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Outdoor First Aid

When You Can’t Breathe the “Fresh Air”

Wildfire season is getting longer and more intense. What does that mean for backpackers who have to breathe the smoke it generates?

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This week I’m preparing for a short backpacking trip along the John Muir Trail in Northern California. But given recent news about wildfires and dangerous smoke conditions, I’m wondering if I should be packing my gas mask along with my trekking poles.

As of early August, air quality around Yosemite has remained moderate or good, and the Oak and Washburn fires on the park’s perimeter have been largely contained. As summer swelters on, though, there’s a risk for additional wildfires and their accompanying toxic smoke. A hotter and drier climate will continue to increase the fire risk in the future, raising airborne concentrations of hazardous particulate materials, ozone gas, and even metals like mercury.

Wildfire smoke—and poor air quality in general—poses real health risks and can make an outdoor adventure irritating or even harmful. Lingering symptoms like cough, wheeze, shortness of breath, and sore throat can last for days after exposure to smoke or air with high levels of particulates.

Like most environmental risks, smoke and air pollution first affect those with existing conditions or vulnerabilities, including respiratory diseases like asthma or emphysema. Hikers with underlying conditions should pay close attention to air quality warnings, and plan ahead by bringing rescue inhalers or other prescribed medications while in the backcountry. Backpackers with a history of even mild asthma should consider carrying inhaled medication like albuterol, and use their inhaler at first signs of cough, wheeze, or shortness of breath.

Feeling like you can’t get enough air when you’re far from help can be terrifying. For a companion that becomes increasingly short of breath, ensure that they’re in a comfortable position (usually sitting upright or leaning forward). Help them to control their breathing and to use their own medication if available. Minimizing exertion and descending to lower altitude may help, too.

And while some mild cough or wheeze may pass once the winds shift or with adequate rest, anyone in a remote setting with severe shortness of breath needs to be evacuated urgently. Keep an eye out for rapid or shallow breathing, the inability to speak more than a few words, breathlessness with minimal exertion, or breathing with shoulder or abdominal muscles—these are all signs that someone is working way too hard to breathe and could tire out sooner rather than later.

I have a history of mild allergic asthma, so I’ve packed my albuterol inhaler and some allergy medicine for this week’s trip, just in case. But as I approach Northern California from the air, I hope to look out the plane window to a view of golden sunshine and blue sky without plumes of smoke or smoggy clouds. Before I know it, I’ll be breathing easy along the trail.


From 2022