Hiking is a great way of getting closer to nature and almost anyone can do it. You don’t have to be a professional athlete to hike, but injuries are a part of the game and considered to be an inevitability. However, there are preventive measures you can take to minimize the chances of an injury and be prepared to treat them. Although anything can happen out in the wild, this guide focuses on some of the most common hiking injuries, how to prevent and treat them.
When traveling in a group, at least one or two people should know the basics of wilderness first aid and how to prevent injuries. You also need adequate supplies, especially for multi-day hikes. We have a dedicated post on backpacking checklist and important stuff to bring on long hikes. Knowing what to carry is equally important as knowing what to do with that stuff in case of an emergency. The good news is that most of the common hiking injuries can be easily prevented or treated provided you have the right knowledge and tools. The basics of a first kit to deal with common hiking injuries include:
- Blister plasters
- Highly visible vest or a jacket
- Elastic strap
- Duct tape
- Safety pins
- Space blanket
- Tweezers (for removing thorns and other sharp objects)
- Electrolyte powders/Salt sachets and sugar sachets
- Insect repellent
Ultralight backpacking can play an important role in preventing injuries. If you can get by with less, you always should. Carrying less weight puts less strain on your body and reduces wear-and-tear in the long run. Less weight not only helps you keep your back straight and makes it easier to walk tough sections of the trail, it also reduces chances of getting injured by stumbling because of a heavy backpack.
Ultralight backpacking is sometimes the only option for people who have certain physical limitations. If you are not into multi-day or long-hikes and prefer day hikes, you might want to consider reading our guide on what to bring on short hikes, which covers all the essentials including technology and navigation.
Weather changes quickly at high altitude and experiencing rain on a trail can happen without any warning. Things become more challenging when you are out in the wild and it starts raining. A dedicated post on tips for hiking in the rain provides more information about the topic, but in short, hikers need to keep an eye on the weather and never hesitate to turn back if you can sense the weather is becoming hazardous. Similarly, hiking in the mountains, hiking in the winter or thru-hiking comes with its own challenges for which you need to pay special consideration and prepare accordingly.
A hike in the wilderness might start out as something normal and safe, but with so many variables involved, things can turn around pretty quickly. That’s why hikers need to learn at least the basic wilderness survival skills to deal with unexpected situations. The gear you carry is all you have to manage every situation, so you need to pick stuff wisely and choose gear that can serve multiple purposes, and leave unnecessary things behind.
Hiking is not just about getting from point A to point B. The main objective is to get closer to nature and have a positive and enjoyable experience. When walking a multi-day trail, even a minor injury can make the experience uncomfortable and, in some situations, a serious threat to your safety. Knowledge and preparation are the key in mitigating most of the risks associated with hiking, so let’s get started with some of the most common injuries and how to prevent and treat them.
Blisters might not sound like something serious, but hikers have to deal with them at one point or another. Blisters are like an occupational hazard for hikers just like exposure to chemicals is an occupational hazard for factory workers. Blisters can be a minor annoyance in day hikes and an obstacle to progress any further in long hikes. However, blisters are actually nature’s way of healing damaged skin and protecting soft tissue.
The most common causes of blisters include wearing improper socks and/or ill-fitting shoes for long periods of time. Rubbing inside the shoes can separate the outer layers of skin, resulting in fluid filled pockets and blisters. We have already covered how to choose the perfect hiking socks and why hiking boots are not a good option for most hikers in detail.
Although in most cases blisters should disappear on their own in some time, hikers have to treat them to get rid of pain and discomfort during a hike. In some cases, hikers might even have to call it quits due to blisters. In addition to improper socks and ill-fitting shoes, blisters can also start appearing due to excessive sweating, not changing socks, wet shoes, having a soft skin, hiking without any practice, sand/dirt/seeds/other foreign bodies entering the shoes and improper nail cutting.
The key to preventing blisters is to minimize friction and avoid buildup of too much moisture. Make sure to pick the right type of shoes according to the terrain that also fit well. Hiking shoes should neither be too tight nor too loose and should not affect your ability to balance. Shoes need to have a little bit extra space (around +0.5 number) to accommodate minor swelling of feet that you’ll likely experience during a longer hike. It’s highly recommended not to buy a pair of shoes without trying it first and walking around a bit while wiggling your toes.
