You Need a Reintegration Protocol: Adjusting after Wilderness Trips

Returning From the Wilderness Can Be a Big Adjustment

Sometimes, the hardest part of wilderness trips or vacations isn’t the challenge of hiking or long plane rides, it’s getting back home and adjusting back to regular life afterwards. 

Each summer, I take at least one long trip into the Alaskan wilderness. After about three weeks in nature, coming back home to the city often feels jarring. For many years, I struggled with reintegration from the wilderness back to my regular life. The first few days always felt awkward, sometimes even frustrating. More recently I’ve been noticing this after other intense experiences, like a week of nervous system training. Can you relate?

Whether you’ve been on a long wilderness trip, a retreat, or a vacation, it’s totally normal to feel a mix of emotions in the first few days of your return back home. It’s also totally normal not to feel able to jump right back into your routine at full speed.

This transitional time is called reintegration, and for many of us, a lot goes on in our heads and hearts during that time. Let’s talk about how we can navigate reintegration with softness and intention.

Why is Reintegrating So Challenging?

When I’m out in the wilderness, I settle into a whole different rhythm. 

My body and mind move at a slower pace and my focus expands. My priorities for the day are simple things like eating, moving, and sleeping. There are very few things grabbing for my attention: the weather, my surroundings, my trip companions, and the signals from my own body. It’s all very tactile and sensory. These days I especially notice the lack of distractions, stimulation, and decision-making that comes with city life.

This big difference in the pace of our days creates a different mentality, too. Trips away from home are a way to gain a fresh perspective on our lives, dig deeper into ourselves, or find healing from difficult emotions. Our nervous system finds a rhythm. This can leave us wanting to integrate those insights into our daily lives.

In other words, getting back home puts us in a liminal space where, mentally and emotionally, we feel like we have a foot in both worlds: the space of the trip we just took, and the space of normal life going forward. This transitional time is an opportunity to take those valuable parts of our journey with us going forward.

How Can a Reintegration Protocol Help?

Reintegration as Nervous System Support

Going from the low-stimulation environment of the wilderness and back to the city where a myriad of things are competing for your attention…that’s a lot of whiplash on our nervous systems! When your nervous system has a lot its navigating, you might feel more stressed, irritable, sad, or fatigued compared to usual.

A Reintegration Protocol is a tool for anticipating and supporting our needs during this transition time. 

Transitions after big experiences have the potential to be full of insight, integration, and swapping of pictures and stories. They also require a little extra mindfulness and support. 

This concept is what we call coping ahead. It’s like making sure we pack a fun floatie for a lake trip, instead of throwing ourselves straight into the lake. Your reintegration plan is your floatie!

What’s important here is that the process of reintegration planning itself is a form of nervous system support: it gives you that reassurance in the back of your mind that you’ve taken steps to take care of yourself. Even just by doing a little bit of reintegration planning, no matter how imperfectly, you’re doing yourself a big favor.

Learning to Transition

Transitions in life are everywhere. Whether it’s changing seasons, aging, careers, relationships, or a million other possibilities, navigating change gracefully is an invaluable tool.

The more we practice strengthening the muscle of transition, the more confident we’ll be in that process. Practicing integrating our experiences from small things like a backpacking trip can help us be more comfortable using practices that can support us when big picture life changes come at us. We’re building our toolbox.

Transitions also impact and are influenced by our attachment styles. The work of practicing mindful transitions can help our anxious or avoidant attachment systems move toward secure attachment. Which helps everything. 

Practical Tips for Creating a Reintegration Protocol

By now you might be thinking that planning a reintegration protocol needs to be fancy, complicated, and serious. None of that is true! Reintegration can be simple, maybe just a list of two or three ideas. It can also be playful and creative, so have fun with it!

I’ve been honing my reintegration process for several years, and over time I’ve come up with a few things that work very well for me. Your reintegration protocol might look completely different, and that’s ok! Keep experimenting and making changes til it feels right for your needs.

I personally like the word “protocol” because it makes me laugh and feel like I’m taking this thing seriously even though it isn’t that serious. But you can use any word that works for you!

Luc & I have a protocol for reintegrating into our relational space after time apart, and I have one for my personal transition time after wilderness trips. We use Google docs for them and think of them as working documents that either can edit. 

As a starting point, here are some practical tips for a soft reentry. Take what feels good, and leave the rest!

Build in Buffer in Your Schedule

If you’re going back to work, make your first work week back easy. Schedule blocks of time to catch up or to allow extra time for tasks, and avoid scheduling too many meetings. Avoid big deadlines in this first week if you can, or plan to ask for extra support from your teammates.

Outside of work, don’t overbook yourself and make too many plans that first week. Most likely, you’re going to have a bit less energy than usual. Make sure you have free evenings to decompress and rest, whatever that looks like for you. Most things can wait til the following week!

Another important way to free up time and mental space: food! Make sure you have groceries on hand for at least a couple of days (freezer meals are great for this!), or plan to order takeout. You’ll be grateful not to have to make a frantic run to the grocery store.

Block Time to Spend Outside Each Day

If you’ve been spending all day every day outside, going back to a predominantly indoors life often feels jarring. With that in mind, I block out time every day for my first week home to spend time outside. This can be active like a walk or run, or more restful like sitting somewhere quietly. Spending an hour outside each day works well for me.

Stretch the Transition Time

Try waiting one extra day before telling people you’re back home. So if you return on a Tuesday, tell people in advance that you won’t be available until Wednesday. Of course, if you’re returning from a wilderness trip, the exception is to let your safety contact person know you’ve returned from the trail and are safe. Take the pressure off yourself to be fully available to everyone right away. 

This tip can be especially helpful if social time can feel draining or overwhelming for you. Giving yourself the extra day off from responding to text messages, making plans with friends, and interacting with coworkers can keep your social battery from dropping to empty too quickly.

Remember, the most important thing is developing a process that works for YOU.

Reunification for Partners

If you are partnered, you and your partner might not spend all your trips and wilderness adventures together. When one of you has been away, reuniting can present its own challenges. This is especially true if the traveling partner had a meaningful, emotionally charged experience during their time away. If you sometimes feel a bit out of sync with your partner after one of you has been away, that’s totally normal.

Note on attachment & neurotype: very often partnerships form between people with different attachment styles or neurotypes. Reuniting with someone who is different from you in this way can be tricky because partners will likely have different needs & preferences during a transition period. Communicating ahead of time about what supports your process will help you be able to anticipate your and your partner’s experience, particularly when relating across differences.  

To help with this reunification process, my husband and I sat down and made a list of things that help us feel connected. From this list, we narrowed down further to about 3 things that are most helpful. These things are generally short and simple. We try to do all 3 things from this list right away, ideally the same day we are back together. Then, we keep picking things to do from the longer list as the week goes on. 

It takes some effort to pull this off, but so far it’s really effective. We’ve found it saves us a lot of discontent and friction later, plus the activities are fun to do together.  

Whether it’s making dinner together, going out for a coffee date, cuddling up on the couch, or reading quietly together, connection looks different for every partnership. Just like the tips above, what’s most important is experimenting and finding what works for you.

Where to Learn More Nervous System Tools

Reintegration is just one tool that helps us support our nervous systems and have more mindful experiences outside.

If this gets you excited to learn more, you’ve come to the right place! We’re now enrolling for Summer Strong, where you’ll learn nervous system tools and get full strength training workouts to support great days outside all season long. Plus, you’ll also have access to a supportive community of like-minded people to cheer you on. No matter your ability level, age, or goals, Summer Strong is a flexible program designed to support your unique needs. We’ll see you there!


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