Injuries are simply a fact of life for hikers, campers and other outdoor enthusiasts. Spend enough time outdoors and Mother Nature will surely dole out a few bites, bumps and bruises for your trouble.
If you are careful and prepare properly, you can probably avoid many of the most common injuries hikers experience. But you won’t be able to sidestep them all, so it is important that you familiarize yourself with the best way to treat some of the most common hiking injuries.
We’ll discuss 13 of the most common injuries that befall hikers below and explain the best way to treat them on the trail.
Blisters are likely the most common minor wound hikers experience. And while blisters are relatively minor injuries in the grand scheme of things, they can quickly turn an otherwise-enjoyable hike into a miserable experience.
It’s always better to prevent blisters from forming than it is to treat them after they’ve appeared, so be sure to break in any new hiking boots before hitting the trail. Also, if you simply keep your feet dry you’ll further reduce your chances of getting blisters, so always wear moisture-wicking socks, which will absorb most of the sweat your feet produce.
The best way to treat blisters on the trail is by first washing the area (and your hands) with soap and water. Then, sterilize the affected area with an iodine swab. If the blister is still intact (it hasn’t popped), you can relieve the pressure by inserting a sterilized needle into the sides of the wound.
Once drained, apply a little triple-antibiotic ointment to the wound and cover it with gauze. Secure the gauze in place with some tape, but be sure to check the wound frequently and replace the gauze as needed.
2. Snake Bites
Snakebite is an exceedingly rare phenomenon in the United States, but serious snake bites can be life-threatening, it is important to know what steps to take to give yourself the best chance at a full recovery.
First of all, forget about the “cut and suck” method popularized by old Westerns – this is a good way to ensure the wound becomes infected, and you won’t be able to remove a significant amount of venom anyway. Instead, you’ll want to take a photograph of the offending serpent if possible (for identification purposes) and head directly to the nearest hospital. Phone ahead if you can, as the hospital may need to have antivenom shipped in from another facility.
There’s no need to apply a tourniquet (and doing so may lead to tissue death), but it isn’t a bad idea to wash the bite with soap and water. Try to keep yourself as calm as possible and try to avoid elevating your heart rate. Assuming you arrive at the hospital in a reasonable amount of time, you’ll likely recover fully.
The above instructions all assume that you are bitten by a venomous species. However, if you are positive that the snake that bit you was not venomous, you needn’t interrupt your hike. Simply wash the wound with soap and water and monitor it for any signs of infection (redness, swelling, etc.).
If you are hiking during cold weather, you should always take steps to avoid frostbite. This primarily means wearing appropriate clothing and keeping your ears, nose, fingers and toes covered (the parts of your body that are most likely to suffer frostbite).
However, you can still suffer frostbite if the temperatures are low enough or you become wet during cold weather. So, you’ll need to be able to identify frostbite and learn how to treat it. Note that serious frostbite will require prompt medical attention to limit the damage, but mild cases of frostbite can be treated on the trail.
Frostbite occurs when the water inside the skin and underlying tissues freezes. This can cause a “pins and needles” feeling and it may be painful. It’ll also cause the skin to turn red, white or black and take on a waxy appearance.
Basic first aid for frostbite involves slowly and gently warming the afflicted area. Warm (not hot) water is the ideal way to do so, but you can also use body heat and clothing to do so, if need be. But, it is important to avoid warming the area back up unless you’ll be able to keep it warm – repeatedly thaw-freeze cycles are very destructive.
If you believe the frostbite is severe, if blisters appear or you cannot regain feeling after warming the area, you’ll need to cut your hike short and head to the closest hospital. Mild frostbite may not be a very big deal, but serious cases can necessitate amputations, so you’ll definitely want to err on the side of caution.
4. Deep Cuts and Serious Wounds
Small cuts are pretty easy to treat with a bit of antiseptic and a bandage, but large or deep cuts can be very serious and often require medical assistance. The trick is to stop any excessive bleeding (if present) and keep the wound clean and protected while you head to the local hospital.
Light bleeding usually only involves damage to the capillaries, which will heal relatively quickly. Just press a clean gauze pad on the area, and you’ll usually be able to stop the bleeding. You can then clean the wound with a mild antiseptic (such as an iodine pad), apply some triple-antibiotic ointment, slap on a fresh bandage and get back on the trail.
