Common Hiking Injuries – Prevention & Treatment (2021 Update). Check out hillwalktours.com for more hiking help and information
The first thought when it comes to hiking injuries is of course ‘prevention.’ Injuries are an unfortunate inevitability of hiking. It’s therefore important to not only know how to prevent them, but also how to treat them. And try as you may, it isn’t always possible to prevent every single thing in life, with certain risks and an element of luck factoring into the equation while hiking.
As such, at least two people in your hiking party need to know some basic first aid when venturing into the outdoors. You should have adequate supplies in your backpack that can tackle any eventuality. Knowledge of how to identify various injuries and conditions is also very important. Likewise you’d do well to understand how to best prevent and mitigate common ailments and accidents.
The most common hiking injuries are:
- Bug Bites
Let’s go through each one of these now and identify the best ways to prevent them first, followed by how to treat them just in case.
Blisters are one of the most common hiking injuries and are caused by friction between your skin and ill-fitting socks and/or footwear.
To prevent blisters from forming, ensure your sock doesn’t slip up and down when you walk. Your hiking boots should fit tightly to prevent your foot from moving around or rubbing against the inside. However, they shouldn’t be too tight either, and should allow for a little extra wiggle room if you like putting on thicker socks, or two pairs, for winter hikes. Furthermore, your boots should be broken in at least somewhat before embarking on your journey. Nobody recommends picking up a new pair at your local outdoors store and immediately hitting the trail.
Keeping your feet dry is also important in preventing blisters. To this end, ensure that you have two or three spare pairs of socks so that you can change them if you happen to step in a bog hole. And it goes without saying, but make sure you have those spare pairs adequately waterproofed inside your pack as well.
How do I treat it?
If you do get a blister (it happens to the best of us), you may want to act quickly to prevent any unnecessary discomfort, and to stop the blister from getting any worse.
If you have a sterilised needle at hand, pop and drain the blister. Apply disinfectant and then wrap it up with a bandage to minimise the risk of infection. Personally I wouldn’t recommend peeling and cutting the skin away just yet, although there are differing schools of thought surrounding this practice. It’s unlikely that you will have a sterilised needle while you’re hiking. Don’t try to pop a blister with anything that is unsterilised as you will risk the wound getting infected. Instead, use a blister plaster or wrap it tightly with a bandage to avoid any further irritation through friction.
Everyone has their own preferred method of blister treatment, with some of these extra options doubling up as preventative measures as well. For example, many people also use moleskin, corn pads, medical tape, duct tape, wearing two pairs of socks at once, wearing woollen socks and using petroleum jelly or vaseline. By the way – vaseline is also very useful toward preventing and treating chafing while walking long distances. Finally, for certain routes some hikers can easily get away with trail runners and sneakers. High-lacing hiking boots are inherently stiff and not always 100% necessary. Perhaps this is for the more experienced walker out there, but it is one way to have a more comfortable journey in terms of preventing blisters and lightening the load on your feet.
The most common type of sprain to occur whilst hiking concerns the ankle.
Prevention of this is simple: good hiking boots with sturdy ankle support and taking care and caution when placing your feet on uneven ground. Hiking poles are also a good option due to the extra stability they give you whilst walking. As I said in the last point regarding blisters, it is only ever advisable to wear sneakers or trail runners if the trail permits this safely without unduly increasing the risk of sprains, of course.
How do I treat it?
Sprains are part and parcel of hiking, no matter how cautious you are.
Follow the RICE procedure should spraining occur while out on a hike:
- Rest – Take any weight off of the sprained ankle immediately as this could do more damage to it.
- Ice – You probably won’t have an ice pack with you to treat this hiking injury. There are three things that you can do to replicate this step instead:
- Use packed snow to cool the injury.
- Submerge the ankle in cold water, such as a river or stream.
- Soak an unneeded t-shirt and wrap it around the swollen ankle.
- Compression – Apply compression using an elastic bandage or another unneeded t-shirt. Make sure that circulation isn’t impaired by the bandage being too tight.
- Elevation – Raise the ankle above the injured person’s heart.
You will eventually need to start walking again to get home from the trail. Use walking poles to create a makeshift splint to stabilise the ankle and get help from your hiking buddy to hobble down the trail.
Cuts are one of the most common hiking injuries and can happen at anytime from anywhere. They’re difficult to prevent but are not usually serious.
Take care when walking on uneven ground to stop yourself from falling, as well as when passing undergrowth in order to prevent any cuts from branches and brambles.
How do I treat it?
Treat a small cut simply by disinfecting the wound and putting a bandage on it.
Bigger cuts may require a tourniquet to stop the wound from bleeding. Use a belt or unneeded piece of clothing and tie it tightly above the wound. Write down the time the tourniquet was applied so medical personnel know how long it ash been on for.
Hypothermia is one of the most serious hiking injuries. Preventative efforts should be made such that you never get to the treatment stage. Hypothermia is the cooling of your core body temperature.
You can take many steps to prevent hypothermia, including:
- Plan your hiking trip properly, allowing for sheltered or semi-sheltered rest stops instead of halting in the open wind and elements.
- Know your route so you aren’t stopping and checking your map too frequently.
- Use equipment and wear clothing that is suited to the weather that is forecast.
- Keep yourself dry as much as possible.
- Keep your backpack and its contents dry.
- Ensure that at a bare minimum, you have 100% waterproofed spare warm clothes within your backpack.
- Pack an emergency shelter such as a tarp, ‘hootchie’ or even a ‘bivvy’ bag if you intend to travel on routes where distances between permanent shelter points are particularly long.
