Holistic First Aid

A naturopath's top 5 remedies for common backpacking injuries.

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You wouldn’t go hiking without bandages and ibuprofen, but what about arnica or chamomile? As a professor of naturopathic medicine at Seattle’s Bastyr University, Laurie Cullen believes these and other alternative medicines—herbs and supplements taken in lieu of FDA-approved synthetic drugs—can be used for sprains, minor bleeding, fatigue, and other conditions. Here are five treatments that Cullen, an avid Mt. Rainier hiker, recommends for the trail.

Arnica gel

A sunflower relative found in Western states, arnica’s flowers and roots contain glycosides, which have anti-inflammatory and anti-swelling properties, says Cullen. She recommends applying this gel to sprains, bruises, and strained muscles immediately after an injury to relieve pain. Arnica should not be placed on open wounds or taken orally.


Known as the nosebleed plant, this white-flowering herb contains an alkaloid that Cullen says can accelerate clotting. Steep yarrow in hot water for 5 minutes and use the tea to wash a cut or scrape. You can also apply dried herbs directly to a wound.

Electrolyte replacement

A high-mileage day can deplete magnesium, sodium, potassium, and vitamin B, potentially slowing your metabolism and your capacity for exertion. When Cullen heads to the backcountry, she bonkproofs her day by adding an Emergen-C powder packet to her water. (Hammer Nutrition offers a similar formula in its no-mess Endurolyte capsules.)

Chamomile, ginger, and peppermint tea

Shifting to a trail diet heavy in fats and carbs can spark gastrointestinal distress even in a strong stomachs. These herbs contain oils that help reduce nausea, diarrhea, and cramps. To calm your grumbling bowels, Cullen recommends a strong “tea trio” (three bags in one cup of water).

Homeopathic apis

Homeopathy uses ultra-diluted solutions of the substance suspected of causing your ailment to treat it. Many doctors believe the doses are too small to be effective; results of studies by the National Institutes of Health are inconclusive. (In defense of homeopathy, Cullen notes that the dosages are harmless, and that more NIH studies are planned.) To treat bee stings, poison ivy, and poison oak, she suggests a capsule of homeopathic apis, derived from honeybees, to reduce redness and swelling.

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