How To Finish Your Thru-Hike

Photo: Heather Anderson

Record-setting distance hiker Heather “Anish” Anderson shares her tips for managing the post-hike blues and easing back into real life.

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.

Finding a New Goal  

Often, the key to getting out of a post-hike funk is finding a new goal. For Anderson, that meant setting her sights on the Pacific Crest Trail, which she’d need at least two years to plan and save up for after finishing the Appalachian Trail. Having a long-term goal to work toward—and look forward to—helped her feel motivated again.

Of course, not everyone is able to do a second thru-hike—let alone turn thru-hiking into a profession as Anderson has done. However, you can replicate her success by putting a weekend camping trip or other shorter adventure on the calendar. That way you have something exciting on the horizon, and the conclusion of the journey doesn’t feel like the end-all-be-all. For some hikers, returning to work can also help restore a sense of productivity and motivation.

No matter what, though, Anderson recommends establishing a new exercise routine. “A lot of people finish their hike just as winter is setting in, and they sit around indoors all winter, which makes the transition even harder,” she says. “The trick is to find something you enjoy. Find a way to go outdoors in the winter that makes you happy.” If the weather’s particularly bad, try signing up for a dance class, yoga membership, or another form of low-intensity exercise—anything to stay moving.

Ensuring an Easier Transition

Transitioning back to real life after an extended adventure isn’t always easy, but Anderson points to a few keys worth implementing before departure to ease your return. 

  • Build at least a two-week buffer into the time you’ve taken off for a hike to give yourself a recovery period.
  • Line up a place to stay after your hike, whether that’s your own home, or the home of a friend or relative.
  • Save enough money before your hike so that you have enough left over for a few months of rent and other bills—especially if you don’t have a job waiting for you.
  • Stay in touch with friends and family so you have a support system in place when you get back.

Heather’s Top 3 Thru-Hiking Essentials 

For Anderson, taking care of yourself and listening to your body is just as important on the trail as it is off the trail. Here are three pieces of gear that help her do just that.

  • Ultralight backpack: Anderson prefers a versatile and durable 50L pack—one that’s still ultralight (shooting for around or under 2 pounds) but that offers comfort features like sturdy hip-belt and a padded shoulder harness that protects her from chafing and discomfort on the trail. 
  • Perfect puffer: Both super light and super warm, Anderson likes a down-insulated parka that has it both ways: keeping her pack weight low without compromising comfort or safety in cold conditions. She notes the importance of finding as custom or as contoured of a fit as possible, to help minimize heat loss. 
  • Modular pack storage: Staying organized on the trail is a great way to set yourself up for success and limit frustration. To that end, Anderson recommends ultralight, zip-able packing cubes (“extremely useful for organization,” she says).

— Want to stretch your legs further? Get into longer-distance hikes and check out  some preliminary thru-hiking guidance, advice on necessary pre-trip training, plus tips for how to deal with adversity on the trail.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.