But, if compression will not stop the bleeding, it is likely that you’ve suffered damage to an artery or vein. This can be quite serious, so you’ll need to apply pressure to the area with a gauze pad and seek immediate medical assistance.
Don’t walk if you don’t have to, as this will speed up your heart rate and accelerate the rate of blood loss. Instead, call for help if possible. Also, if you can, try to keep the bleeding area above the level of your heart, as this will help slow the bleeding a bit.
Minor burns are painful, but they rarely require extraordinary care. As long as the skin is intact (though likely red) and no blisters have formed, the burn is likely of the first-degree variety. This means you’ll want to stop the burning process by soaking the area in cold water for at least five minutes. Then, you’ll want to wash the afflicted area with soap and cool water, cover it in a loose-fitting sterile bandage and leave it alone.
You can apply a bit of topical pain-relief cream (such as aloe vera) to the wound a few hours later, and an over-the-counter painkiller (such as ibuprofen) may help provide further relief.
However, second- and third-degree burns are particularly nasty wounds, which are not only painful, but very susceptible to infection too. Second-degree burns cause the formation of blisters, but the blisters remain intact, which provides some degree of protection against infection. Third-degree wounds, on the other hand, entail broken blisters.
Second- and third-degree burns will usually require medical attention, so you’ll want to stop what you are doing and head to the nearest hospital or call 911 and wait for assistance to arrive. You can rinse second-degree wounds in cold water to reduce the temperature and eliminate some of the pain, but third-degree wounds should simply be covered in a clean, loose-fitting bandage (water may cause third-degree burns to become infected).
6. Broken Bones
Broken bones are usually pretty serious injuries that’ll require you to seek professional medical assistance as quickly as possible. Accordingly, your goal should be to stabilize yourself or the afflicted hiker, and then, you’ll want to begin hiking out (if the broken bone doesn’t preclude walking) or contact emergency responders and have them come to your location.
Stabilize the injured party by stopping any bleeding present and watching for the signs of shock (cool skin, racing heart, rapid breathing, weakness or nausea). Have the injured hiker lay down and prop his or her feet up about 1 foot above the ground. Toss a blanket over the victim to help retain body heat and provide reassurance until help arrives.
If the injured hiker is in otherwise good health and able to walk normally, you’ll want to head back to the trailhead and then to the hospital.
However, you’ll want to splint the broken appendage first to prevent further damage. You can make a splint from just about anything long and rigid, including sticks, trekking poles or tent poles. Tie the splint to the affected limb gently and try to limit any unnecessary movement.
7. Sprained Ankles
Sprained ankles are incredibly common, thanks in large part to the rugged terrain many hikers must cross. Sometimes, sprained ankles are very mild injuries, which won’t even prevent a hiker from continuing on the trail, but serious sprains are very painful and will usually prevent you from walking much at all.
In the latter case, you’ll simply need to keep yourself warm and comfortable, contact help and wait for them to arrive. But, if the sprain is mild, and you intend to push through, you’ll want to rest it as much as possible and apply ice. This will help reduce the pain and swelling and accelerate the healing process.
You can also take an over-the-counter pain reliever to further reduce pain. It is also wise to wrap the ankle in an Ace Bandage before heading on the trail the next day.
Regardless of the severity of the sprained ankle, it is important to avoid removing your shoes or boots to inspect it for several hours. Doing so may allow your foot and ankle to swell dramatically and prevent you from getting your shoe back on later.
8. Allergic Reactions
Allergic reactions vary significantly in terms of their severity. Mild allergic reactions may involve nothing more than a runny nose, if the reaction occurs in response to pollen, or a bit of irritation, if the reaction occurs in response to a bee sting or bug bite. Conversely, serious allergic reactions may cause breathing difficulties and necessitate immediate medical attention.
Minor allergic reactions needn’t interrupt your hike. Try to avoid contact with the allergen as much as possible and then take an over-the-counter antihistamine (such as Benadryl) to calm the allergic reaction. If the allergic reaction occurs in the form of a rash, you can apply a topical rash cream to provide further relief.
Serious allergic reactions require immediate medical care. Call 911 immediately, and follow the advice given. Be prepared to administer CPR if necessary and watch for the signs of shock.
