Asthmatics Hike! A 3-Step Plan for Success

Everyone should do some research before trying a new physical activity – and prepping for a hike is no different.  For asthmatics, failing to prepare properly for a hike can have results ranging from mildly unpleasant to catastrophic.

my fiver year old walked this same trail. relax.Be prepared, but don’t be so nervous that you don’t go out at all – walking is a natural exercise for us.  Most of us have been doing it since we were very young.

That said,  in all of my posts I am only speaking from my own experience dealing with lifelong chronic severe asthma, and the methods I have come up with to enable me to be very physically active in spite of it.

I am NOT a licensed medical practitioner, and if you have any medical issues or doubts about your abilities, please consult your medical advisor before starting any kind of new physical activity or diet.   Now that I’ve made my lawyers happy – let’s get on with it!

3-Steps To Successful Hiking with Asthma
  1. Identify and Defend Against Your Triggers
  2. Compare Your Fitness Level to Hike Specs
  3. Carry Water and Meds on the Trail
1. Identify Your Triggers

If you have been asthmatic for some years (and are not in denial) you have probably figured out what your most troublesome triggers or allergens are.  I have been asthmatic since I was a toddler, so I have had plenty of time to figure it out.  Everyone has different triggers and different severity of response to each trigger.

A list of common asthma triggers (including but not limited to):

Smoky trees in forest fire
Don’t hike in smoky conditions.
  • Exercise or stress
  • Smoke – cigarette and  fire smoke
  • Air Pollution – smog, car exhaust, other air pollution
  • Cold dry air
  • Sulfites in food
  • Pollen, Mold and Dust
  • Insect bites and stings
  • Common cold or sinus infection

How to Defend Against Triggers on the Hike

If you know you will encounter something that is normally a trigger for you, you can pre-medicate (i.e. use an inhaler before the hike, take medication for a cold).  For any air-borne allergens, pollutants or cold air, you can cover your nose and mouth with a scarf or mask to filter and warm the air before it gets to your lungs.  Spray your clothing with insecticide to keep bugs away and prevent bites.

bumblebee on orange flower
Bee prepared to treat insect bites!
2. Compare YOUR FITNESS LEVEL To Hike Specs

If you think you may not be fit enough for the hike you want to do, you can give yourself a homemade fitness test to see where you stand.

Determining Your Natural Pace 

If you have signed up for a group hike, there should be a pace (in mph) and length of hike in the description.   If you are going out on your own, you can set your own pace, but you should still have some idea how fast you walk so you can estimate how long it will take for you to get back.  (This is especially important if you are trying to get back to the trailhead by a certain time or before dark.)

Queen Anne's Lace blossom against bright blue sky
Pollen is a common allergen that can be treated with anti-histamines.

The easiest way to determine your current natural pace is to go out and walk a mile, and time it.  If you walk a mile in 30 minutes, then your pace is 2 miles per hour. If you can do a mile in 15 minutes, then your pace is 4 miles per hour and so on.  You could use this same method walking a mile indoors on a treadmill.

Note that you will go more slowly on unpaved trails in the woods, going up and down hills with roots and rocks, etc than you will on a paved surface or treadmill.  So allow for those differences when calculating your current pace.

Hike Length – Can you go the distance?

If you have been going to the gym (or chasing kids) and are reasonably fit, you should be able to walk a few miles at a moderate pace (2.5-3mph) with no issues.  You may want to go on a couple of these moderate hikes and see how you do before you look at a longer or faster-paced hike.

If you have not been moving around at all and get winded walking to the mailbox, you may want to do some training first indoors on a treadmill where you can get immediate attention for a problem.  Start slowly and work your way to 3mph.

After you are strong enough to walk a few miles on a treadmill without issues, you can hit the trail with confidence!

3. Carry Water and Meds on the Trail

It is important for all hikers, especially asthmatics,  to carry water and first aid  and medications on the trail.

Stay Hydrated

Hiking is athletic and you will lose some water to sweat, even in cooler weather.

Public water fountain in Chamonix France.
You may be able to refill your bottles along the trail.

