Trigger warning: The following article is my experience after completing a long-distance hike of the length of Scotland where I discuss Post Trail Depression. If you are, or believe you are suffering from depression after a long-distance hike, please talk to someone or call Samaritans on 116 123 (UK).
It was day 50 on the Scottish National Trail and I was shouting at the mountains. There wasn’t a soul around. Just me, the Scottish Highlands, and a million midges.
Who in their right mind screams out loud into a mist of silence? Someone who has been separated from society long enough that social ideologies no longer affect them, that’s who. Solitude makes you strange sometimes. Strange, according to society. But I didn’t feel strange. I felt like anyone would feel in the wild. I felt alive.
One week later, I woke up in a bed in a city that was in summer festival mode. My life couldn’t have been more opposite than the week prior. I always knew I would be returning to Edinburgh a completely different person, and that worried me. Not much had changed in Edinburgh, aside from an influx of tourists cramming to see the August festivals.
I had been hiking a mere seven weeks, but those seven weeks had been the most profound weeks in my entire life. I learned more about myself in those seven weeks than in the last seven years.
What is the Scottish National Trail?
Th Scottish National Trail is a hike that zig-zags the length of Scotland. It starts in Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders and finishes at Cape Warth, the most north-western point of Scotland. It is 864 kilometres long [530 miles] and takes 5-6 weeks to complete.
Before The Trail
I fit into my life in Edinburgh so well before the Scottish National Trail. I had great friends, plenty of freelance work, and I was fulfilling my dream of living in Scotland. I was happy. But the hike was something I knew I had to do.
The idea had been sitting in the back of my mind for years, patiently waiting to come to fruition. There were many reasons behind my decision to hike the length of Scotland, and the idea of being alone in the wilderness with my pen and notebook sounded blissful.
The decision was made, but knowing the hike would change me irrevocably, I grew worried. Would I still enjoy my life in Edinburgh as much as I did before? Would I still belong? Or would I only feel like myself when surrounded by hills and lochs?
The Reality of a Long-Distance Hike
I’m going to be honest. After the initial excitement of starting the trail, there were times I hated it.
I hated waking up in the morning, rolling over and remembering everything aches. Then I had to figure out how or if I was going to shower- are there facilities or is there a river nearby? Sometimes there was, most of the time I would just get dressed into my sweaty, smelly clothes from the day before, brush my teeth, and start walking.
The worst part of the day was the first two hours while I waited for my body to warm up; I had blisters, my hamstrings felt like they were going to snap, my left hip ached, and I moved in a crippled shuffle.
But guess what that teaches you? You will NEVER take a shower or access to running water for granted again. Or food that isn’t a granola bar. Never, never, never.
On the trail I craved stability. I woke up many mornings with a sense of dread, paralysed by fear that I had to do it all over again. The fear exacerbated when I was alone in the remotest, toughest hiking areas in Britain. If I screwed up, my life was at risk. Noone was coming to save me. There were times when it was very stressful.
I had two choices: walk to the nearest bus or train station, or continue on to Cape Wrath.
You may be thinking “If it was that awful, why did you keep going?”
To be honest, I did wonder that myself every single day. I can only put it down to determination, stubbornness, and something…else. Something bigger than I can ever explain told me: “You need to keep walking.”
And, as per usual, my intuition was right. I am so glad I pushed through the pain, my past, the anxiety, the self-doubt, and the loneliness to finish the biggest challenge of my life.
If it was that bad, why do I miss it now?
The Scottish National Trail brought forward a kaleidoscope of emotions- anger, hopelessness, depression, anxiety- but it also brought me acceptance, joy, inspiration, understanding and most importantly, strength.
Strangely, the awfulness would turn into happiness. At the end of every day, when I was cuddled up in my tent or the shelter of a bothy, I was blissful. I was glad that I fought the mental and muscle pain in the morning, and the fatigue that caught me in the late afternoon, to reach my destination that evening.
Every day I was fighting a battle against my body and my mind, and every day I won.
And it felt fucking amazing.
I grew used to the routine of walking every day; all that vitamin D and exercising for 10-12 hours a day also sent a mass of endorphins flowing through my body.
Oh and also, I can’t forget I was in some of the most remote, beautiful territory in Scotland that very few people see. Being nestled in the Scottish highlands 24/7 is the best kind of high.
I reflect on my experience now and I wish I could revisit many of these wonderful moments. I wish I could go back to the day where at 9pm, I was walking along a mountain ridge when I got caught in a storm. I watched in amazement as a herd of deer grazed casually on the steep slope of the opposite mountain, while the wind swept me left and right.
For the first time I equally experienced joy and the sick feeling that I was testing fate and my life may be in danger at that very moment. There wasn’t a soul around me for miles- no one was experiencing what I was at that moment. That moment for me was the definition of wilderness.
There were also times where I found myself incredibly lonely, hungry and exhausted only to meet someone on the trail who fed me or offered kind words. These people are called trail angels, and I have never been so grateful for the kindness I received from these people during the most trying time of my life. They restored my faith in humanity. They taught me not to take kindness for granted, and that it doesn’t take much to make people happy.
There was so much goodness on the trail; I experienced happiness at its purest, and I was the closest I’ve ever been to my authentic self.
After the Scottish National Trail: Post trail blues
Before starting the Scottish National Trail, I wasn’t aware that Post Trail Depression was a thing. I learned about it afterwards, when I was searching for answers about how to cope with what I thought was reverse culture shock. I discovered that sadly, some thru-hikers have even taken their lives months after completing long distance trails.