Lightweight and breathable hiking shoes such as trail runners are a better option for most situations, especially when you are dealing with hot and humid climates. Then comes picking the right type of socks, which should be made of materials that wick moisture away and dry fast such as merino wool. Socks should also be neither too tight nor too loose and not too thick or thin. Cotton socks are not recommended unless you have a good reason to wear them. Silverlight socks are designed to prevent blisters than any other socks, thanks to light compression that prevents your socks from moving around and the material blend of Merino wool, nylon, silver yarn and spandex that wicks moisture away and creates a bacteria-free zone around your feet.
Blisters can develop despite all preventive measures, but a timely action can save you from discomfort and pain. Change your socks as soon as you start noticing a blister or feel a hotspot, which helps remove dampness, reduce friction and minimize further damage. You can also consider wearing a pair of hiking sandals, especially when dealing with less challenging trail sections.
It usually takes from 2 days to a week for the blisters to heal without any medical attention. In some cases, you might have to seek professional help if blisters are not healing or have become very painful. During a hike, make sure to keep a first aid kit that includes essential blister-treatment items such as skin blister pads, moleskin, benzoin tincture, moleskins or at least a regular bandaid. Skin lubricants such as spray and deodorant sticks can be used for both prevention and treatment of blisters.
Most hikers walk in the daytime, so it’s no surprise sunburns are one of the most common hiking injuries. But sunburns are fairly easy to prevent and all you need is some precaution. Applying sunscreen from time to time and wearing long pants and sleeves can mitigate the risk to a great extent. Make sure to carry sunglasses and a hat with you when exposed to the sun. But what if you forget to reapply the sunscreen or long sleeves do not fit your hiking style? That’s when you need to think about treatment. Products containing Aloe Vera can certainly help but there is more to preventing and treating sunburns.
The best way to prevent sun damage is to stay away from direct sunlight as much as possible. But that might not be practical advice when it comes to hiking. You can still avoid direct sunlight in the middle of the day if possible, to minimize its impact.
Sunburns can not only damage the skin, but also the blood vessels and cells. The skin starts looking leathery, discolored, wrinkled and dry after direct exposure to sunlight for extended periods of time. Skin cancer is the most serious threat posed by sunburns, which has become the most common type of cancer.
It’s recommended to apply sunscreen fifteen minutes before you are exposed to the sun and reapply every two hours. Broad spectrum sunscreens (UVA/UVB) with an SPF (Sun Protection Factor) rating of 30 or more are recommended by the Skin Cancer Foundation for extensive outdoor activities. Hikers also need to be careful about packing the right quantity. For reference and on average, an eight-hour hike on a bright sunny day can consume around 4 fl. Oz. When it comes to clothing, pick UPF-rated fabrics for added protection and glasses that provide 100 percent UV protection.
Sunburns can be irritating and painful and can ruin the whole experience. The most basic thing you can do is to apply a wet cloth (preferably cold water) to minimize swelling and relieve pain. Your first aid kit must include a painkiller like ibuprofen. Wash the affected area gently with cool water and make sure to keep sunburnt areas of the skin protected from sunlight.
Anything containing aloe vera can help if you don’t have a sunburn cream, but it should not have alcohol otherwise you risk drying and stinging the skin even more. Drink plenty of water and let your skin heal naturally.
Preventing dehydration is as simple as drinking plenty of water at regular intervals and keeping yourself hydrated along the way. It’s pretty easy to know if you are dehydrated or not, but some main indicators of dehydration include feeling thirstier than normal, feeling lack of energy, darker than normal urine and headaches.
Dehydration is also the most common reason behind muscle cramping. Stretching further with cramped legs can help reduce the pain, but you can also consider having drinks containing electrolytes and applying cold/hot to the cramp. In addition to a bacterial infection, dehydration is another common cause of diarrhea, which in some cases leads to a medical emergency.
The treatment of dehydration is almost the same as its preventive measures, including avoiding hiking when it’s very hot outside and taking action as soon as you start noticing any of its symptoms. Allow your body to absorb water and have some rest in the shade, instead of pressing on, while drinking water. Our bodies lose vital salts as we perspire. These salts are needed to absorb water and if salt levels are too low, our bodies cannot absorb and retain the recommended levels of water.