Everyone needs to stay hydrated, and asthmatics need to keep any mucus in their lungs thinned out.  How much water you should carry will vary depending on how hot the weather is, how long your hike is, and if you can refill your bottles along the way.  I usually carry at least (4) 16oz water bottles in a pack, except for very short (3 miles or less) hikes where one water bottle is enough.

Trail Medications

Everyone should carry bandages, antibiotic ointment, and an anti-inflammatory and anti-histamine on hikes.  Asthmatics should also carry their fast-acting rescue inhalers, tablets or other oral meds (discus), and emergency epinephrine, such as an Epi-pen.  Carry enough to see you through the timeframe you will be out, and then some extra for good measure.  It is also a good idea to carry a cell phone (even if signal is spotty) for emergency contact.

If You  Have Trouble on the Trail

If you find yourself wheezing and struggling on the trail, drink some water, take some extra meds, and take a break to catch your breath every once in a while.

You can also slow your pace, and do compression breathing if you are in real trouble, or ask another hiker for help.  As a last resort, call the Ranger or 911 from your cell phone if you have service.

Man sitting down looking at French Alp peaks.
Taking a break on the Lac Blanc trail in the French Alps.

Always keep in mind that however far you hike, (unless you are hiking a loop) you have to hike back that far again to return to the trailhead.  Only you can determine what is too much, and when you need to turn back.

Don’t be afraid to bail out if you need to and come back another day.  The trail will still be there, ready when you are.

Please leave comments below.  Let me know if this post has been helpful for you, and what your experience has been so far in hiking with asthma.  If you have any other questions or comments please leave them below and I will respond as quickly as I can.

Thanks for stopping by – see you next time!  LJ

Top 3 Reasons William B. Umstead State Park is my Favorite Forest

Kiosk at the Harrison Ave entrance.

William B. Umstead State Park has been my go-to hiking place for at least the past ten years.   I hike in the forest, or with the forest as a starting place, at least twice per week – sometimes on my own, sometimes as a hike leader for Raleigh Recreational Hikers meetup.

Umstead has a long history:  initially a wild hardwood-forested area inhabited with bison, bobcats and elk, it later became the site for indigenous peoples homes and trade, was part of a land grant for farms in 1774, and  finally in 1934 – through a joint effort of Federal and State agencies – 5,000 acres were purchased to create a public recreation area.  The Civilian Conservation Corp and the Works Progress Administration helped with construction, and the park was open to the public in 1937.

Watching the horses on Reedy Creek greenway.

Spending so much time at Umstead, over such a long stretch of years, makes it hard for me to get back to basic facts about the place – but here goes!

Reason #1:  Location, Location, Location

One of my personal hiking rules is that for any hike,  I want to be on the trail at my destination for at least as much time as it takes me to travel there and back.  I have never had to break that rule when I hike at Umstead.

Located in Wake County, NC between Raleigh, Cary and Durham, this 5,579 acre park is at most a 15 minute drive (or a 5 mile walk) from my house.

It has two entrances: one located the end of Harrison Ave after it crosses the I-40 bridge in Cary (11mi west of Raleigh), and the other off of Glenwood Avenue/Hwy 70 in Raleigh.  The Raleigh entrance is where you will find the park’s Visitor’s Center.

With 22 miles of hiking trails, 13 miles of bridle trails, tent/trailer camping, and primitive camping available, this park is by far the most convenient hiking venue of its magnitude for me and everyone else in the area.  The trails available are good for kids and adults, novices and experienced hikers – -and there is no park entrance fee.  There is even a boat house, and you can go fishing if you need to give your feet a break.

There are also plenty of opportunities to visit Umstead park because it is open every day of the year, except Christmas Day.

Reason #2: Variety of Terrain and Trails of all Lengths
Millstone and plaque along the Company Mill Trail

There are rocky creeks, deeper rivers, lakes and ponds all within the park, and most of the trails cross or go along beside them.  You can also see remnants of the history of the park – chimneys from homesteads, gravestones, CCC handiwork, and remnants of the dam and mill – as you walk.  If you are lucky, you may also see some deer, otter, great blue herons or owls.

None of the trails have really large elevation gains, but there is some variety in the terrain – for instance, the Company Mill trail and the Sycamore Trail are much rockier and have more hills than the Loblolly trail, which is more smooth and low-lying with lots of ferns along the trail.

