Mental health in extreme athletes: complications common to the thru-hiking community in post-trail life
Thru-hiking is, without a doubt, one of the pinnacles of personal achievement for anyone who succeeds. It often leads to some of the best and most memorable experiences in a person’s life.
However, reaching such heights of human experience must also, inevitably, involve walking back down that mountain — a feat that many find far more challenging than the accomplishment itself. Long-distance walking can become almost like an addiction: not only the daily endorphins, but the dramatic lifestyle changes and extreme minimalism.
A thru-hike is defined as the completion of a long trail (such as Te Araroa or the Appalachian Trail) in a period of 12 months or less. A thru-hiker will generally dedicate their life completely to such an attempt for 4–7 months, often leaving jobs or family behind to achieve their goal. Upon return, the hiker often has become removed from their previous life and must make a great many adjustments to find normality once more. Such withdrawal from a lifestyle is also found in other groups including professional and Olympian athletes, veterans, and even career professionals. This story will focus on thru-hikers in particular because it is a mostly-unaddressed population, and it is a community in which I myself am a member.
Although post-trail mental health is being discussed more frequently now than it was in the past, much more work is needed to address this topic. Therefore, I will present here a brief overview of the issues, several potential solutions, and discuss where we, as a trail community, might go from here.
First, let me define the problem. It’s sometimes called post-trail depression; but other, more specific terms may also apply. There is a rather poignant short story passed among thru-hikers authored by Kristin Marie; it’s a perfect metaphor for returning from a thru-hike and I will share it here in its entirety:
“Being a thru-hiker is like being a captive orca, born and raised in a tank at Sea World. One day you are put in one of those ocean pens, the big ones for orcas they want to try to rehabilitate and return to the wild. For the first time in your life, you’re in the ocean! You’re home and, while not completely free, you can sense how big and wild it is. You have room to move, room you never realized you lacked back in the tank. You live out there for five months, interacting with other orcas (also from Sea World) and other marine creatures. You can’t live fully free in the ocean because you would die out there; you have no idea how to survive totally on your own, but you can sense how vast it is, how amazing life would be if you were free. You feel so alive, no longer having to perform tricks for trainers and crammed in such a small, lifeless space.
Then, one day, you’re put back in the tank. And you suddenly realize that your entire life you’ve been captive, trained to perform tricks in a small, crowded tank devoid of life except for other captive orcas. The other orcas ask you how your trip was, what it was like. You have no idea how to describe what you experienced and no idea how to tell them what you know now. To tell them there is so much more to life outside the tank, that they are unwitting prisoners unable to live full lives like wild orcas. You’re depressed, but they tell you to get used to being back in the tank, that this is the REAL world and that pen in the ocean was just something fun you did that one time.
But you know. You felt the tides, met incredible creatures, and were no longer controlled by trainers. And every once in a while another orca comes back and you look at each other and wonder… How do we get out this tank? And how do we wake up the others?”
Causes of Post-Trail Depression
Although it doesn’t impact every thru-hiker, post-trail depression does appear to influence the lives of most in some way. How could it not? A thru-hiker returns home to a comparatively sedentary lifestyle, is exposed to less novelty and nature in their daily life, and spends that time around people who generally have little understanding of what the thru-hiker has just experienced. Moreover, some thru-hikers go from being purposefully homeless on the trail, yet perfectly at home, to being actually homeless after having sold everything they own. All of these things are a recipe for a bad mental state.
Perhaps the worst part of all this is that prospective thru-hikers appear to expect only the best during and after their thru-hike, then are subsequently blindsided by the reality. I performed an initial poll in two separate thru-hiking groups, the 2019 class one year after finishing and the 2021 class who were still in preparation for the next season, using around 50 people each. (I described the results in Appendix B of the book, under Preparation; but suffice it to say that the results were striking, it appears the vast majority of thru-hikers are heading onto the trail expecting no negative consequences to their life circumstances and mental health.) Completely in opposition to this, the poll of successful thru-hikers suggests that more than half are impacted, in some sense, by what we call post-trail depression. These preliminary data are discussed further in my book.
