Post-Trail Depression: You're Not Alone and There’s Help
I remember the first time I finished a week-long canoe trip in Everglades National Park. So quickly, I went from calm twisting channels through backcountry mangroves to a hotel room on a busy boulevard. And from there, it was back to office life in Washington, D.C., as if what I’d found in the wilderness hadn’t even existed. I fell into a bit of a slump when I got home. Friends’ invitations to happy hours and metro rides to air conditioned buildings left me feeling out of place. It had only been a seven-day trip, but it had changed my sense of identity, and that shift was jarring.
When thru-hikers return from the trail, they’ve been in the natural world, moving at different kind of pace, often for months at a time. The sudden end of their trip can be hard to grapple with and it’s not uncommon for thru-hikers to face post-trail depression as a result.
Whether you spend a week or half a year in the wilderness, we’re all susceptible to post-trail depression. And if we experience it, it’s important to remember that we’re not alone and that there are strategies we can use to start feeling better—including reaching out to friends and professional help when we need it.
In this article, we chatted with members of our Gossamer Gear community to gain insight from their experiences with post-trail depression and how they moved through it. You’ll find their own words woven throughout this piece. With their first-hand wisdom, we cover:
- What is post-trail depression?
- Common causes of post-trail depression
- Tips for alleviating your post-trail depression
What Is Post-Trail Depression?
Post-trail depression is an experience many thru-hikers and other outdoor adventurers have upon completing their trips. Its symptoms can vary individual to individual, but may include increased anxiety, loss of motivation, irritation, malaise, despair, changes in sleep or appetite, decreased self-esteem, and loneliness. Acute cases can even be associated with suicidal thoughts or attempts—if this is the case for you, please reach out for support, such as calling the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255 or connecting with a professional through Lifeline Chat.
“After a long hike, I often feel lethargic and lacking a long-term goal. I've been lucky to realize it quickly, so I never have had any actual post-hike blues or depression, but more so a longing for that goal or adventure that I had.” —Steven “Twinkle” Shattuck, Brand Ambassador
Post-trail depression is a common experience after completing what are often life-changing journeys in the outdoors. It is important to remember that you’re not alone in this experience; there are other people who understand what it’s like to go through it. It’s also important to remember that your experience might look differently than others, but that doesn’t make yours any less valid. Whether your post-trail depression is severely impacting your daily activities or simply making you feel a bit more blue when you’re back at your day job, you deserve to be seen and supported.
“After I hiked the PCT in 2018, I was a mixed bag of emotions. Immediately afterwards, I was so fulfilled and happy. I was definitely basking in my accomplishment, and it felt so funny to me to be back in public, looking like a normal person (rather than clearly looking like hiker trash), and nobody knowing what I had just done. It was like my own little secret that I kept from society at large.
I went back to working at REI, and obviously had a lot of personal experience to share with customers and fellow employees. Sometimes that was great, but sometimes it just made me miss the trail even more. Especially when I had to answer some mundane and pointedly sexist questions over and over and over again. I wanted to escape from a society that just didn’t get it.In fact, I wrote this blurb that I’ve kept private up until now: ‘I’m not doing well. I feel so disconnected from everyone around me, and from the trail. I’m in a limbo between my previous life, where I didn’t feel like I was really living or cared for it, and was dreaming about the PCT, and the life I was naïve enough to think would exist after the PCT. Some sort of enlightened life where I knew what I was doing, and happy about it. I hiked from Mexico to Canada and it still doesn’t feel like it, and I don’t feel like I’ve brought back any lessons from it, and I don’t even want to talk about it to people because they just don’t understand.’” —Emily “Squishy” Schrick, Brand Ambassador
Causes of Post-Trail Depression
Different aspects of finishing a major outdoor adventure impact people in different ways. Additionally, your specific life situations can exacerbate feelings of post-trail depression.
“I finished the trail on September 25 and wrote [the journal entry from the previous section] on December 27. It took a long time to get over it, which was exacerbated by that fact that a friend of mine was murdered by her partner at the end of January. It was a dark winter.
But this friend was proud of me and my hike. She was a mentor—a new resident physician after graduating from medical school. I would ask her all sorts of questions when I was in college and afterwards about med school and she always kept tabs on me. She sent me encouraging messages every so often while I was on the trail. She was getting more into backpacking, too. In fact, I saw that she took her first solo backpacking trip that same summer, and I couldn’t wait to talk about it with her more. Never getting the chance to talk to her about my hike was saddening: she was one of the only people in my ‘former life’ who seemed to actually understand why someone would do a thru-hike. Maybe I’m wrong about that judgment, but I just think that backpackers ‘get it’ more than non-backpackers.” —Emily “Squishy” Schrick, Brand Ambassador
Some of the common causes of post-trail depression include:
- Finishing a big goal that many people in your life may not understand. It can be challenging to put into words what you went through. Your multi-day trip covered many peaks, valleys, and plateaus that even you may still be processing. The pressure of trying to summarize this to someone who doesn’t seem like they could ever grasp it is hard.
