In 2011 the results of a study were published in the journal Wilderness & Environmental Medicine regarding hiking and injuries. The results were a bit surprising, and should tend to encourage all first-time John Muir Trail thru-hikers.
The study examined students at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in the Rocky Mountains. The data were collected over two hiking seasons, and over 1,200 hikers were involved.
The biggest take-away is this: you are probably not going to get injured on your hike, and, with a few simple precautions, you can stack the odds even greater in your favor. The authors conclude that there was “…no significant relationship between height, body weight, packweight, age, gender, and packweight to body weight ratio and the risk of significant musculoskeletal or soft tissue injuries while hiking with a backpack.”
There are many good reasons for packing light or for slimming down prior to stepping off from Happy Isles, but preventing injuries does not appear to be one of them. (Note: the authors do go out of their way to mention that some studies DO associate higher pack-weight with blisters.)
Indeed, only 2.2% of the studied population experienced any kind of injury. Half the injuries that did occur involved the knee, and all but six involved either the knee or the ankle.
How can you make this good situation even better? That’s easy.
More than half of the injuries were attributable to overuse or overexertion. That finding doesn’t surprise me a bit. It is very easy to overdo it, especially on the first few days of the hike (and especially since, if starting at Happy Isles, you will be doing a lot of climbing on the way to Tuolumne Meadow). The best way to prevent yourself from an injury involving doing too-much-too-soon is to, first, make sure you are in good shape before you step on the trail, and, second, take frequent breaks & hold down your mileage during the first quarter of your thru-hike.
Most of the other half of the injuries were caused by falls—again, no surprise. Trekking poles, used correctly, will go a long way to prevent those. I have lost count of the number of falls my trekking poles have saved me from on my hikes. I would guess that the average is about one a day. (Admittedly, I’m known as the guy who can trip over the paint on a basketball court, but even if you are twice as sure-footed, that’s a lot of opportunities to hurt yourself, avoided.)
My dad, who was an airline pilot during the time of propeller driven airliners, would often be asked how dangerous flying was. He would answer that the most dangerous part of any trip was the drive to and from the airport. The same can be said of a John Muir Trail thru-hike.
Good hiking, Ray