Your Guide to Safe Backcountry Excursions
By Corinne Garcia
Many of Chad McPhail’s most memorable moments have taken place in the great outdoors. He cherishes memories of his son catching his first trout on a fly rod and his daughter summiting a peak. This is also where he finds the most solace. “The wilderness offers me a sense of exhilaration and a connectedness that’s hard to find in the city,” McPhail explains. “The solitude of the outdoors allows me time for introspection, self-awareness and a search for significance.”
Whether it’s fly fishing or climbing through the clouds to a high peak, McPhail, author of many outdoor-related books, including an e-book called 201 Tips for the Camping Family and his most recent, An Introduction to Fly Fishing for Trout (Stonefly Press), has an impressive resume of adventures. As with many adventurists, what comes along with that is an equally impressive resume of outdoor-related injuries.
“I’ve had everything from a strained neck muscle to a fairly severe campfire burn, poison sumac, a twisted ankle from wading in the river, various cuts and scrapes, and the list goes on,” McPhail says.
There’s nothing like an injury in the backcountry to ruin a good adventure. Lindsay Huettman, an instructor for the nonprofit Wilderness Awareness School, puts the most common injuries into two categories: accidents, such as blisters and rolled ankles, and environmental mishaps, such as sunburns, hypothermia and insect bites.
Although injuries can’t always be avoided, there are some specific ways to prepare for outdoor adventures that may reduce the risks. And when they do occur, there are natural remedies that can help ease the pain and speed recovery time.
Preparing for Excursions
Heading out for your first hike, bike or paddle of the season? Before you throw that pack over your shoulder, consider these guidelines.
Start Slowly: “It’s important for people to know their limits,” McPhail says. “Unless you are super fit, most people need to start out slowly and build up their mileage on the trails or in any adventure.”
Briana McElgunn, ND, a Bozeman, Montana-based naturopathic physician, echoes this sentiment, especially for those who are just emerging from winter hibernation. “If it’s been a while since you’ve been out, don’t go hike 12 miles,” she says. “Start small and just enjoy being outside, and make that longer effort the goal for another trip.”
It’s also important to start at a slow pace to warm up your muscles, as cold muscles are tighter and more prone to being pulled or strained. “If you’re going on a three-mile hike, walk at a moderate pace for the first 10 minutes to warm up,” McPhail says. “After that, stretch a bit to loosen them up.”
Stay Hydrated: Huettman stresses the need to be well-hydrated and well-fueled before heading out. “This can set you up for success,” she says. “I’ve seen people do the opposite and pay for it severely.”
Staying hydrated throughout your excursion is one of the best ways to prevent injuries. “Adequate hydration allows the muscles to be soft and pliable and function properly, contracting and relaxing the way they should,” McElgunn explains. “Keeping enough water in the muscles also allows the tendons that attach muscle to bones not to be overly tight.” She recommends dividing your body weight by two to determine the minimum number of ounces your should drink per day. “With exertion, the general recommendation is eight ounces every 20 to 30 minutes for adults,” she says.
If you can’t carry enough water, look into water purification systems, such as pills or filters, to process water from streams or rivers. When you travel by a water source, make note of exactly where you are, recommends Huettman, so you can get back to it later.
Be Prepared: Huettman stresses the importance of researching the terrain and weather patterns before heading into new territory. “There are a lot of resources out there, especially online,” she says. “If you’re heading into the Forest Service or a National Park, get informed by the governing agencies to know the lay of the land and the typical weather that comes through.”
Along these lines, it’s imperative to be equipped with enough water, food and clothing layers. There’s a reason that those nut and dried fruit snacks are called “trail mix,” McElgunn notes. “They are the perfect trail snacks with readily available, high-calorie nutrition, along with the good fats, lots of protein and naturally occurring sugars from the dried fruit to give you a little boost,” she says.
It may be warm out, but it’s still imperative to bring the proper clothing in case the weather suddenly shifts. “Make sure you have layers that repel or wick away the moisture from your skin and hold in the warmth,” Huettman says. She recommends animal fibers, such as wool and cashmere, or polypropylene, along with a waterproof layer to keep you dry.
Start Training: By training your muscles for specific excursions, you are essentially preparing them and reducing your chances of injury. McPhail recommends training throughout the winter months with general, well-rounded workouts, so that by summer you’re already in good shape for whatever comes your way. He also recommends specific exercises for specific activities.
For instance, if you plan on hiking and/or backpacking, practice hill climbs on the treadmill or outdoors and gradually increase the mileage. Carry some weight, such as water bottles in a backpack, and do specific leg-strengthening exercises, such as wall squats.
If you’re a kayaker, hit the gym’s rowing machine and build up mileage. Concentrate on shoulder exercises and those that strengthen the core. “Train those muscles that you will be using in your chosen exercise,” McPhail says. “And you’ve got to stretch and get used to stretching regularly.”
Natural First Aid
With proper planning and training, you can greatly reduce the risks of backcountry injury. However, if you do run into trouble, here are some prevention tips and natural remedies.
Prevention: McElgunn recommends staying covered with big hats, light, long-sleeved clothing and mineral-based UVA/UVB sun lotions.
Treatment: Aloe vera gel soothes burns, and a brief soak in cold water, such as a stream, can help stop the burning process.
Prevention: Sunstroke is caused by a rapid decline in sodium and potassium and blood sugar, so it’s important to stay hydrated and well fueled.
Treatment: Replace those three nutrients quickly, McElgunn says. Try dried apples and raisins for potassium, water and electrolyte powder if available.
Prevention: Make sure your boots fit properly and are somewhat broken in before hiking long distances.
Treatment: Right when the blister starts to feel hot, put a piece of duct tape on it to act as a barrier, McElgunn recommends. (The tape can be removed at home with rubbing alcohol.)
Sprains and Strains
Prevention: Wear good boots, start slowly, stay hydrated, make sure you are in adequate shape and use trekking poles for better balance.
Treatment: McElgunn recommends soaking a sprained wrist or ankle in a cold stream or icing it for 10 minutes every two to four hours. Homeopathic arnica pellets can reduce swelling and soreness, and speed healing.
Prevention: Wear lightweight, breathable clothing, and in areas where Lyme disease is prevalent, tuck pants into the socks. McElgunn recommends bug sprays with a natural base and essential oils such as citronella and lemongrass to keep bugs at bay.
Treatment: McElgunn recommends the essential oil ledum, which can soothe the itching, and tea tree oil as an anti-fungal and anti-bacterial agent (diluted by adding one drop to some lotion or cooking oil) if the skin is broken.
Prevention: Wear light, long-sleeved clothing and tuck your pant legs into your socks.
Treatment: Aloe helps soothe itchiness, and McElgunn recommends covering the rash in mud or a paste of baking soda and water to help dry it out.