On any extended hike, you risk knee problems. And, as mentioned in an earlier post, if you hike without trekking poles, you are asking for a knee problem. What do you do when a knee, shin, or leg begins to fall apart? This happened to me six weeks into my Appalachian Trail thru-hike.
What frustrated me was that I’d used my poles religiously. Further, I had read that an A.T. thru-hiker is at his or her physical peak at the six-week point. After that, it’s a struggle, the book said, to take in enough nutritious food to replace the calories you burn every day. So I wasn’t happy that now I had to baby a shin that felt like a spike was being driven through it.
I did two things wrong: One, I ignored the first signs of discomfort. I was at my physical peak and felt the growing shin pain in my right leg would pass. I kept hiking sun-up to sun-down.
Two, I still kept hiking when I began favoring the other leg. Hikers call this hiker-hobble. I figured I could tough it out. Bad idea, and I had to get off the trail.
I did three things right: One, I went to the nearest clinic for an evaluation. X-rays determined that there wasn’t a stress fracture. Nevertheless, I was told to stop hiking immediately; it would only get worse, the nurse said.
Two, I did exactly what she told me to do. Stay off the leg; bathe it in warm to hot water, then ice it, three times a day; use an ointment like Ben-Gay. I got the cheapest room I could find that had a bathtub.
Three, I started out slowly when I went back to the A.T. one week later.
Although I’d lost my hiking buddies, and knew I’d never catch them, I realized I was lucky. I found out later that some hikers who had developed knee injuries never made it back that season. On my first day back, I hiked only three miles. I’d felt twinges and immediately set up camp. The next day I went five miles before twinges in my shin acted up again. In a few more days I was up to twelve miles and the twinges had left me completely.
The big lesson I learned: If you want to avoid hiker-hobble and worse, reduce your mileage and rest your legs at the first signs of discomfort.