At birth, I was diagnosed with asthma*. It was triggered by allergies, exercise, cigarette smoke, cold, and severe humidity. Around age nine, I began seeing an asthma and allergy specialist to try to get it under control. I took a control inhaler twice daily along with an asthma control pill and I had to carry a rescue inhaler, which I used about four or five times per week.
Later that same year I began music lessons for flute. Within six months of picking up the flute, my asthma was much less severe. The asthma specialist I had been seeing annually gave me breathing exercises to work on. At age 12, I was taken off all daily asthma medications and left with just my rescue inhaler, which I only used for outdoor sports and gym class. I played college soccer and stuck with music until I graduated at age 22. By then, I only needed to use my inhaler a few times per week.
Flash forward to age 23. I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail. By then, I had become a total couch potato, stopped playing music, and did not even do breathing exercises anymore. I also had not filled my Albuterol inhaler prescription in about three years. I got a new inhaler just for the trail and had no idea what I was getting myself into. Thankfully, the breathing exercises were still ingrained in me and I only ended up using my inhaler during February and March of my seven-month thru-hike. I have spent nearly 25 years with chronic asthma, and here are a few ways I deal with it while hiking.
*Ed. note: This post provides information and discussions about asthma and related subjects. The information and other content provided in this post are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is this post a substitute for professional medical advice and/or treatment. If you or any other person has a medical concern, consult with a health care professional.
Tips for Dealing with Asthma While Hiking
- Always bring your rescue inhaler, even if you don’t think you’ll use it. If you are hiking in cold weather, keep your inhaler warm! Just like your water filter, sleep with it and keep it against your body while hiking during the day.
- Hike your own hike… seriously
- Take as many breaks as you need. If you start to feel wheezy, it is OK to take a breather! Your fellow hikers will understand.
- Pace yourself. Slowing down can make your asthma symptoms much milder and provide the stamina you need to get to your goals.
- Don’t be afraid of the snot rocket. We’re all hiker trash; they’re not gross. Keeping your nose clear can be the difference between a dry, wheezy climb and breathing through your nose uphill.
- Make sure your pack is fitted properly. Anything that puts weight on your chest or diaphragm can make breathing harder. Make sure your hip belt is adjusted properly so that your chest strap is supporting your shoulder straps, not simply putting the weight onto your chest and neck.
- Work on your breathing even when you aren’t exercising.Pursed lip breathing and diaphragmatic breathing can both help strengthen your lungs and diaphragm.
- When you feel wheezing coming on pre-asthma attack, find a place to sit. Take pressure off your chest by removing your backpack and placing your hands on your thighs so that your middle fingertips are touching the tops of your knees. Then, try the breathing exercise above.
Strengthening your breathing can help you so much in backpacking and hiking with asthma, but make sure you do it safely. If you need your inhaler, use it. Seeking out treatment from an asthma specialist was an absolute game-changer. If you have insurance, take advantage of it and see a specialist—asthma and allergy or ear, nose, and throat.
While conditioning my lungs helped me use my inhaler less, it took me a few years of daily practice to get to a point of not needing it every time I exercised, and I still carry just in case. If you’re thinking about extended backpacking trips or thru-hiking and you have been diagnosed with asthma, see your doctor before you take off and make sure your inhaler is not expired before you leave.