Thursday, September 29, 2016

Mental Aspect of Long Distance Hiking Explored – Part 2 After the Trail

Congratulations! You’ve finished the trail. You’ve completed the goal. You’ve basked in the glow of it all and the congratulations of others.

Then it hits. You are back in society. Back to the grind of a job, perhaps. Or there with no job and needing to pay bills. Back to society like a busy city. The simple life is gone. It’s so complicated and overwhelming. I yearn for trail life again.


I know, I‘ve been there. It’s already coming to light that there can be a certain stress syndrome involved with hikers leaving long distance trail life and returning home.  You can get depressed, anxious, nervous, moody. You can’t think, can’t sleep, can’t do multiple or complicated tasks. You try fitting back in but feel you are only on the outside looking in. You wonder what to do and really, how to live again.

So what can you do?

Realize that you will experience some kind of post trail stress after returning home. I dealt with a letdown – (lots of this is chemically induced that happens when engaged in high activity then suddenly crash when that activity ceases). I dealt with guilt for having been away from home and leaving my husband. I dealt with the guilt of not being able to do certain things, like multi-tasking. I was used to the simple life of a hiker with lots of exercise, plenty of sunshine, and limited decision-making. So give yourself a break and realize there’s going to be some adjustment involved, and it may take time. Have a plan BEFORE you hike is crucial so you aren’t overwhelmed when you return home. Especially if you need to make financial or life changing decisions. Limit those for now until you adapt back into society.

After two AT hikes, I turned to ridgerunning and speaking
Go on a diet post trail. Why should I? I look great. Not for long. Your metabolism will slow down and the pounds will start adding up quick. DO NOT eat what you did on the trail. You are no longer using up 4-6,000 calories and can therefore eat useless carbs. Stop now and eat lots of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and good types of protein. DO NOT eat a bunch of Snickers candy bars like you did on your hikes. The sugar alone can send you crashing and your mood crashing too. No potato mixes, Ramen, stuffing either. Eating healthy helps you feel better. Drink lots of water too. And skip the sugary drinks and alcohol.

Go on an exercise regimen. I started a running program. You need to do something aerobic. Don’t just stop everything. Your body will rebel. So will your mind. Start by some jogging. Or just walking. Walk everywhere. Keep walking and running if you can. If you can take a day hike at times, do it. But do not STOP exercising! Your body and mind need the chemicals exercise generates to help you feel better and sleep better. And you need the sunshine.

If you find you are not in sunshine a lot or its winter take some Vitamin D3. This will help ward off colds (it’s easy to get sick when you are home and around the public) and helps strengthen bones and the immune system.

Reconnect. Set up interviews (like town newspapers) and places to share about your hiking experiences. Write about them on trail journals. Or blog about them. Offer to speak about your journey so others can experience it. Become involved on social media in hiker forums to help others realize their hiking dreams. Concentrating on others rather than yourself helps lift your mood. Find a job having to do with your interests (I turned to ridgerunning and speaking). Be a part of a hiking group in your neighborhood. Or take kids hiking. We started a church youth group and took kids on lots of adventures. Get involved with scouts. Or become involved in trail maintenance. DO something and share about your experience with others! By all means stay in touch on line or by phone with other hikers and join in on an event that brings hikers together. Plan to attend Trail Days or other activities too. I also get involved more in praying and reading the Bible. I felt it helped me a lot by letting God give me the strength when I had none.

Be sure you reconnect with those you left behind. Be a part of their lives. You may have been on the trail for many months. I had get togethers with my friends and showed pictures of my hikes. I went and acted in a play with my husband and son to reconnect our family. Try some new but simple things that maybe
To reconnect in our family post hike, our family performed in a play 
you’ve never done. Avoid multi tasking. and work toward a new goal or dream. Resist the urge though to get out on another long distance hike right after the first. It may be tempting, but honestly, the problems will still be there when you return. Make the adjustment but keep goals for future hikes in mind.

If you find yourself overwhelmed, then by all means seek professional help like a counselor. You may need a little more doctoring afterwards, just like if we suffer a physical injury from too much stress. Stress can lead to mental injury that also needs doctoring. So seek help if things are just not working. Especially seek help if you are feeling like life is not worth living or at all contemplating ending your life – SEEK HELP! Please!    

Most importantly don’t be too hard on yourself. It takes time. Don’t set yourself up with tons of things to accomplish. I found I couldn’t multi-task for a while and told my husband that. Do one thing at a time and do that one thing well. You’ll start getting back into the groove of community living again. But it can take time, so don’t get discouraged. Cherish the great memories you had on the trail and look forward to making new ones.

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Peter Taylor said...

I have experienced similar feelings as you describe in your post. I always go on a week long fishing trip in August, where I stay in my tent next to the river, and backpack from one spot to the other. Life is easy and beautiful in this one week. I need to make simple decisions, and I can enjoy everything that comes my way. It is no surprise that getting back to the normal rat race is so hard after that week. I have to make business decisions, manage every minute of my time. These are two completely different states.
What I have found is that having a morning ritual, a sort of 'me time' helps a lot. Every morning I get up early, go on an hour long jog, while I cam take care of my inner peace, and just relax while the endorphines that get released in my body ensure that I start my day full of joy.
Great post, it was nice to read that other people experience the same thing I do after leaving nature behind.

claybonnyman said...

Thanks, Lauralee. I'm afraid that I came away from my AT (2016) and Colorado Trail (2015) thru-hikes feeling that the experiences utterly indict the kind of society we have created for ourselves. The "rat race," as mentioned by the commenter above, is something that *we* have created, and *we* perpetuate. It's tragic.

By the way, what was your trail name? Were you ridgerunning in 2016, and if so, where? Looking at your photo, I'm wondering if I met you at Bearfence Hut in '16. My trail name is Pony.

Thanks again for an insightful piece.