5 hiking catastrophes and how to handle them

Sprained joints, cuts and bruises are just a few of the calamities you can expect to experience when pursuing your passion in the backcountry and on the trails. But none of these things necessarily has to ruin your time hiking if you know how to respond properly to them.

Check out our guide to handling five of the most common hiking catastrophes and make sure you’re prepared when you hit the trailhead.

Sprained joints

hiking first-aid
Quick response to a sprain can lessen the pain. Photo: Courtesy of ProCura Med Saude/Flickr
The first thing you’re going to want to help prevent most of the following disasters is a well-packed first-aid kit. The Washington Trails Association gives a good breakdown of what you should pack in your first-aid kit. REI sells one that works great, especially when paired with a SAM splint, like this one.

According to the American Red Cross wilderness and remote first-aid guide, the most important thing to do after suffering a sprain is to use RICE — that’s rest, immobilize, cold and elevation. If you happen to have an instant ice pack in your bag, apply that to the site of the injury. If you don’t, soak the affected joint in a cold mountain stream if there’s one around. If nothing else, an ibuprofen can work to help prevent swelling.

After that, wrap a bandage around the joint to apply pressure to the injury, and if possible, elevate it above the heart. Then, to further immobilize the injury, apply the SAM splint to the joint.


hiking first-aid
Profusely sweating will lower your sodium levels, so make sure to snack on trail mix while hiking. Photo: Courtesy of Jayel Abraham/Flickr
The biggest way to treat dehydration is with prevention: As the American Hiking Society (AHS) points out, you should consciously be drinking water slowly for several hours prior to intense exercise. Then, once you’re on the trail, the AHS says that a good rule of thumb is to carry roughly one quart of drinking water for every hour of intense exercise you plan on.

It’s important to note that when it’s hot and you’re sweating profusely, you’ll rapidly lose sodium, which reduces your ability to regulate hydration levels. Snacking on trail mix is a good way to keep your sodium levels even.

If you take all the precautions necessary and find yourself suffering from dehydration, the AHS suggests you get off your feet, find a cool, shady area and spend several hours resting while trying to sip on water with a dash of salt in it, if possible.

If you’re completely out of water and in truly dire straits, try finding a water source in the wild, and carry a water purification system with you to avoid harmful bacteria. The LifeStraw water filter should do the trick.

Snake/spider bites and poisonous plant exposure

hiking first-aid
A bite from this guy, the Western diamondback rattlesnake, can quickly turn a day on the trail for the worse. Photo: Courtesy of Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith/Flickr
Per the Red Cross, if you’re bitten by a snake, the most important thing to do is to try to remain calm. After that, you’re going to want to let the wound bleed for a few seconds before gently washing it. Then, wrap a bandage with light pressure around the wound to help slow the spread of any venom, but do not create a tourniquet. That will only localize any venom and allow it to cause immense damage to the region.

Try to keep the bite site immobilized and lower than your heart. Call for help, either with a cell phone or an emergency backcountry messenger. Do not try to get up and walk to help.

If bitten by a spider, the Red Cross recommends, wash the wound, apply wound gel to it, bandage it and try to apply ice to the site. Again, if possible, elevate the bite site above the heart, and try taking an oral antihistamine, like Benadryl. If you start to experience a severe allergic reaction, immediately call for help.

For poisonous plants, the Red Cross suggests you simply wash and sterilize the affected area. If a rash or swelling starts to occur, mix 3 tablespoons of baking soda with 1 tablespoon of water to create a paste and apply it to the site of the rash. Wash thoroughly any clothes that may have touched the poisonous plants.


hiking first-aid
An example provided by the American Red Cross of how to use closure strips on a laceration. Photo: Courtesy of the American Red Cross
Per the American Red Cross, first you must evaluate the wound. If the laceration is over a half inch wide, if it’s deep enough to expose bones or ligaments or if it’s exceptionally dirty, you should not attempt to treat it yourself, but rather evacuate the backcountry immediately and get professional medical help.

Otherwise, the Appalachian Mountain Club says to apply direct pressure to the wound with gauze and elevate it above your head for anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes to stop the bleeding. Next, use potable water to pressure wash the wound and closure strips (often called butterfly bandages) to help bring the edges of the cut together.

Then, apply antibiotic ointment and dress the area with sterile gauze and use a bandage to keep your dressing in place. Check your dressing daily and try to keep it moist with antibiotic ointment.


hiking first-aid
One of the easiest ways to prevent blisters is to opt for well-fitting wool socks. Photo: Courtesy of the National Park Service
As REI notes, the easiest way to prevent blisters is to make sure you’re wearing dry, properly fitting synthetic or wool socks along with properly fitting shoes. If you do that and feel a hot spot coming on, Hi-Tec recommends that you cover it with moleskin or tape to prevent further friction on the area.

If you develop a fully formed blister that is too painful to endure, the Red Cross says to clean the blister, sterilize a knife or a needle and open it up at the perimeter, leaving the raised skin layer intact. Once it has drained, make sure the site of the blister is clean, apply wound gel and tape over it to make sure the blister site doesn’t suffer further chafing.

More tips for how to more safely enjoy the backcountry

How to bend those food safety rules (a little) while camping

What’s in your backcountry med kit?

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