By: Kalli Hawkins
Accidents are bound to happen when recreating in the outdoors. Nevertheless, you don’t have to be a medical expert to assess and treat minor injuries in the backcountry. Here are some helpful tips for how to handle injuries while on the trail!
First Things First – Planning Ahead
No matter what season or terrain I am hiking in, I carry a compact first aid kit in my backpack. I am a stickler for always being prepared, and even if I may not experience an injury on the trail, I might encounter someone who has, and I want to be there to help.
Get yourself a trusty lightweight medical kit that you can toss in your backpack. To help minimize risk, gain knowledge of the terrain and potential water sources along your route. Furthermore, having the proper clothing, gear, and equipment will ensure the safety of yourself and others.
Let’s Talk Minor Injuries
A handy skill to have before heading out for a hike is a fundamental knowledge of potential injuries that can occur and how to properly assess and treat them. No matter the region, terrain, or season that you are hiking in, there will always be a risk of encountering an accident. Here are the most common minor injuries and valuable tips on how to treat them.
- Sprained or Rolled Ankle
Sprains occur when a ligament or joint is twisted or stretched beyond its normal range of motion. Sprained ankles are common injuries in the backcountry and can be very painful and immobilizing. It’s happened to the best of us, whether you’ve stepped off a large rock the wrong way, unsuccessfully scrambled through scree, or just had a clumsy moment on the trail – sprained ankles are no joke.
Tried and true, the Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation (RICE) method is the best treatment for a sprained ankle. Sit down and give your ankle a minute to rest while you assess the severity of the injury. If you’ve taken a bad spill while on the trail and are experiencing tenderness, swelling, bruising, or pain, then continue with Ice, Compression, and Elevation steps. Hiking near snow or a cold river? You can use these as a substitute for an ice pack.
- Altitude Sickness
Altitude sickness is a direct result of a reduced concentration of oxygen in the air at higher elevations. Usually, this tends to occur at elevations above 8000 feet. If you or someone in your group starts experiencing a headache, shortness of breath, nausea, or vomiting, these are warning signs and symptoms of altitude sickness. Start by sitting down in a safe, secure spot and drink water or electrolytes. If symptoms don’t subside, then start making your way back to a lower elevation. Don’t worry – the mountain will still be there waiting for you to tackle another time.
- Dehydration & Heat Exhaustion
Dehydration is the most important contributing factor leading to heat illness. It can be debilitating and cause nausea, dizziness, fainting, headache, weakness, and swelling. If you’re hiking in an environment that is both hot and humid, be mindful of your water supply and water sources along your hike. If you start to feel dizzy, weak, or experience any other symptoms of heat illness – stop all exertion and find a place to cool off in the shade or nearby stream. Remove any excess or restrictive clothing and start drinking water and electrolytes immediately.
- Cuts, Scrapes & Abrasions
A wound can be anything from a small skin abrasion to a large cut or laceration. If the wound is profusely bleeding, apply direct pressure using a clean material or extra item of clothing. Once bleeding has slowed down, clean the wound with water to get any dirt and bacteria out. It’s going to sting, but using an alcohol swap from your medical kit will be beneficial to reduce the potential for infection. Then apply a non-adherent dressing, gauze, and a bandage to the area.
If bleeding cannot be controlled with direct pressure, and the individual is in danger of losing large quantities of blood, apply a tourniquet. You can do this by using a piece of clothing, belt, or strap to tie around the extremity directly above the wound.
Additional Hiking Tips
Hiking with a partner or group is always a good idea when recreating in the outdoors. Having the extra support to lean on when injured is incredibly comforting. However, if you’re like me, you may enjoy hiking alone from time to time. Keep these tips in mind next time you’re out solo hiking.
- Hiking Alone
Experiencing an injury while you are alone in the backcountry can be nerve-wracking. Your adrenaline and heart rate will soar as the reality of the situation sets in. However, try your best to remain calm. If the injury is not life-threatening, take deep breaths, and think through your options and decisions before acting on them.
If you have severely sprained your ankle or are feeling dizzy or disoriented and cannot hike out on your own, there are a few actions that will help. First, stay within eyesight of the trail where fellow hikers will be able to spot you and come to your help. Second, continue to yell for help periodically and start conserving your water supply.
Most importantly, get outside, have fun and stay safe!
About the Author:
Kalli Hawkins is an outdoor, gear, and adventure writer based in Colorado. An avid explorer and backcountry enthusiast, Kalli can often be found on a backroad exploring the outdoors with her pup, Riley. When she’s not writing or adventuring outdoors, she enjoys woodworking, homebrewing beer, and trying her hand at gardening. If you would like to connect or follow along, you can find her at @kallihawkins.