Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail with a Brand-New ACL

It was dead at the bar yesterday, and I figured if anyone was watching me through the security cameras, they wouldn’t quite mind if I was doing some stretches and squats. I spent an awkward few seconds trying to grab the bottom of my foot for a quad stretch and I had to angle my knee and hip out to the side in order to grasp on to my shoe. It kind of worked. My knee doesn’t fold all the way like it used to, but 125 degrees of flexion is better than none. (It’s actually technically full-flexion, but I want it to match the super-flexion of my normal knee.)

But also, like most things I do with my leg today, it’s blatantly obvious that this isn’t the way it’s always been.

The Story

Aug. 5, 2018; 4:35:

I was covered in blood and sweat and dirt. I’d been a rough first quarter of our Sunday flag-football game, but everyone was fired up. Kevin, one of our teammates, had just gone to the hospital with a very obviously broken leg (in what occurred during a play with questionable motivation), and we were ready to raise a little hell with the leftover emotion.

It was a hand-off play, one I had done so many times before. Jaeger gave me the ball and I ran up the sideline with it tucked neatly in my arm. It’s always good for a handful of yards, and sometimes I’d get lucky and reach the end zone. Most of the time we ran this play, I’d let them push me over the sideline at the last moment and stop the clock.

This time, when I had two opponents in front of me, I decided to dodge and try to beat them on the inside. I planted my right foot, stepped to the inside of the field with my left, and went to go. But I didn’t go. At least my right foot didn’t. It stayed exactly where I’d planted it on the grass field, and instead, my knee bent inward.

To cut a longish story shorter, I went down hard. It hurt. I demanded my boyfriend carry me (bridal style!) to postgame celebration pizza anyway, and when I woke up the next day I knew something wasn’t just wrong, something was WrOnG. Then, crutches, doctors’ appointments, X-rays, MRIs—they all led to the final verdict: I tore my ACL, grade three style.

Moment of Consideration

I’ll start off by saying I wouldn’t be attempting the hike this year if my physical therapist and orthopedic surgeon weren’t both on board with this challenge. This injury took so much out of me. The pain was the least of it. It took away my budding career as a brewer. It took away my ability to get around, since I’m car-free and use a bicycle. It took away my active life and ability to relieve stress with running and sports. It gave me so many sleepless nights, and a massive scoop of depression and helplessness. It gave me months on disability. It also gave me a sizable pile of medical bills that I’ll still be paying down while I’m on trail.

Don’t get me wrong. All of that is temporary. I’ll eventually be able to get back on track as a brewer, and I’m even biking around again (although not without a bit of struggle). But the point is, if there was a sizable chance I would just immediately reinjure myself and have to go through all of that again, I wouldn’t do it. It’d be easier to wait a year, make money, heal more, and go from there. But this was a goal I decided on before I went down on that football field in August, and so I’ll be starting out at Springer this year with blessings from my medical professionals and just a few modifications to my hiking preparation and style.

How I’m Accommodating My New Knee

Physical therapy:

I’ve been doing physical therapy almost every day. If I’m not doing single-leg squats and foam-rolling at home, I’m at the therapy center with Ashleigh as she pushes me for another round of lateral box steps. It’s been difficult for me to maintain consistency while returning to the workforce after so many months, but I’m also strengthening my legs with every run up the stairs balancing plates while on the job. (Hello, food service.) I’m also going to have a mini-routine for on-trail, which my therapist will design once it gets a little closer to D-day. I wouldn’t be anywhere near ready for this hike if it wasn’t for Ashleigh. She’s kept my mind and spirit where it needs to be when all I want to do is rest my weary knee. This is the most important preparation I can do for this hike.

Bringing supplies:

Laugh at me. Go ahead. I’m bringing a chair.

It’s a cool two pounds of added weight that cost about $30, but I’ve been using it consistently for a while now and it’s the perfect chair to take the pressure off my back and sit comfortably with my knee. There will be plenty of shelters and good rocks for sitting, I’m sure, but at the end of the day, my knee is going to need a guaranteed place to take a load off. I’ve always been known for reserving floor space for sitting when I go to friends’ houses, but my leg isn’t comfortable doing that anymore. Pfft! So, chair it is. (Bonus: My boyfriend, trail name Captain, got the same one in a different color, and we’ll be stunning passersby with our sitting style. It’s the one thing he said he wanted throughout his PCT hike.)

