Dealing with Post-Hike Depression
At first, being home will be great after your long adventure. Endless food. Endless Netflix. No more foot/leg/back/what-have-you pain. Temperature control. Roof. Your family wants to hear about your hike and see photos. But after about 2-3 weeks, they’re over it. You’re over Netflix. And your thru-hike is still all you think about.
You’ll be homesick for a place that doesn’t have a roof.
Post-hike depression is a real thing.
I’ve seen it happen to some of the happiest, kindest, most unlikely people in the world. It is documented in retired elite athletes, so it makes sense it would happen to long distance hikers, too. Yet, I’ve also heard deniers (even very prominent hikers) say, “Get over yourself. There are people in the world with life much worse. You are an ungrateful first-worlder sad because your trip is over.” Like any form of mental illness, “Depression is in your head” or “others have it worse” are among the least helpful things you can say.
A major chemical change is going on in your body and mind
Post-hike depression is brought about at least partially by a major chemical change going on in your body and mind. Exercise and being outdoors are great for our bodies and minds. To suddenly no longer have that can be a big hit.
Post hike depression isn’t just biological
When you return to the real world, you lose your community and your identity—two elements correlated to happiness.
I don’t mean to suggest that hikers necessarily suffer from major depressive disorder, which is a diagnosed condition which requires psychiatric treatment. If you at all believe what you are experiencing is major depressive disorder and/or it existed before your hike, please seek medical attention.
For many thru-hikers, after months of living in a world where you’ve had a lot of control over every detail of your life (on a thru-hike), you’re thrust into a bad world full of bad people and bad things. It may seem like people who live in the “real world” have never known another lifestyle and thus don’t get how different the world can be. On a thru-hike, life is simple and, to paraphrase Thoreau, that simplicity is the key to happiness. Back here in the real world, things are complicated. The desire to give up all the advances of society to go back to a “better world” is strong. You are likely to be hit with what one article on depression calls a sense of “powerlessness with an absence of hope.”
According to an interview with Dr. Adam Kaplin from John Hopkins University, “The worst part of depression is that it narrows the field of vision into a very small tube so [the person] can’t see the options. A lot of [the goal of helping] is giving people a hope that things will get better.”
While many of those living with depression are often doing everything they can to feel better (and actively hate it when folks suggest some of the things below), my experience (and totally non-medical perspective) suggests that simulating the things that you loved the most on trail that are lost in the real world can be a very helpful tonic.
The thoughts below are all about reminding yourself that things can get better.
Find a support group, preferably other hikers
While it’s impossible for others to know exactly what you’re going through or why, other hikers are bound to realize that post-hike depression sucks a lot more than your civilization friends will. One of my favorite parts of the thru-hiking is the community—a place where people from all walks of lives come together, irrespective of their socioeconomic class or background. On a thru-hike, we have a shared self-imposed struggle that brings us closer. Real society, for all of its comforts, is lacking that.
Depending on where you live, there may be other long distance hikers near you. Get together in person and talk trail. You’ll feel a little bit like your identity and community are being restored by being back with your tribe (plus—when you inevitability gain back all the weight you lost hiking, they’ll remind you it’s a normal part of a hikers’ life and nothing to be ashamed about). Reconnecting with actual humans is bound to make you feel better than sitting in front of a computer.
Do activities that are mentally challenging—preferably with others
Some hikers have this box checked already: If you were lucky enough to have a job lined up right after the trail, keeping busy can save you from the post-hike rumination that reminds you how much the “real world” sucks compares to thru-hiking. For some, this means treating “looking for a job” like it is your job. For others, this can mean hitting the next hike planning with a vengeance. Set a goal and get to it.
If you’re a hiker, by now, you’ve already figured out that being outdoors can stimulate hormones that make us happier. Physical activity and exercise also trigger happy hormones. When you go for a thru-hike and then suddenly stop moving, your body and brain are getting a huge withdrawal of hormones that make you happy. Give your brain a rush of the good stuff and go for a hike or run.
Show Your Gratitude
Numerous studies show (here, here, and here) that being thankful and showing gratitude can really make you happier. As a thru-hiker, you have a lot to be thankful for: public lands, the fact that trails exist at all, and for amazing trail angels.
I always put together thank you cards for those who helped me on my hike (side note: this can be pretty time consuming and can fall under the “giving yourself a challenging mental task” noted above). If you’re not already a member of the trail organization associated with whatever hike you did, becoming a member can be a great way to thank them for all the trail work and maintenance.
In addition to sending trail angels thank you letters and cards (they’re usually thrilled to hear you made your goal), I also like to send them a check or Paypal. I get it: when you’re thru-hiking, the temptation to not leave as much for trail angels as you’d like is strong. You legitimately may not be sure you have enough cash to make it to Katahdin/Canada/Mexico. But once you have a job again or are back at home and still have a few bucks to your name, send the trail angel some cash and you’ll feel some of that guilt go away. I’ve sent some post-hike cash to trail angels and it’s filled some post-hike guilt.
Another way to show your gratitude is to give back to the future generation of hikers. Try to meet with prospective hikers in person, give them gear shakedowns, and share your trail experience with them. Believe me—they’ll be a lot more interested in hearing more about your hike than your friends and family.
Talking trail and helping others is a great way to restore your identity and give thanks for all that you have learned on your journey. It’s also a great way to meet other hikers—seasoned and yet to head on their journey.
Realize the Journey Isn’t Over
Sure, you spent 4-6 months with a single goal: getting to Katahdin or Canada or Mexico or wherever. And suddenly, your goal—your life’s meaning—is gone.
But you also proved you can complete whatever challenge you set for yourself! Sure, you won’t be able to go back to the pure bliss of PCT 2016. But you can take that “can do” attitude and set a new goal (say, CDT 2017?). There’s a reason why thru-hiking has such a high recidivism rate.
An essential aspect of “getting over” post thru-hike depression is setting new goals. Whether that goal is going back to school or saving up for your next thru, having a dream to keep yourself motivated is important. As my friend and super-hiker Bobcat quotes his grandma as saying, “Having something to look forward to” is one of the pillars to happiness.
Let your hike change you for the better
For what it’s worth, most thru-hikers I talk to say that the post-hike depression they experienced was worse after their first very long hike. The more hikes someone has under their belt, the shorter and less pronounced post-hike depression becomes—so much so, that some hikers even forget it exists.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard was from Stacey Matthews, a repeat thru-hiker and beautiful person inside and out. She told me the true lesson of a thru-hike is to take the happiness and beauty that the trail brings you and bring it to your non-trail world. You’re still on trail, just taking 180 zero days.
Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor or trained counselor or therapist. Seek professional medical help.
Liz "Snorkel" Thomas
Liz Thomas is a well-traveled adventure athlete most known for breaking the women’s unsupported speed record on the Appalachian Trail in 2011. She has completed the Triple Crown of Hiking–the Appalachian Trail, the 2,650 mile Pacific Crest Trail, and 3,100 mile Continental Divide Trail–and has backpacked over 15,000 miles across the United States. While not on trail, Liz lives in Denver, Colorado.