Avoiding the Top Six Hiking Injuries
We are lucky to live in New England, because you don’t have to go very far to find a great place to hike. Even right on the Southwestern Vermont Medical Center campus, you can enjoy great trails, part of the Bennington Area Trail System.
For a carefree hiking experience, hike with friends or on trails you know well and with daylight to spare. Also take precautions to prevent the most common hiking-related injuries. See the injuries below and the simple tips for preventing them on the trail and treating them when you return home.
* Blisters: One of the most common hiking injuries are blisters, which are most commonly caused by friction between your foot and your footwear. To avoid blisters, make sure your shoes fit snuggly and that you wear socks. If you plan to be hiking in a wet area, ensure your shoes are water resistant, as moisture can enhance the likelihood of blisters. (Bring a change of socks, too.)
As soon as you feel a painful spot, stop and apply some athletic tape or moleskin. To treat a broken blister, clean it with soap and water, and apply some antibiotic ointment and a Band-Aid. Intact blisters should be left alone, when possible, as draining them increases the risk of infection. You’ll be good as new in time for next weekend’s hike.
* Bug bites: Prepare for the insects that you are likely to encounter by wearing long sleeves and long pants. If you will be walking in tall grass, especially, or going off the trail, you may want to spray your clothes with permethrin and let them dry before wearing them hiking. This defends against ticks and tick-borne illnesses. For other bugs, use your favorite of the many available bug repellants available. Products containing Deet seem to be more effective.
Immediately after getting off the trail, try using a sticky lint roller to get ticks off of your clothes. And once you get home, do a thorough tick check and shower to wash away any ticks. Even with all of these preventive measures, it is still good to know the signs and symptoms of tick-borne illnesses—sometimes a rash, fever, headache, joint pain, and muscle aches or soreness—and see a health care provider right away if these symptoms arise.
* Poison ivy and other poisonous plants: If you stay on well-established trails, you are less likely to contact plants that cause painful and irritating skin rashes. Also, the same long sleeves and pants you are wearing to protect against insects also protect from the poisonous plants you might encounter.
If you ever go off the trail, it is best to learn to identify and avoid these plants. The website www.wikihow.com has good illustrated articles for identifying the most common skin irritants: poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. If you do have an encounter, you will likely start feeling symptoms anywhere from several hours to a few days after. As soon as contact is identified, wash thoroughly with soap and water and avoid touching your eyes. You can use over-the-counter anti-itch remedies for small areas, which may help you keep from scratching the irritated area and causing additional skin damage or infection. Avoid products containing lidocaine.
* Twisted ankle: Good-fitting shoes with a tread and ankle protection and being mindful on the trail may help you reduce the risk of twisting your ankle, but some twisting injuries are simply unavoidable. Be especially careful on uneven and slippery surfaces. And if you are unsteady on your feet, think about hiking with a walking stick, poles, or some other stabilizer.
For minor injuries, like a low grade sprain, you may be able to “walk it off.” If it is more severe, take a seat, elevate the injury, and rest for a bit. If the injury is too painful to bear weight, this is when you use the fully charged cell phone you brought along to call for extra help. Hiking on a broken ankle can increase your risk for complications and need for surgery
* Scrapes: If you follow the advice given in this article so far—especially precautions against twisting and insects—you will be pretty well protected against scrapes, which happen most often on bare skin as a result of a fall. If you do get a scrape, wash and dry it once you are off the trail, apply antibiotic ointment, and monitor it for infection.
* Sunburn: With the thick tree cover in New England’s famous deciduous forests, you might think that you are free from the risk of sunburn. Not so. Many trails have long grassy meadows or bare peaks, which—however beautiful—leave you vulnerable to sunburn. Wear sun protective clothing or sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher to protect yourself from sunburn. Sunburns may seem like an inconvenience, but even light burns over the course of time can increase your risk of developing skin cancer.
For more information about hiking safely, I recommend “Hiking: the Merit Badge Series” or “A Woman’s Guide to the Wild.” For trails in our area, visit here and here. Here’s to many injury-free hikes this summer in Bennington and beyond.
Adam Cohen, MD, is the medical director of Emergency Medicine at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center. “Health Matters” is a column meant to educate readers about their personal health, public health matters, and public policy as it affects health care. For more stories like this one, click here. For health system news and updates, follow SVMC on Facebook.
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