Weighing The Potential Health Risks Of Thru Hiking

Doing almost 12 hours of cardio each day paired with endless time in fresh mountain air makes for a pretty healthy lifestyle, right? Unfortunately, this may not always be the case.

It’s easy to see that thru hiking is a healthier activity than many of the “normal” hobbies in society. However, weeks of intense exercise can begin having a negative effect on your body in more ways than one. Although many hikers finish their treks significantly skinnier and more in shape, these changes do not always translate to being any healthier, and can sometimes have lasting effects on your body post-hike.  Between injuries that may take months – if not a lifetime – to heal, poor diet, and environmental hazards, there may be more health risks to thru hiking than initially meets the eye.

 

Injuries

It almost goes without saying that injuries among thru hikers are common – between sprains, broken bones, muscle tears, and overuse injuries, it’s not surprising that many thru hikers experience discomfort for months or years after their trip. In many cases, this discomfort is mild and may present itself in a sensitive knee or ankle that sprains easily. For some hikers though, these injuries can be enough to both force them off trail during their hike, and keep them from many forms of outdoor recreation for life. Regular stretching and dedicated rest days can help take some of the pressure off your body, and contacting a physical therapist or doctor can help relieve any symptoms that persists in the post-trail world.

Smoke & Wildfire Danger

Due to the growing intensity and regularity of wildfires, many trail organizations are now warning that hikers planning to thru hike a western trail should factor smoke and fires into their route each year. Although hiking in wildfire season comes with many risks, one of the most notable is smoke inhalation. Wildfire smoke is unique in that it houses fine particles that can settle in your lungs causing chest pain, coughing, wheezing, and more. Hikers with heart conditions seem to be especially sensitive to the harmful effects of smoke, and should be mindful of these risks when choosing to hike a trail in the Western US. Unfortunately, wildfire smoke can travel for hundreds of miles, which means you could be faced with the negative effects even when hiking in a fire-free area. If you choose to keep hiking during smoky days, wearing a mask or t-shirt over your mouth and nose can protect your lungs from particles.

Diet

Although it seems counterintuitive given the massive amounts of exercise thru hikers receive each day, new anecdotal research suggests that a poor diet along the trail can be harmful to your health. Decreased health of arteries – which is a sign of increased risk of stroke and heart disease – was severe throughout the subject’s body post trail, and appeared to have aged certain internal body parts “multiple decades” over the course of the hike. Although this data is still new and only studied one hiker along a PCT thru hike, it is still striking enough for current and future hikers to reconsider the typical “thru hiker” diet of ramen, little debbies, and candy bars. We know those calorie dense foods may be optimal when trying to save both weight and money, but try opting for healthier choices such as fruit, veggies, and whole grains to refuel your body during your hike.

Post Trail Health

If you’ve ever finished a long distance hike, you know that post trail depression can be overwhelming and can lead many former thru hikers to seek treatment for anxiety, depression, and a variety of mental illnesses. In addition to the mental toll of post trail life, many hikers end up gaining weight back as their body adjusts to not hiking an extended amount of miles each day. This weight gain can cause a multitude of health issues down the line, and can even intensify the feelings of post trail depression. If you start feeling the symptoms of depression effect your life post-trail, seek out a therapist ASAP, and if you are concerned about any weigh gain, speaking to a doctor or registered dietitian can help you find the ideal weight for your specific body type, and a plan of how to achieve it.

Risk of Disease

Between ticks, mosquitoes, and prolonged sun exposure, there are multiple illnesses along our nation’s trails that can pose a huge risk to hikers. Mosquitos are present in all 50 US states, and are known for spreading their most common illness – West Nile Virus – across the country. West Nile isn’t the only worry though, these annoying insects also spread Dengue, Zika, Malaria, and Chikungunya throughout different areas of the US each year. Meanwhile, both Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted fever are spread by multiple tick species, and can cause lifelong illnesses – or even be deadly – for hikers who have gotten bit. Plan to apply bug spray and check for ticks or new bites each night before rolling into your sleeping bag. Many of these insect-spread illnesses can be treated if caught early, so seek medical care at the first signs of feeling sick.

Additionally, prolonged sun exposure can lead to an increased risk of skin cancer, even if you are good about reapplying sunscreen. It’s wise to alternate between wearing long sleeve layers with built in sun protection, and limiting time spent in the sun when possible.

At the end of the day, there’s no denying that thru hiking can help you lose weight and encourage you to live a more healthy and active lifestyle. Although there are multiple aspects of long distance hiking where the health benefits may be outweighed by potential risks, thru hiking is still overwhelmingly a healthier activity – for both your mind and body – than sitting at your desk for 8-10 hours a day.

Regardless, it’s always wise to take extra precautions by checking for ticks, striving for a healthier diet, and stretching each night to keep your muscles limber. After all, many successful thru hikers start dreaming of more trails after their hike, and you’ll want your body to be healthy enough to conquer any future adventures you have up your sleeve in the future.

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Comments 7

  • Drew Boswell : Jul 29th

    That’s a good, concise summary of a lot of the hazards hikers face, sometimes unknowingly. We’d all benefit from some well designed research on hikers, similar to many studies of long distance runners. Such data would be both interesting and useful. Kudos on this post that touches on so many of these issues.

    Reply
  • Ruth Morley : Jul 29th

    Colleen, I thank you deeply for this post. It comes at the perfect moment in my life. I am presently in the AT in Maine, finishing up my fourth section (done in 4 years) to complete the trail. Through close exposure to so many through hikers through the years and my own experience of a 900 mile section, I have long felt that they-hiking can be a less than optimal experience for hikers’ bodies and spirits. Fitness and slimness do not necessarily equal good health. I have always dehydrated my own trail food, but this is my first year that is 100% plant-exclusive, devoid of all animal products and added oil or sugars. I’ve been warned by many other hikers that I need to load up on many more calories. One way I do this is with self-made trail mixes every day of raw nuts, dried legumes, dried fruits (unsweetened) and veggies. I keep the base weight of my pack down to 12 pounds in order to be able to carry more food. Eating is a joy for me, knowing I’m honoring the only body I’ve been given. I also take a zero every fifth day, when I pick up my next food shipment. Section hiking is a joy. On today’s zero, after my breakfast of delicious homemade granola (nutrient- and calorie-rich) and dried greens with balsamic vinegar, I’m going on a seaplane tour out of Rangeley, not forcing myself to do a grueling 20 mile day because I have a deadline to make and because I just want to get the $%#% trail done (all things thru-hikers have told me).

    Take it easy, folks, and take care of yourself. Broken bodies and spirits don’t always heal. I’ve learned this the hard way.

    Reply
  • pearwood : Jul 29th

    Thanks, Spot.
    Good stuff to keep in mind.
    Blessings,
    Steve / pearwood

    Reply
  • Henry : Aug 14th

    Another risk – a big one on western trails – smoke inhalation from wildfires.

    Reply

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