These days you can’t swing a soggy hiking sock without hitting a medical specialist. A glance at the Yellow Pages bears me out on this. There you’ll find lots of people with the letters “M” and “D” trailing their names, learned folks who spend their days focusing on one particular aspect of human health and well-being.
But you have to search far and wide to find someone specializing in the field I’ll call “Preventive Wilderness Practices.” I know. I’ve looked. And it’s a shame, too, because if more backwoods travelers spent time heading off trouble, instead of coping with it after the fact, the world would be a better place.
While we all wait for the medical establishment to see the error of its ways and create such a specialty, you can get a jump on things. Here’s a rundown of the most important but easiest to forget health matters. Read them, follow the accompanying advice during your next backpacking foray, and save yourself a trip to some specialist later on.
Check your first-aid kit before every trip. Medications expire. Water, heat, or freezing cold can damage items. Or you may have used up some things (bandages, for instance) and forgotten to replace them, and you certainly don’t want to leave home without them. Some locales, say a desert where you’ll likely need to pluck a cactus spine or two, will require a few first-aid kit modifications from your recent trip to the mountains. Pack your medical supplies as thoughtfully as you pack your food and other equipment.
Disinfect the bottle along with the water. Water-based, gut-wrenching cooties can live in containers that appear dry. A rinse with boiling water will kill them, as will a thorough washing at home before the trip. And don’t forget to sanitize the lid because the screw-top rings are great places for bad bugs to hide.
Be sure your sunglasses protect against ultraviolet light. If not, you run the immediate risk of sunburned eyes and, down the road, cataracts. Not all sunglasses are rated according to the UV protection they provide, and some imports have inaccurate UV protection labels. When you buy, opt for high-quality eyewear from a reputable, widely recognized manufacturer, and make sure the glasses come with a written guarantee that spells out the protection. Or take your current pair to an optometrist or optical shop for a test of UV protection. The service is often free.
Drink before you are thirsty. If your body is a mere 1 to 2 quarts low on water, an amount you can sweat out easily during an hour of hard hiking, your physical performance can drop as much as 25 percent. You’ll maintain endurance, and generally feel better, if you drink about 1?4 quart of water every 15 to 20 minutes, instead of chugging at a rest break every hour or so.
Stay slightly cold to stay warm. When sweat is evaporating from your body, the process sends precious body heat rushing into the surrounding air, and you get chilled. Slightly cool people, on the other hand, don’t sweat as much and therefore, don’t waste body heat. You can stay slightly-but-not-uncomfortably cold by opening your clothing, removing outer layers, and maintaining a slower pace.
Listen to body parts that tend to chafe. You know the places where moist skin rubs against moist skin, creating a painful rash. Carry a small bottle of talcum powder and apply three or four times a day to keep chafe-prone skin dry. Layers of clothing can act as “lubrication” where chafing is a recurring problem. Long cotton pants, for instance, can prevent chafed thighs. If that doesn’t work, you can always resort to a lubricating jelly.
Use insect repellent safely. Although the Environmental Protection Agency approves only those repellents that pose no adverse effects to your health, there are several optional guidelines you should follow: 1) Read and follow label directions, and keep out of reach of small children. 2) Apply repellent only to exposed skin, or better yet, on but never under clothing. Wash it off as soon as you no longer need protection. 3) Don’t get repellent in your eyes, mouth, or open wounds. 4) If you must use it on children, don’t get any on their hands because chances are, it’ll end up being rubbed in eyes and mouth.
Note: DEET-based repellent will dissolve plastic, so carry it wrapped in a cotton bandanna and sealed in a plastic bag. Any that leaks out will stay in the bandanna, which can be worn later to help repel insects.
Do a tick check. Ticks must bury their heads, then feed for hours or days before illness-causing germs can be passed to you. If you find one roaming, simply pick it off. If the head is buried, gently grip the tick at the skin line with a pair of tweezers and pull it out with steady pressure. Wash the site with soap and water to decrease the chance of illness.
Apply sunscreen to your ears. Those flaps on the side of your head are two of the most often overlooked body parts-along with behind the ears and the lips-when hikers slather on sun protection lotion. They’re also prime spots for skin problems in later years. Sunscreens of SPF 15 will do the job for most skin types, but many dermatologists recommend SPF 30 to be safer. Shade from a wide-brimmed hat protects your ears, too. The brim should be at least 4 inches wide all the way around the hat. Baseball caps, sports fans, just won’t do.
Make sure your boots are in good shape. If your boots are broken down and provide no support for feet or ankles, you can develop tendonitis during only one day of hiking. And don’t try to lace ’em up extremely tight, hoping to compensate for the softness. Boots laced too tightly cause more blisters and tendonitis than boots laced too loosely.
And wear the right boots. Prevent frostbitten toes by wearing larger and/or cold-weather boots in winter. Sounds overly common-sensical, but frost most often bites the lower digits of hikers who stuff on extra socks inside light boots to “make do” in an icy environment. Light boots do not provide enough insulation, and extra socks cut off circulation to the toes, which merely invites cold injury.
Wash a wound to prevent rabies. Plain old soap kills the rabies virus, and water flushes the insidious germ from the wound. After being bitten by a wild animal, you’d be wise to see a physician as soon as possible.
Munch often to feel better. A snack about every 2 hours, especially a high carbohydrate snack, keeps your store of muscle glycogen high. Glycogen is converted into a sugar that fuels muscular work and liberates heat for inner warmth on a cold day. So don’t wait for that big, day’s-end meal. Take advantage of this chance to eat often.
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.