Common First Aid Tips Every Hiker Should Know

Jun 6, 2019

Hiking, even on the most popular, crowded trails in Zion National Park, has its risks. From insect bites to sprained ankles to cuts, the most common injuries are minor. But the tiniest cut can become infected. Dehydration can set in before you realize you haven’t been drinking enough. Heatstroke can turn a summer vacation into a near-death experience.

Knowing a little hiking first aid and the signs of the most common ailments to strike hikers can help you keep yourself and your fellow hikers safe. These are the tips that every visitor to the park should know.

Washing the Wound Makes All the Difference

When a deep cut or scrape occurs, most people without first aid experience focus only on stopping the bleeding. They quickly apply gauze or bandages. Then they leave the wound to be treated when they’re back in civilization.

But if civilization is many hours or a day or two away, there’s one essential step that you need to take first; cleaning the wound. If a wound isn’t properly cleaned, an infection may develop. Infections can turn minor wounds into major, life-threatening situations.

To avoid an infection, wash the wound with clean water. This doesn’t mean clear water from the nearest stream; if you wouldn’t drink the water without worrying about becoming ill, you shouldn’t pour it over an open wound either. Then, dress the wound in gauze or bandages. If you have it, applying antibiotic ointment will also help the wound heal and prevent infections.

If the wound is bleeding heavily, you can stop the bleeding first, then clean and dress the wound.

Learn the Signs of Infection

Even if you thoroughly clean a cut, infections can still occur, especially if you’re out in the wilderness for a number of days after the cut takes place. Bug bites can also become infected, as can blisters. Sometimes infections even occur on the skin’s surface.

Knowing the signs of infection can help you take action before an infection becomes life-threatening.

Infections can set in as little as 24 hours after an injury takes place. There are several tell-tale signs that appear first. Red, inflamed skin around the cut is one such sign. Others include:

  • Fluids or pus leaking from the wound
  • Blister-like sores on or around the cut
  • Swelling that doesn’t go down for several days
  • A yellow or greenish crust that forms over the wound
  • A fever

If a wound hasn’t begun to heal after 10 days, that may be a sign that an infection has set in.

Watch Out for Dehydration

An infected cut is easy to spot if you know what to look for. But some of the most dangerous injuries sustained by hikers don’t have any outward signs that you can look for.

Dehydration is one unseen threat that strikes hundreds of hikers in national and state parks across the country every year. While dehydration might not be as visible as a cut or scrape, the person experiencing it will still know right away that something is wrong.

If you or a fellow hiker becomes dizzy, light-headed, or stumbles on an otherwise flat trail, it could be a sign that you are becoming dehydrated. If you catch it early, dehydration is easy to treat; stop hiking, sit down, and sip water slowly until the symptoms subside. Then, keep drinking water so you don’t become dehydrated again.

Understand the Difference Between Sweating and Heatstroke

When you’re climbing to Angel’s Landing in the middle of summer, you’re likely to be a bit flushed, even if you’re a seasoned hiker. That can make the flush skin that occurs with heatstroke another tough-to-spot sign that something is wrong.

But like dehydration, heatstroke will be obvious to the person experiencing it, though he or she might not know exactly what’s causing their symptoms.

Symptoms of heatstroke include:

  • A high body temperature–this is easy to overlook if you’re already sweating on your hike
  • Confusion, slurred speech, irritability, or seizures
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Heavy breathing
  • Racing heart rate
  • A throbbing headache
  • Skin that feels dry or clammy

Heatstroke, if left untreated, can damage a person’s heart, kidneys, muscles, or even their brain. Unfortunately, this isn’t a condition that you can treat on the trail. A person experiencing heatstroke needs medical attention as soon as possible.

Until you can get them to a doctor, you need to do anything you can do to lower their body temperature. Get them into the shade and remove excess layers of clothing. If you have water, spray or wipe them down. Wet t-shirts or bandanas and place them on the individual’s forehead, neck, groin, and armpits. Fan them as best you can.

Identify the Severity of a Concussion

Utah’s landscape is full of rocks and ledges. Trip and fall, even on a flat surface, and you might just end up with a concussion. A minor one isn’t necessarily life-threatening, though you’ll get a nasty headache. But regardless of the severity, head wounds should never be taken lightly.

If someone in your group bumps their head, pay attention to how they act and feel in the moments and hours afterward. A mild headache is normal. But temporary confusion, any kind of amnesia, and a loss of consciousness, no matter how brief, all point to a concussion.

If the symptoms are minor, simply getting the individual off the trail and into civilization is enough. From there, you can get them checked by a doctor or at least be close to one if things get worse.

If the person is unconscious for longer than a few seconds, is very confused or experiences lengthy amnesia, or has a severe headache, you need to get them professional medical attention right away.

Keeping a Level Head During Every First Aid Emergency

Knowing how to spot common ailments and treat minor injuries while on the trail is important. But when something goes wrong, simply having that knowledge isn’t always enough. The best thing you can do in any emergency situation is to remain calm and keep a level head. If you are the one who is injured, getting upset will only make it worse. If it’s your companion who’s hurt, you’ll likely only worsen their condition if you begin to panic.

Take a deep breath and remember the tips you’ve read on this list, as well as any other first aid training you may have. Do what you can to stop the bleeding, cool yourself or the other person down, or otherwise stabilize them until you can get help.