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.