First Aid on the Trail
One of the best things about hiking and backpacking is getting away from the noise, pressure and stress of the civilized world…as long as everything goes smoothly, that is. Accidents can happen no matter where you are, and if you get hurt on the trail you may start to wish that civilization were a little bit more accessible. Since you’ll be a long walk away from medical help, and cell phone reception can be very spotty in wild areas, it’s crucial that you know how to handle minor emergencies yourself. As long as you are prepared and know what to do, you can get out off all but the most extreme backcountry situations safely.
The most important element in hiking safely is prevention. Many of the most common trail injuries can be prevented by using your common sense. For example, wear proper hiking boots that fit correctly to prevent blisters. Also, make sure to break in new hiking shoes before you hit the trail with them. Learn how to recognize common poisonous plants and animals in your area. Poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac are found in many parts of the US. If you don’t know what they look like, you won’t know to avoid them. Check your shoes for spiders, scorpions, and other nasty creatures before you put them on. Watch where you put your feet during the day, and don’t walk around rough, unfamiliar terrain after dark. Use the buddy system-don’t hike alone. Finally, be careful when using sharp implements such as an ice axe or a pocketknife!
Even if you are careful and use common sense, accidents can happen. So, you should also make sure that you take a first aid kit with you on every hike, even if it’s just a day hike. The amount of supplies you will need depends on the size of your group, the length of your trip, and the types of hazards you might encounter along the way. Before each trip, pull out your first aid kit and inspect it, replacing any items that have been used up. Here is a checklist of items to have on hand:
- Tweezers: For pulling out splinters
- Moleskin-tape over hot spots on your feet to cushion skin and prevent or treat blisters
- Duct tape-can be used instead of moleskin on blisters, and can also be used to repair gear and to fashion a bandage if necessary.
- Hand sanitizer
- Rubbing alcohol pads
- Travel-sized packets of antibiotic ointment for treating cuts and raw, broken blisters
- Travel-sized packets of hydrocortisone cream for bug bites and poison ivy
- Sterile gauze
- Medical tape-omit if you have duct tape on hand
- Band-aids in various sizes
- Butterfly bandages
- A wrap-around cloth bandage
- An antihistamine
- An antacid or other product that treats indigestion
- Space blanket
- An Epi-Pen: Available by prescription only, this is a must-have if you or anyone in your hiking party has a severe allergy to bee stings or wasp stings
- Cold pack: Good for sprains and strains, this lightweight packet produces cold through a chemical reaction
- Emergency signaling device: whistle, mirror, GPS beacon, etc.
- A small amount of aloe vera for treating burns-try repackaging it in a film canister
How to Treat Common Injuries
Even a well-stocked first aid kit does you no good at all if you don’t know how to use it. With that in mind, here are basic first aid procedures for some common injuries you might encounter on the trail.
Cuts: If the cut is minor, simply clean it with an alcohol pad, apply antibiotic ointment, and cover it with a band-aid. If it is bleeding a lot, use the bandanna or a gauze pad to apply firm pressure to the cut for 10 minutes. This will help stop the bleeding. Then, clean the cut, apply antibiotic ointment, and bandage it. If the cut is very deep and looks like it needs stitches, first apply pressure to stop bleeding as described above. Then, clean the wound and use the butterfly bandages to close the flaps of skin and keep them together. Tape gauze over the area to keep dirt out, and go for medical attention as soon as you can.
Burns: First aid for burns depends on the severity. First degree burns are minor burns that cause redness and pain. They can simply be treated with aloe vera to reduce pain. Second degree burns go beyond the top layer of skin and cause blisters. Do not puncture the blisters. If they pop on their own, apply antibiotic ointment and a bandage. An over the counter pain reliever like ibuprofen will make the pain more manageable. For first degree and small (less than 3 inches in diameter) second degree burns, it helps to immerse the burned area in cool water if it’s available. However, do not use ice or a cold pack as this will further traumatize the skin. For large second degree burns or third degree burns, immersion in cold water can cause shock. For these severe burns, wrap the area loosely in a bandage and get medical help as soon as possible!
Blisters: This is by far the most common trail injury. Check your feet at lunch and again at the end of the day. Hot spots are red, painful areas that haven’t blistered yet but are likely to in the near future. Cover these immediately with moleskin or duct tape and you may be able to stop the blister from forming. If you do get a blister, don’t pop it. Wrap it in moleskin or duct tape to cushion the area and keep it from getting any worse. If it bursts on its own, apply antibiotic ointment to prevent infection.
Stings, Bites and rashes- For mosquito bites, apply hydrocortisone cream to reduce itching. For bee and wasp stings, take an antihistamine to help reduce your body’s reaction to the venom. A cold pack will help reduce swelling, and ibuprofen will help reduce pain. If you notice swelling at sites away from the sting, and especially if you experience trouble breathing, you may be having a serious allergic reaction. Take more antihistamine and get to a hospital as soon as possible.
Sprains- A sprain is an injury to a ligament. It usually happens to the ankles or knees. This is one of the more disabling of the common trail injuries. To treat, stop walking as soon as possible. Apply a cold pack, or immerse the limb in a cold mountain stream if you’re in that type of area. This will help reduce inflammation and swelling. Take an ibuprofen to reduce inflammation and help with pain. Then, wrap the area in a compression bandage. If you are far away from the trailhead and the end of the day is near, it’s best to stay where you are for the night and treat the sprain. Then, you can head out in the next day, by which time some of the pain will hopefully have subsided.
Hiking out with an injury- If you have a minor injury but can still make it to the trailhead on your own, you should begin to hike out as soon as it’s safe to do so. When hiking out on injury, remember to take the easiest route possible and go slowly. Find a stick or tree branch to use a crutch if needed. Also, take as much weight out of your pack as you can. If you have a buddy, he or she may be able to take your heavier items. If you are by yourself, you may have to ditch many of the items in your pack and come back for them later. However, if you’re alone and not sure if you can make it out in one day, don’t leave essentials that you’ll need if you have to spend another night outside.