3 Things No One Warns You About Post Thru-Hike

Near the end of a thru-hike you’re going to feel this crazy stew of emotions from being on top of the world—a la Jack on the railing in Titanic—to bottoming out as you see the last few stretches of trail before you, panicked about regular life and wanting the miles to just stretch on and on without end.

All of that is normal, and fodder for more posts. But today it’s that aftermath we’re delving into. What happens a day after. A few days. A week, and more. Transitioning back to some kind of a civilized life is fraught with complications from paying rent again to the luxury of using more than 3 squares of TP at a time.

Lots of these things are written about. But no one warned me about a few of them, so I am warning you now. Take heed and you might not get bitten as I did.

If the shoe fits.... otherwise, I guess I'll just shove them in anyway.

1. Normal shoes won’t fit.

Anyone who wears “dressy” shoes (this means women but a lot of men, too!), take note. If you sized your hiking boots or shoes correctly, your feet will have gradually loosed up and your bones spread out as the muscles got stronger and you accumulated miles and miles under weight. I am not exactly the kind of person who has a closet full of high heels or perfectly fitting dress shoes. But even I had some issues with running shoes. Running shoes! My “just barely enough room” pair are now definitely a no-go. My “nice and tight” pair, same thing. I could theoretically wear them with bare feet for walks or easy runs, but socks? Forget it. Plan to need to buy at least a pair or two for your hobbit-sized footies, at least for now.

in-n-out double double

Gluten? Why not?

2. Re-feed bloat is real.

It is pretty well known that after the trail, a hiker cannot just keep pounding down the Probars and the pots full of refried beans with Fritos (still the best trail food ever, IMO). Your metabolism is gonna crash and crash hard in the days and weeks after you finish. Sure, go ahead and have some celebratory meals but pay attention to hunger. If your body responds fairly well, your true hunger should go down to match your activity level. What I didn’t expect is that after becoming a digesting machine on the trail with barely one meal leaving my gut before I felt weak with hunger again, afterwards everything would slow to a crawl. My celebratory meals left me bloated and my *ahem* digestion was suddenly erratic.

Pile of gear to be sorted.

3. Slipping back into the stresses and hubbub of normal life like nothing ever happened.

I’d read a lot about a harsh landing back into normal life. Being overwhelmed by stimuli, stressed out by not having money, unable to handle humans that didn’t smell like BO and eat entire plates of nachos in one go. But no one really mentioned the possibility that one could be back at everything—the stress, the deadlines, the social media—with almost no effort at all. Life went on while you were gone, and now that you’re back everyone else will barely have noticed that you did this epic thing. Don’t let that let you think your trail was insignificant. Don’t gloat about it, but certainly remember what you did and how awesome it was. Write stuff down NOW, especially if you did not keep a trail journal. If you did journal while out there, re-transcribe it so set it more deeply in your memory. “Oh YEAH! The chipmunk that stole my steripen cap!” Remember what you did. It was difficult and amazing and scary and fun. And YOU did it. Even if you go right back into a job or family responsibilities or both, keep little reminders of how strong you can be in your life. Photos, little things you picked up on trail, messages from your buddies still out there. YOU DID THIS THING.

Remember your journey. Keep on with your life, even with your huge hobbit feet, and think about what you’d like to do next hiking season. It will come soon enough, and you’ll be better prepared next time.

How To Turn Your Next Hobby Into A Life-Sucking Obsession [A Guide]

Also known as: “how to dive down rabbit holes like a boss!” I have a ton of experience in this rabbit-holing thing. I’ve gone off the deep end with interests as diverse as:

  • nutrition (and calorie restriction for longevity (hoo boy))
  • electric cars
  • hiking gear (back in 1998, hello Ray Jardine!)
  • wild edible plants
  • exercise physiology
  • straw bale houses, and even . . .
  • cryogenics

And in early 2017, it bit me again. This time it took the form of thru-hiking. I went from average ultramarathon trail runner to full-blown backpack-wearing spreadsheet-logging gear nerd in a matter of about a month. Don’t worry, there will be details. But first, a 7 Step program to deep-dive into your very own rabbit hole, from the early days of curiosity to full blow-off-your-friends obsession.

