Hiking Around Physical Limitations

My story

I’ve wanted to do the John Muir Trail for years, and this year I finally decided this was the year. I felt mentally ready, I planned for the time off, I trained for the whole year specifically for it, focused a lot on how to lighten my pack weight without sacrificing too much comfort, and learned a lot about how to fuel my body on the trail.

But once I started, we fell behind on the miles we were supposed to do. The first two days we only hiked 6 miles instead of the 8 to 10 we were supposed to do. The first night, my hiking partner’s back was hurting, so we stopped early. The second day we got a late start and getting over Donahue Pass took longer than expected, so we only hiked 7 miles and decided to set up camp before it got dark. On the third day, we decided to exit and go to Mammoth to pick up a few more supplies (we needed a new water filter and more food), shower, and sleep in a bed because it was very cold the first two nights (a cold front came through). To make up for the first two days, we had to cover 12 to 14 miles to make it to our pre-booked hotel. On a day hike, I’ve been able to cover that many miles with few problems, but with a 40 to 35lb pack, it was too much for my knee. When we got to the hotel, my knee was stiff and I could barely walk.

After much back and forth, I decided to leave the trail and not continue and risk it getting worse since my next exit was Bishop Pass and 8 days away.

It was eating me inside that I had left the trail early. I kept thinking about what I could have done differently, thinking that maybe it was all in my head. I’ve had knee pain before, but this felt a little different. Once I got home, I kept thinking maybe I was just sore from the long day of hiking. After a week and a half of resting, my knee felt better, so I decided to head up to the Sierra to hike Bishop Pass.

I felt ok in the beginning. I kept thinking about how I was going to come back in a few weeks and hike another section. But 2 miles in, my knee started bothering me. So we decided to just spend the time at Long Lake on the trail swimming. Then we started to hike down. About .25 miles on the way down, I felt a sharp pain on the outside of my knee cap on left when I bent my leg. It hurt so badly the pain vibrated up and down my leg.

The one time I decided to leave my Garmin In-Reach at home, is the time I actually needed it. It was a Sunday afternoon, so there weren’t many people on the trail to help. But, thankfully, the one time I left my Garmin at home I wasn’t solo and brought hiking poles. It took 4 hours to make it down 2 miles.

My hiking buddy took my day pack and I took small, careful steps down, trying to put more pressure on the hiking poles. But every time I’d bend my leg, placed my foot a little off, stepped too hard down, I’d be in extreme pain in that one spot in my knee.

Finally, we made it down right at dark. I spent the rest of the night not even being able to bend my leg, and I couldn’t sleep all night because I was in so much pain.

I came home and made a doctor's appointment with an orthopedic surgeon who also specializes in sports medicine. The MRI showed that I have a tilted patella and swelling under the kneecap. Thankfully, I don’t need surgery, just physical therapy to correct it. It’s a common problem with hikers and with all the up and downhill sections.

After the Bishop Pass/Long Lake hike, I realized that it was a good thing I left the hike early. Otherwise, I really would have been helicoptered out with how my knee felt after a week and a half of resting and a maybe 10lbs pack. Imagine how bad it would be the next day on the trail with a 35 to 40lbs pack!

Understanding the difference between mental and physical limitations

An ex-boyfriend introduced me to hiking. When we graduated college and I was able to go on the weekends, he couldn’t, and none of my college friends wanted to hike more than a mile on the local trails, let alone hikes like Mt. Whitney. I didn’t want to go alone, so I put off hiking. But finally something clicked inside and I saw Girls Who Hike on Instagram and joined the LA and Central Coast chapter on Facebook. I took the dog and went hiking solo on Mt. Baldy, put out feelers for girls from the GWHLA group to join me, and started to make hiking friends on Facebook and on the trail.

On a lot of these longer and harder hikes, there are times when I think about why I got myself into it. Especially after a long day, when my feet hurt and I still have a mile or two to go to get to camp or the car.

But this summer, I've learned that there is a difference between mental limitations and physical ones. Pushing through mental limitations on the trail is so important for tackling bigger trails and mountains. But at the same time, it’s ok to have physical limitations, know what they are, and how to work around them.

