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A Comprehensive Guide to Hiking First Aid and Safety Tips

group hiking nature travel

Table of Contents

Sharon McCulloch

Engaging in outdoor adventures offers the chance to disconnect and savour peaceful moments away from urban life. With the arrival of warmer weather, you’re likely eager to spend time outdoors. For those seeking more activity and excitement than a casual stroll or run in your local area, Australia offers an array of opportunities for wilderness hiking and camping.

Yet, hiking carries its risks, and injuries can occur even to seasoned hikers. Most outdoor incidents are minor and manageable. In wilderness first aid, the primary objective is often to prevent a condition from deteriorating, allowing the adventure to proceed. Nevertheless, being prepared for various emergencies is crucial.

Prior to hitting the trails, learn essential first aid skills with an advanced first aid course at First Aid Pro. We also offer remote first aid training which will equip you with vital first aid skills for handling common injuries encountered while hiking. First aid training is designed to help support life until medical attention arrives. Always call your closest emergency services when life threatening injuries occur.

Essentials for a Safe Hiking Experience: How to Prepare Your First Aid Kit

first aid kit concept medicine equipment set in a 2023 11 27 05 10 55 utc

Venturing into the great outdoors for a hike? Remember, being well-prepared can turn a potentially serious situation into a mere hiccup. Before hitting the trails, ensure your backpack is stocked with essentials:

  • Nutrition and Hydration: Pack protein-rich snacks, energy bars, and a minimum of 16 ounces of water for each hour you plan to hike.
  • Protection Against the Elements: Don’t forget sunblock, lip balm, a hat, sunglasses, extra socks, and rain gear.
  • Insect Repellent
  • A Handy Pocket Knife
  • A Fully-Charged Phone
  • A Collapsible Trekking Pole: Useful not just for walking, but also as a makeshift splint, crutch, or part of an emergency shelter.

Your first aid kit is a must-have. At the very least, it should contain:

  • For Cleaning Wounds: Antiseptic wipes and antibacterial ointment.
  • For Dressing Wounds: Adhesive bandages, butterfly closures, sterile pads, gauze roll, and adhesive tape.
  • Tools: Tweezers and blunt-edged scissors.
  • Medication: Ibuprofen, antihistamines, and any personal prescription medicine.
  • Skin Care Products: Aloe gel, Moleskin, and anti-itch cream.

For longer or more challenging hikes, consider customising your pack with additional tools.

Comparing Wilderness First Aid with Urban First Aid

Having general first-aid training is beneficial, but it’s important to understand how wilderness first aid differs from urban first aid. There are four key distinctions:

  1. Time: In the wilderness, help is not as readily available as in the city. In remote areas, it could take hours or days for professional care to reach you, compared to the immediate response of dialing triple zero (000) or emergency services services in urban settings. This means you need to be prepared to offer emergency aid and sustain care over a longer period.
  2. Environment: The wilderness presents unique challenges, including extreme weather conditions and different physical dangers than those typically found in urban environments.
  3. Resources: In the backcountry, your first aid resources are limited to what you carry in your pack and what you can utilise from your surroundings. A comprehensive wilderness first aid course should teach you what to include in your first-aid kit for such scenarios.
  4. Communication: Despite the increase in mobile phone coverage, communicating for help in remote areas can still be challenging. This often means that the care you provide might be the only immediate option available for the patient.
A mobile phone with satellite connectivity is useful or personal emergency radio beacon 1

Hiking Injuries: Proactive Prevention and Effective Treatment

When it comes to hiking injuries, the key is ‘prevention first.’ While injuries are a somewhat inevitable aspect of hiking, it’s crucial to be well-versed in both preventing and treating them. Despite best efforts, it’s not always possible to avoid every risk, as factors like chance and unpredictability also play a role during hiking.

Therefore, it’s advisable for at least two members of your hiking group to have a basic first aid qualification and that your backpack is equipped with sufficient supplies to handle various situations is essential. Equally important is the ability to recognise different types of injuries and conditions. Gaining insight into the prevention and management of common hiking-related issues is also valuable.

