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Pain management and first aid tips for hikers

  • Jun 20, 2017

In many ways, hiking is something of a great equalizer, for reasons that do not necessarily apply to other activities. Beyond the simple requirement of relative physical fitness, the art of walking (or the science, depending on who you speak to) can be enjoyed by anyone at any age or experience level. There's no need to be a gym rat or as fit as a marathon runner to go on a hike. Just have a modicum of endurance and physical health. 

That being said, while we're on the subject of health, it's of the utmost importance to be mindful of it when you go out traversing wooded trails and mountain paths, particularly if you experience semi-regular minor aches and pains. And if an accident of some sort should occur while you hike, you must be equipped to deal with it - within reason, of course. Serious injuries are best left to the care of professionals, and we'll cover the best practices on your end for that eventuality later in this article. Follow these guidelines and pack the right equipment - from your PRG600Y-1 with triple sensor to the proper first aid kit - and you'll be sure to have a great time whenever or wherever you choose to hike.

The essentials of comfort and pain management
In defiance of the cliched aphorism, hiking is not a marathon or a sprint: Unless the parking lot of the or natural preserve or state park you've chosen to take your hike closes at a certain time, there's no time limit, and with that in mind, why would you walk overly fast as if such a limit exists? The same principle applies regarding effort exerted while hiking - there's no competition involved.

As noted by Prevention magazine, walking on the inside of the foot too forcefully or quickly on hard surfaces - in this case, the rugged ground of a hiking trail - can aggravate the plantar fascia and cause it to tear and subsequently stiffen. Also, while we mentioned earlier that anyone can hike, if you haven't done so in a while, your feet might not respond to your first hike very well. You can mitigate this by wearing hiking boots with a deep tread, strong traction and a snug hold on the heel to prevent the heel from moving too aggressively and overexerting itself, according to the American Hiking Society.

Unless you already have lower back issues, Prevention stated that hiking shouldn't cause any lumbar strain. Meanwhile, your knees and hips bear the brunt of your exertions - carrying anywhere from three to six times your body's weight, according to the Outdoor Herbivore blog - and are thus considerably susceptible to pain if you're not careful. Though uphill hiking may seem more strenuous, going downhill actually puts more of a burden on the knees.

Aside from maintaining a healthy weight, which you should do on general principles, Outdoor Herbivore advised using a lighter hiking backpack and not overstuffing it. Some of the high-quality hiking packs are designed to hold plenty of equipment, but that doesn't mean you have to; most of the high-end backpack manufacturers have lightweight models as well. Opt for one of those and carry only what you need. Finally, when walking downhill, the blog stated that moving in a zigzag or S-shaped formation along the trail rather than simply going straight, and flexing your knees so they don't lock, can mitigate some of the pain that may develop. 

Properly stock your backpack and first-aid kit
Run-of-the-mill bumps, bruises and scratches are a fairly common minor hazard that all hikers can face. None of these are enough to seriously impede your health, but they should still be addressed using the right first-aid supplies with all deliberate speed, to avoid infection and prevent the pain from turning your hike into a miserable endeavor.

Take some pointers from the American Hiking Society and REI regarding the contents of your first-aid kit and pack:

  • Bandages in a variety of sizes - including liquid-based moisture-sealing varieties if available - sterile gauze and athletic tape.
  • Ointments and gels, including bacitracin, hydrocortisone and alcohol-based disinfectant.
  • Tweezers, safety pins, a pair of scissors and a small knife - or follow REI's lead and carry a multi-tool that features these and other implements.
  • Latex or nitrile gloves.
  • Medicine: In addition to any prescriptions you or anyone in your hiking party will need, carry some over-the-counter ibuprofen or naproxen sodium (Advil or Aleve) for aches and pains, antihistamines for those susceptible to pollen allergies and anti-diarrheal pills. Chuckle if you must at the latter, but you don't want to end up like young Stephen King as he described in his memoir "On Writing" - urgently needing to move your bowels, doing so and then wiping with leaves that just happen to be poison ivy, oak or sumac. 
  • Sunscreen and aloe vera gel, for late spring or summer hikes taken when the sun is high in the sky.
  • Electrolyte replacement powder: Carrying bottles of electrolyte-supplement beverages is fine too, but don't neglect the powder and don't use Gatorade or products of its ilk as a substitute for fresh water.
  • Light snacks - nuts, fruits or anything else rich in nutrients.
  • Navigation and signaling tools: A solar powered watch, beacon, GPS device and watch compass will all be essential in one of the worst-case scenarios described below.

When emergency strikes
If you or someone with whom you're hiking suffers a serious injury that you can't treat with your kit or is beyond your skills, make a distress call using a GPS: Even the best smartphones can be rendered functionless in high mountains, according to the New Hampshire Fish & Game Department. Identify yourself or the injured party, providing all essential contact information, and describe the accident in full. Follow the same steps if someone is lost, using your watch compass to pinpoint your location and the missing individual's last known location. Don't try to be a hero, and let the park rangers and EMS personnel do their jobs. 

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