On the rocks beside the mill stream on Company Mill trail.

Trail length within the park varies: shorter sections like Inspiration Trail are less than half a mile and the longest continuous single trail, Sycamore, is a 7.2 mile loop.   Other longer single trails include the Company Mill loop at 5.8 mi and the Loblolly trail, which is an out-and-back of 5.4 miles.

Hikers with two and four legs enjoy the Loblolly Trail.

It is unusual to have so many trails of moderate length in a single park, especially one that is so easy to get to.

By moderate length, I mean long enough to make it worth your while going out – with kids a 6 mile trail could be a whole day! –  but not so long that even fit adult hikers wouldn’t make it back to the trailhead before dark.

The only other State Park within a 2 hour drive that offers as much variety is Eno River State Park, about an hour’s drive away, in Durham.

Reason #3:  You Can Build-Your-Own Day Trips

The Town of Cary greenways I mentioned earlier are not the only hike-able connections to trails inside Umstead State Park.  Umstead is like the hub of a wheel with each spoke going outside the park to a different hiking venue.

Hikers take pics of carving beside the Sycamore Trail.
  • Umstead to Umstead (Co Mill and Sycamore):  The trailheads for the three longer trails in the park are split between the two entrances, Sycamore on the Raleigh side and Company Mill and Loblolly on the Cary side.  I do occasionally hike internally across the park with a trail combination I call the “Crazy Eight”, both for the shape the trail makes and the approximate length of the hike, which includes the Company Mill trail and part of Sycamore.  The whole hike is 8-9 miles.
  • Umstead to Lake Crabtree Park and Black Creek Greenway:  On the side of the park closest to I40 and Lake Crabtree, hiking the Reedy Creek Multi-Use trail will take you on the bridge over I-40 to the trailhead at Old Reedy Creek road.  (Or, you can simply drive to that trailhead on city streets and start from there.) From there you can go left to the Black Creek Greenway, or right to the hiking and biking trails into Lake Crabtree County Park.  Depending on your starting point and direction you go, this could be anywhere from a 5 mile to a 15 mile hike.

    View from the lakeside trail on Crabtree Lake.
  • Umstead to Schenck Forest, Reedy Creek, NCMA: Taking the Loblolly trail to the edge of the park will bring you to the Reedy Creek Greenway,  From there you can turn right to go back to Umstead, cross the street into NC State’s Schenck Forest, or go left along Reedy Creek road (choosing to step off the greenway to hike Reedy Creek trails if you wish) to get to the trails at North Carolina Museum of Art Park.  Or any combination thereof.  Shortest route would be about 6.5 miles, if you just do Loblolly to Reedy Creek road back into the park.

    Horses graze alongside Reedy Creek Greenway outside of Schenk forest.
  • Umstead to NCMA, House Creek Trail, Meredith College greenway: Once you are at the NCMA, you can hike the paved trails in the museum park all the way to the pedestrian bridge over the highway.  Once you cross you can go to the left on House Creek Greenway which will take you all the way to Crabtree Valley Mall. Or, you could go right to hike on the paved greenway that runs alongside the grounds of Meredith College to the corner of Faircloth and Hillsborough streets in Raleigh.  In both of these cases, this is an out-and-back, so save time and energy for your return trip.   Depending on where you start and where you go, this could be a moderate hike of 5 miles or a very long hike of 12 to 18 miles.
    Pillar at entrance to NCMA pedestrian highway bridge from House Creek Greenway.


    Always Something New to Discover

After hiking the same forest for so many years, you would think it would get boring.  Honestly, sometimes, maybe a little.  But mostly I’m not bored – every season, each change of weather,  even which direction you are going on the trail gives you a different perspective that makes you glad you came out.

Even after so many years, I admit that there are Umstead trails that I have not explored because they are less convenient for me.

Going forward,  I promise to make it my goal to seek out those unfamiliar trails, not just for me but so I can share it with you all.

Please leave comments below and let me know what your experiences have been in Umstead State Park,  and which trails are your favorites.  If you have any other questions or comments please also leave them below and I will respond as quickly as I can.

Thanks for stopping by – see you next time!  LJ