Seven Lessons I’ve Learned from Hiking with a Chronic Illness

White guy, Mark Miles, with brown hair and blue shirt on river bank

Chronic illness changes everything. This I know from personal experience.

Whether scheduling my life down to the last second, watching everything I eat like a hawk, or calculating exactly how much I can talk about it with strangers before their eyes glaze over like donuts, I’m constantly adjusting my life to a health condition I never asked for, never wanted, and never did anything to deserve. As such, most of the changes I’ve had to make to my life have been either annoying, time-consuming, painful, or all of the above.

At the same time, I’ve had to tailor these changes to one of my favorite activities, namely hiking. Now, ironically, I wasn’t much of a hiker before I found out I had a chronic illness. But I’ve become one since then.

And in the process of hiking with a chronic illness, I’ve learned a number of different lessons. Some of these are fairly obvious and some not so much. But almost all of them have applications to life in general, even for people who prefer the indoors and never have to deal with the glazed-over face-melt of complete strangers.

Shirtless white guy in mirror selfie

Stay in Shape

It should go without saying there’s never a better time to take care of yourself than when you’re sick. And if you’re sick — or at least struggling with your health — all the time, then there’s never a better time to take care of yourself than now. And one great way to do that is to stay in shape.

Likewise, if you’re active in the outdoors for any length of time, you’ll quickly realize that nature favors resilience over almost every other trait. After all, springing back to life is what every forest must do after winter. And resilience — while it may not be exactly the same as staying in shape — is something that can only be effectively cultivated through a life of physical activity.

In the same way, there’s no aspect of life that can’t be improved by taking caring of the only body you’ll ever have. Best of all, doing so will reduce the likelihood of complications from a chronic illness and increase the likelihood that you’ll know what to do when the riverbank you’re descending suddenly turns into a slippy slide.

Map and equipment on wooden table

Plan Ahead

When you have to be constantly on guard against what the next day may bring — from numbness in half your body, to cardiac arrhythmias, to blood in your stool, to dermatitis, to shooting pains in regions of the body you didn’t even know you had — you learn to always have a plan. If nothing else, this allows you some kind of recourse in the event that you wake up feeling like you just got in a fight with a rottweiler and lost.

Likewise, when you’re hiking, you need to know where you’re going, how you’ll get there, and what obstacles you may encounter on the way. And to do this, you need to sit down, do a little research, and come up with a plan.

Beyond that, life is always better when you know what you’re doing. And planning ahead — so that you have contingencies in place for any event — can ensure that you know what to do if you run out of water, lose sensation in your face, or simply need a chocolate fix in the wilderness.

Almonds, coconut, and water on wooden desk

Take Food and Water

Though chocolate may or may not be on your list of life essentials, food and water should be. And for those of us who have a chronic illness — which may cause us to become lethargic or disoriented without warning even under normal circumstances — food and water are doubly essential. After all, you never know how long you may need to stop in one place to recover from the roller coaster that is your life.

Likewise, when you’re hiking through the wilderness and get a hankering for honey-roasted peanuts and beef jerky, it’s good to have those on hand. After all, you probably won’t find them under the nearest bush. And because dehydration is more likely to be the end of you than a hungry grizzly, it’s a good idea to have water too.

So whether you’re an ethical vegan or a die-hard carnivore, food and water are always good ideas. Combine them with prolonged time spent in the outdoors or a tendency to feel like you just got hit by a tractor trailer, and they’re downright essential.

Woman with pink pants walking through pine trees

Pace Yourself

When you live your life from day to day with a chronic illness that may be paralyzing, you quickly learn the importance of setting a speed for your life that doesn’t make things worse. After all, the last thing you need is to push yourself so far, so fast that you have a nervous breakdown in addition to feeling like you just got a massage from a steamroller.

Likewise, when you’re hiking a trail that seems longer than the state of Florida, it’s a good idea to make sure you have enough energy to complete the whole thing. And one important way to do this is to set a speed for yourself that you can keep for the entirety of the hike.

Beyond that, pacing yourself is hugely important in life in general, since everything that’s worth doing takes time. From running a marathon, to baking a cake, to wrestling a grizzly bear, there’s nothing in life that can’t be improved in some way by better time management — which is really all pacing yourself is.

Wooden bench in the woods

Rest as Needed

If you’ve lived with a chronic illness for any length of time, you know the importance of taking a break. Quite honestly, there’s nothing more important when you feel like you’re tumbling over the edge of a precipice that may or may not result in a chocolate-induced coma.

Likewise, when you’re hiking, you have to know when to sit down and take a breather. Of course, if you’re anything like me, you may have to wrestle with the internal voice of both your parents — who are staunchly Midwestern and therefore believe that napping is the moral equivalent of grand larceny.

Even so, there are times in all of life — whether on the trail, in a board room, at the gym, or with your overly judgmental Midwestern parents — when you simply need to take a break, sit down, and rest. Granted, you may not win any medals of honor for doing so. But you may save yourself from a chocolate-induced coma.

Boulder overlooking forest floor

Know Your Limits

Whether facing the prospect of a chocolate-induced coma or feeling like you’re already in one, you have to know when to throw in the towel in life, especially when you’re living with a chronic illness. Of course it may not be the most grandiose or exultant ending you had in mind. But there are times when it’s the only way to keep yourself in one piece.

Likewise, when you’re hiking, you have to be able to distinguish between a trail that’s just a little bit challenging and one that may literally result in your funeral. Yes, it’s true: you may have to live with the derision of your overbearingly chauvinistic coworkers — who think any consideration for health and safety is an admission that you were born without testicles. But that’s why laxatives in coffee were invented.

Beyond that, it’s important in every walk of life to know when enough is enough. Whether staring down your ninth chocolate donut or addressing the boss who thinks your middle name is “Doormat,” there are times in life when you have to know your limits and respect them, as well as expecting others to do the same. If not, just remember — laxatives in coffee.

White guy, author Mark Miles, with blue shirt next to river

Enjoy the Good Times

When facing the very real prospect of living the rest of your life with a chronic illness, it’s easy to become despondent. In fact, it’s not only easy; it’s virtually inevitable. Yet there are still moments of enjoyment even in a life frequently punctuated by intense and debilitating pain. And those moments don’t have to be all about chocolate.

Likewise, hiking isn’t merely about distance, steps, calories, or elevation gain. It’s about place, time, history, wildlife, and the experience of being fully immersed in nature. This means there should always be room for simple enjoyment — whether that results from a beautiful view, a dip in the water, a chance encounter with a stranger, or a glimpse of a wildflower you’ve never seen before.

As you may have guessed, the same applies to life in general. Whether fishing with your buddies, swimming in the pool on a hot day, or making a chocolate cake that would put Martha Stewart to shame, life should always leave room for the good times.

For if there’s one thing you learn from both nature and chronic illness, it’s how fleeting they are.

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