Hiking Pain Explained

What causes pain on the trail?

Sooner or later, all backpackers say "Ouch!" Toting heavy loads across rugged terrain, cooking over an open flame, and walking through extremes of weather, we subject ourselves to various forms of discomfort, ranging from aching shoulders to leg cramps to blisters. Pain is your body's way of telling you something is wrong so you'll take corrective measures, minimize the effects of injury, and begin healing.

But how do you know when your pain is pointing to a serious injury? Here are some of the most common bodily aches, with guidelines for determining whether you should take two aspirin or seek professional medical help.

Abdomen: Brief and minor camp-food-related stomachaches are part of the game. Blame the chef and wait it out. If, on the other hand, pain lasts longer than an hour and gets worse, you become light-headed when standing, your pulse rate races, you suffer severe vomiting and/or diarrhea, or a fever kicks in, get help. (See page Body Language, June 2001, "Belly Ache Or Poison?" for tips if you suspect the tummy ache is from eating something poisonous.)

Head: High altitude, oppressive heat, dehydration, and numerous other environmental or bodily conditions can cause head pain. Move to lower elevations and drink plenty of fluids, and the ache should disappear. If it doesn't or if a head injury is involved, get help. Head trauma that leads to unconsciousness, disorientation, nausea, or loss of coordination is a medical emergency. Don't attempt to move the victim. (See Body Language, May 2001, for more on headaches.)

Joint or bone: Obvious fractures and debilitating sprains require immobilization of the injured area and medical attention as soon as possible. On the trail, treat minor sprains and strains with RICE (rest, ice, compression with an elastic bandage, and elevation) and analgesics (like ibuprofen).