Walking Well: Common AT Health Problems

What to Expect and How to Prepare
By Vernon G. Vernier, M.D., a.k.a. "Del Doc"
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What medical problems do prospective Appalachian Trail thru-hikers face? What should they expect and plan for? For many years, the answers to these questions were based only upon experience and anecdotal advice from previous thru-hikers and trail experts. Now, we have a more systematic and comprehensive source. Doctors Byron J. Crouse and David Josephs (a 1990 thru-hiker) reported on the health and hiking histories of 1987 and 1988 A.T. 2,000-milers in the May 1993 edition of The Journal of Family Practice.

The doctors sent 224 hikers a three-page questionnaire in February 1989. One-hundred-eighty hikers responded and submitted their demographic data, information about their pre-hike conditioning and health characteristics, and their health-care experiences during their hikes. They also were asked specific questions on injuries, foot care, and problems including trail-time lost due to injuries and illness.

The respondents included 142 male (80 percent) and 36 female (20 percent) hikers (two did not identify their sex). One-hundred-thirty-four (74 percent) were thru-hikers, and 44 were section hikers (24 percent; two did not specify). Thru-hikers were younger (an average of 34 years old) while section hikers were older (51).

Here are some highlights of the results:

Most (82 percent) of the responding hikers had one or more health problems on the trail.

Musculoskeletal problems, including leg and joint pain, were the most common complaints.

Blisters were the most common foot complaint (53 percent of hikers). Hikers reported a much higher frequency of blisters (53 percent) when they answered a structured question ("For how long during your hike did you suffer from foot blisters?") than when they answered an open-ended request to list any medical problems (only 9 percent listed blisters). We don't know whether it did not occur to them when asked the open-ended question, or whether they regarded blisters as so minor and universal as to not warrant mention. The latter suggests that there were probably other problems that were unreported.

Hikers had a high incidence of diarrhea, with 112 (62 percent) reporting at least one episode. "The majority of the gastrointestinal complaints, which affected 22 percent of the hikers, were general symptoms of gastroenteritis or diarrhea," the report said.

Only 7 percent of hikers drank exclusively certified or treated water.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 4 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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