Common hiking injuries and how to treat them

This guide is part of our beginners guide to hiking series.

Planning a hike is one of the most important factors you need to consider before setting off on a hike, no matter how far you intend to travel. And injury prevention has to be at the top of your list. In this guide we’re going to cover the most common hiking injuries you can experience on the trail, and how to treat them.

What are the most common hiking injuries hikers experience?

The most common injuries hikers suffer from are:

  • Blisters
  • Sprains and muscle strains
  • Heat injuries
  • Cold injuries
  • Burns

Blisters

A blister is a painful condition that comes as a result of friction. This injury is the body’s way of protecting damaged skin. Most often seen on the feet, a blister is a sac of fluid usually filled with serum, or sometimes blood.

See our full guide to blisters and treatment.

Sprains and strains

Muscle sprains and strains are both injuries to the muscles. The key difference is a strain is to a muscle or to the band of tissue that attaches a muscle to a bone, whilst a sprain affects the tissues that directly connect bones.

How to treat sprains and strains

Treating a sprain or strain is simple but will require a pause in your hike. The steps are:

  • Rest, if possible. You need to remove the load from the injury and provide recovery time.
  • Apply a cold compress. An ice pack works best, but if this option is not available use a towel, or similar item, soaked in cold water. The colder the better.
  • Elevate the injury by lying down and using a support (your rucksack is a useful tool in this instance) to raise up the injured area.

Heat injuries

Whilst it is possible to suffer from some heat injuries in a cool, or cold, environment, these conditions are usually experienced in warm to hot conditions. Some are potential life-threatening conditions whilst others are little more than a painful irritation that have few longer term consequences. Common heat injuries include:

  • sunburn – painful, swollen skin that is hot to the touch. Cause by extended exposure to strong sunlight, it can lead to complications including skin cancer.
  • heatstroke – is a medical condition where the body’s core temperature is over 40C. Symptoms include cramps, dizziness, loss of appetite and nausea. If not treated, heatstroke can lead to death.
  • dehydration – this injury occurs when your body no longer has the necessary fluids to maintain normal functioning. Symptoms of dehydration include raging thirst, darked urine and confusion.

Treatment

  • Sunburn
    • Get out of the sun as soon as possible.
    • If possible, soothe the burns by running cold water over the affected area. I find jumping in a river works well!
    • Apply plenty of aftersun
    • Drink plenty of water to reduce the secondary risk of dehydration.
  • Heatstroke
    • The key here is to reduce the core temperature as soon as possible. A cold shower, or immersion in cold water, is the most effective way to achieve this step.
    • As an alternative to immersion, use an evaporation technique. Do this by covering the injured person in water then use a towel, or similar piece of material, to fan the patient.
    • Seek medical attention. Heatstroke can be a risk to life if not treated.
  • Dehydration
    • Rest, if possible.
    • Drink plenty of fluids.
    • If the condition worsens, seek medical help as the patient may need intravenous fluids.

Hypothermia

Hypothermia is a condition where your internal body temperature drops below 35 C. It’s one of the most dangerous injuries a hiker can suffer from and medical treatment should be sought immediately. Symptoms of hypothermia include:

  • shivering
  • pale skin that is dry and cold to the touch
  • fatigue and, in some cases, confusion

At the extreme end of this condition, symptoms include:

  • loss of consciousness
  • weak, rapid pulse
  • slow, shallow breathing

Treatment

  • First, remove the risk of further exposure by getting the patient into a sheltered area such as a tent, or building.
  • Remove any wet clothing to reduce further injury.
  • Warm the patient using body heat. If you’re on the trail, get them into a sleeping bag and climb in with them. Otherwise, use blankets to trap heat close to the patient’s body and aid the process of raising core temperature.
  • Seek medical advice.

Insect bites

Insect bites are the most common injury you can expect of experience. This is less of an issue in cold environments and during the winter months, but you should remain on your guard as some insects carry diseases that can be passed on to human. Common symptoms associated with insect bites include:

  • skin irritation
  • pain and swelling at the bite sight

Diseases that can be passed on from insects:

  • Lyme’s disease – a bacterial infection that can cause fever, headaches, arthritis (as a result of extreme swelling around the joints), and facial paralysis
  • Dengue fever – a mosquito-borne illness that can cause fever, nausea, flu-like symptoms and, in the most extreme cases, death
  • z

Treatment

  • Remove any stingers or insect hairs from the wound site.
  • Apply a cold compress to reduce swelling.
  • If experience excessive discomfort, or pain, take a pain killer.
  • Use an antihistamine to relieve itching, or irritation.
  • Do not scratch or burst any blisters at the wound site.
  • If you feel adverse effects such as nausea, or drowsiness, seek medical advice.

Burns

Burns are another common hiking injury we tend to overlook, or not consider. As with all other injuries, they require immediate medical treatment to prevent a worsening of the condition. The vast majority of burns are a result of cooking/campfire accidents.

Symptoms of burn include:

  • extreme pain – normally at the sight of the burn
  • blistering – caused by your body filling the wound with serum, or plasma
  • shock – which can accompany more serious burns

Treatment

  • First, clear the injury site of clothes, watches, jewellery, etc.
  • Cool the burn by running under, or immersing in, cold water. You should do this for at least 15 minutes to reduce the pain and swelling.
  • If you have cling film available, place a layer over the burn site.
  • Keep the patient warm.

If any of the following applies, seek medical advice:

  • The burn is larger than the palm of your hand.
  • Burns to the face and neck.
  • Charring of the skin.
  • Any of the burns are caused by chemicals, or electrical items.
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