aka, when you finish your thru-hike).
This is a little more complicated to explain, but essentially: the anti-reward system stimulates a massive stress response. So on top of feeling bad because you aren’t high, you also feel bad because you’re extra anxious and stressed.
I’d be willing to bet a fair amount of money that these processes account for a solid chunk of post-trail “depression.” (Seriously, though, please stop calling it that.)
An obvious solution to these problems? Get more drug. Which leads me to Stage Three.
Stage 3: Preoccupation/Anticipation
This stage of addictive disorders is associated with changes to executive functioning. Here, we see craving for the drug, poor impulse control, and poor decision making.
Brain changes are also happening in Stage Three—but now in the higher, thinking parts of your brain. Specifically, the prefrontal cortex.
Under normal circumstances, this part of your brain is usually pretty good at both preventing you from making bad decisions, and helping you make good ones. It’s sort of like a parent keeping the automatic reactions of a child in check.
In people with addictive disorders, we see less activity in the prefrontal cortex. The result is that our self-control center gets hijacked by the impulse to do what we want, regardless of whether it’s good for us.
For a thru-hiker, this stage might look like extreme preoccupation with the next thru, and/or a decision to peace out for 4-6 more months despite severe consequences to some important domain of life (e.g., financial, health, professional, relational, etc.).
The Thru-Hiker Three-Stage Cycle Summed Up
Stage 1: I’m on a thru-hike and I feel more amazing than I have ever felt in my life.
Stage 2: I finished my thru-hike and promptly fell into a pit of inexplicable despair.
Stage 3: All I can think about is how to take next summer off to thru-hike. I don’t care what it takes or how miserable I am the other 6-8 months of the year, thru-hiking is the only thing that makes me feel better so that’s what I’m going to do.
What makes someone vulnerable to develop an addiction?
As I mentioned above, doing something that has the potential to become addictive does not mean that you will become addicted. Lots of people drink alcohol and don’t have a drinking problem, lots of people have gambled without developing a gambling problem, and so on.
So, what puts someone at risk for developing an addiction?
Certainly, there are genetic features of risk for addiction, but genetics are not very straightforward and don’t necessarily produce guaranteed outcomes. (For more on this, read about epigenetics.)
Arguably, the most important factors are how stressful you believe your life is and your ability to effectively cope with that stress.
When we encounter pretty much anything in the world, including our own body’s internal states (e.g., a sensation of pain), we automatically and usually unconsciously evaluate two things: 1) Can it harm me? and 2) Can I handle it?
I’ll put the possible outcomes into concrete examples.
- No, it can’t harm me / I don’t need to handle it. I am standing at the base of Mt. Hood watching the sunrise. It is beautiful, I’m safe, I’m about to eat a truckload of breakfast, and there is no need to cope with this particular moment.
- Yes, it can harm me / Yes, I can handle it. I come upon a peaceful mountain lake that looks perfect for swimming and assess its ability to harm me: the temperature of the water, the air temperature, my tendency to be warm or cold, how many resources I have to warm myself if necessary, etc. I decide it could harm me, but probably won’t because I have appropriate knowledge and resources to meet all potential threats. This is often happening below our conscious radar.
- Yes, it can harm me / No, I can’t handle it. Grizzly bear! Crap! Oh crap, oh crap, I know that there are things I’m supposed to do, but I am frozen in place and unable to think or move and I just hope someone finds my body.
Alongside instinct, our answers to these questions are largely based on past experience. Problems arise when our answers to these questions are inaccurate (also due to past experience). For example, we may mistakenly evaluate that something neutral—or maybe even good—is actually threatening. Hello, anxiety.
It’s also possible that we think we can’t handle something when we actually can. Hello, depression.
We then engage in some sort of coping behavior to try to reduce negative emotion that arises as a result of our answers to these questions. Coping strategies can be healthy (e.g., journaling, talking with friends) or unhealthy (e.g., avoiding your problems, self-medicating with drugs/alcohol).
A good recipe for addiction is a belief that something is harmful (even if it’s not), a belief that we can’t handle it (even if we can), and limited strategies to cope with the emotional weight of the stressor(s).
How can I prevent this cycle from becoming a problem?
The very nature of thru-hiking makes it almost inevitable, biologically, that you’re going to go through Stages One and Two of this cycle: the bliss of the thru-hike and a period of feeling low after it’s over. How well you cope during Stage Two—so-called post-trail “depression”—will change what happens next. (This is secretly another article about post-trail depression.)
Our coping strategies are limited to what we have learned, which is often insufficient. Fortunately, you can learn new coping skills at any age. Remember when I said addiction is not the addicted person’s fault?
That’s still true. But just because it’s not your fault, doesn’t mean it’s not your responsibility. That sucks, and it’s totally unfair, but nobody can change your behavior for you.
During the post-trail blues, we can pay attention to our thoughts, emotions, and how we respond to them. For example, let’s take the thought, “I was so much more myself on the trail.”
This thought may come alongside a belief that sounds something like, “I need to be on the trail in order to be my true self.” The emotions following this thought/belief combo might be sadness, grief, hopelessness, etc. How do you respond to that?
One answer is easy: enter stage 3 and start getting ready for your next thru immediately. But if that’s not a wise decision for you due to any of the reasons I mentioned above, consider that you can learn to cope with the emotion and, more importantly, learn to change the thoughts and beliefs that precede unpleasant emotions.
In addition to learning to cope with what’s happening during Stage Two, we can also make our lives more closely resemble the trail by creating SPACE in everyday life. (That would also technically be a form of coping, but whatever.)
Remove the material excess from your life. Dedicate yourself to a long-term goal and/or higher purpose. Go on mini adventures and find new ways to enjoy overcoming adversity. Build a community of people who love and accept you unconditionally, who leave you feeling fuller and better. And continue to get outside and use your body.
Finally, we can also do things that not only reduce negative emotions but also increase positive ones. The intentional cultivation of positive emotion called savoring (or mindful savoring), is becoming increasingly well established as a means to improve well-being, and may also be a valuable therapeutic strategy for overcoming addictive disorders.
Too often, we overlook little moments of connection and beauty. By not only paying attention to these things but really stopping to absorb them within ourselves, we can start to shift our overall perspective on how things are going.
What does any of this even mean?
I think the chances that anyone is truly addicted to thru-hiking are actually pretty small. The thing is, addictive disorders exist on a continuum. It’s possible to recognize that you use thru-hiking to avoid feeling negative emotion or to check out from the weight of life, while also continuing to function perfectly well.
One of my favorite and best psychology professors used to repeatedly remind us, “It’s not a problem until it’s a problem.” If you finish thru-hiking and there’s nothing stopping you from immediately getting ready to go for another, does it even matter it’s an addiction? It isn’t a problem until it’s a problem.
If your relationships, bank account, core values, life goals, physical or mental health, or whatever else are on the brink of extinction due to your unwillingness to do anything but hike for large chunks of the year? Maybe it’s worth taking a closer look.
DISCLAIMER: The information in this post should not be taken as a replacement for or complement to formal clinical assessment, nor should any contents of this post be interpreted as clinical advice. If you believe you have a problem with addiction, I encourage you to find a treatment center and/or therapist in your area who can help you understand and overcome patterns of behavior that do not serve you well.
Featured image: Graphic design by Jay Woods.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.