- Include a space blanket (tin foil sleeping bag, effectively) in your first aid kit if you are hiking during winter, in a region subject to blasting tempests or in a climate prone to sudden, cooler weather and rainstorms.
- Bring a high visibility vest or similarly bright marker panel with you in case you need to signal to emergency rescuers in poor visibility which is associated with colder weather.
- Have a flask of warm drink, such as hot chocolate or something else sugary, and keep your hunger levels low to ensure that you have enough energy.
How do I treat it?
Recognising hypothermia is the first step.
Do this through following the ‘umbles’ – stumbling, mumbling, fumbling and grumbling.
The person may stop shivering – this means that their body is shutting down and no longer reacting to the extreme cold they are feeling. Call mountain rescue immediately.
Ensure the person’s clothes are dry. Get into a survival bag (sleeping bag or space blanket) alongside the patient so that your body heat warms them up.
Give the patient a hot drink to warm them up. If it gets to a stage where the person loses consciousness, every effort should be made to warm them up as they now only have a 50-50 chance of survival at this point.
Hyperthermia is the opposite of hypothermia. It is the increase of body temperature which occurs when hiking in very hot conditions.
Ensure that you drink plenty of fluids whilst hiking in hot weather, and that you also have a hat to block the sun’s rays from directly hitting your head. Packing and using sunscreen during the summer months is equally important in terms of preventing yourself from adding insult to injury. There’s nothing worse than recovering from hyperthermia only to find that you now have a fairly severe sunburn for the next few days. Furthermore, this will only exacerbate any hyperthermic condition as well as potentially elongating your recovery time.
How do I treat it?
Identifying hyperthermia is, again, vitally important. Hyperthermia comes in three stages, each substantially more severe than the last. First you will experience muscle cramping, a minor discomfort often discredited as related to the hike instead of heat and dehydration. These cramps will, however, become more severe if you don’t begin to rectify your hydration and body temperature situation. After this comes heat exhaustion, the first real stage of hyperthermia. This is when things begin to get serious. If your case becomes particularly severe you will fall into a state of heat stroke, which is extremely dangerous and potentially deadly.
Symptoms include, in increasing order from muscle cramps to heat stroke:
- Sweating profusely.
- Headaches, cramps and feeling ill.
- Sweating will then stop – this is when to call mountain rescue for you have reached heat exhaustion, which can progress to heat stroke extremely rapidly.
- The “umbles” will kick in at about the same time as per above.
- Unconsciousness is the worst case scenario and medical attention should be sought immediately.
The trick to preventing dehydration while hiking is simple: drink plenty of water.
How do I treat it?
Symptoms of dehydration are quite easy to diagnose in yourself. They can be:
- Feeling more thirsty than normal.
- Lethargy or lack of energy.
- Urine is a much darker shade of yellow than normal.
Treat dehydration in the same way as preventing it. Drink plenty of water and try not to hike during the hottest part of the day. The big mistake most people make when it comes to dehydration is that once you notice the first symptoms of it, you are actually much further progressed than you feel. It’s therefore a good idea to take a break in the shade and give your body time to absorb that water. Instead, most people think it is fine to simply press on while drinking more water.
Another effective way to both treat and prevent dehydration, apart from the obvious, is to consume rehydration salts such as Dioralyte. This powder contains essential salts and electrolytes and is a must have in your first aid kit if hiking in summer or warmer climates. You can pre-mix a few of your water bottles as well. Just be wary of the material your water bottles are made of, because certain plastics can become impregnated with the flavour of the sachet, meaning that any time you add plain old water in the future it will have a subtle, yet annoying taste left behind.
You can also add salt sachets (grab a few from a restaurant or fast food place before your next hike) to your first aid kit. If you are concerned that you are becoming dehydrated, then it is a good idea to replenish your body’s salt supply. As you perspire, you lose these vital salts from your body. Without an adequate level of salt in your body, you aren’t able to absorb and retain as much water. As such, drinking copious amounts of water without taking in salt as well can be a futile exercise, sometimes only serving to flush even more salt out of your body!
Severe dehydration often requires medical attention and being placed on a drip for a number of hours.
You should always have sunblock of at least 25 SPF in your backpack to provide adequate protection from the sun’s rays. A sun hat or cap is a must in warmer, sunnier climates as well to stop the rays beating down directly on your head. And don’t forget, if the days is hot but overcast, you can still get burnt through the clouds as well!
How do I treat it?
Sunburn can be a painful and irritating hiking injury.
Treatments include applying an ice-pack or a soaked rag/piece of clothing. Aloe vera and other after-sun remedies can be applied to create a cooling effect on the skin and prevent your skin drying out and peeling. Never let yourself get burnt across your shoulders if you intend to put a backpack on the next day!
Bug bites can be difficult to prevent, especially when there are large swarms around. Insect repellant, like the one we recommend, is a must whilst hiking. Remember that different repellants suit different regions and their accompanying insect types. A mosquito net to protect your face also prevents insects from biting you.
How do I treat it?
Avoid scratching the bite as this will only further irritate it. Apply an after bite lotion as this will help ease the itching. Over in Australia there’s a popular remedy called ‘stingose’ for example.
What Should Be In Your First Aid Kit?
To summaries, here are some basics which you should have in your first aid kit whilst hiking. These will help you to treat any of the hiking injuries listed above.
- Elastic strap.
- Ibuprofen (for headaches and to ease pain).
- Blister plasters.
- Duct tape.
- Safety Pins.
- Insect repellant.
- Space blanket.
- High-visibility jacket.
- Salt sachets or electrolyte powders.
- Sugar sachets.
- Tweezers (as this will help remove any thorns).