If you have potentially serious allergies, it is a good idea to talk to your doctor about carrying an epi-pen, which may be able to stop an allergic reaction before it threatens your life.
9. Treating Rashes
Rashes – typically characterized by discolored, irritated or swollen skin – are never fun, but they can be extremely unpleasant when they occur during a hike. And, while rashes are usually not serious, they can occasionally progress, leading to blisters, raw skin and long-term damage.
The most important thing you can do when treating a rash is to identify the substance triggering the problem and then take whatever steps are necessary to avoid it.
But unfortunately, rashes can be caused by a wide variety of different things. Some rashes are caused by direct contact with a plant, animal or other substance, while others can occur in response to something eaten. Rarely, rashes can even in response to diseases. Further complicating matters, some rashes do not occur immediately. Poison ivy rashes, for example, generally only occur several days after the initial exposure.
Therefore, your best bet is to treat the rash by washing it with soap and water and then applying zinc oxide to rashes that produce burning sensations, or cortisone lotions if the rash itches. Contact your doctor if the rash doesn’t go away within a short time.
10. Poisonous Berries
There are a number of poisonous berries growing on trees and plants across the United States, and many look quite similar to edible varieties.
The relative danger presented by different species varies significantly. Some may cause nothing more than a mild stomach ache; others may prove deadly in a matter of hours. Accordingly, you should always call 911 or Poison Control whenever you or someone in your group is thought to have eaten poison berries.
Some of the most common symptoms associated with berry poisoning include:
- Stomach pain
- Nausea or vomiting
- Breathing difficulties
- Slow pulse
- Low blood pressure
Do not eat or drink anything after potentially eating poisonous berries, nor should you try to induce vomiting. Simply follow the advice of the medical professionals you’ve contacted.
Dehydration is another extremely common problem that afflicts hikers, and unfortunately, it is usually one of the easiest medical problems to avoid. If you simply drink plenty of water while hiking and avoid traveling or exerting yourself during the hottest parts of the day, you’ll usually be able to avoid dehydration.
You’ll usually want to drink ½ liter per hour while hiking or whenever the temperatures are high. However, different people require different amounts of water to remain healthy. So, it is generally wisest to simply listen to your body; if you are thirsty or you aren’t urinating frequently, you should drink more water.
The symptoms of dehydration are pretty obvious: Excessive thirst, dry mouth, headache, nausea, infrequent urination, and fatigue. If anyone in your party starts exhibiting these symptoms, have them sit down in a cool, shaded location and drink plenty of water (have them do so slowly).
12. Heat Stroke
Heat stroke occurs when your body temperature rises above 104 degrees Fahrenheit. The symptoms are unfortunately quite similar to those caused by dehydration (fatigue, headaches, dizziness, etc.), but they may also include mental confusion. Accordingly, you’ll always want to keep an eye on the mental status of your companions when hiking in hot weather.
Understand that heat stroke is a serious condition that can quickly become fatal. If you suspect that you or someone in your group is exhibiting the signs of heat stroke, call 911 and immediately move to the coolest location you can find (such as a shaded grove or creek). Have the afflicted person drink plenty of water and do whatever you can to reduce his or her body temperature.
You may want to spray the person down with a bit of water, fan them with a towel or have them wade in a creek or lake. Cold compresses can also be helpful for cooling down someone with heat stroke.
13. Altitude Sickness
Altitude sickness is always a concern anytime you hike at high elevations, where the air carries relatively little oxygen. This can cause a range of symptoms, including headaches, fatigue and nausea; it can also make it difficult to breathe. In a worst-case scenario, altitude sickness can be fatal.
Some people begin feeling the effects of altitude sickness at relatively modest elevations, but others only start experiencing symptoms when they begin nearing the tallest peaks. Generally speaking, it can occur as low as 5,000 feet, and most people will experience problems once reaching 15,000 feet or so.
There are medications that can ease the symptoms of altitude sickness, but the best way to treat it is by simply descending and seeking medical assistance. You can sometimes prevent the symptoms from starting by ascending slowly (over the course of several days), so that your body has a chance to acclimatize.
Injuries can certainly throw a wrench in a hike, but if you do your best to prevent them from occurring and learn the best ways to treat them, you’ll likely be able to avoid serious problems. Just be sure that you always carry a fully stocked first aid kit with you and that you bring a cell phone or satellite phone in case of emergencies.