I can understand. I certainly felt like I didn’t fit into society upon my return. I wouldn’t say it was severe depression I suffered for those first few weeks after I completed the Scottish National Trail. It was more a feeling of being extremely misplaced.
It was as though I’d seen, felt and experienced too much. It was like witnessing one of your parents having an affair at a young age- how can you process something like that? You learn that, in a way, ignorance is bliss. I missed the ignorance, and I felt that in order to integrate back into society, I needed that ignorance. I panicked.
When I reached the lighthouse that signalled the end of the trail, I felt so overwhelmed that I didn’t sleep much that night. Many long-distance hikers say how reaching the end can feel anti-climatic. For me, I felt as though I was sitting at the top of a roller coaster, waiting for the carriage to bring me back down to earth. I kept asking myself ”when is this going to sink in? Now? What about now? Or…now?”
Then I arrived back in Edinburgh the next day. I was more open and honest about…well, everything. Modern society seems to put a filter on everything. I’d lost mine in the highlands.
You look at everything differently; you take more notice of the things that are wrong with the world.
There is too much plastic. Why is everything packaged? Why do there need to be so many options? Why are people constantly staring at their phones? Why are they looking at the view through their phones and not with their eyes? Why is everyone so rushed? Why is that guy in a suit on a billboard smiling like he is the happiest dude on the planet?
It’s overwhelming. I didn’t notice a lot of this stuff before and now I can’t stop thinking about it. It sucks, because you feel helpless. The world seems large and bad and you’re just one person, and you can’t change everything. You obviously can’t keep walking around the mountains forever, and you’re going to have to adapt to society again- is it even possible when you feel like you’ve opened Pandora’s box?
Tips for dealing with Post Trail Depression
It took me a few weeks to adjust to society again, and I got through my moments where I felt extremely misplaced. After all, the trail taught me how to survive. I was able to apply many of the skills I learned out there to help readjust to everyday life. This is what I know now.
If you’re planning a long distance hike, be aware that when you return to normal life, you may experience Post Trail Depression. You may even come back to reality homeless, without a job or any money, which can add to the stress.
Know that you will come back changed. You will probably see a lot of faults in modern society, such as materialism and consumerism, the damage humankind is doing to the environment and how fast-paced the world is.
People just won’t understand what you’ve been through, no matter how much you try to explain it to them. This is frustrating- trust me, I’ve been there. Sometimes it’s easier to just say to people when they ask you about your hike that you really enjoyed it, and leave it at that.
If you start to feel yourself slipping into a depressive state, you need to reach out for professional help. You might be thinking ”but no one gets it!” but there are people that do.
A few years after I completed the Scottish National Trail, I went back on antidepressants. It’s the right decision for me- and I feel so much better for being on them. I’m not saying this is what you need to do too, but if your mental health is suffering it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about your options.
I’m very vocal about suffering from depression and anxiety. I find it helps to talk about it, and saying it out loud makes it less of a stigma.
You also need to surround yourself with people who have the same things in common with you. There are many groups on Facebook for people who have hiked or are planning on hiking a long-distance trail. I’m a member of a group for hikers of the Cape Wrath Trail, which was a section I completed on the Scottish National Trail. It’s great seeing members post about their experience and photos from their journey. It certainly reassures me that there are other people out there who went through what I did.
There are people out there who get it- there just aren’t that many of them and you most likely encounter them on a day to day basis. So join a Facebook group or a walking group and make some hiking friends who get it.
The key to integrating back into society easily is by taking everything slowly, being kind to yourself, and trying to focus on the positive aspects of what the trail taught you.
That’s the secret, I think. You have to turn everything into a positive. I now focus on the strength the trail gave me. If something in my everyday life starts to worry me, such as screwing something up at work, I compare it to my most hairiest moments on the trail. Like the time my battery pack died and I almost got lost in the highlands without a way of contacting anyone, or knowing where I was going.
I was walking the line between survival and well…you get the picture. You see, THAT is real stress, not knowing if you’re going to live to tell the tale. The most positive gift from the trail is that I now don’t sweat the small stuff. I try and share this new, positive attitude with everyone.
Encourage others to try long-distance hiking. The more people that spend time alone with nature, pushing their bodies and minds to the limit, the better. I’ve encouraged a handful of people to give it a go, and it’s exciting to swap stories and experiences when they return. Let’s encourage others to switch off and reconnect with themselves to learn that happiness comes from within.
Writing also helps. While I hiked the Scottish National Trail I kept a journal. I am currently writing a book about being the first solo female to hike the Scottish National Trail, and I find this very therapeutic. I hope it will help people to understand my journey a little better.
Keep returning to the wild, too. Keep reminding yourself of all the positive things you learned about strength and willpower, and how happiness can be found in the simplest things, such as the kindness of a stranger offering you a meal, or how it feels to have a shower after a week without washing.
Just like you adjusted to life on the trail, you will adjust to life back home. Only this time, you will be a stronger version of yourself. And from my experience, there won’t be anything harder in real life than what you faced on the trail. And you got through that, didn’t you?
Have you suffered from Post Trail Depression or something similar after completing a thru-hike? Feel free to share your thoughts below [it really helped me to share my experience- so I recommend sharing yours too. I reply to every comment!].