No matter how much you prepare for your trail adventure and no matter how many preventative measures you exercise, injury, even if minor, is inevitable at some point. Understanding and recognizing the most common injuries that hikers typically succumb to, and how to prevent and treat them, are vital skills to hold.
Comprehending what the injuries are and how the items in your first aid kit prevent or remedy them gives you a leg up should something happen to you on the trail. Following preventative measures gives you the best chance of warding off these injuries and illnesses. Finally, knowing how to treat the injuries not only heightens your survival chances but gifts you pain relief and satisfaction at a successful accomplishment.
So not only should you pack a first aid kit tailored to your specific needs but you should know how to recognize, prevent, and treat some of the most common hiking injuries. This blog post is geared toward that topic: the most common injuries and illnesses that hikers get, how to prevent the injuries from happening to begin with, and what to do should you need to administer first aid for specific ailments.
Whether you’re day hiking around your local park, backpacking in the backcountry, or thru-hiking the remote wilderness of the PCT, hiker first aid is a necessary skill and resource to possess.
First Aid Basics for Hikers
How to Build a First Aid Kit
Should You Build or Buy?
Deciding whether to buy a pre-made first aid kit or build your own shouldn’t be overanalyzed. As long as you have a first aid kit of some sort, you’re already in better shape than those hikers who don’t.
Most beginners opt to purchase a pre-made kit to eliminate the challenge of determining what they should include. But while pre-made kits are definitely convenient and don’t require as much thought or preparation, they may be heavier, bulkier, lack items that you need personally, or contain unnecessary items that you might never use.
Building your own kit tends to be cheaper and will contain what you actually need since you’re the one stocking it. Chances are you have many of the supplies around your house anyway, so I’d go with this option.
What to Include in a Hiker First Aid Kit
Each hiker and camper’s first aid kit will undoubtedly look different. Factors like how long you’ll be on the trail, the terrain, the weather, and your current medical conditions or ailments could affect what specific supplies and what quantities of supplies you put in your first aid kit.
As you hike and backpack more often, you will slowly figure out what you need and what you don’t, and what you need more or less of. This list is everything I include in my kit, as well as some other necessities that help to prevent injury:
- Gauze and dressing
- Medical tape
- Blister pads
- Tweezers and tick key
- Antiseptic wipes
- Sting relief
- Bug spray
- Electrolytes packet
- Instant cold pack
- An assortment of pills (ibuprofen, anti-diarrheal, allergy)
- Bug Bite Thing or anti-itch cream
Recognize the Injuries
Step one of hiker first aid is recognizing the most common hiking injuries and illnesses.
While this list isn’t extensive – meaning, there are certainly other things that could happen – these are the most common and most likely to happen to you on the trail.
The Most Common Hiking Injuries and Illnesses
- Bug bites
- Cuts and scrapes
Prevent the Injuries
Step two of hiker first aid is preventing the most common hiker injuries and illnesses.
Here are the best ways to prevent these injuries and illnesses on the trail.
Don’t Break in Your Shoes on the Trail
It’s very important to not break in your shoes for the first time on the trail. Make sure to wear them several times before your adventure.
At the very least, wear them around the house or around your neighborhood. Even better would be to take them on a hike or two to not only break them in but ensure the boots will suffice for your trail adventures.
Wear Merino Wool
Wear Merino wool socks in all seasons. Yes, even in the summer!
Contrary to popular belief, Merino wool is great year-round. The material regulates body temperature. Meaning, with those socks on your feet, you will stay warm and dry in the winter and cool and dry in the summer.
Look for thicker, taller ones for cold weather and shorter, airier ones for warm seasons and trail running.
Make Sure Your Shoes Fit
It may seem obvious, but make your shoes fit your feet properly. Ensure that they are not too tight and not too loose.
A poorly-fit shoe will not only result in blisters but could put you in a dangerous situation on the trail. A loose shoe could fall off, slide down a cliff, or get whisked away down a river. A tight shoe could cause foot pain, nail/toe bleeds, and sores/scrapes.
