There are thousands of websites, Instagram accounts, YouTube channels, and Reddit threads dedicated to preparing for a thru-hike, but there isn’t much on how to prepare for life after. Something that doesn’t get discussed nearly enough is posts-hike depression. Post-hike depression can be as simple as sitting behind a desk and longing for the days when you didn’t have to show up to your 9-5 grind or it can be as extreme as never getting back to your normal life and permanently living on trail.
Going on a thru-hike upends your life -- many people quit their jobs, some don’t renew their leases, and a few even sell their cars in pursuit of the outdoors. People hit the trail to escape, to heal, or to better themselves. While on trail everything is different. For four to six months you live in a tent, barely shower, and consider a burger from McDonald’s the best meal you’ve had in a week. You don’t care about the news, but you’ve never been so invested in the weather. You adopt a new name, a new routine, you become a different person. Nothing matters but the people around you and the trail in front of you. If you don’t have a plan on where to live, how to make money, and how to transport yourself, life after a thru-hike can be even more stressful than when you left.
I've experienced this myself in a small way -- I’ve never done a thru-hike, but I did live like a thru-hiker for a few months. I did conservation work with American Conservation Experience (ACE). When I wasn’t staying in a tent, I was staying in a hostel in Asheville. I spent most of my time on trails, and I also lived, ate, and worked with the same people. We didn’t give each other trail names, but a lot of people went exclusively by new nicknames. My tent was my home, and my friends were my family. After only three months of living an “alternative lifestyle,” I had a hard time going back to regular life.
I found it hard to adjust to driving, shopping in large crowded stores, and cooking on something that wasn’t a camp stove. The first time I stepped into a Wal-Mart after leaving ACE, I actually felt some culture shock. Walking into the large crowded store with overpowering fluorescent lights made me want to turn around and never look back. I felt uncomfortable, out of place, and claustrophobic. When I was in ACE, I had my friends, but back home I was alone.
I’ve found that when you remove yourself from modern society and stay out in the woods for months, your world becomes smaller, simpler. Being thrown back into the hustle and bustle of everyday life is hard, especially when no one around you gets what you're going through. If you are going through post-hike depression, the good news is that you’re not alone. Most thru-hikers experience some form of post-hike depression, and there are steps you can take to help deal with it.
- Know that it is coming. Plan for your life after your thru-hike. Make sure you have a job lined up and a place to live. Having plans for after your thru-hike will help alleviate some of the anxiety and stress of reintegrating into normal life.
- Keep in touch with your tramily. Lean on them for support. You all are going through the same thing, so you can help each other adjust to life after the trail.
- Get back on trail, find out where your local trails are and take some small local hikes. Keeping up your physical activity will release endorphins. Staying active also offers a healthy outlet to deal with your emotions.
- Find a new goal. Once you accomplish your goal of hiking 2,000+ miles, life without a massive objective can seem pointless. Working towards something new will give you purpose after the trail.
- If you feel absolutely helpless, remember that you're not alone. Don't be afraid to seek help from a professional.
If you are going through post-hike depression, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Talk about it with the people around you and let them know what you are going through. You aren’t as alone as you feel, I promise.
About the Author
Olivia Magee oversees Social Media at Zpacks and helps monitor trends within the industry. Her contributions to the hiking community includes her work with the American Conservation Experience where she performed trail maintenance in the Smoky's and across the Southeast.