4 Most Common Wilderness Injuries and How to Treat Them

by Jack Charles • Eureka! Tent Blog

April 2014, a group of New Jersey Boy Scouts hiking through Harriman State Park stumbled across a female hiker who had broken her ankle. The hiker tried to get the boys to hike on, but they wouldn’t leave her injured on the trail. Instead, they splinted her ankle, constructed a stretcher for her, and carried her out of the park.

Later, the boys found out their damsel in distress wasn’t just any lady hiker — it was Emmy Award-winning journalist Ann Curry, anchor for NBC News. The journalist later wrote a letter thanking the scouts for their chivalry, know-how, and kindness. She also tweeted about it, stating “If you break your leg on a mountain, I hope Boy Scout Troop 3668 finds you. Boy am I glad they found me.”

Scouts are taught what many outdoors enthusiasts know: Accidents happen. And when they happen in the middle of nowhere, when you’re hours away from a hospital or even cell phone reception, you’d better follow the Boy Scouts’ motto and always be prepared.

Keeping that in mind, here are four of the most common wilderness injuries and how to treat them.

1. Sprained Ankles

Turning an ankle over on loose gravel or a steep trail is one of the most common injuries. It’s so common, in fact, that ankle-related injuries account for 53 percent of all injury-related evacuations during the National Outdoor Leadership School courses. The NIH also has data showing that 70 percent of non-fatal injuries in the wilderness are related to broken limbs or sprains.

To treat a twisted ankle, remember “RICE”: rest, ice, compression, and elevation. First, rest the ankle by getting off of it immediately. Second, reduce swelling by icing it. Since you’re on the trail, you can use snow packs or, if that’s not available, soak a t-shirt in cold water and wrap it around the injured ankle. Compress the joint by using an elastic band, but don’t compress it so tightly that it cuts off circulation. Finally, elevate the ankle above the level of the heart. Try RICE for 20 minutes, allow the ankle to warm back up for another 15 minutes, then try carrying on with the hike. Let the injured party rest every two hours and RICE again.

Also, remember that prevention is often the best medicine. You can prevent ankle injuries in the first place by:

-Losing weight
-Strengthening the muscles of the ankle with swimming, biking, or balancing yoga poses
-Wearing good hiking boots
-Warm up the muscles with some stretches and exercises before beginning a hike
-Avoid hiking in the dark or hiking on uneven terrain

2. Near Drowning

According to the NIH, drowning and falling are the two most common causes of death in the great outdoors. When it comes to drowning, many of these accidents occur because hiking partners don’t recognize that their friends are in trouble until it’s too late.

A drowning person does not usually call for help. They are too busy trying to catch their breath or get out of the water to shout out. Instead, look for these common signs:

The mouth is at water level and the eyes are glassy or distant
They are upright within the water
Their arms are out to the side, not above their heads
If you ask a person in the water if they’re alright and they don’t respond, you need to get to them within 30 seconds

Try to avoid getting into the water to save the drowning person if you can. In the outdoors, powerful river currents can make even strong swimmers weak.

Once you get the person out of the water, search for the pulse for at least a minute before attempting any kind of CPR. Perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation only if it is necessary and if you are trained to do so.

When the person is breathing comfortably again, check for any signs of hypothermia. As soon as possible, remove wet clothes and get them warmed up.

3. Cuts and Abrasions

Treating a cut or an abrasion in the outdoors is not that different from treating a cut at home. Your first job is to stop the bleeding; your second job is to clean the wound. After the bleeding has stopped and you’ve cleaned dirt and debris out of the wound, apply an antiseptic cream and bandage it well.

Do not “clean” a wound in a stream, river, or lake! Even though water in the wilderness might not be chemically polluted, bacteria in the water can still infect the wound. It’s much better to use something like rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide.

Your ability to stop the bleeding, clean, and dress a cut in the wilderness will depend completely upon the quality of your first aid kit. Make sure that you have the necessary supplies for treating these types of injuries and others before you set out on a hike.

4. Head Injuries

Rock climbing, mountain biking, and simple falls along the trail can all lead to head injuries. However, unlike the other injuries mentioned above, head injuries can be difficult to detect. The head might not bleed or redden, but there could still be a very serious injury taking place.

First, use the AVPU scale to see how injured the person is. “A” is the best, “U” is the worst:

“A” is for “Alert.” The individual knows who he is, where he is, and what happened.
“V” is for “Verbal.” The individual responds to verbal stimuli but is remains disoriented.
“P” is for “Painful.” The individual only responds to painful stimuli, such as being poked.
“U” is for “Unresponsive.” The individual doesn’t have any of the normal responses above.

If alertness is seriously impeded, or if the person blacks out for longer than two or three minutes, evacuate them immediately.

Are You Certified as a Wilderness First Responder?

If you’re frequently tromping around in the woods and mountains, it’s important that you’re trained in first aid and carry good first aid supplies as part of your pack. For example, do you know how to create a tourniquet if you or your hiking partner has a serious, deep cut? Do you know how to perform CPR? Can you treat burns, snakebites, and broken limbs? As the Boy Scouts who rescued Ann Curry can attest, you never know when you’ll need this knowledge.

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