- Returning to limited financial resources and uncertain housing. Before beginning their hikes, many thru-hikers quit their jobs, end their leases, or make other big life changes that impact their finances and access to shelter. Figuring out how to regain your housing and financial footing upon leaving the trail, as well as potentially figuring out where you actually want to live, is stressful.
- Changes in daily physical activity. Thru-hikers go from hiking nearly every day to having fewer clear reasons to continue to exercise. This can cause a crash in endorphins that have thus far been fueled by your daily activity.
- Completing hikes when the season is changing to winter. Many thru-hikers finish their journeys when the seasons are changing from summer to fall and winter. Seasonal depression is already a challenge for many and the colder, darker months can make it harder to get outside to regain a sense of your trail identity.
- Incongruence between the life you left and your new identity. It’s not uncommon for outdoor trips to change your views and how you relate to the world. When thru-hikers return from their trips, they may find that their old lives don’t fit with how they feel now. This can be disorienting or even alarming for many, and it can be hard to see what to do next.
- Confronting “real world” woes. Trail time allows many to disconnect from big issues going on in the world, such as climate change, noise pollution, homelessness, politics—you name it. Being flooded with the 24-hour news cycle again can be too much for some. A simpler life on the trail can also make topics like over-consumption and waste feel even more potent.
- Thinking moves from the day-to-day to larger existential questions. Some may enjoy their time on trail as a way to be more present. Each day has a simple goal: make your mileage, eat, set up camp, repeat. Off-trail, your thoughts may shift from your moment-to-moment experience to larger questions about what you want to do with your career, how your relationship is going, or any number of daily frets.
12 Tips for Alleviating Post-Trail Depression
Christine Haffner, a part of the wider Gossamer Gear community and a thru-hiker, wrote a post for her blog about post-trail depression. It quickly became her most-read piece, which shows that hikers are hungry for connection and understanding when it comes to this topic.
Below, we offer 12 tips for moving through your post-trail depression, including many from Christine herself. Not all of these will work for you personally. But try them out, see what helps, and leave the rest. If you find that none of them are helping you feel any better, then it’s time to reach out for professional support to help you get through this.
1. Know that it’s coming and prepare in advance.
If you’re preparing for a thru-hike, take note of this post-trail phenomenon now. Read up on how you can set yourself up for a softer landing when your hike ends. As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Our own brand ambassador Heather “Anish” Anderson is publishing a book in June 2022 called Adventure Ready: A Hiker’s Guide to Planning, Training, & Resiliency that dedicates an entire chapter to mental and emotional preparation, as well as one for reintegration.
“Being a type A planner, it has always helped me to move on to the next thing I'm excited about. For me, it didn't have to be another huge hike. I think it helps a lot to have interests that are not just LONG hikes, but rather find other activities that fulfill that need to push your body and feel strong. Skiing, trail running, canyoneering, or mountaineering have all been great ways to keep up the endorphins and continue planning the next big thing, be it a summit of Mount Rainier, or a three-day weekend in the canyons. Little adventures like this fuel me just as much as a long trail. I highly encourage thru-hikers to find other outlets, as it's not always possible to be on a long trail. Find ways to incorporate the outdoors and adventure into your life back at home, as well, in whatever form that takes.” —Steven “Twinkle” Shattuck, Brand Ambassador
2. Try a gratitude practice.
When you’re feeling down, remember the ways that the trail helped you and how this part of your life might be the trail still helping you grow into your next chapter. It’s hard right now, but it will get better. Try listing the things off-trail that you’re grateful for, too.
“I console myself by remembering that thru-hiking has truly made me a better person. I try to be thankful for the things I have: running water, a bed (yes, I am now the proud owner of a bed), heating, my sonic toothbrush, and a kitchen full of food. I try as much as possible not to take these things for granted.” —Christine Haffner
3. Keep exercising.
Exercise is a key way to move through stress cycles and increase your feel-good hormones. You may not be hiking double-digit miles every day post-trail, but find ways to keep your body moving and your blood pumping.
“When you’re hiking, your brain will be used to high endorphin levels from all the exercise. The word ‘endorphins’ comes from ‘endogenous morphine,’ which means a morphine-like substance produced by the body. Their effect is to lessen pain and produce a euphoric effect, much like that of morphine. By going from hiking many miles every day to sitting on the couch, you’re effectively taking a morphine addict and putting them in rehab. I believe this is one of the biggest reasons for post-trail depression, and why it is so widespread. My best suggestion is to continue exercising as much as possible. Many hikers pick up running after their hikes, and this is what I decided to do after my first thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail.” —Christine Haffner
4. Remember people mean well.
People will want to ask you about your trip. They’ll want you to tell it to them in a tidy summary and they’ll tell you how great that is and how impressed they are, even if you don’t feel like they truly understand your story. This can be hard and frustrating. Try to remember that they mean well, even if you can’t connect with them like you’d like to. Also, you are the owner of your story. If you don’t want to talk about it with someone, you don’t have to.
