Trail Tuesdays (it’s new!): Being Prepared for Injuries on the Trail

It’s time to rebrand Tuesdays. Let’s be honest, I’m no longer even contemplating training for an ultra. My “training” these days is focused on the little things like, you know, having a normal, functioning body. What I am excited about is hiking season, and it’s safe to say I know a hell of a lot more about day hiking than I do about running.  Plain and simple, you are in better hands if I write about hiking topics.

Today’s topic is being prepared for the unexpected hiking injury. Clearly I have injuries on the brain these days, but as I get ready for hiking season, it’s a good time to refresh our gear and make sure we’re ready to hike safe.  I used to be the poster child for the ill-prepared, the girl who hiked with absolutely no gear, but at least now I’m reformed. Learn from the error of my old ways and go into the wilderness better prepared do deal with the unexpected.

A quick note: these suggestions are really geared towards dealing with injuries on the minor to moderate side of the injury spectrum. Major injuries are a whole other beast and, in many cases, my suggestions won’t be enough to cope with the big stuff.

Preparing for the Unexpected:Hiking Edition

1. Have a Safety Check: For the love of God, tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return, and make it someone that will actually pay attention to whether you return at that time. If you get happen to get injured badly enough that your ability to hike out is compromised, this is the best way to ensure that someone actually looks for you. I used to do only do this for solo hikes, but I’ve started to let people know even when I’m hiking with others. As I get older, I’m learning you can never be too safe.  If you don’t believe me, just watch 127 Hours.

2. Portable Cell Phone Charger: You won’t always have cell reception, but on many popular front country trails, you might be surprised at how well your phone works. If something happens while hiking, it pays to have a small, portable phone charger in case your battery gets low, particularly if you need to use GPS apps (they can really drain your battery!) or make an emergency phone call.

3. Tensor Bandages: The number of times I had to hike at least 5 km on badly sprained ankles before I started carrying Tensor bandages is astounding. Tensor bandages are going to make a world of difference for the bulk of common hiking injuries involving knees, wrists, and ankles. Carry a couple. They’re small, light-weight and pretty versatile.  You’ll still be in pain if you’ve pulled a muscle, sprained a limb, or (heaven forbid!) suffered a minor fracture or break, but Tensors will at least provide a little bit of extra stability in the short term.

4. Sturdy Poles: I hate carrying poles. I almost never use them for hiking unless I’m terrified while descending or crossing snow patches, so more often than not I leave them in the trunk of my car. I am still guilty of this, by the way. However, any time I’ve had a knee or ankle issue on the trail, I’ve wished desperately that I had my poles with me for some extra support.  Don’t be like me. Carry your poles. If you buy retractable poles like mine, you can clip them to the outside of your backpack and you’ll forget they’re even there.

5. A PROPER First Aid Kit: I used to carry nothing, then upgraded slightly to a small plastic container stuffed with bandaids, some gauze and a small set of scissors. It wasn’t until recently that I went with a full-blown outdoor first aid kit. They’re surprisingly compact and have most of the things you need to take care of everything from blisters to wounds. I believe mine is quite similar to this one.  What’s important is that your kit has more than just bandaids–look for a range of bandages and gauze that will cover larger wounds.  Just a couple years back, I was hiking with my parents when my mom slipped on a very steep section of trail.  Her hiking pole was looped around her wrist and, when the pole jammed into the ground, the handle actually hit her forearm with such force that it peeled back a sizeable chunk of flesh. Sorry for the gruesome mental picture there, but suffice it to say that without proper bandages, medical tape and antiseptic wipes, she would’ve been quite an infected and bloody mess by the time we got home.

6. Ibuprofen & Antihistamines:  Ibuprofen is a wonderful thing. Not only will it ease pain, but it’s actually an anti-inflammatory, meaning it will bring down swelling caused by inflammation.  Alternatively, acetaminophen, such as Tylenol, will help the pain but will do nothing for inflammation and swelling.  It’s also great to have a couple of antihistamines kicking around just in case you have an unexpected allergic reaction to plants or insect bites.  I wish I’d had one the time I was stung by a wasp and became convinced that my tongue was swelling and my breathing becoming laboured. Though neither of which was actually occurring, you don’t always know what you’re allergic to in advance. Barring a severe allergic reaction, an antihistamine is going to keep things in check until you get back to the trailhead.

It can be tempting to think this stuff only applies to backcountry hikers on long excursions, but I assure you this is just as important for day hikes. I’ve had my share of minor injuries hiking, and all of them have occurred in the front country and on 20-25 km day hikes.  Don’t let distance and location fool you. Accidents can happen anytime so hike safe! And happy Trail Tuesday!

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