Back to the Front Country
On the four-hundredth creak of the floor fan, he sunk deeper into the sofa. It’s entombed him for three months. “I would walk two miles off trail just to get to a water supply, and now I could barely get off the couch to cook a burrito in the microwave,” said North Carolina-based AT and PCT thru-hiker Robert Cusimano.
His legs worked fine. Instead he was shackled by crippling post-trail depression, an illness that can afflict up to 50 percent of thru-hikers, according to a California Polytech University study. “It’s a lot of lethargy and cognitive fuzziness. Extremely low motivation. A lot of hunger,” Cusimano said.
These are all classic symptoms of depression according to Queen’s University abnormal psychologist Dr. Kate Harkness. Even if you’re not lonesome, don’t think you’re off the hook. “One does not need to feel lonely in order to experience symptoms of depression,” Harkness warned. So if you can’t find the strength to roll out of bed, make it out of the house or even use the microwave, try these three pro-recommended tips to help power through.
Drop a line to your trail family
You’ve just had a life changing experience and you need other hikers around who understand what you’re going through. “It’s sort of like people who come home from active combat,” said Cusimano, “you share experiences that are both pretty difficult and wonderful that you can’t share with anyone else. People who have been out there just get it.”
NC-based thru-hiker Christine Martens was fortunate enough to have the support of her husband and trail-partner Jon. “Having someone to lean on helps in so many ways,” she said, whether it be from the shared solidarity or just having someone to talk to. Having that person, that proxy therapist, is crucial in overcoming depression. “Someone that you see regularly, that you trust and can tell your stories to. That is half the battle,” Harkness advised.
And if the Facebook messages aren’t enough, search for a like-minded neighborhood. “Finding people you can talk to about it and a community who’s understanding is critical,” said Jon. After their hike, the Martens moved to a small town in North Carolina to be closer with nature and those who’ve lived for a time in the back country. “I know all my neighbors, which is more than most people, I think,” Christine said.
Find a new way to exercise
Physical activity is a long-standing remedy for the blues. It helped Cusimano haul himself from the couch. “The only anti-depressant I’ve ever needed was exercise,” he said. However, many hikers return from the trail with cardio related injuries. Cusimano suffered from obliterated SOADs and Christine from hip dysplasia. “I went from burning god knows how many calories a day to sitting on my butt all day long,” she said.
This sudden lack of exercise throws a thru-hiker’s brain into a process called ‘down-regulation,’ Harkness said. She hypothesized that when out on the trail for any extended length of time you start creating dependencies on neurotransmitters like endorphins, and when your brain suddenly can’t make these chemicals anymore, you crash. Hard. “This is what happens with chronic drug users,” she said.
So how do you get your fix? “Any kind of cardio is good, swimming, biking or running,” Christine said, but for Cusimano, salvation came in the form of a bicycle. “The best thing I ever did was buy a road bike. It was a game changer,” he said with a chuckle. It took the weight off his feet and shins and allowed him to cover distances comparable to those on the trail. “It became this type of goal setting thing,” he said.
For Colorado-based thru-hiker Wesley Trimble, this physical goal setting was critical in helping him adjust back to society. “I started training for a trail race the next week, which directed my attention to a new goal,” he said. Productivity and focus is the take-away here. “Do anything you can to keep yourself distracted,” Christine said.
Know what you’re about to jump into when you return home. “Many people are completely blindsided by this [post-trail depression],” Cusimano said, “if you know what you’re going into when you get back, it helps a lot.” Yet, it’s hard to imagine being low when at the highest highs of the trail. “The hike for me is a constant reward,” Jon said.
But what happens when that reward system dissolves? When, “You’ve reached this big goal and you think ‘now what?’” as Cusimano says. At this point, a preemptive structured plan comes to the rescue. “Stability in daily life right after a thru-hike allows people to adjust more quickly,” Trimble said. “In my case, I was also preparing to go into a new season of life. Back to school.”
The return to structure and habit helps the brain and body recover from this enormous ordeal you’ve put it through. “Structured exercises activate behavior and get people out doing the things that give them a sense of pleasure and mastery,” Harkness said.
Lastly, understand that it can be hard to find a job right away and prepare accordingly. “Have enough money saved up or a job lined up so that when you come back, it will be a seamless transition rather than a fear about, ‘What am I going to do?’” Cusimano said. Having a plan of action or a new life goal will distract you from dwelling on the trail markers.
If you’re still feeling run down months after your hike, try researching further depression symptoms on the ADAA’s website, adaa.org, or seek out professional help. But mostly, try to pull something from your readjustment phase for the future. “Try to learn as much as you can post-hike to prevent future occurrences and look for warning signs,” said Harkness.
Above all, know that this too will pass. “The party is over, it takes a minute to get back into the real world,” Cusimano said.