When you finish a thru-hike, you experience a range of emotions. You’re happy you’ve completed a long-term goal, you’re tired from the excessive exercise, and you’re sad it’s over. What’s not talked about as much is what happens after – many (but not all) thru-hikers experience post-trail depression.
As an avid long-distance thru-hiker, I’ve personally experienced this after some trails and not after others. After 17 thru-hikes, I have a few tips to help you get back on track.
All your feelings are valid. If you are experiencing depression or anxiety, please talk to someone or call/text 988 for help with your mental health.
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What is Post-Trail Depression or Post-Trail Grief?
Post-Trail depression can occur after completion of a thru-hike. It often stems from the sudden disappearance of a simple way of life, a long-term goal and purpose, and trying to reintegrate back into society.
On trail, you have very few worries. Your main concerns are:
- When’s the next water source? 💦
- Do you have enough food for the miles in this section? 🥯 🍫
- How many miles per day do you need to hike? 🥾
- Can you find flat enough ground to sleep on or trees for your hammock? ⛺️
Off trail, you begin to have more things to worry about. You start to focus on:
- Where can you get a job? 📆
- How do you pay all these bills? 💵
- Where do you live? 🏡
- Do you still want to live or work where you used to? 🤔
- What’s next? 🤷♀️
Basically, that simple purpose of walking every day, eating, finding water, and sleeping goes away. What replaces it is more complicated.
Think of Thru-Hiking as a Rite of Passage
Anthropologically speaking, a rite of passage is an event or journey where you:
- Separate from your current status.
- Enter a liminal state.
- Reintegrate into society with a changed status.
On a thru-hike, you leave your job and your life behind for trail (separation). Then, you actually hike the trail on a journey (liminal state). Finally, you complete your hike and return to society with a new perspective (reintegration).
Other commonly known rites of passage include graduations, weddings, funerals, sweet 16s, etc.
Sometimes, upon reintegration, you stumble. With your new perspective, you can’t quite fit back into your old status. You’ve changed. And, that’s ok.
The important thing to recognize is that you are not the same person after a thru-hike as you were before.
Post-trail depression or post-trail grief often stem from a rocky reintegration. This can be both mental and physical.
This can also occur after extended travel. Backpacking depression or post-travel depression symptoms often mirror symptoms after thru-hiking.
Post-Trail Depression Symptoms
No two people will have the exact same reaction. However, these are some of the common post-trail depression symptoms. I have personally experienced several over the years and have talked others through them.
Common Post-Trail Grief Symptoms:
- Overactive appetite
- Lack of endorphins from excessive exercise
- Lack of interest in doing things
- Lack of activity while waiting for overuse injuries to heal
- Effects of malnutrition
- Feeling of loss
Now, read on for 15 tricks I use to alleviate post-trail depression. ⚠️ Remember, if you need it at any time, call or text 988 in the US for a mental health hotline. ⚠️
Try These 15 Ways to Curb Post-Trail Depression Symptoms
First, when you stop thru-hiking, you lose a sense of purpose, a simple routine, and a long-term goal.
Second, your physical body needs to adjust to a new normal. Remember the adjustment period at the beginning of your thru-hike? The one where your body hurt all the time getting used to excessive exercise? Likewise, the body needs to physically adjust afterward.
You need to remedy those 3 main things.
You’ll need a new goal which will give you a new sense of purpose. To achieve your new goal, you need to create a new, simple routine.
Finally, that doesn’t mean you’ll need all 15 ways below. But, try them out and use which ones work for you.
1. Eat Clean: Load up on Veggies, Fruit, and Non-Processed Food
While most people endeavor to eat healthy on trail, you often need junk food to get sufficient calories. You’ve gotten used to slamming a whole sharing-size chip bag or a whole pint of ice cream.
Now, clean up your diet. Without the intensive exercise from a thru-hike, your metabolism will slow down. Your body needs good, clean energy to help it recover from your thru-hike.