“If a person doesn’t want to re-engage at all in their life, they don’t want to do things that they previously enjoyed, they are isolating themselves from people, they don’t want to get a job, they are having suicidal thoughts, they’re coping with substance abuse, or if they’re feeling down, depressed or blue.” Listed as signs of depression after a thru-hike, written by Dr. Chidester
The only issue with the above is the overlap these signs have with long-sought-after forms of spiritual attainment (with the obvious exception of drugs and suicidal thoughts, which are real problems) including, most notably, the Buddhist tradition. I’m not going to spend time here explaining Buddhism’s long history with withdrawal from society and seeking happiness from within rather than from without. Instead, let me put it in terms the modern American thru-hiker likely understands all too well. Thru-hiking tends to strip one’s values down to their very core, we quickly learn what really matters in life and how little we need to be happy when we’re awash in simplicity and deprivation. Thru-hikers then spend the next several months living that truth, and for most, it’s among the best times of their life. Then they return and most are faced with the prospect of needing more money and more stuff to live a generally less fulfilling life than they had on the trail. They are required, in most cases, to work 40+ hours per week at jobs they probably don’t love. Granted, some find careers that give them everything they ever wanted. But that is just not the case for most in our society, and the rest are left just trying to get to the weekend so they can enjoy what little time they have left. This is not the path to happiness, and it’s made all the more obvious to those who have been through a massive mental and physical undertaking such as a thru-hike. Compounding this issue, thru-hikers may find the people they return to are often less than receptive. After all, you have just gotten back from the adventure of a lifetime, while the people back home have done little more than work that job.
“After hiking 20 miles per day, a cubicle can feel like a prison. After focusing on nothing but walking, the multitasking of various projects can feel overwhelming. After spending all day outside, the process of going from your home to your car to the office feels unnatural.” -Jennifer Pharr Davis
Beyond the social difficulties of returning from the trail, there is also a person detachment from who you were on trail. This phenomenon has been described by Dr. Anne Baker as post-trail grief. She defines thru-hiking as having a particular SPACE (Simplicity/Structure, Purpose, Adventure/Adversity, Community, Extreme Exercise/Endorphins) and suggests that this post-trail grief is caused by: “1) reluctance to let go of the trail SPACE that facilitated a valued way of being oneself, and 2) reluctance to stop being that version of oneself. Hikers deeply value who they are when they live in the present moment with purpose, community, effort, and openness to uncertainty.”
The grief caused by losing the trail, in addition to a part of the person who hiked it, is exacerbated by the inability to live life to its fullest in the way that was discovered while hiking. But another aspect to leaving the trail which also impacts all thru-hikers in one way or another, and it’s mentioned above in the discussion of “SPACE”; namely, the abrupt transition from the greatest physical shape you have experienced to a relatively sedentary lifestyle devoid of daily endorphin release. Endorphins, released from one’s own body during sustained physical activity, activate the same receptors as opioids and are responsible for the “runner’s high” that is shared among all extreme athletes, thru-hikers included. This daily influx of natural mood-lifting biochemicals is a major reason climbing mountains is so fun; however, most of us will sustain this “habit” for several months before stopping cold turkey. Even if you try to replace long-distance hiking with other forms of physical activity, every thru-hiker knows that nothing compares.
Caloric intake and expenditure is a secondary, but no less impactful, biological change that takes place after leaving the trail. After spending months taking in two or three times the normal daily caloric requirement, we abruptly stop using those calories while our body is still giving off signals to eat more and more. In many thru-hikers, this results in post-trail weight gain. I was lucky to avoid the weight gain, my metabolism has always been something of an anomaly; nonetheless, I did experience the withdrawal of endorphins like everyone else.
“I did not expect it to last quite so long or be this rough…Right now I’m questioning whether I’m actually better off for having done it, but I know that once I’m through this part in the end it will have been one of the most incredible experiences of my life.” -Stormchaser
Such experiences are not completely without precedent; in fact, very similar causes and outcomes can be observed in two other groups as well, 1. retired professional or college athletes and, 2. retired military veterans. Both of these groups experience long periods of vigorous physical activity, simplicity, and varying degrees of veneration among the population. Upon retiring, they, like thru-hikers, may face grief at the loss of who they were on either the playing field or the battlefield, a loss of simplicity and direction, and trouble integrating into society at large when their experiences are so unique, vivid, and potentially life-altering. This is not to say that all athletes and veterans face depression, clearly nor do all thru-hikers; but it is to say that chances of depression are increased in these populations. There are far more studies in these populations from which our community may draw insight; if you would like to dig deeper you might start with “The effect of depression on the association between military service and life satisfaction” by Britton, Ouimette, and Bossarte 2016, or “Susceptibility for Depression in Current and Retired Student-Athletes” by Weigand, Cohen, and Merenstein 2013.
In summary, it appears that post-trail depression is a combination of social estrangement, personal grief in response to a loss of self and state of being, and biochemical withdrawal. Once we start to nail down some of the causes, we can then start to find solutions.
Potential solutions and insights extrapolated from other extreme athletes
How can a thru-hiker avoid, or diminish, the symptoms of post-trail depression while also integrating the insights gained from life on trail? There are a few suggestions from the literature, or from other thru-hikers, and I will share my own as well.
