How I Hiked a Mountain with a Broken Foot
Camping and hiking expert Hannah Kaufman shares the story of the time she hiked up a mountain on a barely-healed broken foot. She doesn't really recommend it.
This is a cautionary tale of how I hiked a mountain with a broken foot. Super not recommended.
Setting the Scene
Two months before I had planned a half roadtrip/half backpacking trip through Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming with three friends, I broke my foot. Prior to this, the worst injury I ever had was a sprained wrist and a minor muscle strain in my quad that healed up after a few days. A broken bone was new territory to me, and I wasn’t used to being forced to rest for such a long amount of time. I remember the sound and the moment I first realized I was seriously injured—it still haunts me.
If you are curious as to how I broke my foot, the answer is wildly embarrassing. I was walking to meet my dad for lunch, and I tripped over completely flat ground. My dad tells the story like this: “When analyzing the crime scene, you’ll shortly realize that there was no reason whatsoever for her to fall.” All I remember was somehow ending up on the floor. Such a clutz (but I like to think that it is part of my charm).
An hour later, a black and blue tennis-ball like shape of swelling appeared on my foot and a quick trip to the E.R. confirmed that I had broken my fifth metatarsal in two places. A fifth metatarsal break thankfully is not as bad as an ankle break, so I was optimistic that it would heal fast and I would be up for the trip. Regardless, I knew I was going to go, even if I had to hike in my boot (also not recommended).
After countless physical therapy sessions, some acupuncture, and lots of rest, I packed my pack and went to meet my friends. We started off our two-week trip with some shorter and easier hikes throughout Utah and Colorado. I had managed to keep up with my friends for the majority of it and didn’t feel any pain. When we got to Telluride for a lunch break before our next long drive, we went into an herbalist shop, where I picked up some patches to put on my foot overnight to help with swelling and pain. Boy, did they work.
When we got to our campsite in Silverton that night, I put on a patch, took a few Advil, and had some turmeric tea. The next morning we woke up at 6 am—although we meant to get up at 4 am. We packed up and made our way to the trailhead. My boots were tight, I had extra Advil in my bag, and I was amped to make it to the peak.
Before we had started, we made a plan that two members of the group would go ahead and one would stay behind with me in case I needed to turn around because of the pain. Now before I tell you the rest of the story, I want you to know that you always need to listen to your body. Of course I did not do that, which is why this is a cautionary tale.
When we had talked about this hike in particular, knowing that this would be the hardest peak we would do throughout our trip and everyone worrying about my ability to finish it, I knew in the back of my mind that I was going to prove them wrong. Now, I’m not a competitive person, but when someone tries to tell me I can’t or shouldn’t do something I like to do it anyways. And that was my plan—although I didn’t tell my friends that. I knew that they were only looking out for me and didn’t want me to get reinjured. I didn’t want that either.
Being injured sucks for those who hate feeling helpless and are by definition independent creatures. For the first few weeks I remember how difficult it was to do simple things like take a shower or make some oats or run down to the fridge to get some hummus and pita chips. How was I going to hike a mountain?
The crutches were the worst. Once I was strong enough to walk just in the boot, my optimistic attitude slowly crumbled. An x-ray showed no improvement. For those of you who don’t know, it takes up to a year or longer for a bone to heal properly. After eight weeks, a hard callous will form around the break- which is when sensitivity and pain are mostly gone and you can start activity slowly. I’m not sure why I expected my break to heal within two months—youthful hope and naivety perhaps.
A week later though, my boot was off. Hooray! I had to learn to walk again within a week before the start day of our trip. Within that week, I had five physical therapy sessions and jumped for the first time—probably too soon, but I was excited. Feeling really weak with a completely atrophied calf muscle, I made my way to Boulder, Colo. And by completely atrophied, I mean I measured the size of my calves and there was an inch and a half difference. I had lost an inch and a half of muscle! Gross. But by the end of this trip, I would gain it all back.
Me vs. the Mountain
So let me set the scene. It’s about 7:30 am by the time we get to the trailhead. Two of my friends—Elaina and Amelia—were going to go ahead of us. My lovely best friend Tori would hike with me at my pace. At the time she was also dealing with a knee injury so we were both hiking at a slower pace than the other two, who were known for flying ahead of the rest of the pack. She would also say one of the best things I’ve heard “hydrate or die-drate.” Solid advice.
With a groggy smile on my face and a new layer of sunscreen (don’t forget your sunscreen, kids!), I started my way up. This hike was an eight-mile round trip with almost 4,000ft of elevation gain. It was a hard hike. And I was at my weakest. But who cares, it’s all about the attitude my dudes.
PSA: It is a lot about the attitude but training for hikes is always recommended.