Wear Waterproof Boots or Shoes
Wear waterproof boots or shoes to keep your feet dry. Carry extra socks so you can switch pairs if your other ones get wet.
In the summer, I like to wear trail sandals, especially if I’m going to be crossing quite a few rivers. These help my feet dry lightning-fast!
Wear Sturdy Boots
Wear sturdy hiking boots with adequate ankle support.
Trail runners and sandals can be great in certain situations, especially if you’re not going to be on rocky or uneven terrain. But while wearing that type of footwear, use extra caution and watch your step so that you don’t roll, twist, or sprain those fragile ankles!
Use Trekking Poles
Use trekking poles to help keep your balance on particularly rocky or uneven trails.
Using trekking poles gives you extra limbs so that you can test the terrain in front of you, stay on your feet, and gain that extra support.
Avoid Wearing Trail Runners
Avoid wearing trail runners on any trail unless it is relatively flat or paved.
Trail runners don’t have the crucial ankle support that I mentioned before. The same applies to sandals and low hiking boots.
Wear a Head Net
Wear a head net to protect your face and neck from bugs.
While you’ll probably look and feel silly, the joke will be on those who don’t have them on. The bugs will be buzzing around you but won’t attack your face and neck. This will allow you to enjoy a bite-free hike! (At least above your shoulders!)
Permethrin is an insecticide that repels mosquitoes. You can douse your clothes (and hiking and camping gear, if you’d like) with it.
Use Insect Repellent
Spray all of your exposed skin with insect repellent.
Wear Long Pants
Wear long pants with socks over them to deter ticks.
Lather your skin with SPF 15 (or higher) sunscreen every couple of hours.
Apply a higher SPF cream on a more frequent basis in dryer, hotter climates like the desert.
Wear a Hat and Sunglasses
Wear a sun hat and sunglasses to protect your face and eyes.
Wear UPF Clothing
If possible, wear UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) long sleeve sun shirts and long pants.
Most hikers like to wear shorts and tanks or tees in the summer because of the hot weather. (I’m guilty of this, too!) But UPF clothing is very breathable. It will help you stay cool and your skin stay free of harsh, harmful UV rays.
Keep Yourself Dry
When the weather is cold, it’s important to keep yourself dry and protected against the elements.
Wear the appropriate clothing, and do your best not to get wet.
Avoid water crossings in severely cold weather.
Wear Waterproof Clothes
Wear layers that will help you stay warm and dry, including a waterproof layer on top.
Pack an Emergency Shelter
Pack an emergency shelter in cold climates, such as a space blanket or bivvy.
Even if you are just day hiking, an emergency blanket is a necessary item to add to your first aid kit. Should your body get too cold, you’ll need a way to rapidly warm up before it becomes a dangerous situation.
Bring a Hot Drink
Bring a hot drink in an insulated mug or boil some hot water in a Jetboil to brew tea or coffee on the trail. The warm liquid will keep you warm as it courses through your veins!
Consume Water and Electrolytes
Drink plenty of water and electrolytes to ensure that your body’s core temperature and energy reserve stay regulated.
Eat Salty Snacks
Eat salty snacks to boost your electrolyte levels.
Wear Sun Protection
Wear sun protection like sunscreen, a sun hat, sunglasses, and airy, UPF clothing.
Use a Bandana
Drape a cold water-soaked bandana around your neck.
If you are near a body of water like a lake or river, dip your bandana in that. The freezing cold water will have you feeling cool and refreshed in no time!
Take plenty of breaks from direct sunlight.
In the summer, I’d recommend hiking in forests where there are plenty of trees and shade cover. Avoid exposed desert terrains when the temperature skyrockets.
Avoid Hot Weather Hiking
Avoid hiking midday in the summer with the hot sun. Hike when it’s cooler in the early morning and late evening.
If the temperature exceeds 100 degrees F, it’s best to be outside hiking.
Cuts and Scrapes
Wear Long Sleeves and Pants
Wear long sleeves and long pants especially if you are going to be bushwacking or hiking in unmaintained or ungroomed backcountry trails.
Pay Attention To Your Surroundings
Pay attention to your surroundings. Watch for exposed limbs and branches that could scrape your skin.
