Overcoming Post Trail Depression

By Theresa on Feb 04, 2017 01:14 am

I am not a medical professional.  The information provided here is for those dealing with mild to moderate depression symptoms that can accompany the end of a long distance hiking trip or other similar activity.  If you are suffering severe depression or having suicidal thoughts please seek medical help immediately.


What is Post Trail Depression?

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) describes clinical depression as a serious mood disorder that affects how you think, feel, and handle daily activities.  To be diagnosed with depression, your symptoms need to be present for at least two weeks.  Post trail depression (or post adventure depression as some call it) has generally the same symptoms as clinical depression and if you seek medical attention they will probably prescribe the same or similar treatment(s).

Anyone that has had a “Runner’s High” can definitely understand why that feeling is something to be sought after.  A similar feeling can be obtained during long distance hiking and your body will release endorphins to make you feel good mentally even though you feel physically like you’ve been hit by a truck.    If you take the average day on a long distance trail and look at the physical pain and hunger, no one would be able to sustain that if they weren’t being bombarded with serotonin and norepinephrine (and occasionally adrenaline when you see a snake or bear).

The following is a list of common symptoms of depression that should be taken seriously:

  • Feeling sad, anxious, or empty (nothing to look forward to)
  • Feeling  hopelessness, guilt, or worthlessness (especially if you did not complete your thru hike)
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities (your previous interests are no longer providing you happiness)
  • Fatigue (you will have some fatigue for awhile after the trail while your body is readjusting)
  • Slowed movements
  • Feeling restless (wanting to do things but not feeling up to the actual task)
  • Difficulty with decision making or concentrating
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much (keep in mind that you will have an adjustment period of excess sleep while your body is healing and getting back to normal)
  • Appetite change, weight gain, or weight loss (depending on how much weight you lost this may be a slight appetite change or ravenous)
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts (seek immediate medical help)
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause and/or that do not ease even with treatment


Be Prepared

The best way to handle post trail depression is to be prepared for it.  I was lucky enough to read the book “Appalachian Trials” by Zach Davis.  In his book he talks a lot about the mental struggles hikers will face on the trail and also when they return home.  I highly recommend this book to anyone that is considering a long distance hike.  Along with learning about these issues, it is helpful to let your support group know about post trail depression before you leave for your trip.  It is going to be hard for you to relate to non-hikers for a while after you return home.  Many hikers have supporting friends and family members that cheer them on while they are hiking, but after the hike is over they are left with a feeling of emptiness.  It can be hard to ask for help while you are going through a rough time, so try to establish that dialog before that time comes.

Talk to Other Hikers

While you were out on the trail there is a good chance that you met a ton of awesome people.  These are people that you are going to remember for the rest of your life.  Completing or attempting a long distance hike is no small feat, and you are going to share a special bond with those people.  Make sure that you find a way to keep in contact with them after the trail.  You can use email, Facebook, Instagram, phone calls, text messaging, or even snail mail.  It doesn’t really matter how you do it, just make sure you do.  Other hikers ended up being my saving grace for helping my post trail depression. I knew many of these other people were also in pain and somehow it is easier to feel that pain together.  Knowing that someone can empathize with you and you can with them is a great feeling.  My thru hike attempt was more about the amazing people I met while on the trail and ending that hike felt like I lost those friends forever.  I was so relieved when I was able to see some of them in person and speak to others on the phone.  Facebook (as much as everyone loves to hate it) does help keep a lot of us in contact.  If you do happen to meet someone on the trail and can not find their contact information, you will also have the Hiker Yearbook.  Matthew “Odie” Norman creates an Appalachian Trail thru hiker year book each year and many hikers chose to put their contact information in the index.  You can find him on Facebook or also at the Hiker Yearbook.

New Goals and Future Adventures

If you finished or attempted a thru hike congratulations!  You are an all around bad ass and you have gained a ton of knowledge and wisdom.  You may be thinking that you’ve had your fun and now its time to get back to real life.  I agree and disagree with this.  Don’t feel pressured by society to fit back in unless it is what you actually want to do.  If you want to work for a year and then go hike the PCT, then go for it.  If you want to find a job and start a family, then do what your heart tells you. The only one stopping you is you.  Jumping from one crazy adventure to the next can be perfect for some people and for others it can be overwhelming to their mental state and budget.  Do what ever is right for you, but make sure you set some goals (small or large) and seek to obtain them.  You may be happy with never hiking again or you may want to become a career long distance hiker, whatever your goal, make sure it makes you happy.

Other Recommendations

Here is a list of some things that have helped myself and other hikers after returning home.  Please feel free to add any other ideas you have in the comments section below.

  • FOOD – Watch what you eat, your body is going to be repairing itself, so make sure you feed it with lots of fruits, veggies, protein, and healthy fats
  • EXERCISE – You had been exercising every day on the trail and ramping up those endorphins.  Find some type of physical activity that will work for you.  You may not enjoy it at first, but after a week or two your body will start getting acclimated to it.
  • HOBBIES – Did you have a hobby before you left for your trip? Get back into it. Do something that you enjoyed in the past to help get your creative juices flowing again.
  • WORK – Some of you are going back to your originally jobs that you had before the trail and others are searching for new employment.  Either way, make sure you are enjoying your work.  I felt much more optimistic about my job after returning from my hike, mainly because I find more joy in the little things in life now.  Make sure that you can also find the small victories in whatever job you choose.
  • VOLUNTEER – If you find yourself with excess time on your hands why not volunteer?  If you are fortunate enough to live near a trail you may have the option of joining a trail maintenance group.  You could also use your new experience to help today’s youth (Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Boys and Girls Club).  The opportunities are endless when it comes to helping others.
  • TRAIL MAGIC – This is kind of considered volunteering, but as a hiker you know its so much more than that.  If you get the chance, find a way to give back to other hikers and the trail.  Plan a trip the next year and offer trail magic (food, rides, ect.).  If you are unable to be there physically you can offer a donation to a trail angel or hostel and help cover some of the expenses of another hiker.

I hope this helps at least one person out there.  I know there are a lot of articles already written about this subject, but hopefully the more we talk about it, the easier it will be for us to get through.

Thanks for reading and subscribing!



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