The most frequently encountered hiking injuries include:

  • Blisters
  • Sprains
  • Cuts
  • Hypothermia
  • Hyperthermia
  • Dehydration
  • Sunburn
  • Insect Bites

Let’s explore each of these, focusing on the best prevention strategies, followed by treatment methods for each scenario.

Blisters: Prevention and Treatment in a Nutshell

Blisters, common in hiking, result from friction caused by ill-fitting socks or shoes.

Prevention Tips:

  • Ensure socks fit snugly and don’t move in your shoes.
  • Hiking boots should be tight enough to prevent rubbing, but not too tight. Leave room for thicker or double socks, especially in winter.
  • Break in your boots before long hikes.
  • Keep feet dry by carrying spare socks and waterproofing them in your pack.

Treatment Strategies:

  • If a blister forms, act quickly.
  • Sterilised needles can be used to pop and drain blisters, followed by disinfectant and bandaging.
  • Avoid cutting the skin and never pop a blister with an unsterilised object.
  • Blister plasters or tightly wrapped bandages can minimise further irritation.
  • Other methods include moleskin, corn pads, medical tape, duct tape, double socks, woolen socks, and petroleum jelly for both prevention and treatment.
  • Vaseline also helps with chafing prevention and treatment.
  • For some routes, consider lighter footwear like trail runners or sneakers instead of stiff high-lacing boots for comfort and blister prevention.

Sprains: How to Prevent and Treat Them

young guy rubbing his girlfriend injured leg hiki 2023 11 27 05 32 37 utc
young guy rubbing his girlfriend injured leg hiki 2023 11 27 05 32 37 utc

Sprains, particularly in the ankle, are a common hiking injury.

Prevention Strategies:

  • Wear good hiking boots with strong ankle support.
  • Be cautious and deliberate when walking on uneven terrain.
  • Use hiking poles for added stability.
  • Sneakers or trail runners are only advisable on trails that are safe and don’t increase the risk of sprains.

Treatment Guidelines:

  • Sprains are a reality of hiking, but can be managed effectively.
  • Employ the RICE method if a sprain occurs:
    • Rest: Immediately stop and take the weight off the affected ankle to avoid further damage.
    • Ice: If you don’t have an ice pack, use snow, submerge the ankle in cold water, or wrap a soaked t-shirt around it.
    • Compression: Wrap with an elastic bandage or t-shirt, ensuring it’s not too tight to cut off circulation.
    • Elevation: Keep the ankle raised above heart level.
  • To exit the trail, use walking poles as a temporary splint for the ankle and seek assistance from your hiking partner to walk out.

Just in case you encounter worse injuries on the trail, read our article on treating fractures to make sure you’re prepared.

Cuts: Avoidance and Management

Cuts are a frequent injury in hiking, often unavoidable but usually not severe.

Prevention Measures:

  • Be cautious on uneven terrain to avoid falls or jagged rocks.
  • Be mindful of undergrowth to prevent scratches from branches, bushes and brambles.

Treatment Approaches:

  • For minor cuts, clean the wound and apply a bandage.
  • Larger cuts might need a tourniquet to control bleeding. Use a belt or spare clothing, tied tightly above the wound. Note the time of application for medical personnel.

Hypothermia: Prevention and Treatment

Hypothermia, a serious hiking risk, should be prevented to avoid the need for treatment. It occurs when the body’s core temperature drops to potentially dangerous levels.

Preventative Actions:

  • Plan hikes with sheltered rest stops, avoiding exposure to wind and elements.
  • Familiarise yourself with the route to minimise frequent stops.
  • Use appropriate gear and clothing for the weather.
  • Keep dry as much as possible, including your backpack and contents.
  • Carry waterproof spare clothes.
  • Pack emergency shelter like a tarp, hootchie, or bivvy bag, especially for long routes with few shelters.
  • Include an emergency blanket in your first aid kit for winter hikes or areas prone to sudden cold weather.
  • Bring a high visibility vest for emergency signaling in poor visibility conditions.
  • Carry a flask of warm, sugary drink and maintain energy levels.

Treatment Steps:

  • Recognise hypothermia by the ‘umbles’: stumbling, mumbling, fumbling, and grumbling.
  • If shivering stops, it’s critical; call emergency services rescue.
  • Dry the person’s clothes, use a survival bag or emergency space blanket to share body heat.
  • Provide a hot drink to warm them up.
  • If unconsciousness occurs, warming efforts are crucial, as survival chances become critical.