First, I strongly suggest you start thinking about it early (if you are a prospective thru-hiker). I’m not saying don’t go if you don’t have a plan, the trail provides plenty of time to think; but you should address the possibility that immediately returning to work will diminish your happiness and lead you towards post-trail depression. Know that the trail will cause changes in perspective, if nothing else; but the changes will come.
Optimally, you would form a plan that allows time after the trail to mentally digest what you just accomplished, to form some clear takeaway messages for yourself to live by, then find a way to integrate what you have learned on the trail back into your post-trail life. Establish healthy habits using those perspectives formed on the trail, before broader societal influences and forces your back into the rat race way of thinking. Integrating the experience, rather than disassociating from your trail self, provides more meaning to the thru-hike itself but also more satisfaction in daily life off the trail.
Stay connected to the thru-hiking community; both the specific people with whom you hiked, and the trail community at large. Staying connected was easy when I had shared the experience with my partner, and we were almost immediately thrust into the next set of challenges. These aspects of post-trail life, staying connected to the community and setting new challenges, were discussed extensively in “Appalachian Trials” by Zach Davis — a book well worth reading (as I did prior to my own thru-hike).
This idea of having the next goal ready to go is certainly a good one; however, I had plenty of post-trail plans and still found myself lacking the motivation to start most of them for almost a year. I had everything going for me when I left the trail, subsequently got engaged, and yet I was still affected by a loss of creative motivation until I started writing my book. Some of this was clearly due to a global pandemic and extreme political upheaval, but not all of it. The notes for my book, which I was so excited to write when I was on the trail, sat on my desktop for a full year before I started in earnest. One thing I know for sure, the trail gave me mental freedom and adaptability than I ever had before. Even so, it was difficult to sustain after the hike was over.
The loss of a sense of self, or detachment from our trail name and persona, is also a widely reported effect of finishing a thru-hike and returning to “normal” life. Dr. Anne Baker’s work focuses primarily on this grief aspect, and on the loss of identity; or in other words, the loss of who you were on the trail. To address this loss she suggests bringing who you were on the trail back home with you; finding who you were in the trail SPACE, and determining how that version of you fits into normal life back home.
“The key isn’t to find a way to go back to the trail, to recreate what you had. The key is to take what you had, and bring it in your everyday life. Do so, and you’ll find that life beyond the trail can be just as exciting and fulfilling as life back on it.” -Seeker
This idea of grief being a major component of post-trail depression is incredibly insightful; but the other causes are no less impactful, even if they are below the level of cognition. The aspect which I would find most interesting to probe further is that of addiction. Chilly and I both were perhaps more impacted by the sudden withdrawal from endorphins, due to significantly reduced physical activity, as well as being removed from natural environments more generally — thrust instead into apartment buildings in areas devoid of mountains. Our post-trail slump more closely modeled that of withdrawal than of grief.
To this point, you should have a plan in place to wean yourself off of daily endorphins, rather than going cold turkey. Keep in mind that running daily is very different from hiking daily; don’t give yourself an injury chasing the runner’s high. That being said, do something that will boost endorphins at least a little bit, and do it frequently.
A major message I want you to see in this section is that it can happen to anyone, it does happen to many, and thru-hiker hopefuls should know that it’s a possibility for them too. The exact effects will vary from hiker to hiker, but almost all are likely to feel the endorphin withdrawal at the very least. Having a plan in place before finishing the trail, and putting it into action immediately after the trail, should be a higher priority than attempting to fit back into work culture and other societal norms. Make sure to focus on yourself first, integrate the trail self with the non-trail self, and do your best to continue living the best possible life complete with all the insights gained from your grand adventure.
What’s next? If all else fails, take heart in the fact that almost everything is a matter of perspective. Flip your perspective on its head and find new purpose as Mr. Fuller did in this short tale:
“Instead of ending his life, Fuller decided to live from then on as if he had died that night. Being dead, he wouldn’t have to worry about how things worked out any longer for himself personally and would be free to devote himself to living as a representative of the universe. The rest of his life would be a gift. Instead of living for himself, he would devote himself to asking, ‘what is it on this planet that needs doing that I know something about, that probably won’t happen unless I take responsibility for it?’ He decided he would just ask that question continuously and do what came to him, following his nose. In this way, working for humanity as an employee of the universe at large, you get to modify and contribute to your locale by who you are, how you are, and what you do. But it’s no longer personal. It’s just part of the totality of the universe expressing itself.” -Jon Kabat-Zinn
Each year more and more people attempt to thru-hike long trails around the world. Almost all of them are likely to approach these great endeavors with bright eyes and bushy tails. It’s really quite beautiful. This hope, and the unique, life-altering nature of this adventure creates one of the most vibrant and free-spirited communities on the planet. I’m honored to be considered a member.