Post Trail Depression

I want to discuss the topic of post-trail depression.  This is a very real phenomenon, discussed over and over again by hikers but often times overlooked by friends and family.  Not everyone experiences it, but I would say that most do.   It is very real, and should not be taken lightly.  Hikers have even taken their lives in the months following their thru-hikes.  It is a good idea to consider how you’ll manage your mental well-being after coming off a long distance trail well before the time is upon you.

The reasons for post trail depression are quite obvious once you think about the position you will be in once you finish your hike:  You will have just completed a gigantic goal for which you are proud, but few others understand.  You will likely be homeless or penniless or both.  You will likely have no job, and no sense of purpose.  You will need to redefine yourself.  You will go from exercising 8-12 hours a day to almost nothing.  You will go from warm months into the cold depressing winter.  You will be expected to adjust to a new lifestyle.  Seems like a slap in the face, right!?

When you’re hiking, your brain will be used to high endorphin levels from all the exercise.  The word endorphin’s comes from “endogenous morphine”, which means a morphine like substance produced by the body.  Their effect is to lessen pain and produce a euphoric effect, much like that of morphine.  By going from hiking many miles every day to sitting on the couch, you’re effectively taking a morphine addict and putting them in rehab.  I believe this is one of the biggest reasons for post trail depression, and why it is so widespread.  My best suggestion is to continue exercising as much as possible.  Many hikers pick up running after their hikes, and this is what I decided to do after my first thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail.  Unfortunately this time around I was left with injured hips and my recovery hasn’t been what I was hoping for.

Most hikers worry about preparing for the culture shock of the trail without considering the culture shock of readjusting to “civilization”.  Once you have spent many months in nature, your values change and your view of civilization changes as well.  You can only fully appreciate these changes once you’re back.

There are the expectations of civilized life: take a shower at least every other day.  Why? Apparently it matters that my hair looks dumb otherwise.  And smelling bad is unacceptable.  What’s hard to get used to is taking a shower when you’re not actually dirty.  You know you have to, but it feels like a waste.  And speaking of waste, everything seems so wasteful and excessive!  Why is everyone’s house so big?  And why do people eat half a meal at a restaurant and throw the rest away?  And why does everything come in so much packaging!?  And just look at all those clothes you have!  Half of them don’t fit anymore, but you’re expected to change what you wear like basically every day.   And sleep in a bed, and eat three meals instead of tons of snacks all the time and sit in a chair at a table…  the list goes on.

Also, when you get back to “real life”, people will ask you about your hike, but you’ll find that they don’t actually want to know what your hike was like, they just want you to sum it up in about one sentence.  That’s like asking someone to sum up their career or their childhood in one sentence.  “How was your hike?”  they’ll ask.  Just remember that they mean well.  My response is usually just to say “it was good”, and leave it at that unless they want to start asking for more details.

Most people will be impressed by your hike, but you know that they have no actual concept of what you’ve just done.  They would have been just as impressed if you had hiked only 100 miles.  Even after two thru-hikes, I can’t really visualize 2,500 miles!

I think Dirt Stew and I have it slightly easier than most solo hikers.  We have each other to lean on, and we’re not in the position of having nobody who understands what we’ve been through.  We also enable each other to not give up on trail habits.  It took us 5 years to get a bed after our first thru-hike (yes, we slept on the floor), we tend to wear the same two sets of clothes over and over again (I’m convinced a lot of people do this though), and we don’t scold each other for not showering.

But we still feel it.  The lack of sense of purpose, the lack of sense of LIVING and the easiness and boorishness of everyday life.  I miss the natural beauty of the Pacific Crest Trail, and I miss the connection I felt with nature and the earth.

Yet I console myself by remembering that thru-hiking has truly made me a better person.  I try to be thankful for the things I have: running water, a bed (yes, I am now the proud owner of a bed), heating, my sonic toothbrush, and a kitchen full of food.  I try as much as possible not to take these things for granted.

I also try to set goals for myself- even small ones or silly ones.  Every day on the trail is a day with a goal.  You have a goal for the day, and a larger goal for your journey.  I try to incorporate some of these same ideas into my life.  It can be through exercise (maybe sign up for a half or full marathon?), or saving money, or your diet, or goals within your job.  And don’t be bummed if you don’t have one of those yet.

