No one wants this to happen but sometimes it does. Imagine you are out there on the AT, CDT, PCT or any other long-distance trail and you get injured. Is it the end? How should you react? What should you do?
Usually a hiking injury will hit you more or less unprepared. I never thought it could happen to me but I got injured on my thru-hike attempt of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2016. In this blogpost I want to share my personal experience and give you some advice on how you could deal with a hiking injury on the PCT (or any other long-distance trail).
How it happened to me
My hike on the PCT started with a big day. From Campo at the Mexican border I hiked all the way to Lake Morena – 20 miles in total. I felt good and staying overnight in the border region was always a topic in discussions regarding safety. Another reason was that I met some cool guys at the trailangel’s place I was staying at for my first days in the US. I wanted to keep up with them.
After a few days on the trail my first hiking group found together and we hiked very fast. Too fast for me as I would have to find out later. We made our fist 100 miles in only six days! The trail was fairly easy in this first section. Well graded, no steep ascents or descents. Nevertheless, when we reached Warner Springs I could feel a bit of an unknown pain on the left inside of my right knee. I should have stayed but unfortunately at that time I wanted to stay with my initial hiking group and so I left Warner Springs early in the morning with a sore knee.
It was day 10 and we camped short before Idyllwild. I still remember that night as if it was yesterday. It was already hard for me to reach my tent after dinner. In the middle of the night I had to use the bathroom and could hardly make it out of the tent. My right knee was aching way too much! Taking down my tent in the morning was nearly impossible. With lots of painkillers and fighting through the pain I hiked the last ten miles into Idyllwild the next day.
Until today I don’t really know what happened to my knee on the PCT. When I hit the trail I was in a reasonable good shape and I never had any issues with my knees or any other joints. I felt well prepared. But after only ten days my right knee broke down. Completely. Reaching Idyllwild I couldn’t walk one single step anymore.
But what to do? I had planned for over a year and now everything should be over after only ten days?
Hiking injury on a long-distance trail – What to do?
1. Keep calm and get some (professional) help
It happened. You’re stranded somewhere on a long-distance trail and you’re suffering from an injury. If it’s not an emergency and you need instant help (911) then keep calm. Your first priority should be to make it to the next village or resupply point. If necessary take some help from your fellow hikers to get there. Ask for it!
When I had my knee injury I used the help of Ibuprofen (vitamin “I”) and some other pain reducing pills. They helped me to hike the last ten miles into Idyllwild. It’s always good to carry some Ibuprofen or something else to treat pain. Especially if you are hiking alone.
Once you reach the next village or resupply point find some shelter/accommodation and do some research about the local medical facilities. I was lucky enough to be stuck in Idyllwild where I could visit Dr. Bill – an excellent physiotherapist and hiker himself. Definitely go and get some professional help to clarify if you suffer from a serious hiking injury that needs professional treatment. I went to the Idyllwild Health Center to get a x-ray of my knee and make sure it is not a stress fracture of the bone. A serious injury can end your hike and then you have to accept it. That’s hard but don’t mess around with your health. You might get a second chance for the trail after your recovery.
It is not a serious injury? Well, that’s good news!
In regards to cover the costs for your medical treatment you should have the right health insurance. If you go abroad for your long-distance hike I can recommend World Nomads to you. Just click on the banner below to get a quote!
2. It’s not your fault!
Don’t ask yourself a thousand questions about what went wrong. Injuries just happen! Before starting my hike on the PCT in 2016 I went to the gym twice a week and on the weekend I did at least one 20km day-hike. Additional to that I went hiking around my home every now and then with a fully loaded backpack. Nevertheless my right knee just stopped working after only 10 days on trail! I never thought this could happen.
Now that you suffer from a hiking injury and it happened to you just accept it and try to look ahead. It is okay to feel bad but you should try everything you can to lift your spirits again.
I still remember my time at the hostel in Big Bear Lake or my time at Hiker Heaven when other hikers came and went. I was stuck and didn’t feel like being a part of the hiking community anymore. But I was. It was only my bad mood that pulled me down.
Do you like chocolate, same as me? Great! Go and get some!
3. Think about your options!
If you suffer from a serious hiking injury your options are clear. However hard it may be you have to end your hike and get the right medical treatment.
But what if you just need some rest? When my knee broke down I wasn’t too sure that some rest would fix it. But I wanted to stay on trail, therefore, I decided to wait for a while. In case of an overuse injury like I had enough rest can help you but you will never know how long it takes.
I remember talking to Navigator – one fellow hiker of my initial group on the PCT – in Idyllwild about my options. Being from Germany my time in the US was limited and also the right weather window for the thru-hike wasn’t waiting for me. Additional to that I haven’t had any friends or relatives in the US I could stay with and wait for recovery. Finally we worked out a plan that fit perfect for me. I would move along the trail using public transportation just as if I was hiking and catch up with Navigator every now and then.
What are your options? Do you have friends or family living near the trail you could stay with? Or are you from abroad as well? Are you hiking on a tight budget and will you run out of money soon?
4. Make a plan and realize it!
Navigator and I decided to meet again in Big Bear Lake. I made my way there from Idyllwild – hitchhiking and using buses and trains. At that time it took me about five minutes to enter a bus! In Big Bear Lake Navigator stayed with me for a few days and we extended our initial plan and decided to meet again at Hiker Heaven.
The hostel in Big Bear Lake was a great place to stay. I even got some massages from Daniel (Mountain Mobile Massage) and who knows? Maybe his “magic hands” helped my knee to heal.
Anyway, after a while it was a bit too expensive for me to stay in the hostel. I contacted Donna “L-Rod” Saufley from Hiker Heaven and asked if I could stay for about a week until Navigator would arrive. Donna told me I was more than welcome to stay and rest my knee in exchange for some volunteering. I took the chance, had a wonderful time at Hiker Heaven and got to meet lots of awesome people!
It’s essential that you have a plan to follow. A place to stay, some kind of treatment to help your hiking injury heal and also some people around you that encourage you to get on the trail again are essential for a successful recovery.
5. It takes time!
Yes, it takes time…. After nearly three weeks off trail I had my comeback on the PCT in Agua Dulce. I had skipped about 400 miles of the desert section and I had spent way too much money for accomodation in between but hey, I was hiking again! Being patient while I was suffering from my knee injury was very hard for me. I wanted to be a hiker. Instead I saw my hiking friends come and go.
It takes time for your body to heal and so you have to be patient. Have some good food, go to the cinema, meet some friends…. Try to keep your spirits up and don’t loose faith in you. You will get back on trail if you want!
You need to fight at all times to get back hiking! Countless moments of regrets and doubts will pull you down. Now it is important to meet some people who believe in you. In total I met only one person who instantly said something like “Now you’ll go home”. Every other person I talked to or who saw me with my knee injury believed that I can get back if I fight hard enough. But I am also thankful for that one person who didn’t. It woke up my defiance and my stubbornness. Both helped me to get back on the PCT.
And once I was back? I still had to fight! It was a slow way back into the hiking world with lots of pain and less miles a day than I wished for. I crossed all high passes in the Sierra Nevada with the help of vitamin “I” accompanied by the fear that my knee could break down again. Thankfully I wasn’t alone at that time and had a hiking buddy that looked after me at times.
If you get injured while hiking than keep in mind that you could make it back and hike again. But it’s up to you. You need to do everything you can for your recovery and you need to believe in yourself. You can do it. Fight!
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