How to tramp with migraines

What I’ve learnt so far about tramping with migraines.

I often used to go tramping on my own, and had the occasional migraine alone in the wilderness. But that was before the migraines became very frequent – now I have migraines for around 10-12 days a month, that means for any longer tramp I go on (a week or more), the chances are, I’ll have a migraine on at least one day of tramping. Flicking through the notes I’ve taken on recent trips, I spot a recurrent theme. ‘Headachy on waking, turned into a full-blown migraine so took some pills. They worked after an hour or so but felt dopey and clumsy until lunchtime.’

‘Woke with neck pain and thought it was due to a bad sleeping position, but it soon became a migraine. Took a pill but it increased in severity. Felt yuck all day but pain only moderate so carried on with the walk for the day.’

So nowadays, I make sure I have company when I go tramping – and picking the right companion(s) is the first important step. They need to know about the migraines, be understanding, willing and able to help out if necessary. If I’m flaked out at the end of the day, my partner is happy to put up the tent, get dinner ready, inflate my sleeping mat and take on all navigation responsibilities (oh, hang on, he does that anyway).

Flexibility is the other crucial element. We always have a plan A, for what we’d like to do, a plan B for if I get sick, and probably a plan C as well. For longer trips, we’ll usually budget at least one spare day that I can lay up if I have to. We’ll pick tramps that can be lengthened or shortened depending on my state of mind. This is why I’ve never done a trip with a tramping club. I’ve heard too many stories of people who were left behind on club trips because they couldn’t keep up, and it was up to them to find their own way out. That sort of environment and those sort of people are not safe for me to tramp with. Most tramping clubs are not able to accommodate people with a disability on their trips, and migraine can be a disability that is invisible, making it even more likely to be misunderstood.

An example of a trip where flexibility was the mainstay of the experience was a visit to the Wilkin Valley and Gillespie Pass over New Year in 2016.

Day 1: We flew into Jumboland Flats on a brilliant clear, still day and walked to Top Forks Hut, which was actually two huts, perfectly located beside the Wilkin River and with views out to a snow-capped Mt Castor, which even at the end of December cracked off an avalanche or two while we were there. On the walk in, a migraine started forming behind one eye and temple, increasing in intensity despite downing every type of drug in my possession.

Day 2: Day-walk to Rabbit Pass. We’d planned this – spending three nights at Top Forks to explore. Because of my pounding head, I viewed the pass at a respectful distance, before stumbling back down the rocky track to lie down in one of the huts.

Day 3: Day-walk to Lake Diana and Lake Lucidus. I forced myself to walk up to these beautiful hanging alpine lakes, but lost the will to reach the third one (Lake Castalia). The track upwards looked like hell. Once again, I retreated to the hut for some quiet. It was New Year’s Eve but only one other couple was at Top Forks, so we took a hut each. At least my partner Tony had someone to talk to.

Day 4: Despite lots of time with the bunks, the migraine persisted. If you have never had a migraine, imagine your worst hangover. It feels like a knife is slicing through your head, you want to throw up, you can’t think, you just want to crawl under a blanket and close your eyes for a very long time. Now imagine you are in the middle of a tramp, it’s hours until you can reach a hut and days before you can finish. I trekked down to Kerin Forks Hut in a blinding haze of pain. One foot in front of another. But the skies were blue, the Wilkin River was exuberantly gushing and the trees breathed serenity.

Day 5: We had planned to reach Siberia Hut and dash up to Lake Crucible, a 7km side trip. I didn’t get further than Siberia. Tony did the Lake Crucible dash and comforted me with photos. I tried to sleep.

Day 6: Finally, I woke up with a clear head. We had several options. We could press on, as planned, over Gillespie Pass to Young Hut, and walk out the next day to Makarora, where we had our last night’s accommodation booked. This took us into the shadow of Mt Awful. I didn’t think I was up for that. The weather was fine and we knew the next day there would be hordes of day trippers flying into Siberia Hut for a turn about the wilderness. We could hitch a flight back to Makarora (i.e. pay half price for the return trip). So we did a leisurely walk up to Lake Crucible, Tony for the second time. He didn’t complain. It was spectacular.

Day 7: We wandered down to the airstrip in the morning, lounged in the sun until the plane could take us out, and spent the rest of the day wandering around Makarora. I missed out on Gillespie Pass, but saw so much beauty my mind was full.  

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