Also remember that the trail is always there.  I decided to move to a town surrounded by mountains so that I feel more “at home” when I step out of my door, and I can go out and experience small bursts of trail life whenever I like.>

For all the hikers out there, I hope I’ve been able to help with some ideas on how to readjust to real life.  Just remember, you’re not alone.

Whee!

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17 thoughts on “Post Trail Depression

  1. It’s difficult to describe how helpful this article has been, since leaving the trail after four months at Killington, VT. On trail I felt like I had found my fellow crazies in a way, and that was reassuring. Coming home, it was quite wonderful to find others with the same ideas, navigating the same waves.. Running is so tremendously helpful. Simple really, but it makes sense. Thanks again guys!

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  2. I’ve done a lot of long hikes in seventy some years, and lived and worked in some very isolated places, and what you say makes perfect sense to me. These days I live in a farming and bushland area, and it’s not so bad, but I remember the first time I tried to live in a big city (Sydney, Australia), after a year in very isolated wilderness, I nearly died of pneumonia, and was so disheartened by the city that I didn’t notice nearly as soon as I should have that I was falling ill.

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    • It sounds like you’ve had some great experiences! I think it’s hard for anyone who isn’t used to the city to try to adapt. Besides the air pollution, there’s also the noise pollution and the light pollution, and it wears on your soul. Once you’ve lived so freely in nature, it’s hard to give that up. I hope you’re enjoying wherever you live now!

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  3. You could call it Post Adventure Depression. I remember returning to the daily grind after an epic trip around Europe. One day I was treading the same stones as Julius Caesar or a millennia of Popes and the next day I was in a greasy, noisy automobile shop in a factory town. What a shock!

    Thanks for sharing.

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  4. I’m starting from Campo tomorrow. Your description of the after-life sounds like how i felt after I returned to the US after living in the jungle of Costa Rica for a year. I can hardly wait to feel that way again.

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  7. Great article. My brother just returned a few weeks ago from our section hike on the PCT and even with the short time relative to a thru hiker I have felt a general malaise upon my return. A lack of motivation and difficulty in getting into my daily life. There is a great you tube video where Muk Muk talks about after the trail and the struggles she faced and I can completely sympathize with anyone who spends that long on the trail.
    It is important to have another goal when you return. Another hike to plan, or to get a job, train for a marathon whatever works for you. My biggest issue now is I dream non stop of the trail and my desire to be out there again. Not a bad thing mind you, but it can be distracting lol
    HYOH

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  8. The waste with packaging, the noise pollution everywhere, the superficiality of the cities and their concrete everywhere. I’m half way through the longest trail in the world. I actually don’t want to stop doing what I’m doing and there are enough trail to keep going forever. My biggest fear atthe moment is money.
    Anyway the post trail depression reminds me of the post student exchange program depression. The fix was to keep on traveling.

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  9. I remember after the AT being very appalled by most magazines. It was just this symbol of excess and strange beauty requirements (all the while I was trying to look nice for job interviews and hating it).

    I get it…I think there’s always just a tinge of trail depression, even five years post AT, four years post FT for us.

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    • Yes, I also noticed that my view on magazines changed- I think the trail taught me to see skinny people as hungry people. When I picked up a magazine in a hair dresser’s shop a month or two ago, I noticed that I suddenly thought “Wow, these models must be really hungry!” Rather than the usual “God they’re skinny, I’m never going to achieve that…”

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  10. I think this is a great summary of the challenges of readjustment! Although I have yet to complete a thru-hike, I have spent time in the wilderness and in places a lot less developed than the average American town. I still have issues sometimes with handling the “excess” that surrounds me. I guess some of those problems never really go away, we just learn how to work through them.
    I think one of the biggest problems with “culture shock” is not that there is a difference in the “culture” but simply that you don’t have anyone to talk with about it and connect to. I’m glad that you had someone to do that with!
    And I love your suggestion of setting goals, however large or small. Great tips for anyone who is making a major life change!

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  11. This is nicely written and sends an important message. I might add that, while not thru hikers like you two, the feeling of depression and lack of purpose comes to even segment hikers like us. We have been doing longer segments of the PCT as we get further away from home here is SoCal, like a recent 8-day, and I experienced much of the feelings you described. Thanks for acknowledging this as it helps me learn about those feelings when I return from our hikes.

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