Rehydration salts such as Dioralyte can be very helpful, especially during long-hikes, which contains electrolytes and essentials salts our bodies need when hiking in hot weather. It does not take much time and money to premix a few water bottles with such salts. It’s recommended not to do so in plastic bottles as flavor can impregnate and leave an annoying taste behind. Severe dehydration cases need immediate medical attention and might need a drip or two to recover, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Ankle sprain is a common injury related to hiking on uneven terrains that have hidden obstacles, rocks, slippery surfaces and so on. Unlike other common injuries, there is no guarantee that preventive measures can definitely help you avoid a twisted ankle. Minor twists can be dealt with by just waking them off, but serious twists might cause you to call it quits and seek medical attention. Although we are strong advocates of lightweight hiking shoes such as trail runners, hiking boots with proper ankle protection are a better option in challenging and uneven terrains.
A hiking stick/pole or a stabilizer can help you balance better, but the most important thing is to be cautious when walking on uneven, rocky and slippery surfaces. The RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) procedure can help you recover from a sprain or a twisted ankle. Immediately take off any weight from the sprained ankle and stop in order to take some rest. You might not have an ice pack for the second step, but you can submerge your ankle in cold water or use packed snow or wrap a soaked cloth around the ankle.
Use a cloth or an elastic bandage to apply compression without impairing blood circulation by applying the bandage too tight. Elevate the ankle above your heart level, take some rest and let the swelling reduce. Stabilize the ankle using a walking pole and hobble down the track using some help from another hiker. You might have to take rest for a day or two for swelling to subside before moving on with life.
Cuts are usually not so serious and can be treated fairly easily, but it’s difficult to prevent them as it can happen anywhere, anytime. Just be careful when walking on uneven ground and around the bushes. It takes some time to realize that you are scraped up somewhere, while sometimes you won’t even notice them throughout a hike. Wearing long trousers, long sleeve shirts and gaiters can help prevent most cuts, but 100% protection is still not guaranteed.
That’s why hikers need to be prepared for treatment and must have a first aid kit for such situations. Small cuts can be treated simply by disinfecting the affected area using products like an antibiotic lotion and placing a bandage, but you need a tourniquet to stop bigger cuts from bleeding. You can also use a piece of clothing and a belt to tie above the wound tightly. Make sure to note down the time, which can help medical staff know for how long you have been injured.
Ranging from mosquitos to gnats, there are thousands of different types of insects that can bite you in the wilderness, making them a common foe of all hikers. The simplest prevention from bug bites is to wear clothing that fully covers the skin, including a headnet. Insect repellents range from chemicals to natural solutions, which along with full-cover clothing can save you from most bug bites.
However, there are some bug bites that are difficult to avoid for which you can use products such as Calamine Lotion, which helps deal with itchy skin. Try not to scratch the affected area because it will irritate it even more. You can also consider using herbal remedies, but that depends on the area and requires a deep understanding of local flora.
Poison Ivy, Oak and Sumac can spread rash and ruin an otherwise enjoyable journey. If you are not familiar with local plants, avoid touching them, using wild plants as a toilet paper and burning them. Pants and long sleeves help avoid most troubles in this regard, but if you stumble on these poisonous plants, use a Calamine lotion for reducing irritation.
Wash the skin and other objects that might have contacted a poisonous plant thoroughly with soap. You might also consider barrier lotions if you are hiking on a trail that is known to be full of such plants. It’s a really bad idea to eat berries of wild plants, which can cause some serious reactions. Symptoms such as difficulty swallowing or breathing, swelling of face and fever are some signs of a severe reaction and require immediate medical attention.
Although not as common as other hiking injuries, some hikers are at more risk of knee pain or inflammation than others. Hikers who have imbalanced or weak leg muscles, have had an injury in the past, knee caps related issues or have been wearing ill-fitting shoes for a long time are more at risk. But hikers without such issues can still experience joint inflammation and knee pain because of the stress hiking can put on their joints, especially when hiking downhill.
