Can I gloat a bit here? I mean, it’s my blog, so I can do whatever I want, but please don’t judge me too harshly. For years I read about the trail injuries, illnesses, and issues that plagued thruhikers on their journey to Katahdin. Every blogger or biographer I followed had their tale of woe to share … broken bones, sprained ankles, toenails falling off, infected blisters, poison ivy, Lyme disease, hypothermia, norovirus, food poisoning, even one account of West Nile!
But for Sharkbait, not a single health problem occurred while hiking the Appalachian Trail. I did have a couple bad spells of dehydration (one which cost me a zero day lying in bed with a pounding headache and nausea), but we won’t count that. Was it good luck or good planning that helped keep my record clean? To be honest, I’d like to think both. Let’s look closer.
Avoiding Foot and Leg Injuries: I has plenty of luck that the one “bad step” never happened to me. I never had the misplaced foothold on a wet or pointy rock, or snag on an exposed root that caused any serious damage. But besides luck, I believe this was due to good planning up front on realistic mileage per day (including low miles for the first 2 weeks), good evaluation of trail conditions / caution requirements, and HIKING POLES.
If you stop at the Outdoor 76 outfitter in Franklin NC, they will lecture you (at length) about keeping your daily miles under 20 until you hit Virginia. This is because your body needs time to strengthen the muscles around your weaker tendons and ligaments. Too much too fast will cause a rolled ankle to snap something painful. But build up that support and you can roll those ankles all day and bounce back (like I did in Maine, EVERY day).
And I have notoriously weak ankles, so I planned shoes and miles to ensure they were as strong as possible. I have been sidelined for weeks from athletics throughout my life from bad sprains, and I also have a torn ACL that never quite got back to 100% since repaired. I think the fear of re-injuring those areas kept me diligent on watching every step and daily mileage closely. So, although others would rush past me in PA, or log multiple 30-mile days in a row in VT, I took my time. And doing so, I finished injury free … yet still faster than planned. That is because I did not need as many zero days for my knees and feet to recover.
Plus, I massaged my feet with a pickle ball and stretched my legs and ankles notoriously each day for the first month, which helped significantly early on. Lastly, great shoes (and replacing them when necessary) was the final step to well-cared-for-feet. Besides a bad week of rain in northern Virginia, I barely even saw a blister. Even my wife agreed my feet looked great after 5 months of hiking (trust me, that’s saying a lot). Barely a sign of any wear or tear on them. 👍
Avoiding Mosquito/Tick Diseases: Again, part planning, part luck. Like everyone else, I hate ticks and feared Lyme disease most. I even went so far as to bring prescribed antibiotics from my doctor if infected on the trail. To deter these pests in advance, I treated my clothes, hammock, sleeping bags, and tarp with concentrated Permethrin. According to other smarter people, this is harmless to humans and deadly to insects … which proved to be right. I only found 1 tick on me (not in me) in my 2,190 miles of hiking.
And the mosquitos were bad, but I would only find a bite or two on me compared to the dozens I’d see scabbing the arms and legs of other hikers. I used 100% DEET on bad days, donned a head net when needed, and put on my “longs and longs” whenever the temperature allowed it. With this strategy in place, I only recall a couple bad days in MA and VT where the bugs infiltrated my defenses … thus limiting my exposure to insect-borne disease. For mosquito protection, one lesser-known gear item I recommend to future hikers is arm sleeves. The ability to throw on or off protective sleeves without taking my pack off to heat my torso with extra material was a great way to manage bugs vs. heat. 👍
Avoiding Other Issues: Honestly, this last category is just about good backpacking hygiene. I never shared food or water bottles with others, I cleaned and dressed any cuts I found, I used hand sanitizer after every privy and before every meal, I leukotaped hot spots on my feet long before they became blisters, I sponge-bathed and checked myself for ticks nightly … I even used KT tape on early signs of shin splints (which helped tremendously, all hikers would benefit to carry a couple yards of this for the first couple months of a thru). 👍
I realize I am no medical marvel, and had a tremendous amount of good luck while on my thruhike. But I also believe my long preparations greatly aided in my ability to understand and mitigate any potential issues before they became problems. Years of backpacking experience and AT planning helped keep me comfortably safe, not to mention a solid foundation of childhood learning from Happy in the wild woods of Minnesota.
Also, I’m pretty sure I’m among the 15% of Americans that are immune to poison ivy, so that helps too.
Hello Neiman (Sharkbait)!