How to Reckon with the Post-Trip Blues

Of all the things that can make us grumpy, like a morning without coffee or being stuck in traffic, there’s one in particular that’s tough to shake: the downfallen feeling that can overcome you when a trip ends.

Transitioning Back is Tough
Trips should renew our spirits, but sometimes the positive effects can feel short-lived. When a trip ends, our brains struggle to absorb the benefits when we start thinking about email, work and which day the recycling needs to be out on the curb.

Why It’s So Hard
In the most fundamental way, what we do in the wild makes sense. When we’re backpacking, we’re moving across the landscape as small roving bands of nomads, paying close attention to wildlife, water sources, and weather. We’ve replaced hunting and gathering with freeze-dried food, but we’re basically doing exactly we did back in Olduvai Gorge a million years ago. No wonder it feels right. It should be hard to come back. If it wasn’t, we didn’t have much of a re-set experience. No pain, no gain.

And then we’re thrust back into a world of people who didn’t share our experience. The cultural divide between outdoor adventurers and the teeming masses of “regular people” is at its most stark after a trip. Like George Mallory and his famous “because it’s there” line, we mumble inarticulately about why sleeping on the ground, not showering, and struggling up steep ridges is great. No wonder outdoors folks are so clannish: we seek out others who “get” why these trips aren’t just fun, but are hard-wired into who we are.

The longer the adventure, the harder the re-entry. After expeditions, we realize that our friends have simply gotten on with their lives. Matthew Strum, a snow scientist who spent entire seasons out of touch in the high arctic, returned to find that his place in his family and friends’ lives had simply been filled, “as smooth water in a pond”. In strong if not macabre terms, he said it was a window to how life would move on without him if he died. He learned to adjust, but it wasn’t easy.

What to Do About It
One option is the choice of the addict: simply chase the next fix and plan another trip. Pioneering expedition kayaker Paul Caffyn used the purposelessness he felt after a long journey to plan his next adventure. Even if you’re not circumnavigating continents, the Sunday evening restlessness can be used to lay plans for next Friday.

Another option is to hang onto trip rituals in the urban world. Sitting on my front porch drinking coffee regardless of the weather reminds me of morning coffee in front of my tent in any number of places. After long trips, I whip out a tool from the pre-iPad world: an actual paper notebook. I jot down notes about sounds and smells from the trip, trying to lock them into memory before I get caught up in the return to laundry and restocking groceries.

Re-entry will never be easy. And we can’t avoid it unless we either ditch our jobs and become Kerouackian vagabonds, or strike it rich quick, retire, and spend all our time playing outside. Neither is likely. So let’s practice hanging on to our short trips longer. And remember: the post-adventure hangover is a sign that we did it right.