Think non-processed food first. Cook your meals! If you feel like you need more, eat more veggies and fruit. Moreover, aim for superfoods if you can. Your body and brain need time and energy to process your change in movement.
2. Start a Workout Routine
Often, thru-hikers will go from hiking 8-12 hours a day to sitting for 8-12 hours. While the body needs rest, it also needs movement. 🥾 ➡️ 🛋️
Adding a workout regimen to your day will provide you with a new routine. Think of it as replacing your routine of water filtering for the day.
Try finding an already established routine that you can just pick up and follow. For example, aim to run a half marathon. You can google training schedules for half marathons and simply follow it. Otherwise, find a workout trainer you like and use their programs. Personally, I’ve found Claire P. Thomas’s workouts extremely helpful after thru-hikes. 💪
Picking up an already established workout routine is just like picking up a new map set for your next section.
Lastly, physical movement can help the body adjust to a new normal of endorphins and thus ease post-trail depression.
3. Drink 80-100 Ounces of Water Per Day
It’s amazing how much better the human body does with adequate hydration. Aim for 80-100 ounces of water per day. 💦
This will help your body recover better, process food easier, and keep you healthy.
You can track this on your phone, a calendar, or a journal. At the end of the day, if you succeed, you can check it off. Also, this adds to your new, simple routine.
4. Find a Job: One that’s Fulfilling OR One You Can Do For 6 Months
Alas, you will eventually need a job. If you liked your job prior to hiking, you could try to get it back. Otherwise, use this opportunity to search for a more fulfilling job.
However, if you can’t find anything you’re particularly interested in, find a job that you can work for 6 months. I find that I can almost always work a job for 6 months if I know it has a finite end.
Looking for winter seasonal work? Try a ski resort town 🚠. You don’t have to limit yourself to being a liftie (lift operator) or a ski instructor. There are all kinds of jobs at ski resort towns. For example, retail, restaurant, hospitality, or snow removal jobs to name a few.
The key to working winter seasonal jobs is to get two jobs. Ideally, one job should give you cheaper housing and the other should give you a free ski pass.
Skiing can double as your workout routine 🎿. It gets you outside AND gives you exercise. I’ve used skiing many winters to ease my post-trail depression.
5. Join Online Hiker Communities
You’ve probably seen your friends’ eyes glaze over while you’re talking about your thru-hike. They want to know, but they don’t want to know too much.
If you don’t know any thru-hikers geographically close to you, look to the internet.
First, there are hundreds of Facebook groups for thru-hikers. Likely, you can find one you enjoy. If not, you can create one.
Second, join Reddit. Reddit has lots of thru-hiker members and the forum allows for you to connect with others feeling the same way.
Third, use Instagram DMs or Snapchat to connect with hikers you met on trail.
6. Keep a Journal
If you’re a bit more introverted, try journaling. Aim to commit to a certain amount of time writing or number of pages each day.
This will add to your simple daily routine. It could replace the time spent packing up camp in the morning or setting it up in the evening.
If you have no idea what to write, try picking up a journal with prompts. There are lots of gratitude journals, happiness journals, and daily prompt journals out there. 📝
Do you already have a blank journal but don’t know what to write? Try searching Pinterest for daily journal prompts. 🔍
Journaling can help you understand your post-trail depression in two ways. First, it can help you empty those thoughts from your mind to the paper. Second, it can help you sort through that sea of thoughts swirling in your mind.
Don’t want to write your thoughts down? Try nature journaling! 📓 You can do it from anywhere, even your own backyard.
7. Adopt a Meditation Practice (Sitting or Walking Meditation)
Adding in a 10-20 minute daily meditation to your routine can help calm your mind. Just remember that your thoughts are not who you are and let them pass through you and away.
You might try a sitting meditation or a walking meditation. Both are equally effective. 🧘♀️
Personally, I love using the Calm app for both daily mediations and sleep stories. If you don’t want to spend money, try searching for meditations on YouTube.
