Guest post and photos by: Stephanie Grace
After months of planning, shakedown hikes and overthinking my gear choices and one white-knuckle shuttle ride from the Reno airport to Tahoe City, I was 88 miles into my thru-hike of the Tahoe Rim Trail when I began to feel a snapping sensation in my leg.
I chalked it up to normal hiker fatigue and carried on. A few miles later and not long after I passed a wooden elevation marker at 7,777 feet, stabbing pain replaced the snapping sensation. I dropped my pack and hobbled to sit down under a nearby tree.
My mind raced ahead: this feels serious. What if I’m really hurt? What if I can’t continue? What if I have to quit?
My brain immediately took inventory of everyone who would be disappointed in me if I quit the trail before finishing all 165 miles: my friends at work, who had graciously allowed me to ruminate about things like the weight of a Smartwater bottle and the value of a good “poop shovel” for weeks before my trip; my husband, who sparked my initial interest in backpacking and became my biggest supporter when I started going on solo trips; and the bears on the west side of Lake Tahoe, who wouldn’t get to eat me or my dehydrated meals. (Okay, so I wasn’t exactly thinking rationally at that moment.)
Worst of all, I’d disappoint myself by not finishing what was only my second long-distance hike, because “a real hiker” wouldn’t quit just because of a little leg pain, right?
I stewed under that tree for the next 45 minutes, weighing my options, assessing my injury, and trying to put things into perspective. Now that I’ve had some time to reflect on the experience, here’s what I learned:
- After an injury, immediate safety planning is critical. First and foremost, are you safe? Are you in a place where you can safely set up camp if needed? How’s your food and water supply? How much daylight is left? Are you likely to encounter other people who can help you? Where is your nearest exit point, and can you access it safely? Do you have phone service to call for help? An inventory of your surroundings and supplies is the backbone of deciding what comes next and will help you estimate how much time you have to make that choice.
- It’s important to assess an injury honestly. Will you probably be okay after some rest, or is this a more serious injury? This is a tricky one, but you are the only person who knows exactly how your body feels. What are your symptoms? Is there swelling or bruising? How bad is your pain on a scale of 1 to 10? How much is it impacting your ability to walk or move? If your pain is moderate to severe and started after a specific incident like a fall or feeling something “pop,” it’s more likely to be a sign of injury beyond the normal aches and pains of overuse.
- Adapting to your circumstances is not failure. Ed Viesturs, a mountaineer who has climbed the world’s tallest peaks, wrote, “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is not.” This is a good lesson for hikers as well. Finishing the hike you planned is always optional, but taking care of yourself and getting home safely is not. The best hikers don’t keep pushing forward at any cost. They make informed decisions in the interest of their health and safety, whether that’s cutting down on daily mileage, taking a few days off to rest, or even leaving the trail altogether. If you measure success solely by your ability to stick to your predetermined plan, you won’t be a very happy hiker.
- It’s okay to get mad. Maybe you planned your hike for weeks or months (or longer). Maybe you spent hundreds of dollars or more on gear and permits and travel. A hiccup in the plan — whether it turns out to be a short-term inconvenience or something more significant — is frustrating! It’s normal to be angry or sad when something outside of your control interferes with your ability to achieve your goals. It’s also normal to have confusing and contradictory feelings of regret and relief if you decide to leave the trail. Acknowledge what you’re feeling and choose to be kind to yourself. If all else fails, the backcountry can be a great place to yell out a few cathartic four-letter words.
I thought I was prepared for trail injuries, and I was prepared in a practical sense. I carried a small first-aid kit for little things like blisters and twisted ankles and a personal locator beacon for worst-case scenarios like serious falls and broken bones.
What I didn’t prepare for was the murky middle ground where I found myself under that tree — I had to objectively decide whether my leg was strong enough to keep hiking while keeping my emotions and desire to finish my thru-hike in check.
Ultimately, I found a ski area on the map a few miles away and decided to head there to find a ride back to town, where I visited an urgent care clinic and discovered my calf muscle was torn. I quit my thru-hike while I was sitting there on the exam table with paper crinkling underneath me.
Fortunately, the nurse practitioner who treated me was an experienced backpacker who could empathize with me and understand my disappointment at the prospect of taking the long flight home a week earlier than expected. She even offered me a home-cooked meal and a place to stay when I was healed and ready to return to Tahoe to finish the trail!
Four months later, I have two healthy legs and a better sense of how to adapt to the unexpected — oh, and even though I didn’t complete the whole TRT, my friends and family were still proud of me. I guess sometimes quitters win after all.
About the author: Stephanie Grace grew up in Cavetown, Maryland, where she spent most summer mornings hiking on the Appalachian Trail with her dad. She fell in love with backpacking as an adult and is currently preparing for a mid-career Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike in 2020.
When not working or roaming around in the mountains, Stephanie can be found looking for hills to climb near Indianapolis, Indiana, where she lives with her husband, Jason, and their dachshund, Sebastian.