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May 1998

A Few Ounces Of Prevention

The 25 often-overlooked ways to stay healthy and injury-free.

Practice camp hygiene. Germs that make you sick are carried into the wilderness by your campmates. They’re not waiting in the tree bark to pounce on you. Don’t share personal kitchen gear, water bottles, anything. If you pass the gorp around, ask everyone to pour some into their hands, instead of sticking grime-ridden paws into the bag. Always wash your hands after defecation and before preparing or eating food.

Avoid short-nail syndrome. Yes, keep those toenails trimmed. Long toenails squashed into hiking boots can rip the flesh from a neighboring toe, rub painfully against the toebox of your boot (and in some cases, collect blood underneath the nail, which then falls off a month or two later), and destroy your socks. But toenails that are too short can lead to problems, too. You need some length to protect the end of your toes while hiking. Also, they can become painfully ingrown on a long trip.

Clean your fingernails. Clean hands rate as the number one way to prevent the spread of disease around camp, or anywhere, for that matter. That dark stuff collecting under your fingernails, sort of like a rich soil in your garden, is ideal for supporting germ growth. Even though you’re in the woods and don’t bathe for days, wash your hands.

Maintain your fitness to prevent injury. Staying in shape is the single best way to avoid a mishap or overuse injury on the trail. Hikers who are committed to a year-round fitness regimen are sidelined far less often than those who say, “I’ll get in shape on the trip.” Besides having more strength and endurance, the fit have less fat, and every extra pound you shed means less stress on joints and muscles, and-you guessed it!-less chance of injury.

Make sure your socks fit. Besides being a nuisance and uncomfortable, ill-fitting socks encourage blisters. Baggy socks form clumps of material that apply undue pressure to feet. Restrictive socks reduce healthy circulation and are usually stretched too far to maintain equal and adequate protection over your entire foot.

Take precautions before a storm reaches you. Most lightning strikes hit people anywhere from 1 mile to as many as 7 miles in front of the clouds and rain. Remember: 5 seconds between the flash and the thunder means the storm is only 1 mile away. Leave metal objects behind and move out of open spaces or away from shorelines. Head for uniform cover, such as trees of approximately the same height. Or get into a gully or ditch.

Use a “third leg” to prevent injuries. You’re trudging along under a load over rough terrain when, oops, your foot turns, you lose balance, and down you go. A hiking staff-a trekking pole, a well-crafted wooden version, or simply a stout branch you pick up in the woods-not only helps you maintain balance, it also aids in stream crossings. There’s also the small matter of how it takes pressure off your knees.

Visit a dentist before a big trip. Most dental problems, the painful kind that destroy a wilderness venture, can be discovered and repaired before the hurt starts.

Take a wilderness medicine course. Besides learning life-saving techniques, such as CPR, you’ll also learn how to recognize and treat major and minor backpacking emergencies. More important, you’ll learn how to prevent problems.

Hike around or step over obstacles. You’d be amazed at how many different body parts you can damage by slipping off a log or rock. In addition to avoiding injury, stepping over something requires less energy than stepping up onto it.

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