STICKS

Hiking sticks, like those used by these hikers, can help prevent knee and joints issues. Taking some preventative measures and using the right equipment help to ensure a safe and enjoyable time on the trail. (Ed Riggs photograph)

As wonderful as hiking is for one’s mental health, body and soul, it can also be a royal pain in the…joints. And the skin, the stomach, or your internal temperature. Being aware of those things that can hurt while hiking can prepare a hiker in proper preventative measures and in first aid treatment.

To start with, I am not a medical professional. There are some things that a doctor should deal with, but there are other things that everyone who spends time in the woods should know, and can take steps to prevent.

Probably the most common malady on the trail is blisters. Unfortunately, once you have a blister, there isn’t much to do besides letting it heal, which means stopping hiking. But there are a few things one can do to help prevent the dreaded foot bubbles. While hiking, if you feel a hot spot, just know that if you keep walking it will not magically go away. And if you wait and expect that it will, you will soon be the proud owner of a painful open sore where skin used to be.

I used to get blisters all the time, especially on my toes, but once I got the right hiking boots for me, that became a problem I rarely have anymore. Make sure your shoes fit and are comfortable. If you know where you usually get blisters, put some duct tape or moleskin on that spot. Duct tape fixes everything!

If you do get blisters, keep them clean and covered with a bandaid or moleskin around the area. The idea is to eliminate the rubbing on the skin. The jury is out as to whether it is wise to drain a blister using a sterilized needle. I do it myself, if I think that it will burst in my boot, but others think it is not the right thing to do. I don’t suggest covering an existing blister directly with tape, because the tape will cling to the blistered skin and be very difficult to remove.

Sunburn can be a particular problem during any season. Many hikers wear long-sleeved shirts and wide-brim hats to keep the sun’s rays off their skin, but sunscreen works well, too. Although if you sweat a lot, then you have to re-apply often.

Knee pain is common in regular life, and is a frequent problem among hikers. Arthritis and big downhills can exacerbate the problem. Regular stretching and exercise can help the muscles that support the knee joint, but I find that the biggest prevention to serious knee pain, particularly in the woods, is trekking poles. These hiking sticks can help keep the pressure off the knees, particularly when going downhill, and help immensely with balance and coordination on a rocky trail.

Few things can stop a person in their tracks like plantar fasciitis. This problem often comes from overuse, high-intensity exercise, obesity, poorly supportive shoes, or just aging. A good regimen of stretching the ankle and foot arch can help prevent plantar fasciitis, but sometimes it just rears its ugly head without warning or apparent reason. Rest, ice, massage, and stretching can help alleviate symptoms, but it will likely take weeks or months for plantar fasciitis to go away.

One of the most frustrating things about hiking in the summer is the number of bugs that can bother a human. It has been said that for every human in the world, there are 6 billion bugs. Mosquitos and gnats are probably the most annoying of the forest’s pests, but ticks present a real potential for illness. The most common carrier of Lyme Disease is the deer tick, and, according to the Center for Disease Control, the top two states with the highest rate of Lyme Disease are Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Long pants and shirt-sleeves go a long way in preventing ticks from attaching to your skin, but it is a good idea always to check your body and clothing for ticks at the end of a day of hiking.

Anyone who has had norovirus or giardia will not likely forget it. The nausea, vomiting and diarrhea make a person miserable and weak, and can often put them down for days. When hiking it is very tempting to stop at a beautiful brook or stream and drink deliciously of its cool and tasty water. But when you know that giardia lives in fecal matter of animals, and that animals poop in the woods (yes, even bears), and that drainage of said poop goes right into your pristine water supply, you might think twice about drinking unfiltered water.

There are many ways to purify water, including boiling, iodine tablets, Aquamira, and simply running the water through a filter before drinking it. A Sawyer Squeeze system works great for me, but I know others like alternative methods. While I have been known to drink water shooting out of a spring in the ground near the top of a ridge, I almost always filter my water. And the best way to prevent norovirus is to simply wash your hands frequently, and not to share food with other hikers.

Speaking of drinking water, dehydration can also be a problem. Everyone has different hydration needs, but there is none of us that can go without water while on a long hike, particularly if the weather is hot and humid. Carry enough water!

If one passes on this requirement, many bad things can happen. Loss of water means little to no sweating and salt depletion. This can lead to heat exhaustion, then heat stroke. No amount of positivity and effort can pull a hiker out of a situation where they are not sweating in hot weather, feeling light-headed, have cramping muscles, and experiencing nausea. Plenty of water, moisture wicking clothing, acclimatization, and hiking knowledge can help prevent heat and dehydration problems.

On the other hand, being too cold can be a problem as well, and it is not a problem reserved for winter. When it is warm enough to sweat, but windy or cold enough to chill you when you are stop, then you should be aware of hypothermia. Wearing layers – a good base layer of a moisture wicking material, a middle layer that is insulating, and an outer layer that serves as a shell to protect against wind and rain – can keep you warm when sitting, and then shed to keep you comfortable while hiking. Gloves and a head covering are also important in keeping the whole body warm.

Having a reaction to poison ivy, oak, or sumac can make a person absolutely miserable. The best prevention for these allergic reactions is to learn what the plants look like, and then avoid them. It is rare on a maintained trail that poisonous plants hang all over the trail, but it does happen. Knowing what these plants look like so as not to just walk through them is very important, especially if you know that you are allergic to them. It is a good idea to wash your legs thoroughly at the end of the day, or even in streams along the way, if you think you may have come in contact with them.

And finally, a seemingly minor problem that can cause major discomfort is chafing. Wet clothes from sweat or rain combined with constant contact and friction with the skin while hiking can lead to some serious pain and woe. Armpits, nipples, and especially the inner thighs are very common area for chafing. Vaseline or a product called BodyGlide, applied ahead of time, can be of great help in preventing chafing. But wearing properly fitting clothing that is not loose and doesn’t have rough seams can help immensely. I have found that compression shorts can completely alleviate chafing on the inner thighs, and they are very comfortable to hike in under your shorts.

There are other maladies that can strike a hiker, but these are the most common. The key is to be aware of what problems can occur, take steps to prevent them, and listen to your body. Hike on hikers.

The next installment of On The Trail with Ed Riggs will appear in the April 18th edition of the Gettysburg Times.

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