“When you get back to ‘real life,’ people will ask you about your hike, but you’ll find that they don’t actually want to know what your hike was like, they just want you to sum it up in about one sentence. That’s like asking someone to sum up their career or their childhood in one sentence. ‘How was your hike?’ they’ll ask. Just remember that they mean well. My response is usually just to say ‘it was good,’ and leave it at that unless they want to start asking for more details.
Most people will be impressed by your hike, but you know that they have no actual concept of what you’ve just done. They would have been just as impressed if you had hiked only 100 miles. Even after two thru-hikes, I can’t really visualize 2,500 miles!” —Christine Haffner
5. Seek out the community and connection you need.
Not everyone will understand your experience, but some will. You don’t need to let go of your trail family just because your hike is over. Connect with your trail friends and find other backpackers and outdoor enthusiasts who can listen and provide the connection you seek.
“Friends helped. Calling my trail friends on the phone and messaging them on Instagram helped with the connection piece. Even though I felt more removed from society at large, I felt even more connected to the thru-hiking subculture. Being able to reminisce with the people who also experienced that was therapeutic.” —Emily “Squishy” Schrick, Brand Ambassador
6. Set daily goals.
To mimic the easy everyday goals you had while on the trail, look for ways you can view your off-trail days in a similar way. While it may not be hiking 20 miles, you can still find a singular goal for your day to work towards and establish a new routine.
“I try to set goals for myself—even small ones or silly ones. Every day on the trail is a day with a goal. You have a goal for the day, and a larger goal for your journey. I try to incorporate some of these same ideas into my life. It can be through exercise (maybe sign up for a half or full marathon?), or saving money, or your diet, or goals within your job. And don’t be bummed if you don’t have one of those yet.” —Christine Haffner
7. Find new interests and obsessions.
Since you can’t always be on a long trail, try out new hobbies, plan smaller trips, and otherwise engage in what could be your next obsession. Expanding your interests helps widen the aperture of what’s possible for you now that you’re off-trail.
“Find activities that fulfill you that are NOT long distance thru-hiking to keep you motivated, fulfilled, and, ultimately, happy between long adventures. Explore your local trails, make lists of nearby mountains you want to see from the top, or lakes you would like to visit. It could be anything, but keeping goals in mind is a great way for me to stay motivated and excited after a long distance hike. It's great you finished the hike, a huge accomplishment. Now move on and get to the next thing.” —Steven “Twinkle” Shattuck, Brand Ambassador
8. Remember you can return to the trail.
The trail will always be there for you if you need to return to it. And this goes beyond the one you just finished hiking. Finding new trails and easy access to nature areas near you can provide great solace when you need a break from civilization again.
“I didn’t get outside too much right after the trail. It was a cold and rainy fall and winter, and in the fall I didn’t really feel like hiking. And I jumped right back into working full-time, dealing with the retail holiday rush, working inconsistent hours. But I do think that the sudden switch from living in nature to going back to something that I truly didn’t really care for (retail) and not attempting to go on day hikes or trips really impacted my mind and spirit. Once I started going out more frequently in the next year, hiking more, and planning more backpacking trips for the next summer, I was feeling a little better. I was still lost and not really sure what direction I wanted to take my life in (and I still don’t know!), but I knew that being outside and backpacking made me really happy, so I just tried to continue doing that as much as I could.” —Emily “Squishy” Schrick, Brand Ambassador
9. Write about it.
Writing down your trail stories, whether you choose to share them with others or not, is a therapeutic act. It can help you work through your emotions, reminisce, and capture memories and lessons that are important to you.
“Writing blog posts about my hike was also really helpful. It solidified good memories, and gave me an outlet to talk about whatever I wanted to talk about: if my friends and family didn’t get it, maybe the outdoor internet scene would. And even if no one read it, the reflection I was able to accomplish by way of writing was significant.” —Emily “Squishy” Schrick, Brand Ambassador
10. Start a meditation practice.
Hiking every day becomes its own walking meditation. You may find your worries subside while on trail when your daily tasks become much simpler than in the “real world.” Help yourself maintain equanimity through a daily meditation practice. Apps like Insight Timer, Calm, or Headspace can help.
11. Give back to the trail.
One way to find purpose post-trail is to give back to the trail. Look into ways you can volunteer on trail rehabilitation projects or otherwise promote and protect the trails that mean the most to you.
12. Seek professional help.
There is no shame in seeking help. If your post-trail depression is keeping you from managing or enjoying your daily activities, please reach out for support. You can find a therapist locally or connect with one through online services like BetterHelp.
And if you’re feeling suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255 or connect with a professional through Lifeline Chat. We need you here.
When It Comes to Post-Trail Depression, Remember You’re Not Alone and It Will Get Better
Post-trail depression is a common experience. Knowing its causes can help you prepare for it and implement some of the strategies that can ease the pain and allow you to return to yourself. Remember to reach out for support. There are others out there who have been through it, too, and want to help you carry that weight.
Have additional tips on how to ease post-trail depression? Help us uplift our community by sharing them with us by tagging Gossamer Gear on social media (@gossamergear) and using the hashtag #takelessdomore.