by Diane Spicer
Some hiking injuries come with the territory.
That's why you need to be prepared to face them, surmount them, and sometimes help other injured hikers on the trail.
You're in the right place!
This page gets you up to speed, and then gives you some options to avoid getting hurt on a hike or backpacking trip.
Let's start by listing common injuries which hikers face, whether on a day hike or a lengthy backpacking trip.
1. General soft tissue injury: cuts, abrasions, bruises, rashes, burns, stings, bites, chafing, blisters and other types of wounds with or without bleeding
2. Temperature related injury: dehydration, heat stroke, hypothermia, frost bite
3. Muscle and joint problems: sprains, strains, pulled muscles
4. Overuse injuries: tendonitis, bursitis, exhaustion
5. Bones: broken, dislocated, bruised, stress fractures
The list is based on a report from the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS).
What can you do to keep yourself off this list of hiking injuries?
Keep reading, for starters.
Any time you take a hike, you are going to bump, scrape and bruise yourself.
Insect bites are also to be expected.
But let's take a look at some preventive strategies to minimize your chances of other types of soft tissue injury.
This topic has been covered in depth here:
Top tips to avoid blisters:
You'll know this one when you see it: red patches and bumps on your leg and ankle region, made even more fun by itchiness or pain.
Maybe even a little swelling, if you're extra lucky.
It will fade with time, but can linger for weeks.
The medical term for this is exercise-induced vasculitis.
All that means is you've got increased blood flow to your lower legs (because you're hiking) which for some reason has caused the blood vessels to become inflamed ("-itis" always refers to inflammation).
What to do about it?
Sorry to tell you, but once you're in the thick of it, there's not much to be done except to rest and elevate your legs to encourage blood flow to and from the area.
Compression hiking socks may help to prevent it from happening again.
And here's something to ponder: this condition is most common in older hikers and those with decreased circulation (diabetics).
So if hiker's rash has paid you a visit, get checked out by your health care provider and discuss ways to improve your circulation.
You might not have paid much attention to what your skin does for you. silently, day in and day out.
But you will when it become irritated and broken, especially in your groin area or beneath your breasts.
Here are some evasive actions to take.
There are two common sources of burns for hikers:
Avoiding sunburn takes some dedication to selecting the right sunscreen, and then applying it regularly.
If you're not a fan of sunscreens, given recent reports about its chemical ingredients reaching the bloodstream, then alter your behavior and use protective gear to keep ultraviolet radiation from frying your skin.
The best time to prevent damage is in the morning, by taking time to apply sunscreen just before you hit the trail.
The second best time?
When you re-apply sunscreen that has been sweated off, or don another layer of protective clothing when the sun is highest overhead.
At the end of a long trail day, you're in a hurry to get something hot and tasty into your body.
But take a moment to prepare your camp kitchen for safety.
Read up on safe stove choices here.
Extensive blood loss is an emergency and must be controlled immediately.
For this reason, your first aid kit should contain some sterile gauze pads.
Don't have a kit yet? Here's a good choice.
Have the injured hiker press the pad onto the wound if possible, while you assess the amount of bleeding and arrange the wound above heart level.
If you need to apply pressure without assistance, use your bandanna to hold the gauze in place.
Once blood loss has stopped, turn your attention to preventing infection by cleaning the wound.
If you're in the middle of a long trip, be sure to check the wound daily for signs of infection: extreme pain or redness, surrounding skin hot to the touch, pus.
The human body can withstand an impressive range of temperatures, given the right gear and trail smarts.
But any one of us can get into trouble when Mother Nature throws a tantrum our way.
Or we forget to double check the gear list.
We've already covered burns above.
Use these tips to maximize your safety from these problems related to temperature extremes:
Every hiker has a particular body region that gets sore and feels tweaked on a hike.
For example, arch pain might be a recurring problem, even with supportive boots and cushion-y hiking socks.
Use these tips to deal with your own troublesome spots:
Read up on hiking inflammation for more self care tips.
Both of these terms refer to soft tissue damage somewhere near a joint in your body.
In medical terms, a sprain means that you've stretched or torn a ligament connecting bone to bone.
The same problem, but in a muscle or tendon (with connections to bone), means you have experienced a strain.
What does the difference mean to you on the trail?
In either case, focus on your pain level and stability to assess your situation.
If you can't bear weight on an ankle, or you need to pop several pain relief tablets just to be able to move a little, you've got a severe problem that won't go away overnight.
If you are in mild discomfort and can use the opposite leg (perhaps with a supportive hiking pole) to become mobile, use the RICE approach to deal with the inflammation.
Yes, you're going to have to stop hiking for a day or two, or turn around if the trailhead is close.
Suck up the disappointment and focus on this for the first 24 - 48 hours after the injury:
Unless you're a professional hiker (now there's a great job description), you live with cycles of inactivity followed by hitting it hard when you have time to backpack or tackle an ambitious day hike on your day off.
This unfortunate pattern sets you up for problems with your soft tissues.
Let's look at a few examples.
Reach down and grab that stringy, tough band of tissue on the back of your heel.
That's where you'll feel pain and stiffness when it becomes inflamed from repetitive stress, like walking more miles in a day than you usually do in a week.
It's called Achilles tendinopathy (also referred to as tendinitis).
A few tips for your Achilles tendon:
IT might be something you've learned to associate with computer support, but here it means "iliotibial".
The term refers to a band of soft tissue (called fascia) that connects the knee (the tibial part) to the hip (the ilio part), running along the outside of your thigh.
Take a moment to rub side to side on this area from hip to knee.
In hikers, this tremendously strong band of tissue can become inflamed when we hit it hard without being conditioned.
It can also be pulled over the knee joint to cause unwanted friction, along with pain, on the outside of your knee.
Please heed the warning this pain gives you.
Your IT band will not fix itself. You need to bring this problem to a sports medicine practitioner.
Proactive IT band strategies:
It's possible to dislocate your patella (kneecap) with a misplaced step sideways on a steep trail.
You might also develop a stress fracture or shin splints due to the unaccustomed load your backpack places on bone tissue.
If you fall on your outstretched wrist, a broken bone is a possibility.
A dislocated shoulder may occur if your trekking pole and your range of motion get into a fight - and the pole wins.
These injuries will curtail your ability to complete your hike, and for good reason: you have to rest the affected area for healing to begin, and seek medical attention.
Because these injuries need specific diagnosis and treatment, and may carry the additional risk of shock, I refer you to these resources:
I'm skipping over politeness to say something I truly believe:
Powering through, soldiering on, sucking up the pain - all of these behaviors are great ways to leave permanent damage in your body.
Also, very annoying to your trail buddies, who can clearly see you're hurting.
When your body says to stop, STOP.
An acute injury can sometimes be cleared up in a day or two with a little patience and the tips provided here.
Sometimes it's going to take a long, long time before the nagging, chronic condition can be resolved.
Give yourself the space and time to heal. It means you really like yourself ;)
But here's the good news.
You can be prepared to be prepared, and you won't blink an eye when you're faced with your own hiking injury or an injured companion.
I've shared these tips to help you think through some likely hiking injury scenarios, and to plan a well stocked first aid kit.
If you know how to use everything in your kit, so much the better.
Did you know that REI Co-op offers a class in exactly that, called "What's In Your First Aid Kit"?
Common Hiking Injuries
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About the author
Diane is the founder of Hiking For Her.
She’s been on a hiking trail somewhere in the world for nearly five decades & loves to share her best hiking tips right here.
All rights reserved.
Photo credits: All photos on this website were taken by David Midkiff or Diane Spicer except where noted.
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