As a triple Triple-Crowner (someone who’s hiked America’s three longest trails three times each), Heather “Anish” Anderson has more experience prepping for long hikes than just about any woman in America. The flip side of that experience? She’s repeatedly had to navigate a lesser-acknowledged difficulty of thru-hike planning: coming home.
Understanding the Post-Hike Blues
“I would say the vast majority—maybe 90 percent or more of long-distance hikers—go through a depressive phase after their hike,” explains Anderson (she/her). The reason for that downturn? The shift back to real life comes with major physical changes that affect your brain chemistry, she says. You’re switching from a high-exercise lifestyle that follows the natural cycle of the sun, to a sedentary, indoor routine. It’s common to feel a little down as your hormones and circadian rhythms readjust, says Anderson.
“But there’s also a psychological side,” she adds. “You’re in part grieving the loss of this experience, and you’re also trying to fit back into a life you put on hold when you left.” Most people come back from the trail with new opinions, priorities, and outlook on life.
When Anderson completed her first thru-hike (the Appalachian Trail in 2003), for example, she was at a pivotal point in her life. She’d just graduated college, set out on this big journey, and grew a lot in the time she was away. Moving back in with her parents after the hike wasn’t easy.
“I had been working single-mindedly toward one goal for a really long time,” she says. “Coming home, I was depressed and aimless. I didn’t know what I wanted to do next.”
The Critical Recovery Window
Many people finish a long trail feeling strong—and afraid of losing that trail fitness. So, they jump into hiking, running, or another high-intensity sport right away. While exercise can help ease post-hike transitions, Anderson says it’s important to give yourself some downtime first.
“I know people who will run a marathon right after they finish a thru-hike, but those people usually get injured,” she says by way of example. “They hike the whole Pacific Crest Trail without injuries and then run a marathon and hurt themselves.”
During a thru-hike, your muscles and tendons accumulate micro-tears. To keep them from turning into full-on injuries, complete rest is critical. Here are Anderson’s tips:
- Take at least two weeks off from high-intensity exercise after your hike.
- Try to limit caffeine consumption to allow your body to rest naturally.
- Expose yourself to daylight first thing in the morning to help you wake up.
- Limit exposure to blue light 1 to 2 hours before bed to facilitate better sleep.
- Don’t restrict calories; your body likely needs to regain some weight to be healthy.
- Switch from your trail diet to nutritious foods like vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
- Drink plenty of water.