About 20 minutes in, we made our first stop. I wanted to shed a layer. After an hour, the altitude was seriously getting to me. I am not a Colorado local and I had only been there for a week at this point, so the altitude was very hard for me to adjust to. Thankfully along the trail, we met some really awesome people who also were struggling to breathe. The entire experience was very communal—we suffered together through this remarkable place.
After I thought I was already exhausted, Tori asked a couple hiking down what percent they thought we were at. “20 percent,” they said. “Bro what,” I replied. We had been heading straight up for what seemed like forever and my legs were so weak already. That was a low point for me although I laughed my way through it.
We were told by some other hikers that when we got to a meadow we would be 80-percent done. I was determined to get to that meadow. I wanted to be a fairy and run through flower fields (but of course I was respectful and stayed on trail don’t worry). And guess what, we got there! We got to the meadow. This meadow was gorgeous—there were streams and large grasses and flowers of every color imaginable. We stopped for lunch to enjoy the view of what we had just accomplished. In my head, I had fairy wings on, too.
At this point, Tori and I both were exhausted. Surprisingly, my injury wasn’t the hardest part of this hike—the altitude was. I felt that drunkenness they talk about throughout my muscles. And here is where I remind you to always listen to your body. Seriously!
But obviously we kept going. We had already gotten 80 percent of the way, no way was I turning around now. Besides, my foot wasn’t bothering me—or at least, the adrenaline made me ignore it if it was.
The Last 20 Percent
The last 20 percent was the hardest. Everyone kept saying that we were almost there, almost there. But every “almost there” that I heard made me think that we were not in fact “almost there.” Finally though, after a lot of winded breaks, granola bars, multiple liters of water, and many wilder-pees, Tori and I made it. At the top of this mountain were two alpine lakes that were so clear that you could see to the bottom.
“Wow, I did this.”
I did that! I knew I was going to but there is always that little bit of doubt with the chance that something won’t go as you hope. But...I did it!
Tori and I headed towards the lakes to sit, rest up, and enjoy the view. That is when something truly magical happened: we saw Amelia and Elaina. We screamed their names and ran—yes ran—over to them where I was greeted with the biggest smiles and big hugs. “I’m so proud of you...you crushed that, Hannah.”
Well thanks, I know I did. It turns out we were only about 25 minutes behind them. Amelia introduced us to other hikers they met on the way and introduced me as “the girl who climbed a mountain with a broken foot” (new trail name perhaps). They applauded—a standing ovation in fact—and they offered me the last beer they had. A last beer is a very special thing. I felt honored that they deemed me worthy for it. It was a very validating gesture to say the least.
After another 30 minutes, we were ready to hike down. The hike down turned out to be my least favorite part. When you hike down a steep hill, you often put more pressure on your fifth metatarsal then you realize, according to my physical therapist. I knew that the hike down would bring on the pain.
It did. But I was not alone. I had the three most amazing people in the world to help me down, and a marmot which joined us for part of the way.
Cute little side note: Before we started this hike I said, “Maybe we’ll see a marmot.” I think I’m good at manifesting my destiny. Y’all should try it.
Anyways, the four of us and the marmot who I named Shelby made our way down. We all took some stumbles and partook in the classic butt scootch here and there at some steep sections, and I was carried at one spot too. I was so grateful to be with my friends who gave me the emotional and quite literally physical support I needed to get down this mountain.
I definitely wouldn’t recommend hiking with a broken foot, though.
We passed the spot where Tori and I were told we only had accomplished “20 percent” and I lost it. I didn’t cry though. I ended up on the ground in the middle of the trail laughing so hard that I actually did shed a tear or two. Amelia and I finished the hike down together but I do specifically remember yelling “Why the hell are we not off this mountain yet” when we were actually five minutes away from our car. When we finally got back, I popped an ice pack, got in the driver's seat, and drove us to our campsite. The rest of the night I couldn’t stop smiling, despite that after the adrenaline wore off the pain really kicked in. My foot was throbbing but I was so proud of myself, and my friends were too.
Listening to My Body
Looking back on it, I really question if I made the right choice. If anyone else had told me they were planning on doing a hike like this with any injury, I would tell them to sit it out and wait. I couldn’t take my own advice. The only thing I can offer now is that we each understand our own limitations better than anyone else. Take caution, listen to your body (cannot repeat that enough) and do what feels like the best choice for you.
Thankfully I did not reinjure my foot and by the time the trip was over, I felt stronger than before I left.
But back to that night after the hike: we were sitting around the campfire with some wine we picked up and a lovely tofu curry (very weird combination but felt right at the moment). We each finished a dark chocolate bar too. We went to bed feeling accomplished and covered with a glorious layer of sweat, dirt, and pollen. The next day we had planned to take a rest day for my foot and walk around town. Instead, the next morning we woke up early, packed up camp, and headed out on a seven-mile hike with 1,000 feet of elevation. It was great.
Although I can never predict the future, I don’t think I’ll ever hike with a broken anything ever again.