8. Read Adventure Books (Or Listen to the Audiobook Versions)
Try picking up an adventure book or audiobook. Sometimes, you need to remember all the feels from thru-hiking. Books and Audiobooks can bring you that sense. 📕 🎧
A good book can make you feel like you’re not alone. It can transport you somewhere else.
This is helpful for those days where your post-trail depression makes you want to lay on a couch all day.
📚 Pro-tip: 📚 look for any adventure book: thru-hiking, mountaineering, rock climbing, road tripping, traveling, etc. You’ll often find your feeling mirrored in other sports as well.
9. Pick Up a New Hobby
Because you’ve taken a break from your past routine, after a thru-hike is the perfect time to start a new hobby!
Have you always wanted to try racquetball? Disc golf? Surfing? Knitting? Mountain biking? Skiing?
As you reintegrate back into larger society, try something new. If you don’t like it, try something else. It’s the perfect time to go for it!
10. Start a Group Text/WhatsApp with your Tramily
Find social connections that understand you and make you feel good. Chances are that if you miss trail, your tramily does, too.
Check in on them with a group text or WhatApp group message. That way, anything that makes you think of trail, you can have the audience you need.
It can be as simple as sending funny memes back and forth. Moreover, you could plan the next time you’ll see everyone. If you plan a meet-up, it’s something to look forward to.
Moreover, community is a cornerstone of happiness and well-being.
11. Take an Overnight Backpacking Trip or Car Camping Trip
Get outside! Grab that grungy backpacking gear and go for an overnight trip on your weekend. You don’t have to throw down huge miles, but many go camp by a lake or some hot springs. If your post-trail depression is making you miss trail, go find one.
No good trails near you? Try car camping! You can bring all kinds of different activities in a car that you can’t bring in your backpack. For example, that really comfy huge blanket you like.
This will get you moving and outside smelling all those good tree pheromones.
12. Volunteer Somewhere Local to You
Donate your time to help someone else. You never know when volunteering for an organization you care about can lead to a job.
No ideas? Try an animal shelter. Many shelters need dog walkers, cage cleaners, cat/dog socializers, and even fostering. When people don’t understand how you feel, animals can bring great comfort.
If nothing else, you can feel the satisfaction of putting some good out there in the world. That something you did today matters.
13. Join/Create a Board or Card Game Night
Grab some friends or acquaintances and start a board or card game night. Try to make it a once a week or biweekly get-together.
This will give you something to do that doesn’t involve a screen, brings people together, and invites good conversation.
Inevitably, someone in your friend group already has a game or you can decide on one to learn together.
14. Seek Professional Help in Person or Online
If you just can’t shake post-trail depression or post-trail grief, please talk to someone. There are many resources to get help. Call or text 988 if you don’t know where to start.
Sometimes, the chemistry just gets off in your brain and medicine can help. Moreover, it’s not your fault that you feel this way.
15. Finding a New Purpose: Plan Your Next Thru-Hike
After you have started to eat clean, begun a new routine, you can plan your next thru-hike. Finding a new purpose can be daunting, especially after you’ve just learned all the skills to thru-hike. If you can’t find another long-term goal, pick another trail!
There are so many options out there. Yes, the triple crown is a fantastic goal. And yes, there are other worthy trails beyond it.
However, if you don’t have the budget to do back-to-back longer trails, try a 800 mile or less trail! Check out the Arizona Trail, Grand Enchantment Trail, Long Trail, or the Colorado Trail.
Before, they used to say, “You’re one and done or ruined for life.” I’m ruined for life and I’m ok with that.
If you feel lost after your thru-hike, work to create a new routine for yourself and find a new long-term goal. It’s ok to feel grief over completion of your life goals. However, it just means that you’re lucky enough to pick another large life goal.
Post-trail depression is real, but not everyone will feel or feel it in the same way. So, allow yourself space to carve out your new self-care routine.
Lastly, it’s ok to find a new purpose or ask for help.