Introduction: An Exploration of Post-Trail Feelings
My 2018 walk along the Pacific Crest Trail was my first attempt at a thru-hike, or any long-distance trek for that matter, but I already knew what awaited me at the end of whatever portion of the trail I was able to complete.
Post-Trail Depression is a well-established phenomenon within the thru-hiking community, one that is introduced like some large specter looming over the entire process, just waiting to suck up all your joy in its vacuum and suffocate your simple contentedness with its weight.
“You’ll come back and never be the same againnn,” a ghostly voice haunts from the forums of the internet, “No one will understand youuu. Normal life will be disappointinggg and the more time passes the less you’ll feel connected to your experiennnce. Wooooohhhh.”
It is true that the transition from a thru-hiking lifestyle to a conventional one can be something between jarring and soul-crushing. When I got off the Pacific Crest Trail, for example, I went from spending six months living primarily in a tent, in the woods, mostly alone, jobless, and walking for 8 to 12 hours a day to living in a house in Dallas, Texas with three roommates, suddenly searching for a job and surrounded by the sloth-enabling temptations of a car and a television and couches.
Any major transition from one very specific style of living to another will present challenges, and with a lifestyle as full of healthy elements as thru-hiking - sense of purpose, constant strenuous activity, being embedded in a community, spending time in nature - it tracks that a lot of people come out on the other side of such an adventure to experience a physical and emotional crash of epic proportions. Enough people to coin a term like “post-trail depression.”
In reality, it’s a lot more complicated than that. As a person who’s interacted at various degrees with actual depression, I struggle with the term. Many of us experience something akin to depression after coming off trail. I Googled the symptoms for Major Depression and recognize more than a few of them from the months immediately following my return to Dallas: anxiety, apathy, general discontent, loss of interest or pleasure in activities, mood swings, sadness, agitation, excessive crying, irritability, restlessness, social isolation, excessive hunger, fatigue… The list does go on, but you get the point.
So life after a long hike can look a lot like depression. But to call it that is an oversimplification of a complex issue and an unnecessarily broad umbrella for the nuanced and diverse experiences hikers have on trail and after. Some hikers return from the trail to a situation similar to the one they left and are faced with reconciling the lessons they learned in the woods with the expectations of a society that doesn’t understand. Some completely alter the courses of their lives after experiencing such a profoundly different way of being, finding newfound power to tap into great joy and freedom and confidence to live how they see fit. For some, it’s a combination of the two. No two lives are the same. No two hikes are the same. No two returns from a hike look the same, and to view them all through the lens of depression is not enough.
I wanted to understand the transition out of a thru-hike from different hikers’ perspectives, and I wanted to reframe the concept to account for the multitude of often contradicting emotions and experiences we go through after coming off a long trail.
So I surveyed nine 2018 hikers about their experiences post trail. I called it Post-Trail Feelings.
I sat on these survey results for a long time, procrastinating mostly, but also just trying to decide what to do with them. I could write a story with the best tidbits from all of them, but as I read through the results I realized how unique and worth sharing everyone’s perspectives were.
As we approach the tail-end of hiking season for 2019 (Northbounders are done, Southbounders are finishing up), it felt like a good time to share the insights I gathered with you all.
In a series of posts, I’ll go through all the responses I received, question by question, and throw in a little of my own take on each topic.
First, here are the questions I posed my fellow hikers:
What "level" of thru-hiking are you at?
Completed one thru-hike
Attempted one thru-hike but didn't complete it
Completed/attempted more than one thru-hike
How long ago was the end of your most recent thru-hike / thru-hike attempt?
Did your hike go the way you expected it to? Were you pleased with the way it turned out? Why/why not?
How are you spending your free time post trail?
How are you feeling, generally?
How did you feel immediately after you got off the trail (most recent trail, if you've done multiple)?
What, if anything, has changed for you from before you started thru-hiking to now?
Did you come back to a similar life situation (location, job, mindset, whatever) to the one you left when you went to hike? If it's different, to what extent?
What about all those "luxuries" you didn't have on the trail that you likely have now? Kitchen, flushing toilet, bed, all the clothes and things... Are they appreciated more than ever? A nuisance? Too much?
Has your trail experience led you to make any big changes in the way you live your life off trail?
If you've resumed a somewhat "normal" life in society, do you feel like you "fit?" Do you care?
Did you have/are you currently feeling culture shock?
How is your thru-hiking experience showing itself in your daily life? Do you think/talk about it constantly and integrate the lessons you learned on trail into your conventional life? Do you block it out? Mixture of both?
Can you give any specific examples or stories of a lesson you learned on trail that has translated to how you live your life off trail or has helped you in the mental/physical process of transitioning back?
Describe the level of connectedness you currently feel to the trail(s) you hiked and the people you hiked with/around.
Do you have people you can talk to about your experience beyond the realm of social media? Do you feel like these people are engaged with it/can empathize/understand at some level what you experienced/are experiencing?
What do you think about the term "post-trail depression?" Does it adequately describe your post-trail experience? How does it apply/not apply to you?
What do you do when you feel those post-trail feelings, positive or negative?
When you feel down, what helps?
What is good about life post trail?
You did a thing very, very, very few people ever actually do. How do you feel about that?
Are you able to connect with other hikers in the real world at all?
How has social media affected your post-trail experience?
Will you thru-hike again? Any Triple Crown aspirations? Other adventures sparked by your thru that have nothing to do with hiking?
Any advice for future thru hikers as far as transitioning to life off trail?
Anything else you want to say on the topic? Or off the topic?
My hope is for this series to be a source of perspective and inspiration for people who have just finished up a stint on a long trail, for those with thru-hikes further back in their pasts, those planning long hikes for the future, and people who never plan on thru-hiking but are interested in the phenomenon and the people who do it.
I hope you will see yourself in these responses, as I saw myself in them.