Hiking with Injuries

Hiking Practice

Most of us we start life reasonably fit and healthy and as we get older we start to collect various injuries and illnesses along the way. In most cases we aren’t talking about major medical problems that are going to stop us from hiking altogether but rather issues that may only be minor niggles but either in isolation, or in combination, they injuries can become more of an issue making life just that bit more difficult. In addition to these pre-existing issues we can also collect new ones when we hike. Dealing with these injuries can be a real learning curve but it’s worth being aware of what they are and how best to manage them, otherwise your enjoyment level will be greatly impacted.

In this article we discuss the key considerations for hiking with pre-existing injuries (we’ll leave illnesses to another day) as well as managing any new ones you pick up on the trail.

1. Talk to a doctor/medical professional

First and foremost if you have any pre-existing injuries, temporary or ongoing, then seeking advice from a medical professional is more crucial than if you are 100% injury free; but that’s a rarity. Health professionals come armed with knowledge that can be a major help and may even be the difference between a successful hike and one where you need to leave the trail early. The following is a possible list of health proffesionals that can help you get ready for a hike:

  • Doctor
    • Your body’s mechanic that can think of things you may not have even considered, can offer solutions to your issues and can recommend a specialist if required
  • Dietician
  • Podiatrist
  • Physiotherapist
    • If you have pre-existing ‘mechanical’ issues, physiotherapists can often suggest exercises and fitness regimes that will help get you back on track
  • Dentist
    • The last thing you want to deal with is a broken tooth or a major cavity when you are doing a hike. If you are heading off overseas or heading away for a multi-week hike, book in a dentist visit before you go. Make sure you allow plenty of time in case a check up requires an extra visit

For short hikes this step may not be necessary but if you are heading off on a thru hike, that is hundreds or even thousands of kilometres long, seeking professional medical advice should be considered just a normal part of preparation, pre-existing injuries or not.

2. Know your limits

Everyone has their own physical limits and if you have an injury this may not be the same as it was say 10 years ago prior to that injury. Do some personal physical research and learn what your limits are and ‘how far is two far’. Learning this limits will allow you to plan a hike that is achievable. Having said that be prepared to have days that don’t quite measure up.

Logistical considerations that you should know

  • How far can you comfortably walk in a single day?
  • How far can you comfortably walk over a period of multiple days?
  • How fast can you comfortably walk?
  • How heavy a pack can you comfortably carry ?

Note the emphasis on ‘comfortably’. Your body is a machine and any machine that runs at 100% for long periods will usually fail. Set physical goals your body can cope with for the length and duration of your planned hike.

3. Know your issues

While this may seem really obvious how well do you really know your body and the impacts your injuries have on it? You can read all the books and blogs you like, watch Youtube videos, listen to podcasts, but this information can only be of a generic nature. Short hikes can usually be managed without too much problem unless your are dealing with severe injuries. But the longer the hike and the harder you push yourself, the greater the impact is likely to be.

Injury considerations

  • What effects does hiking have on your body?
  • What impact do your injuries have on you?
  • What plans do you have in place to manage those injuries?
    • Pre hike?
    • On the trail?

If you go into a hike with pre-existing injuries without knowing these answers you will have a very sharp learning curve that you may not be able to resolve in the middle of nowhere.

4. Be prepared

The Overland Track in Tasmania is one of Australia’s most popular tracks with around 9,000 people a year undertaking this trip. If you read all the news articles and even the track webpage you can be forgiven for thinking you will die if you try to walk this track. I have never seen a track website and booking system that identifies what can go wrong to such an extent. In all fairness to the parks service in Tasmania has valid reasons for this. When I ask newer hikers what trips they are planning, the Overland Track is either on top of that list or very close to the top. Over the past four years of interviewing and talking to hikers about the Overland Track you soon realise for many people this is the longest trip they have ever done and for many its the first time they have ever camped. Accidents and injury can happen on any hike no matter how experienced you are or no matter how much planning you have done. Having said that experience and planning go a long way to minimising accidents and injury on the trail so put the effort into pre-trip planning and physical preparation, it’s well worth it.

One thing worth considering at this point is having basic first aid qualifications. If hiking is your thing then knowing what to do in the case of an injury or accident is essential particularly if you are travelling in remote areas.

5. Injuries on the trail

Pre-existing issues aside there is always potential for injuries on any hike. Many can be a minor inconvenience but others can be more serious. The following are the more common ones that may impacts:

  • Blisters
    • A blister is a small pocket of fluid in the upper skin layers and is your body’s common defence response to injury or friction. Learning how to prevent blisters, and if need be treat them, is one of those skills that all hikers need to know
  • Sunburn
    • Growing up in Australia we have been well indoctrinated in prevention of sunburn due to our high incidence of skin cancer. For some reason we seem to forget about sunburn when we move away from the beach. Sunburn is probably one of the easiest preventable ‘injuries’ we have and something that we need to be conscious of
      • Wear a hat
      • Wear sunglasses
      • Wear long sleeves and long pants
      • Don’t forget your hands
      • Use sunscreen where feasable
  • Scrapes and abrasions
    • Pretty self explanatory but when we are hiking the chances of infection is much greater so cleaning cuts and abrasions is something you need to keep on top of
  • Knee pain
    • Knee pain is probably one of the most common complaints that hikers have and one pain can be caused by a number of different issues. Determining what the cause is will help you work out how to deal with it. If this is something that is new to you then you may not be able to resolve it, then and there, on a hike and you may need to seek medical advice when you return to the real world. If you know the cause then this its where a physiotherapist or knowledgeable personal trainer can come in handy
    • Depending on the cause of the problem there are a number of ‘fixes’ that will help
      • Tracking poles are a big help with those that have knee problems
      • Reduce your pack weight where you can
      • Reduce your body weight
  • Twisted or sprained ankles
    • For those of you with known ankle injures having supportive footwear, using tracking poles and strapping are all potential fixes. Twisting an ankle may mean you need to rest and providing its only minor, taking a day or two off if possible may resolve the issue. If its really serious or you have broken an ankle on a hike this will usually means that it’s time to call it quits
  • Chaffing
    • Chaffing can be a big issue for some hikers and one that most people won’t discuss as it usually involves your groin/buttocks. Choosing appropriate clothing, including underwear is a good start but products such as Body Glide and others can also be beneficial. Chaffing can be an issue if you sweat a lot in that area particularly if you are carrying excess body weight

Work out when it's time to quit

Sometime you can tough out an injury and sometimes you can’t. Think through what the decision point is for calling it quits and don’t be afraid to full the pin. If you are injured, continuing to hike may just make it worse and anyway the whole idea is to enjoy what you are doing after all.

Last words

Hopefully you will go through life being fit and healthy and never have any medical issues or injuries. Given that it’s highly unlikely then knowing how to recognise the issues and knowing how to mange them is something we should all put some effort into. As someone who has a series of compounding injuries running the length of my body I’ve learnt what I need to do to minimise any impacts of these issues and how to recognise when things are going wrong on the trail. I don’t always get it right but that then becomes a learning experience that feeds into the next trip.

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