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Backpacking with Sleep Apnea
It is possible, once you do some groundwork
I am currently listening to this book about a hiker slack hiking the Appalachian Trail.
It is a great book, but one that probably only through hikers will enjoy. The author suffers a life changing injury that leaves him in significant pain and he decides to hike the AT in a hope that it will cure him.
The author is vulnerable, explains his mindset and the lows very well. During one of the sections, he is angry and annoyed about a fellow backpacker with sleep apnea who could not sleep at all and disrupted the author’s sleep.
I have been meaning to write this post for months and this was a trigger to write about it. I have obstructive sleep apnea.
At the worst point in my life, I slept on the wheel driving south on 680S from Pleasanton to Fremont and woke up within a second or two, but it scared me enough to see a sleep doctor. I am 5’9”, I weighed 206 lbs at the time and I would be wiped out every day at 2PM. I had no energy and could not focus, forget exercising.
The sleep doctor put me on notice, called me as a person who is “walking dead” and would be dead in a few years either through a heart attack or the next time I sleep on the wheel, I won’t be so lucky.
A sleep study followed and I measured 95 AHI (episodes per hour), very bad sleep apnea. That meant that my metabolism is close to dead. My sleep doctor suggested I start using a CPAP machine, but even before that, he recommended I get a nasal septoplasty done to widen my nasal passage so the CPAP has a chance to work.
I was working on a high tech startup at the time and I was getting out of it. The minute I had decent health insurance, I got nasal septoplasty done and started using a CPAP machine. After a few months, once I realized what a good night’s sleep is, I had enough energy to join a gym. I started working out on small group workouts. In a year or so, I had dropped to about 185 lbs, my muscle mass was increasing and my day hikes were getting longer and longer.
After a couple of overnight backpacking trips, my first long backpacking trip was a two night, three day hike from Agnew Meadows to Lake Ediza to Thousand Island Lake and back. My sleep apena was down to about 35 AHI, which is better, but it is still moderate sleep apnea.
My sleep doctor at the time suggested I look at getting a dental appliance that is given to people who can not tolerate CPAP machines. I met Dr. Srujal Shah at Spark Sleep Solutions, who made a dental appliance for me. I also started intermittent fasting. At my lowest weight when I hiked the High Sierra Trail, I was down to 162 lbs. Since then I have gained 15 lbs back (thanks Covid), and I hope to get back to 165 lbs or thereabouts because I remember how happy my knees felt at that weight.
I use the dental appliance for my travels and backpacking. I still use my CPAP for nightly use. With the dental appliance, I measure about 15 AHI, which is about the normal sleep that most people get each night. I measure < 1 AHI with the CPAP, which is why I have made my peace with it and use it nightly.
Does this work? I have done multiple long through hikes so far.
8 nights on the High Sierra Trail
5 nights on the High Sierra Camp loop
13 nights on the JMT SoBo from Silver lake
5 nights on the JMT NoBo from Silver lake
Multiple 2 nighters
Sleep apnea catches up with you on day 3 or 4, I have now made 14 days, re-energized and ready to hike the High Sierra day after day after day.
So yes, backpacking with sleep apnea is possible and the dental appliance definitely helped me, but to get there, I had to do fix my weight and fitness to get there.