Having physical limitations doesn’t mean you can’t hike or tackle the mountains and trails that you want to. It just means you need to hike your own hike.

My limitations

Sometimes I think I’m superwoman and hiking 20 miles with a 40 pound backpack sounds like a great idea. It doesn’t help that I’m 24 and think I’m invincible. But with my knee injury, I learned that I really do have physical limitations, and although I train for the mountains, there are just some things my body can and can’t do.

I’ve learned that with backpacking. I can comfortably hike 8 miles. I can also do 10 miles, but by the time I get to camp that’s when I’ll start hurting. I’ve learned that when I push past those 10 miles with a backpacking pack is when my body starts to break down, especially on steep descents. So, in the future, instead of thinking I can hike the full John Muir Trail in 15 to 17 days, I’ll plan to hike it in sections and keep each day to 8 to 10 miles.

I’ve learned that I don’t like day hiking more than 12 to 15 miles and I don’t like very steep trails. I have no problem with 2,500 feet of elevation gain spread out over a 14 mile round trip trail, but on a trail like Half Dome or Upper Yosemite Falls, where it’s nothing but uphill and steep, I don’t enjoy the trail. My feet hurt and my knees are killing me by the time I get to the car.

I’ve learned that I’m not a quick hiker. Depending on the trail, my pack and the steepness, I can hike anywhere from 1 to 2 mph. I know that it’s not quick, it takes me all day to hike 8 miles, granted I also stop to smell the pine trees, love taking photos, and jumping into as many lakes as I can. In the past, I’ve hiked with people who are much faster than I am and who didn’t really want to stop, and I hated myself for it. I just kept wanting to hike faster. To keep up with them, and spent the whole trail feeling like I was chasing someone. I worked out so hard to try and pick up my hiking speed and no matter how much better my aerobic threshold got, the overall speed stayed the same. After spending too many hikes feeling ashamed of it, I finally accepted it, and started hiking with people who have a similar speed.

I’ve also learned that my body does not do well when it’s hot outside, especially on exposed trails with the sun beating down on my head in the afternoon. When going over a pass, I need to start very early in the morning, like 4am, because in the heat of the day my body tires out more quickly. Overall, I enjoy the trail more when it’s cooler outside. So I’ve learned that I need to be up and over a pass in the morning hours. Then I can take a longer lunch by a lake cooling off instead of suffering through the 2pm sun.

In the past, I’ve also learned the hard way that I can’t come from sea level and try and hike past 10,000 feet without acclimating. I get altitude sickness. So now I accommodate and spend time acclimating above 7,000 feet before attempting to summit a 14er.

I don’t need to do a marathon hike. I hike for me, and it’s ok to modify the hikes to make them more enjoyable. This is who I am, and I’m going to hike my own hike.

Limitations do not mean you can’t get out there

At first, I was ashamed of these limitations. I thought, well if I just work out more and if I hike more, I’ll overcome them. And although working out more definitely helps a lot and makes these longer hikes easier and more enjoyable, there are just certain limits our bodies have.

I’m sure as I continue to hike and backpack and try new outdoor activities, more limitations will come up. I’m learning to be ok with it.

I’m learning that it’s ok that I’m not superwoman and can’t hike 20 miles with a 40 pound backpack and that I need to section hike the John Muir Trail in more days than I expected to. And, most importantly, I’m learning not to be ashamed of my limitations.

Learning to work around them

These limitations are not stopping me from finishing the John Muir Trail, learning to winter mountaineer, doing other thru-hikes, spending every weekend in the summer hiking and backpacking, getting better at snowboarding, learning to backcountry snowboard, and more!

It just means that some of these trips will need to be modified to cover fewer miles over more days. It means I might have to hike fewer trails over the summer and instead of doing a bunch of trails and taking a day off here and there, focus on a bigger trail and use my time off for that.

We all have limitations that are unique to us, and that’s ok. No one else is as unique and special as you are, so hike your own hike!

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