I’m bringing compression sleeves for my knees. I’ve been testing them out for the last few months, and I’ve settled on two Sable knee sleeves that have small gripping edges to prevent sliding. They’ve been lifesavers as I’ve returned to being on my feet all day and saved me from insanity these last two days as I worked two 12-hour shifts. I was tired at the end of the day, but there was barely any ACL-related pain. And that makes me happy!

Summa’dat lube is coming with me, too. I need to be able to massage the fluid that builds up around my knee. Plus, I’m sure I’ll be using it to prevent chafing, too. Body Glide god, please help me glide through knee pain on this long and strenuous journey, amen.

In case of emergency, I’ll bring along some of my prescription medications that I received after surgery. I hope that I don’t even have to consider using them on trail, but when I nearly broke my arm a month ago in an ATV accident (that’s a whole ‘nother story, sorry), it was more than convenient to have them. If I go down hard, or—if I have to say it—if I tear anything, I’ll need these to get to the nearest hospital.

I’m also bringing the all-powerful vitamin I (Ibuprofen), a multivitamin, and glucosamine, which I’ve been taking to build up my stores before trail. I’ve heard they help a lot with easing joint pain on the long haul, so I’m down with popping another horse pill or two for some prevention attention.

Like many hikers, I’ll also be using hiking poles. I have the carbon fiber pair from Cascade Mountain Tech. “They are the Cadillac of affordable hiking poles,” comments Captain as he muses about my choice of gear. They’re light and will help me with balance and stability as I move along trail. I’ve heard they do a lot for knee pain, so I’m looking forward to having them as close companions.

I’m also going to bring a bit of protein powder for the first few weeks of the trail in order to help my legs build up the muscle required for long days. My injured leg is still atrophied, and while it will be close to normal muscle when I set out on May 1, I’m still slightly worried about an imbalance in my gait causing injury. I told my orthopedist about this and he seems unconcerned. I’m leaning into his optimism. 😊

Other Notes and Modifications

I’m sure most hikers intend to start off slow, but this strategy is doubly important for me. My legs aren’t accustomed to me pushing them hard anymore, so I’m going to have to break them in slowly. The last thing I need, physically and emotionally, at the beginning of the trail is to have a problem with my knee or any part of my leg that could have been avoided if I’d chilled out for the first few weeks.

I’m far from ultralight. (Did I mention I’m bringing a two-pound chair?) That being said, I’ve truly considered weight when building my pack. I have plenty of lightweight gear, and not many luxuries. Keeping my base weight low is part of my preparation for the hike so that I don’t overload my knees.

I also met another hiker with a brand-new ACL who is hiking the AT this year, and so we’ve been corresponding and sharing our fears and concerns about the long trek. It’s been nice to connect and have someone else who really understands this kind of injury paired with this particular kind of challenge. Who would have thought I’m not the only one going for it so soon after surgery?

Conclusions

I’m sure there are a few other modifications I’ll be making for my knee along trail, and even beforehand in preparation. I’m considering making a video and sharing my physical therapy routine, too, so if anyone is interested, please let me know in the comments.

I’m very close to getting The Trek vlogging YouTube account set up, so please bear with me while I wrestle time from my schedule like that hiker wrestled that mountain lion.

I’m looking forward to taking an incredibly difficult time and etching out a silver lining. This entire experience with my new ACL has shown me how important it is to take care of a healing body, and I’m excited to see what my knee can do with the love and care I’ve been able to give it.

Cheers, my dudes!

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Comments 2

  • Karen deSousa : Feb 17th

    I too will be hiking on a new ACL this year, with plans to finish the PCT in long sections. Prior to this knee injury I had my other ACL replaced (different injury) 8 years ago, and hiked 1,100 miles of the PCT on that. Trekking poles and vitamin I are lifesavers. Soaking in a cold stream or icing in town help too. Listen to your body (esp. that knee) and give it a rest when you need to.

    Reply
  • Colleen Goldhorn : Feb 18th

    I also shredded my ACL last winter… it takes a lot to build your “backpacking muscles” back up, but it’s completely attainable if you set your mind to it. I’m excited to read about your journey!!

    Reply

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