Hyperthermia: How to Prevent and Respond

Hyperthermia, the rise in body temperature in hot conditions, is the converse of hypothermia.

Prevention Measures:

  • Stay hydrated while hiking in hot weather.
  • Wear a hat to shield your head from direct sunlight.
  • Use sunscreen to prevent sunburn, which can worsen hyperthermia and prolong recovery.

Treatment Approaches:

  • Recognising hyperthermia is crucial. It progresses through three stages:
    1. Muscle Cramping: Initial minor discomfort often overlooked as just a part of hiking. Immediate hydration and cooling are needed to prevent escalation.
    2. Heat Exhaustion: The more serious phase of hyperthermia. Rapid intervention is essential.
    3. Heat Stroke: A severe and potentially fatal condition.

Symptoms Progression:

  • Excessive sweating.
  • Headaches, cramps, and feeling unwell.
  • When sweating stops, it indicates heat exhaustion, progressing rapidly to heat stroke. Call emergency services.
  • The ‘umbles’ as mentioned earlier.
  • Unconsciousness is a critical stage requiring immediate medical attention.

Dehydration: Prevention and Treatment

Preventing dehydration during hiking is straightforward: ensure adequate water intake.

Treatment Methods:

  • Recognising dehydration symptoms is key. They include:
    • Increased thirst.
    • Lethargy or low energy.
    • Darker urine.
    • Headaches.
  • Counter dehydration as you would prevent it: drink plenty of water and avoid hiking in extreme heat.
  • Once symptoms appear, you’re likely more dehydrated than you realize. Rest in the shade and allow your body to rehydrate.
  • Rehydration salts like Dioralyte, containing essential salts and electrolytes, are beneficial. Pre-mixing them in water bottles can be helpful, but be mindful of the material your bottle is made from to avoid residual taste.
  • Carrying salt sachets can also aid in replenishing lost salts through sweating. Drinking water without sufficient salt intake can be counterproductive, potentially leading to further salt depletion.
  • Severe dehydration may necessitate medical intervention and intravenous fluids.
young hiker drinking water from mountain creek 2023 12 01 01 52 48 utc

Sunburn: Prevention and Treatment

Sunburn Prevention:

  • Carry sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 25 for adequate protection.
  • Wear a sun hat or cap in sunny climates to protect your head.
  • Remember, sunburn can occur even on overcast days.

Sunburn Treatment:

  • Sunburn is a common but bothersome hiking issue.
  • Use ice packs or damp cloths for relief.
  • Apply aloe vera or after-sun lotions to cool the skin and prevent peeling.
  • Be cautious about sunburn on shoulders if you plan to carry a backpack.

Dealing with Bites and Stings

Bug Bite Prevention:

  • Bug bites can be challenging to avoid, especially amidst swarms.
  • Use insect repellent suitable for the region and types of insects encountered.
  • A mosquito net for your face can offer additional protection.

Bug Bite Treatment:

  • Resist scratching to avoid further irritation.
  • Apply after-bite lotions to soothe itching.
  • In some places, like Australia, specific remedies like ‘Stingose’ are popular.

Want to know more? Check out our blog on spider bites – treatment and first aid.

Why First Aid and Safety with Essential for Hikers

This comprehensive guide underscores the importance of preparation and awareness for safe hiking experiences. Understanding the nuances of wilderness first aid, packing essential items, and learning about the prevention and treatment of common injuries like blisters, sprains, cuts, hypothermia, hyperthermia, dehydration, sunburn, and bug bites are vital.

Whether you’re a novice or a seasoned hiker, equipping yourself with the knowledge and skills for handling potential emergencies can make all the difference in ensuring a safe and enjoyable outdoor adventure. Remember, the key to a successful hike lies not just in the journey but also in the preparation and precaution taken before and during the hike. Read First Aid Pro’s article on treating snake bites for more tips on vital first aid treatment and consider enroling in a nationally recognised training course today!

The content on this website offers general insights regarding health conditions and potential treatments. It is not intended as, and should not be construed as, medical advice. If you are facing a medical emergency, dial 000 immediately and follow the guidance provided.

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