Good Gear Gone Bad

It's all fun and games 'til someone gets a tent pole in the eye.
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It's all fun and games 'til someone gets a tent pole in the eye.

When you test as much new and unfamiliar gear as Backpacker editors have, you're bound to suffer a few mishaps. We've stabbed ourselves with tent stakes, sliced various digits with knives and hatchets, caught tender places in zippers, singed eyebrows, and even spritzed ourselves with bear spray. All of which makes for entertaining gear reviews-and the occasional gaping wound. To spare you the same misery, we've compiled a list of the most common ways your gear can hurt you, plus advice for preventing such injuries. Why learn from your own mistakes when you can learn from ours?

Pack attack

Swinging a too-heavy pack onto your back is one of the riskiest things a backpacker can do. The good news: Torn muscles in your lower back usually heal on their own. The bad news: It's a miserable way to spend the next few days. To prevent it: First off, lighten your load. Next, practice safe pack lifting. With your legs bent, pull the pack up onto one thigh. Slip an arm through a strap, and gently flip the load onto your shoulders. Even better, get someone to lift your pack.

Biting boots, part A

A recent study of hiking maladies reported in the American Journal of Medicine shows blisters as the most common complaint. To ease your pain and promote healing, clean the site with an antiseptic wipe or a piece of gauze dipped in boiled water, then drain the bubble. Gob on a lubricant (ointment from your first-aid kit works great). A moleskin "donut" will reduce friction even more-with the ointment inside the hole in the donut. You can also get by with tape. Clean and air dry the blister in the morning and at night to stave off infection. To prevent it: Try lighter boots, or at least, break in your boots before hiking. Other proven methods: Wear liner socks, prelube hot spots with a sports ointment, or wrap your heels with moleskin and/or duct tape.

Biting boots, part B

Old boots may not provide the support you need, especially for your Achilles tendon, which runs from the back of the heel bone up to the muscles of the lower leg. Hike with too-soft boots, especially uphill, and you risk tendonitis. To prevent it: Buy new boots. Or, place an insole pad about 1/4-inch thick under your heel to relieve stress on the Achilles. Two strips of padding taped inside the collar, on each side of the Achilles, will further reduce stress.

Under the knife

Shoulda sliced away from your finger. Shoulda bought a locking blade. But you didn't do either, and now you're cut. Immediately irrigate the wound with clean water. If it's a gusher, apply direct pressure until the bleeding stops, put a bead of antimicrobial ointment on the closed wound, and bandage it. Then get to a doctor. If you're several days out, clean it morning and night. Haul ass if you see these signs of infection: Increasing pain and swelling, plus red streaks under the skin. To prevent it: The old adage "a sharp knife is a safe knife" is absolutely true. If your blade is dull, you'll have to use more force to slice something, which increases the risk of slippage. Also remember not to hold anything in your hand as you cut. Slice that hunk of cheese by placing it on a pot lid and pushing the knife's blade through.

Instant cyclops

In the struggle to get the last tent pole into the final grommet, you lose control and the tip pokes you in the eye. As soon as you stop cursing, have someone examine your eyeball. If it's cut, or if you lose vision, get to a hospital ASAP. Rinse the eye gently with clean water. Otherwise, don't worry about redness and swelling. To prevent it: Treat a tent pole like a loaded gun. Make sure it's never pointing directly at anyone, including yourself.

What's at stake

Hard ground, dull tent stakes, and a big rock-it's a recipe for a smashed finger. Torn skin should be kept clean. Soak swollen, bruised fingers in a cold creek. Or, if you develop a painful blood blister underneath the nailbed, do the following: Clean the nail, heat the sharpest tip you have (a knife will work), and gently drill through the nail. As soon as blood drains out, quit drilling. Soaking the finger in water will encourage the blood to drain. To prevent it: Hold the stake near the base as you pound the top. Wear gloves for protection. Or, have someone else hold the stake while you pound it in.

What's cooking?

Could be you. Stove flare-ups cause hundreds of burns every year. Even more common are scalding burns from tipped pots of boiling water. Plunge that scorching hand into a cold creek, the sooner the better. If contact with air continues to cause pain, gently smear ointment over the burn, and cover it with a bandage. To prevent it: Buy a stove with a wide, stable base and plant it on the flattest, firmest ground. Clean all parts regularly to remove soot buildup, and never lean over a burner while lighting. When cooking, use sturdy pot grips, but always get into a stable stance before lifting, and never move a hot pot any farther than you absolutely must. Use a dipper to fill cups.

Careful with that axe, Eugene

We recently encountered a would-be Paul Bunyan who'd nearly amputated his kneecap with a mighty swing of his new hatchet. These injuries tend to be more severe than knife wounds, but treatment methods are identical-clean, control bleeding, bandage, evacuate. To prevent it: If you must chop, get down on one knee (so misses hit the dirt), use short swings (easier to control), and never take your eye off the target.