Hiking with MS (and a trusty cooling vest)

I have always loved the wilderness. I have spent most of my life in the Pacific Northwest and summers meant camping with my family, inner-tubing on the rivers and hiking in the mountains. As I grew older, hiking remained one of the few physical activities that I continued to enjoy just as much as when I was a child.  That sense of adventure, the physical challenge, conquering tough terrain and in the end, reaching your destination! I often choose trails that bring me to waterfalls, lakes, or beautiful vistas. I need some sort of pay-off for all that hard work!

My oldest son and on a wooden bridge on a trail. I am wearing my blue cooling vest and holding hiking poles. He is carrying my backpack.

When I was first diagnosed with MS I could not get around my house without holding on to walls. I mourned the loss of my hiking days.  Then I got better. The balance and walking issues (caused by a brain stem lesion) slowly subsided, until I was almost, but not quite, like before.  Most lingering symptoms were, and still are, invisible to others.

I have continued to go on hikes and feel elated when I get to the top, even if the top is only 2 miles, or 1 mile, away. It makes me happy, gives me courage and hope, even if my legs spasm  for the rest of the day. It invigorates my spirit, even if it tires out my body.

In addition to shorter trails, I have made several other changes and accommodations to my hikes. That’s the deal with MS. It will keep changing and you have to change with the times or be left behind! I purchased a cooling vest with gel packs that slowly thaw over 2-4 hours, maintaining an even temperature to keep my core cool. It weighs about 12 pounds though. This means I now need a hiking partner to carry my pack, because 12 pounds is enough for me.

My son and I sitting on a log by the trail, I am wearing my cooling vest and holding my hiking poles. He is carrying my backpack.

I know- a backpack for a 2-mile hike?  I have to bring water, I dehydrate faster because I overheat faster and sweat like crazy.  I have to carry my inhaler and meds for nerve pain or muscle spasms. I  have  to carry a snack, in case I get stuck a mile out and need to sit and rest  for awhile.

Identification, cell-phone, pocketknife, Kleenex,  maybe  some pepper spray.  Just the essentials. Don’t forget the hiking  poles. Because if I do  overheat there’s the risk of getting wobbly, a  sudden  spasm or leg buckle and I don’t want to topple over. When I  am feeling  steady I can collapse the poles and put them in the  backpack. And if I  am out there long enough for the cooling vest to  thaw, then I can put  that in the backpack. Or,as my brilliant oldest  son discovered, put the  gel packs in a cold river and re-freeze them!A picture of me at the top of High Rock Lookout with a view of Mt. Rainier

I have to admit, I have landed on my butt a couple of times due  to a sudden foot spasm or drop foot. I might have to include a padded undergarment to my list of hiking accommodations. Late this spring I began to have trouble with my right leg and foot in a whole new way. I wanted it to be an injury, so I went to physical therapy. When things got worse and the nerve pain became unbearable I went in for my first ever Solumedrol treatment.

I was angry and did not want to lose my ability to go hiking.  For now my leg is doing better, but if that changes, I will just accommodate some more.

There are beautiful paved trails if I need a scooter. There are fantastic cameras with lenses that make things miles away look like they are right in front of you! There are guided tours, where I can learn about all the tiny details around me that I might have overlooked.  Yes, I may be angry for awhile, but with a little creativity I will continue to do what I love.

Have you been able to keep doing what you love? How have you made accomodations for your MS that let you stay on a happy and adventurous trail?

Judy Olsen Signature



If you’d like to purchase a cooling vest of you’re own, click here for the MSreliefmarketplace.com


  1. You Rock J, I Love You, M

  2. Judy~
    I appreciate this post! I’m like you, enjoying the adventure of hikes! Unfortunately I haven’t been like you, making accommodations in order to continue what I love! I’m no longer going to simply accept the loss, I’m going to take the time to figure out how I can go back to what has always brought me such pleasure!!!

  3. Well you can see that after asking my partner and most recent back-pack carrier, Mark, to read my post, he left me a lovely comment. Which appears as though I have told myself that I rock! Perhaps we should all tell ourselves that more often 🙂

  4. Linda- keep me posted while you work on this. It’s so incredibly important if that is something that brings you joy and feeds your soul. I know what it does for me and it’s hard to put into words, but it is definitely a healing, calming, inspiring and spiritual thing for me to be in the great outdoors. Share what you try and what your barriers are, maybe we can brainstorm together!

  5. Dear Judy,

    I to was diagnosed with a very mild case of MS, at the young age of eighteen. I have been taking an intramuscular Copaxcone shot each day for the last few years, and I about to turn forty eight. I am a very nice person, but due to the MS I am not able to do as much as I would like. But I would like to publish a paperback book I wrote about the times that my son and I had together called ‘Those Times’. And, boy do I want to publish this written document.


    Joe Sia—

    • Hi Joe- If you have already written it you are almost there! That is a great accomlishment. I admire that- writing a book is on my “50 by 50” list, but it felt daunting, so I started with blogging. Small steps. You might check out the We Write for the Fight online MS group- link below. There are some folks on there who have been published by others and quite a few who have done the self-publishing route. Maybe you could get some tips on next steps for your book. Break it down into small steps and you can get that book published!

  6. I love this Just Only Judy! You are an inspiration! I have to admit, one of my issues is that I get so exhausted and overwhelmed that rather than come up with creative accommodations when dealing with MS issues, I just “don’t do.” You have helped me to realize how creative one can be to “keep doing…”

    • Thanks Yvonne- It can be completely overwhelming and for many of us with MS we are exhausted half way through the day. I know I often am. I think it’s the fact that I get mad and angry, that actually helps me 😉 I haven’t thought of it that way before, but that gets the adrenalin going and my “I’m not goin’ out that easy!” attitude and it becomes a challenge to find a way! But I am human, there is always feelings of despair and anger with any new loss…I just have to try really hard to channel it! A short 1-mile wildflower hike last Sunday was an example. What is one thing you have given up that you might to find a solution for?

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