Step 1: Rabbit hole? What rabbit hole? One day, you suddenly become interested in something new. Perhaps it is something brand spanking new to you, out of your normal repertoire of interests, that you stumbled upon from a shared link or a book or a conversation. For example, you could be a laid-back introverted yoga instructor and suddenly you are fascinated by the idea of 3D printing your own shoes. It doesn’t have to be a physical activity or sport. You could get waaaaay into learning about gut bacteria. Or the history of masonry construction. Many times, it can be something tangential to another interest, an overlapping Venn circle of skills and participants. Let’s take an example that hits close to home for me this year: two decades of trail and ultra running rekindles an old spark of interest in thru-hiking. You (I) have free time and resources to bite this hobby off. It’s time!

Rabbit Hole by Jin Zan

Step 2: Oh hey, there’s a little dark tunnel over here! Wonder where that goes? Take a few steps, just for now, toward this new interest. Read up on gear, techniques, training. Read books and how-tos by those who have experience in all of those things. Follow about 100 new Instagram accounts. Do some legwork. Read a whole boatload of blogs. Watch some YouTubes. Join some groups. Buy some stuff. Research and research some more.

Step 3: Peer down the rabbit hole with curiosity. Kick some dirt down. It is now time to DO this new thing, in a not-so-small and not-so-timid chunk. All I needed was to just get a few more camping pieces to add to the gear, buy some food, and then go on a one month backpacking trip, solo.

Step 4: One foot in, both feet in: Down the hole you go. Connect deeply with the activity, body and spirit. Engage with the people out in the field. Learn about more resources WHILE you are out there actually doing this. Find out from other hikers about even more blogs and podcasts you’d not heard about before! Take mental (or physical) notes for research upon return.

Step 5: Where’s the daylight? Hello? Actually purchase Kindle books about hiking on your hike whenever you get a blip of 4G data. Order more gear from your phone from your tent. Get so excited and uncontainable you offer unsolicited advice to others out there, when you can tell that if they did X just a little differently they might enjoy Y more.

I took a LOT of notes about the Colorado Trail.

Step 6: The rabbit hole has consumed you. Your friends wonder where you went and who this obsessive person is that took your place. Already, begin thinking about improvements for the NEXT time around even before the first trip ends. Decide to get a better backpack. Ponder new trekking poles. Decide to sell some of your lightly-used but now-rejected current gear.

Stop. Right. There.

Anyone who now knows you can see this obsession from a country mile away. But if things are going to work out well for you (and your friendships), there does need to be another step or two before too long. You must move on to Step 7 if you hope to avoid your hobby becoming a life-choking dark hole of inescapable gravity.

Step 7: Climb towards the daylight again. Pause. Breathe. Stop and listen to those friends that see you becoming obnoxiously focused on one thing only. Slow the F down, already. There you go. Stop planning the next trip, the next gear upgrade, the next nutrition hack.

Write about what you’ve already done, whether or not it ever gets shared. Process. Go on walks. If you must, clean and sort and organize what items related to your obsession you already possess. Keep talking to all of those new friends you’ve met through your rabbit hole and wish them well on their current trips. Wish them well with sincerity, and without trying to hop on another project yourself right this freaking second. Go support them on their journey and write about that. Help the larger cause by making donations or volunteering your time.

Chips and Coke for a Southbound PCT hiker

Finally, once things have mellowed down, once the journals have been transcribed and the gear put away and the physical recovery finished, then you can begin again. Look at your new hobby/obsession with fresh eyes and a new eagerness. NOW, you can express your joy and experiences with the world. Push out those blog posts (right here, yo!). Send some lovely trip photo greeting cards to your family. Now, you can even think of ways you could make your experience more permanent and helpful, like a guidebook or a resource to make better gear or guide newbies on their way . . .

Because eventually, the next step will come, as well: your planning for next year’s monster adventure.