We are lucky to live in New England with its vast array of hiking areas to explore. Even right in the town of Bennington, you can enjoy the Bennington Area Trail System (batsvt.org). For a carefree hiking experience, hike with friends or on trails you know well and with daylight to spare. Also take precautions to prevent the most common hiking-related injuries. See the injuries below and the simple tips for preventing them on the trail and treating them when you return home.
Blisters. One of the most common hiking injuries is a blister, which is commonly caused by friction between your foot and your footwear. To avoid blisters, make sure your shoes fit well and that you wear socks. If you plan to be hiking in a wet area, consider water-resistant shoes, as moisture can enhance the likelihood of blisters. For long distance hikes, bring a change of socks, too. If you begin to feel a painful “hotspot,” stop and apply some athletic tape or moleskin. Back home, you may leave the roof on a small blister. For a larger, fluid filled blister, consider draining the fluid then clean it with soap and water, apply some antibiotic ointment and a Band-Aid. You’ll be good to go in time for next weekend’s hike.
Bug Bites. Mosquitos, flies, and ticks are frequent, pesky companions on the trail. Consider your favorite bug spray before setting off. If you will be walking in tall grass or going off the trail into tick country, you may want to wear long sleeves and long pants. Consider spraying your clothes with permethrin and let them dry before wearing them hiking. This defends against ticks and tick-borne illnesses.
Immediately after getting off the trail, you may use a sticky lint roller to get ticks off of your clothes (Note: if you hike a lot, consider keeping one in your car). Once you get home, do a thorough tick check and shower to wash away any ticks. Even with all of these preventive measures, it is still good to know the signs and symptoms of tick-borne illnesses—sometimes a rash, fever, headache, and unusual muscle or joint aches—and see a health care provider right away if these symptoms arise.
Poison Ivy and Other Poisonous Plants. If you stay on well-established trails, you are not likely at risk of contact with plants that cause painful and irritating skin rashes. Also, the same long sleeves and pants you are wearing to protect against insects also protect from the poisonous plants you might encounter.
If you ever go off the trail, it is best to learn to identify and avoid these plants. The website wikihow.com/Identify-Poison-Ivy has helpful, illustrated articles for identifying the most common skin irritants: poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. If you do have an encounter, you will likely develop rash and itching within hours or up to 2 or 3 days after contact. For itching, you may apply some Calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream to smaller rashes. Larger, more diffuse rashes at times require prescription anti-inflammatory medications. Try to avoid scratching the irritated area and causing additional skin damage or infection.
Twisted Ankle. Well-fitting shoes with a viable tread and adequate ankle support for your planned venture as well as keeping your eyes closely on the trail may help you reduce the risk of twisting your ankle. Be especially careful on rocky, rooted, wet, or gravelly surfaces. Try to avoid stepping on moist or wet logs, as they are especially slippery. And if you are unsteady on your feet or have knee problems, think about hiking with a walking stick, poles, or some other stabilizer.
If you do twist an ankle, despite your precautions, in most cases you will be able to walk out carefully. If it is more severe, take a seat, elevate the injury, and rest for a bit before returning. If the injury is very severe, this is when you use the fully charged cell phone you brought along to call for extra help.
Scrapes. These happen despite our best efforts. If you do get a scrape, wash with clean water as quickly as you can. Ideally, run tap water over the wound for 2 minutes within 30 – 60 minutes of injury. Soap and water for dirty wounds. Continue daily wound care and monitor for infection until healed.
Sunburn. With the thick tree cover in New England’s famous deciduous forests, you might think that you are free from the risk of sunburn. Not so. Many trails have long grassy meadows or bare peaks, which—however beautiful—leave you vulnerable to sunburn. Wear sun protective clothing or sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher to protect yourself from sunburn. Sunburns may seem like an inconvenience, but even light burns over the course of time can increase your risk of developing skin cancer.
For more information about hiking safely, I recommend Hiking: The Merit Badge Series or A Woman’s Guide to the Wild.
For trails in our area, visit www.batsvt.org or www.vtliving.com/hiking/southernvermont.
Here’s to many injury-free hikes this summer in Bennington!
Mark Zimpfer, MD, is an occupational health physician at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, part of Southwestern Vermont Health Care, in Bennington.