Wear Moisture-Wicking Clothes
Any clothing directly against your skin should be moisture-wicking.
Make Sure Your Gear Fits
Make sure your clothes and backpack fit comfortably.
Break in your backpack before hitting the trail.
Use a lubricant or bandages to protect extra-sensitive areas.
Stay dry by using baby powder.
If you get wet, try to dry off immediately.
Bring Plenty of Water
Stay hydrated no matter what the temperature is. Even on cold winter hikes, you need to be drinking water.
Bring at least 0.5 liters per hour of hiking. You’ll probably need more in hotter climates!
Carry a Water Filter
Carry purification tablets or a water filter just in case you run out of water and need a refill. (Make sure you will be near a natural water source so that you can refill your bottles).
Eat Salty Snacks
Eat salty snacks and drink water with electrolyte enhancers to balance your electrolyte levels.
Electrolytes are especially helpful on those extra-hot days.
Treat the Injuries
Step three of hiker first aid is treating the most common hiker injuries and illnesses.
Here are the ways you can treat those injuries and illnesses right on the trail (with items in your first aid kit, of course!)
Pop and Drain It
As soon as you can, pop it and drain it. Try not to remove the skin.
Apply petroleum jelly; wrap it in a bandage.
Use a Moleskin or Bandage
For temporary relief, cover it in moleskin or wrap it in a bandage.
Slide on an additional pair of socks.
Follow the RICE Method:
- Rest: Take the weight off of your ankle.
- Ice: Crack open an instant cold pack if you have one. If not, submerge your ankle in cold water, cover your ankle in snow, or soak a shirt in cold water and wrap the ankle.
- Compression: Wrap the ankle in a bandage (snugly, but not too tight).
- Elevation: Raise the ankle above your heart.
Don’t itch those bites, no matter how tempting it might be! This will make them itch even more and will elongate the healing process.
Apply Anti-Itch Cream
Anti-itch cream is helpful for temporary itch relief.
Use the Bug Bite Thing
Try this chemical-free, cream-free tool to alleviate itching, stinging, and swelling: Bug Bite Thing! (Seen on Shark Tank!) This is my favorite remedy for mosquito bites; I get hundreds of these bites each year.
Apply a Cold Pack
Apply an instant cold pack, soaked piece of clothing, or wet, cold bandana to the burn.
Use Aloe Vera
Use aloe vera to cool your skin and prevent it from drying out.
Wear Dry Clothes
Make sure your clothes are dry.
Get to a Dry Location
If you can, get to a dry location. You want to get out of the snowy, rainy, and/or cold elements as soon as possible as those conditions will exacerbate the situation.
Wrap Yourself in a Blanket
Wrap yourself in a space blanket or bivvy.
Consume a Hot Beverage
Drinking something hot will help warm your body immediately.
Quickly boil water for hot tea or coffee with a Jetboil Flash!
Immerse Yourself in Cold Water
Immersing yourself in cold water will immediately cool down your core body temperature.
Apply Instant Cold Packs to Your Body
Apply instant cold packs and/or cold water-soaked bandanas to your armpits, neck, back, and groin to lower your temperature.
Cuts and Scrapes
Clean the Wound
Clean and disinfect the wound.
Apply a Bandage
Put a bandage over the cut or scrape.
Apply a Tourniquet
Apply a tourniquet by tieing a belt or piece of clothing above the wound if the cut is large and the bleeding is excessive.
Clean the Area
Clean the affected area with camp soap and water or simply a baby wipe.
Apply lotion or petroleum jelly.
Leave the Wound Uncovered
Leave the wound uncovered so it can dry and heal.
Keep it Lubricated
Keep the affected area lubricated.
Rehydrate with plenty of water and electrolytes.
Get out of direct sunlight; seek shade.
Now that you know the fundamentals of recognizing, preventing, and treating the most common hiking injuries and illnesses, hopefully, you will feel comfortable embarking on the trail with the assurance that you can administer basic first aid to you or your fellow trail buddy should you need to.
As always, stay safe on the trails!