Heather Anderson Talks Mental Health and the Trail
By: Heather “Anish” Anderson
“The bliss of hiking for weeks or months will inevitably end. Whether at the completion of the trail or due to other constraints, you will stop walking and you will go home. It is said that long-distance hiking is a great metaphor for life, with all its ups and downs. But I have always felt that it most poignantly mirrors life in this aspect: it ends. And, just as we spend very little time considering the inevitability of our own death, long-distance hikers are often underprepared for their journey to end and the myriad repercussions that follow.”
—Excerpted from Adventure Ready: A Hiker’s Guide to Planning, Training, and Resiliency
I completed my first thru-hike in 2003… and haven’t stopped since. Depending on what criteria you use to define thru-hiking, I’ve completed at least 15—including being the only woman to complete the Triple Crown three times.
I think we can all agree that the time we spend hiking and the feeling of joy when we achieve something as huge as completing a thru-hike is a part of why we do it. But there’s a flip-side to this that is seldom discussed.
That’s the period of blues or depression that frequently follows the completion of a long journey. Earlier this month on the Gossamer Gear blog, several ambassadors shared their experiences with the post-hike depression that often follows a thru-hike.
As a repeat thru-hiker, one of the questions I get—asked one-on-one, quietly, and shyly—is if I still have post-hike depression. The answer is yes… and no. A depressive period following a huge endeavor is absolutely guaranteed, at least on a biological level. After months of your circadian rhythm being in sync with the sun, hours a day spent exercising, and unlimited fresh air and clean water, your body, hormones, and nervous systems are going to be upset by a transition to sitting on a couch indoors with artificial lights. I still experience this.
Yet, there is another aspect of post-hike blues that goes beyond the biological shifts. I personally believe it is closely related to grief. Many hikers grieve the end of the journey, the end of a new persona they discovered within themselves, the fresh start and freedom they tasted. It is also common to feel extreme distress at the lifestyle and relationships they come home to. All of these factors vary significantly by individual. The intensity of the dissonance, combined with the biological components is exceedingly disparate. I know of hikers who could not cope and took their lives. I also know hikers who adjust fairly seamlessly once their hormones balance out.
The reality is, there is a transitory period that follows a thru-hike (and this includes incomplete thru-hikes) that is seldom talked about, just like other mental illnesses. As a community of hikers, we must destigmatize this nearly universal experience.
In 2019, I moved from being a hiker, to a hiker and an author when my first book was released; Thirst: 2,600 Miles to Home. This book was the memoir of my 2013 Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike. As I wrote the final chapter, I knew I did not want to end the book at the northern terminus. Though it seems to be the logical ending, especially for a success story, I was adamant that the period that follows be included. Thus, the epilogue of that book reveals the rollercoaster of emotions that followed my hike.
My second book, Mud, Rocks, Blazes: Letting Go on the Appalachian Trail, picks up where Thirst left off. I’m sure that most writers would just jump to the start of the next adventure; in this case, my 2015 AT thru-hike that is the meat and potatoes of the book. However, without enough out there about the mental and emotional fall-out of thru-hiking, I chose to not gloss over the interim period of those two hikes. That period of my life was fraught with a lot of cognitive dissonance, imposter syndrome, grief, and sadness. I longed for the trail itself and I dearly missed who I was on the trail.
Over and over through my online presence, my speaking career, and now my writing career, I have chosen to be vulnerable about the emotional and mental aspects of the journey. It’s not the easiest thing to do, but just as most hikers deal with blisters and post about them (which is far more gnarly to stumble onto accidentally on Instagram!), most deal with mental health issues following their trail experiences. It is my hope that we normalize talking about that aspect of our hiking health just as we do blisters and sprained ankles.
Just over a year ago, my publisher reached out to me about the possibility of following up my two memoirs with a prescriptive guide to long-distance hiking. My co-author, Katie Gerber, and I leapt at the opportunity. We wanted to create a guide that would cover every aspect of the long-haul adventure. This meant including more than just how to choose a backpack and pack a resupply box (although we cover that too).
It meant diving into the things that most people don’t discuss, like nutrition and, yes, the mental aspects of the journey.
We wrote Adventure Ready to help people prepare for their hike—logistically, physically, and mentally. But beyond that, we wanted to cover post-trail aspects as well. Because the journey doesn’t end at the terminus. It ends with the universal challenge of coming home.
For anyone who is struggling, I want you to remember that the joy of the terminus ends, but the beauty of the experience stays with you forever. Learning how to create space for the grief while cherishing the memories is crucial to post-hike mental health. If you feel alone in this, you are not. Find members of your tramily or other thru-hikers you respect and talk to them about it. It may feel embarrassing, or uncomfortable, but I guarantee they have felt it too.
One of the things I most love about thru-hiking is the community. People of varying walks of life, ages, and means come together in search of a shared goal: the opposite terminus. This community extends far beyond the bounds of the narrow thread of trail we walked together into the life we live influenced by that experience. It is my hope that this community continues to share and support the mental aspects entwined with our common experiences so that no thru-hiker has to go through this part of the journey alone like I did after my first hike in 2003.
Heather Anderson is a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, three-time Triple Crown thru-hiker, and professional speaker whose mission is to inspire others to “Dream Big, Be Courageous.” She is the author of two hiking memoirs Thirst: 2,600 Miles to Home and Mud, Rocks, Blazes: Letting Go on the Appalachian Trail, as well as a preparatory guide to long-distance hiking, Adventure Ready. Find her on Instagram @_WordsFromTheWild_ or her website wordsfromthewild.net.