The leading knee has to absorb all the impact, including the forces involved in going downhill, your own body weight and the stuff you are carrying. Research shows that the compressive force on the knee joint (between tibia and femur) is 7 to 8 times the weight of your body when going downhill.
While a trekking pole or a knee brace can help redistribute weight, it’s better to know your limits and talk to a doctor before getting on the trail. Hikers with a history of an injury, knee pain or weak muscles first have to make sure they are in good shape, and strengthen the muscles responsible for supporting the knee joints, including calf muscles, quadriceps, glutes and hamstrings.
Hypothermia is usually associated with winter hiking, but it can be a concern even in the summer. Hypothermia refers to the core temperature of our body dropping below normal, which can lead to confusion, poor judgment, loss of consciousness and in serious cases even death. The best strategy is to take preventive measures, so that you never reach the treatment stage. Some important preventive measures include:
- Plan your hike such that you have access to sheltered/shaded rest stops at regular intervals
- Study the route well before leaving to avoid wasting too much time reading maps
- Wear appropriate clothing according to the climate and weather forecast
- Try to keep yourself and your backpack as much dry as possible
- Carry at least one pair of warm and waterproof clothes
- Its recommended to carry an emergency shelter like a tarp, especially when permanent shelter points are few and far between
- Space blankets such as a tin foil bag should be part of a first aid kit, especially during the winter or when hiking in a region where the temperature can drop suddenly
- A high visibility vest can help emergency workers spot you in poor visibility
- Keep something warm and sugary to drink in a flask and avoid getting too hungry
You first need to recognize hypothermia in order to treat it. When a hiker stops shivering, it can be a sign that his/her body is shutting down and is not reacting to the cold anymore. Call emergency services immediately and make every effort to keep them warm and dry.
Exhaustion is part of hiking, but hikers need to be careful not to take exhaustion too far out. Improper sleep, malnutrition and dehydration are common causes of exhaustion, which combined with heat and humidity can turn into a deadly combo. Depending on the climate and hiking conditions, heat stroke and heat exhaustion are not something you can take lightly.
Hikers need to understand the symptoms and be prepared according to the local climate. Heat exhaustion is more common and can make hikers tired, dizzy or nauseous. Rest, plenty of water and food can relieve most of these symptoms of heat exhaustion, but heat stroke is something that has to be taken seriously. A heat stroke is essentially heat exhaustion left untreated for quite some time and in some cases can be life threatening with symptoms ranging from loss of consciousness to confusion and delirium. The tips for preventing a heat stroke are the same as preventing heat exhaustion including:
- Avoid high temperatures and hiking during the afternoon
- Drink plenty of water
- Eat high protein snacks at regular intervals
- Avoid exposure to sunlight and keep your skin covered
- Know your limits and don’t hesitate to turn back
- Know the signs of heat exhaustion, including unquenchable thirst, extreme sweating, abnormal heartbeat, cold chills, hot/red skin, and muscle cramps
Signs of a heat stroke include aforementioned symptoms for 30 minutes or more despite treatment, which can lead to unconsciousness, red/hot skin, lack of sweating, delirium and shallow breathing
When heat exhaustion turns into a heat stroke, it’s time for an emergency action and you need to get medical help ASAP. Untreated symptoms of heat exhaustion can turn into a heat stroke quickly, so hikers need to call off their journey to avoid any further harm. The first priority should be to cool off the body by getting under a shade, removing restrictive clothing, submerging in water and taking a break until the symptoms wear off.
Hyperthermia is the opposite of hypothermia and comes in three stages, which are classified on the level of severity. It starts from minor discomfort like muscle cramping and becomes severe if you fail to rehydrate and manage body temperature. Heat exhaustion is the second level and the first stage you need to start taking seriously, while a heat stroke is the third stage of hyperthermia, which can be potentially deadly.
Knowing preventive measures and treatment of common hiking illnesses is equally important as knowing when to seek professional help. Never ignore important signs and symptoms or hesitate to call it quits early. Exhaustion and fatigue are part of the experience, but hikers also need to know their limits. People new to hiking should always hike in a group of at least two members and carry adequate supplies in their backpack to deal with any eventuality, most importantly a first aid kit.