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Backpacking and Multiple Sclerosis II

Updated on July 2, 2016
Hawaii volcanoes 2010
Hawaii volcanoes 2010

Backpacking and Multiple Sclerosis, continued

(C) copyright Thomas A. Vetto, MD 2011 All rights reserved

The question of backpacking with MS is a little like a fish trying to explore an evaporating pond. Slowly evaporating, maybe. Hopefully.

There are realities which must be faced, questions answered: how far can I go, what load can I carry, how is diet affected, what special physical challenges do I face and how do I face them?


MS for me has involved a major change in self-image. Twenty years ago the answer to the question, 'How far can you walk on flat ground?' was simple: I didn't know. There was no limit. Until I collapsed. Now there is a limit. So this new factor must be added into the Backpacking Equation. Some days, two miles in congenial weather is a morning's walk, others three. In an afternoon, the distance is less, sometimes far less. We will not be going long distances, as we did in the past. Much of the time will be spent near the trailhead.

This brings up an old, informal backpacking rule I've always kept in mind while walking: to get away from most dayhikers and from the unsavory types who live at many trailheads ( sometimes troops of them, especially if water and restroom facilities are available) you have to travel three miles. Route selection is important and care here will markedly de-stress the experience for me (or you) and for the companions you bring as a part of the outing.

These social problems vary a lot depending on the trail. In my experience, the northernmost entry point of the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) in Oregon is a lonesome place and a quarter mile is all you need to find solitude and even twenty feet removes you from the possibilty of seeing anyone else. However, the entrance to the Eagle Creek Trail is scary. This was not a problem when I, six foot four and 220 pounds, came cruising by at four miles per hour with a fifty-five pound pack. Now, gimping along with my Canadian crutches, the pack miniscule in comparison with previous times, a lot less muscle on my frame, the possible problems are evident.


There is a chance, so they say, of an MS flare at any time - possibly immobilizing. This has happened to me, waking from a nap at home and finding I couldn't walk, couldn't get out of bed. If this happens on the trail you are a fool if you have no cell phone with a charged battery, if your trip takes you to radio-shadowed gorges, if your schedule is unknown by family or friends, if you travel alone.

Another reality check: unless life is too heavy a burden and you have opted for a Last Walk with a Final Sleep holding an Acorn in your hand, trying a lone backpack as an MS patient is Nuts. You need a group.

Your group is never a single person: enough native porters to help set up primo camps, with someone else in overall charge. Think too, that keeping up with your posse probably won't always happen so you end up going along by yourself, resting as necessary to stay cool, micturating (look it up), or, in the last extreme, setting up your own camp and rejoining the group in the morning (nothing like solitude!) .Obviously, you must be self-sufficient when you must.

Backpacking with MS- What Fun!

A few more tid-bits of my brand of wisdom concerning walking (or not walking) with MS as we know and love it!

Some Further Comments

My own MS started officially on 11/10/2003. A it was then that the results of physical exam, blood tests and full MRI of my brain and spinal cord were completed. The diagnosis was made by my internist and I was called while drinking coffee at Starbucks. Having spent the evening before scaring myself to death reviewing all the truly nasty things that could have caused the constellation of symptoms I'd been increasingly feeling, I really felt much relieved and started to plan my Life to Come. I called a woman I'd gone to medical school with who I knew was a neurologist in Oregon. She recommended a neurologist for me to see in Arizona. I saw him, was again examined and my first diagnosis of Relapsing-Remitting MS was given me.

This has worsened, as It will, and I am now regarded as having entered the stage of Secondary Progressive MS. What happens now? Supposedly, I continue the downhill spiral to death but I don't think so.

When an airplane finally reaches the runway, it asymptotically approaches it, landing with its course parallel to the ground, then stopping. It should not follow a bee-line into the ground. My own final landing, I hope, will be a gentle slowing down of my worsening symptoms along with my own successful accommodation of them. At the same time, I work on the strength of the muscles I have and try not to let them wither from non-use.

My family is filled with people who live to advanced age without Alzheimer's Disease. I will be amongst them.

As far as backpacking is concerned, my future walks will be in the mind or from the front seat of a car. This isn't so bad, though, since my present age in my early morning 60's is much more than people in past centuries could ever have expected. I was fully physically active for my first 55 years and may live as a centenarian, backpacking all the way!

Restraining wall, south rim of the Grand Canyon.
Restraining wall, south rim of the Grand Canyon. | Source


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